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While the British have long had a love affair with the West Indies, it wasn't always an idyllic haven of rum punches and swaying palm trees.
When novelist Anthony Trollope visited in 1858 he had to cope with poor claret, rotten walnuts and withered apples. Trollope, who was also a senior Post Office official, sailed aboard SS Atrato from Southampton on a six-month tour to survey land and conclude treaties for the British government.
He wrote a travel book about the islands he visited, people he met, exotic foods, tropical climate, earthquakes, Panamanian railroads, Cuban cigars and colonial customs.
MIND THE STINGRAYS
He might have enjoyed some of the quirky moments in my trip - in particular the odd warning from our jocular sea captain Joshua in Antigua as we stepped off his speedboat into the warm turquoise waters.
His concern was that the stingrays we had come to float alongside might well nibble our inner thighs, leaving a mark suspiciously like a love-bite.
He was just putting it out there, he said with a mischievous grin, in case we needed to warn anyone back home in advance of any telltale nips.
At Stingray City, 35 minutes off the Antiguan coast, dozens of these slippery creatures gather. But all were on gentlemanly behaviour and left no marks.
THE PERFECT LOCATION
Later it was back to Zen-like tranquillity at Pelican House, an idyllic villa in Blue Waters Resort, so-called because the azure sky is perpetually dotted with these exotic, large-billed birds gliding overhead, waiting to dive for their fish lunch.
A white gate in a picket fence opens on to a blaze of pink bougainvillea - framing the picture postcard perfection of this whitewashed villa with its own swimming pool.
A white four-poster bed, colonial-style furniture and a balcony opening on to the sea make this a heavenly retreat.
The hotel is managed by a guitar-playing Scots-born manager with a beady eye for detail. There were candlelit dinners of mahi mahi cooked with fennel, pernod and olives, served to the sound of the sea washing the shore.
Think not of rotten walnuts but gourmet dishes: particularly good were pan-seared snapper and grilled lobster tails. At Nicole's Kitchen we learnt to make roti, curry and coconut puddings, all with rum freely flowing. Nicole is Antigua's Nigella and we were soon rolling pastry, slicing and dicing coconut and sprinkling hot spices into shining saucepans.
Like Trollope we island-hopped, by plane rather than boat, to St Lucia where the Sugar Beach hotel has a sensational setting. Sitting in the shadow of the mountainous Pitons, the towering rock outcrops that define and enhance the view.
It was this stunning natural beauty that made Lord Glenconner, one-time owner of Mustique, buy up this cove. He attempted to make this his second West Indian paradise with a hotel called Jalousie, but it has now been reincarnated by Roger Myers, another Englishman, into a fabulous haven.
The hotel is an epicurean masterpiece. You are obliged to chill, with brightly coloured tuk-tuks always available to sweep you to bars or spas.
The Caribbean is now a gourmet's paradise, with hotels providing exceptional cuisine. Myers created the Cafe Rouge brand and has been a big cog in the music industry (clients included The Beatles at one stage) but he fell in love with this site between the pitons.
His schooner often sails by as he keeps an eye on standards.
St Lucia is an extraordinary island where Orlando's restaurant in the nearby town of Soufrière has entertained the likes of John Major and Marco Pierre White as well as hosting local poets' readings.
But then literature is part of the DNA of St Lucia. It's where the Nobel Laureate for English Literature, Derek Walcott, was born and recently died aged 86.
No wonder Trollope felt the lure of the West Indies and was fascinated by these dazzling islands - as was I.
First published in the Daily Mail - February 2018
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