Hit the road in St. Lucia

Many visitors to St Lucia never make it past the beach — and who can blame them? But Mark Lyndersay is determined to explore the rest of the island’s charms, on his own schedule and at his own pace. He takes off on a road trip round St Lucia, from Castries in the north to Vieux Fort in the south, and savours the pleasure of going his own way

“Chapeau Napoleon” blossom at Mamiku. Photograph by Mark LyndersayA warm St. Lucia greeting. Photograph by SeanDrakes.comBananas wrapped for protection on an east coast plantation. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.Interior of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Castries. Photograph by Mark LyndersayMarigot Bay, a yachtsman’s dream. Photograph by Mike ToyPetit Piton, seen from the pool deck of the Ladera Hotel. Photograph by SeanDrakes.comPreparing fish at the Saturday night food fiesta in Dennery. Photograph by Mark LyndersaySt. Lucia’s dramatic Atlantic coast. Photograph by Mike ToyStreet parade in downtown Castries. Photograph by Mark LyndersaySundial in the “Secret Garden” at the Mamiku estate. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe author and his young guide head off the road. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Castries. Photograph by Mark LyndersayView from Moule a Chique. Photograph by Mike Toy

GO WEST, OLD MAN

St Lucia’s west coast road, heading south, is narrow and winding,
twisting its way up and down as it hugs unforgiving rock, offering glorious
glimpses of the Caribbean Sea, dotted with yachts.

At Anse La Raye, Canaries, and finally Soufrière, the road
narrows even more, becoming the main street through these quiet fishing
villages.
It’s in small places like these that you’ll find the heart of St
Lucia. Far from the bustle of Castries, the capital, the pace slows down,
and there’s a warm sense of community in the narrow roads separating the
buildings. A polite greeting and a smile are often the only passport you
need to begin a conversation and tap into the flow of village life.

You have to leave the main road and climb a steep hill to finally
descend into Marigot Bay, a yachtsman’s dream of shelter. Almost fully
encircled by protective hills, it seems more like a pond than a bay, but
it can accommodate more than a dozen yachts, and even offers an enviable
beach on the spit of land that separates the bay from the sea beyond.

Further south, the village of Soufrière is dominated by the
famous Pitons, two massive volcanic plugs covered in thick forest. Petit
Piton commands the southern end of Soufrière Bay; Gros Piton, across
Anse des Pitons, is so large that from the perspective of the road leading
into Soufrière it appears to be the twin of its Petit brother,
even though it’s two miles away.

From Soufrière you head inland to the Sulphur
Springs, St Lucia’s most pungent attraction, where bubbling pools venting
noxious gases into the air dot a landscape that looks as if it were a set
design for Dante’s Inferno. (At the moment, with roadworks in progress,
you have to take a crude diversion road.) For those with above-average
curiosity, there’s a new interpretation centre that offers elegantly designed
fact-boards, attractive dioramas, and a short movie explaining everything
you’d want to know about the geology of the springs.

If you don’t care to make the now-bumpy trip to Sulphur Springs (the
roadworks won’t be finished before mid-2004, rock permitting), you might
want to visit the mineral baths at Diamond Botanical Gardens and Waterfall
in Soufrière. The path to the waterfall is lined with an abundance
of carefully tended flora, and while bathing under the waterfall itself
is not allowed, there are three small swimming-pools allowing you to enjoy
the mineral waters without venturing into the gray sludge of the river.

TAKING THE SHOW OFF-ROAD

Various operators offers rough-and-tumble tours of the country, but
for this hands-on visit to St Lucia, I wanted to leave the road yet remain
in control. I rented a 250cc four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle (ATV) with
big, soft tyres and a broad, comfortable seat.

I’ve ridden a motorcycle before, but that experience took me in the
wrong direction with the ATV, which handles like a cart but rides like
a motorbike. The handlebars have a small turn radius, so big twists to change
direction send the ATV in sharp, unexpected directions. Faced with the
prospect of suddenly leaving the bumpy, muddy trail, I did what I’d normally
do on a motorcycle — jammed a foot down as I braked. All this got me was
a muddy calf, as the rear wheel climbed the back of my leg.

Seeing my problem, my young tour guide, Robin, turned back to disconnect
my biker’s brain.
“It’s best to keep your feet on the bike,” he advised. “And turn
your body into the inclines.”

The teen with the sweetest summer job I’d ever heard of turned out
to be right. After fighting my body’s instincts for a few minutes, the
contra-lean was so effective that it quickly became effortless.

I picked up speed as we roared up the rocky trail, the ATV bucking
and jerking as I kept pace with Robin. I wasn’t feeling like such a wuss
anymore.

My confidence came just in time too, as we turned and
entered a mangrove swamp, big roots on either side, rocks and rivulets
pulling the big wheels of the ATV erratically. The trees knitting overhead
made a moody arbour of the trail.

We burst through a gap in the trail, and the bumps and jerks of the
mud and rock gave way to smooth, slippery beach sand. We roared along for
a few feet, and Robin stopped. I pulled up alongside and, as I pulled off
my helmet, the powerful smell of a strong sea breeze seasoned with fresh
seaweed hit me in the face.

After all the churning along, it was a splash of heaven right in
my face, the choppy blue-green sea spreading to the right and left, the
sand bright and clean. I was so humbled by the beauty of the moment that
I respectfully rode in Robin’s tracks as we left the beach and began climbing
the grassy hill. We roared around for a bit, following a trail designed
to show off the beauty of the hillock, riding past a yapping dog and a dozing
calf before descending to the beach again to have a drink of coconut water.

Regular tour guests pause to rest and relax at a beach stop and to
take in some killer views, but I’d asked for the quick tour, so in less
than an hour we were trundling back the way we came. Returning, the trail
was still difficult enough to command my attention, but it wasn’t slapping
me around like it did before. I felt like a rider, and another little corner
of St Lucia had been seen, driven, and noted.

Drive, he said

There are many ways to explore St Lucia. Various operations can organise
formal tours of the island, in everything from the safety of an air-conditioned
minibus to the far more intriguing challenge of a madly bouncing jeep. But
for four days I drove a rented car everywhere in St Lucia.The country has a well-defined highway system that can take you right around
much of the island (the windy, sparsely populated north-east coast is spottily
covered). You can cover St Lucia in four or five hours of hard driving, but
nobody’s going to do that. You’ll want to stop, look, and linger, so it’s
best to tackle the island in sections.Discovering St Lucia on your own is clearly encouraged. Everything from
four-wheel-drive vehicles to tiny compacts is available for rent, and it
took less than 15 minutes for my provisional permit to be processed at the
airport, and for US$20 I was authorised to drive in the island for three
months.

St Lucians drive on the left side of the road, which can take some adjusting
to if you’re accustomed to being on the right. The road in and out of Castries
to the south via Morne Fortune calls for particular care. Hairpin turn follows
hairpin turn, and some of them are intimidatingly vertical. And when the roads
are wet, an inevitability on a long drive in temperamental tropical weather,
you quickly come to appreciate the “texture” of some of the road surfaces.

EAST SIDE STORY

The east coast is a relaxing drive, after the tightly winding roads on the
west. The main road is wider, but signs of life are much further apart. It’s
possible to drive for miles without seeing anything except trees and banana
plantations, with the fruit wrapped in protective plastic, on either side
of the road. But the elusive road signs seem to be posted where only locals
can find them, so you have to be alert to find your turn.
The coastline, battered by windward breezes that push the sea hard, is tougher
and less forgiving than on the western side of the island. Fishermen find
harbour in sheltered bays and inlets, where the vigorous attack of the sea
is blunted by protective fingers of land. These are the bays that have nurtured
the largest fishing villages.

Dennery, halfway down the east coast, can be a daunting little
drive, particularly if you choose to visit the food fiesta that’s held there
every Saturday night. Coming from Castries, it shouldn’t take you long to
get there, because you will either accompany someone who knows where they’re
going or stop to ask for directions before you drive off the island altogether
(I got close, finally stopping and turning back at Vieux Fort at St Lucia’s
southernmost toe). Once you’ve made the right turn off the east coast road,
slow down, because the road gets steadily narrower and the drains get deeper.
Dennery’s houses are packed tightly together, newer concrete homes next
to humble board houses. This fishing community is so tightly knit that it
seems generous to make so much room for visitors once a week. The action
happens in a quadrangle demarcated by tents near the beach. Each booth has
half a steel drum full of hot coals, with the simmering fish individually
wrapped in foil. Roasting bread and pots of soup jostle for space on each
grill.
A huge concert tent at one end is occupied only by the DJ. Body-shaking
eight-foot speakers boom a steady stream of reggae emanating from a PC, as
the music manager deftly clicks from song to song, his face bathed in soft
blue light. The mood is mellow. Even near midnight, there’s an intriguing
mix of visitors: well-to-do St Lucians out to relax, wide-eyed, laughing
tourists, and dreadlocked, sober-eyed fishermen who take in everything with
quiet satisfaction.
It’s a good night, and sales are steady. The fish are probed, tweaked, and
finally dropped onto disposable plates for the customers, the tender meat
soft and tasty after the slow cooking.

A road warrior’s history of St Lucia

The deep bays that corrugate St Lucia’s coastlines were the cause of 150
years of conflict between the French and the English, who both desired the
island for its natural harbours and strategic position in the Caribbean Sea.
Originally colonised by the French in 1651, St Lucia would change hands in
fierce battles 14 times before becoming a British colony in 1814. Slavery
was abolished under French rule, and the ex-slaves formed Maroon communities
who fought British rule alongside the French, refusing to accept slavery when
the British took control of the island in 1797.Like many colonies, the island’s economy was agricultural, but sugar was abandoned in the 1950s, and recent relaxations of the concessions which buoyed the local banana industry have led the country to pursue tourism as a new
source of income. The switch has been largely successful, and the heritage
of French occupation has left a unique and intriguing stamp of language on
the country. As you travel through the island, many of places you’ll be looking
for are named after pivotal events in St Lucia’s history.

THE SPIRIT OF ST LUCIA

Since 1999, the Heritage Tourism Association of St Lucia (HERITAS)
has worked to promote attractions that capture the historical and cultural
heritage of the island.

Fond d’Or Nature and Historic Park
At Fond d’Or’s historic park you can see three different sugar processing
technologies side by side: the cattle mill, the waterwheel, and the steam
engine.

Latille Waterfall and Gardens
The 20-foot Latille Waterfall cascades into a deep pool perfect for swimming.
To get to the falls you stroll through a tranquil fruit, herb, and flower
garden.

East Coast Trail
Three expeditions to do separately or in combination: the Fregate Islands
Nature Reserve for superb bird-watching; the Praslin Island Canoe Excursion
for a close-up look at seamoss farms; or the Atlantic Coast Hike for an unforgettable
view of the windswept coast.

Mamiku Historical and Botanical Gardens
The gardens of the Mamiku estate, originally owned by the 18th-century Baron
de Micoud, are among the best in the Caribbean, with abundant butterflies
and tropical flowers.

Balenbouche Plantation and Guesthouse
This 19th-century estate boasts an impressive sugar mill and
a collection of Amerindian artifacts. Enjoy an meal on the verandah,
or spend the night in an antique-furnished bedroom.

Gros Piton Nature Trail
Imagine the view from the summit! The Gros Piton Nature Trail involves
a five-hour round trip, but the effort is worth it. Look out for rare
wildlife on the sheer slopes.

Fond Latisab Creole Park
Fond Latisab offers an encounter with traditional St Lucian practices,
such as cassava bread-making, cooking on macambou leaves, and traditional
methods for catching crayfish.

Desbarras Turtle Watch
The villagers of Desbarras protect the leatherback turtles that nest
at Grande Anse on the Atlantic coast. From March to July, take a nightly
tour to see the turtles come ashore.

Piton Flore Forest Trail
A 30-minute drive from Castries, the trail is part of the Old French
Road traversing St Lucia’s pristine rainforest, through lush flora such
as ferns and fig trees.

Toraille Waterfall and Gardens
The breathtaking Toraille Waterfall cascades 50 feet into a pool
at the centre of a landscaped garden. Enjoy an invigorating back and shoulder
massage under the falls.

Fond Doux Estate
1,400 feet above sea level, this working estate offers spectacular
views and the chance to see how cocoa is processed, using the traditional
method of “cocoa dancing”.

Anse-La-Raye Fish Fry
Every Friday evening, the village of Anse-La-Raye on St Lucia’s west
coast turns into a huge seafood extravaganza. Relax and put up your feet,
or dance to the beat of local music.

Millet “Circle the Centre” River Walk
Millet, a mountain village on the verge of the rainforest, is the
starting point for this hike along a circular trail in the heart of the
island. Includes a stop-off at the Millet waterfalls.

Folk Research Centre
Housed in a 19th-century building on historic Mount Pleasant,
the Folk Research Centre aims to preserve the cultural heritage of St Lucia.
The vast collection covers every aspect of the island’s folk history, including
dance, music, and Kweyol.

The other language

Almost everyone in St Lucia understands and speaks English, but English
is the language of politeness and commerce. The same heritage that left
every corner of the island with a French name lives on in a French patois
called Kweyol (creole), which is the language of everyday expression. Listen
to taxi drivers grumble, to young men calling to pretty girls in the street,
or bored workers chatting, and you’ll hear not just patois, but a freedom
of spirit that sings in face and gesture, angle of hip, and tilt of chin.
It’s the real language of the island, and you can hear it in the music
and talk radio of the country’s Radio Caribbean (101.1FM), where Kweyol
is featured, and the people of St Lucia make themselves heard.

Highlights of the year

In addition to the regular events programmed into the St Lucian week,
like the Vieux Fort Swaré and fish feast at Anse La Raye on a Friday
night, there are special interest adventures scheduled year-round.

In late November, the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers will rendezvous
in St Lucia.

December 13: Festival Lights — the St Lucian Discovery
Day launches the Christmas season with a traditional lighting-up and lantern
competition.

February 22: Independence Day.

April 22: International Earth Day is marked by the Soleil
Lévé and Soleil Couché ceremonies.

May 7–15: The St Lucia Jazz Festival was the first major
island music festival, and has played host to jazz luminaries George Benson,
Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis, Earl Klugh, and Bob James.

July: Carnival! Moved to July to fall after the traditional
Caribbean carnival seasons and before Barbados Crop Over. Calypso, costumes,
and a lively street parade.

August 30: The La Rose Festival puts the exquisitely
tended gardens of St Lucia front and centre with a feast day.

September: The St Lucia Bill Fishing Tournament brings
anglers from throughout the Caribbean to find the elusive Blue Marlin.

October: Creole Heritage Month, managed by the Folk
Research Centre, celebrates the rich cultural heritage of St Lucia, culminating
in Jounen Kweyol on October 31, which celebrates all countries that speak
creole.