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Highs and Lows: hiking and scuba in St Lucia

While St Lucia continues to attract visitors looking for the quintessential Caribbean getaway, there's more to the island nation than its beach resorts, with jaw-dropping mountain hikes, scuba diving and vibrant fauna and flora to discover

You can see the Pitons from everywhere in St Lucia. If not the actual slopes of the twin volcanic mountains, then on postcards and T-shirts, the label of the local beer and on the national flag.

This teardrop-shaped island, halfway between St Vincent and Martinique, is one of the Caribbean’s most arresting destinations. St Lucia has beauty at every turn – cascading waterfalls, a rugged coastline of volcanic beaches and a mountainous interior carpeted in rainforest – but the jungle-clad peaks of the Pitons, rising straight out of the sapphire-blue sea, are its defining landscape.

Standing on the 2,619ft summit of Gros Piton, that view has been flipped on its head: the mountain falls away sharply beneath my feet and the southern half of the island is unfurled like a crumpled bed sheet, half a mile below. I clink bottles with my guide, Trannie, and take a gulp of cold Piton beer. It may only be 10am, but after a steamy two-hour hike, it’s about as refreshing a swig as I’ve ever had.

Most visitors arrive in St Lucia for a dose of its Caribbean clichés – sun and sand – but the landscape is also ready-made for adventure. I’m here to explore Gros Piton from both its summit and the sea, hiking to the top before scuba diving at its base, to get a different perspective on this tropical gem.

While ropes are required to climb Petit Piton, the smaller but more vertiginous of the two peaks, the three-mile Gros Piton trail is a popular trek on a well-defined route, though it remains a steep, strenuous workout and a guide is compulsory. I’d earned the view, no doubt about that.

I take a gulp of cold Piton beer. After a two-hour hike, it's about as refreshing a swig as I've ever had 

Trannie and I left the village at the trailhead early to beat the intense heat of the Caribbean sun. Like most of the guides who accompany hikers up and down the trail – sometimes twice a day – he was born in the village of Fond Gens Libre (Valley of the Free People), home to the descendants of the ‘Brigands’ who led the resistance against slavery in the 1700s, using Gros Piton as a safe haven.

Today, the rugged terrain and dense forest surrounding the pitons ensure the south-west of the island remains sparsely populated. Hillside villages and secluded hotels peel away from the coastal road until the town of Soufrière, named after the nearby sulphur springs and once St Lucia’s capital.

The modern-day capital, Castries, lies an hour north by road, where visitors will find many of St Lucia’s beach-front, all-inclusive resorts, and much of the nightlife in the areas of Cap Estate, Rodney Bay and Gros Islet.

St Lucia: Where to stay

The best hotels to sleep peacefully on this superlative island

 

Sugar Beach

Set on an 18th century plantation backed by rainforest, Sugar Beach occupies St Lucia’s most exclusive stretch of shoreline — a white-sand beach nestled between the pitons. The luxury accommodation, recently reopened after a five-month renovation project, ranges from rooms in the former plantation house to cottages and villas with plunge or swimming pools. The resort’s dive centre, metres from the base of Petit Piton, offers scuba diving and snorkelling tours.

From £401 per night; viceroyhotelsandresorts.com

Jade Mountain

Jade Mountain, perched on a hilltop within a 600-acre estate, is one of the most striking hotels in the world. The individually designed ‘sanctuaries’ of the architect-owned property have only three walls — the fourth is missing to reveal staggering views of the Pitons and the Caribbean Sea below. Most also have private infinity pools. Facilities are shared with Jade Mountain’s sister resort, Anse Chastanet, and include a spa, hiking trails, a chocolate-making laboratory and dive centre on the beach.

From £804 per night; jademountain.com

But thankfully, despite the unstoppable march of the tourism industry, most of the island remains wild and densely forested. Trannie leads the way as we leave the valley and traverse the lower slopes of Gros Piton, passing mango, breadfruit and cocoa trees. The trail rises gently to begin with and we soon reach the first of three viewpoints to reveal St Vincent to the south, the island’s hazy outline visible through the shadow of a squally shower at sea.

We’re undoubtedly in the tropics – my sweat-soaked T-shirt tells me as much, despite the sunrise start – so I’m surprised to see clusters of tall, spiny cacti rising from the undergrowth. Our route takes us through three ecosystems, according to Trannie, including dry forest here and cloud forest on the mist-shrouded summit.


The path steepens as we climb higher, quickly gaining elevation, but the halfway point offers an opportunity to catch my breath – only for it to be taken away again. A break in the trees reveals a scene awash with an artist’s palette of greens and blues: the near-vertical slopes of Petit Piton emerging from the shimmering water of Jalousie Bay, with its pyramidal peak set against the backdrop of a cloudless sky.

The toughest part of the hike starts here. I haul myself over volcanic boulders formed more than 200,000 years ago, sucking in air thick as treacle. The mountainside is a web of exposed roots and gullies carved out by storms. Above my head, shards of light break through the tightly knitted canopy.

We pass the three-quarter point accompanied by a symphony of birdsong, scrambling past wild tobacco trees and giant palms fighting for sunlight. The summit opens up to reveal St Lucia’s highest peak, the 3,120ft Mount Gimie, to the east and a rollercoaster coastline of emerald hills, rising and falling into hidden coves, to the south. Wisps of cloud race up the slope below and disappear immediately overhead. The view, stretching to the end of the island and far beyond, is worth every bead of sweat.

Twenty-four hours later and I’m on a boat from Sugar Beach – the five-star resort on a stretch of powder-soft sand between the Pitons – to the Coral Gardens reef. The Soufrière Marine Management Area runs 11km along the south-west coast of St Lucia and the topography is as dramatic below the shore as it is above.

Fourteen dive sites lie within 20 minutes of Sugar Beach, each providing the opportunity to explore a playground of giant boulders, underwater cliffs and reefs teeming with marine life.

Scuba mask in place, I take a final look up at the peak of Gros Piton towering above and trace the mountainside down into the water before diving in. Coral Gardens lies at the base of a volcanic slab surrounded by forest and runs to a depth of 90ft. I start descending, following the trail of bubbles left by my dive instructor, Troy, as rock transforms into a technicolour reef.

Tree-like gorgonians glow with yellows purples and pinks; glistening sea fans sway in the breeze

Tree-like gorgonians and brain corals glow with yellows, purples and pinks; glistening sea fans sway gently like the branches of a silver birch in the breeze; giant barrel sponges and pillar corals, thousands of years old, rise several metres from the seabed. Troy points to an octopus camouflaged against a rock. It takes flight, gliding through the water before resettling and adopting its disguise again.

We spot damsel, angel and trumpet fish, while a shoal of juvenile reef fish jostles for position among the corals. Giant lobsters take cover beneath boulders and Spanish mackerel patrol the reef’s edge.

I drift effortlessly in the current, following the sloping base of Gros Piton and spellbound by a scene as vivid and rich as the land above it, yet in complete contrast to the forested mountain. You don’t have to dive to enjoy St Lucia’s marine life, either. The snorkelling is excellent, with a number of reefs easily accessible from the shoreline.

Troy gives the signal to resurface, the peak of Gros Piton now surrounded by plumes of cloud. We make the five-minute hop back to Sugar Beach, the boat skipping along the softly-lapping waves of the sea. It’s time to enjoy the palm-fringed sand that draws so many holidaymakers here. Ice-cold Piton beer in hand, of course.

Virgin Atlantic flies from Gatwick to St Lucia from £385 return. virginatlantic.com

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