Bel Sent Lisi: discovering St Lucia

St. Lucia may well be the ultimate island paradise: those glorious Pitons rising out of the sea, the Jazz Festival and Bill Fishing Tournament, beautiful beaches and flora, and now a Heritage Programme that lets you into the "real" St Lucia. Simon Lee is your guide

Amerindian hut at entrance to Fond d’Or. Photograph by Chris HuxleyCatholic Cathedral, Castries, with art by Dunstan St Omer. Photograph by Chris HuxleyDetail of painting by Llewelyn Xavier. Photograph by Chris HuxleyFregate Island. Photograph by Chris HuxleyInside the officers’ mess. Photograph by Chris HuxleyLatille waterfall. Photograph by Chris HuxleyMabouya. Photograph by Chris HuxleyMamiku estate house. Photograph by Chris HuxleyMamiku Gardens. Photograph by Chris HuxleyMamiku Gardens. Photograph by Chris HuxleyMeeting of La Rose Flower Society. Photograph by Chris HuxleyMiriam Makeba at the St Lucia Jazz Festival. Photograph by Chris HuxleyOfficers’ mess, Pigeon Island. Photograph by Chris HuxleyPottery from Choiseul. Photograph by Chris HuxleyRodney Bay Marina. Photograph by Chris HuxleySt Lucian Jacquot parrot. Photograph by Chris HuxleySt Lucian jazzman Luther FrançoisSulphur Springs at Soufriére. Photograph by Chris HuxleyThe Pitons from Anse Chastenet. Photograph by Sean Drakes/Blue MangoTraditional logging to the beat of the drum. Photograph by Chris Huxley

In a T-shirt-warm Saturday night, while guests in luxury resorts sip cocktails and fishermen mend their nets, Miriam Makeba, South Africa’s first lady of song, takes the stage at St Lucia’s Pigeon Island. Her performance is one of the highlights of the tenth St Lucia Jazz Festival.

Caribbean waves lap the beach in anticipation a few yards behind the stage. Makeba’s voice and irrepressible spirit fill the night, igniting the crowd of several thousand who turn the grounds of the former British garrison into an instant al fresco dance floor.

Sunday morning, villagers gather in Roseau Catholic church to raise their voices to the Lord. Veteran artist Dunstan St Omer points out some faces in the congregation, which feature in his massive altarpiece.

Monday is washday in Soufrière’s waterfront fishing village on the south-west coast. Below the soaring twin pinnacles of the Pitons, women hang laundry and rasta flags outside wooden shacks; small boys play with improvised rafts in the water.

Tuesday lunch time at the Fond Latisab Creole Park, in a valley below the northern village of Babonneau, Canice Thomas is busy preparing cassava bread for a party of visitors. He takes time out to show me the bamboo slat baskets his grandfather invented to catch crayfish. From a dry-season-shallow river he hauls out a cylindrical basket, sliding back a small hatch at one end to reveal a cluster of clambering crayfish.

These are just some glimpses of Saint Lucia, or Sent Lisi as her French Creole speaking inhabitants affectionately know the island, which others long ago named “The Helen of the West Indies”. One trip is all you’ll need to understand why.

 

The volcanic Pitons, whose near-perfect triangular peaks  erupt from the placid Caribbean Sea to rise a stunning half-mile into the sheltering sky, have become an icon not only for the island (they’re on the national flag as well as the label of the local beer) but for the region as a whole. This is the scale of breathtaking natural beauty that convinced the first European visitors they had indeed discovered a new world.

Five hundred years later reactions are much the same, and once you’ve recovered from the Pitons above the waterline, check out the equally staggering volcanic marinescape below. Then take your wonder to the drive-in volcano, the sulphur springs and rainforest trails on mountain ridges high above steep-sided valleys whose lush floors are covered with banana plantations.

Or maybe you’d prefer a slow hot day on a secluded white sand beach, slipping into still, warm aquamarine waters for a cooling dip, a scuba dive or snorkelling drift, before emerging salt-fresh for a catch of the day lunch.

Lying between the French département of Martinique to the north and St Vincent to the south, luscious mango-shaped St Lucia is the second largest of the Windward Islands, 27 miles long and 14 miles at its widest, with an area of 238 sq. miles. Its volcanic mountains rise to their highest point at Mt Gimie, 3,145ft in the south-west.

Before the Europeans arrived, the inhabitants were the Kalinago or Island Caribs, who first named their home Iouanalao (which some think means land of the iguana) before changing it to Hiwanarau, which eventually became Hewanorra. Although some claim Columbus sighted the island on St Lucy’s Day, 13 December 1502, neither his log nor other historical evidence supports this. The first settlers were probably a group of Englishmen from St Kitts, who arrived in 1638, but were summarily dispatched by the Caribs three years later. Next to arrive were the French in 1642. Subsequently, the island was fought over by the Caribs, French and British, changing hands between the two colonial powers 14 times before becoming a British Crown Colony in 1814.

The Caribs eventually succumbed to Euro diseases, firepower and superior numbers, although their remaining mixed descendants can be found around Caraibe Point in the village of Choiseul, where Amerindian pottery and basket-making are still practised.

During the French Revolution, the largely French population took a Republican stand, earning for the island the title Sante Lucie La Fidèle in 1793. In 1794, Republicans, supported by African slaves and freed men inspired by the revolution’s abolition of slavery, fought together to repulse the latest British invasion. For some 12 months in 1795-96 they held the island against the British. When it eventually fell, the ex-slaves continued with the guerrilla “Brigands War” for the next 18 months, forcing the British to make peace. Many of the rebels won permanent if dubious freedom, as draftees in the British army.

The plantation society established by the French and maintained by the English survived Emancipation in 1834, although the sugar industry had collapsed by 1888. Full independence from Britain came in 1979.

The legacy of St Lucia’s mixed colonial heritage survives in its architecture, and even more vibrantly in its distinctive Afro-Creole culture. Despite the ravages of fire, there are still fine examples of French provincial style buildings in Castries and Soufrière, their gingerbread fretwork galleries the most noticeable feature of how European designs were adapted for the tropics. A number of plantation houses also survive, elegant reminders of tropical Creole style.

Pigeon Island (formerly an island but now joined to the mainland by a causeway) is the site of the former British naval garrison, the restored Georgian officer’s mess converted into a museum. It was from here that the English Admiral Rodney sailed in 1782 to inflict decisive defeat on the French at the Battle of the Saints.

 

Along with its natural beauty, it is Creole (or island-nurtured) culture that defines St Lucia. The official language may be English, but from the moment you land or step ashore you’ll hear the sweet tones of Kwéyol, or French patois, the contact language that originally developed as a means of communication between French planters and their African slaves, utilising French vocabulary and the structures of various West African tribal languages.

Kwéyol became the language of resistance, oral history, folklore and culture. Since independence it has played a significant role in promoting island identity. Nowadays you’ll hear it on radio and TV and see it in newspapers and advertisements. If you really want to communicate with a Lucian, try to learn a few words. Jounen Kwéyol Entenaysonnal (International Creole Day) held annually on the Sunday closest to 28 October, celebrates Creole culture island and worldwide.

It is easy to luxuriate in St Lucia. There are a number of all-inclusive resorts on the north-west coast and close to Soufrière, including the Jalousie Hilton, one of the region’s most exclusive; Anse Chastanet is one of the most romantic, Ladera one of the most eco-friendly. There are  large berth marinas like Rodney Bay, excellent restaurants, and the Point Seraphine duty free shopping mall. But to get to know the real Sent Lisi, you should check out the Heritage Tourism Programme.

I’ve visited St Lucia many times, falling for her charms from the first. I’ve jumped up at the Gros Islet Friday night street party, walked the Barre de l’Isle forest trail, visited the Piton brewery, bathed in the sulphur springs and swum at magical Marigot. At jazz festivals I’ve seen everyone from Ramsey Lewis, Wynton Marsalis, Tito Puente and George Benson to Mary J. Blige, Doctor John and St Lucia’s own Luther François.

But it was only on my latest trip that I experienced the Heritage Tourism Programme, falling for the New World Helen all over again. The beauty of the programme is twofold: it presents many different aspects of heritage — historical, ecological and cultural — and it uses the real experts, Lucians hosting visitors in their own communities, fostering both pride and employment in a truly sustainable tourism project.

I started the heritage tour one May at breakfast, swapping air-conditioned luxury for the solitude of the La Forestière rainforest trail.

Some 19,000 acres of the island are covered in forest, much of it protected to preserve water supply and wildlife. This is where you’ll find the Jacquot, St Lucia’s own parrot, and other endemic species like the St Lucia oriole and black finch, along with hummingbirds, vireos, flycatchers and thrashers. For the intrepidly fit there are strenuous hikes like the 10-mile haul from Barre de l’Isle to Quillesse, or the transinsular walk from Mahaut to Soufrière via Fond St Jacques. But for an easy two-hour introduction to the rainforest, La Forestière, only a short drive from Castries, is ideal.

I step from the sun’s glare under a canopy of gommier (whose trunks the Caribs used for dugout canoes), and trees with sensual Creole names: bwa kilibwi, bwa tan wouj and bwa canoe, the weather tree, whose leaves turn white underneath at the hint of approaching storms.

Alone with the trees it’s easy to believe in Papa Bois, the Creole folklore guardian of the forest, and I’m not really surprised to see a young woman running towards me on the trail ahead. She disappears at a bend. Maybe she’s a diablesse, the folklore enchantress with one cloven hoof? Perhaps Papa Bois is after her? My forest fantasy ends as we collide and the diablesse turns out to be my guide Charline Benjamin.

Recovering from our collision, Charline identifies the ringing of an unseen cellphone as the call of the Oriole and tells me about the Scaly-breasted Pasha that eats the shell of its own egg. Towering above the red and green ferns, some of the island’s 119 species, she points out a bwa blanc tree, whose hard wood she tells me is highly prized for furniture.

Although the prospect of following the trail all the way to the east coast village of Dennery is enticing, I decide to make the trip by car. Rather than the winding road up Morne Fortune outside Castries, I opt for the new tunnel, blasted straight through the mountain, and come breezing out near the village of Cul de Sac.

I swing east onto the transinsular road, flanked at first by banana plantations, the fruit wrapped in protective blue plastic, then climbing high into the rainforest before dropping down past the brightly painted roadside market stalls at Thomazo, finally plunging into the long fertile scoop of the Mabouya Valley, which stretches all the way down to the Atlantic coast.

Just before Dennery, with the shimmering sea ahead, I turn off the road into the Fond d’Or Nature and Historical Park. All the sites in the Heritage Programme are special, yet Fond d’Or exudes an almost tangible aura, which I can feel wrapping itself around me as soon as I step out of the car. Here one can sense the spirits of history that shaped the island’s sensibility as much as volcanic activity did the land.

 

Evidence of an Amerindian settlement survives both in the labyrinthine valley trails and the artefacts in the  park’s interpretation centre. The name of the Mabouya valley itself is a combination of the Amerindian words: ma, without, and boye, beginning. It has associations with Amerindian myths of creation and the sacred snake of the three worlds of water, land and sky.

After the Amerindians, the Europeans arrived with their slaves, riding the same Atlantic waves crashing on the shore below the interpretation centre, where leatherback turtles now nest. The ruins of the old sugar estate are silent witnesses to this era: four cane mills, two driven by cattle, one water and one steam, relics of the sugar industry’s developing technology.

Again on this tour I have a young guide, Vernon Emmanuel, who enthuses about the possibility of Fond d’Or becoming a national heritage site: a living museum recording colonialism, slavery and resistance. Many slaves followed the Amerindian trails across the Mabouya Valley to freedom in the mountains. The valley has a long tradition of resistance, playing a prominent role in the slave revolt and guerrilla war of 1794-97.

Due to its isolation and distance from the colonial authorities in Castries, Afro-Creole culture has survived in the 13 settlements set up after emancipation, to a degree unrivalled in the rest of the island. The uniquely Lucian flower societies of la Rose and La Marguerite, whose festivals combine African tradition and Christian symbolism, are well represented by the La Rose societies of Dennery and La Resource and Aux Lyons’s Marguerite Society.

Vernon points out the stage erected on the foundations of a cattle mill, where a folk festival featuring quadrille dances was staged last December and where local jazz musicians Emerson Nurse and Boo Hinkson performed only days before.

Besides its historical and cultural riches, Fond d’Or is a spectacular natural site, lying where the valley mouth opens on the sea, with estuarine forest and white sand beaches to explore. Its wildlife includes Rufous Nightjars, Green Herons, turtles and boa constrictors, the same tête chien revered by the Amerindians. I’m not sure whether to take seriously Vernon’s boast that the longest spotted here was 11ft long, but am relieved when his eager search is unsuccessful. “We have a lot here but it’s lunch time, so maybe they’re having a siesta,” he concludes ruefully.

 

The spirits of the past are also still very much alive at Mamiku Gardens, another heritage site, a short drive south along the Atlantic coast, above the fishing village of Praslin. During the 18th century, French settlers opted for what they thought was the healthier climate of the east coast, and Praslin was a major port.

Mamiku (the Creole version of Madame Micoud, whose French aristocrat family originally owned the estate) is the realisation of one woman’s dream, a tropical garden “blended in with the natural landscape without altering it.” Veronica Shingleton-Smith, freshly picked basil in hand, tells me she arrived on a banana boat from England as a young woman in 1951. She’d come for a holiday but the spirit of St Lucia caught her in a whirlwind romance with the son of the family who bought Mamiku in 1906. Fifty years on she retains the radiance of a lifetime of nurturing flowers.

Having tried various crops (coconuts, limes and bananas), the Shingleton-Smiths eventually diversified into flower cultivation. Ginger lilies, heliconias, anthuriums and orchids are grown for export, and Mamiku visitors can wander the gardens and mini banana plantation on self-guided tours, identifying plants and herbs with a booklet supplied, or like me, simply sit and soak in the restorative charms of this tropical Eden.

In the souvenir shop next to the Brigands Bar I’m intrigued to find a collection of relics from the colonial era (military brass buttons, parts of muskets, china). Veronica says they were all excavated from the ruins of Madame de Micoud’s plantation house, the site of yet another battle in the Brigands War. That’s enough to send me scampering up the hillside track, with oxygen breaks en route, to the ruins. Although I’m easily able to visualise the soldiers who were surprised here by the rebels bathing in the river below, my own excavations are unsuccessful. I leave with the aroma of flowers and herbs lingering in my hair and on my clothes.

I could have chosen other east coast Heritage Programme sites — the Atlantic coast trail (excellent for birdwatching and the rare possibility of encountering the venomous fer-de-lance snake) or the Latille waterfall and gardens, inland from Micoud — but sunset is already sweeping over the Atlantic.

 

The next afternoon I make the long winding drive down the west coast, with a stopover at the drive-in volcano to clear my sinuses (courtesy of the sulphur fumes), to another old estate with a difference. Fond Doux, which lies between the Pitons, is still a working estate, its 135 acres largely given over to the cultivation of cocoa, coconuts, bananas, citrus and mangoes.

At this heritage site you can dine in fine Creole style in the restaurant, or watch cocoa being processed (before being shipped to Hersheys) as well as copra (dried coconut kernels) for use in oil and soap production. This is one of the few estates where not only the old wooden plantation house survives, with its cool stone flagged porch, but also most of the work outhouses. Here you’ll get a real sense of what plantation lifestyle was like.

Fond Doux is also the site of a major engagement in the Brigands War. At the Battle of Rabot, fought at the entrance to the estate, a combined force of rebel slaves routed the British on 22 April 1795. I take a stroll through the sweet-smelling red cedar trees up to the shrine above the ruins of the great house, where legend has it French and brigands worshipped together.

Visitors with limited time, or those staying at hotels on the north-west coast, can still experience the Heritage Tourism Programme with minimal travel and hustle. The Castries heritage walk introduces you to the history and architecture of the island’s capital, while a visit to the Folk Research Centre on the outskirts of town takes you to the heart of Creole culture.

For the last two decades the centre has been documenting oral history, folk tales, song and dance and traditional technology like log sawing and making roof shingles, on video and audio tape. With its permanent collection of indigenous instruments, pictures of cultural heroes, and an extensive library, the centre has been instrumental in preserving and promoting Creole culture.

In the largely oral societies of the Caribbean, the move to document disappearing folkways and stories is still fairly recent. St Lucia’s Folk Research Centre has been at the forefront of saving the raw material from which holistic histories of the region can finally be written.

Another Heritage Programme site within easy reach of Castries is Fond Latisab (sandy flatland) Creole Park, a small holding nestled on a valley floor below the northern village of Babonneau.

The 11-acre property has been in the Thomas family since slavery ended, and is a working model of the self-sufficient farms developed by ex-slaves and their descendants throughout the islands. It seems every available inch of land is cultivated. There are fruits (papaya, plums, soursop, mangoes, pommeracs, wax apples); spices (cinnamon and nutmeg); cocoa, cassava on the hillside, cucumbers and sweet corn on the flat. But apart from this abundance, what makes the park special are the traditional techniques still practised here: making cassava flour, farine and bread (processes the Amerindians brought with them); catching fish in ingenious bamboo slat baskets and, most spectacularly, Siyai-traditional log sawing.

When I arrive at Latisab, Canice Thomas is still in his tailor’s shop  up the road. A message is sent and he soon appears, eager to show me around. Picking up a drum made out of goatskin stretched over an old rum cask he taps out a few beats which he assures me will rally the logging crew.

By the time we’ve examined the crayfish catch in the bamboo baskets suspended in a river pool, the loggers have arrived, old men from the village, including Canice’s 70-year-old father. I’m offered a place on top the 10ft high chantier (scaffold) where the log is positioned. This is where the ‘flech’ — the man who holds the top end of the long saw —  stands. Below him on the ground stand two halbas, gripping the double handles of the saw. I decline the kind offer and can only watch amazed as Mr Thomas  senior nimbly scales the ladder to the chantier.

The drummer strikes up a loping beat, which the loggers saw in time to, punctuating their strokes with a call and response song:

La wosé gwan bwa

kamemé mi fet

pai kokoko piché mwen.

It’s an exhilarating combination of work and song, a reminder both of the communal work style the African slaves brought with them and the origins of much indigenous Caribbean music. My admiration is further fuelled when Canice tells me the logs are cut into precisely measured planks. I’d never considered lumberjacking as an art form before, but Fond Latisab has been yet another revelation of Creole roots creativity.

 

If the Heritage Tourism Programme is ensuring the survival of folk culture, other Lucians have placed their little island firmly on the map of world culture. St Lucia boasts two Nobel laureates: Sir Arthur Lewis who won the prize for economics in 1979, and Derek Walcott who won the 1992 prize for literature, and in whose poetry and plays the lives and language of Creole folklore mixes uniquely with the language of Shakespeare.

Visual artists like Xavier Llewellyn and Winston Branch are also well-known internationally. So is the man who designed the national flag, Dunstan St Omer, recently referred to as the “Michelangelo of the Caribbean”, who was the first artist regionally to put black faces on the church murals he has painted in St Lucia, Martinique and as far south as the seminary in Trinidad.

All this culture is bound to give you an appetite, so make sure you don’t miss out on the local cuisine, from the national dish of green figs (a type of banana rather than a dried fruit) and saltfish, callaloo soup and  pepperpot to sea-fresh fish and Creole-style barbecue chicken. Local fruit wines are also extremely palatable, while fruit juices (passion, soursop, mango, grapefruit, lime) and Piton beer will keep you cool, while the local rum will heat you up.

If you’re looking to burn off excess calories after indulging, there are a range of sports to get you sweating. There are tennis courts at many of the large hotels, and squash courts at the St Lucia Yacht Club and Cap Estate, which also has an 18-hole championship golf course. Horse-riding and cycling are both great exercises, and a different approach to island touring.

With superb marinas at Rodney Bay and Marigot, sailors or aspiring yachties can charter virtually any size of craft, while deep-sea sport fishers can compete in the annual billfish tournament (whose record catch is a 549lb blue marlin landed in 1993). The west coast offers divers the volcanic marinescape of Key Hole Pinnacles and Coral Gardens off the Pitons, as well as wall and drift dives at Anse La Raye, the sloping plateau at Anse Chastanet and various wrecks including the Waiwinette, Volga and Lesleen.

 

I’m going to leave the last words on Sent Lisi to Lady Spice, 26-year-old Martina Francis, the island’s first ever Calypso Queen. Carnival, now held in July, is, along with the jazz festival, a major event on the cultural calendar. Like the calypso competition, it is as central to the festivities as the costumed masqueraders on the streets. It’s surely a sign of the vibrancy of Lucian culture and development, as heartening for the island’s future as the heritage tourism programme, that a young woman could be crowned monarch for her entirely contemporaneous calypso: Can’t find a man (dot.com), a typically witty yet challenging composition about dual standards and the search for a man who will:

kiss me good morning, 

scrub my back for me. 

 

 

For information on BWIA’s services to/from St Lucia, fares and ticketing, visit the BWIA website at www.bwee.com or call BWIA at:

208-577-1100 (UK)

1-800-538-2942 (USA & Canada)

868-627-2942 (Caribbean)

For vacation packages call:

1-877-386-2942 (USA & Canada)

1-800-744-2942 (Caribbean)

868-625-7543 (Trinidad & Tobago)