In this series, Lonely Planet’s writers and editors answer your travel problems and provide tips and hacks to help you plan a hassle-free trip. We asked veteran Caribbean correspondent Antonia Windsor to answer this West Indies–related question.

Question: I am looking for recommendations for the best island for a real Caribbean experience. I am interested in street food, surfing, diving, sipping rum and local chilling. Resorts and buffets are not my thing. Where is best for me? 

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Antonia Windsor: I’m going to give you an answer you might find surprising, because this island is known for honeymoon hotels and some of the most luxurious resorts in the Caribbean. Yet St Lucia, in the eastern Caribbean’s West Indies, is a place with a warm heart and a proud local culture. It’s an island where you can listen to children rehearsing steel pan in a school yard, or watch a weaver turn a palm leaf into a hat. Here, you can mountain bike through the rainforest with a local guide informing you of the medicinal properties of plants around you, or listen to country music in a dive bar (St Lucians harbor a secret passion for Dolly Parton). It’s a place where you can hear a fisherman notify the village of the day’s catch by blowing on a conch shell or rub up against the locals (literally) at a Friday-night fish fry.

So you want a real Caribbean experience? You will find it in St Lucia.

Hiker standing at lookout toward Gros Piton, St Lucia
Hiking offers a marvelous way to experience St Lucia’s natural beauty © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

First up, since you don’t like resorts you’ll want to choose a locally run small hotel or short-term rental. If you want to be in the popular Rodney Bay area and enjoy access to the beach, I suggest you look at the Bay Gardens group of hotels, which all have an authentic St Lucian feel and à la carte food service. The Bay Gardens Inn is the most affordable option and feels most like a homestay. Further along the bay, consider a stay at Island Mix, a charming place on the waterfront. (Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth dropping in just to explore the local handicrafts on sale and enjoy a cocoa tea in the cafe.)

If you don’t need to be near a beach, and you fancy hiking the majestic Pitons – those twin volcanic plugs that you’ve seen in all the photographs – then try Tet Rouge, tucked away on a hillside above Choiseul. Though it’s run by Canadians, the team is passionate about the island and most of their local staff have been with them since the beginning.

If you like surfing, you might want to have a go at kitesurfing: try the kitesurfing school on unspoiled Cas-en-Bas beach. You can also ride a horse into the sea here if you take one out from the nearby Trim Riding stables.

Three young men ride horses on Cas-en-Bas beach, St Lucia, West Indies, Caribbean
You’ll find horseback riders and kitesurfers – and few others – on remote Cas-en-Bas beach © jaminwell / Getty Images

The diving is great in St Lucia, with more than 150 species of fish and 24 “no-take” marine reserves. I like diving around Soufrière, where Scuba Saint Lucia is based. The Pitons loom over this area of the island, so you could conceivably hike in the morning and dive in the afternoon for a full day out.

For street food, head to the Gros Islet Friday-night fish fry (otherwise known as the “jump up”), where you can try cheap local specialities such as fried mahi mahi, rotis and goat curry. If you want something a little less hectic, try the event in Anse La Raye, which is a bit more low-key.

Where to get the best value rum experience?

As for sipping rum: perhaps the best-value rum tasting on the planet is at Saint Lucia Distillers, where $12 buys you an interesting tour of the site and a “pour your own” tasting of several different rums. (If you only want the tasting, you’ll pay just $6.) I recommend a local vibe to go with your rum – so head to Irie Bar in Gros Islet, a bamboo shack adorned with flags where you can listen to some reggae beats and chat with the locals.

Without an all-inclusive resort in sight.

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