St Lucia: Boundless beauty beckons
St Lucia is a beautiful small island. I say small island because that's what it is. However, the nation's people are big on patriotism and pride, and are caring and welcoming. At 36 years old, St Lucia is a young nation with a promising future. With a population of just over 170,000, its charm is captivating.
A few weeks ago, Campari held its 2015 calendar launch on the island which, per capita, is the largest consumer of Campari in the world. Yes, St Lucia is Campari-crazy, with the drink being more like a part of the island's culture than anything else. There was Campari being sold, advertised or enjoyed almost everywhere we went while visiting for the launch. Asked why the seeming obsession with the famous red liqueur, St Lucians explained that it was because of the drink's diversity. There's no shortage of ways to enjoy it.
Wray & Nephew, producers of Campari and organisers of the calendar launch, wanted to make sure this was a memorable trip for invited guests. And they succeeded. Distributors and media from across the region invaded the scenic village of Rodney Bay, located at the northernmost point on the island.
Our first order of business was to take to the seas. After all, what better way to see the island than from the sea?
With captain Andy at the helm of the Sunset, we were all geared up and ready to go. Calypso and soca beats pulsated in the vessel and, as it rocked on the waves, so did the bodies. Our tour had officially begun.
What was instantly apparent was how mountainous the country is. For an island only 21 miles long and 14 miles wide, it sure had a lot of beautiful mountains, including the highly regarded Pitons (or Twin Peaks) which is the most iconic site on the island. St Lucians love the Pitons. The pair of pointy mountains are a national treasure. They're on the island's flag, there's a beer named after them, restaurants offering food made in their honour and tourism campaigns that revolve around their majestic beauty. As we cruised down to the south coast towards SoufriÈre, the much-heralded mountains came into full view. A UNESCO heritage site, the Gros Pitons is 771 metres high and its eternal neighbour, the Petit Piton, is 743 metres high. The pair live up to their big reputation. All on the boat fell silent, taking it in and snapping photos.
As highly regarded as the Pitons are, however, they are by no means the only scenic spot in St Lucia. As one St Lucian told me, wherever you live on the island you will have a view, whether you like it or not. We cruised along the coast, past the private estate of Anse Chastanet, above which is the lovely Jade Mountain Hotel. It's the most expensive hotel on the island and it's where the final rose episode of ABC's The Bachelor was filmed in 2014. From the sea, it looks more like an unfinished structure overrun by flowers. But the hotel is actually an architectural masterpiece. It's living rooms, bedrooms and infinity pool all flow into one, and of course, it offers a terrific view of the Pitons.
On our way back from the Pitons, we took a small detour into what is considered the safest harbour in the world - Margot Bay. This is where parts of the first Dr Dolittle movie were filmed in the 1960s, (there's now a famous restaurant at the site named in the movie's honour. It's also the location of one of boxing legend George Foreman's homes (he is married to a St Lucian). The entire area is postcard-perfect.
The next day was a total surprise. We thought we were going shopping, but instead our buses pulled out of Rodney Bay, up some mountains and down some valleys. Next thing we knew, we were driving by the coast and the driver was instructing us to look beyond the sailboats on the right to see Martinique, well in the distance. We could just make out the faint outline of a mountain range partially covered by fog. By ferry, Martinique is only an hour away. It was great to see a whole other nation just within eyeshot.
Soon we arrived at Pigeon Island National Park, a strategic location for the French and British who fought for and occupied this tiny island seven times each! This is an amazing bit of history. It has historically been so attractive to colonisers because of its strategic location, which makes it something of a gateway to the Caribbean.
Cool sea breeze, crashing waves and palm trees swaying in the wind transported us into a real-life postcard. In that instant, I understood the fascination people have with the islands. They are so serene, so peaceful, so leisurely. As we ventured into the park and were shown the ruins of the water tank and bakery, it became clear - we were here for a hike! This came as news to us, and no one was prepared. Most of us, myself included, had worn slippers, anticipating a leisurely stroll in the market and shops of Castries where we'd mingle with chipper locals who would regale us with tales of small-island life as we sipped piÒa coladas and swayed our hips to calypso music.
Alas, that stereotype was to remain a fantasy. The hike was brutal. However, what met us at the end of it all was more rewarding than any shopping trip. There were different shades of blue everywhere. The sky held the sea in heavenly embrace as the wind coming off the Caribbean Sea caressed our skin. It was a breathtaking experience. We stayed there for a while, and I'm happy to report that the descent was far less taxing than the climb up.
You can drive from the most northern point of St Lucia to its southern tip in a matter of hours. And that was exactly the plan, because no trip to St Lucia is complete without visiting the only drive-in volcano in the world. From Rodney Bay, we headed on to the Millennium Highway to Margot Bay. We drove along the mountain ridge overlooking the large Roseau Valley banana plantation before entering the picturesque bay we had seen the day before from the sea. It was great to have another vantage point.
From there, we drove through the fishing village of Anse la Raye on the west coast. This village relies solely on fishing, and on Friday nights, the entire area is transformed into a massive restaurant.
Then it was into the hills for a quick visit with a python. It was another visitor spot where, should you be so inclined, you are free to handle a snake. He's a little more than five feet long, and a calm fellow, probably accustomed to being poked and prodded by overzealous tourists. While some were eager to hold the slithering serpent, others were content simply to take pictures from afar.
Later, it was time for lunch with a view at The Beacon.
The Beacon overlooks SoufriÈre with (wouldn't you know it?), the Pitons in the background. Across from The Beacon, the owners have established a sanctuary garden, open to the public. Manager Marcus Joseph explained that, with all the stress that life has to offer, sometimes we just need a break to reconnect with God and be thankful. That is why the garden is open to all.
After lunch, it was time for the main event - Sulphur Spring Park. You know you have arrived when your nostrils begin feeling the assault of what smells like rotten eggs. The good thing about the smell is that it doesn't linger, it comes and goes. The volcano may not be what you expect. Having long ago blown its top, which then collapsed, it's not the typical image of what you would think a volcano is. It's more of a sleeping giant. As we peered into it, we saw tiny bubbling ponds and there was a hissing sound of steam escaping from the core. The spring that runs nearby has a soothing, lukewarm feeling. It also has a mud pond nearby which, it is said, is great for people who have eczema. It still was amazing to see nature at work.
It was a fitting end to an eventful day. Thanks for all the memories, St Lucia!