SOAK IN ST LUCIA

Jane King’s tour of St Lucia includes many stops to enjoy her home island’s warm sea, cool streams, and hot springs — and its charming French creole heritage, its dramatic mountainous landscape, and opportunities for shopping in Castries. Plus a fact file to help you plan your visit

A St Lucian family enjoys the mineral waters at the Sulphur Springs. Photograph by Mark LyndersayChurch at Anse la Raye. Photograph by Mike ToyDiamond Falls near Soufriére. Photograph by Mike ToyHoneymoon Beach. Photograph by Mike ToyMamiku Gardens in Praslin. Photograph by Mark LyndersayMarigot Bay. Photograph by Mike ToySoufriére and the Pitons. Photograph by Mike ToySulphur Spring near Soufriére. Photograph by Mark LyndersayThe interior of the Church of Immaculate Conception in Castries. Photograph by Chris HuxleyThe Jalousie Hilton, on the bay between the Pitons. Photograph by Mike Toy

If you have read Derek Walcott, you will start to recognise
his territory as you look around Castries, the capital of St Lucia. If
you haven’t, you will see — in the beauty of the harbour with its embracing
mountains, the Morne, Vigie, their loveliness in all weathers and at all
times of day — why a poet would have grown here, and how a growing poet
would be influenced by these surroundings.

My visitors always have to start with a tour of Morne Fortune, former site
of a British fort, from which you enjoy views over Castries below, with
its beautiful harbour, right up to the northern end of Saint Lucia, and south
to the tips of the Pitons. The view over the island to the east is still
relatively wild. Standing at the Inniskilling Monument, you can almost understand
how all those old colonial paintings made the landscape look sinister, with
its peaks dragonish and threatening, especially when the sky is gray.

There is a good heritage tour, called the “Castries City Walk”, that is worth
taking for an introduction to the capital. Shoppers should visit the market,
an old metal building that houses a patchwork of vendors with colourful
vegetables, spices, and craft. Just outside the city centre, at La Toc and
at Dèyè (Derriere) Fort, visitors can buy Bagshaw table-mats
and Caribelle batik items while taking in wonderful views, and Point Seraphine,
where cruise ships dock, is overrun with jewellery shops.

AROUND CASTRIES

Much of central Castries was destroyed by fire in 1948, but along Brazil Street some late 19th- and early 20th-century wooden buildings
survive, complete with elaborate fretwork. Derek Walcott  (formerly
Columbus) Square contains a bust of the Nobel Prize–winning poet and a 400-year-old samaan tree. To the east is the Roman Catholic Cathedral, decorated with extraordinary murals by Dunstan St Omer. The old market, built in 1894, is a few blocks north (Saturday is market day, when the city is at its most bustling). Along the waterfront, on Jeremie Street, is a newer shopping centre with some duty-free shops, and a bar where you can sit looking out at the harbour.

The Vigie peninsula, which you can reach by water-taxi from the Castries
waterfront, is the site of a former British fort, some of the buildings
of which have been converted for modern use. South of the city, Morne Fortune offers extraordinary views; the road winds past the governor’s mansion up to Fort Charlotte, now the campus of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College. From the top of the Morne you can even see Martinique, on clear days.

After a morning in Castries I would head north, because
after the Morne tour there is still time to get to a beach and enjoy one
of the things that makes life in St Lucia truly pleasant, a bathe in clear
water, with beautiful hills to look at as you laze in the shallows. The
easiest big beach to get to in the north of the island is Reduit in Rodney
Bay. I find this beach most beautiful in the morning, when the light seems
to slant to the seabed in a particularly translucent way, and the water
is so bright as to feel almost fizzy on your skin.

Looking north from here you can see Pigeon Island, which really was an
island until a few decades ago, when the government decided that a causeway would provide great development potential. Thus far, only the Sandals Hotel has availed itself of this, but no doubt more will come. No matter. One of the effects of the causeway was to cut off the open Atlantic waters which surge round the northern point of the island, creating in its lee a beach that is always calm, and from here or from Pigeon Island itself it is wonderful to watch the sun set. A walk along the casaurina-lined causeway road is also pleasant, with the tangy Atlantic waves and their navy-blue depths contrasting strongly with the peaceful turquoise water only a few yards to the south.

The beaches north and east of Rodney Bay are different, since their
water really belongs to the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Caribbean Sea.
A very sweet one is accessible from Cap Estate, and known as Smugglers’
Cove. I doubt it was ever used by smugglers (it would be far too much trouble to carry your goods up the steep wooden steps between the parking lot and the sand), but this tiny beach has some good snorkelling and a lot of shade, since it is surrounded by fairly sheer cliffs.

One of the more accessible beaches on the north-east coast is Cas en
Bas, where the inlet is sheltering enough to keep the shallow water safe.
But there are some very dangerous beaches in this area, though very beautiful in a wild way. It is best to treat the Atlantic coast with respect — go with people who know it, and don’t bathe in the sea unless a local says it’s safe.

Turtle-watching tours can be arranged from the village of
Grand Anse, and there is a heritage tour to the beach at Fond d’Or, just
north of Dennery — a beautiful, peaceful river mouth spot, with sea-bathing to be avoided. South of Dennery, Praslin Beach is warm and shallow and offers good snorkelling, and right down near the southern tip of the island the beaches around Vieux Fort are pleasant for bathing, with gentle waves.

It will be apparent by now that my idea of fun is lounging in warm water
while looking at pretty scenery. If this is not why you came to St Lucia,
and you need something a bit more athletic, water sports are available islandwide, and the Vieux Fort beach does offer excellent kite-surfing. And of course, if you want other sports — tennis, squash, or golf, for instance — you’ll certainly find these at hotels and resorts in the north of the island.

Less strenuously, I recommend a boat trip down the calm west coast to
Soufrière, stopping at various pleasant little coves that are quite
difficult to get to by road.

Just 20-odd miles south of Castries, you can make Soufrière a
day-trip, but it’s much nicer to take a whole weekend. Soufrière
is surrounded by high mountains and still preserves much of its 19th-century architecture, though sadly some of its new developers seem quite insensitive to its aesthetic. But it is a pretty town nonetheless, and you will find superbly fresh fruit and vegetables for sale and, if you are lucky, fish.

Once established at the kind of hotel or guesthouse you prefer, you
need a couple of days to explore the area. The Diamond Falls just inland
from Soufrière are nicely domesticated, with warm water diverted
into clean baths. This is even a reasonably wheelchair-friendly attraction, with well-established botanical gardens and a pretty waterfall, though you aren’t allowed to bathe in it.

THE PITONS

The two Pitons, steep-sided, forested volcanic plugs rising
abruptly from the sea on St Lucia’s south-west coast, have become the island’s
most recognisable natural icons. There are spectacular views of the two
peaks as you drive south along the west coast road. Gros Piton, the taller
(2,619 feet), can be climbed with the help of an experienced guide. Petit
Piton (2,461 feet), on the other hand, is fairly dangerous. Its location
at the foot of Petit Piton is part of the attraction of the small town of
Soufrière, whose charming architecture is dwarfed by the immense
peak overhead. Anse Jalousie, between the two peaks, offers one of the world’s
most memorable swims.

The beach at Anse Jalousie, right between the Pitons, cries out for
a visit. There is a lovely though tricky walk along smooth, loose, white
rocks, the smallest of which is the size of a large ostrich egg. It’s probably a great way to break a leg, but also very stimulating, and along the way you’ll find rock pools with tiny fish, strange shell-less snails, and brightly coloured sea centipedes — all sorts of nursery reef life — as you approach the base of Gros Piton.

At the Petit Piton end of the beach, there is wonderful snorkelling. The beach is covered with imported white sand, which is somewhat incongruous in a volcanic area, but there’s something magical about putting
your head in the water at the base of a peak that rises sheer out of the
sea. There are lovely fish to watch, in real safety, since the hotel has
cordoned off the snorkelling area so no motorboats or jet skis can get
you. And the bottom of the Piton slopes away as fast as the top does, so
there is a small area of sandy reef from which you can look over and watch
little kids snorkelling beside you suspended over dark blue depths.

 

If you can tear yourself away from the beach, spend some time visiting
St Lucia’s village communities, their names familiar from Walcott’s poems.
There’s a long-established community “lime” at Gros Islet, near Rodney Bay, whose Friday nights are famous. Gros Islet is a fishing community, and fish and conch will feature at almost all the food stalls set up around the village, but there will also be barbecued chicken and loud music and alcohol and dancing. It is very picturesque and atmospheric, but it has its wild side. Anse La Raye on the west coast has a Friday-night fish fry that starts much earlier, and is perhaps better for families with children, and Dennery on the east has a similar event on Saturday evenings.

NATURAL ST LUCIA

St Lucia was once covered in thick forest, and much of what
remains is protected. Over a thousand species of flowering plants have
been identified here, including many orchids. Endemic bird species include
the St Lucian parrot (the national bird), best seen on the Barre de L’Isle
rainforest walk, as well as the rare St Lucian oriole and St Lucia black
finch. There are also several endemic reptile species; the St Lucian whiptail, a harmless snake, sports the colours of the national flag and is found on just two small islets off St Lucia’s south-east coast. Sea turtles, including leatherbacks, nest on the east coast.

St Lucia also offers wonderful opportunities to engage with nature. A rainforest walk will introduce you not just to beautiful scenery but to a profusion of plants, trees, birds, and other wildlife. There are many waterfalls to be visited, from the Heritage Tours site at Toraille (they domesticated the area, but couldn’t hurt the waterfall, which drops icy-cold water 60 feet into a rock basin) to the small, private New Jerusalem Falls — follow the road signs and walk along the hilltop path, down to cross the rocky river and up the warm watercourse to the little house where the owner has dammed the hot falls flowing through her yard, making a lovely murky little hollow in which to wallow while looking at the forest surrounding you.

And when it comes to warm water in pretty surroundings — one of St Lucia’s
great strengths, I think — perhaps the best of all are the famous Sulphur
Springs near the road from Soufrière to Vieux Fort. You can see the
exhibition at the Information Centre and take the tour. But one of the
most fun things you can do is slither down the path — either the one outside the gate or the one just inside — and get to the hot, black little river that flows from the springs. Inside the gate, someone has built a square concrete basin to capture the water, which is almost too hot to bathe in.

You can walk down the river from there and get to a little
low waterfall where you can rub yourself with black mud till you look like
a demon, then rinse it off in warm spring water. It’s supposed to be good
for your complexion, but I think it’s good for your soul. The walk between
the man-made cistern and the little waterfall basin is one that stays with
me for months every time I do it. You splash along with your feet in hot
water, cool breeze blowing and the sunlight falling yellow through the leaves that lightly roof the stream. It’s perfect.

I have worried a little, writing about this tour, that every trip I
suggest ends up wallowing in warm water, staring at mountains and leaves.
Is this some sort of sybaritic idleness, ridiculous escapism? I feel sure that it isn’t. What happens is that contemplation of the beauty of the landscape can offer us all a chance to slip into a kind of meditation, a being in the moment. And while almost every landscape is beautiful in its own way, a landscape like St Lucia’s, with its beaches and rivers and waterfalls and rock pools, can welcome you right into itself.You
can leave any one of these places renewed and refreshed and carrying physical and emotional memories that will make you a little calmer in the general hustle of your everyday life.

AROUND VIEUX FORT

About 40 miles south of Castries, at the southernmost tip of the island,
is Vieux Fort, St Lucia’s second-largest town, home to Hewanorra International Airport. Often overlooked by visitors who head straight to the resorts in the north, Vieux Fort is an excellent base for exploring the attractions of south St Lucia. The town itself is a bustling combination of traditional houses and newer structures, with a small square with a bandstand on Clarke Street.

To the west, Anse de Sables beach is often windy — making it popular
with windsurfers — but also offers sheltered terraces. It looks out over
the two Maria Islands, about half a mile off the coast, which form a protected national park. The Maria Islands Interpretive Centre, near Anse de Sables, is home to a small natural history museum and office, where visitors can book tours; you need an official guide to visit the islands.

Cap Moule à Chique, St Lucia’s southern tip, is a short drive out of Vieux Fort. The lighthouse here, 730 feet above the sea, offers wonderful views of the Pitons to the north-west and, when the weather’s clear, St Vincent to the south. Bird-watchers will want to visit the Mankote Swamp, the island’s largest mangrove area, south-east of the town. It boasts a viewing tower.

And a scenic drive north-east along the road to Soufrière will
bring you to the village of Choiseul and nearby Caraibe Point, where St Lucia’s last Carib inhabitants live in a close-knit community of thatched houses.There are also Arawak petroglyphs along the Balembouche River; ask a local to guide you there.

JUST THE FACTS

Geography

The second-largest of the Windward Islands at 238 square miles, St Lucia
lies between Martinique and St Vincent in the Antillean chain. A third
of the population of 164,000 lives in and around Castries. The island’s
many volcanic peaks make for outstanding scenery, with mountain roads revealing a succession of precipitous views.

History

•    St Lucia’s original inhabitants were the Kalinago,
or Island Caribs.
•    Some St Lucians claim that Columbus sighted the island
on St Lucy’s Day,
13 December, 1502, but his log offers no evidence of
this.
•    1638: first recorded European settlement, by a group
of Englishmen from St Kitts.
•    1642: St Lucia claimed by France; from 1650 various
attempts were made to settle the island.
•    1660: Britain renews its claim to the island, sparking
off a series of battles with France.
St Lucia changes hands 14 times over the next 150
years.
•    1814: the Treaty of Paris definitively gives control
of St Lucia to Britain.
•    1967: St Lucia gains full internal self-government.
•    1979: St Lucia gains full independence.

Cities and towns

The legacy of St Lucia’s mixed colonial heritage survives in its architecture, place names, and Creole style. The capital, Castries (pop. 60,000), is located on one of the world’s finest natural harbours against a backdrop of mountains. North of Castries to Pointe du Cap is the principal resort area. Soufrière on the west coast (pop. 9,000), is full of old wooden buildings and charming scenery. Vieux Fort in the south (pop. 14,000), is the island’s industrial centre, and site of Hewanorra International Airport.

Getting there

BWIA operates a weekly flight to St Lucia, departing from Trinidad and
continuing to London’s Heathrow Airport.

Airport

Inter-island flights arrive in the north at George F. Charles Airport
(formerly Vigie Airport), just outside Castries. International arrivals land in the south at Hewanorra International Airport, just outside Vieux Fort. Transfers from Hewanorra to Castries take about 1 hour 15 minutes.

Entry requirements

Visas are not required for visitors who are citizens of the United States
or Commonwealth countries. Visitors must have valid passports, except for
US and Canadian citizens who possess valid return tickets and ID, staying
for less than six months.

Departure tax

There is a tax of EC $54 for all travellers over the age of 12 leaving
the island.

Currency

St Lucia’s currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar. Currency exchanges
can be made at banks and at most major hotels. The exchange rate is about
EC $2.70 to US $1.