A rough diamond
One of my favourite memories of St Lucia is of falling out of a palm tree with a thud as a gaggle of boys bent double in fits of laughter around me.
We had been playing for hours on the beach as they tried hopelessly to teach me the art of scampering up palm trees to chop down the coconuts.
I remember my first-ever scuba dive and the joy of discovering the rainforest. Nearly two decades later, I am returning to the island which provided me with so many happy childhood memories, and I am scared I will find it ruined by development; congested beaches and plastic sun loungers overflowing with pina colada-chugging tourists. Could it be possible for this island to remain unspoilt?
St Lucia is often billed as a glamorous honeymoon hotspot, but it is so much more. It has a staggering variety of landscapes, from the jungle-draped peaks and black-sand beaches to sleepy fishing villages and a thriving underwater world.
The verdant slopes and Caribbean Sea are a source of lush produce, from papayas and dasheens to langostas and red snapper. The former colony -- it changed hands 14 times between the British and the French -- has a unique culture due to the diverse European, Creole, Carib Indian and African influences. The island has thriving markets, street parties and festivals. You are blasted with smells of jerk chicken, the beat of reggae and friendly banter in the streets.
My first impressions while driving from the airport to the hotel are leagues away from the ruin that I had feared. We pass stretches of banana plantations and wind through the rainforest on the notoriously bad roads. We pass a lone goat chewing on a grassy knoll, women carrying great bundles of firewood along the roadsides in the blistering heat, and a sign reading 'Everyday is pay day here'.
I spot a rickety roadside drinking hole and stop off to sample the local brew -- Piton lager, named after the two mountains that rise like pyramids. With nothing more than a collaboration of planks forming the semblance of a bar and not another tourist in sight, I am categorically not in resort land. Here I chat to a man with a limp and several missing teeth about the local produce, and he gives me two buxom avocados to try. Back in my car, a boy renovating a ramshackle house shouts out, "Thank you for visiting our island!"
After an hour I descend into Marigot Bay, where I stayed as a child, and immediately recognise the postcard-perfect view -- the clear sea cupped by jungle-draped hills, one strip of sand spiked with palm trees stretched into the water and a handful of yachts nestled in the famous harbour. This was the location of the 1967 Doctor Dolittle movie, and you can imagine the Great Pink Sea Snail and its magical creature friends residing here.
American novelist James A Michener described it as "the most beautiful bay in the Caribbean", and it has to be close. There have been changes -- more hotels, restaurants and expats -- but, thankfully, it has not lost its charm.
The only way to cross the bay is by a makeshift ferry (€1) to reach Marigot Beach Club, a friendly hotel with the most enviable location. The bar, Dolittle's, is a favourite expat hang-out and I am welcomed by a gaggle of them who coo sympathetically that I only have a 10-day holiday, and assure me that I'll be back before I know it.
Following in the footsteps of my previous trip, I take a water taxi down the west coast of the island. Memories come flooding back as the boat crashes over the water. I am surprised to pass rows of undeveloped, pristine beaches. Some are inaccessible by land because of the thick and protected rainforest, but mainly because no beach on St Lucia is private, thus preventing property moguls from buying up great swathes, determined to get their dollar per acre.
We arrive at the village of Soufrière, the jump-off point to the many natural attractions in the surrounding area, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. Soufrière is earmarked to become a new tourist marina in the island's plans for development, though thankfully it remains a sleepy Creole fishing village with a scattered market and multi-coloured crumbling colonial houses.
The main tourist hub of the island is Rodney Bay in the north with its luxurious marina, fancy restaurants and late-night disco bars. Luckily it swallows up the bulk of the holidaymakers, leaving areas like those surrounding Soufrière remarkably tranquil.
Jumping off at the dock, a small group of boys selling hats and bowls made of palm leaves approach us, but we are not hounded, and it's easy to find a taxi driver to take us around the sights. We start with the Diamond Botanical Gardens (€5 admission) -- a six-acre eco-lover's tropical labyrinth of planted gardens, with mineral baths and a waterfall. The site became famous for the therapeutic waters and the first mineral baths were built in 1784 for the troops of King Louis XVI of France.
A short drive further takes you to the misleadingly named 'world's only drive-through volcano'. The viewing platforms take you right up to the crackling malodorous surface of the dormant volcano. We take a dip in the sulphur springs afterwards -- a natural Jacuzzi of black water dense with mineral deposits. Since my last visit, they have built in convenient concrete steps down to the pools; the inexorable march of progress I dread.
Those are the big tourist ticks, but St Lucia is an adventure-lover's paradise with endless options. There are sea sports such as diving, yachting, kite surfing, and an interior laid out like a hiker's playground. The Pitons set an irresistible challenge. Petit Piton is steeper and more perilous, so I opt for the four-mile trek to summit the 2,619ft Gros Piton. These mountains are steeped in history.
They were central to the religious beliefs of the native Carib people, they hid the freedom fighters during the days of slavery, and now they provide a forward-thinking model of tourism whereby the locals both control and directly benefit from visitors. The community at the base of Gros Piton, called Fond Gens Libre, or Valley of the Free People, organises all tours, with the €22 fee reinvested into the community.
We set off at 7am to avoid the blistering heat, but in the two hours it takes to reach the top we are drenched in sweat, with aching thighs. The view, as well as the ascent through the jungle, makes the toil worth it. You can see across the whole island and, on a clear day, as far as neighbouring Martinique. This view reminds you how despite its small size, 22.5 by 43.5km, it has remained relatively undeveloped. It is not pockmarked with towering skyscrapers.
I ask our guide whether he worries about tourists ruining his island. He is nothing but optimistic. "The rainforest and the land are protected," he says. "People come here to enjoy it. Tourism brings jobs and stability. And anyway, I like meeting people from around the world."
This is the attitude of people all over the island. With 20pc of the population living below the poverty line, tourism is embraced with open arms. Nevertheless, there are fewer than 300,000 visitors a year, representing less than 1.5pc of the total tourist trade in the Caribbean. Despite everything it has to offer, St Lucia remains an unsung gem. On several occasions during my holiday I have that sought-after 'once-in-a-lifetime' sensation.
I ride a horse bareback into the ocean. I scuba-dive my first shipwreck and see a giant sea turtle, a seahorse and an octopus.
For my final night, I head to Jalousie, a 192-acre former sugar plantation nestled between the Pitons. This may be a resort, but the water is crystal clear and the beach is peaceful. Jalousie is currently undergoing a $100m renovation to relaunch as Tides Sugar Beach in 2011, but until then you can stay in chic all-white villas with private pools and butler service for reduced rates.
Lazing hypocritically on my lounger with cocktail in hand, I start chatting to a local couple nearby, who have recently returned from living in New York. I ask what brought them back to the island, and get the reply: "I feel blessed everyday to be a St Lucian."
Waiting for the sea salt to dry in the heat of the glorious sunshine, I feel pretty blessed too.