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In the Lesser Antilles west of Barbados, St Lucia is just a drop in the ocean, 27 by 14 miles with spectacular mountains, lush rainforest and fertile valleys fringed by tingling sands. Tossed 14 times between French and English colonial powers, the island has thrown both cultures into the melting pot with a generous helping of African folklore, a little Indian spice and vestiges of early Amerindian settlers.
English is the official language though Creole, a mix of African dialects and French, is flourishing once again in tune with the stirring rhythm of reggae and calypso.
Tourist-hungry yet eco-friendly, St Lucia has kept most developments to the northwest where minutes from the mile-long Reduit Beach, our villa nestled among bougainvillaea and frangipani. Glistening sands swept around the vast Rodney Bay, interrupted only by the entrance to a grand marina, tucked away on an old mangrove swamp. This was the perfect tropical dream, blue crystalline sea, powdery sand shaded by palms and sea grape trees, and the sun baked hills of Pigeon Island glowing russet and gold beyond the causeway.
‘It’s too far to walk,’ said the man in a boat, ‘I’ll take you.’ So we sailed across the bay, looking out for angel fish as our colourful captain wove a couple of much needed palm hats. On the peninsula, the National Park greeted us with an 18th century fort named after Admiral Rodney, mysterious caves once inhabited by Amerindians and steep winding trails offering superb views over the bay, the hills and the causeway, lapped by the foaming Atlantic on one side and the shimmering Caribbean on the other. There was time for a swim in a deserted cove and a cool Piton beer in the ‘Wooden Leg’ pirates’ den.
Meanwhile the Brig Unicorn was returning to port with its cargo of ‘pirates for a day’, mock cannon fire and water pistols. Excited families tumbled ashore but our choice went to a leisurely cruise along the west coast, no chase on the high seas but plenty of rum. We set sail on a bright morning, gliding into the lovely Marigot Bay featured in Dr Doolittle, and past hidden coves and diving sites and sleepy villages gathered around fishing nets and laundry drying on the beach. We dropped anchor in Soufrière below the dramatic Piton hills. Sometimes you can spot dolphins and whales, sunfish and turtles who nest on the east coast.
The old capital
Framed by wooded hills plunging down to the sea, Soufrière, the former capital, remains little more than an overgrown village. The flags were out when we arrived, not for us, but for Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall who visited the previous day, and there was still a festive air around the square and the lanes festooned in pastel colours and colonial balconies. Vendors sold cabbages and sweet potatoes under the arcades while parrot and rainbow fish popped on hand-held scales straight from the morning catch.
Few visitors linger in town for on the outskirts is the world’s only ‘drive in’ volcano, collapsed long ago to leave a caldera seething with sulphurous fumes and gurgling mud. The air smells of rotten eggs, coach parties queue to be escorted down the walkway and a sign kindly informs you that ‘tips are allowed’.
A short drive away, the Botanical Gardens welcomed us like a breath of fresh air. We relaxed in the soothing Mineral Baths, marvelled at the Diamond Fall gushing down multicoloured rocks then strolled along the shaded paths, marvelling at ginger lilies, hibiscus, orchids, green vines and soursop. The Soufrière River meandered through the gorge and exotic birds flitted in the trees. The gardens are part of an estate granted by French King Louis XIV to the Devaux family whose descendants are still here today.
Wherever you are in Soufrière, you feel the presence of the Pitons, now a World Heritage Site with their luxuriant volcanic cones towering at 2600 feet. Only experienced climbers scale the sheer slopes of Petit Piton but Gros Piton is easier to conquer, at least to the half way point. Those who reach the top can expect a fabulous panorama over St Lucia and neighbouring islands on a clear day.
Eager to explore without too much effort, we decided on a jeep safari through banana plantations and hamlets lost in a time warp. At over 3000 feet, Mount Gimie, the highest peak, rose above the horizon as we climbed around endless bends in clouds of red dust.
We rested in the shade of a mango tree, quenched our thirst on coconut milk then donned our walking boots ready for a mini-trek in the rainforest. ‘Keep to the path,’ warned the guide as mysterious creatures rustled in the undergrowth and the mighty Venus Fall plunged over the lava rocks. Later we bathed in a milky pool to soothe our weary limbs while back on the road, Mr Rainbow busily carved birds from coconut shells right by the waiting jeep.
How about the Sky Ride, we wondered? Expensive, but where else could we glide above a rainforest canopy? We boarded the eight seater gondola, just skimming the tree tops as we moved smoothly up the hill. It was sheer magic and we hardly dared to speak, gazing in wonder at incense and fern trees, breadnut, blue mahoe and heliconia, spotting hummingbirds, butterflies, a mongoose darting into a bush, a tarantula dangling from a branch inches away. Below us were the rolling farmlands of Babonneau and villages sprinkled in the hills.
By lunch time, in the little restaurants perched on stilts, the pepperpot simmered in cassava juice, vegetables and meat as fiery as they looked, so treading carefully, we ordered the national dish of green fig and salt fish. What happened to the figs, I wondered? I should have guessed, fig is the local name for bananas. Food in St Lucia may be surprising but it is as colourful as its people and as fresh as the dew.
On a Friday night, south of Castries, the village of Anse la Raye stages a gigantic fish fry al fresco as myriad families gather on the streets to celebrate the start of the weekend. Barbecues glow in the dark, smoke drifts along the shore and when it all slows down around 10 pm, the party begins in Rodney Bay.
During the week, Gros Islet is a quiet place with cool verandas and balconies and hardly a tourist in sight, but late on Friday, the streets come alive with the sound of music and the smell of food. All sorts of delicacies bubble in the pots or sizzle in the pans, fish, meat, rice, corn on the cob, callaloo soup and more, and thanks to a few lashings of Bounty rum , the Afro-Caribbean beat soon raises the tempo. The ‘jump-up’ gets under way. You may not want to jive or salsa all night yet there is no better place to enjoy St Lucian food, freshly cooked and cheap.
Rodney Bay has lots of eating places, casual or upmarket, but if you fancy cooking dinner Creole style in your villa, be sure to visit the market in Castries. You’ll find pumpkins for soup or pies, fish straight from the boat, knobbly vegetables, shiny dasheen leaves, peppers, okra and enough herbs and spices to make anyone proud. Dessert may be coconut sugar cakes or tamarind balls though we preferred to feast on juicy mangos, guavas, passion fruit, papaya and every tropical fruit on offer.
Diamonds and Jazz
There is more to Castries however than the buzzing Saturday market or the cruise ships docking in the harbour. Enjoy a bird’s eye view of the capital from the Hill of Good Luck, listening to the blues of a lonely busker, pop into the Cathedral and see the stunning murals and stained glass by St Lucian artist Dunstan St Omer then relax on the square in the shade of a 400 year old Saman tree. During the Jazz Festival centred on Pigeon Island in May, there is music on the square every day to the delight of locals and visitors alike.
Although Castries was destroyed several times, the old town retains a quaint colonial charm especially in the pretty façades and balconies of Brazil Street. They seem a world away from the gleaming waterfront and the duty-free shopping malls of Place Carenage and Pointe Séraphine across the harbour.
Remember your passport and airline ticket if you are hoping for a treat, whether an antique or a painting, Colombian emeralds or the world’s finest diamonds. More modest shoppers browse the boutiques, the Jazz Festival Shop and the quality crafts, ceramics and silk screens, leather, woodcarvings or crystal. Many craftsmen and artists live in the hills above Castries.
I did glance at the diamonds but at the end of the day, the greatest pleasure was sitting on the beach, sipping exotic cocktails as a fiery sunset lit up the vast Caribbean sky. It turned all shades of red, purple and gold while now and then on a remote farm, a worker headed home to the hypnotic beat of a Creole drum.
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