Discover St Lucia

Caroline Popovic and Nancy Atkinson take you on a tour of one of the Caribbean's most popular destinations

Castries at night, from The Morne. Photograph by Chris HuxleyCastries Market. Photograph by Stephanie ColasantiDiamond Falls near Soufriére. Photograph by Chris HuxleyDrive-in volcano: the sulphur springs near Soufriére. Photograph by Chris HuxleyEchoes of the past: cannon on Pigeon Island. Photograph by Chris HuxleyFortifications on Pigeon Island. Photograph by Chris HuxleyGingerbread shopping: the J. Q. Charles supermarket in Soufriére. Photograph by Chris HuxleyGrand Caille near Soufriére. Photograph by Chris HuxleyIn costume for the annual La Rose Festival. Photograph by Chris HuxleyLiving on The Morne. Photograph by Chris HuxleyMarigot Bay. Photograph by Chris HuxleyReduit Beach. Photograph by Chris HuxleySt Lucia parrot, Amazona versicolor, brought back from the edge of extinction. Photograph by Chris Huxleythe “lobster claw” heliconia. Photograph by Chris HuxleyThe Governor-General’s house in Castries. Photograph by Chris HuxleyUnion Vale Estate near Choiseul. Photograph by Chris Huxley

St Lucia’s trademark is the towering majesty of the twin Pitons, which soar out of the sea on the west coast near the town of Soufriére to heights of 2,400 and 2,600 feet. They were revered by the island’s first settlers, the Amerindians, and they are still an awesome sight, especially when you think of the power and energy that thrust these giant volcanic plugs up from the sea.

A short distance inland is another reminder of the island’s volcanic beginnings: the boiling pools of the Sulphur Springs, often described as the world’s only drive-in volcano. The minerals that occur naturally in these boiling springs produce a strong sulphurous smell, and dark, swirling, steaming pools.

They have long attracted interest. Back in 1785, when the island was under French rule, its governor Baron de Laborie, who was an engineer by profession, made the minerals in the Sulphur Springs and other sources nearby available for medical use. Near the cascading waters of the Diamond Falls he built a series of baths to be used by French troops; filled with the miraculous mineral waters of the island, the baths were said to be equal to the most renowned mineral spas in France.

These days the baths are part of the estate run by Joan Devaux, a direct descendant of one of the original French settler families of St Lucia in the 18th century. The original stone baths still survive alongside newer facilities, including outdoor plunge pools. A trip to the baths and falls includes a stroll through the island’s most comprehensive botanical garden. On the adjoining Soufriére Estate is a mini-zoo showing many of the island’s indigenous animals.

The southern town of Soufriére itself has an interesting history. At one time it was the French seat of government, and its architecture still shows the influence of those early years. When the French revolution swept away the old order at the end of the 18th century, causing the ruin of many of the island’s plantations and smaller villages, a guillotine was set up in the town square of Soufriére as a warning to those landowners who held fast to the monarchy.

There is much less evidence of the past in today’s capital, Castries, in the north-west of the island, next to one of the Caribbean’s finest natural harbours. The city was destroyed by fire in 1927 and again in 1948, so the modern town is almost completely of recent construction. The 1948 fire destroyed four-fifths of the town; its main landmark, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, was only saved by brigades of volunteers with buckets.

The cathedral is certainly worth a visit. The ceiling and back wall contain original paintings on familiar religious themes, but the side walls display murals by the St Lucian artist Dunstan St Omer which concentrate on the island’s own religious traditions and experience. Across the street is Derek Walcott Square recently renamed in honour of the island’s 1992 Nobel prize- winner, with its massive 400-year-old samaan tree known locally as “the massav tree”. The story goes that a visiting journalist many years ago asked a taxi driver what sort of tree it was, and, not being well versed in botany, he replied “Massav.” The journalist duly included the giant massav tree in her description of the island, only later realising that “massav” in patois means “I don’t know.”

During the colonial period, Castries harbour was essential to military operations, so the hills behind the town were heavily fortified. Morne Fortune, the “hill of good luck”, lying south of the town, is scattered with remnants of these times. The earliest date from the early 1700s and the French occupation; a stable and a prison cell are from the late 1770s. British structures date from the early 1800s and include facilities built in the 1890s; La Toc battery is open to tours.

North of Castries, Pigeon Island National Park was also a stronghold in the 1700s. In those days Pigeon Island was really an island (it was connected to the mainland by a causeway in 1970) and was heavily fortified. As Britain’s Admiral Rodney forcefully argued, St Lucia was crucial in the British struggle against the French. The main French naval base was at Martinique, not far away; the British base in Antigua, further north still, was too far away to protect Britain’s southern Caribbean possessions of St Vincent and Grenada; and St Lucia had plentiful water and wood and one of the best harbours in the region.

So, at Rodney’s insistence, Admiral Barrington was sent to capture St Lucia in December 1778, which he did. The major confrontation was off Cul de Sac Bay, where the Hess oil storage facility stands today. The British established a naval base on Pigeon Island and from there launched the decisive battle against French influence in the Caribbean at the Battle of the Saints.

Long before this, Pigeon Island had been used as a settlement by the Amerindians, who moved up the islands in their dugout canoes centuries before Columbus, and left behind plenty of trademarks as well as their boat-building techniques: crops such as cassava and sweet potato, yam and black pepper, guava and soursop, coalpots for cooking, crafts such as basket weaving. Amerindian remains have been found in caves beneath Fort Rodney; and Pigeon Island also has tales of later settlers, including pirates.

Today, Pigeon Island is a small four-acre nature sanctuary noted for its range of flowers and birds. Nature lovers will find plenty of other sites to interest them. The Union Nature Trail is only a 20-minute drive from Castries; its mini-zoo includes the St Lucian parrot, the Jacquot, which has been brought back from extinction through the combined efforts of the St Lucia Forestry Division and the Jersey Zoo in the Channel Islands. A small medicinal garden displays a wide variety of herbs used locally to treat anything from common colds to malaria, and a 20-minute nature walk takes in plenty of interesting trees and shrubs. A tougher challenge is the Rainforest Trail which winds across the island from Mahaut to Fond St Jacques, a rewarding eight-mile trek through mountain forest.

St Lucia’s environment ranges from the thick rain forests that cloak the tallest mountains, including the highest summit — Mt Gimmie (3,157 feet) — to drier, windswept locations with little watershed. The Fregate Island Nature Reserve for example, between the villages of Dennery and Praslin, includes dry areas of xerophytic vegetation, mangrove and dry forest; once an Amerindian lookout point, it is now a marvellous vantage point for watching nesting sea birds. Brown noddies, red-necked pigeons and magnificent frigatebirds roost on small islets just off the coast during the spring. Guided tours are arranged by the St Lucia National Trust and include a beach barbecue on Praslin Island, reached by fishing canoe.

Off the southern coast at Vieux Fort, opposite the long stretch of beach known as Anse des Sables, the two small Maria Islands provide a home for two indigenous animal species, which are among the world’s rarest reptiles. The beautiful Maria Island Ground Lizard lives on both these islets; the male grows up to 14 inches. The lizard’s back is dark, the belly yellow, and the long tail is a shimmering turquoise. Like the Jacquot parrot, these animals are receiving help from the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. Efforts are being made to start a new colony on Praslin Island, since these lizards survive only in this one place on earth, and any natural disaster could wipe them out forever.

Maria Major is also home to a grass snake which is found nowhere else in the world; it is a nocturnal creature and very hard to sight. The National Trust operates tours to Maria Major except during the spring nesting season. There is an interpretation centre and small museum on the beach looking out towards the Maria Islands.

Speaking of beaches, St Lucia has a multitude of quiet secluded coves and inviting stretches of sand. Because of the island’s volcanic formation, some of the beaches have black sand. The main tourist area around Rodney Bay lies north of Castries; here are many of the major hotels, along Reduit Beach. The best diving is further south, especially around Soufriére, with spectacular drops and wall dives.

Some of the old plantations now welcome visitors. The Marquis Plantation offers a tour which focuses on the island’s agriculture (sugar, coffee, bananas), a boat ride along the Marquis River through the mangrove to the Atlantic coast where sugar vessels once fought the crashing waves to take on their precious cargo, and a local creole lunch. Errard Plantation outside Dennery offers hands-on experience of agricultural products (you can even try carrying a bunch of bananas on your head) and a nature trail. The Great House Restaurant in Cap Estate in the north offers elegant dining reminiscent of the traditional great-house experience; the house is built on the foundations of the island’s first commandant.

But the real treasures of St Lucia are its people. A brilliant smile, the sound of a fisherman’s conch, the gaiety of the market vendors, the friendliness of taxi drivers and hotel workers — these are the things that will add to the real worth of any holiday.

St Lucia: The Island That Got Away

Christopher Columbus never set foot on St Lucia. He probably never saw it; and anyway the island lacked the gold that he and his sponsor, the Spanish crown, were eager to get their hands on, and was occupied by the Carib Indians, a formidable bunch more likely to kill a weary Spaniard than ask if he’d had a pleasant voyage.

Exactly which Spanish wanderer gave the island its present name will never be known for sure. But as nations like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico were holding lavish celebrations to commemorate last year’s 500th anniversary of the great navigator’s arrival in Caribbean waters, St Lucians were erasing Columbus’s name from their calendar and capital.

So Discovery Day, 13 December, became National Day (research into Columbus’s whereabouts puts him miles away from St Lucia that day in 1492 — or 1502, depending on which book you read), and the heart of Castries, the capital, is no longer Columbus Square. It was re-named Derek Walcott Square in honour of the island’s latest laureate, the 1992 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (another St Lucian, Sir Arthur Lewis, who shares a birthday as well as a birthplace with Walcott, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1979).

The Amerindians, St Lucia’s earliest settlers, revered the island. They called it Iouanalao, which means “where the iguana is found”. They worshipped the Pitons, those awesome twin peaks that soar out of the Caribbean Sea south of Soufriére. The Sulphur Springs, also in Soufriére and said to be the world’s only drive-in volcano, were feared by the Amerindians. They thought this was a hellish cauldron filled with evil. The island’s most intricate rock carving, recently discovered at Jalousie between the Pitons, suggests that the area was once a large Amerindian settlement.

The Amerindians were eventually subdued and almost exterminated by the French and the English who, apart from the occasional massacre they suffered at the hands of the Caribs, fought each other endlessly for possession of St Lucia.

In Barbados and Martinique, the English and the French created thriving colonies, but they weren’t particularly interested in making St Lucia a home away from home. Although some French families did establish plantations, the island’s true worth was military. Castries harbour was one of the best natural deep water ports around, and from look-out points such as Fort Rodney at Pigeon Point the two rivals (or whichever one was in occupation at the time) could observe each other’s naval activities. Based on information garnered from the Pigeon Point lookouts, the English fleet set sail from St Lucia in 1782 to engage the French in the Battle of the Saints, the Caribbean’s most important naval confrontation. The French were thoroughly trounced.

St Lucia changed hands between the French and the English 14 times. Whenever the British won the island, they invariably had to fight, whereas the French usually seized power at the conference table.

The final change of ownership took place in 1814 when the French ceded St Lucia to the British. England inherited a poor colony. Impoverished by constant wars, disastrous hurricanes, crop disease and the French revolution which enticed many slaves away from plantations into the hills to live as freedom fighters, St Lucia was in a sorry state. Planters were forced to sell their lands, often deeply indebted, for pennies. A few endured. The Devaux family, who came from France in the 18th century and celebrated 250 years of living in St Lucia last year, was one planter family to survive.

Slavery was abolished in the early 19th century, but the majority of St Lucia’s inhabitants, descendants of Africans shipped to the Caribbean as plantation labour, were excluded from the decision- making process of their new homeland. Not until 1951, when a new constitution was adopted, did all St Lucians of the age of majority participate in the electoral process.

On 22 February, 1979, St Lucia turned independent and the Union Jack, the symbol of colonial occupation, was lowered from official flag posts and replaced by a new emblem representing the land, the light and the people.

Today’s St Lucians are a melting pot of Africans, whites and East Indians whose ancestors came to St Lucia on limited contracts as indentured labourers, few returning home.

The island’s culture is a melange of all the people who have occupied her. Traditional earthenware cooking pots and fishing canoes are still crafted the Carib way. Herbal medicines, traditional religious practices and an almost extinct ritual called kele are from Africa. The Indians contributed their cuisine (roti and dhalpuri are practically national dishes). And while English is the official language, patois, a French-based dialect, is spoken by most St Lucians. The island’s Carnival has its roots in French culture, and the lakonmet and kwadril are stately folk dances copied from the French colonialists. La Marguerite and La Rose are two St Lucian floral societies; born in the 18th century, they are meant to be opposing factions representing the British and the French. Each celebrates an annual feast day.

At one time agriculture fuelled the St Lucian economy almost on its own. When the sugar industry collapsed after the second world war, it was supplanted by bananas, the “green gold” that were the island’s mainstay for the next 40 years. England protected her Caribbean colonies, even after independence, by giving them almost exclusive rights to supply Britain with bananas. With the help of generous government incentives, St Lucian farmers prospered.

But at the end of 1992 the European Community became one big marketplace. The British guarantees expired along with the special deal the Windward Islands had enjoyed for so long. Local farmers have had to work a lot harder to compete with cheaper fruit from massive plantations in Africa and South America.

Luckily for St Lucia, another industry now generously contributes to the government’s foreign exchange coffers: tourism.

In the mid eighties, St Lucia became one of the hottest Caribbean destinations. People flocked to the island to enjoy its miles of empty, unpolluted beaches, its lush, green countryside and steep green mountains, its generous rum punches and friendly people. English, Germans, Canadians and Americans no longer looked nonplussed when they heard the name (“Saint Loo-cee-a! Where’s that! In Italy!”).

Last year, tourism got a government ministry all of its own (it had previously been attached to trade and industry), and since the early eighties investment in tourism facilities has grown dramatically. A cruise ship dock and duty-free shopping complex now stand at Pointe Seraphine near downtown Castries. There is a full range of restaurants, guest houses and small hotels to choose from. The international airport has been extended to cope with the influx of visitors. Large resorts have expanded and new ones constructed to offer vacationers a variety of accommodation.

Most of St Lucia’s large hotels specialise in all-inclusive vacations — one charge covers everything. Last year two existing properties were taken over by the Jamaica- based Sandals chain, one of the most successful all-inclusive organisations.

St Lucia’s tourism industry has gone way beyond sand, sea and sun. Competition from countless other countries endowed with their own natural assets is tremendous, and the island has had to develop a wide range of attractions to interest clients who are already spoilt for choice.

With its largely pristine terrain (fertile volcanic soil has given birth to dense rain forests and tropical foliage packed into a mountainous landscape), St Lucia is popular with the environmentally conscious.

Last year, several British publications voted St Lucia the world’s favourite location for visitor weddings. One hotel performs as many as six marriages a day. A marine park has been created around the Soufriére area, and nearby Anse Chastanet hotel with its 5-star PADI dive resort is always full. The hotel is also a hot wedding spot — the management is reportedly searching for a scuba-diving registrar to perform underwater weddings.

The latest promotional idea is the St Lucia Jazz Festival. Just two years old, the event has already attracted some fine performers. Last year Wynton Marsalis topped a slate of international and regional artists. This year, Nancy Wilson, Earl Klugh and Herbie Hancock drew crowds from around the Caribbean and America. The most distinctive part of the festival is two days of open-air performances at Pigeon Point National Park, a historic site that echoes with ancient ruins set on grassy slopes that run down to the sea.

With the rest of the world crying recession, the development taking place in St Lucia defies international hard times. Residential estates, shopping malls and time-share properties pop up almost overnight. The island is enjoying good times. The financial woes that some of St Lucia’s more developed Caribbean neighbours are suffering from have, like Columbus, passed her by. Ask anyone and he’ll tell you that, for the most part, life in St Lucia is sweet: la vie pas rwed, gacon, e douce.

 

ST LUCIA AT A GLANCE

ENTERTAINMENT

The larger hotels offer nightly entertainment. Names to look out for include Quiet Fire, Boo Hinkson and Derede Williams for easy listening, Luther Francois and Third Eye for jazz, North Star for steelband music, Reasons for calypso and other local sounds, and Amate for reggae. On Friday nights, check out the street party in the fishing village of Gros Islet. The media carry news of special events (St Lucia has recently hosted concerts by artists like Shabba Ranks and Maxi Priest).

SHOPPING

Pointe Seraphine, just outside Castries, is the duty free and cruise ship facility; shops include Colombian Emeralds, Little Switzerland, Benneton, and local outlets providing perfumes, craft and casual wear. Gablewoods Mall has a variety of boutiques from clothing and housewear to music and restaurants, including The Patio. Clothing, crafts and fabrics are on offer at many outlets in Castries; Artsibit Gallery has work by local and regional artists and a display of pottery. Wall hangings, table mats and original designs can be found at Bagshaws silk-screen studio (you can see work in progress at the factory on La Toe Road), and batiks can be found at the Caribelle batik factory on Old Victoria Road overlooking Castries. The Caribbean Perfume factory at the Green Parrot Restaurant creates quality perfumes. Master woodcarver Eudovic displays work at his Morne Fortune workshop, ranging from small souvenirs to room-filling creations. The Arts and Crafts Centre in Choiseul has a good range of local craft (baskets, pottery, woodwork, bamboo).

YACHTS

St Lucia is a perfect base for a yachting vacation. The Grenadines and Martinique are within easy reach, and options range from boat rental for experienced sailors to completely crewed vessels for novices. Charter companies include The Moorings at Marigot Bay, Sunsail Stevens at Rodney Bay Marina, and Tradewind Yacht Charters at Rodney Bay.

The Big Banana Blues Party (December 3-5) promises to be a major international event, featuring an array of big names – Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Robert Gray, Mark Knopfler, Stephen Stills, Daryl Hall, Dave Stewart and others. It will be broadcast live to over 30 countries and taped for future internationally transmission.

MEDIA

The Star and The Crusader appear on Saturdays, The Voice on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Tourist information is found in The Tropical Traveller and Visions of St. Lucia (both complimentary). There are two television stations (HTS and DBS) – cable TV is available in some hotels – and several radio stations.

WATERSPORTS

Most major beachside hotels offer a good range of waters ports, including instruction: water-skiing, para-sailing (St Lucian Hotel), windsurfing, sailing. There is excellent scuba and snorkelling, and several dive services operate regular trips, dive options and instruction. The most popular dive sites include Anse Chastanet (a shallow reef dive close to shore, then a drop to over 150 feet into some of the best diving waters in the world), Key Hole Pinnacles (four pinnacles rising to within ten feet of the surface south of Anse Chastanet, excellent for viewing gorgonians), and Anse Cochon (outstanding snorkelling plus a 165-foot wreck in 60 feet of water). Remember not to touch or damage the coral in any way.

OTHER SPORTS

Many of the hotels offer tennis, and the St Lucia Racquet Club in Cap Estate near Club St Lucia has a wide range of facilities with courts of Davis Cup standards. Golf is available at Sandals Resort for guests, and at Cap Estate Golf Club (9 holes) for hotel guests. The Racquet Club has a fitness centre, as do some hotels; workouts are also easy to arrange at Jazzercise (Gablewoods Mall), Fitness Ranch (Marisule) and Laborde’s gym (Hospital Road). There are two riding stables: North Point Stable at Cap Estate and Trim’s Riding Stable at Cas en Bas (which also offers carriage rides). Several companies offer deep sea fishing. There are squash courts at the Racquet Club and Yacht Club.

DINING

Even though many of St Lucia’s hotels are all-inclusive, you’ll be missing out if you don’t try some of the island’s restaurants, such as the Great House Restaurant or San Antoine’s. For local cuisine try Jimmie’s, The Still or The Green Parrot. Key Largo has authentic Italian pizza, Capone’s offers an American- Italian menu, Charthouse specialises in steak and seafood. La Flambe is the place for dishes flarnbeed at your tables ide; L’Epicure is an outstanding dining experience at the deluxe Royal St Lucian. Windjammer Landing has restaurants for every occasion; the re-opened Coal Pot serves good local cuisine; and there is lots more, from Chinese to continental, French haute cuisine to British pubs.

CURRENCY

The Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$) is used by many of the Windward and Leeward Islands; it is valued at around 2.7 to the US dollar- banks commonly buy at 2.72 and sell at 2.67. Hotel rates are usually less advantageous. Banks in St Lucia include Barclays, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Nova Scotia, Caribbean Banking Corporation, National Commercial Bank and St Lucia Co-operative Bank. Most European and North American currencies can be negotiated; major credit cards are widely accepted.

CONVENTIONS

St Lucia welcomes small and medium conventions: there are facilities at Wyndham Morgan Bay Resort, Windjammer Landing and the St Lucian Hotel.

ELECTRICITY

220 volts, 50 cycles

GETTING AROUND

The major international car rental companies are represented in St Lucia along with several very reliable local rental companies. A temporary driving permit is required, and is issued on the strength of a valid home permit for EC$30 at the immigration desks at either airport and at Gros Islet police station. International permits are accepted but must be stamped by police. Authorised taxis are found at airports, hotels and major shopping areas, and operate a standard rate code. The bus system operates across the island at nominal fares: bus stops are located along the main highway – stop an approaching bus by waving your hand. In Castries, bus stops are marked according to destination: northern buses around the market, southern buses along Manoel Street and upper Micoud Street. Mini-buses, individually owned and operated, ply designated routes with pre-set fares.

HEALTH

Water is drawn from the island’s rivers and is treated before use. Mineral water is available in supermarkets. Victoria Hospital is located outside Castries and St Jude’s Hospital at Vieux Fort in the south; the Gablewoods Medical Centre uses modem radiology equipment and a pathology lab; the Fitz St Rose Medical Centre in Castries also has complete lab facilities. Pharmacies are found across the island.

LANGUAGE

English is the official language, but you’ll hear local people using a lively patois, a blend of French, English and African elements, accompanied by lively voice inflections and hand movements. Many of the hotels and tour operators have staff fluent in German, Italian and French.

WEDDINGS

St Lucia has become one of the Caribbean’s most popular wedding destinations, frequently featured in Bride’s Magazine and other publications. Most major hotels will undertake your wedding plans, including the legal requirements, settings and photographer.

Nancy Atkinson

FOR MORE INFORMATION

St Lucia Tourist Board P.O. Box 221, Castries

Tel. (809) 452-4094, 5968; fax (809) 453-1121

 

United States

820 Second Avenue, 9th floor

New York, NY 10017

Tel. 800-436-3984, 212-867-2950;fax212-808-4975

 

Canada

4975 Dundas St. West, Suite 457 Etobicoke “D”

Islington, Ont. M9A 4X4

Tel. 800-456-3984,416-236-0936;fax416-236-0937

 

United Kingdom

421 a Finchley Road, london NW3 6HJ

Tel. 071 431 4045, fax 071 431 7920

 

Europe

Tannenwaldalle 76a, D-61348 Bad Homburg, Germany

Tel. (0 61 72) 30 44 31, fax (0 61 72) 30 50 72

 

53 rue Francois Ler, 75008 Paris, France

Tel. 47 20 39 66; fax 47 23 09 65

 

COMING EVENTS IN ST LUCIA

November 

OECS Boxing Championships 5-7 OECS Open Individual Squash Championships 11-14

OECS Open Domino Festival 19-21

St Cecilia’s Day – Feast of the Musicians 22

OECS Swimming Championships 27-28

December

Big Banana Blues Party 3-5

Atlantic Rally for Cruisers 5-18

National Day Tennis Tournament 8-11

Renwick Junior Tennis Tournament 13-18

National Day 13

St Lucia National Trust Christmas Folk Fiesta 19

1994 HIGHLIGHTS

Carnival February 14-15

Independence Day

February 22

St Lucia Jazz Festival May 12-15

Feast of St Rosa de Lima August 30

Thanksgiving Day October 3

St Lucia Game Fishing Tournament October

St Cecilia’s Day November 22

National Day December 13

Atlantic Rally for Cruisers December

Big Banana Blues Party December