St Lucia claims some of the Caribbean’s sweetest charms. Home to stunning beaches, iconic mountains and lush rainforest, it’s not just a honeymoon destination: along with mangoes, bananas and coconuts, adventure is also cultivated in abundance. The twin peaks of the Pitons offer strenuous (if popular) hiking, but its highest mountain is Mount Gimie (950m), which can only be reached via impenetrable jungle with a machete-wielding guide out front. Its coastline, meanwhile, offers secret coves and sheer cliffs. My weekend mission is twofold: kayak across open water to Pigeon Island, once home to a British fort, and lay siege to its vertiginous cliffs, then trek through the jungle and bag the summit of Gimie.
I sweep through security, saluting the great “work remotely” culture that allows a Friday morning departure. There’s time to fire off a few emails before my flight.
“Welcome to St Lucia,” says my taxi driver. That familiar Caribbean drawl – like an old friend, it cheers the heart and helps orientate the mind. The rest of my body, assaulted by 30ºC heat, tries to catch up. The island was mercifully spared by the recent hurricanes, Lester tells me, which passed just 150km to the north. “We didn’t feel a thing,” he adds.
An hour to sunset – enough time to hit the beach at BodyHoliday, my wellness retreat-themed hotel. Parked on the sand is a fleet of Hobie Cats. “OK to take one out?” I ask. “Can you sail?” is the reply.
In hindsight, my answer was not strictly accurate. Just when I think it’s all coming back (because it’s been years), a gust hits me and sends me tip over tail. I’m plucked out moments later by the team on the beach; they’re not impressed.
Over seared-tuna tempura, the hotel’s adventure-mad deputy managing director, Andrew Barnard, regales me with tales of kitesurfing to Martinique, getting lost in the jungle and climbing the Pitons. He takes pride in laying on extreme activities, such as a quadrathlon in which guests bike, run, abseil and kayak around northern St Lucia. “We like to do things properly,” he tells me.
There are sit-on-top kayaks – those heavy 4x4s of the water, unwieldy but fairly impossible to capsize; and then there are the proper seagoing variety that slice effortlessly with every stroke. We’ve got the latter.
I have a complicated relationship with kayaking. I was once rescued by the Irish coastguard and also managed to turn turtle in the Thames on a first date. “They’re very stable, don’t worry,” says Davidson, my guide. He helps me into the cockpit and watches closely as I clear the surf.
“You want to find a good rhythm,” Davidson advises as we exit the bay. Our objective is the far side of Pigeon Island, a protruding headland just visible in the distance. In the 18th century the British built a fort here to keep watch on the French. We paddle with the wind and rollers behind us. They’re only a few feet high, but in a kayak that feels tall. We surf down the backs of the waves towards our goal.
An hour in, we pass the headland and battle through a maelstrom of currents. Just 20m to my left the waves crash dauntingly onto sheer rocks – the very ones that I’ll soon be climbing. I try to stay focused; a momentary loss of balance does not bear thinking about here. I concentrate: slow, assured strokes to get me round. Once clear of the chop, the water settles, and we enter the shelter of Rodney Bay, named after the British admiral who based his fleet here.
The climbing team, led by an American rock-climbing instructor called Nelson, is here to meet me. Having landed in the shelter of the south, our goal is to hike back over and down the other side to those exposed cliffs. A track leads up the peak to the remains of the fort; to access the climbing, we have to scramble down a steep dirt gully full of loose rocks. We put on our helmets and venture down.
We emerge onto a small pebble beach, then traverse the headland, scrambling over rocks and taking care to avoid the rushing tide. As we round the corner we’re hit by a forceful wind. With the surf crashing below and the going steeper with every step, I suddenly feel quite exposed. We persevere upwards to where Nelson has pre-drilled anchors into the rock. By now we’re about 20m above the sea; I sag slightly with relief when Nelson ties me in. But the feeling is short-lived. “If you want to lean back a bit, I’ll lower you down to just above the sea and you can start climbing from there.”
I’ve done this several times before, but that moment of stepping back and trusting your life to a 9mm rope never gets any easier. Gingerly, I step over the edge. At the bottom I’m all alone. Nelson can’t hear me above the wind, and couldn’t physically pull me up in any case; I have to climb out of this myself. I reach for a hold, but it’s barely wide enough for my fingernails. I pat the rock’s surface like a blind man, searching for purchase to get my feet up onto a little notch.
And so the climb begins, inch by inch. One small overhang demands a degree of upper body strength I can barely muster; the only hold is a small ledge, tantalisingly out of reach. I walk my feet just a little bit higher, and then, heart in throat, I lunge for it. It holds; I’m able to haul myself up and climb the last few feet to the top to rejoin Nelson.
“Well done,” he says.
“That was hard,” is all I can manage.
The only way off these cliffs is to retrace our steps around the point and hike back through dense jungle and down to the bay on the other side, where Davidson waits with the kayaks. We slip in for the return journey; my shoulders and arms were already aching and now the wind is against us, requiring double the effort. The sea is also livelier, those rollers higher. Mercifully, they’re coming straight at us, which is the most stable way to tackle them. Hitting them side on would see me underwater in an instant.
With the beach finally in sight, I relax my grip on the paddle a fraction. In the shallows the team help me ashore. It’s all I can do to stagger to the bar and order the house special: a banana smoothie made with coconut cream and a slug of rum. It hurts just to lift the glass. Fortunately, arms are not much required for tomorrow’s hike.
I’m stuffing my rucksack with supplies when the phone trills: it’s the hotel’s activities man, Marlon. “The climb’s off,” he says. I’d been warned the trails were in bad shape – if still doable – post hurricane; but apparently, rainfall on Friday had caused a landslide, and the guides, wary in the best of conditions, had decided not to chance it.
I’m gutted, but there’s nothing for it but to wrangle the best plan B available – and that’s to take out the hotel’s most expensive toy: an X-Treme 26 racing yacht, all carbon, aluminium and sleek minimalism. While it’s collected from the hurricane-protected marina, I catch an extra hour of sleep.
I meet Brad, the skipper. He looks familiar. “Were you the guy who rescued me?” I ask sheepishly. He smiles knowingly.
We take her out into the Martinique Channel, the island clearly visible on the horizon, and I pluck up the courage to ask if I can helm. It’s like being handed the reins to a thoroughbred – so responsive. And fast. With Martinique now behind us, we charge south down St Lucia’s western coast on a broad reach. From the sea, it’s easier to appreciate the island’s natural beauty, its lofty mountain peaks soaring into cloud. Next time, I mutter to myself.
We turn about and head into wind, and the real fun begins. Still at the helm with Brad on the mainsheet, I throw a leg over the side for balance and settle in for a thrilling ride, as we heel beautifully across the sea at 15 knots.
There’s one last appointment: a full body massage. An hour-and-a-half later I’m in a taxi, and by 7.30pm I’m on the plane, waiting for sleep to take me. By 9.20am I’m in London: recharged, firing off emails and marking out a return trip in the diary – in the dry season, this time.