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Escaping to the warmth of St. Lucia

Noel Hulsman

[Sailing towards the Pitons. (Photo: Scott Ward)]

Not having been in the Caribbean before, I just assumed that certain things went together. Like, ocean breezes and endless beaches, or lush rainforests with snakes and monkeys. Not so, apparently. In St. Lucia, you have the flora, not the fauna, the gorgeous coastline but not the sandy shoals. It’s a geography thing, having everything to do with the origins of the island and the waters that surround it… but more on that in a minute.

You can be forgiven for being a little vague on the specifics when it comes to St. Lucia. It’s a tiny country, and not tiny compared to Canada, no, it’s miniscule next to P.E.I. or Cape Breton. From tip to tail, it measures scarcely 43km. If they held a marathon here, you’d almost have to start in the water. Though of course, you wouldn’t chart it out as the crow flies.

St. Lucia doesn’t do straight lines. Saskatchewan it is not. Indeed it’s so far from flat that before we arrived we were strongly encouraged to bring Gravol and take it before the plane landed.

Was that because we’d be catching a boat from the airport to our hotel? No, it’s because the roads are like roller coasters, just with more dips and twists… as well as the thrill of cars coming directly at you.

We’re here for a week long-family holiday, with the aim of experiencing three completely different sides of the island: an eco-resort in the forest, a beachside all-inclusive with swim-up bars and a waterslide, and finally, life as the locals live it, at least on the streets and sidewalks in the communities along the coast.

We knew in advance that St. Lucia was a spectacular place. Everyone who has visited here says that. What we didn’t know (at least, not exactly) was where it was.

St. Lucia is near the bottom of the Caribbean archipelago, between Martinique and Saint Vincent. You can see both neighbours on a clear day, which is essentially every day as its staggeringly sunny here year round… and warm, gloriously warm. (Just by way of reference, the Bahamas, which are plenty toasty themselves, lie more than 2,100 km north of here. That’s the distance between Toronto and Rankin Inlet.)

Constant sunshine aside, the island is essentially a rainforest, circled by a ring road and speckled with coves, nooks and bays. It’s in those secluded spots where the resorts are tucked, mostly on the western side, facing the Caribbean Sea. It’s picture postcard stuff, bathed in tropical breezes.

[Rodney Bay on the north edge of the island. (Photo: Noel Hulsman)]

It’s no wonder people have been flocking here for centuries. St. Lucia has been colonized 14 times, with the French getting the first lick in 1635, and the Brits getting the last, not officially packing its bags until 1979. In between, they each took seven turns. It explains why St. Lucians can switch so seamlessly between Creole French (or patois) and English, which remains the language of government and business.

Traditionally, that business meant bananas, which was long the dominant industry on the island. Alas, you don’t want an economy based on bananas. They rot fast, they catch diseases, and everyone nearby can grow them as well. And do.

As a result the island’s fortunes rest largely on its good looks and lovely weather, both of which it possesses in abundance, giving the place a slightly theme-park feel. If you like to hike, sail, snorkel, zip-line, fish, bathe in hot springs or just sit poolside with a spiced rum, this is the place.

[The Caribbean Sea, in the shadow of the Petit Piton. (Capella Marigot Bay Marina and Resort)]

What’s more, you can do it at almost any budget, save for backpacking. There’s very little catering to the youth hostel scene here. The options start at family-friendly all-inclusives, with multiple pools, massive buffets and cover bands playing calypso, and then soar straight up, into the rarified reaches of resorts like Capella, where the suites start at $800 a night and there’s mooring out front for 150-foot super-yachts. Oprah is rumored to have cruised in recently. Whether that’s true or not, it’s fair to say that if you had the money and means to sail anywhere in the world, sooner or later you’d seek out the coves of St. Lucia.  

How much else you’d actually see here is an open question. Like many stunning tropical spots it’s very clear that there are two aspects of the island – one that the tourists are meant to experience, and another that’s largely reserved for the locals. The latter includes towns like Vieux-Fort in the south and Soufriere, midway up the west side. 

[Saturday morning sidewalk market, Vieux Fort. (Photo: Noel Hulsman)]

These are quaint, semi-picturesque if somewhat shambling places only indirectly touched by tourism. Extending the theme park idea, the towns feel kind of like the staff-only areas. It’s not that tourists aren’t welcome there, it’s that the smiles on the streets aren’t nearly as wide or as warm as they are in the resorts (and that’s fair enough).

It’s here where the implosion of the banana industry, and the near 50 per cent unemployment levels left in its wake, is felt most painfully. Vegetable sellers, fishmongers, and those with no chance of serving drinks at an all-inclusive share the stoops. It’s a glimpse of island life that isn’t necessarily comforting, nor surprising, though is certainly educational. When economists talk of the Caribbean reeling after the 2008 financial crisis and the global retreat of banking and tourism, they’re talking about places like Soufriere where the options are few.

(Soufriere on a Wednesday afternoon. (Photo: Noel Hulsman)]

Equally removed from the main tourism haunts, though separate from the towns as well, are St. Lucia’s plantations. There are a number of enticing ones to choose from. We stayed at Fond Deux, a 250-year-old cocoa farm spread over 53 hectares that sends its beans to Hershey Pennsylvania for processing. Although still a working plantation, Fond Deux is now mainly a hideaway geared for those who want something distinctly St. Lucian, while being as different as possible from the resort scene. For instance, there’s no A/C or TV in the rooms, there’s no access to the coast, and the pools are a bit of an afterthought.

And yet, the place could hardly be more spectacular.  The accommodations are all cottages, some with all of the bearings of a colonial villa. The beds are four-poster, swaddled in netting with a ceiling fan overhead. If that wasn’t enchanting enough, at night, when the temperature gradually cools, the insects begin their symphony. This isn’t crickets chirping, this is every living thing in the jungle shouting over the other to be heard. If the cacophony wasn’t so wondrously mind-blowing, it could get a little distracting after awhile. If you’re a light sleeper, bring earplugs. Better yet a good book, as you may not catch much sleep here.  

[Villa at Fond Doux. (Photo: Fond Doux Plantation and Resort)]

Alternatively, you could just rest during the day. For as loud as Fond Doux is at night it’s almost silent when the sun comes up. The grounds exude an almost meditative sense of peace and calm, only aided by the trails leading into the forest.

We hiked a route that dates back to the early 1800s, when Carib slaves escaping French rule fled into the forests to get away. Today the paths serve an infinitely more relaxed purpose, allowing stunning views of St. Lucia’s twin Pitons, and winding through a rainforest with apricots, avocados, almonds over here, cinnamon, cashews and nutmeg over there, and papaya and grapefruits all around. (Indeed, there was such an abundance we asked the staff whether all of this emerged naturally, or was sprinkled about for the guests’ benefit. Judging from somewhat bewildered answers the best guess must something in between).

[Petit Peton from Fond Deux nature trail. (Photo: Noel Hulsman)]

So there’s no shortage of plants here, but what about the animals? There are frogs and cicadas at night, to be sure, and every room has at least one gecko darting through it. But where are all the spiders and snakes, the water buffalo, the bats and monkeys? What tropical paradise doesn’t have monkeys?

Well, it turns out that monkeys and banana plantations don’t mix, or conversely, they mix all too well. Either way, if monkeys ever did roam here they were clearly encouraged to leave. As for the other animals, the simple explanation is that St. Lucia is an island, and thus, anything that isn’t expressly desired and delivered can’t be here… unless it can manage its own travel arrangements. That still leaves room for plenty, and in fairness, St. Lucia has its share, it’s just that you have to crane your neck to see them. Seventy-five percent of all the species here have wings. Most of the rest have gills. Very big gills.

[The west coast from Pigeon Island. (Photo Noel Hulsman)]

Marlins, tuna, swordfish and snapper are among the marine life surrounding the shores. That’s a bounty not lost on anyone, not the guides offering snorkeling tours nor the charters conducting fishing trips, and certainly not St. Lucia’s top chefs when planning their menus.

We experienced that to a deliciously extravagant extent at the Capella Resort in Marigot Bay, home of the aforementioned Oprah sighting.

James Michener, who would have known a thing or two about sandy destinations, having written “Tales of the South Pacific” and “Hawaii,” described Marigot Bay as the most beautiful cove in the Caribbean. And while the photos here don’t begin to do it justice, they do hint at the overall setting. Now mix in staff sporting long white shorts and knee-high socks, bringing complementary hors d’oeuvres and bottles of cold water while you laze in your poolside cabana, and you get sense of the splendor here.

[Marigot Bay. (Photo: Capella Marigot Bay Resort and Marina)]

Capella is the quintessential sun-soaked getaway. To look it up on Instagram is to be stunned by an endless scroll of pools, palm trees, bikinis and mega-yachts. (None of which, sadly, are in dock while we’re here. There are a couple of vessels a fair bit bigger than our house, but the last of the kind that can accommodate a crew of 18 – a crew! – slipped away shortly before we arrived.

With those boats, apparently the norm is for passengers to arrive by private jet, spend some time cruising amid the islands, and then sleep on the yacht while docked in front of the Capella. Such is the beauty of this resort that the grounds and surrounding bay is gorgeous enough serve as a backdrop, never mind actually needing to step foot in the suites, spa or multiple restaurants.

[Semi-private cabanas for relaxing by the water. (Photo: Capella Marigot Bay Resort and Marina)]

This isn’t to suggest that St. Lucia is simply a playground for the millionaire set. Indeed, the vast majority of hotels cater to mid-priced vacationers. The very comfortable standard here is resorts like Coconut Bay on the southern edge of the island, where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean.

The collision of waters means a bonanza for kite surfers apparently, as the beachfront was filled with daredevils skimming atop the waves, before soaring straight up, flipping around, and riding the breakers back. All of the action made for a postcard-like vista from the grounds of Coconut Bay.

[Where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean beside Cocunut Bay. (Photo: Noel Hulsman)]

The rest of the resort resembles a kind of fantasyland, if designed by a 12-year-old. There are five pools on the property, including at least one with a swim-up bar serving slushy treats. Nearby is a grill serving up French fries and chicken fingers, and beyond that, Ping Pong tables, a lazy river and a bunch of other things that our son is wild about and that I’m (mostly) able ignore behind my book.

In the evenings, the kids’ party continues, while the pool chairs are cleared aside and the stage in the centre of the resort fires up for the evening’s entertainment. Tonight it will be a local St. Lucian family playing Reggae and Motown hits while the crowd dances on the grass, drinks in hand.

[Coconut Bay Beach Resort and Spa from our balcony. (Photo: Noel Hulsman)]

The evening is interrupted only slightly by the sounds of flights leaving the island. Coconut Bay is almost directly next to the main airport. That isn’t an annoyance, as St. Lucia only sees a handful of flights a day, but it does serve as a reminder that sooner or later we’ll be heading home as well.

Perhaps for the flight crews who stay here, or those seeking something a bit more reserved than the buffet-style bacchanalias so standard at family resorts, there are two higher-end restaurants – one Asian, the other West Indies-fusion - tucked away on the second-floor of the main lodge. Both included in the standard rates and sumptuous in their own way.

Above the staircase leading there is a giant 3D map carved in wood and connected by rods showing the Caribbean archipelago. In the centre, and set in a darker wood than the others, is the island we’re on. Variations of this map are common across the country, a constant reminder that St. Lucia is part of a bigger club. The gorgeous warmth, the spectacular meals, the relaxed culture is what it means to be in the Caribbean. And looking at the map, it’s tempting to start plotting out where to go next. That’s for another day. Right now we’re here, and that’s more than fine.

24 Hours in St. Lucia

If you’re visiting St. Lucia, chances are you’re escaping the winter, you’re coming for a week or two (max), and you’re up for a little adventure. That, or you’re just passing through as part of a cruise. Either way, here’s a highly subjective list of three ‘shouldn’t miss’ spots when you’re here.

[Cocoa beans. (Photo: Capella Marigot Bay Resort and Marina)]

First is the nature trail at Fond Deux. Not only does it put you very quickly into an incredibly lush rainforest, within a short and easy hike you’ll be treated to stunning views of the two Pitons, against the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea. That’s at the top of the trail. At the bottom is a gorgeous botanical garden, complete with freshly picked cocoa beans to crack open. Set aside at least an hour. You won’t regret it.

[A Soufriere sidewalk. (Photo: Noel Hulsman)]

Equally exotic, yet not nearly as sumptuous are the streets of Soufriere, a 15-minute drive up the coast from Fond Deux. Soufriere is not, admittedly, among the top picks in any of the official guides. The city is clearly struggling, as evidenced by dilapidated buildings, questionable sanitation system, and overall sense of poverty.

Yet there is ample beauty on the streets, and an authenticity that the high-end resorts have no interest in emulating, understandably enough. It’s here that you’ll see the real St. Lucia; the vegetable sellers and fishmongers on the sidewalks, the churches and the stores catering to the people who live here. The few hours we spent wandering Soufriere were not the most luxurious part of our stay, though they were certainly among the most interesting and memorable.

[On the Caribbean Sea. (Photo Noel Hulsman)] 

The third pick, unquestionably, would be zip lining in Chassin, an ecotourism preserve in the northern highlands. But that’s only if you were asking my family. I get the whole soaring under the canopy of a rainforest thing, and there was definitely no shortage of delightful squeals, but for my money, an infinitely more appealing experience is an afternoon in a boat on the Caribbean side of the island. We traveled from Marigot Bay north to Pigeon Island, a national landmark site with stunning views of the coastline. The sea was calm, the breezes warm, and the scenery incredible. It felt kind of like paradise.

[Looking south to the Petit Piton. (Photo: Noel Hulsman)]