Why the Caribbean island of St Lucia is a wild escape for families

Discover your own mini-adventure on the lush green Caribbean island of St Lucia, with its volcanic peaks, buccaneer bays, and cocoa plantations — and try hands-on chocolate making too.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 13 Dec 2017, 11:15 GMT, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 14:36 BST
A view of the Pitons peaks, Petit Piton and Gros Piton.

A view of the Pitons peaks, Petit Piton and Gros Piton.

Photograph by Getty Images

His name was Lucky. Ella hoped he would be true to his name today. The mountain rose ahead of her, a wall of dense green jungle. Above: a hot storm blackening the skies. Lucky shifted from hoof to hoof and snorted, bucking his head. "Time to go," he seemed to be saying. The chestnut gelding knew best.

The going was rough. The trail climbed sharply uphill, thick mud sucking at Lucky's heavy hooves, mucky vestiges of the last storm's watery rage. Lime trees flanked the path, their sweet leaves luring the horse's head from left to right, quickly giving way to 100-year-old banyan trees whose tangled roots formed cages high above their heads. Daylight itself seemed to disappear into the rainforest's damp dark green. Lucky slogged on, Ella held tight. At last, they broke through the treeline, the sky reappearing now a blinding blue. The storm had passed out to sea. The dual volcanic peaks of the Piton Mountains cut perfect triangular arrowheads out of the blue, and in the mirror blue of the bay below: a ship. "Pirates," said Ella. "I knew it."

But for all its beautiful masts and sleek lines, this luxury sailing charter is definitely no pirate ship. If nothing else, tourists seem more than willing to hand over a small fortune to board such VIP vessels. However, in St Lucia, where Jack Sparrow buccaneer bays crease every bend, and lava black mountains, thick with jungle vines pose as King Kong-sized playgrounds, you can forgive a child for this flight of fantasy. Summit panorama aside, our 40-minute plod through the rainforest at Morne Coubaril — a former sugar plantation now fly-through must-see for Caribbean cruise passengers — hadn't filled my own mind with much fancy. But for my daughter, Ella, barely having been on a horse, never having visited the Caribbean, this mini-adventure had initially challenged her ("Mum, I want to get off. I don't think I can do this."), and then pretty much blown her 11-year-old mind.

There's a reason St Lucia was chosen as the backdrop to Johnny Depp's Pirates franchise: it's a natural showstopper. Ella seems oblivious to the fact that it's cruise parties — not pirates — who wobble in and out of Morne Coubaril for their rice-and-peas lunch and inharmonious harmonica show; she sees wild tropical terrain.

Morne Coubaril is truly a beauty. You can see this clearly, treetop to jungle floor, albeit at high speed, if you ride its rainforest zip lines: eight wires secured 20 feet up in sculptural banyan and mahogany, offering high-octane thrills, cracking coast views and neat commentary. Our guide noting everything from parrot species to St Lucia's highest peak: a whopping 3,117ft mountain called Gimie (pronounced Jimmy).

The island's volcanic landscape really comes to life at nearby Soufriere sulphur springs, where a living geology lesson involves slathering yourself in "therapeutic" volcanic mud, bathing in steamy mineral water and letting the kids revel in how revolting the rotten-egg smell is. These rudimentary concrete pools perhaps don't merit a cross-island pilgrimage but, like many of St Lucia's must-sees, it's minutes from the west coast where the island's best resorts, and atmospheric old plantations, are lavishly landscaped around the towering Pitons. Our home here, Sugar Beach, is arguably the Caribbean's most perfectly positioned hotel. Its pool villas sit on a steep, jungle-clad hillside, VIP boxes at a natural theatre, overlooking a deep white-sand crescent bay set, just-so, smack between the Pitons. "It doesn't look real!" gasps Ella.

It's beautifully alive, though. Around our villa (whose white clapboard patio doors, shutters and windows can be hermetically sealed if desired) bright birds and butterflies zip through the trees, teeny bug-eyed frogs and geckos make sport around the terrace and, in the otherwise pristine pool… a baby snake. At least, according to Ella. I'm not sure and neither are two strapping members of staff, even after they don Ella's goggles and dip heads into the water to check — a sight that has Ella giggling into her hotel bathrobe.

"In all my years in this part of the island, I've never seen a snake," says the gamekeeper, Udel, brandishing a comically oversized net. He gives us a quick lesson in notable species: "Big boas live way upland, fer-de-lance — you don't want to meet one of those — on the other coast." Ella is wide-eyed. "I'm going to add snake wrangling to my CV," grins Udel who finally fishes out a rather bloated earthworm. 

In the bay, wildlife is even more colourful. Stripy eels, snouty seahorses, angelfish and ghostly squid throng Sugar Beach's coral reef; all seen eyeball-to-eyeball, 20 feet beneath the surface of the Caribbean thanks to a Snuba session. This scuba-snorkel hybrid has a surface air supply and the option to surface at will, and is suitable for swimmers from four years old after a rudimentary safety briefing. Anxiety over regulators and tubes and fins quickly gives way to wonder: another mini-adventure under our (weighted) belts. For those who prefer straight snorkelling — or just lounging around out at sea like a VIP — the resort's private catamaran charters (Carnival Sailing) visits boat-only access bays, with deep caves and rich reef life, complete with a fine selection of imported wine and local seafood grilled on deck to order. 

The fruits of the land are even more enticing. St Lucia's old plantations produce some of the world's best chocolate. "You've heard the expression money doesn't grow on trees? Well it does here," says Merle, our no-nonsense guide at Hotel Chocolat. "Back in Mayan times, 50 cocoa seeds could buy a king many women." There aren't many concessions to kids at this very grown-up resort — HQ for the UK's high-end high-street chocolate boutique. Its lauded Boucan restaurant, spa, and mountainside infinity pool are a haven for honeymooners, but its bean-to-bar experience gives children the chance to get literally elbow deep in the sweet stuff; crushing, conching, mixing their own bittersweet treats.

Add to this Sugar Beach's special chef's experience where kids get to work in the kitchen tempering and decorating chocolate, plus the opportunity to cover what clean skin remains with a chocolate wrap in the spa (a magical, Ewok village-like collection of rainforest treehouses), and you may reach peak chocolate. "I never want to eat it again," sighs Ella looking green under her cocoa-tinted skin. Parents do better at overindulging. With sports mornings, movie evenings and all manner of games occupying kids in between at the Sugar Club, adults can enjoy fresh fruity cocktails and equally fruity-fun sushi at the New York-meets-Bangkok style Cane Club, or go full out with a modish French-Caribbean tasting menu on the plantation house-style terraced balconies of the Great Room.

With refined tapas at the toes-in-the-sand Bayside bistro, and a breakfast buffet that nods heartily to the resort's dedicated American guests with its pancake-stacked proportions, there's a reason, I conclude, that even at 80% occupancy during our stay, the resort feels far from full. Guests have taken full stomachs to the seclusion of their pool villas. But even beating a retreat in St Lucia proves to be an adventure. Room shuttles here come in the shape of brightly coloured tuk-tuks imported from Thailand, which make the almost sheer mountain ascents and descents something of a fairground ride. "Can we take this route?" Ella says as we approach yet another heady downhill. "This is the steepest." The burst of warm, rose-scented Caribbean air rushes at us, the sea rolling out forever in front of us, those pirate boats winking at us in the bay: another mini-adventure surely on the horizon.

The lowdown: hiking
St Lucia's heights offer superb hikes. The 1.5-mile Barre de L'Isle trail, for example, traverses a nature reserve right through the island's spine, offering 'wow' views of both Caribbean and Atlantic. Rainforest species have signs to aid identification, and you're likely to encounter the chatty St Lucia parrot and see huge land crabs crashing around the undergrowth. This way-marked, looped trail takes about two hours; easy but steep in parts it's perhaps suitable for keener kiddie hikers. Permits should be purchased from the trailhead (signposted off the highway between Castries and Dennery). A Forest Reserve guide can accompany hikers for additional cost.

How to do it
Kuoni offers seven nights at Sugar Beach during May 2018 half-term, from £9,579 per family of four, staying in a Grand Luxury Villa, including use of the Sugar Club, Youth Sailing Club, return flights from Gatwick and transfers.

Published in the 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family

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