A PRIVATE picnic on a piton is not an experience that you’ll find on any booking site.

The larger of St Lucia’s twin volcanic spires, Grand Piton used to welcome hundreds of tourists a day — red faced-hikers queuing at the peak for a picture proving they had survived the trek.

But with the cruise ship crowds still missing, and pre-Covid visitor numbers yet to rebound, my wife and I found ourselves alone with the best view in the Caribbean for a magical 15 minutes.

I say “alone” but it wasn’t long before Mother Nature crashed our party with a confetti of yellow butterflies, a curious brown mongoose and a metallic-purple crested hummingbird.

Our hike had begun in the village of Fond Gens Libre, meaning “Valley of the Free People”, founded in the 1700s by the descendants of runaway slaves.

It’s beyond the brightly coloured homes of this remote community that the trail begins — entry is free for anyone on the excursion but general visitors can pay £35 for entry, which includes a forestry service guide to escort you along the trail.

The three-mile path starts on a rolling ridge above the Caribbean Sea, before veering inland and uphill into deep jungle, finishing with a steep ascent through a lush cloud forest.

The lower elevations were all boulders crowned with cacti, enormous elephant ear leaves, wild tobacco and rainbows of flowering bromeliads.

Halfway up, we paused to catch our breath below the bows of a 250-year-old mango tree.

The final stretch was a sweaty slog, the trail turning near-vertical as cacti were replaced by a moist cloud forest dressed in moss and prehistoric ferns.

At the peak, a clearing has been made, providing for a panoramic payoff.

The dark mountainous interior to the left, the fertile flat plains of the island’s south in centre frame and the crisp blue Caribbean to the right.

Hike a little further north and the trail opens up to a stunning scene of Piton Bay and the smaller, steeper Petit Piton.

The promise of a home-made mango and avocado ice cream from Au Poye Park cafe in the village and an air-conditioned taxi was just enough to get us through the journey downhill.

On our return to the hotel we took the colourful Caribbean coastal road, passing through small fishing villages in each bay.

We could only stare from the window and wonder what home-made treats were on sale from the food stalls and brightly coloured bakeries.

Without being fully vaccinated, neither of us were allowed to leave the hotel except for specific excursions or to approved restaurants.

Our cabbie was under strict orders not to stop so we would not break the conditions of our government-mandated hotel quarantine.

Luckily, he’d not been around for our illicit ice-cream encounter.

Fully jabbed visitors are free to move about the island as they please, while all passengers must still provide proof of a negative PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before arrival on the island.

Still, there’s nowhere better to be locked down than the 4H Hideaway at Royalton St Lucia, an adults-only area of the new 290-room Royalton Saint Lucia which sits in its own private bay.

We’d booked the holiday as an ATOL-protected package with TUI for extra peace of mind in case of a change to the traffic light list and due to their fantastically cheap testing deals.

The UK’s largest tour operator is heavily subsidising Covid tests for holidays departing up until the end of October.

TUI’s exclusive Amber Plus testing package is the best deal on offer from any airline or holiday firm for a non-vaccinated traveller visiting an amber list destination.

For just £50, we received an antigen test to get the certificate you need to travel back to the UK, and two PCR tests to be used on days two and eight after arriving back in the UK.

An extra £40 will get you a PCR test to use before you leave the UK.

The costs drops to just £20 for a green list package.

The “fit to fly” tests turned up bang on time and were dropped off at our nearest TUI store for speedy turnaround on the results.

If you can cope with all that inconvenience then the payoff is well worth it to travel while visitor numbers are low.

We were often the only ones at the pool, or would find ourselves on a stretch of the Royalton’s private beach with nobody else around.

Despite there being only a handful of guests in the resort, a different restaurant was opened every night so guests could try all six of them at least once.

Our favourites were the hibachi grill, Zen and West Indian restaurant Calypso.

Hibachi grills are an American take on Japanese cooking where a chef fries up delicious Asian dishes at your table.

The interactive dining experience is now a mainstay of the Caribbean all- inclusive experience, and from the chef’s dodgy jokes to the Californian sushi starters, we loved every minute of it.

Booking with TUI also meant we were signed up to the All-In Luxury plan, which included 24-hour room service orderable through the TV — perfect if jet lag makes you peckish at odd hours.

Water activities, from snorkelling to kayaking and beginners’ scuba diving were all included.

While a massive pirate-themed splash pool with slides is sure to keep families with young kids happy.

By the end of our time locked down in paradise, I was so well fed and pampered I could barely move, and I had taken a real liking to the local Piton pilsner.

Thankfully, with eight bars spread around the hotel, I was in no danger of taking a hike to find one.

GO: St Lucia

COVID: St Lucia is on the amber list.

Visitors must complete a pre-arrival registration form online before arrival.

Visitors five years and older must take a PCR test five days or less before arrival.

Fully vaccinated travellers are free to move about the island.

Non-vaccinated travellers must stay at a government-approved hotel or other accommodation for 14 days and can only leave for approved excursions or to visit approved restaurants.

GETTING/STAYING THERE: Seven nights’ all-inclusive at the 5H Hideaway Royalton St Lucia is from £1,386pp based on two adults sharing a luxury junior suite including Gatwick flights departing in September 2021 and transfers. See tui.co.uk.

OUT & ABOUT: The Gros Piton Hike is from £127pp, including £35 park entry fee.

COVD TESTING: TUI offers discounted testing packages, starting from £20 per person including delivery and return costs for the tests. See tui.co.uk.

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