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Running away to a Caribbean island: Trust me, it’s not a parenting paradise

Looking through old photos from our time living in the gorgeously lush Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, I see beautiful sunsets, stunning beaches, aquamarine seas. It looks idyllic — the perfect place to bring up children.

What the photos can’t tell you is that the island may have been picture perfect but it was also hellishly hot, small and claustrophobic. Aside from endless beaches with white sand, it was actually a pretty hard place to find much to do. Especially when your eldest child hates the beach.

This is a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks running away to a tropical island will solve all their problems.

We moved to Saint Lucia, a dot of an island in the south of the Caribbean region, for my husband’s job to help stop drugs from South America getting to our home country of the United Kingdom. With us came our nearly 4-year-old and still-in-diapers 1-year-old. A great age, one might think, for the sort of laid-back, beachy sort of life living on a Caribbean island would surely offer. And for many families, this would certainly be true. Just not for ours.

Before we left behind the gray skies of England, pretty much every conversation about our move had gone something like this:

“Where are you off to this time? Somewhere nice?”

“Well, we’re moving to the Caribbean — Saint Lucia in fact, which is a very small but …”

“WOW! I can’t believe it! That’s amazing! We can’t wait to visit …” And so on, ignoring any of our attempts to caution that living in such a tiny place may not match the perfect images sold by the tourism companies. We had already been warned that life on the island was like existing in a goldfish bowl — in such a small place, it was inevitable that you’d see someone you knew around every corner.

To give ourselves a break from the gossip and prying eyes, we were advised to try to get away as often as possible. But the size of the island and the closeness of the community turned out to be the least of our worries. As well as the drenching humidity, which made it feel like we were wading through damp wool every time we walked farther than the end of the garden path, we had the fact that our daughter hated the beach.

We tried finding other things to do, but this wasn’t a country with much entertainment aimed at kids. No play parks except for a rickety selection of equipment on which you couldn’t leave your children alone for fear of collapse or impalement; no children’s dance classes or mom-and-me groups; no museums or water parks; no libraries, farm parks or zoos. There was nowhere safe to ride a bike or learn to skateboard. In fact, the only organized activity we could find were swimming classes, and that became not only their main source of fun but the one place I was able to regularly interact with other moms.

At one stage we visited the neighboring island of Barbados. This took beauty up another notch — the sand here was as perfect as any I have ever seen, the sea as blue. But what was the highlight of our trip for our daughters? Playing in an indoor, air-conditioned play area attached to a fast-food restaurant where the children happily spent the afternoon.

We tried everything to get our daughter onto the sand and into the sea. When my parents visited, my mother spent hours trying to coax her farther than the edge of the water where the surf licked her feet. She lasted a few minutes out of politeness but was soon back to her towel in the shade, complaining of nasty sand between her toes and salt making her skin itch. My brother and family came out and encouraged her to try snorkeling. She had fun — for about five minutes. Then, while her younger sister had to be forced out of the water kicking and screaming, she returned to waiting by the car fully dressed and totally oblivious to the paradise around her.

In the end, we gave up. Nothing was going to persuade her how wonderful it felt to lie on your back in the warm Caribbean Sea, face to the sun, or gaze facedown at jewel-like fish darting between the rocks.

We left St. Lucia earlier than planned. It wasn’t just the beach problem — it really was as small and as claustrophobic as we had been warned. We tried to get off the island as much as possible, but the cost of flights were prohibitive. And all the while we had to keep living a normal life with shopping and work and chores and all the usual day-to-day trappings of existence — but with a lot more sweat.

St. Lucia is a stunning island and the perfect place for a vacation, but I never regretted leaving. Whenever we mention where we lived, people still sigh and say “Oh wow that must’ve been incredible!” In their minds, I know they are imagining us lying on sun beds with cocktails in our hands, enjoying a 20-month-long holiday. I know they are thinking that our lives must have been heaven. In fact, in some ways, it was more like hell.

As for that little girl who hated the beach, where is she now? She is 11 and last December she learned how to scuba dive. She loves the ocean and has become an enthusiast about fish.

Some things never change, though. She still hates sand.

Clara Wiggins is a British writer based in South Africa, who is about to return home to the U.K. with her family. She is also the author of a book called the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide.

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