St. Lucia's most famous feature is the Pitons, two green, hulking peaks that rise from the sea in cinematic fashion. At the base of Petit Piton, the smaller of the two, sits Stonefield Estate Villa Resort, a former cocoa plantation transformed into 20 villas. With slatted walls, mosquito netting over four-poster beds, private plunge pools, and outdoor showers, the villas feel like part of a tropical summer camp--but Camp Hiawatha's dining hall never had an ocean view like this.
Shuttles take guests to one of two beaches: the resort's rocky beach, five minutes away, or the ridiculously beautiful strip of white sand (imported from Guyana to cover the original volcanic black beach) at the Jalousie Plantation resort, 10 minutes away. At night, the stars spread out gauzily in the sky, and crickets and tree frogs make so much noise that even city dwellers may need to take a few deep breaths to get to sleep.
The plantation has been in the Brown family for 32 years, but it's only spent the last eight as a hotel--which means proprietor Aly Brown's childhood bedroom is now a guest suite. Brown, 33, is a good-looking man who speaks about St. Lucian life and culture with a mixture of fond bemusement and even fonder pride. Returning to work for his family was the last thing he'd planned, he says over dinner at Camilla's, a small restaurant in downtown Soufrière, the southern village where Stonefield Villas is located. He had gone to Ryerson University in Toronto to earn a business degree, and was "summoned" home by his sister shortly thereafter. "I thought, Okay, I'll come down here for six months to a year, then leave," he says. That was eight years ago.
Picking Brown's brain about where to go on the island is tough--he spends so much time managing the hotel that he rarely gets out anymore--but he did dig up a magical photocopied map of the area, and it quickly became indispensable. My first stop was touristy Sulphur Springs, billed as the world's only drive-through volcano (I'd encourage people to go when the wind is blowing the natural rotten-egg smell away from the viewing platforms). The Soufrière Estate and Diamond Botanical Gardens are much nicer; the former sugar plantation's hundreds of varieties of foliage include giant ficus trees that make you wonder if the plant in your office is a growth spurt away from grandeur. Brown also suggested a slightly out-of-the-way waterfall, called Spike, that crashes 350 feet into a swimmable pool. Waterfalls are ubiquitous in St. Lucia, like wedding chapels in Las Vegas, but this one really was quite stunning. Feeling ambitious, I had my guide, Nelly, take me all the way to the top. The climb (and accompanying near-cardiac arrest) killed any dreams I had of making the four-hour trek to the top of the 2,620-foot-tall Gros Piton.
Finally, I followed a suggestion that would be repeated by almost everyone I met, and went for the Sunday buffet brunch at Ladera, a resort just down the road from Stonefield. The open-air dining room looks out over a broad expanse of Caribbean flanked by the Pitons, and the $20 prix fixe is a small price to pay for such a panorama, especially when one factors in the excellent coconut bread pudding.
Surrounded by all this, I find it unsurprising Brown stuck around. "In Canada, I enjoyed the restaurants and libraries and universities--all kinds of culture," he says. "St. Lucia is a Third World country. You're somewhat limited in choices. But after a while you miss your beach and you miss riding horses on the beach, you know? It's a life that you grow to appreciate as you get older." He smiles. "Everybody wants to retire to an island."
Nick Pinnock, owner of Ti Kaye Village Resort, e-mailed me his sightseeing suggestions ahead of time, declaring the island's best view to be from "the lighthouse on top of Moule à Chique in Vieux Fort"--a town at the southern tip of St. Lucia and an hour from Soufrière. My general inability to find anything outside of Soufrière, however, meant I never got to the lighthouse. But, hey, the power station and radio antenna one hill over are higher up anyway, and the view from there--with the entire island spreading below and so much ocean to my back that I swear I could see the curve of the earth--was a memorable last image of the south before heading north to Ti Kaye.
Accessed by a typically gnarly St. Lucian road, Pinnock's resort is on a piece of property about halfway between Soufrière and the capital, Castries. Raised in the island's north, Pinnock, now 38, left St. Lucia in the '80s and moved to Brisbane, Australia, with his mother. After attending college Down Under, he returned to St. Lucia, working for an agricultural firm based in Puerto Rico; the job sent him traveling all over the Caribbean. He bought the land in St. Lucia as an investment: "I was basically gonna sit on it for a few years and then sell it to some other fool. But I fell in love with it a little bit." Drawing inspiration from Stonefield Villas (Pinnock used to be married to Aly Brown's sister--it's a small island--and Brown's father helped with Ti Kaye's design), he laid out 33 cottages: open-windowed structures with gingerbread roofs, outdoor showers, and a view from every porch.
But the highlight of Ti Kaye is its beach, down 166 stairs to Anse Cochon, a bay with an excellent reef for snorkeling, a dive shop on property, and a waterfront restaurant and bar where the Piton Beer is lovingly chilled. Another of Pinnock's dining suggestions was to attend the Friday Fish Fry in Anse La Raye, 15 minutes north. More congenial than the better-publicized Mardi Gras--style "jump up" in Gros Islet, the fish fry consists of locals and tourists dining elbow to elbow at long tables in the town bazaar. With the sun setting over the pier and reggae blasting from six-foot-tall speakers, it's everything island life should be.
I got there early and killed time at the Seaview Bar, a small teal building kitty-corner to the community center, where I met 84-year-old Peter Adjodha, whose parents immigrated to St. Lucia from India when he was a child. A couple of Pitons later, our conversation had covered everything from American politics to Hurricane Katrina, while baseball highlights drifted by on a TV that takes up about a third of the room. Peter invited me to come back sometime, which I took to mean the very next night.
Providing experiences like that, says Pinnock, is something that small resorts such as Stonefield Villas and Ti Kaye pride themselves on. "If you're talking trickle-down economics, businesses like ours are much better for the economy [than bigger resorts]," he says. "We promote people to go outside, to spread it around a lot fairer." One of Pinnock's favorite suggestions for guests is to rent a jeep for a day, although he recognizes it can be a bit problematic. "For us, an old beat-up road to an east coast beach is normal," he says. "But you send a person who's been living in New York City all their life down there, they'll sort of freak out a little bit. Especially after they pass a country farmer wielding a machete." I tell him that I saw just such a farmer, though he was also wielding a puppy. "That was probably his dinner," Pinnock says, then laughs. "Just kidding."
After the fairly rustic isolation of the south, St. Lucia's capital city of Castries and its northern neighbor, Gros Islet, are a kind of social reconditioning therapy: Buildings! Traffic! Humanity!
My final destination, Coco Palm, is a candy-colored three-story building in Gros Islet's tourist-heavy Rodney Bay Village--and this being St. Lucia's relatively urban north, it's the first hotel I visited with full-on walls and windows, TV, Wi-Fi, and central air-conditioning. Co-owner and managing director Allen Chastanet, 44, has worked in pretty much every sector of the travel industry, including a three-year stint as St. Lucia's tourism director in the early '90s. He went to Bishop's University in Quebec for college and American University in Washington, D.C., for a master's degree in banking, but from the way he talks, there was no doubt he'd end up back on St. Lucia. When discussing the island's future, Chastanet lights up like a Christmas tree.
Coco Palm opened in June, a sibling to the more affordable Coco Kreole. Both were founded on Chastanet's philosophy of "village tourism"--a fancy name for Pinnock's goal of "spreading it around"--and to that end, Chastanet employs a staff of hosts to find out what's up every guest's alley. "As you're making recommendations, you can watch how people react," he explains. "And then you lead them off in that direction." Suggestions might include a delicious Chinese dinner at Memories of Hong Kong, a drink at the Happy Day Bar (two-for-one all the time, which can make for an Unhappy Tomorrow Morning), or Coco Resorts' Zen Cruise, which incorporates snorkeling, lunch, and meditation. Within 15 minutes of hearing about my wanderings in the south, Chastanet threw out an idea: I should visit the La Toc military battery, an old fort on the outskirts of Castries owned by an American named Alice Bagshaw. I listened skeptically. Then he told me that, aside from running Bagshaw's Shop, where she sells silk-screened fabrics, Bagshaw also has a room filled with antique bottles she's found while diving off the coast. Chastanet found something that combined my love of history, crafts, diving, and eccentric American expats.
As much as I liked stumbling around Soufrière, it was refreshing to have Chastanet and his hosts looking after me, fretting about my happiness, even chastising me for not spending enough time on Reduit Beach, a two-minute walk from Coco Palm. After I'd admired the murals at the hotel, the staff told me I should check out the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception--the artist who painted Coco Palm's murals, Luigi St. Omer, did the church's, too (with his father, Dustan). Chastanet also suggested a boat ride to Pigeon Island National Landmark, where a military outpost high up in the hills provides glorious views of Gros Islet and, if the weather is good, Martinique. I ate lunch at the Captain's Cellar Pub, enjoying a supertasty sausage sandwich (I admit that I was relieved to have something other than fish) while sitting at a simple picnic table just yards from waves crashing onto the northern beach.
By the last day, I'd grown tired of being led around by the nose, and sought to reclaim my independence by visiting Cas en Bas, a popular windsurfing beach on the east coast. The directions consisted of "Take a left at the Shell petrol station"--and sure enough, my trusty jeep and I got lost for a solid hour, driving down ever-dwindling roads until we dead-ended in front of highly amused villagers. When I at last found the grotty road down to the beach, I discovered a stunning, peaceful cove where Marjorie's Beach Bar is ideal for sipping a Piton in the shade and watching honeymooners ride horses bareback into the surf. The only thing marring the experience: An enormous development is being constructed next to Marjorie's, where once there were only palm trees.
Chastanet acknowledges that the tourism industry, for everything it brings to the island, isn't without its faults. "In a destination like St. Lucia, tourism can be very displacing," he says. "All of a sudden, in your backyard, you've got this resort, and there's all these people taking pictures of your kids. It can be very negative, if dealt with in the wrong way." But, he concludes, "If you're going to spend all this money to advertise for people to come to paradise, we need to make sure it's paradise."
As more and more folks are attracted by the island's considerable charms, it'll be up to men like Brown, Pinnock, and Chastanet to find a way to meld the traditional and the modern--St. Lucia and the outside world--in ways that honor both. It's certainly possible: The company behind the mega-resort being built at Cas en Bas is talking to Marjorie about running the resort's water-sport rental business off of her property.
Island driving: An adventure of its own
St. Lucia's relationship with street signs is tenuous, the roads occasionally double as rivers, and people drive on the left. If you still want to rent a car--which I recommend--note that there's a $20 fee for the required temporary driving license (all you need is a valid U.S. license, and you pay at the car-rental agency). You may want to bring a compass and a friend who won't hesitate to ask for directions. And pack some music, unless you like R. Kelly as much as local DJs do.
Hiring guides (and what to pay them)
Most natural attractions in St. Lucia are run by the Forestry Department and require a small donation (usually $2--$4). Upon arrival, you'll be encouraged to hire a guide--one of the locals sitting outside--for a "suggested donation" of whatever you decide (I gave tips ranging from $2 to $5). Guides are fairly unnecessary at self-explanatory places such as Sulphur Springs, but I enjoyed seeing the Botanical Gardens with someone who knew what we were looking at. The one place a guide is indispensable is when climbing Gros Piton, but avoid paying the $100 (and up) charged by most tour services. You can drive five minutes south of Soufrière to the Gros Piton nature trail and hire a guide on the spot for $30. A final note: Hitchhiking and ride-giving is rampant in St. Lucia, and your guide might ask for a trip into town afterward. It's probably safe enough, but if you feel uncomfortable, you're allowed to politely decline.