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St Lucia
January 2-9, 2006
Lush, mountainous, rugged, beautiful; these are the words most often used to describe St. Lucia. The island paradise beckons to travelers of all varieties, luring the adventurous and the sun worshippers alike. St. Lucia offers the chance to snorkel and/or dive translucent waters where sheltering reefs swarm with tropical fish and abound with healthy coral, or you can relax on a wonderful mix of volcanic black and golden honey sand beaches. However, most alluring, for us anyway, was the lush interior rainforests where hiking is the activity of choice.
The mysterious twin peaks of the Pitons have symbolized the uniqueness of St. Lucia for decades. These pyramid shaped, volcanic pinnacles rise out of the sea to form one of the most idyllic scenes in the Caribbean. Gros Piton (2,619 feet / 798m) and Petit Piton (2,461 feet / 750m) can both be climbed, although, only the Gros Piton hike is sanctioned by the government. When we first discovered that the intrepid traveler could climb Gros Piton we made a pact that we would, one day, reach the summit. It took us five long years to make that dream come true, but the wait was definitely worth it!
We arrived in St. Lucia on a rainy Monday, but the rain did little to dampen our spirits since we were looking forward to exploring the island, besides the rain was sure to stop…right? We made our way through the Hewanorra airport with no trouble, and then made a beeline for the Hertz counter, where we had arranged for a rental car. Now, for most people planning a visit to St. Lucia, the thought of renting a car is apparently a frightening prospect. We read many forum posts from people who warned against driving on your own. They sight the horribly pot-holed roads, the fact that you are driving on the left and the possibility of crime as reasons to avoid driving on your own. Thankfully, we also read posts by those who painted a better picture, giving us enough confidence to try it for ourselves. I will say that driving on St. Lucia is one hell of an experience, but as long as you are a confident driver, you will be fine. The roads are narrow, and winding, and there are often interesting roadside attractions to distract you from the task at hand…such as goats, sheep, horses, and cattle, all of which can be seen leashed to a bush or tree beside the road. Occasionally these inhabitants break free from their restraints and wander down the middle of the road. Blind turns seem to be the area of choice for this to occur—must be some kind of Murphy’s Law for wandering livestock, so just be aware of the possibility.
As for the possibility of crime, well that is always a possibility when traveling. All you can do is follow your instincts…do not stray too far into residential areas, and do not be fooled by local panhandlers. If you listen to your gut feelings, you will most likely be safe, just like when you are at home. The entire eight days that we drove on the island we never encountered anything that made us wish we were not driving. Yes, the locals drive like maniacs, and yes, we came across a few aggressive panhandlers (which I will talk about later), but overall, the people were very friendly and accommodating, and for us, the freedom allowed by a rental car was invaluable.
As we made our way through the rain towards our hotel, the Coco Kreole, located in Rodney Bay, I realized that we had not packed any rain gear! I mean, come on, who needs rain gear when visiting the rainforest…yeah, that was smart. All we could do was hope the weather would break.
When we arrived at our hotel the rain had stopped and we were greeted with good news…we had been upgraded to their sister hotel, the Coco Palm. We settled in to our beautiful room—complete with wireless internet, and then made our way to a local restaurant. We chose the Grill and Chill, where the food was okay and the service was good. It had been a long day and we were ready to get some rest.
We awoke to a mostly cloudy day, but no rain. After a wonderful continental breakfast complete with banana bread, cereal, yogurt, toast, fresh juices, and fruit such as bananas, melon, and pineapple, we set off to start exploring the island.
Armed with a mediocre map, we set out to find the Diamond Botanical Gardens. The garden is located near the town of Soufrière, which is about a two-hour drive from Rodney Bay. We stopped along the way, just above the town of Soufrière, to admire the view of the Pitons. From there we began our descent into the town, where we had our first encounter with the aggressive panhandlers of Soufrière. Be forewarned, as soon as you enter the town from the north you are likely to encounter a man who physically attempts to stop your car by rushing into the center of the road flashing a “badge”, which is actually his driver’s license or other such nonsense. Most likely, he is trying to offer his services as a guide; I cannot say for sure what he was selling, because we did not stop, but most tourists certainly do not appreciate that type of behavior. In fact, it was rather unnerving. Unfortunately, things do not get much better once you are in the town itself. Road signs are nonexistent, and as such, it is hard to find your way. The locals prey on this fact, and offer you directions, or the chance to follow them for a fee. We bought into this one, and agreed to follow a guy on a bicycle, who offered to point out the road for us. He ended up leading us down an increasingly narrow road into a residential area, after one block we decided to turn around, head out of town and regroup. He did not like the fact that we didn’t “trust” him, and he started to get a little belligerent. I kindly thanked him for his help and informed him that we were just going to try again some other day. He continued to follow us for several blocks, yelling things once in awhile, trying to get us to come back, until we were finally headed out of town. Our nerves were a little shaken after that episode, and Pick was almost ready to go back to the hotel, but I convinced her that we could handle it and find the gardens on our own. From that point on, when we drove through Soufrière, we rolled up the windows and locked the doors, and ignored all people who approached the car. Lesson learned!
Thankfully, we found the gardens on our second try by following a road that skirts the outer limits of the town. When we arrived at the parking lot for the gardens, there were several guys selling necklaces and other crafts, and I was ready for some sort of confrontation…since I was already tense from the previous situation, but these men were way less aggressive, and much friendlier. That put us at ease, and we were more than happy to buy some of their artwork.
The Diamond Botanical Gardens is well worth a visit. At the complex, you will find mineral baths, the Diamond Waterfall, and dozens of spectacular tropical flowers and birds.
Water bubbling to the surface from nearby underground sulfur springs flows downhill to become Diamond Waterfall, hidden deep within the botanical gardens. Over the years, the cliff over which the cascade spills has become encrusted with minerals and tinted orange, yellow, green, and purple. The stream that emanates from the 30-foot cascade is even tinged a volcanic shade of ash gray.
Tropical flowers with unlimited blossoms scent the air, attracting a variety of colorful birds. A walk through the garden unveils a fascinating world where hummingbirds perch on ginger, and bananaquits feed from colorful blooms of the glory lily. The garden is truly a delight for photographers and nature lovers alike.
For a more in depth visit, and for a glimpse into the forest, take the path that leads to the Old Mill on the Soufrière estate —part of the Diamond Complex. The aptly named Nature Trail is a great way to see many native trees, including Bamboo, Cocoa, Papaya, and Mahogany. If you are interested in viewing some photos and reading an in depth trail review, surf on over to Natural Born Hikers.
Our next stop was La Soufrière Sulphur Springs, otherwise known as the drive-in volcano. More technically the area is a caldera, or collapsed volcano, where fissures remain in the crust. These fissures allow steam to escape through several cauldrons, providing the visitor with a unique glimpse into natural geology.
Well-trained guides explain the geological history of the area as they lead you on a hike to the viewing platforms. Along the way, you will cross over a thermal stream, where locals often take a dip in order to benefit from the water’s healing powers.
As you enter the area, one of the first things you notice is the strong smell of sulphur. These sulphuric emissions, which smell like rotten eggs, have killed off much of the vegetation. This sparse, bubbling landscape is tinged green, yellow, and purple—just like the Diamond Waterfall, lending the otherwise barren moonscape a dash of color.
The two of us ended our first day on St. Lucia with a refreshing drink at the Ladera. Their restaurant, Dasheene, has the best view on the entire island! From the comfort of the open-air restaurant, you can look out over the Jalousie Plantation, the blue Caribbean, and the lush green twin peaks of the Pitons—it leaves you god smacked!
Later that night we had dinner in Rodney Bay at La Trattoria Del Mare, an excellent Italian restaurant.
Pigeon Island National Park, one of the Caribbean’s most historic sites, is a wonderful blend of history and nature. On the island, which actually isn’t even an island anymore—it was connected to the mainland by causeway in the 1970’s, you will find historic military ruins, peaks to climb, and appealing beaches.
The landmark’s predominant features are the two peaks joined by a saddle. Signal Peak is on the north side, and Fort Rodney dominates the south. Both of these prominent hills can be climbed, but the tour begins amidst the stone ruins, which include the Officer’s Kitchen. The main path then winds upward to the southern peak, where you will find what’s left of the British Admiral’s Fort Rodney. The hike to the base of the fort can be accomplished by just about anyone, but to reach the very top requires some steep walking and a climb up a steep staircase.
After exploring the remains of Fort Rodney, which include a powder store and a couple of cannons, take a moment to savor the incredible views from this point. To the north lies the island of Martinique, which was visible the day we visited, and all around is the sparkling blue water of the Caribbean. You also have an excellent view of Signal Hill or Peak, the highest point on Pigeon Island.
Signal Peak, offers more of a challenge for those willing to hike a little further. After climbing down from Fort Rodney, just follow the signs pointing to Signal Peak and in about 15 minutes you will be on the summit. This trek is more strenuous as it climbs up the steep rocks, but the view is more than worth the effort. As you gaze across the open expanse of land and sea, it is easy to see why this point was chosen as a lookout: the perspective affords panoramic views south to Gros Islet and Castries, and north across the St Lucia Channel to Martinique.
Once we had made our way back down to the beach, we were more than ready to quench our thirst. The Jambe de Bois Restaurant provides the perfect place to grab a refreshment or beachside lunch. We grabbed a couple of Diet Cokes, a couple of chairs, and settled in for a relaxing break from our hiking.
We spent the day exploring Pigeon Island and the Cap Estate area, and then we headed back towards our hotel in order to take in the sights at Reduit Beach. What we found was a beautiful beach packed with oiled bodies, which is a scene out of one of our collective nightmares. Obviously, as we have already pointed out, the beach isn’t exactly secluded, but it does offer nice views of Pigeon Island, and it provides a nice place to watch the sunset. There is also a restaurant called Spinnakers, which sits right on the beach, where you can get a good meal. We spent about 2 hours on lunch at this establishment. Now, I don’t normally have a problem with “island time”, but 2 hours is bordering on obnoxious! The clientele was also bordering on obnoxious, so to sum it up: great setting, good food, fair but slow service, infected with the booze cruise crowd.
Later that evening we walked down the beach to catch the sunset. That night the sun didn’t disappoint, it turned the sky many shades of orange and pink, just the right colors to bathe the water and sand in warmth. Rounding out the scene were several sailboats silhouetted against the sun, a restored pirate ship even made an appearance.
Dinner was at the much-anticipated Indian restaurant Razmataz, which lived up to its reputation. The staff was warm and friendly, the atmosphere was relaxing, and the décor was beautiful. More importantly, the food was wonderful. We dined on Chicken Tandoori, Nepalese sizzling skillet, and naan bread…all of which were delicious. The Razmataz is a great way to end a day on St Lucia.
Our fourth day was spent hiking some of the great and varied trails of the island, including Barre de L’Isle, the Eastern Nature Trail, and the paths of Mamiku Gardens.
The Barre de L’Isle Trail is a worthwhile adventure that provides a glimpse into St Lucia’s richly diverse topography and mountain flora and fauna. The trail is located along the mountain range that separates the northern section of the island from the south. The trail snakes through the rainforest until it ends at the top of Morne La Combe. Along the trek, you will encounter lush plant life, colorful butterflies and birds—maybe even the St Lucian parrot, and the occasional breathtaking vista. We were able to hear a parrot, but unfortunately, we never caught a glimpse of the rare and endangered bird. Our hike to the summit of Morne La Combe was at once taxing and wholeheartedly enjoyable. If you would like to read an in-depth description of this trail, please visit our hiking website Natural Born Hikers, by following this link: Barre de L’Isle.
Our second hike of the day took us along the rugged east coast of the island. The aptly named, Eastern Nature Trail, is located within the Praslin Protected Landscape, a few miles south of Dennery. The trail winds through sparse vegetation and long grass providing the hiker with spectacular views of the wind-blown Atlantic coast. If you are interested in hiking this 3.5-mile trail, you will find more information at this link: Eastern Nature Trail.
Mamiku Gardens and the Madame de Micoud Ruins was our final destination for the day. The gardens are an excellent place to photograph flowers such as orchids, heliconia, anthurium, and ginger. You will also encounter hummingbirds and butterflies as they feed on the never-ending blooms. A short, slightly steep trail leads through the forest to the Madame de Micoud Ruins. The journey is more exciting than the destination on this one, as the ruins are mostly buried, but there is an excellent view of the Fregate Islands and the narrow and dangerous channel between the reefs to the once thriving port of Praslin from the high vantage point of Tamarind Hill, the site of the ruins.
By the time we drove back to Rodney bay we were absolutely starving, so we headed to a local restaurant called Pizza Pizza. This turned out to be our favorite restaurant on the island. The pizza was excellent; and we highly recommend the tomato salad and chicken wings…yum!
Day 5 found us driving, yet again, through the quaint towns of Castries, Anse La Raye, Canaries, and Soufrière. Along the way the views of the Pitons were outstanding! The towering green pinnacles were set beautifully against a bright blue sky complete with puffy white clouds. We must have pulled over at least ten times for photo ops!
Our destination for the day was Anse Chastanet and its spectacular reefs. Finding the resort can be a bit tricky, as the road is rather hidden. You will find the dirt road that leads back to the hotel immediately north of Soufrière, next to the Hummingbird resort. The road is very rocky and hilly, so take your time driving. It will take about 15 minutes to reach the resort once you turn onto the road. When you come to the gate, just tell the guard that you want to visit the dive shop and the beach and they will grant you entry.
The beach at Anse Chastanet is beautiful, owing its black and beige sand to the island’s volcanic origins. The hotel has provided its guests with shady palapas and lounge chairs which dot the beach, and local boys show off their soccer skills near the water’s edge. Located right on the beach is the Trou au Diable Restaurant, which serves lunch daily and dinner 5 nights a week. The lunch menu offers a wide and varied choice of appetizers, salads, sandwiches, burgers that are to die for!, and creole specialties from an à la carte menu, in addition to a large buffet spread with hot and cold dishes. As if this wasn’t enough, a reef rich in marine life lies just off the beach, and it is designated as a Marine National Park.
We set up our towels on the beach and began organizing our snorkel gear, we had brought our own, but it is possible to rent right from the dive shop at Anse Chastanet.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the snorkeling to be that great on St Lucia, but boy was I wrong! The reefs were teeming with tropicals, and the coral itself was amazing. It is an area rich in brain coral, sea fans, sea rods, and a shocking variety of sponges. The multi-colored sponges were particularly spectacular, especially the bright yellow tube sponges.
The variety of reef life was astounding, we identified parrotfish, sergeant majors, schooling houndfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, wrasse, snapper, filefish, octopus, flounder, surgeonfish, eels, angelfish, grouper, blue tang, and even a box crab.
Note: All underwater photos taken with a Canon sd550 in a dedicated Canon underwater housing.
Our day at Anse Chastanet was beyond enjoyable, and if we ever return to St Lucia we are booking rooms at their resort.
As we made our way back along the bumpy road to Soufrière, we awed at the views of Petite Piton. It was late afternoon when we reached Soufrière, and the fishing boats had returned from a day at sea. Therefore, before we started our drive back to Rodney Bay, we made a quick stop at the beach for some photographs of the famous waterfront lined with colorful fishing boats.
It was now day six of our vacation, and for the first time during the trip we awoke to an alarm. Today was the day we would attempt to climb Gros Piton. We filled up on a hearty breakfast, packed our backpacks and bottles of water, and set out for the town of Fond Gens Libre.
Situated at the foot of Gros Piton is the community of Fond Gens Libre, meaning “valley of the free people”. This small, old settlement dates back to the days of the maroons, or slaves who fled the plantations for freedom. These maroons, or brigands, fled to the most inaccessible parts of the island—with Gros Piton being a good choice. The descendants of these fiercely independent people still live in the community, and many of them work as guides.
Once at the town, you will make your way to the interpretive center where you pay your $25.00 USD per person fee, which includes a guide, and where Jimmy Haynes will give you a brief history of the area and a description of the hike using a model. After the interesting and informative lecture you are paired with a guide and then your journey begins.
Our guide was Lucianus Denis, the coolest Rastafarian on St Lucia, who carried his supply of water up the peak in an old rum bottle. We began our hike at 11:00 am and we were on the summit by 1:00 pm. Depending on your level of fitness, the hike will take two to six hours each way. Our guide, Lucian for short, pointed out all of the historically important aspects of the hike, as well as the local flora and fauna. He made the hike that much more pleasant with his company, and we made a new friend along the way.
One of the highlights of the hike up Gros Piton was the view of Petit Piton, which appears close enough to touch. The many spectacular views, the feeling of accomplishment when you stand on the summit, and the sheer fun of the hike, made our adventure on Gros Piton unforgettable. We have a detailed description of our hike, for those interested, on our hiking website at this link: Gros Piton.
Anse de Sables beach, our post hike destination, is a great place to have lunch. The expansive beach, with its views of the Maria Islands offshore, offers the perfect place to stop, relax, and take in the view. On our way to the beach, we stopped in Vieux Fort and picked up a bucket of KFC chicken, a few diet cokes, and set off for our impromptu picnic. Once we arrived, we were surprised to see that we had the entire beach to ourselves. It was a nice way to unwind and celebrate the fact that we had just stood on the top of Gros Piton!
As the sun started to sink below the mountains, we hastily made our way back to Rodney Bay, arriving just in time to take in the sunset at the marina. The scene was picture perfect, with dozens of sailboats silhouetted against the setting sun.
Getting to Anse Cochon meant another road trip, which was fine by us. Driving the winding, coastal roads of St Lucia, rife with unequaled vistas, were a highlight unto themselves. Each day offered a different perspective on the already familiar scenes, and all it took was a change in the light to make you appreciate them all over again. Today, rain was in the air and the roads and buildings were wet with the morning’s precipitation. The gloomy atmosphere added a sense of desperation to the poverty-stricken towns that dot the main road. Then, as if on cue, a rainbow appeared, arching down from the sky in a prismatic display of hope. Immediately, our dispositions changed from melancholy to jovial. Turns out these circular arcs of color are pretty potent mood elevators. Who knew?
Nestled between the twin peaks of the Pitons sits the Jalousie Plantation, a world famous resort. Before our swim with the fishes at Anse Cochon, we just had to check it out. As we turned onto the road, which steeply made its way to the resort, we were flagged down by a few islanders in need of a ride. Hitchhiking is common and safe on St Lucia, so we happily obliged our new friends, who were thankful they didn’t have to walk the hilly road.
The white sand beach at the Jalousie, which borders another of the island’s underwater parks, is often described as the spot where heaven meets earth, and it is easy to believe that statement when you walk along the beach and look up at the magical Piton Mountains. We strolled past a little blue heron, fishing boats, and people enjoying the beach on our way back to the car. Next stop Anse Cochon.
I hesitated for a split second, and then I plunged into the cool, turquoise water at Anse Cochon, the beach and reef that fronts the Ti Kaye Village. The day was overcast, but that didn’t matter to the colorful fish that waited just below the looking glass surface.
The fish were swimming lazily by as I pulled my mask down over my eyes, and then with one quick glance underwater I could see that it was going to be a good day of snorkeling. Pick floated by with camera in hand, off on a mission to capture the beauty of a seascape rich with coral, sponges, and tropical fish. I followed, in search of all the reef had to offer. All of the usual suspects made an appearance—see the above list, and in addition we spotted a tobacco fish and a hawksbill turtle. Once again, the reef life was amazing and we thoroughly enjoyed the snorkeling at Ti Kaye.
Note: All underwater photos taken with a Canon sd550 in a dedicated Canon underwater housing.
Marigot Bay, a picturesque cove just off the west coast highway, is definitely worth a trip. With massive, lushly vegetated hills enclosing the sea on three sides, Marigot’s classic tropical scenery appeals to every traveler. We especially loved the towering palm trees that reflected off the mirror-like surface of the bay, turning everything a rich shade of green. Rounding off the tropical setting was an interesting display of wildlife: mockingbirds flew from tree to tree, and crabs burrowed in the sand near the water.
Our last day on St Lucia was spent revisiting some favorite spots, with a quick stop at newfound Rudy John beach. The sun was shining and I was on a mission, my goal was to photograph some of the beautiful birds at the Diamond Botanical Gardens. In particular, I wanted to capture the Antillean Crested Hummingbird, and a Carib. We walked around the complex for several hours before I spotted both species. The wait was definitely worth it, as I was able to capture some great images.
We came upon Rudy John beach quite by accident, when we decided to take a detour off the main road past the town of Laborie. The beach wasn’t listed on our map, so when we discovered how beautiful it was we were really surprised. The inviting white sand beach is lined by palm trees and it appeared to be a great place for swimming. The water was clear and calm, and several people were out enjoying the water. If we weren’t due at the airport we would have stayed much longer at this spectacular beach.
St Lucia was rugged and lush, and it provided us with memories of a unique and magical place. The rainforest, the pitons, the ruins, the reefs, and the people combine to create a rare and somewhat hidden jewel in the Caribbean. We will always remember the feeling of triumph when we looked out over the island from the top of Gros Piton, it might have taken us five years to get there, but that just made the trip all the more special. St Lucia will forever be our pinnacle in the Caribbean.
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