‘Did you see the Pitons as you flew in?’ asked my friendly taxi driver as he picked me up from Hewanorra International Airport. I hadn’t. ‘Shame’ he said, ‘they are really spectacular, but never mind, you’ll see them later. Don’t forget to have your photo taken with you touching one of the peaks.’
It was an intriguing instruction, but with the delicious warmth of the Caribbean sun and the strange and fascinating sights of a tropical island I forgot all about it.
I loved that hour and a half ride from the airport as we headed north up to Morgan Bay and St James’s Club. I was lucky; my taxi driver enjoyed talking about his island, and was happy to teach me a little about its geography and history, and what to look out for.
A history lesson
Saint Lucia is a small island, a mere 27 miles from north to south and 14 from west to east. It was originally home to Arawak Indians who were followed by the Caribs. They called it the ‘Island of the Iguanas.
Which European to first land on the Island of the Iguanas is open to conjecture, but it is probably true that Christopher Columbus sailed close by. It is recorded however, that the first European settlement was in the mid-16th century on what we today know as Pigeon Island.
The Dutch arrived circa 1600 and in 1605 the first Englishmen set foot on the island; their ship having been blown off course. It was an ill-fated landing as of the original 67, 48 were killed by the Caribs. A second settlement attempt was made a few years later but again was unsuccessful.
They were followed by the French and for the next 150 years this little island was the object of a number of battles between the French and British. Nevertheless Saint Lucia’s first settlements and towns were French and evidence of the French influence can be heard in the Creole dialect and seen in towns like Soufrière with its French Colonial style architecture. In 1979 Saint Lucia became an independent country within the British Commonwealth.
St James’s Club and a glass of rum punch
Apart from the island’s history we also talked of sugar cane, bananas and chocolate and almost before I realised it I was being driven into the grounds of St James’s Club at Morgan Bay.
Fortified by a restorative glass of rum punch – it had after all been an eight hour flight from the UK – I was quickly checked in and settled onto one of the buggies that whizzes round the estate transporting guests, luggage and workers.
St James’s Club is an all-inclusive beach resort with, not only its own pretty beach, but several restaurants, bars and offers a wide choice of activities, plus an excellent spa. I loved my good-sized hillside room with its balcony from which I had a splendid view over the grounds, to a palm-fringed beach and across the bay to where on the horizon I could see the cruise liners carrying their passengers to exotic destinations. There were some lovely sun-sets for me to watch too.
Castries and its market
Castries, the capital of Saint Lucia, is not far from the Club. My friendly taxi driver had told me that its tiny harbour is actually deep enough for the big cruise liners, and indeed it is. He also told me that it was the birth place of one of the island’s two Nobel prize winners - Sir Derek Walcott who won the prize for Literature in 1992 (the other - Sir Arthur Lewis in 1979 for Economics) and that it had an interesting market.
It’s a bustling, noisy city with the market close to the harbour. I love markets but I have to say I was a tad disappointed. It was interesting to wander round and listen to the sales banter, but most of the stalls were selling identical produce and much of the craft work looked more mass-produced than artisan.
The women selling the fruit and vegetables, not unnaturally, were more interested in selling rather than explaining to a tourist what the items were or how to cook them. I regretted not having a guide; or indeed for not taking myself off elsewhere maybe to Pigeon Island to learn more about the island’s history, or to Rodney Bay favoured by pirates in days gone by.
It is always sad saying goodbye to somewhere where you are comfortable and happy, and it was all too soon that Tricia, the very proud and first female bell boy at St James’s Club, appeared with her buggy to whizz me down to Reception to join the taxi that was waiting to take me to Fond Doux in the south of the island for the second part of my stay.
Whilst not far in miles it does take time to travel distances on Saint Lucia, the winding roads which chiefly follow the old mule tracks are often steep and in poor repair and it’s nothing to go round a bend and find goats or other live stock on them.
Fond Doux Plantation and Resort
The Fond Doux, or to give it its full title, The Fond Doux Plantation and Resort is on a 250 year old plantation of some 135 acres, and is made up of 15 cottages of varying sizes, a couple of restaurants, three small swimming pools, a tiny shop, a spa – and cocoa sheds!
It’s not far from the little town of Soufrière and the Sulpher Springs Park. A visit to Sulpher Springs definitely has to be part of the Saint Lucia experience. If only to say you have driven into a volcano (it last erupted in 1766 by the way).
The springs occur where two fault lines intersect at the bottom of the crater. The magma chamber is about 2km below the surface and heats the rocks to such an extent that the rain and sea water which seeps into the ground creates boiling springs with water temperatures reaching 70˚ – 90˚C and fumeroles of up to 172˚C. And yes, the air does indeed smell of sulphur. The black spring water contains large deposits of copper, iron oxide, alkaline lead, calcium oxide, and carbon. Further downstream the spring water has cooled sufficiently for visitors to take mud baths.
In days gone by it was possible to get fairly close to the action but we are now kept at a safe distance ever since, as the story goes, a guide named Gabriel fell through the thin crust of the earth. He survived, though badly burnt; but to this day the hole bears his name.
Unfortunately my visit to Soufrière was badly timed. The little town, once the island’s capital, closes down on a Sunday – virtually nothing is open. To make it worse the heavens opened in a fierce tropical storm.
But my local taxi driver was so disappointed that I could not explore his town he drove me round the three or four streets carefully avoiding the wandering dogs and chickens that scratched hopefully in the gutters, so I could see the sugar pink and baby blue French Colonial style small houses.
I had also been out of luck at Anse La Raye. I was particularly looking forward to experiencing its Fish Fry held every Friday evening but everybody was saving their energies to celebrate Creole Sunday two days later and of the promised stalls with their wide range of local cuisines only a couple were in evidence.
But very much in evidence behind Soufrière were the two wooded, cone-shaped peaks of Gross and Petit Piton. Gross Piton, the larger of the two stands at 2619’. It is also the easier of the two to climb taking about two hours to complete the strenuous hike. Even so it is advisable and also more fun and informative I was told to join one of the guided nature trail tours. Incidentally Piton is also the name for the local beer.
Saint Lucian nights are noisy affairs; not so much because of late night revellers but because of the wildlife. It has to be said however, that I quickly got used to the sounds of the night when its chorus of crickets (some 5" long) and frogs serenaded the stars.
Later at the airport as I sat waiting for my British Airways flight to take me back to Gatwick I spotted a poster and I remembered what my first taxi driver had said about touching one of the Piton peaks. There, was a young girl posing for the camera with her hand outstretched looking for all intents and purposes as if she really was standing close to and touching one of those iconic Saint Lucian peaks.
British Airways: BA from London Gatwick Airport offers regular direct flights to St Lucia's Hewanorra International Airport. http://www.britishairways.com/en-gb/destinations/st-lucia/flights-to-st-lucia.
Saint Lucia: http://www.saintluciauk.org
For a full report on St James’s Club, Morgan Bay and The Fond Doux Plantation & Resort plus other places to stay and eat go to www.foodytraveller.com REVIEWS – Foody Travellers Recommend – Saint Lucia.