Your first look at St. Lucia's lush coast from the deck of a cruise ship is likely to include the island's most dramatic geologic feature: the Pitons, two striking volcanic peaks that rise a half-mile off St. Lucia's southwestern coast. The island's beauty has earned it the nickname "Helen of the West Indies."
Though St. Lucia has plenty of visitors (including those from cruise ships and a steady influx of honeymooners), parts of the island have largely remained unspoiled due to the locals' commitment to protecting the rainforests and other natural resources. A decent percentage of the island -- some 19,000 acres -- is protected as part of the St. Lucia National Rain Forest.
What development there is on St. Lucia is mostly in the area around Castries, the island's colorful, energetic capital city. It's not picturesque but it's still worth a look, especially if you're in search of duty-free goods or local handicrafts. But to appreciate St. Lucia's natural beauty, rent a car or take a cab out of town. The prettiest part of the island is in the south, and most visitors head there to see the former French colonial capital Soufriere, the lush Diamond Botanical Gardens and the world's only "drive-in" volcano. More options include hiking through the rainforest, snorkeling the sunken wreck off of Anse Cochon and horseback riding along the coast.
Settled first by the Arawaks and then the Caribs, St. Lucia became a hotly contested territory with the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century. The island passed back and forth 14 times between the British and the French until 1814, when the Brits finally took possession for good. Traces of both cultures still remain in the language; many St. Lucians speak both English and a French Creole patois, and it's visible in distinctive place names such as Soufriere, Gros Islet, Rodney Bay and Pigeon Island.
Both Place Carenage and Pointe Seraphine have duty-free shopping, cafes and souvenir shops. From La Place Carenage, you're close to the downtown markets. At Castries Market, locals sell fresh produce, spices and hot pepper sauces. At the adjacent Craft Market, vendors hawk T-shirts, wooden bowls, woven baskets and other items.
Soufriere: The area in and around the 18th-century city of Soufriere is one of the loveliest parts of the island. Located in the shadow of the Pitons, Soufriere was the capital of St. Lucia back when it was a French colony. Today, its colorful buildings with gingerbread trim still hold plenty of historic charm. (Shops generally open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.)
Soufriere's Drive-In Volcano: Soufriere's Drive-In Volcano lets you get close to the steaming 7-square-mile caldera. You don't actually drive into the volcano, but you park close and walk to an overlook. Be prepared for the stench of sulfur, akin to the odor of rotten eggs. (758-459-5500; open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens & Mineral Baths: There, you can stroll acres of landscape blooming with bougainvillea, ginger and other tropical plants. A land grant to three Devaux brothers from Napoleon in 1713 established the estate, which is still owned by family members. For an extra fee you can soak in the mineral baths near Diamond Waterfall. Be sure to wear or bring your bathing suit and a towel. (Soufriere Estate; 758-459-7565; open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays and holidays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Pitons: The best way to see the twin peaks of the Pitons is from the water; most cruise lines offer boat excursions that sail along the coast. The Pitons are also visible as you drive in and around Soufriere.
Pigeon Island National Landmark: Located at the very northwest tip of St. Lucia, Pigeon Island National Landmark is a 44-acre islet connected to the mainland by a causeway. It once was home to a group of Carib Indians and later served as a pirate hideout. The island features an 18th-century British naval garrison, a small museum and two small beaches. Walk the half-mile to the top of Signal Hill for a panoramic island view. (758-452-5005; open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Castries Market and Craft Market: Vendors have gathered for more than 100 years at the Castries Market and adjacent Craft Market to hawk fresh fruits and vegetables, spices and local crafts. You can pick up spices and bottles of the local hot pepper sauces, as well as baskets, wood carvings, pottery and hand-screened clothing. (Open Monday to Saturday 6 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Anse Chastanet and Anse Cochon: Those interested in snorkeling should head to Anse Chastanet or Anse Cochon to explore coral reefs, colorful marine life and even an old sunken ship at Anse Cochon.
Captain Mike's: Try your hand at sport fishing. Captain Mike's offers five fishing boats and a whale- and dolphin-watching boat, welcoming both neophytes and experienced fishermen. Reservations are recommended. (Vigie; 758-452-7044)
Trim's National Riding Academy: Take a horseback ride on the beach in Gros Islet. You can even go for a swim with your horse. Check out Trim's National Riding Academy for riding tours. (Rodney Bay; 758-450-8273)
St. Lucia Golf Resort & Country Club: Golfers can play at the St. Lucia Golf Resort & Country Club, an 18-hole course open to the general public. There's a well-stocked bar and pro shop. Temporary membership, golfing equipment and lessons by the resident pro are available. (Cap Estates; 758-450-8523. Tee times daily from 6:50 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
St. Lucia Helicopters: Want to see the island from a different perspective? St. Lucia Helicopters offers 10- to 30-minute aerial tours (you can fly over the north or south parts of the island, or choose both), complete with commentary on the island's history, rainforests, indigenous species and more. (Hewanorra International Airport, Vieux Fort Quarter; 758-453-6950)
Rain Forest Sky Rides: Glide through the treetops on a zip-line adventure with Rain Forest Sky Rides. Go for the adrenaline rush by whooshing through the treetops on cables strung between platforms, or opt for a bird's-eye view of the canopy from your seat in an aerial tram. You can also hike trails or combine activities. (Babonneau; 758-458-5151, U.S. office 305-704-3350)
Edmund Forest Reserve: Experience the island's rainforest by hiking through the Edmund Forest Reserve. A shady walk through the lush landscape rewards you with a view of the Caribbean sea. The hike begins south of Soufriere and takes 3.5 hours roundtrip. Hikes are by reservation with a certified guide. Contact the St. Lucia Forestry Department. (Soufriere; 758-468-5649)
On Foot: Although you can walk from Pointe Seraphine into downtown Castries, it's a long walk -- about 20 to 30 minutes. La Place Carenage is downtown, so you can easily walk to the markets.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available at the dock or from downtown. Regulated taxi operations are available at most places throughout the island. A cab ride from Pointe Seraphine to downtown Castries takes about five minutes and costs about $4 per person. A ride from Castries to Rodney Bay will cost about $25 for two people. Be sure to agree on a price before you get in, and specify which currency you'll be using. Water taxis are also available to ferry passengers from Pointe Seraphine to La Place Carenage; cost is about $5 roundtrip.
By Car: There are several car rental companies with kiosks at the port; rates start at about $60 per day. Unless you have an international driving permit, you'll need to purchase a one-day permit ($12). Note that St. Lucians drive on the left.
By Bus: St. Lucia's public transportation system consists of colorful, privately owned minivans, often painted with whimsical names. A ride from Castries to Rodney Bay costs about $1 per person. The bus station is in downtown Castries, near the markets.
Best Beach for a Half-Day Visit: Choc Beach is just a 20-minute taxi ride from Castries, and offers a lovely stretch of white sand.
Best Beach for Active Types: Rodney Bay's Reduit Beach (pronounced red-wee) -- about 10 minutes north of Choc Beach -- offers hotels, restaurants and water sports.
Best Scenic Beach: Anse des Pitons is nestled between St. Lucia's famous twin peaks and is a good place for snorkeling or diving. (Fun Fact: This beach was initially made of volcanic black sand, but the white sand that you see today has been imported to "improve" its appearance.)
Dasheene Restaurant: For nouvelle Caribbean cuisine and gorgeous views of the Pitons, head to Dasheene Restaurant, perched on a mountainside above the sea at Ladera Resort in Soufriere. The fresh catch of the day is always a good option. (758-459-7323; open daily noon to 2:30 p.m.)
The Lime: Chill out and watch the world (or at least a bunch of yachts!) go by at The Lime, a casual bar and restaurant overlooking busy Rodney Bay. "Liming" is a Caribbean term for relaxing, and you'll do just that over reasonably priced Creole favorites such as seafood and jerk chicken. (758-452-0761)
Charthouse: Also on Rodney Bay is the Charthouse, one of the longest-established restaurants on the island. Menu options include steak, ribs and fresh seafood. (758-452-8115)
Coal Pot: In Vigie Marina, the family-owned Coal Pot offers a blend of international cuisines in a setting that is intimate and romantic. Reservations are highly recommended. Ferry service is available from Point Seraphine. (758-452-5566; open Monday to Friday noon to 2 p.m.)
Green Parrot: Set on Morne Fortune above Castries Harbor, this restaurant provides panoramic views of the island. Cuisine is West Indian blended with Creole and international styles. Reservations are essential. (758-452-3399; open daily noon to 2 p.m.)
Ships anchor in Castries, either at Pointe Seraphine, a duty-free shopping complex on the harbor's north side, or at La Place Carenage, a smaller duty-free shopping complex near the markets on the harbor's south side.
Public transportation in St. Lucia often does not run on a set schedule. Buses wait until they're full before departing. If short on time, you might want to find another option.
Be aware that drive times on St. Lucia's many winding roads can be longer than you might think. Allow extra time to get to and from port.
The local currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar. (Check xe.com for current exchange rates.) You can generally use American dollars anywhere on the island, although you may receive change in local currency.
ATMs are plentiful in Castries and other major tourist areas.
English is the official language, but locals often speak Kweyol, a French-influenced patois based.
Go duty-free shopping at Pointe Seraphine. This harborfront shopping complex in Castries offers imports including designer perfumes, crystal and china, as well as wood carvings and other local handicrafts. Art & Antiques (758-452-4250) in Pointe Seraphine showcases work by island artists including Llewelyn Xavier, whose works are in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian. The shop sells reproductions of his work as well as original watercolors, prints and oils. Prices range from $300 for prints to $500,000 for a large oil painting. Other island artists are represented, too.
The island's finest silk-screened fabrics and clothing are offered at Bagshaws Studio and Shop, located two miles from Castries. Most stores in Castries are open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, with a break for lunch, and from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Don't miss the local Piton Beer, a light Pilsner brewed in Vieux Fort. Try it at The Lime, a popular restaurant and nightclub in Rodney Bay.