St. Lucia: A tropical paradise

The mango-shaped island, located between Martinique and St. Vincent and north of Barbados, almost seems more South Pacific than Caribbean with its lush rainforests, mysterious jungles and dramatic twin coastal peaks, The Pitons, which soar 2,000 feet up from the sea.

First settled by Arawak Indians around 200 A.D., St. Lucia is a mélange of its rich past and varied cultures and traditions. While its breathtaking natural beauty makes for a perfect backdrop for romance, the island’s people are warm and friendly and welcoming to families and couples alike.

In fact, my trips to St. Lucia have been en famille and the warmth of the people we met both at our resort and while touring the island left the impression that children were not merely tolerated, but genuinely treasured.

The island offers a number of all-inclusive accommodations, including Sandals Resort (there are 3 of them) and the spectacular Anse Chastanet Resort on the unspoiled southwestern coast. We stayed at Windjammer Landing, a peaceful retreat that feels more like a sun-dappled Mediterranean village than a resort with its white stucco villas dotting the hills over the sea. The resort covers move than 60 acres of lush landscaping, tropical gardens, and sparkling pools and waterfalls.

With the many amenities including a pristine beach with water sports, several swimming pools (some villas offer private plunge pools), five restaurants, nightly entertainment and a spa just to name a few, we were tempted not to leave the resort at all. It is, after all, delightfully, deeply restful.

But alas, it’s not long before the island beckons to be discovered. Here are a few highlights:

Hike the rainforest. Deep in the island’s interiour lie 19,000 acres of rainforest with 29 miles of trails running through it. This lush habitat for rare birds and plants — including St. Lucia’s national bird, the Amazona Versicolor or the Jacquot — is a well-developed refuge of giant ferns, wild orchids and towering stands of bamboo.

Several licensed tour companies offer rainforest treks, ranging from relatively non-strenuous to the more rugged. Our guide entertained us with local lore, including the various remedies made from exotic jungle plants for ailments ranging from flu and hypertension to blood clots, as well as a complicated-sounding antidote for bamboo, which can be poisonous if you happened to be pricked by one of the trunk’s hairy tentacles.

Sail the high seas. Perhaps the sheer beauty of St. Lucia can best be experienced from the sea. While there are any number of day boat tours and sailing charters available, we opted for a tour aboard a 56-foot catamaran, complete with dolphin escorts. During a leisurely stop for snorkeling and a lunch of fresh seafood and mango, an ancient-looking local man floated by on a raft selling conch shells and beads. Happily for him, he had many takers.

The day cruise included stopovers at the famous Marigot Bay and picturesque village of Soufriere, which involved a hair-raising drive through the mountains to the Soufriere volcano, the world’s only drive-in volcanic crater. This was followed by a stop at the Diamond Botanic Gardens. Children gathered armfuls of coconuts among this delightful scene of waterfalls, walking trails and curative mineral baths.

Hit the open-air market in Castries. St. Lucia’s bustling capital is home to several historical sights such as the La Toc Battery and the uniquely decorated Cathedral and the Central Library.

The open-aired market offers an array of savory local specialties, including callaloo (stuffed crab back), curry and pepperpot stew. And St. Lucia has no shortage of fine restaurants with chefs offering a fusion of traditional/gourmet fare based on the bounty of locally-grown fruits and vegetables.

After an afternoon spent wandering around the shops, we dined at the famous The Green Parrot restaurant set above Castries Harbor. Offering magnificent panoramic views, the setting was all the more romantic due to a thunderstorm and resulting power outage which required us to eat entirely by candlelight.

As is customary throughout the Caribbean, local vendors set up barbecues along the roadside, at street fairs, and at the weekly Friday-night “jump-ups”, a colourful celebration of reggae, steel bands and non-stop dancing.

Do lunch on the plantation. For a truly memorable experience, head to St. Lucia’s largest estate, the Marquis Estate, just outside of Castries. This working plantation produces banana and copra, as well as coffee and cocoa. The tour includes a scenic drive along St. Lucia’s northeast coast to the countryside, a quick stop at an old sugar mill, a charming boat ride on the Marquis River and a lovely lunch — for us, it was Creole Chicken washed down with rum punch — at the old plantation house.

And all that jazz. Every May, the St. Lucia Jazz Festival welcomes renowned international musicians who perform at Pigeon Island National Park and other island venues. With its multiple shows of acoustical/straight ahead jazz, new age jazz, fusion, rhythm and blues and acts from the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe, the event attracts visitors from all over the world. Shows range from formal performances to intimate late night open air and night club venues and to casual picnic style events.