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St. Lucia Overview
When I caught my first glimpse of St. Lucia from the deck of a cruise ship, sailing past the famous Twin Pitons on the island's verdant west coast, I was ready to declare it the loveliest island on our itinerary -- and I hadn't even stepped foot on it yet. The dramatic mountain peaks seemed to emerge straight from the sea; beyond them was a wilderness of tropical foliage, shimmering green and gold in the early-morning sunlight.
I'm not the only visitor who's been struck by the island's beauty, which has earned it the nickname "Helen of the West Indies." Though St. Lucia has plenty of visitors, both from cruise ships and a steady influx of honeymooners, the island has largely remained unspoiled -- due mostly to the locals' commitment to protecting its rain forests 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 and energetic capital city. It's worth a look, especially if you're in search of duty-free goods or local handicrafts, but to appreciate St. Lucia's natural beauty you'll want to take a bus, rental car or cab out of town. Perhaps the prettiest part of the island is in the south, and most visitors head there first to visit the former French colonial capital, the lush Diamond Botanical Gardens and the world's only drive-in volcano. Other options include trekking through the rain forest to one of the island's many hidden waterfalls, or taking a snorkeling excursion to the sunken wreck off of Anse Cochon.
Settled first by the Arawaks and then the Caribs, St. Lucia became a hotly contested territory with the arrival of Europeans. It was passed back and forth 14 times between the British and the French from the mid-17th century to 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 in distinctive place names like Soufriere, Gros Islet, Rodney Bay and Pigeon Island.
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Locally brewed Piton Beer. Try it at The Lime, a popular restaurant and nightclub in Rodney Bay.
Go duty-free shopping at Pointe Seraphine, a harborfront shopping complex in Castries offering imports like designer perfumes, crystal and china, as well as wood carvings and other local handicrafts. The island's finest silk-screened fabrics and clothing are offered at Bagshaws Studio and Shop, located two miles from Castries (www.bagshawsstlucia.com. 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.
The official language is English, but you may also hear locals chatting in a French Creole language called patois.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar, at $2.67 E.C. to $1 U.S. You can generally use American dollars anywhere on the island, though you may receive change in local currency. ATM's are plentiful in Castries and other major tourist areas.
Where You're Docked
Most ships anchor at Place Carenage or Pointe Seraphine, both within walking distance of downtown Castries.
Both Pointe Seraphine and Place Carenage have duty-free shopping. Downtown, seek out the Castries Market and adjacent Craft Market to grab some local souvenirs. Or take a 20-minute cab ride to Choc Beach.
On Foot: Downtown Castries is within easy walking distance of both Pointe Seraphine and Place Carenage.
By Taxi: Taxis are readily available at the dock or from downtown. Regulated taxi operations are available at most places throughout the island. A ride from Castries to Rodney Bay will cost about $16 for up to four people. Be sure to agree on a price before you get in -- and specify which currency you'll be using.
By Car: There are several car rental companies waiting at the port, with rates starting at about $50 per day. You can also rent 4 x 4 vehicles starting at about $60 per day. Unless you have an international driving permit, you'll need to purchase a temporary permit ($20). 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. (We rode on one called "Big Time".) They're mostly used by locals and are the cheapest way to get around the island -- for example, a ride from Castries to Rodney Bay costs less than a dollar per person. The bus station is in downtown Castries within walking distance of the cruise terminals.
Watch Out For
Public transportation in St. Lucia often does not run on a set schedule. Buses will wait until they're full before they depart, so if you're short on time, you might want to find another option.
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 once the capital of St. Lucia back when it was a French colony, and today its colorful buildings with gingerbread trim still hold plenty of historic charm. This is home to the Soufriere Drive-In Volcano, where you can get up close and personal with a collection of multicolored sulfur pools -- an extraordinary sight, but be prepared for the stench!
A more fragrant option near Soufriere is the Diamond Botanical Gardens & Waterfall (758-459-7565), where you can stroll through acres of lush flowering plants and trees and even go swimming in one of the mineral baths near Diamond Waterfall. Originally built by King Louis XVI of France, the estate is now owned by the descendents of its 18th-century owners. Monday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Sundays and holidays 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.
One of those much-hyped (but still fascinating) attractions is the Pitons. These twin mountains, whose peaks rise right out of the ocean for almost a half-mile, are on the island's southwest coast. If you're really ambitious (and have an extra-long day in port), it's possible to hike up Gros Piton; be warned that it's a challenging and time-consuming climb, and you'll need both a guide and permission from the St. Lucia Forest & Lands Department. For most travelers, the best way to see the peaks 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.
Fun for both children and adults is a visit to Pigeon Island, at the very northwest tip of St. Lucia. Once home to a group of Carib Indians and later a pirate hideout, today the island is part of the St. Lucia National Trust, with beaches, a restaurant, and the historic remains of the barracks and garrisons where the French and English once fought for control of St. Lucia. Learn all the compelling history of the island at the Museum and Interpretive Centre, housed in the former British officers' mess building, which has been restored to the way it looked in 1808. Don't miss a hike up to the hilltop ruins of Fort Rodney for sweeping views of the sea and the mainland. Daily 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
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. Baskets, wood carvings, pottery and hand-screened clothing are all excellent buys. Monday - Saturday 6 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Those interested in snorkeling should head to Anse Chastanet or Anse Cochon to explore spectacular reefs, colorful marine life and -- at Anse Cochon -- an old sunken ship.
Been There, Done That
Try your hand at deep-sea fishing. Captain Mike's (758-452-7044, www.captmikes.com) motors five fishing boats and a whale- and dolphin-watching boat, welcoming both neophytes and experienced fishermen. Reservations are recommended.
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 (758-450-8273, www.trimsnationalridingacademy.com).
Golfers should check out 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.
Want to see the island from a different perspective? St. Lucia Helicopters (758-453-6950) 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, rain forests, indigenous species and more.
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: The white-sand beaches at Pigeon Island have all sorts of amenities, including a restaurant, historical museum 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.)
For nouvelle Caribbean cuisine and gorgeous views of the Pitons, head to Dasheene Restaurant (Ladera Resort, Soufriere, 758-459-7323, noon - 2:30 p.m.), perched on a mountainside above the sea. The fresh catch of the day is always a good option.
Chill out and watch the world (or at least a bunch of yachts!) go by at The Lime (758-452-0761), 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 like seafood and jerk chicken.
Also on Rodney Bay is the Charthouse (758-452-8115), one of the longest-established restaurants on the island. Menu options include steak, ribs and fresh seafood.
In Vigie Marina, the family-owned Coal Pot (758-452-5566, Monday - Friday, noon - 2 p.m.) offers a blend of international cuisines and is intimate and romantic. Reservations are highly recommended. Ferry service is available from Point Seraphine.
Green Parrot (758-452-3399, noon - 2 p.m.), set on Morne Fortune above Castries Harbor, provides panoramic views of the island. Cuisine is West Indian blended with Creole and international styles. Reservations are essential.
Staying in Touch
There's an Internet cafe at Caribbean Travel on Micoud St., Castries. The cost is $5 E.C. (less than $2 U.S.) for 30 minutes of access.
Best for First-Timers: Take an island highlights tour. Likely stops include the Soufriere Drive-In Volcano and Diamond Botanical Gardens & Waterfall, with pauses for photos at Morne Fortune and Marigot Bay.
Best for Photographers: Take a catamaran cruise to Soufriere. You'll get plenty of Kodak moments as you sail along St. Lucia's lush green coastline down to the dramatic twin Pitons. The sail might be combined with a bus trip to Soufriere's drive-in volcano, or a swimming stop in Marigot Bay.
Best for Nature Adventurers: Take a guided walk through the rain forest to one of St. Lucia's many waterfalls. Pack sturdy shoes that you won't mind getting wet, as you may have a chance for a quick, cool swim.
Highly recommended: Mystic Man Tours
For More Information
Contact the St. Lucia Tourist Board at 212-867-2950
Cruise Critic Message Boards: St. Lucia
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Bargains and Features
--Updated by Sarah Schlichter, Associate Editor for Cruise Critic's sister site, IndependentTraveler.com.