Insight Guides: Pocket St Lucia - Insight Guides (2016)
Every year, several hundred thousand people visit the tiny island of St Lucia (pronounced Loo-sha) for the archetypal Caribbean holiday of sun, sea and sand, but soon discover a wealth of other attractions and activities to enjoy. The Caribbean coast has long stretches of fine sand and healthy coral reefs, while the Atlantic-buffeted side provides good windsurfing and has nature reserves populated by rare wildlife as well as extensive stretches of sand, remote from mass tourism and popular with nesting turtles. At the island’s heart the rich land is lush with trees, and there are forest reserves in the mountains and on the Pitons, the landmark twin, cone-shaped peaks. St Lucia is stunningly beautiful.
Footprints in the sand at Rodney Bay
Lying at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles chain, St Lucia is part of the Windward Islands group, with Martinique 34km (21 miles) to the north, St Vincent 34km (21 miles) to the south and Barbados 160km (100 miles) to the southeast. The island comprises 617 sq km (238 sq miles) of undulating hills and mountains covered with native trees, coconut palms, banana plantations and several types of forest. The second-largest of the Windward Islands group - only Dominica is bigger - volcanic St Lucia is 43km (27 miles) long and 22km (14 miles) wide, with beaches of black or golden sand, hot sulphur springs, a scenic mountain range and rich, fertile soil.
St Lucia has a tropical, humid climate that provides warm sunshine most of the year, cooled by northeastern trade winds. Showers at any time of year keep the land lush and green.
People and heritage
The island population of about 174,000, is a pot pourri of people of African, Amerindian, European and East Indian descent. European settlement, indentured labour and slavery helped to determine the ethnic mix of the country. Disease, war and colonisation contributed to the disappearance of the island’s Amerindian population, which was virtually wiped out by the time enslaved Africans were introduced in the late 17th-century. Few people can trace their ancestry directly to the Kalinago, who inhabited the island at the time of colonisation. However, there are St Lucians who are of mixed African and Amerindian blood.
People with an African heritage are likely to be descendants of the slaves brought as forced labour to work the land, while St Lucians of European heritage are probably the descendants of settlers, plantation owners and poor white labourers. There are also descendants of East Indian indentured labourers who arrived after the abolition of slavery. Today, around 80 percent of the population is of African origin, under 3 percent of East Indian extraction, with 12 percent of mixed heritage, and people of European origin making up the remainder. This is a Creole society in its broadest sense: a rich and rare combination of races, cultures, languages and cuisine.
Language and culture
Although St Lucia has been a British territory since 1814 and the official language is English, French culture pervades. A melodic French Creole (Kwéyòl) is spoken by more than 90 percent of people in informal arenas and, due to a drive to preserve and promote Creole traditions, is increasingly used in official circles as well. It has been suggested that a large percentage of children do not speak English until they go to school. Creole culture and heritage is important and efforts are being made to hold on to the rich folklore, music and language. There are annual festivals, which include traditional storytellers, folk singers and dancers and carnival masqueraders.
The French influence can be seen in place and family names and also in the island’s closeness to the neighbouring French département of Martinique. There are common linguistic elements within St Lucian and Martinican Creole. However, St Lucian Kwéyòl isn’t as close to the French language as one might imagine.
The Kwéyòl tongue
Kwéyòl began as an oral language that initially helped the French and groups from different parts of the African continent communicate effectively. It was derived from elements of French, a variety of African vocabulary and grammar, English and a little Spanish. St Lucian Kwéyòl did not have an official written form until the 20th century and today many people who are fluent Kwéyòl speakers are not literate in the language. Kwéyòl continues to gain legitimacy through the work of community groups and increasingly published literature. In 1998 Kwéyòl was officially recognised in the St Lucia House of Assembly and in 1999 the New Testament was published in Kwéyòl, a project that took 15 years to complete, followed in 2001 by a Kwéyòl dictionary for the Ministry of Education.
St Lucia is home to lush landscapes
The French influence can also be seen in religion. Over two thirds of islanders are Roman Catholic and the church plays an important part in the lives of ordinary people. However, living by traditional Christian values hasn’t prevented St Lucians from retaining elements of the old West African belief system and folklore - obeah. An obeah man or woman works spells and creates potions from roots and other forest plants that can heal or harm. However, they are better known for creating mischief.
Before the advent of modern medicine the healing practitioner was sought out to cure illnesses, using ancient herbal remedies. Today, people are turning back to nature in an attempt to recoup knowledge about the medicinal properties of native plants, which flourish in the wild and in domestic gardens.
A cocoa pod at Fondoux
Environment and wildlife
St Lucia has a thriving forest covering 77 sq km (30 sq miles) and a greater biodiversity than neighbouring Dominica. Although a large proportion of native forest was cut down for plantation crops in colonial times, much of the remaining rainforest is protected now to safeguard the island’s water supply and wildlife. Fresh water cascades through the mountains, the rivers and streams feeding the land below.
Flowering trees such as the immortelle or African tulip tree provide bursts of colour but are not native to St Lucia.
Rare birds and wildlife include the national bird, the St Lucian parrot, the St Lucia oriole, the red-billed tropic bird and the St Lucia black finch. Nature trails through the forest may also reveal the guinea pig-like creature called an agouti, an iguana or a mongoose. Native to the island are the boa constrictor and the poisonous fer-de-lance snake, rarely seen because the creatures populate the dry scrub areas on the east coast not usually explored by walkers.
On the west coast are the fertile valleys of Roseau and Cul de Sac where many of the banana plantations are located. In contrast, the north of the island is drier, with cacti proliferating in the scrubland.
St Lucia has been mindful to preserve the natural environment that attracts many visitors and provides a livelihood for local fishermen. Divers and snorkellers flock to the diverse sea life of the coral reefs that border the western and southern areas of the island. Along the east coast close to the Fregate Islands are shallow reefs and mangroves.