TRAVEL: ST LUSCIOUS; Relax on the most unspoiled Caribbean island.
STANDING in the crater of an active volcano, surrounded by bubbling pools of sulphur, it occurred to me that volcanoes do erupt and this one could do so at any moment.
As visions of being buried alive under molten lava filled my head, I tentatively asked the guide: "Um, shouldn't we be nervous about standing here?"
He raised his eyebrows, then burst into a peal of joyous laughter. "No, no worries at all," he finally assured me.
His laid-back attitude summed up the St Lucian way of life.
For a London girl, accustomed to feeling boiling stress if the Tube is delayed by just a minute, the tranquillity of this Caribbean island came as a shock to the system - and proved the perfect place to unwind.
St Lucia has all the charm you'd expect of a sunshine holiday destination: tropical heat, white beaches and turquoise sea.
But its real selling point is its sense of calm. Life here feels as relaxed as I did after one of the rum-based cocktails the island is famous for. And, while everything gets done, nothing is rushed.
Situated midway down the Eastern Caribbean chain between Martinique and St Vincent, just north of Barbados, St Lucia is one of the Windward isles of the Lesser Antilles. It is tiny - only 27 miles long and 14 miles wide, and shaped like a teardrop.
Although tourism is now the island's biggest money-spinner, it still has relatively few visitors and is therefore unspoiled.
St Lucia is nicknamed "the Helen of the West Indies" because of its natural beauty. To get to our hotel from the airport we had to drive the length of the island, south to north. The winding roads meant the journey took around 90 minutes - and the driver certainly wasn't hanging around.
But it gave us a chance to get a good look at the country. My first impression was of lush greenery, banana plantations and rainforests.
As we drove through one sleepy village it was easy to imagine that it looked pretty much the same as it did 20 years ago - except for the satellite dishes clinging to the sides of the houses.
We stayed at Coco Palm, a new four-star hotel situated in the tourist-friendly village of Rodney Bay. It's an intimate hotel, with just 83 rooms, including "swim up" suites, where you can step from your balcony straight into the pool.
Unlike the many allinclusive resorts on the island which deter guests from ever leaving their premises, Coco Palm actively encourages tourists to go out and explore. And it's a good thing because there is plenty to see.
Just outside the hotel's doors are countless restaurants and bars where the food is simply fabulous.
Although St Lucia is a former British colony, the French settled the island in the 17th century and their influence lives on in the highquality cuisine.
Many of the restaurants sell delicious seafood, including fresh lobster in season. For a great taste of St Lucian nightlife and a chat with the locals, you should get a nightcap at one of the many drinking huts, which sell cheap beer and liquors.
Women, particularly on their own, will get a lot of attention from local men. It's almost entirely harmless flattery but worth keeping your wits about you.
On my first day on the island I boarded a boat to Anse Cochon, where I went snorkelling.
The sea is so clear I could see the stunning coral reefs and an incredible number of brightly-coloured fish and even a snake.
I enjoyed it so much I didn't come out of the water until my legs ached and my fingers and toes had shrivelled up.
Another real treat is horse riding along the beach. Trims National Riding stable (Tel: 001 758 4508273) situated at Cas En Bas, Gros Islet, in the northern end of the island runs treks for beginners and more experienced riders.
A one-hour ride costs around US$35 (approx pounds 19). I chose a twohour session for pounds 25 which allowed plenty of time to trek along the beach.
I'm a complete novice when it comes to horses. Just getting on was terrifying and only achieved after I had a solemn guarantee from the instructor that it wasn't going to buck me into the air.
The staff at Trims are clearly used to dealing with nervous tourists though and were very patient with me.
When we got down to the beach my instructor removed my horse's saddle and I got to ride bareback into the sea.
Sitting on a horse, with only its head and back above the water as it bathes, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Stick with group tours as I found riding solo through woods to a deserted beach intimidating with just the guide for company.
By far the most famous and breathtaking sight in St Lucia has to be The Pitons in the southwest: the twin volcanic peaks that rise majestically from the water. The mountains shelter dense rainforest where wild orchids grow and colourful tropical birds live.
The most exciting attraction is the Soufriere volcano, which has given its name to the town - it translates to mean sulphur.
Mount Soufriere is the world's only drive-in volcano, where you can enter by car into the crater filled with sulphur springs and clouds of steam that shoot 50ft into the air.
The rocks streaked with colours indicating the presence of sulphur, iron, copper, magnesium, and zinc are impressive.
And even the rotten-egg smell of the sulphur has its positive side - the steam is said to be good for asthma and arthritis. At the sulphur springs, near the volcano, you can reach to the bottom, scoop up the mud and give yourself a hot, therapeutic mud bath.
The mud is said to have healing and anti-ageing properties and Sir Elton John and artist David Hockney have both bathed there - so you can see it works.
St Lucia is a luscious island that makes the visitor feel they've discovered a secret.
And the welcome is as warm and sunny as the climate.
The only drawback is the distance. The nine-hour flight from Gatwick, coupled with St Lucia being four hours behind means it can take a day to get over the trip.
But with the promise of sun when you get there, I can think of nowhere better to get away from the dismal winter weather.
And as for my reservations about the volcano exploding?
The locals say that while it is steaming it will not erupt. So, no worries there.
VIRGIN Holidays offers a week's holiday to the lovely four-star Coco Palm in St Lucia from pounds 649 per adult and pounds 329 per child (2-11 yrs). Price includes scheduled flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick, or BMI flights from Manchester, seven nights' accommodation on a bed & breakfast basis and transfers.
For further details on Virgin Holidays to St Lucia, please call 0871 222 0304 or see its website at www.virgin.com/holidays
For direct bookings contact Coco Resorts, rates at Coco Palm start from around pounds 71 per night. Tel: 001 758 456 2800 or visit
If it's steaming, the volcano won't erupt, they said
CONGA DEAL: St Lucia has fun nightlife' TAKE A PEAK: Over the beach to The Pitons Picture: PICTURES COLOUR LIBRARY' RELAXATION GUARANTEED: Marigot Bay