St. Lucia in 5...

With its thick rainforest vegetation and craggy coastline, St. Lucia has long been the Caribbean’s go-to island for unfussy, low-key escapes. Yet with the recent opening of several high-end luxury resorts and golf courses, the island is gaining a new reputation as a destination for top service, but targeted at low-key guests who prefer regular t-shirts and sunglasses over those with designer logos. And if you’re looking for easy access to ample fresh fish, jazz, and rum, you may have found your island.

About twice the size of Manhattan, St. Lucia is about 27 miles long and 14 miles wide. There are two main cities, Castries and Soufriere, on opposite ends of the island, with narrow winding roads between them. Most resorts are along the Caribbean side of the island, where the water is warmer and the waves are gentler than on the rougher Atlantic side.

5…Step into a volcano or a hot tub

Just outside the town of Sufriere is the world’s only walk-in volcano, Mount Soufriere, which the whole island refers to simply as “the volcano.” One side was blown out by its most recent eruption two centuries ago. Present day, dozens of cauldrons hiss steam and bubble sulphur that once was mined for gunpowder. There’s also a mountain-fed stream popular with those who believe the sulphur-laced water cures ailments. Mineral springs at the nearby Botanical Garden have a similar reputation; the baths there were ordered built in 1784 by Louis XVI to rejuvenate French soldiers. Rejuvenation is a recurring theme on St. Lucia, particularly at the island’s modern spas.

4…Try callaloo, a sort of stew

St. Lucians are fiercely proud of their polyglot French-Creole-English heritage, which unmistakably comes across in the island’s cuisine. Fresh local fish and seafood are plentiful, especially dorado and conch, which St. Lucians call lambi. As in much of the Caribbean, callaloo is on just about every restaurant menu. It’s a thick mix of okra, pork and crabmeat swimming in coconut milk, hearty enough by itself for lunch or a light dinner. The national dish, however, is green bananas, which St. Lucians call ‘figs’, boiled with salt fish, an acquired taste. And if street food’s your thing, vendors cook up West Indian jerk chicken and roti, turnovers filled with curried meat or vegetables.

On weekends the fishing village of Gros Islet, near Rodney Bay, is the place to go for a Jump Up, a lively, friendly street party with local bands, dancing and lots of cold Piton beer to wash down chicken and seafood grilled on outdoor cookers. There’s also live jazz year-round on Sundays at the Jambre de Bois on Pigeon Island (758-450-8166).

For efficiency’s sake you may want to sample one or more of the 25 rums from nine islands, including St. Lucia, at Cap Maison, a luxury resort and restaurant, which actually has a rum sommelier. More affordable is the Coal Pot in Castries, a favorite with visitors and residents for its home-style cuisine.

3…Zip it

Costa Rica may hog the tourism spotlight for its zip lining, but you won’t be settling if you put aside about half a day for St. Lucia’s aerial course within a 3,400 acre forest preserve about 30 minutes from Castries that’s dotted with vanilla vines, tree ferns, orchids and old-growth trees.

Spend an hour zipping down after a ten-minute tram ride up, or wimp out and take the tram back down to catch more leisurely peeks of parrots and hummingbirds. Rainforest Sky Lines runs the course and the fee runs about $100 per person.

2…See the other twin peaks, spot sea turtles

There are sandy stretches all around the island, but the two best are Anse Chastanet (anse meaning beach in the local lingo), with an in-your-face view of the Pitons, the island’s iconic twin peaks. Hiking them can be strenuous and will take most of the day, even with a skilled guide from the Pitons Tour Guide Association who knows the route up and down the unmarked trails. In the spirit of softer adventure, many visitors prefer to just gaze at the Pitons from a chaise lounge, shaded and cooled by palm-fringed breezes.

Just off-shore from Anse Chastanet is a marine park, where the turquoise-and-pink spotlight parrot fish, brain coral, and sponges are protected and unspoiled for snorkelers and scuba divers. This popular spot has beach access – no boat ride needed. Just do the duck walk in your flippers from shore. The island has several PADI centers providing equipment and lessons.

1…Get some culture, and cocoa beans

If time permits, check out the Derek Wolcott Center Theatre, named for the St. Lucia-born 1992 Nobel Prize winner for literature. The intimate 200-seat open air theater in Gros Islet showcases local dance and theater. Inland, take a 30-minute tour of the Fond Doux Plantation Estate, which has been producing cocoa, coconuts, and bananas since the mid 1700s. Cocoa is still harvested, fermented and dried by hand here, and the owners make their own cocoa tea, for sale in the tiny gift shop.

St. Lucians have also saved several 19th century French colonial and Victorian homes from developer bulldozers in Castries and Soufriere and have rebuilt them as peaceful private cottages. Castries in particular has some interesting colonial architecture plus the sprawling Saturday Market that combines a farmer’s market with typical souvenirs, including baskets and colorfully-dyed garments and fabrics known as batiks.