Did you know that St Lucia is the only country in the world named after a woman, Saint Lucy of Syracuse?
It also happened to be our sixth Caribbean destination this year and half-time for the Caribbean leg of our Minimalist Journey. Somehow it feels unreal that we have been travelling around this beautiful part of the world for seven weeks already. And we have seven more to go when we leave.
It seems the islands are becoming more mountainous the further north we are heading along the chain of the Lesser Antilles. As we hopped across from St Vincent on yet another LIAT flight (strangely there are no ferries between the two islands), all we saw in the distance was a blob of giant mountains, covered in rainforest and shrouded in clouds. Only the southern- and northernmost areas were flat(ish) and hence home to St Lucia’s two airports: Hewanorra International in the South (in the town of Vieux Fort) and the small, regional George FL Charles airstrip in the North (part of St Lucia’s capital Castries). We flew into the latter.
Basing ourselves at multiple locations, we stayed four nights in the capital Castries, four in Soufriere on the West coast and three nights near Mon Repos on the East coast.
Castries is a bustling, little place. We liked it. The Central Market area is huge, with a big market hall and stalls in the surrounding streets selling anything you may (or may not) need, from fruit, veggies and cooked food, to clothes and all sorts of souvenirs. Minivan buses add to the hustle and bustle. They start and terminate in the streets and a big parking lot behind the market hall. There is order though in the chaos: buses have numbers and show their destination on the windscreen, as do the street signs indicating the different bus terminals.
Unfortunately, 75% of the town was destroyed by fire in 1948, so it doesn’t have many historic buildings. One of the buildings that went relatively unscathed is its Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Concepcion. Very different from the imposing churches we had seen in Ecuador, it reminded us more of a giant community hall, airy and welcoming, with wood panels and colourful paintings.
One day, we took bus #1A north towards Gros Islet to check out Rodney Bay and Reduit beach. As the road north leaves the capital, hotel country begins… It couldn’t be more different up here. Walled-in all-inclusive resorts, marinas, waterside mansions, shopping malls (albeit small), restaurants, bars and the usual fast food outlets make the area up here feel more like Florida. Interesting to see… if just to leave again with a sigh of relief that we are not staying here.
On our last afternoon, we walked down to Vigie beach, a huge expanse of sand opposite the airport (you can literally wait for your departure swimming in the sea… it’s that close). While beautiful, it’s refreshingly non-touristy. Apart from the Rendezvous Resort, a small boutique hotel for couples, there are no hotels on the beach. On our walk along the beach, we met locals running, power-walking and doing push-ups, and kids attending their soccer and running training sessions.
We love to try local food wherever we go. And there is no better way to do it than at the small roadside food stalls you can find all over the Caribbean. In Castries, we had passed by some food stalls on the corner of Darling Road and Jeremie Street which looked fine (many locals bought their lunches there which is always a good sign). So before taking bus #3F to Soufriere (EC$8 per person), we stopped by one of them – Justina’s – for a yummy steamed fish lunch (we tend to share as the portions are huge here) with two juices for EC$22.
Soufriere is located in a gorgeous valley, about half-way down the west coast of St Lucia. On its Southern side, the famous two Pitons rise like giant pyramids out of the sea. Our apartment, slightly above the town, had views of the Petit Piton. Its presence was almost spiritual, you couldn’t take your eyes off this giant rock.
Compared to Castries, Soufriere is a sleepy town with several historic buildings and a small market on Friday afternoon along Frederick Clarke Street. Apparently, the farmers from the surrounding villages also sell their goods on Saturday mornings on the street opposite the fire station but we missed them.
Soufriere is surrounded by nature and, as the name indicates, volcanic activity (Soufriere means Sulphur mine). No wonder then that we spent most of our time out and about exploring.
Tet Paul Nature Trail
One early morning, we took bus #4F towards Vieux Fort, jumping off at Fond Doux Plantation (EC$2.25 per person). From there you can hike up (on a paved road) to the start of the nature trail in about 30min. The trail opens at 0800h, and it is quite a steep hike up, so it’s best to leave early.
The trail itself is just a stroll: a guide takes you slowly further up, explaining the various plants as you walk through the organic farm on a mountain top between the two Pitons.
There are various viewpoints from which you can see the Pitons close up. You can even see Vieux Fort and Hewanorra Airport from up there (and on good days as far as St Vincent).
Soufriere Sulphur Springs
Back down at the Fond Doux Plantation, we caught a bus back towards Soufriere, jumping off at the turn-off to the Sulphur Springs (EC$1.50 per person). From the turn-off, it is less than a kilometre of almost flat road to the entrance. You can do a guided tour to see the sulphur deposits or just use the thermal pools (which we did, at EC$13.75 per person).
You first soak in a big stone pool full of hot, murky water. Apparently, this is to open your pores. You then move upstream and smear grey mud all over yourself (or more fun yet over each other if you travel with someone). While you wait for the mud to dry, you watch others do the same, take pictures etc. To wash the caked on mud off, you jump back into the same pool you started at. Since you won’t get all of it off in the pool, there are some cold showers to (at least attempt to) clean yourself.
We felt a little sorry for the people we shared the bus back with. While we felt refreshed and squeaky clean (a great experience after our sweaty hike), we exuded a slight rotten egg smell.
One final tip (as with all tourist attractions I guess): go early. We left at just before noon, and the place was packed with tourist groups on day trips. Paul commented that he hadn’t seen so many white people in one spot for a long time.
Another day, we hiked to and from this relaxing little beach 2.5km north of Soufriere, with nice views of Soufriere Bay and the Pitons along the way. While the beach is shared between the Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain resorts, it is accessible to the public. There is a little marine reserve on the left (as you look out to sea) with colourful fish and coral, making for some good snorkelling. There is a dive and snorkel tour operator right on the beach.
We didn’t try any of the more upmarket restaurants in Soufriere. Our host had recommended the food truck next to the river. Madame Bon Gou’s food was so good, we ended up eating there twice… a huge fried fish or stewed pork meal with salad, steamed veggies, rice and beans, and macaroni pie plus two juices set us back EC$21.
Continuing our journey around the island, we took again bus #4F (this time all the way for EC$6 per person), changing in Vieux Fort to bus #2H, which took us halfway up the east coast to Mon Repos (EC$5 per person).
This time, we stayed in a BnB, in a tranquil valley near Mamiku Gardens. The setting was gorgeous, next to a river, with many fruit trees, birds and lizards… but also many insects. On our last afternoon, I got eaten alive by midgets, despite DEET, as I was sitting on the veranda for just a little bit too long. I’d never been bitten by midgets before, and I certainly hope it’s not going to happen again (they are worse than mosquito bites).
Blissfully unaware of the dangers ahead, we spent our days exploring the area.
La Tille Waterfall
Taking bus #2H back towards Vieux Fort (EC$2 per person), we hopped off at the turn-off to La Tille Waterfall and hiked for about 2.5km up a slightly rising dirt road. The falls are situated in a private garden. The entrance fee is not cheap (EC$25 per person) but absolutely worth it. John, the owner, has created a beautiful organic garden, with a forest stream and pools on one side, the waterfall with pool on the other and a pond with lots of fish in the middle (the fish nibbled on Paul’s feet). We spent a good few hours there, swimming in the natural pool, enjoying a hydro jet massage under the waterfall – with no one else around – and chatting to John. The property is off-grid, with electricity produced by the waterfall and solar panels. John is also in the process of building a cottage for guests, which means you’ll soon be able to stay up there and make the most of this amazing place.
Another day, we did a 5km hike into the valley north of Mon Repos, past farms and banana plantations. When it started to rain, a local farmer saw us take refuge under a tree and waved us over to his shack. It turned out, Eustace, a very humble man, used to play cricket for St Lucia. Once the rain stopped he proudly showed us around his farm of yams, taros and bananas.
On a walk around Mon Repos one early afternoon, we not only discovered a small local restaurant next to the service station (where a huge tasty meal and three drinks set us back EC$25) but also a weekly cassava bread making workshop (we visited on a Tuesday). The villagers explained to us the whole (quite labour intensive) process, and we bought both a sweet and savoury version to taste… Delicious.
We also had lunch (on our first day) and dinner (on our last day) at the Fox Grove Inn, a small hotel nearby, owned by a St Lucían / Swiss couple. The coastal views from the hotel are stunning, and you can enjoy their swimming pool if you dine here.
St Lucia has been the most rounded island we have visited to date. It has a bit of everything. Impressive mountains, picturesque valleys, expansive views and well-marked trails make for good hiking. Idyllic beaches, healthy reefs close to shore and crystal clear water ensure a memorable (under)water experience. You can even rejuvenate your tired body after a strenuous hike in mineral hot springs and under cool waterfalls (even warm mineral-rich waterfalls if you wish).
What else did we notice?
- St Lucia makes a noticeable effort to attract tourists and locals alike with various festivals throughout the summer months (for example the Jazz Festival was on when we visited).
- We noticed a greater divide between rich and poor than on the other islands: There were more beggars, especially in Castries and Soufriere, a total contrast to the cliff-side mansions along the west coast.
- Minivan bus drivers are almost as crazy as those on St Vincent, though minus the deafening soca music and the ominous money collector. We also didn’t feel like sardines: the maximum number of passengers we encountered was fourteen.
Would we recommend a visit to St Lucia and return ourselves one day? Yes, we would… happily.