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; www.sunlinktours.com), offers many island tours, including full-day boat trips along the west coast of Soufrière, the Pitons, and the volcano; the cost is $100 per person. One of the most popular jaunts is a rainforest ramble for $90 by jeep. There's also a daily shopping tour for $30. 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.
One of the highlights of Castries is Derek Walcott Square, a dignified and verdant rectangle that's bordered with, among others, the public library and the island's most visible Catholic church, the Cathedral . Derek Walcott, born in St. Lucia in 1930, won a Nobel Prize for literature. Plaques within the park honor Walcott with a verse from his epic poem, Ste. Lucie: "Moi c'est gens Ste. Lucie: C'est la moi sortie, is there that I born." A few steps away is a plaque commemorating another island-born luminary, Sir William Arthur Lewis (1915-79), winner of a Nobel Prize for economics, whose face appears on some of the nation's EC$100 bills. Both of the commemorative plaques are virtually within the shadow of a 500-year-old "Simontree" (a local name for a local species), which anyone in the park will happily point out as proof of the fertility of the island's soil and climate.
One of the most important French-built religious buildings in the West Indies is the Cathedral, immediately to the edge of the park. Built during the 19th century of wrought iron, cast iron, and stone under the supervision of several generations of hard-working, long-suffering priests, it's covered with an almost surreal mélange of French Catholic and West Indian iconography. Notice on one wall the frescoes commemorating the "Martyrs of Uganda" who were slaughtered by the forces of dictator Idi Amin.
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. 758/452-5005, or visit www.slunatrust.org/pigeon_island.php.
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 along a winding, forested road into a millions-of-years-old crater. From the parking lot, you'll walk uphill, along a closely monitored trail peppered with park rangers and, from observation platforms, get a view in the near distance of bubbling sulfur springs and pools of hissing steam. The most visible of these is Gabriel's Pool, which was named in honor of a 1960s-era St. Lucian tour guide, Gabriel, whose weight collapsed the chalky surface of the congealed mud close to the hot springs. Ever since then, one of the pools has borne his name, and ever since, visitors are strictly prohibited from getting too close to the steamy depths. Entrance to the crater and the vicinity of the pools costs $5 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 Monday to Friday 8:30am to 4:30pm; for more information, call tel. 758/459-7200.
Nearby are the Diamond Mineral Baths (tel. 758/459-7155; www.diamondstlucia.com) 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 $10 you can bathe and try out the recuperative effects for yourself. There is a $5 entrance fee. Hours are Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm, Sunday 10am to 3pm.
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.
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.
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 visit only 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 clifftop of the St. Lucian mainland, about 45m (148 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.
The 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.
For more information, contact the St. Lucia National Trust (tel. 758/452-5005; www.slunatrust.org).
Rainforest Sky Rides -- A Rainforest Aerial Tram Adventure is the greatest scenic adventure on the island. Gondolas safely glide you through and over the treetops of this oceanic rainforest. Dense thickets of vegetation merge with cascades of flowers such as lavender stars, orange bursts, and white magnolias. Sixteen open-air gondolas seat up to eight passengers, with one guide each. The cost is $72 for adults or $62 for children 2 to 12. The ride is just one of several rainforest excursions offered by Rainforest Sky Rides, Reduit Gros Islet, Rodney Bay (tel. 758/458-5151; www.rainforestadventure.com).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.