With the wealth of St. Lucia's natural wonders and the many remnants of our eventful history, taking time to explore is tremendously rewarding. Rent a car or a jeep and tour on your own, call a tour operator or have your hotel arrange a guided tour and give yourself the benefit of exploring with someone knowledgeable. There are several options and these include island tours, rainforest walks, plantation visits and boat trips.
The capital Castries, due to four devastating fires between 1796 and 1948, is one of the most modern in the Caribbean. Much of the city is newly built but there are still old and refurbished wooden buildings on its streets with graceful balconies and latticework, reminders of another era. La Place Carenage, a duty free shopping complex, is one of the more outstanding examples of this fascinating architecture. At the Castries Central Market, especially on Saturdays, you'll see an incredible array of West Indian produce and local crafts.
The Derek Walcott Square has been recently restored and is now a national heritage treasure. In addition to a monument to commemorate St. Lucia's war casualties, and a large Saman tree, known locally as the Massave Tree, said to be over 400 years old, there are two splendid busts - one representing Sir Arthur Lewis, Nobel Laureatte – Economics 1979 and the other, The Honourable Derek Walcott, Nobel Laureatte – Literature 1992, after whom the Square has been re-named. At the eastern end of the square is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The Central Library is on the opposite end, and along the southern side of the square, are examples of well-preserved wooden buildings.
The Vigie peninsula forms the northern side of the Castries Harbour. On its southern shore is Pointe Seraphine with a duty-free shopping complex and visitor information centre. The northern shore offers a long, golden sand beach. The tip of the peninsula contains several historic buildings and ruins. The Vigie Lighthouse offers excellent views of the north and south coastline. Nearby are the ruins of a small powder magazine built by the French in 1784.
High on the southern side of Castries lies Morne Fortune. The road that snakes up its slopes offers spectacular views of the town, Castries Harbour, Vigie and the north of the island. Along the route is Bagshaw's Studios where visitors can watch original silk-screen patterns being created. A short drive up Old Victoria Road is Caribelle Batik where St. Lucian craftsmen produce fine batiks. Visit the Caribelle orchid garden. Also on the Morne is Government House: the official residence of the Governor General and an outstanding example of Victorian architecture. Morne Fortune was one of the most heavily fought-over sites in the Caribbean during the 18th and 19th centuries. The French began construction of the fortifications in the mid-18th century and work continued under the British until 1905.
The most famous battle took place on May 24, 1796 when, after a tremendous uphill struggle, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers captured the Morne from the French. A monument to their valour was erected. The Morne is still covered with numerous old fortifications, gun emplacements and cannons. In recent years, several of the military buildings have been restored and converted into the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College, named after the St. Lucian scholar who won the Nobel prize for Economics in 1979.
Heading south, you wind downhill into the Cul de Sac valley, filled with mile after mile of banana plantations. A few more miles of winding road brings you to Marigot Bay, one of the most secure and beautiful anchorages in the Caribbean. Marigot was the setting for the movie Doctor Doolittle and today is the centre of a major sailing operation, the Moorings. The bay is crowded with sailboats.
Leaving Marigot Bay, the road runs down into the Roseau banana fields, and climbs into lush hills as it continues south. The picturesque villages of Anse La Raye and Canaries lie along the route, each nestled in its own cove at the foot of steep hills. South of Canaries is the Anse La Liberté Camping and Heritage site. This 133 acre property is managed by the St. Lucia National Trust. Nearly 6 miles of hiking trails have been created at Anse La Liberté and there is also a small beach.
The road continues to twist and climb through fringes of rainforest: the western edge of a huge forest reserve and home of the indigenous St. Lucia parrot, the Amazona Versicolor. Because of the density of the rainforest, you can only enter with a guide.
Leaving the forest, the road descends into Soufrière, which also served as the setting for a motion picture Water with Michael Caine, which was filmed here in 1984.
The area around Soufrière is filled with natural and historic sights. Most imposing are the towering twin peaks of the Pitons, which thrust directly from the water to heights of well over half a mile. You can climb them with guides but the trek is rated difficult by mountaineers.
Not far from the Pitons are the Sulphur Springs, a seven-acre crater billed as the world's only drive-in volcano. A walk through the crater takes you past pools and hot springs bubbling and belching with sulphur-laden steam. Just outside the Springs, you can bathe in the warm sulphuric river.
Nearby are the Diamond Botanical Gardens Waterfall and Mineral Baths, originally built in 1785, just before the French revolution, with funds from King Louis XVI. The baths have been restored and for a small fee, you can tour the grounds and gardens and enjoy a steaming, healthful bath.
Soufrière Estate offers another glimpse into the history of St. Lucia. The property was part of a 2,000 acre estate granted to the Devaux family by King Louis XIV in 1713.
Morne Coubaril, the first major estate established in St. Lucia, has recreated the old way of life on a West Indian plantation. A tour around the estate will acquaint you with the traditional ways of processing cocoa, copra and sugar before the days of mechanization. There is also a museum.
In addition to bus and taxi tours, Soufrière and its attractions are regularly visited by full-day sea excursions, which give the added pleasure of a cruise down St. Lucia's western coastline.
Past Soufrière, the road climbs and offers views of the countryside. It passes through the villages of Choiseul and Laborie before descending into Vieux Fort on the southern-most part of the island. At the extreme tip of St. Lucia is Moule-A-Chique peninsula with a small peak that has a lighthouse built upon it. The cliffs are home to numerous sea birds and the heights offer superb views of the south-east and south-west coasts of St. Lucia, and south to St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Offshore to the east (Atlantic side) of Vieux Fort is the Maria Islands Nature Reserve. The reserve is part of the (proposed) Pointe Sable National Park and contains a species of snake (couwesse) and ground lizard (zandoli te) that exist nowhere else in the world, as well as several rare birds. The reserve is closed during nesting season but tours may be arranged when it is open. The Maria Island Interpretation Centre on the mainland (tel. 454-5014) is open to visitors and tells the story of Maria Island and the first inhabitants of the area. The reef-protected Anse de Sable Bay also offers one of the finest, longest beaches on the island and is arguably the best windsurfing location in the Eastern Caribbean.
From Vieux Fort, the road meanders north up along St. Lucia's spectacular eastern coastline, where the power of the Atlantic Ocean vents itself on rocky cliffs. The 33-mile drive back to Castries passes through the villages of Micoud and Dennery and crosses the Barre de L'Isle mountain range.
Just north of Micoud, on the road to Mahaut, are the LaTille Waterfalls, situated in a beautifully maintained organic garden. At Mahaut itself is the beginning of two of the Forestry Department's hiking trails. The long rainforest hike runs from Mahaut across the breadth of the island's magnificent forest reserve to Fond St. Jacques in Soufriere. The circular Descartiers trail is a four-mile meander through natural rainforest with spectacular lookout points. The trails afford opportunities to see lots of local fauna, including the St. Lucia Parrot - but be wise, bring a guide!
At Praslin, a community south of Dennery, local boat builders still fashion fishing canoes from gommier trees. The ancient techniques used to shape the boat hulls were also used by the Amerindian people. Praslin is also home to Mamiku Gardens, a 12 acre tropical garden full of exotic plants and trees, as well as the ruins of an estate house that was burnt down by Maroons during the revolutionary war, in 1797.
Between Micoud and Dennery, just off the coast, lie the Frigate Islands, another nature reserve. The small islands, hardly larger than protruding rocks, are the nesting spots of the Magnificent Frigatebird. Tours to Frigate Islands can be arranged through the National Trust (tel. 452-5005) and there usually is a tour guide on site. The Trust is also responsible for the creation of a new hiking trail that starts at Mandele, to the north, and ends at the Frigate Islands Reserve.
After Dennery, the road runs west into the central mountains but before climbing the hills, visit Fond D'Or Historical Park, where the ruins of a sugar-producing plantation bring the past to life.
Errand Plantation, also near Dennery, offers an excellent opportunity to see firsthand a working agricultural estate.
At the summit of the Barre de L'Isle is another one of the Forestry Department's hiking trails. The entire hike takes three hours and the views encompass the Mount Gimie mountain range in Soufrière, the nearby Bexon Valley and the Fond d'Or Valley on the Atlantic Coast. The area abounds in rainforest trees and fine stands of pine, blue mahoe and mahogany. The Barre de L'Isle is the limit of the range of the St. Lucia Parrot.
There is quite a bit to see north of Castries. Pigeon Island National Park lies just north of the Rodney Bay development and the town of Gros Islet. Its 40 acres are dotted with forts, ruins and caves. In 1550 it was the hideout of a notorious French privateer, Jambe de Bois. It later became a military complex.
At the island's western tip lies Fort Rodney, an installation named after the English Admiral who defeated Admiral Comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. An interpretation centre tells the story of Pigeon Island. There are two waterfront restaurants and a couple of quiet beaches that are worth visiting. Today, Pigeon Point is the centre stage for the famous St. Lucia Jazz Festival, which is well into its twelfth year.
North of Pigeon Point is Cap Estate, an old 1,500 acre sugar cane plantation. It is now dotted with some of the finest homes in St. Lucia, including several rental villas. Cap Estate is also home to an 18-hole golf course and the Derek Walcott Theatre at the Great House.
The remains of La Cauzette Estate lie to the northeast of St. Lucia. Marie-Josèphe-Rose de Tascher de la Pagerie, who became Empress Josephine, wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, was born here in 1763.
Another worthwhile stop is Marquis Plantation: a working banana estate that has old stands of mahogany, teak, coffee and cocoa. A boat trip from the plantation down the Marquis River to the Atlantic Ocean drops you off at the beach for a swim.
At Union, the government's Forestry division maintains a nature trail that showcases a microcosm of the island's flora as well as a medicinal garden that contains plants used to cure an assortment of maladies. The Union Zoo houses some of the rare species of fauna found on St. Lucia.
Trailblazers takes you into the rainforest at Canaries and invites you to sample all the exotic fruits found along the way. A plunge into a refreshing waterfall is also part of the tour.
Heritage Tours offer visitors the most authentic St. Lucian experience. The only other way to get a close-up look at local culture and traditions, the island's most beautiful places and the wild side of St. Lucia, is by living here. The tours are totally different from anything else offered. All Heritage Tour sites are locally owned or otherwise part of the St. Lucian patrimony. Groups are kept small so as to respect the carrying capacity of each site and to enhance visitor experience. The buzz words at Heritage Tours are sustainability, respect for the environment and community involvement in the development of tourism.
History, natural splendour, plantations and restored estates are all to be found on St. Lucia. Competent tour operators and guides make it easy to enjoy as much as you want. Set aside time for an excursion: it may well prove to be the high point of your vacation.
© 2001-2003 Island Visions Ltd.