Suddenly St. Lucia
St. Lucia, one of the windward islands in the Lesser Antilles , yields one surprise after another: a steamy volcano, secluded waterfalls, dramatic mountain vistas, rain forests, coral reefs, even private mineral baths used by Napoleon's Josephine, who grew up on an island plantation. Located just 14 degrees north of the Equator, this emerald isle has all enticing atmosphere of other nearby destinations, yet when you visit, you feel like solitary traveler in an otherwise undisturbed culture.
The few small resorts and hotels are tucked into mountainous terrain, or hug coastal crescents of volcanic beach. On the east, the Atlantic Ocean washes in from Africa; and to the west lie the placid waters of the Caribbean.
The road from Vieux Fort, where the airport is located, is primitive and pot-holed. But the bumps are forgotten as you swing past banana plantations, stands of mango, cocoa and cinnamon trees and primitive villages precariously perched in the crook of the mountain road. People wave and smile as you pass.
Finally, you round a hairpin curve, and there they are: Gros Piton and Petit Piton, St. Lucia's postcard perfect twin peaks, volcanic spikes rising majestically out of the sea. The locals believe the land between the Pitons is spiritual, and before you depart, you'll be a believer, too.
After a day's journey and a march up some 200 steps to our room, we have arrived. Paradise is laid out before us in the form of a hexagonal-shaped, open-air room with a private balcony and a view of St. Lucia's signature peaks, the Pitons.
Freshly-cut hibiscus and a basket filled with native fruits like banana, starfruit and mango are a welcome sight. The tree frogs have already started their nightly song, although the sun hasn't quite yet slipped into the sea. What appears to be a pirate ship materializes in the bay below, as if on cue.
The fan drones lazily above. Otherwise our room is cooled by the tradewinds. The only obtrusive reminder of the modern world are a small refrigerator, a blowdryer and a coffee maker. There is no phone, no fax, no television, no alarm clock none, that is, unless you count the birds that begin to trill and warble at dawn.
That's how the guests at Anse Chastanet, situated on a 500-acre estate just north of Soufriere, want it. If you crave privacy, you'll have a heaping helping of it at this remote gem. Accessible only by a rutted road, Anse Chastanet is the vision of Canadian architect Nick Troubetzkoy and his wife Karolin. The couple has slowly built its 48 rooms each one uniqueinto a hillside spilling down to a private, volcanic sand beach> The beach happens to offer easy access to magnificent coral reefs that were recently declared a national marine park.
After the best night's sleep we've had in months, we walk down the carved stone steps to breakfast. Bullfinches and bananaquits flit in and out of the restaurant, busily scooping up any crumbs. Of the 27 orders of birds in the world, St. Lucia is home to 15.
Next, it is off to explore reefs. We see tiger and nassau grouper, parrot fish, longsnout butterfly fish, keeltail needlefish, sea bream, trumpetfish and queen triggerfish swirled around large brain and boulder corals. Diving the solid wall of mixed corals brings Kevin face-to-face with a poisonous scorpion fish and a fireworm, as well as golden tail and spotted moray eels and the rare frogfish.
That afternoon we take a dugout canoe fashioned from red cedar to a small beach at the mouth of neighboring Anse Mamin estate, ruins of an old sugar plantation. Our guide, Andrew"Murray" Jules, is the grandson of a local bush doctor. A proud, quiet man, the further we walk into his Eden, the more he warms to revealing the names of the native plants and their uses. Tamarind juice is used for hypertension; wild cilantro for fever and headache. Cactus was introduced to the island as a cure for leprosy. He points out a crested antillian hummingbird and shows us how to suck the juice from a cocoa bean.
He explains the island's history, from the Arawaks, the Caribs who worshipped the volcano, to the battles between the French and English. St. Lucia changed hands 14 times during the 18th and 19th centuries. When we come to ruins of the slave prison and graveyard, Murray softly tells tales of the former slave trade on the island.
The next day, a driver transports us to Soufriere to meet Martial Simon, who will lead us through the rain forest he's been battling to save for a decade. It's market day in St. Lucia's oldest settlement, a picturesque, seaside town dating to 1746 at the foot of the Pitons.
A 45-minute ride inland past the town of Fond St. Jacques, takes us to the rain forest, which gets 100 inches of rain a year. Here the rare jacquot, an endangered blue, green and red parrot, makes its home. There are only 250 left in the world. We are about 100 steps into the umbrella of the forest, when we hear the squawk of the national bird and catch a quick glimpse of it in the gommelier trees above.
Wild orchids, bromeliads and spanish moss nest in the grapefruit trees. Martial eases quietly through the lush forest, bending to carve a shaving from a tree felled by French soldiers in 1700s and demonstrate that it still has a cinnamon scent. Back at his small wood-carving shop, we buy a pound of sweetly, nutty St. Lucian coffee to benefit the rain forest.
Southeast of Soufriere lies one of St. Lucia's international claims to fame: a drive-in volcano. Actually, you take a car to the rim of a volcanic crater, bubbling with hot sulphur springs and belching steam into the air. You used to be permitted to walk right to the edge until a local guide fell through the crust, waist deep into the scalding lava. Ten yards away is close enough to marvel at the weird moonscape of the place.
Just a few miles away, we walk through carefully maintained botanical gardens, riotous with native flowers, on the path to the Diamond Falls, which tumble down to mineral baths built in 1784 by Louis XVI for his soldiers. For few dollars you can soak in a private pool.
After a week, we are again sitting in a taxi, heading north to capital of Castries. The stars are still bright in the pre-dawn sky. Strains of Bob Marley throb from the tape deck. Almost hoping to miss the flight home, we don't mind when we're delayed by a goat crossing the highway.
If the Garden of Eden had been an island, St. Lucia would have been its name.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication