The Caribbean offers a seemingly limitless daisy-chain of options, especially daunting if you’re trying to find a foolproof island getaway. All those dots in the aqua sea, though, boil down to three options. There are the epic resort-cum-port of call islands, the kind of slightly exotic suburbia that is all anodyne big-box hotels, swim-up bars swimming with neon cocktails and little flourishes of ersatz culture (from conga lines to beaded cornrows and coconut-crusted buffet lines). There are the uber-pricey insider islands, floating gated worlds that cater to yachts and the people who can afford to hire the people who steer them. And then there is quietly soulful St. Lucia.
Not that St. Lucia is the only outlier that still offers some authenticity. But among the other Caribbean islands, the ones that feel like other worlds still hugging their own singular surprises, St. Lucia is one sublime choice.
The island allows for a double-sided vacation. You can still get your tranquil sand-and-sea resort. But you also get something that too many Caribbean island-hoppers miss: the island itself. Once the suntan turns to a burn and all that saltwater starts stinging, you can explore an intact, ethereal parallel universe.
I understood the island’s dual allure almost immediately after picking up my rental car at St. Lucia’s Hewanorra airport on a quick December escape from the first blizzardy blast of a brutal Midwestern winter. A half-hour after landing, I was driving through a raw, wilder place, one very ripe tropical rain forest refusing to concede to highways or speeding interlopers. Instead lush underbrush fringed the curving road and palm trees shot up everywhere, bursting above like spiky fireworks.
Sidelined by Soufrière
Though I was planning to race straight to my hotel — the Sugar Beach on the island’s southwestern coast — itchy for my own obligatory vision of a comatose Caribbean getaway, I made a long pit stop instead. Because to get to Sugar Beach resort you have to drive through Soufrière and the historic village is pure back roads Brigadoon, the houses painted candy colors: pistachio, baby blue, lemon yellow. A couple of roosters were pecking in the middle of the street and the larger manors lining the main street were gorgeous wrecks, tilting a bit, slightly slumped but still richly gilded with gingerbread trim that broke into waves of carved curlicues.
Those grande dames are emblems of a sadly manic past — the legacy of history, when the island got tossed between the English and French 14 times before it claimed independence in 1979. But what you see most clearly in Soufrière is the way the place has settled into its own hybrid self. Forget outlet malls and tacky souvenir stands. Spread out under a fringe of balconies was the town’s open-air market, a buffet of mangos, bananas, oranges, plantains and yams, the whole heaped harvest rolled out like an epic feast on blankets, the squatting vendors less interested in selling to tourists than making sure their usual hometown customers, carrying market bags, got the best of the haul.
“This is what we call a traffic jam in Soufrière,” Debbie Emmanuel laughed, when I retreated into her main-street shop, the Image Tree, “and in a way it’s the reason I can’t leave.”
Emmanuel married a St. Lucian man and moved from her hometown of London to Soufrière too many years ago to mention, but the island still feels fresh to her. “Nature is raw here; you can touch it and feel it. You can still catch fish on the jetty and smell the sea air.” You can bring home a taste of that singular larder because she socks it all: banana cream liqueur; coconut rum; sulfur soap; mountain coffee; banana ketchup; calabash shells; local wood masks painted in neon colors. Oh yeah, and St Lucia oven mitts.
I, of course, bought the oven mitts, along with a coconut shell painted with the image of either one very fiery red Caribbean sunset or the apocalypse; it really depends on your mood. Then I tried to head on, steely and focused this time, to Sugar Beach. But I got distracted again by the island itself.
My next bumpy detour was the Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens, where the signed plants lining the paths unleash pure Caribbean poetry: jade vines, heliconia chartacea (also called, apparently to intimates, “sexy pink”), datura trees dripping trumpet-shaped flowers that, according to the local guide, can cause “out-of-body sensations usually associated with magic, witchcraft and shamanism.” Deciding the place was out-of-body experience enough, I nixed the gardens’ mineral baths, where Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine, bathed as a child when her father owned a neighboring plantation. Instead, I headed to my own big bath of an ocean.
Resorts with style
Sugar Beach, it turns out, was worth the long wait — though if you want a high-drama resort, it isn’t the only beauty spot around. In fact this southwestern fringe of St. Lucia has become one of the Caribbean’s epicenters of can’t-top-this style statements. The current glamour queen is Jade Mountain resort, a towering cliff face of literally airy guest rooms, stacked vertically and all missing their fourth wall so you breathe in the ocean air undiluted on your queen sized bed, next to your mosaic tile lap pool, and sometimes see a tropical bird or two flapping through, looking for their own chicly twigged nest.
There is also the more homey Boucan by Hotel Chocolat, planted in the middle of a working cocoa plantation. The eco-hotel has become quietly known for its all-cocoa menu (cocoa butter to cocoa nib tuna salad to the inevitable climax of a chocolate molten cake) and a Tree-to-Bar, foraging-to-sugar-high experience that includes a hike through the cocoa groves to cut fresh pods and then a cooking class pumping out chocolate bars.
Chocolat may be the best bargain option in the area because rates stay relatively low, at least by Caribbean standards, even in high season. But I had been to Sugar Beach when it was still called Jalousie Plantation, and it was part of the reason I was doggedly determined to return to St. Lucia. Despite the recent renovations, the property still evoked the sense of understated, quietly luxe calm I remembered. In fact, the sprawl of 59 new luxury villas seemed to sprout organically out of the sloping hillside; they could almost pass for sweet little native gingerbread cottages, though inside everything is a sleek tumble of four-poster beds and epic bathrooms punctuated by free-standing ceramic tubs.
There is the obligatory spa in thatched tree houses (think bamboo massages and a cocoa cup firming body treatment) and some reliable dining in the terraced Great Room restaurant overlooking the ocean. Though Cupertino Ortiz, the chef who designed the original Nuevo Caribbean-meets-pan-Latin menu, has recently left, the flavors of his inspired menu still lingered: roasted plantains with pecan ice cream and dulce de leche; sautéed kingfish and fennel confit bathed in bouillabaisse sauce; a couscous vegetable broth thick with saffron and arbol pepper. The only thing (much) better: If it’s Friday, head to the fish fry in the village of Anse la Raye, where lobsters and conch are dished up on a street near the local beach.
But don’t spend the night. Though Sugar Beach is a big splurge in high season, it is worth even a quick stay for a single attraction. What drew me back in the end (and the reason Matt Damon probably decided to rent out the entire resort for his marriage renewal ceremony in April) is Sugar Beach’s eponymous beach.
I’m not by nature much of a beach forager and usually beaches devolve into a litany of little crimes for me — the coral cuts your feet; the sand is muck; the tide is too pushy. But Sugar Beach’s waterfront is the kind of cove you only see on brochures and secretly always suspected were airbrushed. The powdery white beach (it really is this time) arcs in an austerely elegant curve between the craggy bookends of St. Lucia’s two best-known landmarks, the Gros and Petit Pitons. The loungers are fat white mattresses shaded by shaggy palm umbrellas. The waves roll in with a gentle slap, and when the sun sets, its rays stipple the center of the seafront. On my first night back a wooden sailing sloop (you can rent it out by the day) trailing high sails floated by, backlit by the rose-tinged Caribbean clouds. Now that beach is just showing off, I thought.
But finally nothing really can compete with the Pitons themselves. The two volcanic mountains are craggy spuds, furry with tropical brush, and they look mythical, haunting, primordial. Locals call them the island’s twin breasts and the sense of almost maternal connection seems inevitable, because the Pitons are as tenacious and unmovable as St. Lucia itself — and just as storied, though you have to pry the stories out. I had always assumed they were uninhabited. But the day I left St. Lucia, a waiter at Sugar Beach told me that wasn’t true. Runaway plantation slaves moved up the slopes of the Gros Piton in the 18th century, cultivating gardens in the plateaus, living in pitted caves, and building a renegade world near the clouds. Hugging the sheltering mountain, they had really come home.
Raphael Kadushin lives in Madison, Wis., and writes for Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other magazines.