knew I was going to like St. Lucia the moment I stepped out the front gate of my hotel and all but bumped into a wandering cow and her calf. They appeared as startled as I was, but we managed to politely make way for each other. I was headed for a restaurant down the road, and since they seemed pointed in the same direction I joined them for a while. Our encounter was brief, but it promised my kind of island vacation -- a low-key adventure where I might meet some of the local folks, or at least the livestock.
St. Lucia may be the prettiest island in the Caribbean; it is the loveliest I have seen, and this is what drew me back on a short visit last fall. In the rain forest of the central highlands, a long ridge of green, mist-shrouded peaks rises to above 3,000 feet, and from its broad slopes splash countless rushing streams bound for the sea. Along the lush southwestern coast, flower-draped fishing villages painted in a profusion of tropical colors look much as they must have a half-century or more ago. The much drier northwestern coast is cut by protected bays lined with fine crescent beaches.
Island lore has it that the best way to arrive in St. Lucia is from the south by boat in order to get the most dramatic view of the towering twin Pitons, St. Lucia's famous volcanic peaks. Soaring from the sea in a bold, distinctive thrust, they look like two huge rock-faced pyramids clad in splendid tropical greenery. I first saw the Pitons a decade ago aboard a Windjammer sailing vessel as we raced toward the island in a stiff morning breeze. It was a gorgeously scenic welcome, and I kept the image with me. Over the years, it nudged me often to return and explore the landscape beyond the Pitons.
The tiny nation, which has an English-speaking population of about 130,000, is the proverbially unspoiled (well, almost) island of romantic dreams. Principally agricultural in economy, it is a verdant garden of tropical fruits -- papayas and mangoes and the little Caribbean bananas so sweet when plucked ripe from the stalk. On the roadside, vendors shimmy up a tree for fresh green coconuts, lopping off the tops with a machete to offer you a refreshing sip of their sugary water under a hot sun.
When you tour the countryside, as I did, your eyes constantly snap mental photos of a different way of life: A young woman carrying a bundle of firewood on her shoulder pauses by the road to assist her son, who is dragging a heavy log with a rope. An elderly woman in a straw hat is hard at work making charcoal in her outdoor oven, which is smoking ferociously. Youngsters in uniforms spill at recess from wood-frame classrooms that have screens for walls in the gentle island climate. Cows, goats, horses, pigs and chickens ramble at will, or so it seems.
In this bucolic scene, hotels and inns -- ranging in quality from modest to luxurious -- are few in number, generally small in size and mostly scattered unobtrusively on the northwestern coast, where the Caribbean surf is gentle and warm. As yet, St. Lucia retains its cultural integrity, an island for the islanders themselves. As a visitor, you do not trip over other tourists, except when a huge cruise ship docks briefly in Castries, St. Lucia's attractive capital city.
The pressure to capitalize on tourism is strong, however. Unemployment is high, and new hotels mean more jobs. Currently, the island has 4,000 guest rooms, and that number is expected to grow to 6,000 by 1995. A 750-room resort is a possibility, and legal gambling in casinos may be introduced. The island is at a crossroads, and it is too soon to say which way it will turn. Meanwhile, I like it as it is.
The town of Castries, tucked at the foot of steep forested hills, is a tidy, tree-shaded community with a busy port, several good West Indian crafts shops, a splendid old cathedral and one of the largest produce markets in the Caribbean. Much of the action in the market takes place in the shade of a huge red iron shed built in 1894. But on weekends, farmers from all over the island also set up stands on the surrounding sidewalks. I browsed for more than an hour one day, mostly to watch the animated faces of the vendors and their customers as they negotiated a sale.
On a romantic island, you want to see friendly faces. I arrived in St. Lucia by plane on this visit, and I say in complete sincerity I have never encountered immigration and customs officials who displayed brighter smiles and a more courteous demeanor. Outside the airport exit, a pleasant, soft-spoken dispatcher assigned me in orderly fashion to a taxi, and at my hotel the desk clerk offered her own warm greeting. When, a few minutes later, I stumbled into the path of the cow, I was ready to imagine a smile on her face, too.
A new nation, having achieved full independence only 12 years ago, St. Lucia has a long and rather intriguing history. By local account, the island exchanged hands 14 times in 150 years as the British and French contested for ownership in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The imperial duel, won by the British, left its mark. Old stone fortifications are abundant, and one of the best, Fort Rodney, is preserved in Pigeon Island National Park, where the sea views from the high, windswept battlements are superb. English is the island's official language, but many of its geographical place names are French, and among themselves the islanders speak a lilting, French-influenced patois.
Like many Caribbean islands, St. Lucia's economy was once based on slavery. West Africans were imported to work on the sugar cane plantations, which disappeared in the 1960s when bananas became more profitable. The workers, like their European masters, were vitally affected by the British and French rivalry. On the rugged southeastern coast, the tiny canoe-making village of Preslin is pointed out as the former headquarters of the "brigand slaves," a hardy band of freedom fighters. They make an interesting footnote to this phase of St. Lucian history.
At the outset of the French Revolution, the French, who at the time held possession of St. Lucia, freed St. Lucia's slaves. But in 1796, the British succeeded in recapturing the island and quickly acted to reimpose slavery. The "brigands" refused to relinquish their new freedom and put up a valiant struggle. Ultimately, however, they were forced to disband. Britain officially abolished slavery in its colonies in 1834.
Although full-service resorts are relatively few in number on St. Lucia, the island's visitor amenities are otherwise quite sophisticated. Scuba diving reportedly is excellent, daylong cruises along the spectacular coastline are offered, and every Friday night the village of Gros Islet on the northwestern coast throws a spritely street party, with plenty of local barbecue and dance bands that play until dawn.
Several restaurants in or near Castries are very good, serving international dishes with a St. Lucian accent and local produce. For West Indian atmosphere, a favored lunch stop in downtown Castries -- for tourists and locals alike -- is Rain, a three-story white Victorian house with a green tin roof and gingerbread trim. The second-story balcony opens onto busy Columbus Square, and you can linger over a tropical drink watching the shoppers pass by.
I spent one full morning in Castries, touring the market and sitting in at a church school class at the Cathedral of Immaculate Conception. An imposing stone structure built in 1897, it stands just across Columbus Square from the Rain Restaurant. I might not have entered, but I heard hundreds of young voices through the open windows singing a childhood hymn. Inside, the boys sat on the left and the girls on the right. I listened from behind with the parishioners.
The cathedral's stodgy exterior masks its wonderfully lively interior. The walls and ceilings are lined in wood and decorated in a variety of geometric patterns painted in vivid colors. And the floors are tiled in designs of black and white. The effect is marvelous. You think you are sitting in the midst of an impressionist painting.
I stayed at the St. Lucian Hotel, which is about seven miles north of Castries. It is a 220-room resort of two-story structures, most of which offer full views of Reduit Bay and a long stretch of golden sand. One of the island's largest hotels -- and among the best -- it is popular with Europeans, most of whom arrive on tour packages and quickly strip to the skimpiest bathing suits to be seen on a public beach anywhere.
They seemed, many of them, intent on serious tanning, but I wanted to see the island -- though I did get in a brisk swim before breakfast each day and a lengthy soak in the warm surf at sunset. And since St. Lucia is a banana-growing island -- my drive took me through acres of banana tree groves -- I did my part to aid the economy by ordering bananas in any form they appeared on the menu. I usually picked up a couple from the breakfast buffet each morning and treated myself to banana daiquiries before dinner each evening, and one night for dessert I splurged on an astounding banana split.
St. Lucia is a small island -- just 27 miles long and 14 miles wide -- and shaped much like a teardrop, slender at the top and plump at the bottom. But touring it is something of a challenge. Many of the roads, even the busiest, are narrow, bumpy and filled with potholes. I decided to hire a car and driver, figuring he could watch the road while I soaked in the scenery. He drove mostly at a snail's pace, and I don't know whether it was to spare our backbones or protect his car. We rode for almost eight hours in a wide, rambling loop along the southern coast, and we covered only 120 miles.
They were, however, interesting miles, and, in fact, I didn't much mind the pace because it gave me more time to observe the sights along the way. My head swiveled from dramatic seascapes as we crept along a hillside ledge above a turquoise Caribbean to domestic scenes of village women scrubbing the family laundry in a fast-flowing stream.
My driver and knowledgeable guide was Alan Sampson, who works at the St. Lucian. He set a price of $120 in U.S. currency for the excursion. Initially, I thought it high, but a full day behind the wheel is hard work on St. Lucia's roads, gas is expensive, and his car took a beating. I heard afterward from another driver that Sampson swore never to make the trip again.
Our primary goal was the fishing village of Soufriere at the foot of the Pitons, but we would make a few stops along the way. From Castries we climbed Morne Fortune, the hillside overlooking the capital, where the harbor views are best. Taking the only road south, we soon were passing rows of banana trees. Once the trees grew tall, but a shorter variety is now preferred because they don't topple so easily in hurricane winds.
Bananas are a major crop, with most of them marketed in Europe. The banana boat from Great Britain docks each Wednesday, and on that day pickup trucks and other vehicles carrying bananas piled high beyond reasonable capacity make their wobbly way to the wharf. On a Monday, when I rode by, groups of workers using machetes were cutting stalks of bananas and packing them in sturdy boxes in preparation for boat day.
The road to Soufriere climbed and dipped repeatedly in the mountainous terrain. Twice we made steep, twisting descents into slender river valleys to visit the fishing villages of Anse La Raye and Canaries. At times the route narrowed to barely a car's width, and the vegetation became so thick I thought we must be driving through a jungle. Giant ferns, as big as a table cloth, draped over the road, and rocky crags rose high above us. Sampson pointed out coffee trees, breadfruit and cacao pods. We stopped in a forest of coconut palms for a taste of fresh coconut water, and he bought several green coconuts for his family.
This part of the island, a portion of it a rain forest preserve, is lightly populated, but I caught glimpses of small farm houses, often on stilts and clinging to the side of a precarious slope. Most were wood-frame and neatly painted in pastels. Invariably they sported a corrugated tin roof to shed the frequent rains. Behind them, carved from the dense foliage, small garden patches stepped up the hillside in terraces. Sampson spotted cucumbers and sweet potatoes, crops that probably would be sold in Castries' market.
As we climbed from Canaries, I got my first good view from land of the twin Pitons, and I think they are impressive from wherever you see them, land or sea. Soufriere, delightfully picturesque in colorful West Indian trim, sits at their base with a fine view of the peaks and the Caribbean. In addition to the Pitons, Soufriere is also the site of two other important St. Lucian attractions -- the Diamond Botanical Gardens, which is located in a rocky river gorge, and Sulphur Springs, a seven-acre, still-bubbling volcano crater. The crater has been dubbed "the world's only drive-in volcano."
At the garden, I welcomed the opportunity for a walk, and made my way slowly along a gravel path through a fragrant display of red ginger, bird of paradise and yellow hibiscus blooming in profusion. In 1785, King Louis XVI of France built hot springs mineral baths for the benefit of his St. Lucian troops, and they were located on the site of the gardens. In 1983, the outdoor baths were nicely restored in the form of two small tiled pools near a large waterfall. You can enjoy a warm soak for about $2.25, and I might have if Sampson hadn't been waiting back in the car.
Nearby is Sulphur Springs, where Richard, an official guide, informed me the old volcano had last erupted in 1780. The cone has collapsed, but the caldera still bubbles and hisses ominously, spitting hot mud into the air regularly. Government officials have expressed interest in harnessing the steam as an energy source, but finding the funds apparently has proved very difficult. A nation of modest means with a small tax base, St. Lucia barely has money enough to keep the roads open.
By now, the day was growing late. I had dawdled at Sulphur Springs, and we had missed lunch. So we had a snack and continued on our way.
Our route took us south to Vieux Fort on the island's southern tip, where St. Lucia's international airport is located, and north along the wave-splashed eastern coast. The road from the airport is the island's busiest and is kept in better repair. We stopped only one more time. I think Sampson was still hungry, and he took me to his favorite bakery, a one-man operation.
At some unmarked intersection outside Castries, we turned left onto a miserably rutted dirt road that climbed steeply for several hundred yards to a weather-worn village of humble cottages hidden in the trees. Finally, we pulled up to a crumbling shed with the rusting hulk of a truck parked outside. I trusted Sampson, but where was he taking me?
Smoke was pouring from the chimney, and Sampson ushered me inside to meet his friend George, the neighborhood baker. George is an elderly man, who was dressed in an apron and dusted from head to toe in flour. He had just filled two large baskets with hard-crusted rolls fresh from the stone oven, and already the villagers were lining up to buy one or two for their evening meal. Sampson bought a bagful, and we nibbled all the way back to the hotel.
The drive was long, but I'd classify it as a rewarding adventure. I thought so, anyway, because I had seen the lovely countryside that I had hoped to find in St. Lucia and met some of its people. If my old pal, the cow, had been waiting at the hotel gate when I left St. Lucia two days later, I would have given her a hug.
WAYS & MEANS
St. Lucia is served most conveniently from Washington by American Airlines. Departure is from Washington Dulles International or Washington-Baltimore International with a change of planes in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The airline currently is quoting a round-trip fare of $413, based on a seven-day advance purchase, a three-day minimum stay and travel Monday through Thursday in both directions. A penalty of $25 is imposed for cancellations.
Most of the island's hotels are on the northwestern Caribbean coast in Castries or to the north. They are a 75- to 90-minute drive from the airport (on the island's southern tip), and the one-way taxi rate is $40 to $50, a hefty item to figure into your budget. Rental cars are available but not advisable unless you are adept at driving on the left side of the road. The roads are narrow and generally in poor shape, and directional road signs are few to nonexistent.
WHERE TO STAY:
Choices range from modest to luxurious, although there aren't a lot of places in either category.
In luxury class are Cunard's Hotel La Toc & La Toc Suites, just south of Castries, and Windjammer Landing Villa Resorts, a new complex to the north of the city. Based on a quick tour of the two, I would favor the Windjammer because of its more attractive setting. On the other hand, La Toc's restaurant, Les Pitons, is one of the island's finest. A room for two with a garden view at La Toc begins at $170 a night during the winter high season; a room with a sea view, $210 a night.
Seven miles north of Castries, the St. Lucian Hotel, where I stayed, is not as fancy but it sits on one of St. Lucia's finest beaches. The Flamingo, its most elegant restaurant, also rates among the finest on the island. Almost all the rooms are within a few yards of the beach and have sea views. On the other hand, it's the sort of place that schedules beer-drinking contests by the pool for its guests, many of whom are on package tours. A room for two is $186 a night in high season.
In the inviting but modest category is the 44-room Islander Hotel, about two blocks inland from the St. Lucian. Guests can make use of the beach at the St. Lucian. The rate for two is $95 a night in winter.
Club Med operates one of its all-inclusive properties in the southeastern corner of the island within sight of the international airport. And there are two other all-inclusive resorts, Couples II just north of Castries and Le Sport, a health and fitness retreat, on the northern tip of the island.
Most hotels add a 10 percent service charge to room rates, and there is an 8 percent room tax.
Rates drop considerably in the low season, beginning in April. The same room that is $186 a night during high season at the St. Lucian is only $85 a night beginning April 6.
INFORMATION: St. Lucia Tourist Board, 820 Second Ave., Suite 900, New York, N.Y. 10017, 800-456-3984 and 212-867-2950. I phoned twice for informational brochures last fall, but nothing ever arrived in the mail. Perhaps you will have better luck.
-- James T. Yenckel