Daily Express, September 22, 2007

GET SPORTY ON ST LUCIA

The most energetic thing most visitors to this magical Caribbean island do is get down on one knee. DUNCAN CRAIG sees things differently

RELAXATION is something at which I have always been spectacularly inept. Plonk me on a paradise beach and my first instinct is to mark out a pitch with my heel and look for something spherical. Show me an infinity pool and I get an overwhelming urge to dive-bomb it. Little wonder, then, that the Caribbean and I – the laid-back and the flat-out – had never crossed paths.

That was before St Lucia. With a string of new upmarket resorts pandering to every pampering whim, I felt it was just the place to calm me. And when that invariably failed, I was curious to see what it offered the hyperactive simpleton. As I understood it, the most strenuous thing attempted by most visitors is getting down on one knee.

Arguably the pick of the new resorts is Discovery at Marigot Bay, five miles south of the capital Castries. Surveying this exquisite inlet for the first time, I felt a jolt of déja vu, a common reaction to a bay that has enchanted photographers and filmmakers, most notably for Dr Dolittle in 1967 with Rex Harrison.

A small spit of sand, shaded by a few dozen palms, pinches the tranquil waters of the Caribbean into a figure of eight. Atmospheric Discovery sits unobtrusively on the south-west shore, lined by berths stretching to a pretty marina.

After some lengths in the pool, around which the attractive timber suites of the resort congregate steeply, I strolled down to the boardwalk from where the solar-powered Sunshine Express ferries guests to the spit. I stepped on and glided across. The compact beach was inviting, the warm waters of the Caribbean more so.

But I soon discovered the watersports hut, and eagerly approached the near-horizontal guy manning it. “I’d like to try sea kayaking, please.” Long pause, wide smile. “Cool,” he said, eventually. “What are the rules?” I asked. Another smile. “You’re on vacation, buddy, you make the rules.” I did, spending a blissful couple of hours paddling out around the headland to explore hidden coves teeming with curious wildlife.

A blissful couple of hours spent paddling around the headland

Over the next three days I snorkelled, swam, sailed… and singularly failed to relax. I tried, I really did. I sipped fruit punch in the pool’s swim-up bar and slurped beers in the restored Hurricane Hole, a hangout for everyone from Sophia Loren to Sir Michael Caine in the hotel’s former incarnation.

I dined on lobster at the excellent Boudreau restaurant. I tried chilling out in my cavernous suite, or dozing on its sea-facing verandah to the soothing croaks of tree frogs. I even ventured into the Lapli spa. But I proved frustratingly impervious to the Caribbean effect.

In my restlessness, I found an unlikely ally in owner Judith Verity. Sixty this year, but with the energy of three 20-year-olds, she delighted in guiding me on the hotel’s new Ridge Walk, a steep trail through the jungle from the delightful shore-edge Rainforest Hideaway restaurant. From the yoga platform at the summit, Judith pointed out the route of this year’s inaugural Discovery Triathlon, and the bayside property coveted by Nicolas Cage. “The owner won’t sell,” she told me.

She also pointed me in the direction of the Dennery Rainforest, a 45-minute drive inland, for an afternoon of “zip wiring”. Harnessed and helmeted, I slid from platform to platform, rivers surging below. Tarzan meets Bond, it’s an exhilarating way to travel.

Nobel laureate poet Derek Walcott wrote of his homeland as “horned”. He was referring to the iconic Pitons, twin volcanic cones rising sheer from the sea. So captivated was Russian-Canadian architect Nick Troubetzkoy he built a monument to them, the Jade Mountain hotel, and I was on my way to check in.

It shares all the facilities of the exclusive Anse Chastanet resort but is, in every way, a step up. Occupying the highest part of the site, the new hotel loosely resembles a multi-storey car park. But, as Troubetzkoy insists, it is “all about the rooms”. And these are genuinely bag-dropping.

The horned Pitons mirrored perfectly in an in-room infinity pool

There before me were the Pitons mirrored perfectly in an in-room infinity pool, the shimmering centrepiece of the vacuum where the fourth wall should have been. Open-plan in the extreme, there are 24 such “sanctuaries”, every one unique in layout and furnishings. Mine had cathedral tree-stump lamps, and gigantic orchids.

Guided by friendly staff I was soon tearing along the 12 miles of bike trails that dissect the 18th-century sugar cane estate adjacent to the resort. Accessed through Jurassic Park-style gates, this 600-acre playground caters for riders of all abilities with gentle tracks winding through drooping avocado trees to the punishing Tinker’s Trail, designed by world champion Tinker Juarez.

To paraphrase the guidebooks, only an idiot would attempt to climb Petit Piton, slightly shorter than 2,619ft Gros Piton, but treacherously steep. By noon the following day I was at the top, enjoying heart-stopping views through sweat-stinging eyes. Gros, three miles away by speedboat, was next.

With my local guide shaking his head in bewilderment we buzzed across this mystical World Heritage site. The route up was tough but considerably less demanding (the hotel organises day trips). From the rocky summit, we could see St Vincent, the next vertebra down in the curved spine of the Eastern Caribbean archipelago.

It was dark when I returned to my sanctuary, the pool’s spotlights creating a dancing reflection on the ceiling. Resisting the urge to clutch my knees to my chest and jump, I instead slipped gently into the water.

Here, with the conquered Pitons brooding in the distance, I felt what could only be described as a strange lack of stirring. St Lucia had delivered.

 

* GETTING THERE: ITC Classics (01244 355 527/www.itcclassics.co.uk/pr) offers a seven-night package from £2,240pp(two sharing), including four nights B&B at Discovery at Marigot Bay, three nights B&B in a Star Infinity Pool Suite at Jade Mountain, return flights with Virgin Atlantic and transfers.
St Lucia Tourist Board: 020 7341 7000/www.stlucia.org