The Caribbean has many soul-stirring landscapes, but none perhaps as striking as those of Saint Lucia. The island was caught in a tug-of-war between the British and French for nearly 150 years before finally gaining its independence in 1979.
It’s not hard to see what the two empires were fighting over. This volcanic Caribbean crumple is draped with tropical forests and plantations, waterfalls and geothermal springs that ooze into soft sand and secluded bays. Twin peaks, the Pitons, stand sentry on the south-west coast, looming large in their emerald cloaks.
All of which makes this pretty special territory in which to make your home for a few days, as I did, at Sugar Beach. The resort occupies the site of a colonial-era sugar and coconut plantation, which was eventually purchased by the late Colin Tennant, Third Baron Glenconner, who opened a hotel and restaurant — Bang Between the Pitons — in the mid-Nineties.
The flamboyant aristocrat knew a little about privacy, having developed the nearby island of Mustique as an enclave for the rich and famous. It’s said his sliver of south-western Saint Lucia was “the only place in the world where you could find Princess Margaret and a member of Led Zeppelin eating bananas and Mars Bar sandwiches”. It’s now more likely to be Gwyneth Paltrow or Matt Damon snacking on sashimi since the hotel was sold to British businessman Roger Myers — one-time accountant for The Beatles and co-founder of Café Rouge — and US-based Viceroy took over its management.
The exclusive blueprint has been enhanced by a multi-million-pound overhaul: guests are housed in secluded cottages that cascade down a hillside to the beach. Unlike many of the island’s black volcanic beaches, the sand is sugar-white, dredged from Guianese rivers to support the Pitons’ marine park.
This part of the island is home to a cluster of Saint Lucia’s most exclusive resorts, but only Sugar Beach has direct access to its most photographed stretch of sand. A trickle of arrivals spills on to the beach from day-tripping boats each morning, but otherwise guests have it to themselves. My cottage was close to the top of the ridge — an energy-sapping hike up. Better to walk down and catch one of the hotel’s fleet of seven tuk-tuks back up, which are only ever a phone call away (guests are provided with a mobile phone for the duration of their stay).
Looked after by the affable Markenzie, one of many staff hailing from the neighbouring town of Soufrière, it would have been easy to anchor myself in the white clapboard cottage with its latticed eaves, pineapple detailing and capacious four-poster. Outside, a plunge pool had a head-on view of the 739m Petit Piton, framed by the forest that at night acted as a magnet for tiny, vociferous tree frogs and fireflies.
However, after a quick phone call to Markenzie, I was in a taxi, setting out over the ridge to explore “the Caribbean’s only drive-in volcano”. Sulphur Springs Park’s billing is perhaps a little hyperbolic, since it’s more hissing fumaroles and spitting geysers than boiling magma, but the hot springs were nevertheless a tonic to my sun-dried skin.
After joining a few regulars in the soothing 38.7C waters, I stepped out to slather myself with mineral-rich, exfoliating mud, then waited for the sunlight to dry me before plunging back into the water to wash it off.
Relaxed and ready for refreshment, there was only one place to head: Boucan, the cocoa plantation, restaurant and hotel of British chocolatier Hotel Chocolat. When Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris bought the Rabot Estate just outside Soufrière in 2006, cocoa was a failing crop in Saint Lucia. Now the duo have revitalised the estate; the latest development is a factory where cocoa will be processed prior to being shipped to the UK.
The Boucan restaurant sits on a platform overlooking Petit Piton, with a menu that incorporates cocoa beans in nearly every dish, from the butter and chocolate balsamic reduction served with bread, to roti filled with tangy, cacao nib-infused chicken. There are even chocolate-themed treatments at the 14-room hotel’s spa.