I stretched across the bedside table to get a book from the top of my teetering double book pile last night and a notebook fell on the floor.
It was filled with my own scribbles and brimming with tropical sunshine – a kind of diary of a trip to the Caribbean island of St Lucia in April last year. I ended up re-reading the whole lot and wallowing in the memories – good and bad – of the travelling and the tropics. It felt like therapy for January, the month I hate most because of the short, dull, dark, chilly days. Here is a roughly-hewn chunk.
“In St Lucia, about to sleep. Been awake for 23 hours! Early start at home. 4,545 miles – 535mph – London to Southampton in ten minutes. Sitting in one of a pair of seats at the back of a Boeing 747 for £30 extra each. Fabulously comfy with loads of space between seat and window and room to stretch legs right out. Also loos at back of plane very close, which may or may not be Good Thing. Had to wait nearly an hour for a co-pilot as ours was ill but not too bad and bye-bye Gatwick. Ten minutes until we were passing over Southampton, Portsmouth then the tip of Cornwall before eight hours journey over the Atlantic.
A very neat, smart steward gave me a g&t and a teeny pack of cream cheese and chive pretzels that really hit the spot. I really felt “Yeah. Free pretzels. This has to be the holiday.” Such a sheltered life. They were so good I felt I should ration them, tantric-style, and nibble one per hour to build up the expectations nicely for that sharp, salty hit, the after-savouring etc etc. But they were all gone in about five non-tantric minutes.
We’d dropped the car off at one of those vast car parks in the countryside near Gatwick and a smart minibus with blacked-out windows was waiting for us after we checked in the keys.
The driver invited us to sit in the front with him, which I thought was cosy. Got seated, glanced around and did a double-take to see the bus was full of faces looking back at me.
Did involuntary “Oh!” out loud and they all laughed, like one of those parties where everyone springs up from behind the sofa and yells “Happy Birthday!” So that was a good ice-breaker and we chatted on the way to the airport. The others were going to Greece and Spain – all for sunshine holidays and all buzzing with happy anticipation.
Back on the plane had curious orange-topped cottage pie and a load of chocolate-based sweets/puds that I couldn’t eat. Listened to Widespread Panic on the player and music I’d forgotten I had, which was good. Wrote a bit and watched the little plane on the monitor edging its way slowly towards the little island with a dolphin graphic leaping out of the water next to it. Seemed a long flight though, especially that 90 minutes before landing when everything starts happening – last calls for the loo, tidying up, seatbelts on, games off, TV off and I let Capt Sensible sit by the window to get his first glimpse of the Caribbean Sea as this was his choice – his treat.
Shortly we were rushing low over surf breaking on sandy beaches backed with tall palm trees bending, fronds blowing wildly in a brisk breeze. The landing was wonderfully smooth.
Before they opened the doors, they sprayed insecticide around the cabin – and it wasn’t long before I was stepping out of the plane into Caribbean heat, humidity and sunshine. It was hot: hotter and wetter than the hottest place I’ve ever been, which was Cyprus. At Larnaca airport, you could smell the dry red dust, taste it on your tongue. St Lucia tasted intensely tropical and looked fantastic. There were mountains on the skyline, palms growing everywhere and well-built black guys in uniforms and dark shades stood around on the tarmac looking cool and eyeing the latest influx of dorky tourists dispassionately.
I walked across the tarmac casting a backward admiring glance at our giant plane looking rather magnificent glinting in the sun. It was, however, thoroughly out-blinged by a big American Airlines jet dazzling in shining polished steel.
The immigration queue was arranged Alton Towers style, which was tedious and took about forty minutes during which we got well acquainted with Prime Minister Stephenson – whose portrait was hanging on the wall not far away from a plastic model of the record marlin ever landed at St Lucia – about ten feet long. Photography was strictly prohibited, goodness knows why.
We finally got out to find our transport to the hotel wasn’t a coach but a 4WD Lexus with a driver called Stephen who talked in fast bursts which took some getting used to. He drove up the east coast road, stopping to overlook Dennery Bay where he suggested we might take some pics. A local guy called Albert sauntered over, introduced himself and said “Welcome to St Lucia” and chatted for a bit. I thought, uncharitably, that he might be after a bit of a tip for taking a photograph or something but nothing of the kind. He was just being friendly. We saw frigate birds soaring overhead before we got back in the car and headed up into the rainforest – so green, so many ferns – wooden shacky bungalow-style homes up on raised ground not far from the road, with usually a couple of people sitting out on the terrace chilling out, watching the world.
The road narrowed, hemmed in by so many ferns, palms and calabash trees – the national tree with its massive lime green football-sized fruits! Not edible but used as bowls for eating and drinking. Banana plantations had now replaced sugar plantations, Stephen told us. The little Fair Trade bananas in Sainsburys come from St Lucia. Cocoa plantations supply Hotel Chocolat! He showed us the mudslides where a hurricane had hit seven months earlier, causing devastation on the island. The whole island closed down for a week because there was no way around it as mudslides had wrecked homes and blocked roads. No power, no supplies, no driving – the only way from place to place was by boat. “Too many houses built too low,” he said. Crazy.
First impression of the estate of apartments spread over a green hill was of a St Lucian version of Portmeirion in Wales. The ‘centre’ featured a mock-Italianate white building like a church while other buildings were definitely Spanish-style architecture and some of the tiles looked Moorish or Portuguese.
The reception was open – rough-cast walls where there were any ,polished local brown tiles, pretty blue tiles, dark-wood beams, shallow steps and many changes of levels plus vivid bouganvillea and exotic flowers including strelitzia in lavish arrangements.
We investigated our little dwelling on the hill after downing delish rum punches and found that a) I’d omitted to pack £36 worth of mosquito repellants, wipes and deterrents that I’d bought specially to avoid being eaten alive by mozzies and b) although we had air-con in the room, the shower and loo area was open to the elements thanks to a carelessly constructed roof that didn’t meet the walls in many places.
Mildly traumatised by the thought of lightning fast trips to the loo. This won’t do anything for my habitual holiday constipation. Got deadly toxic spray from the hotel staff to saturate the room while we went off to dinner. Returned to find it had done its deadly work. Four ex-mosquitoes flat out on the bed.”
Shortly afterwards, so was I. Slept nine hours straight.