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La Belle Hélène

Jonathan Ray is charmed by this Anglo-French jewel of the Caribbean

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

A rain-sodden July break in Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula hadn’t quite measured up. Thus it was that Mrs Ray and I felt obliged to take a November holiday in St Lucia, sans kids. We planned to lie on a beach all day reading books and to sit on a barstool all night drinking rum. And we did. To our surprise, though, we ended up doing a whole lot else and had an absolute hoot.

St Lucia is known as La Belle Hélène or Helen of the West Indies because, like Helen of Troy, it was furiously fought over by two great powers. Indeed, it switched between French and English control a dizzying 14 times between 1635 and 1814. As a result, the island is somewhat confused. The towns and villages all have French names, but the St Lucians drive on the left (most of the time) and the education and legal systems are English. So, too, is the official language, although the local patois is a mixture.

We based ourselves near the capital, Castries, in the north-west of the island. East Winds Inn is small but perfectly formed, comprising a few cottages set in 12 acres of beautiful tropical gardens, with an elegant open-plan club house slap bang on a palm-fringed beach. Its prices are all-inclusive which meant we drank far more than was good for us, the devilishly good-looking barman, Titus, plying me and Marina (especially Marina) with an endless supply of astonishingly fine cocktails. The food could perhaps have been better, but the hooch, service and location were unbeatable.

Marina spent the first morning sitting in the sun outside our cottage just beaming from ear to ear. Hummingbirds and love doves fluttered about, and she laid out crumbs of banana bread to entice the shyer exotic birds. Foolishly, she also befriended Tom, the East Winds cat, who, the moment St Marina of Assisi’s back was turned, pounced on the prettiest crumb-munching birdie and scoffed it whole. It took three of Titus’s exquisite creations for Marina to recover.

Equilibrium restored, we spent the next couple of days idling, or swimming, snorkelling and kayaking in the wonderfully calm, cliché-blue sea. It was tempting not to stray from East Winds at all, so comforting and all-embracing was it, but eventually we decided to sample life outside our cocoon.

We took a car ride south through the banana plantations and rainforest to the Pitons, the island’s towering pair of volcanic peaks. Here we visited the world’s only ‘drive-in’ volcano and held our noses beside its sulphurously bubbling hot springs. We took in the Diamond Estate Botanical Garden and saw where the guillotine used to stand in the square in Soufrière.

We visited the fishing villages of Canaries (where we had the finest avocados we’ve ever eaten) and Anse La Raye, where a spaced-out fisherman offered us the biggest spliff we’d ever seen — ‘All home-grown, man, it’ll blow your head.’ We drank buckets of local lager (called Piton, after the peaks) and took the ‘Rhythm of Rum’ tour at the island’s one and only distillery, being encouraged to sample as much as we liked at the tour’s end (Chairman’s Reserve was our favourite). We walked off the effects by climbing to the top of Pigeon Island (from where Admiral Rodney sailed in 1782 to give the French a beating at the Battle of the Saints). We had a fine lunch in Discovery in Marigot Bay and two cracking dinners at Coco Palm in Rodney Bay and Tao in Anse du Cap.

The highlight for me, though, was hiring horses from Trim’s Riding Stables and — under the improbable tutelage of Zebé and Dennis, two hilarious dread-carrying Rastas — galloping along Cas-en-Bas beach before ditching saddles and clothes and swimming with our mounts into the sea.

We spent our final two nights at the barely opened Cap Maison at the northernmost tip of the island. Unfeasibly swish and comfortable, the hotel is perched on a cliff top with stunning views of the Caribbean — Pigeon Island to the left and, some 25 miles away, Martinique to the right. Bottles of iced Ruinart were delivered down to us on the decking by the water’s edge via a zip wire from the hotel bar above, and it was in Cap Maison that we had our finest meal of all, cooked by a vegetarian Welsh Rastafarian called Craig.

Marina’s highlight followed next morning, when a rowing boat crammed with four completely naked and infuriatingly well-endowed fisherman moored just below us. ‘Blimey,’ she gulped. ‘You don’t see that in Dingle.’

Jonathan Ray is wine editor of the Daily Telegraph. 

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