Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)
Plenty of sandy beaches, lush, green, forest-clad mountains, reserves protecting the environment on and offshore, and activities to suit any visitor, beautiful St Lucia has it all.
Pigeon Island National Landmark
Fond Latislab Creole Park
Anse Chastanet Marine Park
Diamond Botanical Gardens
Edmund Forest Reserve
Maria Islands Nature Reserve
Fought over for more than 200 years, St Lucia (Loo-sha), lying between Martinique to the north and St Vincent in the south, has earned the grand-sounding title “Helen of the West Indies.” A veritable treasure during colonial times for its strategic position, and caught in a power struggle between the British and French, this is an incredibly beautiful and enchanting island, a mixture of luxuriant tropical vegetation on a mountainous landscape, stunning beaches, and typically creole culture.
The magnificent Pitons.
The most spectacular feature is the Pitons. The two majestic, cone-shaped peaks on the southwest coast, coated with lush forest, appear on the covers of holiday brochures and postcards all over the world. Rising straight out of the Caribbean Sea to a height of 2,600ft (795 meters), these twin peaks are proof of St Lucia’s volcanic creation. So is the sand, which shimmers in all kinds of shades: snow-white, cream, anthracite gray, and even black.
But green is the color that predominates as you go inland. At least one-fifth of the 238 sq mile (617 sq km) island is covered by a thick carpet of luxuriant tropical rainforest, home to an assortment of wildlife such as the St Lucia parrot (Amazona versicolor) and pygmy gecko, and with orchids, anthurium, and the heavily scented frangipani just growing wild. The highest peak, Mount Gimie (3,117ft/950 meters), is almost permanently hung with cloud, which provides the fertile interior, the rivers and streams with enough water the whole year round. Banana plantations sweep down to the craggy east coast, dramatically buffeted by the wild Atlantic. Until the 1980s, bananas were export article number one. Since then, tourism has outstripped all other income sources, and now more than 330,000 visitors holiday on St Lucia each year, while 650,000 cruise ship passengers also visit.
Biking on St Lucia.
Saint Lucia Tourist Board
Colorful changes of flag
St Lucia’s history is typical of the region. Columbus and the Spanish probably noticed the Pitons from a distance, but they were far too busy heading for South America to bother with the island. After that the Caribs used guerrilla warfare to defend their Hewanorra (Land of Iguanas) against half-hearted attempts at invasion by the British and Dutch. It was only in 1650 that some French settlers finally managed to establish a long-term base on the second-largest of the Windward Islands.
In the years that followed, the French flag and the Union Jack alternated with each other 14 times, until the island finally became British for good in 1814. In 1979, the island was granted independence while remaining within the British Commonwealth.
However, French cultural influences have remained a strong factor in St Lucia. English is the official language but the mother tongue is a melodic creole patois - a mixture of West African influences and French - known as kwéyòl, which is spoken in formal and informal arenas. A good 75 percent of inhabitants are Roman Catholic rather than Anglican and, although cricket is played here as elsewhere in the British Caribbean, the people also love dancing the beguine from Martinique.
Apart from its attractive position in the natural harbor, Castries 1 [map] (pop. 70,000), St Lucia’s modern capital, has few interesting sights. The town was named after the French naval minister Marechal de Castries, who did a great deal to help the colony’s economic development at the end of the 18th century. In 1927 and 1948 two major fires reduced the entire old part of the town to ashes and most of the rebuilding was done in concrete. A stroll through the center, however, provides an exciting glimpse of everyday Caribbean life.
On Friday and Saturday the large Central Market heaves with a crowd of country folk, townies, and visitors. Local farmers pile up the fruits of their labors - rose-colored sweet potatoes, papayas, bananas, heavy breadfruit, and all the aromatic spices that flourish in the fertile volcanic soil. Craftsmen lay out their work alongside the fishermen’s catch, and men play dominoes as bystanders noisily egg them on.
On the corner of Laborie and Micoud streets is the Roman Catholic cathedral, the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (daily, closed only when Mass is in progress), whose interior walls are lined with colorful murals by the acclaimed St Lucian artist Dunstan St Omer. In 2005, St Omer and his son, Giovanni, created 12 magnificent stained-glass windows for the cathedral, and yellow light floods the building via decorative windows in the ceiling. As you leave the cathedral on Laborie Street, to your left is Brazil Street, which has several wooden buildings with gingerbread fretwork and balconies dating back to the late 19th century, the only ones of their kind to survive Castries’ last great fire in 1948.
The St Lucia Jazz Festival (www.stluciajazz.org) every May is claimed to be the most successful in the Caribbean, drawing around 18,000 people. Started in 1992 to fill hotel rooms in low season, the event attracts scores of international big names.
The port of Castries, St Lucia.
The main square, bounded by Brazil, Laborie, Micoud, and Bourbon streets, is a well-kept, small green space with a shady, 400-year-old saman tree. Open-air concerts are often held here. Initially called the Place d’Armes in the 18th century, it is now Derek Walcott Square, in honor of the St Lucian poet and playwright, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1992. Near the bandstand there are busts of Walcott and another eminent St Lucian, Sir Arthur Lewis, who won the Nobel Prize for Economics.
The very best view of the town and island is from Fort Charlotte on Morne Fortune, or the “Hill of Luck,” 3 miles (5km) south of Castries. Renovated and used as a college, the fort was built by the French and British in the 18th century and has witnessed many a battle between the two colonial powers. Today, you can watch the larger-than-life cruise ships jostle for the prime spot in the port next to Pointe Seraphine and La Place Carenage duty-free shopping centers.
As well as in Castries cathedral, the murals of artist Dunstan St Omer and his four sons can be seen in churches at Jacmel, near Marigot Bay, Fond St Jacques near Soufrière, Monchy in the north, on Manoel Street, Castries, and on the sea wall at Anse la Raye.
Beaches and nightlife in the north
The coastal region to the north of Castries is the island’s foremost resort area, with sheltered, white-sand bays, hotels, quaint fishing communities, a marina, shopping malls, and historic landmarks. In the northeast, turtles nest, while rural life inland continues much as it has for generations.
The focus of tourist activity is the growing village of Rodney Bay 2 [map]. This former US military base now features a 1,000-berth marina, many hotels, apartments, restaurants, and bars for a vibrant nightlife, as well as a casino and two shopping malls with supermarkets and designer clothes outlets. When the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) completes the transatlantic crossing just before Christmas, the area heaves with party-goers celebrating the ships’ safe arrival. Reduit Beach, at the end of the village, is one of the best stretches of sand on the island and you can rent sunloungers, umbrellas, and water sports equipment.
There’s a very special kind of party every Friday night from 10pm when the otherwise rather sleepy fishing village of Gros Islet, on the north side of the marina, wakes up for a “jump-up” lasting well into the early hours. Anyone can come, and the smell of grilled chicken fills the streets, together with the steady thump from sound systems. Everyone loves a party on St Lucia, so join in and enjoy it, but keep an eye on your possessions.
Locals at the market in Castries, St Lucia.
Connected to the mainland by a causeway near Gros Islet is the Pigeon Island National Landmark 3 [map] (tel: 758-452 5005; www.slunatrust.org; daily 9am-5pm), with inviting beaches and well-tended footpaths. First inhabited by Amerindians, it was later the haunt of French pirates before Admiral George Rodney established his naval outpost here in 1780. The ruins of Fort Rodney commemorate the admiral’s departure from here in 1782 just before he inflicted his crushing defeat on the French at the Battle of the Saintes, off the coast of Guadeloupe. If you climb up to Signal Peak you will see the strategic advantage of Pigeon Island, with an amazing view all along the west coast of St Lucia and across to Martinique.
Most of the fortress buildings have been left in ruins. The Officers’ Mess is the only building to have been renovated, now used as the headquarters of the St Lucia National Trust, a small interpretive center, and a pub, which remains open after the park has closed. The park is popular as a wedding venue, and also hosts concerts during the St Lucia Jazz Festival in May.
Rodney Bay, St Lucia.
North of Gros Islet is Cap Estate, once heavily forested, then cleared for tobacco and sugar before becoming a desirable residential area around the St Lucia Golf and Country Club (tel: 758-450 8523; www.stluciagolf.com). The far north of St Lucia is the driest part of the island and much of the coast is rocky and rough. The northwest has some pretty beaches in bays where there is usually a single hotel.
On the northeast, Atlantic, side of the island is Cas-en-Bas, where there are some rough-and-ready beaches with lots of wind, making the bay popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers. There are coastal paths that offer some nice hiking too.
Several boat tours sail down the west coast to Soufrière for lunch and a visit to the volcano, Diamond Falls, and the Botanical Gardens, stopping for a swim and snorkel on the way back.
There are lots of activities in the north to tempt you away from the beach to get a feel for the rural interior with its pretty villages dotted between the forested hills. Fond Latisab Creole Park (Fond Assau; tel: 758-450 5461; tours by appointment) is a few miles southeast of Babonneau via narrow country lanes. The 11-acre (4-hectare) working farm, which cultivates nutmeg, cocoa, and cinnamon and produces its own honey, maintains many aspects of traditional St Lucian culture, some aspects of which are Amerindian, and practices farm techniques that have been passed on from father to son. For example, much communication is done using the ancient art of drumming. Visitors can watch log sawing done to the beating of drums accompanied by a chak chak band (named after the sound made by a local instrument). While sawing, the men sing kwéyòl folk songs, accompanied by the band and the drum beats, which help to maintain rhythm and momentum. You can also see local people crayfishing, using traditional bamboo pots, and making cassava bread and farine - a fine cassava flour produced from the root vegetable grown on the estate.
Down the road from Fond Latisab, in Chassin, at the foot of La Sorcière hill, is the popular Rain Forest Adventures - Sky Rides (tel: 758-458 5151; www.rainforestadventure.com; Dec-May Tue-Sun). During a 2,5-hour tour, visitors are transported high above the forest in a gondola, offering a bird’s-eye view as they glide through the forest canopy. After the ride you can buckle up to zip-line through the forest, an adrenaline rush which is great fun, and only basic levels of fitness and health are required.
The land of Bounty
Beyond Morne Fortune south of Castries, the road twists and turns and goes up and down through spectacular scenery to Marigot Bay 4 [map], 8 miles (13km) away, up mountains and down past the broad banana plantations of the Roseau Valley, which provide bananas for British supermarkets. Yachties flock to the natural harbor and large marina, where once Admiral Rodney bamboozled the French by disguising his fleet with palm fronds; and you can enjoy a drink in Doolittle’s, which is a boat ride across the bay, and named for the 1966 movie Dr Doolittle which was shot here.
Zip-line through the forest for an adrenaline rush.
The Roseau Valley is now one of the main banana-growing areas on the island, but before bananas were planted the land was given over to sugar cane. Some of that sugar went into producing rum, and although the sugar industry has disappeared, rum is still important. You can visit St Lucia Distillers (tel: 758-456 3148; www.stluciarums.com; Mon-Fri 9am-3pm; reservations essential, 24 hours in advance) which produces a wide selection of rums and liqueurs from imported Guyanese molasses. There is an extensive buffet of some 20 rums for tasting after the tour and, of course, there’s a shop. Bounty is the dark rum you will most commonly see on the island, while Cristal is the white rum used in cocktails.
The main road now winds its way south across the mountains in a series of hair-raising hairpins; several rivers have formed natural harbor bays along the coast, and the villages of Anse La Raye and Canaries are filled with colorfully painted fishermen’s houses. Every Friday night, Anse La Raye residents put on a “fish fry” accompanied by DJs and loud music in the streets. Stallholders set up coal pots and barbecues in front of the fishermen’s huts and lay out tables for people keen to try the catch of the day, and even lobster when in season, washed down with a Piton beer.
The village of Anse La Raye.
Another local culinary treat is on offer just before you reach Canaries. At a curve where the road widens is Plas Kassav (tel: 758-459 4050; daily 8.30am-7 or 8pm), where a family bakery uses traditional methods to produce a delicious cassava bread with many different flavors (coconut, peanut butter, cherry and raisin, cinnamon, salt, salt fish, or smoked herring). It is as popular with local people for a snack or lunch as it is with tour parties.
The scenic route to Soufrière
The road to Soufrière is green and beautiful, with lush vegetation overhanging the road as it twists along the edge of the mountains and cuts through the hills along the coast. To the east is Mount Gimie (3,117ft/950 meters), the highest peak on the island, in the midst of forest reserves. As the West Coast Road descends to Soufrière, there are several viewpoints where you can get that picture-postcard photo of the bay and the Pitons, especially pretty if there is a tall ship in the harbor.
Experienced climbers can try their hand at scaling Gros Piton, but the difficult ascent may only be made in the company of local guides familiar with the terrain. Call the Tour Guides Association on tel: 758-489 0136.
At Soufrière 5 [map], the 18th-century French capital of St Lucia, about 5 miles (8km) south of Canaries, old wooden buildings with pretty balconies and gingerbread fretwork line the streets, slender coconut palms border the dark volcanic sand, fishing boats and yachts bob in the emerald-green bay, and the dark-green wooded peaks of Petit Piton (2,350ft/743 meters) and Gros Piton (2,540ft/798 meters) create a magnificent backdrop. This Caribbean landscape seems too good to be true; not even the rain, frequent on the west coast, can spoil the joy of being in a place like this. Louis XIV of France granted around 2,000 acres (809 hectares) of land to the Devaux family, who ran a successful plantation growing sugar, cocoa, tobacco, and cotton. Descendants of the family still own land here and their estates are open to the public.
The dramatic scenery continues underwater at the Anse Chastanet National Marine Park 6 [map], north of Soufrière, where the diving and snorkeling are reputedly the best on the island, with more than 25 different types of coral in the reefs. The dive shop at the resort, Scuba St Lucia, rents snorkeling and diving equipment, runs scuba diving courses, and offers several daily boat and shore dives from its black-sand beach. Just north of Anse Chastanet are two beaches of golden sand, Anse Mamin and Anse Jambon. Anse Mamin is backed by forest and former plantation land from where Bike St Lucia organizes jungle biking trips on trails through the old plantation.
In a mansion house on Cap Estate is Llewellyn Xavier’s Studio (tel: 758-450 9155; www.llewellynxavier.com), where the work of the St Lucian multimedia artist can be viewed only by appointment. His art is exhibited in the permanent collections of museums and galleries all over the world.
Springs and plantations
Not far from the Pitons the pungent odor of hydrogen sulfide in the air heralds the crater region of Sulfur Springs 7 [map] (tel: 758-459 7686; daily), called “the only drive-in volcano in the world,” because car parking was possible between the bubbling springs of gray-brown mud for quite some time. No longer: now the last few yards have to be covered on foot. The volcano collapsed more than 40,000 years ago and now produces only the foul-smelling gases and hot water that can reach temperatures of 338°F (170°C). In 2004, the Pitons, the marine park, and the Sulfur Springs were designated a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The restorative powers of the steamy springs are harnessed in the water at the historic Diamond Botanical Gardens Mineral Baths and Waterfall (tel: 758-459 7155; www.diamondstlucia.com; Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 10am-3pm). In the middle of a splendid garden, where colorful orchids, flame trees, and hibiscus bushes bloom, the hot water streams out of the ground into tiled basins at a temperature of around 100°C (212°F). A commemorative plaque announces that a creole girl from Martinique named Marie-Josèphe Rose Tascher de la Pagerie (for more information, click here), Napoléon Bonaparte’s wife-to-be, used to spend her holidays here in the 18th century because her father owned a plantation near Soufrière. The estate, still owned by the Devaux family today, also features a restored water mill (1765), which was used to crush sugar cane and to provide Soufrière with electricity.
Snorkelers take in their surroundings and a large brain coral.
Anse Chastanet Resort
The region around Soufrière as a whole is just the right place to get a feel for plantation life. A number of the traditional old manors are open to the public. The Morne Coubaril Estate (tel: 758-459 7340; www.stluciaziplining.com; daily; guided tours) is a working plantation with an abundance of fruit trees and bushes such as papaya, coconut, banana, orange, grapefruit, and cocoa; it was owned by the Devaux family until 1960.
The Fond Doux Estate (tel: 758-459 7545; www.fonddouxestate.com), between Soufrière and the fishing village of Choiseul, offers tours around its 250-year-old cocoa plantation, serves local cuisine in the restaurant and provides accommodations in the estate cottages.
The Rabot Estate (tel: 758-457 1624; www.thehotelchocolat.com), a beautifully rehabilitated 140-acre (56-hectare) cocoa plantation owned by the British chocolatiers, Hotel Chocolat, dates back to 1745 and has some very rare old trees of scientific interest - and interest to those who love chocolate. This is a true “bean to bar” experience, as the owners make chocolate from their own cocoa. They have built a boutique hotel Boucan there and there is also a restaurant specializing in chocolate recipes.
Halfway between Choiseul and Laborie, inside an enchanting 70-acre (30-hectare) park, lies Balenbouche Estate House (tel: 758-455 1244; www.balenbouche.com; daily; guided tours by appointment). Always atmospheric with the ghostly remains of sugar production permeating throughout, the small family-run hotel is supremely peaceful.
Accommodations for rent on the Fond Doux Holiday Plantation.
Fond Doux Holiday Plantation, St. Lucia
The green heart of the island
Most of the mountainous heart of St Lucia is forest reserve, partly to protect wildlife and partly to preserve water supply for the island. Trails are maintained by the Forestry Department (tel: 758-450 2231, 758-468 5649; tours), and it is possible to hike from one coast to the other.
With advance notice, the rangers will escort you from Fond St Jacques through the Edmund Forest Reserve to the Quilesse Forest Reserve and down to the rangers’ station on the Des Cartiers Rainforest Trail, near Mahaut, and to Micoud on the east coast. Alternatively, for a shorter excursion, follow the Enbas Saut Trail from the rangers’ station above Fond St Jacques. This steep but exhilarating trail winds down 2,112 steps cut in the hillside to a pool and little waterfall on the Troumassée River, providing an opportunity to see elfin woodland, cloud forest, and rainforest, depending on your altitude. Expect to get wet and muddy, especially after rain, which is frequent. You may be lucky enough to spot a rare St Lucian parrot. They nearly became extinct in the 1970s, but after the introduction of strict protective measures, several hundred of them are thriving on the island again.
The east coast, which has plenty of rainfall, few inhabitants, and a raw Atlantic atmosphere, is rewarding for nature lovers. At the southern tip of the island is Vieux Fort, the second-largest town and the location of the international airport. Spectacular views of both sides of the island can be had from the lighthouse perched on top of Cap Moule à Chique, standing 730ft (223 meters) above sea level. Vieux Fort has a beautiful strip of white-sand beach, Anse de Sables, which is popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers for the trade winds blowing onshore. There is a beach bar, a few cabins, and a surf center where boards and equipment can be rented.
Saint Lucia Whiptail (Cnemidophorus vanzoi).
Just off the beach is the Maria Islands Nature Reserve 8 [map] (restricted access, closed during nesting season; for information contact the National Trust, tel: 758-452 5005). A real birdwatchers’ dream, it is home to - among others - the sooty tern, the red-billed tropic bird, and the brown noddy, which tucks its nests under the prickly pear cactus. Also living there are two endemic reptiles: the St Lucia whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus vanzoi) and the non-poisonous kouwess grass snake (Dromicus ornatus).
Driving up the east coast you pass a large area of mangrove swamp, Mankoté Mangrove, and the Savannes Bay Nature Reserve, a protected wetland with good birdlife. About 9 miles (16km) from Vieux Fort is the fishing village of Micoud, where the Troumassée River meets the sea. Inland from here is Mahaut and there is good walking and parrot-watching in the forest reserves.
Preserving the whiptail lizard
The endemic St Lucia whiptail lizard (Cnemidophorus vanzoi) is the only whiptail found in the Eastern Caribbean. The males sport the colors of the St Lucian flag: black, white, blue, and yellow. Cats, rats, and mongooses preyed on the population until by the 1960s there remained just a few lizards on the Maria Islands. In the 1990s the Forestry Department and the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust started to introduce the whiptail to other predator-free offshore islands in order not to have “all their eggs in one basket.” A satellite colony on Praslin Island was hugely successful and in 2008 whiptails from all three islets were moved on to Rat Island, off Castries, in order to widen the gene pool. In 2014, successful breeding was confirmed in Rat Island’s population. A further colony on Dennery Island is planned.
Flora and frigate birds
A good bet for getting to know the island’s flora is Mamiku Gardens (tel: 758-455 3729; www.mamikugardens.com; daily 9am-5pm), close to Mon Repos. In the 18th century Mamiku Estate was home to a French governor of the island, then became a British military outpost, and is now a banana plantation. With easy walking trails, bright orchids, and a plethora of visiting bird species to spot, Mamiku is a perfect way to spend a relaxed afternoon.
The road continues north to Praslin Bay, with the tiny Praslin Island lying just offshore. Villagers maintain their old fishing traditions here and you can still see canoes made from gommier trees. In the northern part of the bay a huge resort and golf course have been partially built, but construction has stalled and St Lucia’s government is searching for investors who could revive the project. As a result, the Fregate Islands Nature Reserve is off limits to visitors. The frigate bird (Fregata magnificens) migrates from Cape Verde in Africa to nest here, but their numbers have dropped dramatically.
A stream running through Mamiku Gardens.
At Dennery the main road turns west into the Mabouya Valley. As the road climbs, the view down to Fond d’Or Bay is spectacular. Nearby, an old fort and plantation ruins have been developed as Fond d’Or Nature Reserve and Historical Park (tel: 758-453 3242; daily), with a wooded canopy of coconut palms, an estuarine forest, and mangrove wetlands. Visitors can hike along the forest trails and tour the estate that contains the remnants of the sugar mill, the windmill, and the old planter’s house, which is now an interpretive center.
The road now leaves the coast behind and heads inland and uphill into the forest before climbing over the Barre de l’Isle, the ridge that divides the island. At the high point there is a stall where Forestry Department guides meet hikers. You can either do the short Barre de l’Isle trail on your own for views of the forest down to Roseau Valley, or hire a guide for the longer Mount La Combe hike. As you emerge from the forest the landscape becomes progressively more built-up until the smell from the coffee-roasting factory advises you that you are on the outskirts of Castries again.