The G-Force X-Treme 26, a high-performance sailing yacht, tipped 90 degrees over the water as Josh steered the tiller in the direction of the wind. Panic-stricken, I held on to the guardrail as my feet dangled mid-air. I don’t remember who it was but a crew-mate hoisted me up.
“There’s no personal glory if your team-mate needs your help. If they need a hand, you give them a hand. If they’re in trouble, you go and help them. It’s how it works in the Olympics and it’s how it works here,” said Saskia Clark, our instructor and Olympic sailing gold medallist.
A random group of five – including myself – all new to sailing, were at the BodyHoliday resort in St Lucia on a newly launched week-long course taught by one of the world’s best sailors to get to grips with the fundamentals of the sport.
Learning how to gybe (a manoeuvre whereby a boat reaching downwind turns its stern through the wind) and tack (a manoeuvre of turning between starboard and port tack by bringing the bow – the forward part of the boat – through the wind) wasn’t my only agenda in St Lucia.
I was also here to sample the Caribbean’s island’s more adventurous side. A firm fly-and-flop holiday favourite, the country typically conjures up idyllic images of days spent lazing by the beach coupled with some scuba diving. But at BodyHoliday, where the slogan is “Give us your body for a week and we’ll give you back your mind,” adventure is the order of the day.
From 7am to 5pm, there are free activities scheduled every hour, such as Hobie Cat sailing lessons, intermediate archery, introduction to golf, beach rugby and guided cycling and hiking excursions. While other mainstream activities seemed fairly doable, as a first-timer, sailing was unfamiliar territory for me.
So, before launching myself into sailing on one of the world’s fastest sailing yachts, I thought it best to begin my training in earnest on a humble Hobie Cat. Following a 30-minute class wherein Saskia outlined the basic sailing theories, our group was ready to go. Her final advice was only somewhat reassuring: “If anything goes wrong or you’re in trouble, stop, stick your head out, and intuit where the wind is coming from.” Easy-peasy.
I jumped on the trampoline mesh with Saskia alongside fellow resort guests Sam and Philip. It was my turn first. I reached for the tiller and tugged at the jib sail, finding the edges of the eye of the wind, sailing out and back, tacking every so often. From Cariblue Bay, we set out in the direction of Pigeon Island, passing a restaurant set on a cliff, with Fort Rodney and the dusk pink Sandals Grande hotel in the backdrop.
A gust of wind blew Philip’s cap into the sea. Saskia took the tiller from me. “If a team-mate loses a hat or anything else falls into the water, keep pointing at it,” she instructed, as we moved closer to the floating blue hat. Another catamaran slowly made its way to us. Saskia handed the tiller back to me. I wasn’t sure how to manoeuvre.
“In sailing, you have right of way if you are on the right. Keep your course so the skipper of the give-way boat can get out of the way without colliding into us,” she said. The sails caught the wind and we glided close to the shore. Luckily, a big wave descended and carried us smoothly on to the sand. A triumphant finish, I thought.
There was no time to feel bored on this activity-led holiday. The following day, I was booked in for a bike ride to Pigeon Island, an outcrop that was once a fortress and is now a national park. Clavi, one of the resort’s “bodyguards”, accompanied our group of eight up a steep hill before pedalling along mostly flat asphalt into the national park, stopping at the foot of the beach where a fisherman was at work on the docks and a lone little boy in green shorts was collecting seashells from the beach.
Here the blue-green sea was framed by velvety green hills, and to the right was a museum run by the national trust housing military relics, including a blustery hilltop fort built by the British. Whoever was on watch, they had the task of spying on French ships from neighbouring Martinique.
The 18th-century pub where the officers convened for a pint is still open and has been renamed Captain’s Cellar. Next to the jetty is Jambe de Bois, a charming thatched-roof restaurant with a breezy veranda offering local specialities. Inside, the walls are lined with paintings depicting St Lucian life. A doorway leads on to a small bookshop with walls adorned with antique maps of the West Indies, bright canvases strewn on the floor, shelves with books aplenty and a shuttered window framing the sea.
The following morning, I pedalled from the Caribbean to the Atlantic coast, again with Clavi as my guide. We cycled at a leisurely pace, meandering along the flat road from Rodney Bay’s harbour to Gros Islet with its plantation style houses painted in candy-coloured hues before rounding the northern tip of the island towards the peaceful Cas-en-Bas beach, where no one and nothing was in sight save for a solitary restaurant called Marjorie’s and a part of a rocket booster which drifted ashore in 1994. From here, we began our ascent up a small hill.
When Clavi noticed that I was struggling to make much headway, he instructed me to change gears. I felt this was a feat comparable to the Tour de France but before I knew it, we finally reached the top of a cliff. Oh, what a view! The wild Atlantic was at its most arresting and I tried not to stare as we cruised down on gravel, through sandy trails and on to the beach.
This corner of the north-east coast has some of the island’s most dramatic and stunning beaches, and they don’t even feature on a tourist map. In the next bay, above Donkey Beach, the pounding sea was in a flurry. The swell was staggering, blasting blowholes in the rocks sheathed in lush vegetation. This was as far from the sun lounger and umbrella-laden beaches of the Caribbean coast as you can imagine. And the only way you could access this secret part of the island was on two wheels.
After breakfast on my last day in St Lucia, I travelled to the west coast on an excursion organised by BodyHoliday. Driving up and down the island’s main highway, it’s easy to see the appeal. The views are all knockout – theatrical, intense, instantaneous. We dipped down into the heart of Choiseul, a small town between two mountains, and saw that there was a church by the beach in the small harbour – but before I could take a second look, we were heading up and out again.
Approaching Soufrière from the south, there was a turn-off. We were on the top of a ridge, where I could stop both to catch my breath and to inhale the view. The dizzying beauty of the place was exhilarating. I looked down into the basin of Soufrière, which from up here seemed more like a postcard of Caribbean splendour than an actual place. The boats were moving on the glimmering water, there was traffic off the beach and hubbub in the town and – up, up the hill on the other side – houses and trees.
The south-western area of St Lucia was designed by the Qualibou caldera 35,500 years ago. Though dormant, the volcano still spits grey boiling water and sulphurous gas out of a scattering of pools of bubbling mud and cracks in the earth’s crust. The caldera is what gave St Lucia the Pitons as well as the town of Soufrière and its bay.
Here, there is still wooden French colonial architecture, tumbledown though it may be, and colourful fishing boats pulled up on the beach. Seemingly everyone who lives on the island speaks Creole, which sounds just like French even if it doesn’t look like it on paper.
Finally, I wended my way to Boucan Hotel, set within Rabot, St Lucia’s oldest cocoa-farming estate, for lunch and a chocolate-making workshop. On arrival, I was seated at the restaurant balcony overlooking the Piton mountains. I gazed at purple duranta, magenta bougainvillea and green and yellow pods hanging from cacao trees; and listened to the tweets coming from Jacquots and kestrels after a speck of my 70 per cent cocoa chocolate bar. After a week of adventure, I was ready for a snack and a lazy afternoon at a nearby sandy beach.
Luckily for me, St Lucia also does that. Rather nicely.
A five-night stay at BodyHoliday (001 758 457 7800; thebodyholiday.com) on the Spring Sail programme starts from £1,770 per person with full board all-inclusive. Daily activities are complimentary.
When to go
May and June. These late spring and early summer months offer marvellous weather – between 72F and 86F (22C-30C) – and the chance to avoid the tourist crowds and bag a bargain. In the summer (see a list of summer festivals on the right) and late autumn, the island is brimming with activity but there’s a higher chance of hurricanes. December to April, the driest season, is the busiest and most expensive time to go.
St Lucia’s 2018 summer festivals
Carnival: June and July
Roots and Soul Festival: Aug 31-Sept 2
Arts and Heritage Festival: Oct 1-31
For more information, visit stlucia.org/summerfestival.