The Caribbean has many seductive selling points to tempt British tourists. There’s the laid-back beach life, tin-roofed rum shacks, tropical fruits to tingle the taste buds and the most exotic oceans this side of the equator.
Add local smiles as warm as the weather and a makeshift cricket match on every street corner and it’s no wonder the islands are second only to Florida as our long-haul holiday favourite. So why do I feel like I’m getting such a rum deal?
We’re homeward bound after a five-day stay at Virgin Holidays’ latest all-inclusive resort on the emerald island of St Lucia. Or we were until our seats on the flight to Barbados to catch our connection were resold.
Either we scramble for seats on the next Liat Airlines (or ‘Leaves the Island at any Time’ as its more accurately known) flight in the morning, or sign a blunt indemnity disclaimer allowing us to board a six-seat crop sprayer for the 100-mile commute.
So with St Lucia’s largest cemetery helpfully located alongside aviation’s shortest runway, and the words ‘Virgin Holidays takes no responsibility for your flight, safety or welfare’ ringing in our ears, we strapped ourselves in to a seen-better-decades Cessna 402 and began pre-flight checks.
Five fidgety passengers? Check. Two chugging ‘Dam Busters’ propellers? Check. One pilot casually chatting on his mobile phone (that’s got to be worth an on-the-spot fine)? Check.
The 40-minute flight turned out to be less turbulent than the two-hour road trip from the airport to the resort five days earlier. St Lucians drive on the left. Strictly speaking. But with only half the country’s mountainous roads tarmaced, and the rest barely wide enough for passing motorbikes, committing to one side is not an option.
Pavements (and it seems school buses) are in short supply, so schoolchildren hitch lifts home by the roadside – their eager arms poking out between the palm trees. Luckily, the rum punch handed out by staff the moment you arrive in the airy foyer of the Almond Smuggler’s Cove resort doubles up as a decent cure for motion sickness.
It may sound like a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel but, just four months after opening, there’s no hidden treasure for guests to discover at Almond Smuggler’s Cove. In fact, they may well be about to mutiny.
Nestled on the island’s northern tip, this 60-acre village complex is named after 18th century bootleggers who used its cove to ship cigars and cognac from Martinique. Almost 400 mini-apartments, four restaurants, five swimming pools, a water-sports centre and a kids’ and tennis club are framed between tropical gardens and turquoise sea. First impressions are of sun, sea and sheer size. But look closer and you’ll find all’s not shipshape.
While the island is awash with lush rainforest vegetation, the plants inside the resort are a pale imitation having been given no time to bloom. The grass really is greener on the other side of the fence.
Then there’s the basics easily fixed by half-an-hour at Homebase. Loose plug sockets, power cuts, poor water pressure, doors off hinges and dingy onsite lighting that leaves guests staggering blindly back to their rooms at night.
Like the plants, the staff are taking time to bed in. Accidentally serving pure vodka in a water bottle, taking a room service order than never arrived and freeing a guest trapped in her room by a faulty door lock were among the customer care highlights of a single day. And all the while, as unavoidable as St Lucia’s new airport departure tax, builders beaver away on the showcase sea-view rooms that are still not ready for honeymooning guests.
Almond Smugglers Cove will be a crowd pleaser. After all, a sea view and a bar serving vodka by the bottle are the cornerstones of a happy holiday. But until the creases are ironed out guests will have to focus on the delights of Caribbean life found outside the resort.
The relaxed chaos of Castries’ century-old market is the perfect distraction. Arts and crafts stalls, straw goods and local spices battle for selling space with the bountiful, all-powerful banana. St Lucians go bananas for their number one export, making it the key ingredient in everything from honey and hot sauce to bread, chutney and wine. And no trip to the island is complete without buying a bottle of banana ketchup to gather dust in your kitchen cupboard.
See the celebrated fruit growing in protective blue bags during a tasty and intriguing hour at Fond Latisab Creole Park. The plantation is also renowned for its cassava bread, a savoury snack made from a local root vegetable baked with coconut and nutmeg. Beware plantation mosquitoes. If your repellent spray isn’t working, follow one local guidebook’s helpful advice: ‘Use more’.
Work off the extra weight by taking a horse for a ride in the sea at the International Pony Club. My noble steed Smoky and I were harshly dealt with by our guide for sensibly maintaining tortoise pace at the back of the pack (safety first). I endured being called ‘Smoky Chicken’ for the next two hours, flapping my arms on cue to show I didn’t give a cluck. Poor old Smoky, meanwhile, casually chewed on overhanging branches and pretended not to know me.
But of all the pleasures on this pear-shaped island, the lasting memory won’t be causing a horse to lose its self-esteem, or stubbing a toe on a loose tile walking to your room in the dark after polishing off nine strawberry daiquiris and Neil Diamond’s entire back catalogue during karaoke night.
Rather it will be lying on a beach soon after sunset, watching gannets diving for their dinner, silhouetted by a yellow half-moon that looks for all the world like a giant blazing banana.
• First published in the Daily Mail.