‘I should have taken them snorkelling,’ I think as I go under, fitted out with flippers, weights, snorkels and breathing tubes attached to a raft carrying oxygen tanks. It would certainly have eased them into their first underwater experience.
The pressure on my forehead feels like someone is pushing down on me (the snorkel mask is too tight) and breathing through the tube makes me sound like Darth Vader; I’m also conscious I can’t stay afloat due to the weights placed around my waist to help me dive. No wonder it’s tough on the kids.
True, I’d only managed to get one child in the water, my son, Luca (four). His sister Rae (six) had chickened out, but she wasn’t the only one. There’d been a look of fear on the faces of our group, masked by playful banter as we’d prepped to go into the water.
Snuba, a relatively new experience, run by Sea Adventures here in St Lucia for almost five years, enables little ones (aged four and over) to ‘dive’. The company operates from two main bases serving cruise lines — at St Lucia’s National Park Pigeon Island (where we are) and the Marine Park at Sugar Beach Resort in the south. It’s designed as a shallow-water diving system bridging the gap between snorkelling and scuba.
It’s a good alternative for families as children can’t do proper scuba until they’re eight. Plus it’s not dissimilar to snorkelling and you’re still connected to a raft, which is never more than 20ft away from you — the kids can hold onto this if they get scared, too.
Five snuba pros are looking after us, each of them adopting ‘Caribbean fish’ personas to put the kids at ease. Kilian-aka-Stingray is our guide; Warren-aka-Dragonfish is with Luca and his dad, Chad.
We’re taught a series of safety signs and instructions and are shown a chart of the fish we might see. The 15-minute prep time was enough for some of our group to beat a retreat. It’s certainly too much orientation for my daughter, Rae, who stubbornly downs tools and decides to watch from the beach.
After a quick practice in shallow water, we follow Stingray as he swims further out, tangling our snuba tubes as we all go off in differing directions. Stingray signs for us to ascend, untangles us, then signals for us to follow him underwater, pointing out the fish, the coral and other sea life around us. At one juncture he spots a squid, gesturing frantically for us to see it.
‘A, OK,’ signs Stingray.
‘A, OK,’ I sign back.
Dragonfish is looking after the boys, and Luca is doing brilliantly.
“Mum, the man said I was really good. I liked seeing the fishes best,” says Luca. “My favourite bit was seeing underwater. I saw every sea animal, but not a shark. I wasn’t scared.” Luca uses these lines like a piece of dinner-table conversation. I hear it repeated to an adult the following day and again thereafter…
Back on land, we meet Jo Pratt, the celebrity chef, mum and cookery club host you should have heard of. She’s written a host of books (Madhouse Cookbook is her latest), helped launched many a celeb’ cooking career as a ghost ‘recipe creator’ and has begun to have a bit of a high profile herself. For now, she’s in charge of St James’s Club Morgan Bay’s cookery school as part of a series of one-week events the resort is trialling.
It’s being held on Morgan’s Pier (also the site of one of the hotel’s restaurants) and the first day is slightly chaotic; aprons, chef hats and wooden spoons are at the ready but some ingredients or utensils are missing. Attendees’ ages vary from four to mid-teens, and Jo is patient with all.
Everything comes together eventually with the resort staff happily scurrying around to make sure everything is in place. The kids are distracted with their chef hats and aprons, readying themselves for the task ahead. Today they’re making carrot cakes.
“I’ll cut the coconut,” says Agnes, the resort’s softly spoken resident chef. But it’s stubborn and won’t break, so she instead shows us one she cut up earlier, grating the fresh coconut for us to try. For most kids this is their first taste of fresh coconut. The carrot cakes are made using the freshly grated coconut, plus a lot of sticky, floury fingers. And while the cake tins are filled and taken to the off-site kitchens to be baked, Agnes cuts up pieces of bamboo and we chew on the stringy centre to taste the sugar.
Over the course of the week Jo encourages the shy Agnes to bring in more and more of St Lucia’s varied produce for us to try, from the tart tamarind fruit — and the sweet dessert it makes, called tamarind balls — to starfish, watermelons and mangos. The children make biscuits, scones and pizza over the coming days as the cookery club becomes a welcome interruption to our stay: at 11am every week day, the kids are whisked away for an hour to improve their cooking prowess — giving us a welcome breather.
After an hour on board the speedboat, our group is flagging. The midday sun is proving too much and the kids are beginning to fade. But the playful crew on Joy’s Cruises know what they’re doing and their mission is soon accomplished after a series of animated gestures. The captain is pointing out the shoal of dolphins to the right of our boat. The children are practically hanging off the edge to see until they realise we’re centre stage amid a performance of acrobatics, dolphins playfully jumping on either side of us.
This speedboat tour of St Lucia is giving us a glimpse of the multi-faceted nature of this Francophone island: factories and plantations give way to small fishing villages juxtaposed with exclusive beaches, boutique hideaways and smart resorts. It’s not long after the dolphin encounter that we find ourselves staring up at the two Pitons (volcanic peaks) the island is famous for. We’re delivered to a part-pebble beach at the foot of the Petit Piton for a traditional beach barbecue — featuring some of the best food we’ve tasted on the island, from goat curry to mahi mahi fish and Papaya pie — and to pick up our guide for the day, Vaughan, who seems to double as an excellent children’s entertainer.
Culinary classics don’t interest our children, who dine quickly and head to the beach to paddle before they’re loaded back on board to head to Soufriere, the original capital of the island, on our way to an active volcano, Sulphur Springs.
Vaughan informs us it’s due an eruption — the last was in 1766 — as he jokes around pulling monkey faces at the kids. One whirlwind tour later, he tells the story of Gabriel, the guide who jumped up and down in the crater park… and unwittingly created one of his own. Gabriel suffered second-degree burns from the waist down, but survived to become a fisherman, family man, and living local legend too. The crater park emits a pungent odour of bad eggs; Luca has fallen asleep during the 10-minute drive, and is being carried while sleepily complaining of the ‘fart’ smells.
Our next pit stop wakes him up, as we’re here to lather up in the therapeutic volcanic mud — excellent for exfoliation, we’re informed. The kids are strangely uninterested in covering themselves in mud, preferring the hot springs where they can practise swinging into a small pool using a rope tied to the tree above. We grab our gear and head to the waterfall, a five-minute drive from the mud bath, to bathe in its three pools and warm waterfalls.
Back on the bus, we’re off to a snorkel site at the foot of the Petit Piton where it’s Rae’s turn to be adventurous. A short rain shower sees Luca turn his nose up at snorkelling — his loss, as the sea life here is superb to view. We see striped butterfly fish, beautiful blue angel fish, an eel and more. Rae runs over to watch a few of the dads jump off the pier. “This is the best day ever,” she pants.
And so begins a final tour of the shores. We pass the Bay of Pigs (which was full of the animals until they were all eaten, apparently); the Bay of Canaries; and the Bay of Marigot, where celebrities such as Mick Jagger and George Foreman own properties, with its impressive colonial-style buildings.
On our return, we speed past the spot where Captain Sparrow stole a kiss from Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean. Sipping rum punch from plastic cups, topped up by Vaughan, it all feels rather romantic and we finally come ashore in the dark. It’s been an adventure-packed day and before we’ve managed to step off the boat, Luca asks: “What are we doing next?”
Things to do
Hotel Chocolat: Book onto the ‘bean to bar’ tour to find out what makes the best chocolate or book a stay in one of its 14 rooms. hotelchocolat.com/uk/boucan
Chocolate Wrap: There are other ways to indulge a choc obsession, such as a massage and wrap. morganbayresort.com
Holiday taxi: Book a tour and head over to the west coast of the island. holidayadventurestlucia.com
Seafood Friday: Head to the west coast of the island to Anse La Raye and join in the party atmosphere. Police will arrest you if you if you sell meat here, apparently.
Tet Paul Nature Trail: A 45 minute hike with fine views of the Pitons. soufrierefoundation.org/tet-paul-nature-trail
Top 10 Caribbean experiences
1. Kids’ Club
St Lucia’s Sugar Beach (formerly The Jalousie Plantation) has a new kids’ club, for 4-12-year-olds. There are glass-bottom boat excursions, and volcano and botanical garden tours. viceroyhotelsandresorts.com/sugarbeach
Cruising is a favourite multi-generational family holiday and there are more Caribbean routes than ever. Check out Crystal Cruises’ 2014 programme with activities for ages 3-17. crystalcruises.co.uk
Head to the little-visited island of Carriacou in the Lesser Antilles for its pre-Lenten carnival (1-4 March). As well as the usual bacchanalia, you’ll see masked ‘pierrot’ actors pitting Shakespearean couplets against each other. caribtours.co.uk
4. The new C
Caribtours has a new affordable range of holidays are on sale with their ‘C’ programme. Check it out. caribtours.co.uk
The Puerto Rican town of Rincon, where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean, is one of the world’s surf capitals, with consistent waves and a laid-back vibe. Head here in summer for excellent snorkelling. surfingpuertorico.org/surf-rincon
Take an action-packed 10-day tour through Costa Rica — stroll along a 1.2-mile treetop walkway in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, hike to Arenal Volcano, and go whitewater rafting on the Pacuare River. worldexpeditions.co.uk
7. Beach life
With broad stretches of sand — a beach for every day of the year, so the tourist office tagline goes — good-value, family-friendly hotels and a superb rainforest canopy zip-wire centre, Antigua is a no-brainer for families. Splash out at Carlisle Bay, a beachfront resort with an action-packed kids’ club. carrier.co.uk
Experience Creole food in Grenada: try out Gary Rhodes’ restaurant at the newly revamped Calabash Hotel, or catch rising-star Carib Sushi, in St George’s, serving Japanese-Creole fusion dishes. Flagging parents should grab a Caribbean mocha (made with coconut milk) at Mocha Spoke, a new bike hire cafe in True Blue Bay. grenadagrenadines.com
Sunsail has yacht charters from six spots across the Caribbean. Novices should head for the British Virgin Islands, which offer easy, short hops between ports. Base yourself at the at the sailing school in Tortola, where you can gain your sea legs and confidence before heading out in a flotilla, travelling in a group of yachts led by trained crew. From £1,515pp, based on four sharing. Suitable for ages 2+. sunsail.co.uk
The twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago are home to an unparalleled array of birdlife. Stay at Castara Retreats on the latter and you can also expect to see a large number of turtles and bats, as well as parades of leaf-cutter ants, during the hotel’s superb nature tours. Plus you’ll come across plenty of feathery friends that even children can get excited about, from humming birds to parrots. Apartments from £1,400 a week. castararetreats.com
Virgin Atlantic and British Airways both fly direct. Indirect flight options are available with a number of other carriers including American Airlines, Air Canada and Air France. ba.com virgin-atlantic.com aa.com aircanada.com airfrance.com
Average flight time: 8h.
Usually via taxi or by sea (generally on a speedboat). The island is 27 miles long and 14 miles wide, so journeys can be particularly long.
When to go
Mid-December to April are the peak summer months to go with temperatures ranging from 22-30C in the dry season. June through to November are the wettest months but the island remains warm with temperatures from 23-30C.
Need to know
Visas: No visa is required by UK passport holders for up to six weeks.
Health: Precautions against hepatitis A, typhoid, tetanus, polio and diphtheria are recommended. Always consult your GP before travelling.
Currency: East Caribbean Dollars (EC$). £1 = EC$ 4.44.
International dialling code: 00 1 758.
Time difference: GMT-4.
How to do it
Virgin Holidays offers seven nights in St Lucia from £4,724 for a family of four (£1,176 per person), including direct Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick to St Lucia, accommodation at St James’s Club Morgan Bay on an all-inclusive basis, and all transfers and taxes. The price is based on two adults and two children sharing a garden view one-bed suite, with a departure date of 25 May 2014. virginholidays.co.uk morganbayresort.com
Published in the Spring 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)