The Caribbean island of St Lucia has its celebrity devotees but few stray from the beach. GEOFF HO discovers what they are missing
MY MOBILE phone rings. "Hello mate, " I say. "No, I can't meet up for a pint.
I'm in a rainforest on the Caribbean
island of St Lucia
." That London pub couldn't have felt further away; 4,222 miles, in fact, according to the signpost in front of me in the middle of the Edmund Forest Reserve in the south of St Lucia. I was surrounded by towering ferns and hardwood trees with the majestic Mount Gimie (pronounced Jimmy), the island's highest peak, piercing the skyline in the distance.
St Lucia has numerous fans, not least George Clooney and his former girlfriend Lisa Snowdon, Harrison Ford and rugby's Posh and Becks, Kelly Brook and Danny Cipriani. However, I bet none of them had ever gone hiking in the middle of the day when the Caribbean sun is at its fiercest. Click here now for amazing offers to St Lucia!
To beat the heat, we had set off for the seven-mile hike at 8am but it was sweltering even then.
Our guide Paul advised us to walk in silence if we were to spot some of the rare birds such as the brightly coloured Jacquot parrot. St Lucia's national emblem has teetered on the brink of extinction, occasionally ending up on island dinner tables.
Sadly, with my phone going off and, not to mention the racket I made trying to negotiate the dense undergrowth, I did not get to see any birds.
What I did see, however, was an explosion of colour, from the greens of the banana trees to the pulsing red and dazzling yellows of the bromeliads and orchids respectively.
"Those vines are strong enough to support a grown man, " said Paul, pointing to the climbing plants that seemed to strangle every tree. Sensing my scepticism, he grabbed one and swung on it Tarzan-style. I had to watch my step as freshwater crabs, which had scuttled out of the nearby river, sidled past.
An easier but no less beautiful walk is in Mamiku Gardens at Micoud on the eastern side of the island. Want incredible deals to St Lucia? Click here now...
This former plantation is now home to more than 500 varieties of trees, plants and flowers and the white-breasted thrasher, an endangered species of bird that was thought doomed after its habitat had been partially cleared to make way for a golf course.
The golf course stands incomplete, a victim of the credit crunch, but the thrasher seems to have found a home at Mamiku alongside the mockingbirds, herons and the intriguingly named brown trembler. As I wandered around the 12-acre gardens I was hoping to spot something not yet identified by the gardeners and staff. Although 290 species of plants have been catalogued so far, more than 250 have still to be named.
The iconic twin peaks of the Pitons, which rise sharply from the Soufrière shoreline, have certainly been documented before.
Towering more than 2,600ft above sea level, Gros Piton and its sister Petit Piton are unmissable.
Reaching this Unesco World Heritage site was an adventure.
We drove over a seemingly never-ending series of bumps and pot holes and through two streams to reach the town of Fond Gens Libre, which sits in the shade of the two mountains.
Climbing Gros Piton is hard work but for $25 you get the services of a tour guide for the two-hour ascent. She proved invaluable and it was worth the climb. Resting at the top we could see, peeking through the clouds, Fond Gens Libre far below and in the distance the steeper Petit Piton plunging into the sea.
THE VIEWS were equally spectacular from my room at Jade Mountain, the upmarket sister of the adjacent Anse Chastanet resort. Standing in my open-sided room, in front of me, mirrored in the infinity pool, was an unimpeded view of the Pitons.
A gentle sea breeze stirred the drapes on my grand four-poster bed. The rooms are kept free of technology with no radios, clocks or televisions. Initially this was unsettling but pretty soon I was revelling in the tranquillity.
Just as impressive is the food, served at the Jade Mountain Club restaurant on top of the squat, low-rise complex. There's an array of Creole cuisine, French-inspired with a Caribbean twist and plenty of mouth-watering seafood. The sushi was the best I have ever encountered. In the mornings, pre-breakfast yoga classes are on offer while singers and bands enliven your evenings.
Jade Mountain presides over Anse Mamin, a beautiful, white-sand beach that it shares with Anse Chastanet. If you can stir yourself from the hammocks here there are activities galore, from snorkelling and scuba diving to boat tours. Mountain biking is also available on a trail through a nearby plantation.
The resort is well placed for an excursion to Sulphur Springs, the Caribbean's only "drive-in volcano". As we got near, I caught the unmistakable smell of sulphur.
The entire area is a caldera, formed when the volcanic rim collapsed upon itself and opened up fissures in the Earth's crust.
Visitors are restricted to a single path and for good reason.
A final highlight of my trip was whale watching. After taking a boat from the beach at Anse Chastanet it was not long before we spotted a group of pilot whales frolicking with a rather lackadaisical sperm whale.
The real treat, however, was the sight of a pod of dolphins gatecrashing the proceedings.
It was as if they thought the whales were getting too much attention. For the next hour we watched them at play, swimming close to the boat or competing to see which could jump highest.
Later that afternoon I sat at a shore-edge bar at Anse Mamin and, over a Piton beer (what else? ), reflected on all the island's natural wonders. I would certainly have lots to tell my mate when we met for that pint back in London. GETTING THERE: British Airways (0844 493 0758/www.ba.com) offers seven nights at the five-star Jade Mountain resort from £2,695pp (two sharing), B&B. Price includes return flights with BA from Gatwick and transfers. Departs June 2010. St Lucia Tourist Board: 020 7341 7000/ www.stlucia.org