10 Most Sacred Spots on Earth
When we modern folks visit a beautiful natural site, the experience may evoke a sense of peace, a feeling of awe...or just the need to snap a million photos. For our ancient forbearers, though, these places were so much more. Throughout history, civilizations all over the globe have attached spiritual or religious importance to natural spots (ie. not man-made places) that played key roles in their respective cultures. From the mythological homes of powerhouse gods like Zeus and Shiva to the serene spot where the mortal Buddha achieved enlightenment, these are the places of legends. Some are still used for age-old rituals, others have been lost to time, but all crackle with a special energy and, if you're lucky, just a little bit of leftover magic.
Located in Australia's Red Centre, in the heart of the continent, these two natural rock formations are the main attractions in the World Heritage Site Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. One of the country's more recognizable landmarks, Uluru is a flat-topped sandstone rock standing about 1,100 feet high and almost six miles around, with a soulful, deep-red hue that changes throughout the day. (The site is also known as Ayers Rock, so named by the colonial surveyor who "rediscovered" the place in 1873.) About 30 miles away, Kata Tjuta (a.k.a. The Olgas) is made of more than 30 domes of varying rock types, including granite, sandstone, and basalt; the tallest point is almost 1,800 feet high. Both sites are sacred to the Anangu people of the Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal tribe, who believe the rocks were built during the ancient creation period and are still inhabited by ancestor spirits. (Archeologist work suggests there were humans in this area over 20,000 years ago.) Owned by the Anangu and leased by the government, the park is open to the public, though tribespeople continue to perform rituals and ceremonies in various locations, such as the sacred "Dreamtime" track that runs near the modern hiking trail. The park also houses a Cultural Center and Aboriginal rock art sites, and ranger guided tours are available.
Getting There: Visitors can drive or join a bus tour to the park from Alice Springs (280 miles away), or fly to Ayers Rock Airport/Connellan (AYQ); Qantas and Virgin Australia offer direct flights from several major domestic cities. There are only a few accommodation choices in the area, in different price ranges, and all are owned by Voyages Indigenous Tourism. (Camping is not allowed in the park.) Note that while hiking Uluru is not technically forbidden, the Anangu ask that visitors not climb the rock out of respect for its significance, and also ask that photos not be taken of certain sacred sites. Guests should also not pocket any rocks as souvenirs—those who have say it brings bad luck, and often mail the rocks back to the park. Admission is $25 for a three-day pass.
2. CENOTE SAGRADO, MEXICO
The ancient Maya revered water for its life-sustaining power, and worshiped Chac, the god of rain, because of this awe of H20. Many areas of Mexico are dotted with cenotes—natural underground sinkholes—and the Maya believed that some of these sites were visited by Chac himself. As a result, some cenotes were designated as "sacred" and kept for rituals, offerings and sacrifices, while others were set aside for bathing, drinking and crop water. One of the most notable of the sacred springs is Cenote Sagrado, located near the major Mayan archeological site Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula. Created from a natural limestone cave, with steep sides stretching about 60 feet above the water line, this cenote was specifically used for ceremonies and occasional sacrifices; for the latter, men, women, and children were thrown in during drought times to appease the water gods. When archeologists dredged the spring in the 20th century, they found gold bells, masks, cups, rings, jade pieces, and more (many from the post-Spanish period) along with human bones.
Getting There: One of the most visited archeological sites in Mexico, Chichen Itza can be reached by car or organized bus tours (typically about $35 per person) from nearby tourist hubs like Cancún or Cozumel, or via infrequent public bus service; the ride is about two-and-a-half hours from Cancún. The entry fee is about $8 and includes the evening light and sound show; headphone tours are $2. Cenote Sagrado is part of the Great North Platform section of the site.
3. MAHABODHI TREE, BODH GAYA, INDIA
According to Buddhist traditions, around 500 B.C., when the ascetic Prince Siddhartha was wandering through what's now the state of Bihar in India, he took rest under a native bodhi tree. After meditating there for three nights, the prince awoke with enlightenment, insight and the answers he had been seeking, which developed into the teachings he went on to spread to his disciples. Naturally, the place where the Buddha reached enlightenment is one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists, and has been a major pilgrimage destination for centuries. Today, a temple complex surrounds what is believed to be a direct descendant of the original majestic tree itself, which sits in the middle of a courtyard surrounded by protective carved panels. A beautiful Buddha statue under the tree marks the significant spot.
Getting There: A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mahabodhi Temple Complex is in the Bodh Gaya area of Bihar, India. The site is about three miles from the Gaya Airport and about seven miles from Gaya City. Car service, public buses, and bus tours are also available from the holy city of Varanasi; public buses run about $8.
4. MOUNT KAILAS, TIBET
This black rock mountain in western Tibet is something of a holy hat trick, since it is sacred to Buddhists, Hindus, and Jains and is thought to be the mythical Axis Mundi, the center of the universe. Hindus believe it is the residence of Lord Shiva and the land of eternal bliss, and have celebrated the mythical Kailas in temple carvings throughout India. Tantric Buddhists say the mountain is the home of Buddha Demchog, who represents supreme bliss, and that three key Bodhisattvas live in the surrounding hills, while Jains believe it is the site (which they call Mount Ashtapada) where the first Jain attained nirvana. The peak is part of the Gangdise Mountain range and is set near the source of some of the longest rivers in Asia, including the Sutlej, the Indus, and the Ghaghara (a tributary of the holy Ganges River). Nearby Lake Manasarovar, considered the source of purity, is another major pilgrimage site for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Getting There: Despite being such a mythical sacred site, Mount Kailas is also one of the least visited, due to its remote location in the Tibetan Himalayas. From Lhasa, it's about a four-night journey over the plateau to the small pilgrim outpost, where there are a few basic guesthouses. From this base, most pilgrims set out on foot, pony, or yak to circumnavigate the base of the mountain, a journey of about 32 miles. There is no record of anyone having attempted to climb Mount Kailas.
5. MOUNT SINAI, EGYPT
Some of the basic tenets of Judeo-Christian-Islamic beliefs can be traced back to this mountain on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, for it was at the top of this peak that Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God. Though there is not much archeological evidence confirming this as the exact place, and biblical scholars have theorized for years about the mythical mountain's location, early Christian monks believed this was the sacred site and established several monasteries in the area.
Getting There: In the past, visitors could start at St. Catherine's Monastery at the base of the mountain, then climb to the summit, where there is the small Holy Trinity chapel and stunning views, especially at sunrise, however in September 2013, The Guardian reported that St. Catherine's Monastery was forced to close as a result of a shaky economy following the country's uprisings. The mountain can only be reached by road; Dahab and Nuweiba are both about two hours away by car, while it's about three hours from resort hub Sharm al-Sheikh. Most hotels on the peninsula can set you up on a bus tour, and many of these arrive at the base around 1 a.m., so visitors can be at the summit for sunrise. There are two ways to climb: by foot (which takes between 45 minutes and three hours, depending on your pace, or by camel, which is about three hours; note that if you choose the latter, you will still have to walk the final 750 steps up to the top. Guests are required to hire a local guide at the entrance for about $15 (the rate is negotiable.) Because of its peaceful silence, the mountain is also popular with visitors who practice yoga and meditation.
6. GLASTONBURY TOR, ENGLAND
Rising out of the middle of the Summerland Meadows in Somerset, England, is a hill that has long had magical connection. For centuries, Glastonbury Tor (Celtic for "hill") has been a source of myths: Some ancient Celtic civilizations considered it the entrance to the home of the Gwyn ap Nudd, alternately regarded as Lord of the Underworld and King of Fairies (a theory that resurfaced in the 19th century), while pagans may have used it for ceremonies celebrating the Goddess. Later, the site was considered a possibility for King Arthur's Avalon, since Arthur and Queen Guinevere's coffins were supposedly discovered at the top of the hill in the 12th century. And even more recently, theorists have linked the hill to the quest for the Holy Grail. To further add to all the speculation, archeologists have found remains of seven deep, symmetrical terraces on the hill's slopes, which could be anything from Middle Age crop land to a Neolithic labyrinth. Whatever the history, the hill is still thought to have spiritual energy, as visitors often report feeling more hopeful and positive after a walk on its slopes. Topped by the remains of the 15th century church of St. Michael, the hill is managed by the National Trust of the United Kingdom.
Getting There: The Tor is a short walk or bike ride from the center of Glastonbury, which is linked to London by frequent train service. The nearest station to the hill is Castle Cary. Admission is free.
7. CRATER LAKE, OREGON
Formed nearly 8,000 years ago after an alleged massive eruption caused Mount Mazama to collapse, this deep blue, freshwater caldera lake in south-central Oregon plunges nearly 2,000 feet below ground, making it the deepest in the United States and the seventh deepest in the world. The Native American Klamath tribe has long considered the lake a sacred site: Their legends say a battle here between the Chief of the Above World and the Chief of the Below World led to the destruction of Mount Mazama. (Historians believe the Klamath people may have witnessed the actual implosion of the mountain.) The tribesmen used Crater Lake in their vision quests (tasks may have included scaling the crater walls), and it is still considered a spiritual spot. The lake is now part of Crater Lake National Park.
Getting There: Crater Lake National Park is about 60 miles from the airport in Klamath Falls and 80 miles from the airport in Medford; cars can be rented in both locations. (There is no public transport service available.) The park is open year-round, but some areas may be inaccessible in winter. A seven-day pass is $10 for cars and $5 per person for pedestrians, bicyclists, or motorcycles. Check the official park website for a list of official free days each year.
8. MOUNT PARNASSUS, GREECE
Towering above Delphi in central Greece, this limestone mountain looms large in Greek mythology. In addition to being sacred to the god Apollo, who often visited the nearby Oracle at Delphi, the mountain was thought to be the residence of the Muses and, as a result, the home of poetry and song. The three Corycian Nymphs, each of whom was romanced by a major god, were born of springs located on Parnassus, and the mountain was also the setting for many minor myths. Today, the only sacred activity takes place on the slopes: The mountain is topped by two popular ski centers and is dotted with scenic hiking trails.
Getting There: Mount Parnassus is a winding, two-hour mountain drive from Athens. Day trips and overnight bus tours are also available (Key Tours offers Delphi tours from $120 per person). After exploring the slopes, don't miss a visit to the ancient ruins in Delphi, set in the shadow of the mountain.
9. LAKE ATITLÁN, GUATEMALA
Set up in the Guatemalan Central Highlands, and bordered by three volcanoes, Lake Atitlán is the deepest lake in Central America at 1,114 feet. Along with its natural beauty, the lake is famous for the Maya villages that ring its shores, many of which have been there for centuries. Ninth-century Panajachel, one of the largest, has been drawing tourists since the 1960s, while in Santiago Atitlán, residents are known for their worship of Maximo, a local idol that fuses Mayan gods, Catholic saints, and Spanish legends. Mayan ceremonies still take place at various sites around the lake, from caves to the top of an adjacent hill. The lake's shores are also strewn with archeological sites and ruins of pre-Spanish towns, including Chiutinamit, a mythological "underwater city."
Getting There: Lake Atitlán is located in western Guatemala, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Guatemala City or Antigua. Companies like Transport Guatemala can arrange for bus or van service (from $25 per person from Guatemala City, from $15 per person from Antigua). There are a wide array of accommodations, from luxury to budget, in towns like Panajachel, along with tourist activities and dining options.
10. VORTEXES, ARIZONA
Sedona, Arizona, has long drawn people interested in healing, spirituality, mysticism, and metaphysics, who come for more than just the dramatic, red-rock beauty. The area is famous for its vortexes, powerful centers of kinetic energy that can have a deep effect on those who visit them; there are four main ones spread around town, including one near the airport. The ancient Native American Yavapai people knew about these centers, and celebrated this "Great Mother" energy with petroglyph paintings and sacred dwellings. Today, visitors can easily walk or hike to the four spots (the one in Boynton Canyon is among the most popular), and once there, can meditate or just soak up the good vibes. Many feel recharged and uplifted after visiting a vortex, and some guests even report having visions or deeper experiences while in town.
Getting There: Sedona is a scenic two-hour drive from Phoenix, home to an international airport, and 45 minutes from the smaller commercial airport in Flagstaff. Maps highlighting the four vortexes are available at most hotels and online.
Growing Up in San Francisco Was a Treat, But Visiting Is Better
Much to my chagrin, the neighborhood I grew up in, Glen Park, was one that nobody had ever heard of. Everyone from my classmates to taxi drivers would all ask the same question: Is that in San Francisco? At which point, I'd defensively mutter something about how there's even a BART station there! One of only eight subway stops in the city! For the record, it's just over the hill from Noe Valley and next to the Mission District. As clichéd as it sounds, my parents bought their house (which they still live in) using a beat-up GM van as the down payment in the late 1960s. Today, Glen Park is having quite a moment. In a city of impossibly quaint neighborhoods, Glen Park tops them all. The main intersection, Chenery Street and Diamond Street, claims a hipster lounge (Red Rock), a midcentury furniture store (Modernpast), and a popular restaurant called Chenery Park--where Madeleine Albright recently dined on catfish and pâté. I find this all bemusing and pretty exciting, as if a childhood friend were named host of the Today Show. I come back to town a couple of times a year to visit my family; while they grumble about the way things were, I delight in what things have become. At longtime Glen Park fixture Higher Grounds, I'll watch the conflux of skater teens, high-techies, and young families (sometimes I think my parents are the only people over 50 in San Francisco). The owner/chef, Manhal Jweinat, has run the humble little café for as long as I can recall; he juggles orders, froths milk, and delivers omelets at a frenzied clip. I always felt sort of bad for him, until I saw him peel off in a Mercedes once. For some reason, that said it all about Glen Park today. Glen Park has a couple other decent cafés--in San Francisco, killing time over coffee is a way of life--but as a teen, the whole point was to get away from my parents. I discovered Farley's, in Potrero Hill, one summer when I was living at home and interning at San Francisco magazine. It has a newsstand with a killer selection, and the staff didn't mind if I flipped through a stack without buying. When I started exploring the bar scene, I gravitated toward the Mission, favoring divey joints like the 500 Club. To the tunes of Creedence Clearwater Revival on the jukebox, my friends and I would play pool with disaffected boys. Around that time, I built up my Led Zeppelin collection at Amoeba Music. Along with the Zeppelin came used Levi's, which I'd score at thrift stores in the Haight. Buffalo Exchange was reliably well-stocked. The Mission still has dives, but it's now also buzzing with boutiques and fancy restaurants. Which all seems rather funny, when I remember getting stopped by a cop while walking down Valencia Street with a friend from grade school; he ordered us to get home safe--immediately. I suppose, in my own way, I've also gentrified--now I like to buy my clothes new. I go to Hayes Valley, which, like New York's NoLita, has become a haven for sweet little shops, something San Francisco had sorely lacked. I've yet to find a shoe store with a better selection of flirty Italian heels than Bulo. And there's always a new restaurant I'm eager to try--especially if my folks are paying. We celebrated my father's 60th birthday at Quince in Pacific Heights, over locally raised duck and fruity pink champagne. It was at once elegant and relaxed. Even the fanciest restaurants here don't try to put on too many airs. When I'm paying, I go to the taquerias. San Francisco burritos are a delight: fat, fresh, and around $5. There are so many good, no-frills joints that it's hard to choose. But the grilled chicken/black beans/salsa/sour cream combo (they're made assembly-line style) at La Cumbre, in the Mission, is my first stop. The most exciting news has been the renovation of the historic Ferry Building. It's still a working terminal, but it's also become a culinary hub. Inside, it has the look of a glass-ceilinged European train station. Dozens of stalls hold outposts of organic farms and upscale cookware stores. There's casual fare, too: take-out spots where local workers pick up lunch. Last time I was in town, my mother and I met for grapefruit-and-jicama salads at the Slanted Door, a stylish Vietnamese restaurant looking out on the Bay Bridge. There's never a table available; it's far too popular. But there always happen to be two seats at the bar. Food Farley's 1315 18th St., 415/648-1545 Higher Grounds 691 Chenery St., 415/587-2933, cheese omelet $6 Chenery Park 683 Chenery St., 415/337-8537, catfish $14 La Cumbre 515 Valencia St., 415/863-8205, burrito $5.15 Quince 1701 Octavia St., 415/775-8500, roasted duck $25 Slanted Door 1 Ferry Building No. 3, 415/861-8032, jicama salad $8 Shopping Buffalo Exchange 1555 Haight St., 415/431-7733 Bulo 418 Hayes St., 415/255-4939 Modernpast 677 Chenery St., 415/333-9007 Amoeba Music 1855 Haight St., 415/831-1200 Nightlife 500 Club 500 Guerrero St., 415/861-2500 Red Rock 699 Chenery St., 415/333-3030
When Michael Stipe wrote "Shiny Happy People," the R.E.M. front man, a former University of Georgia art student, must have had Athens in mind. The 100,000 residents have a number of reasons to smile: The indie music scene Athens is the southern seat of independent music, with R.E.M. playing the part of local boys made huge. It all started in 1979 at Wuxtry Records, where Stipe was a regular and Peter Buck a clerk (197 E. Clayton St., 706/369-9428). They then picked up their other two bandmates, also UGA students, in Athens. R.E.M., the B-52's, and Widespread Panic all played the 40 Watt Club early on in their careers. The club has changed locations a few times; the latest venue, where Sufjan Stevens recently performed, has a tiki bar (285 W. Washington St., 706/549-7871, 40watt.com). A bulldawg with spirit Sanford Stadium--despite its 92,746 capacity--sells out well in advance for big football games (877/542-1231, georgiadogs.com). Scoring a ticket is tough without an alumni connection, though it's not impossible; scalpers usually hang around outside. The university's athletic teams are known as the Georgia Bulldogs, and locals twang it out slowly and proudly, spelling it "dawg" on T-shirts. The school mascot, Uga VI, is the latest in a line of English bulldogs. Uga and his ancestors have gained national renown as the stars of a 2004 "dogumentary" called Damn Good Dog, which chronicles 48 years of beloved Ugas--trotted out at the beginning of each game--and the Savannah family that has cared for them. (It's pronounced uh-guh, by the way.) Spirits with bite The signature drink at the Manhattan Cafe, a cool dive downtown, is Maker's Mark and Blenheim's spicy ginger ale (337 North Hull St., 706/369-9767). On occasion, aspiring rock stars, emboldened by one too many, play the room. Food for the people Dexter Weaver has been behind the counter at Weaver D's, a soul-food restaurant east of downtown on the North Oconee River, for 19 years (1016 E. Broad St., 706/353-7797). Weaver is marvelously predictable. After he takes an order for plates of fried chicken, mac and cheese, or warm apple cobbler (platter with two sides $8), his favorite thing to say is "Automatic for the people." The phrase--a promise for quick service--went national when R.E.M. got Weaver's permission to use it as the title of the band's 1992 album. A liberated tree A white oak on Finley and Dearing streets is known as the Tree That Owns Itself. In 1832, the professor who owned the land deeded the tree--and some land around it--to the tree. When the oak was uprooted in 1942, the Junior Ladies' Garden Club planted its replacement, which the nice ladies continue to keep well-watered today. Many green acres Grand Oaks Manor B&B, five miles outside of town, is an impressive 1820 antebellum mansion on a 34-acre estate (6295 Jefferson Rd., 706/353-2200, grandoaksmanor.com, from $129). The full breakfast, included in the nightly rate, regularly features caramel apple French toast and is served in proper southern style--on china, of course.
Monk See, Monk Do: Staying at a Korean Temple
As the nighttime thrum of crickets rises and falls on Ganghwa, an island in the Yellow Sea 25 miles west of Seoul, I'm summoned by a wooden percussion instrument to peel myself up from my padded mat and prepare for the morning's chants. I clumsily suit up in the cotton "dharma clothes" that have been provided (rough cotton pants, T-shirt, and smock) and wonder if a monk brushes his teeth before chanting. I decide he does. I also decide that 3:40 a.m. is far too early to wake up when one is on vacation. In an effort to learn about an important part of Korean culture, I've signed up to be a monk for a day at Lotus Lantern, a monastery that's home to international monks of Jogye, the main order of Korean Buddhism. An influx of visitors for the 2002 World Cup prompted the South Korean government to ask temples to open their doors--and they've stayed open, thanks to popular demand. Currently, 43 temples welcome overnighters, and five offer translation services in English (templestay.com describes each one). There's a participating temple in Seoul, but Lotus Lantern is the closest one in the countryside; it's an hour's trip from the Seoul subway, which includes a $4 bus and a $5 taxi ride to the grounds. Although the programs differ slightly from temple to temple, most last 24 hours, start in the afternoon, and are designed to introduce visitors to the basic tenets of Buddhism. Following the morning wake-up call, we drag ourselves into the Buddha hall, filled with hundreds of paper lanterns lit by electric bulbs. I kneel with a handful of fellow travelers behind three monks leading a ceremony called yebool, in which they chant a rhythmic chain of devotional sutras, broken by repeated bows. Guests are given a phonetic transcript to join in, but I choose just to listen to the monks as they cycle through a mantra 108 times; it takes about 20 minutes, and I pass the time by awkwardly mimicking their bows. The monks fold their mats and turn off the lights. We return outside to the darkness, underneath a blanket of stars. It's a little past 4 a.m. Perhaps sensing my grogginess, Ok Kyung Chang, the Lotus Lantern's director of temple stays, reminds me why we're up at such an unfortunate hour. "The mind is at its clearest, its most focused," she says. And thus, it's a perfect time for juaseon, or sitting meditation, the next activity. In another hall, we're instructed to sit in the lotus position, facing open windows that look out at the forest. Time passes in silence. I can't claim enlightenment--a determined mosquito blocks my path--but nevertheless I feel at peace. Outside, the dawn sky has brightened over the rice paddies. Then we eat. The three-meal temple diet consists mainly of organic vegetables grown on-site and prepared simply, with soy sauce, sesame oil, and seaweed, and served with kimchi and rice porridge. The quarters are about as austere as the food. Rooms are outfitted with traditional Korean bedding: a yo, a padded mat, and a begae, a firm, husk-filled pillow. In the early afternoon, we're guided through a traditional Korean tea ceremony called da-do; monks believe tea sharpens the mind for meditation. We learn the method of preparing Korean green tea at the correct temperature--slightly warm--and are taught the etiquette of serving and drinking. Each cup is taken in three sips--one each to observe color, fragrance, and taste. And since work is an important part of the monk's day, after having our tea we'll be asked to pitch in with garden chores (today's duty: picking red peppers). Between ceremonies, we can walk around the mountains or meditate in one of the halls. I use the time to talk with the monks and my fellow visitors. While some travelers may find a stay understimulating, Karla Vogelpohl, visiting from Germany with her husband, relished the real-life encounter. "A friend in Korea knew of our interest in Buddhism and suggested we come," she says. "We feel integrated here, like we're not seen as strangers." 011-82/10-8739-3858, lotuslantern.net, $38.
The Spirit of St. Lucia
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. Lodging Stonefield Estate Villa Resort 758/459-7037, stonefieldvillas.com, from $140 Ti Kaye Village Resort 758/456-8101, tikaye.com, from $160 Coco Palm 758/456-2800, coco-resorts.com, from $125 Coco Kreole 758/452-0712, cocokreole.com, from $85 Food Camilla's 758/459-5379, fish dinner $17 Ladera 758/459-7323, ladera.com Friday Fish Fry Anse La Raye, dinner $8 Memories of Hong Kong 758/452-8218, crispy duck appetizer $11 Captain's Cellar Pub 758/450-0918, sausage sandwich $5.60 Marjorie's Beach Bar Cas en Bas, 758/520-0001 Activities Soufrière Estate and Diamond Botanical Gardens 758/459-7155, $4 Sulphur Springs admission $3 Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception 758/452-2271 Pigeon Island 758/452-5005, slunatrust.org Shopping Bagshaw's Shop 758/451-9249 Resources St. Lucia Tourism 758/452-4094, stlucia.org Nightlife Seaview Bar No phone, beer $1.15 Happy Day Bar 758/452-0650, two Piton beers $2.25