RECENTLY THE NAME of St. Lucia emerged in the dateline of the world press as the host nation to a meeting of the Organization of American States. The island boasts independence, itsown stamps, and its own seat in the United Nations, but its exquisite beauty remains a secret to which few Americans have been privy.
Located between Martinique to the north and St. Vincent to the south, St. Lucia is an island ruled as much by nature as by man. Seen from the air, her rutted roads and scattered villages seem tentative and at the mercy of the lush vegetation that blankets much of the land.
This is no place for the casino set. The closest wheel turns an island away. Of the half-dozen large resorts, all but one are concentrated in the northern, more arid portion of the island. They offer the idyllic but somewhat homogenized view of the Caribbean as a place where those who want to "get away" all seem to get together.
But it is the verdant stretch across the middle of the island that defines its true character -- a natural sanctuary of rain forests, streams, waterfalls, rugged escarpments, wild flowers and even a sulfur-puffing volcano.
Most tourist agencies know the island by name, but are slow to recommend it. St. Lucia's distance from the continental United States, its failure to promote itself, and the air fare have kept it off most U.S. tourists' itineraries. Less than half of the 17,000 Americans who visited the island in 1980 lived on the U.S. mainland, according to tourist board figures (whose reliability, say travel agents, is questionable). The majority were from the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
Reports of widespread damage wrought by Hurrican Allen in August 1980, and the recession have further hampered efforts to foster American tourism on the island. So for now it is the Canadians, the British, and the Germans (as well as visitors from neighboring islands) who covetously guard the pleasures of St. Lucia.
Earlier this month the tourism picture was clouded when the island was paralyzed by a series of strikes protesting actions by the conservative Labor Party, and the prime minister resigned. According to the U.S. State Department, neither this country nor Canada has issued a cautionary travel advisory. An interim government has been installed, shops are open and the chamber of commerce is functioning.
Like many Washingtonians planning a vacation, I was looking for a place to get away, somewhere remote and exotic, where the goings-on of government and press were of little concern -- some place quiet, natural, romantic. Finding the right island requires personal tailoring, matching personality and taste. Certainly no one island is right for everyone. St. Lucia's is a narrow appeal. It is not for those intent upon a swinging night life with casinos and elegant gowns, nor for those searching for quaint Dutch or British colonies or seeking a shopping spree.
Indeed, friends who forewarned me against going to the island -- "too quiet" -- only served to reinforce my resolve.
What second thoughts I had were experienced en route. Half the plane got off at the first stop after Miami -- St. Croix, V.I. Most of those remaining got off at the next stop -- Martinique. Of the approximately 20 people who stayed to the end of the line, most were St. Lucians returning home.
The plane touched down at midnight on the single runway at the southern extreme of the island. From the airport we took a broken-down cab into the lush rain forest and jungle along a rutted and pot-holed excuse for a road, and bounced our way across the mountains in the dark. Occasionally the jungle yielded to moonlit vistas of valleys covered with palms, hidden coves and the twin volcanic peaks called the Pitons that rise precipitously out of the sea.
The roads were treacherous in stretches. Our driver got out of the car and checked his tires and his brakes before taking on a series of awesome inclines with only a drop-off to mark the road's edge. It was an hour before we reached Anse Chastenet Hotel. At night the hotel was virtually hidden in the dense vegetation that covered the mountainside, but the dining room -- for lack of any better word -- was visible as a moon-bright terrace overlooking the sea. It was little more than an octagonal patio carved into the slope, open on all sides, redolent with unseen flowers.
Our host, already abed, had kept our dinners for us under a plate -- a colorful mix of vegetables, fish, fruits, and salad we ate by candlelight.
A young St. Lucian boy escorted us up the steep path that followed a wall that looked down on a valley of palms, papayas and citrus. After a minute we arrived at a bleached white octagonal chalet with the name "Frangipani" painted over the door. We opened the wooden slatted doors to an octagonal room with an arrangement of hibiscus and bougainvillea, reed furniture cushioned in brightly colored tropical patterns, a large bed beneath a batik of a sailboat, and light white curtains. Everywhere were windows, the loud chorus of tree frogs and the sound of the sea below.
Morning brought its own surprises -- a bold green lizard staring down at us from the door top, and a delicate tree frog who had padded his way up the wall. Standing on the terrace that encircled our bungalow we could see the twin Pitons to the south, the same dark spires we had seen silhouetted against the sky the night before. To the west was the beryl-colored sea, lake-calm, and edged by a beach the color of pepper -- spewed forth from an ancient volcano. Beneath the window hummingbirds fed on the bougainvillea. At breakfast, red-throated wrens nibbled at our papaya, toast and marmalade.
From breakfast we took the narrow steps that zigzagged across the face of the slope leading down to the beach. Mini-shelters of thatched palm fronds dotted the beach, and at the far end a bar marked by a towering cone of palm leaves served the usual tropical drinks, plus some not-so-usual fare. Consider "piton burgers" -- cheeseburgers made with a mystery meat and topped with pineapple. Consider them, but don't order them. Stick with the fish creole or fruit plate.
The real treasure of this cove is not on shore at all, but lies just below the surface of the diaphanous waters. It is a snorkler's paradise.
A stone's throw from the beach lies a network of reefs, huge brain corals, and gorgonian fans sheltering a variety of life -- trumpet and parrot fish, eels, electric rays, schools of squid-like creatures, and sponges. With your flippers you can break the spines away from the urchins, and open them from the underside to feed the fish. Against the dark sand, snowy sand dollars stand out in stark relief. I followed the reef out another 50 yards and found myself peering over the obscure edge of a dropoff into 200 feet of murky darkness.
Night is its own entertainment in this remote western shore of the island. Precisely at sunset the tree frogs resume their chorus. Bats swoop down. A thousand unfamiliar stars fill the sky. And under each light that marks the paths, a mini-drama of nature unfolds. Huge moths gather to feed on tiny worms. Frogs tongue the smaller moths. Lizards lie in wait for the larger ones. Fat-antlered slugs four or five inches long slide by leaving behind trails that shimmer in the moonlight.
What few "tourist attractions" the island claims are also the handiwork of nature. A few miles inland a malevolent-looking volcano hisses and bubbles, and sulfur fumes percolate through slate-colored waters. We watched a young St. Lucian picking for sulfur through the slag-like heaps and offering to sell his finds. An old St. Lucian who claimed to have been the "caretaker" of the volcano for 40 years escorted us across the pock-marked landscape and gave his recollections of each crater and crevice. It was a scene befitting Dante's Inferno but at the very heart of Eden.
St. Lucia calls itself the "Helen of the West." Like Homer's Helen, this small island -- 27 miles long and 14 miles wide -- has been the subject of many a competing interest. By 1814, when it was finally ceded to the British, the land had been pitched between the British and French 14 times. Its culture and temperament reflect the blending of these two influences. Its currency bears a picture of Queen Elizabeth II and its people show a certain British reserve. Many of the towns' names are French, as are the people's surnames. The patois spoken by St. Lucians also carries the French influence.
It is an old island, with a long history, but its people are young and its future unclear. More than half of its 130,000 residents are 21 or younger. Officials hope that a triad of labor-intensive industry, agriculture and tourism will reduce the 22 percent unemployment rate now dogging their people. The island imports much, and this spurs inflation.
There is a moving away from the traditional larger plantations and land-holdings, and the rain forests are yielding to the plow and machete. Bananas, citrus fruits and coconuts are grown and exported -- largely to the United Kingdom. The island also produces copra, dried coconut meat from which coconut oil and soaps are made.
Industrially the island claims a brewery, and several small-scale enterprises including plants producing Fiberglas, mattresses and other products. An oil refinery is scheduled for the near future. But troubled economies overseas have conspired to dampen the tourist industry. Since the benchmark year of 1979, foreign arrivals are off by 25 percent, according to the island's tourist board. IF YOU GO . . .
High-season (Dec.16-April 14) air fares to St. Lucia from Washington National Airport are $480 for weekday travel and $530 for weekend travel. That's the Eastern flight connecting in Miami with two stops between the U.S. mainland and St. Lucia.
Though it's only 5 1/2 hours actual air time, it's a full day's trip. You might therefore consider leaving from Baltimore for San Juan, Puerto Rico and changing to BWIA there. The fare is comparable and you get into St. Lucia at 4:45 in the afternoon.
High-season hotel rates range widely from the luxurious La Toc Villas' $718 per person per week (without meals) to the $213 per week at Bois D'Orange Holliday Village. Anse Chastenet's high-season rate with modified American plan is $595 per person per week.