St Lucia’s Wild Coast

St Lucia’s rugged Atlantic coast is less travelled by visitors, writes Katherine Atkinson, but its dramatic scenery is worth the effort to get there

Fishing is a mainstay of Dennery. Photograph by Chris HuxleyLooking south over Esperance Bay from Comerette Point. Photograph by Danielle DevauxSunset over Anse Sable, near St Lucia’s southernmost point. Photograph by Danielle DevauxThe Roman Catholic church is a landmark in Dennery Village. Photograph by Chris HuxleyView of Dennery Village and Dennery island from Mandele lookout. Photograph by Chris Huxley

A four-wheel drive vehicle will get you right to the beach at Anse Lavoutte, but I relish the trek on the rocky road that follows the meandering mangrove. The sounds of lowing cows and bickering bird life resonate across the valley from the outer grounds of the Beausejour Cricket Ground. I love how the bay reveals itself in stages: first the tang of salt in the air, then the surge and roar of the surf, the whipping wind, and finally the spectre of the vast and roiling Atlantic.

This coast of St Lucia is largely unexploited because of the challenges of access, and because the rough seas, the coarse sand and stone beaches, and the colonies of seaweed, pungent and fresh, are difficult to sell in tourist copy. Mercifully, for now, St Lucia’s east coast shares its secrets only with those whose efforts to visit it are a type of pilgrimage.

I follow the tracks established by hobby fishermen and landless farmers who run their livestock along the coast to graze in the tall grass and water at the unlikely ponds. A track is beaten through the calf-high grass on a gradient that varies, but for the most part is moderate. Windswept white cedar trees stand obstinately on the hillside, withstanding terribly beautiful disfigurement. The land undulates from a relatively sheltered bay past Comerette Point, to a stretch of beach, Anse Lapin or Rabbit Bay, which is populated by petrified logs, dislodged buoys, and sometimes pedestrian, sometimes interesting Atlantic debris. The water here is rough and meant to be admired from a distance. Walk along the beach to the southern bluff, and enjoy the reward of Esperance Bay, a serene inlet that offers respite from the elements and a place to reflect.

This was the coast favoured by the indigenous people of the island once called Hewanorra — in fact, an Amerindian burial ground was recently unearthed a few bays to the north at Cas-en-Bas — and was also the landing point for European explorers before the more forgiving carenage of the west coast was settled. There are paths that will take you back inland to Beausejour, but they are labyrinthine, and without a guide it is better to walk back the way you came.

Between the fertile valley of Mabouya and the bountiful sea at Dennery Village, the district of Dennery is a food-rich community. It makes sense that if you want to sample the yields of land and sea, Dennery is a good place to go.

One of my favourite places to stop on the east coast highway — which joins Vieux Fort to Castries by way of the Barre de L’Isle — is Mandele Point. The layby sits on the southern bluff overlooking Dennery Village. For many years it has been a rest-stop at the halfway point in the journey. It serves up a fabulous vista of the Atlantic, the fishing village below, and Dennery Island, the distinctive islet, home to majestic sea birds. The food vendors’ set-up has become more formalised in recent years, as part of a sustainable community tourism initiative. Rest facilities, a parking area, and more formal food vending structures have been built, and rather than compromise the site’s appeal, they have only enhanced it, allowing for more comfortable loitering to watch the sea and the change of light.

Mandele Point is perfect for a refreshing Piton beer and a hearty plate of fresh, local food. Grilled fish and barbecued chicken are served up alongside an array of ground provisions. The food is tasty and hearty. If this is just a pit stop en route elsewhere, I might grab a bake and saltfish or a dahl for the road. If I’m around on a Saturday night, then I head into the village itself for the bayside fish fiesta. Vendors sell fresh fish and seafood. I love the grilled dorado with garlic sauce, or the lambi. If lobster is in season, you’re in luck.

Anse Sable or Sandy Beach in Vieux Fort is more accessible than most Atlantic-washed beaches in St Lucia, and its waters are relatively safe. When the bustle and din of Castries and Rodney Bay become too much, it’s one of my favourite retreats. There is a satisfaction about a swim in the Atlantic that cannot be matched in the Caribbean Sea. The water is more bracingly fresh, the currents’ resistance calls on a stronger stroke. The salt cuts through all the layers of Castries, then leaves its residue on your skin like a souvenir.

Vieux Fort is the exception to St Lucia’s undulating topography. An expanse of flat grassy plain rolls out from the interior, rising again to a point at the island’s foot, but not before spreading fan-like to the sea. The island’s international airport is situated here, the only flat space large enough to facilitate a jet runway. Across the fence, and the old US army base strip that acts as the through-road, surge the waters of the Atlantic. Sandy Beach serves the town of Vieux Fort and surrounding communities, but is also preferred by adventurous visitors. Near-constant winds keep conditions favourable for kite- and wind-surfing, but the shelter of the Maria Islands — a nature reserve that is home to the rare whip-tailed lizard — keeps the currents in check.

There are two or three restaurants along the beach, but most of the expansive bay is undeveloped and affords excellent opportunities for contemplative walks. Stout sea grape and wind-stunted almond trees pepper the shoreline, affording excellent cover from the sun — ideal for setting up picnics, taking in the vista of soaring kites, hanging out with a book, or canoodling with a sweetheart.