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.
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.