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St Lucia Introduction
St. Lucia (Loo-sha) is one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean, with some of its finest resorts. The heaviest tourist development is concentrated in the northwest, between the capital, Castries, and the northern end of the island, where there’s a string of white-sand beaches.
The rest of St. Lucia remains relatively unspoiled, a checkerboard of green-mantled mountains, valleys, banana plantations, a bubbling volcano, wild orchids, and fishing villages. The island has a mixed French and British heritage, but there’s a hint of the South Pacific about it as well.
A mountainous island of some 623 sq. km (243 sq. miles), St. Lucia has about 160,000 inhabitants. The capital, Castries, is built on the southern shore of a large harbor surrounded by hills.
Writer Derek Walcott was born in Castries. His father was an unpublished poet who died when Walcott was just a year old, and his mother was a former headmistress at the Methodist school on St. Lucia. In 1992, Walcott won the Nobel Prize for literature. He prefers, however, not to tout the charms of St. Lucia, telling the press, “I don’t want everyone to go there and overrun the place.” Alas, his warning has come too late.
Rising out of the relative obscurity in which it languished for most of the 20th century, St. Lucia is becoming — post-millennium — one of the biggest players in Caribbean tourism. Since the dawn of the new century, World Travel Awards has named it “the world’s leading honeymoon destination.” Local authorities estimate that 36% of the island’s business comes from visitors either getting married or else on a honeymoon here. At the same time, Natural History Magazine has honored St. Lucia as one of the 50 top eco-tourism destinations in the world.
St Lucia Attractions
With lovely little towns, beautiful beaches and bays, mineral baths, and banana plantations, you won’t tire of exploring St. Lucia. You can even visit a volcano.
Most hotel front desks will make arrangements for tours that take in all the major sights of St. Lucia. For example, Sunlink Tours, Reduit Beach Avenue (tel. 758/456-9100 or 758/452-8232), offers many island tours, including full-day boat trips along the west coast of Soufrière, the Pitons, and the volcano; the cost is US$90 (£47) per person. Jeep safaris can be arranged for US$50 to US$120 (£26-£62) apiece, depending on the tour. One of the most popular jaunts is a rainforest ramble for US$85 (£44) by jeep. There’s also a daily shopping tour for US$25 (£13). The company has tour desks and/or representatives at most of the major hotels.
The capital city has grown up around its harbor, which occupies the crater of an extinct volcano. Charter captains and the yachting set drift in here, and large cruise-ship wharves welcome vessels from around the world. Because several devastating fires (most recently in 1948) destroyed almost all the old buildings, the town today looks new, with glass-and-concrete (or steel) buildings rather than the French colonial or Victorian look typical of many West Indian capitals.
Castries may be architecturally dull, but its public market is one of the most fascinating in the West Indies, and our favorite people-watching site on the island. It goes full blast every day of the week except Sunday, and is most active on Friday and Saturday mornings. The market stalls are a block from Columbus Square along Peynier Street, running down toward the water. The local women dress traditionally, with cotton headdresses; the number of knotted points on top reveals their marital status. (Ask one of the locals to explain it to you.) The luscious fruits and vegetables of St. Lucia may be new to you; the array of colors alone is astonishing. Sample one of the numerous varieties of bananas: On St. Lucia, they’re allowed to ripen on the tree, and taste completely different from those picked green and sold at supermarkets in the United States. You can also pick up St. Lucian handicrafts such as baskets and unglazed pottery here.
To the south of Castries looms Morne Fortune, the inappropriately named “Hill of Good Luck.” In the 18th century, some of the most savage Caribbean battles between the French and the British took place here. You can visit the military cemetery, a small museum, the old powder magazine, and the “Four Apostles Battery” (a quartet of grim muzzle-loading cannons). Government House, now the official residence of the governor-general of St. Lucia, is one of the few examples of Victorian architecture that escaped destruction by fire. The private gardens are beautifully planted, aflame with scarlet and purple bougainvillea. Morne Fortune also offers what many consider the most scenic lookout perch in the Caribbean. The view of the harbor of Castries is panoramic: You can see north to Pigeon Island or south to the Pitons; on a clear day, you may even spot Martinique. To reach Morne Fortune, head east on Bridge Street.
Pigeon Island National Historic Park
St. Lucia’s first national park is joined to the mainland by a causeway. On its west coast are two white-sand beaches. There’s also a restaurant, Jambe de Bois, named after a wooden-legged pirate who once used the island as a hideout.
Pigeon Island offers an Interpretation Centre, equipped with artifacts and a multimedia display on local history, ranging from the Amerindian occupation of A.D. 1000 to the Battle of the Saints, when Admiral Rodney’s fleet set out from Pigeon Island and defeated Admiral De Grasse in 1782. The Captain’s Cellar Olde English Pub lies under the center and is evocative of an 18th-century English bar.
Pigeon Island, only 18 hectares (44 acres), got its name from the red-neck pigeon, or ramier, that once colonized this island in huge numbers. Now the site of a Sandals Hotel and interconnected to the St. Lucian “mainland” with a causeway, the island offers pleasant panoramas but no longer the sense of isolated privacy that reigned here prior to its development. Parts of it, those far from the hotel on the premises, seem appropriate for nature walks. For more information, call tel. 758/452-2231.
This scenic bay is a 15-minute drive north of Castries. Set on a man-made lagoon, it has become a chic center for nightlife, hotels, and restaurants — in fact, it’s the most active place on the island at night. Its marina is one of the top watersports centers in the Caribbean, and a destination every December for the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers, when yachties cross the Atlantic to meet and compare stories.
Movie crews, including those for Sophia Loren’s Fire Power, have used this bay, one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean, for background shots. Thirteen kilometers (8 miles) south of Castries, it’s narrow yet navigable by yachts of any size. Here Admiral Rodney camouflaged his ships with palm leaves while lying in wait for French frigates. The shore, lined with palm trees, remains relatively unspoiled, although some building sites have been sold. It’s a delightful spot for a picnic. A 24-hour ferry connects the bay’s two sides.
This little fishing port, St. Lucia’s second-largest settlement, is dominated by two pointed hills called Petit Piton and Gros Piton. The Pitons, two volcanic cones rising to 738m and 696m (2,421 ft. and 2,283 ft.), have become the very symbol of St. Lucia. Formed of lava and rock, and once actively volcanic, they are now covered in green vegetation. Their sheer rise from the sea makes them a landmark visible for miles around, and waves crash at their bases. It’s recommended that you attempt to climb only Gros Piton, but doing so requires the permission of the Forest and Lands Department (tel. 758/450-2078) and the company of a knowledgeable guide.
Near Soufrière lies the famous “drive-in” volcano, Mount Soufrière, a rocky lunar landscape of bubbling mud and craters seething with sulfur. You literally drive your car into a millions-of-years-old crater and walk between the sulfur springs and pools of hissing steam. Entrance costs EC$7 (US$2.60/£1.40) per person and includes the services of your guide, who will point out the blackened waters, among the few of their kind in the Caribbean. Hours are daily from 9am to 5pm; for more information, call tel. 758/459-7200.
Nearby are the Diamond Mineral Baths (tel. 758/452-4759) in the Diamond Botanical Gardens. Deep in the lush tropical gardens is the Diamond Waterfall, one of the geological attractions of the island. Created from water bubbling up from sulfur springs, the waterfall changes colors (from yellow to black to green to gray) several times a day. The baths were constructed in 1784 on the orders of Louis XVI, whose doctors told him these waters were similar in mineral content to the waters at Aix-les-Bains; they were intended to provide recuperative effects for French soldiers fighting in the West Indies. The baths have an average temperature of 106°F (41°C). For EC$15 (US$5.55/£3), you can bathe and try out the recuperative effects for yourself. There is a EC$11 (US$4/£2) entrance fee.
From Soufrière in the southwest, the road winds toward Fond St-Jacques, where you’ll have a good view of mountains and villages as you cut through St. Lucia’s Cape Moule-Chique tropical rainforest. You’ll also see the Barre de l’Isle divide.
The fertile volcanic soil of St. Lucia sustains a rich diversity of bird and animal life. Some of the richest troves for ornithologists are in protected precincts off the St. Lucian coast, in either of two national parks, Fregate Islands Nature Reserve and the Maria Islands Nature Reserve.
The Fregate Islands are a cluster of rocks a short distance offshore from Praslin Bay, midway up St. Lucia’s eastern coastline. Barren except for tall grasses that seem to thrive in the salt spray, the islands were named after the scissor-tailed frigate birds (Fregata magnificens) that breed here. Between May and July, large colonies of the graceful birds fly in well-choreographed formations over islands that you can only visit under the closely supervised permission of government authorities. Many visitors believe that the best way to admire the Fregate Islands (and to respect their fragile ecosystems) is to walk along the nature trail that the St. Lucian government has hacked along the cliff top of the St. Lucian mainland, about 45m (150 ft.) inland from the shoreline. Even without binoculars, you’ll be able to see the frigates wheeling overhead. You’ll also enjoy eagle’s-eye views of the unusual geology of the St. Lucian coast, which includes sea caves, dry ravines, a waterfall (during the rainy season), and a strip of mangrove swamp.
Maria Islands are larger and more arid and are almost constantly exposed to salt-laden winds blowing up from the equator. Set to the east of St. Lucia’s southernmost tip, off the town of Vieux Fort, their biodiversity is strictly protected. The approximately 12 hectares (30 acres) of cactus-dotted land that make up the two largest islands (Maria Major and Maria Minor) are home to more than 120 species of plants, lizards, butterflies, and snakes that are believed to be extinct in other parts of the world. These include the large ground lizard (Zandolite) and the nocturnal, nonvenomous kouwes snake (Dromicus ornatus).
The Marias are also a bird refuge, populated by such species as the sooty tern, the bridled tern, the Caribbean martin, the red-billed tropicbird, and the brown noddy, which usually nests under the protective thorns of prickly pear cactus.
Tours to either island must be arranged through the staff of the St. Lucia National Trust (tel. 758/454-5014). Full-day excursions, including the boat ride to the refuge and the guided tour, cost US$70 (£36) for the Fregates and US$85 (£44) for the Marias (the Marias jaunt includes lunch).
Discovering “Forgotten” Grande Anse
The northeast coast is the least visited and least accessible part of St. Lucia, but it contains dramatic rockbound shores interspersed with secret sandy coves. The government has set Grand Anse aside as a nature reserve so that it will never be developed. The terrain is arid and can be unwelcoming, but it is fascinating nonetheless. Grande Anse is home to some rare bird species, notably the white-breasted thrasher, as well as the fer-de-lance, the only poisonous snake on the island (but visitors report rarely seeing them). Its beaches — Grande Anse, Petite Anse, and Anse Louvet — are nesting grounds for endangered sea turtles, including the hawksbill, the green turtle, the leatherback, and the loggerhead. Nesting season lasts from February to October. Many locals tackle the poor road in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, especially the bumpiest part from Desbarra to Grande Anse.
St Lucia Shopping
Most of the shopping is in Castries, where the principal streets are William Peter Boulevard and Bridge Street. Many stores will sell you goods at duty-free prices (providing you don’t take the merchandise with you but have it delivered to the airport or cruise dock). There are some good (but not remarkable) buys in bone china, jewelry, perfume, watches, liquor, and crystal.
Built for the cruise-ship passenger, Pointe Seraphine, in Castries, has the best collection of shops on the island, along with offices for car rentals, organized taxi service (for sightseeing), a bureau de change, a philatelic bureau, an information center, and international phones. Cruise ships berth right at the shopping center. Under red roofs in a Spanish-style setting, the complex requires that you present a cruise pass or an airline ticket to the shopkeeper when purchasing goods. Visitors can take away their purchases, except liquor and tobacco, which will be delivered to the airport. The center is open in winter Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm and Saturday from 8am to 2pm; off season, Monday to Saturday from 9am to 4pm. It has extended hours when cruise ships are in port.
On Gros Islet Highway, 3km (2 miles) north of Castries, Gablewoods Mall contains three restaurants and one of the island’s densest concentrations of shops.
St Lucia Fast Facts
Banks — Banks are open Monday to Thursday from 8am to 3pm, Friday from 8am to 5pm, and Saturday 8am to noon. ATMs can be found at all bank branches, transportation centers, and shopping malls.
Currency — The official monetary unit is the Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$), which is pegged at EC$2.70 per U.S. dollar (EC$1 = 37¢/20p). Nearly all hotels, restaurants, and shops accept U.S dollars. Always ascertain which dollar prices are listed. Unless otherwise specified, prices in this guide are quoted in U.S. dollars and British pounds.
Customs — At either airport, Customs may be a hassle if there’s the slightest suspicion, regardless of how ill-founded, that you’re carrying illegal drugs.
Documents — U.S., British, and Canadian citizens need valid passports, plus an ongoing or return ticket.
Electricity — St. Lucia runs on 220- to 230-volt AC (50 cycles), so bring an adapter if you plan to use U.S. appliances. Some hotels are wired for U.S. appliances. Ask when you book.
Emergencies — Call the police at tel. 999. For an ambulance or in case of fire call tel. 911.
Hospitals — There are 24-hour emergency rooms at St. Jude’s Hospital, Vieux Fort (tel. 758/454-6041), and Victoria Hospital, Hospital Road, Castries (tel. 758/452-2421).
Language — English is the official tongue, but islanders often speak a French-Creole patois similar to that heard on Martinique.
Pharmacies — The best is M&C Drugstore, Bridge Street, in Castries (tel. 758/458-8146), open Monday to Friday 8am to 5pm, and Saturday 8am to 1pm.
Safety — St. Lucia has its share of crime, like every other place these days. Use common sense and protect yourself and your valuables. If you’ve got it, don’t flaunt it! Don’t pick up hitchhikers if you’re driving around the island. The use of narcotic drugs is illegal, and their possession or sale could lead to stiff fines or jail.
Taxes — The government imposes an 8% occupancy tax on hotel rooms, and there’s a US$21 (£10) departure tax for both airports. Children under 12 don’t pay departure tax.
Telephone — The area code for St. Lucia is 758. Make calls to or from St. Lucia just as you would with any other area code in North America. On the island, dial all seven digits of the local number. If your hotel won’t send a fax for you, try Cable & Wireless, in the SMC Building on the waterfront in Castries (tel. 758/453-9922). To access AT&T Direct, call tel. 800/225-5288; to reach MCI, dial tel. 800/888-8000.
Time — St. Lucia is on Atlantic Standard Time year-round, placing it 1 hour ahead of New York. However, when the United States is on daylight saving time, St. Lucia matches the clocks of the U.S. East Coast.
Tipping — Most hotels and restaurants add a 10% service charge. (Ask if it’s been included in the initial hotel rate you’re quoted.) If you’re pleased with the service in a restaurant, by all means, supplement with an extra 5%. Taxi drivers expect 10% of the fare.
Water — Water here is generally considered safe to drink; if you’re unsure or have a delicate constitution, stick to bottled water.
Weather — This little island, lying in the path of the trade winds, has year-round temperatures of 70°F to 90°F (21°C-32°C).