CASTRIES AND BEYOND
By Shaun Hutchinson
Saturday - Sunday, September 13-14, 2008.
In the competitive world of Caribbean tourism, size is not everything and whilst St Lucia is a welterweight - at a compact 620 square kilometres, compared to it’s bigger neighbours - it punches well above its weight.
Cuba has salsa and radical chic; Trinidad and Tobago carnival and steel band; Jamaica reggae and Bob Marley. Simply Beautiful St Lucia has all year round festivals. Standouts are the internationally renowned Jazz in May; June and July’s six-week Carnival season, October’s Food and Rum Festival and December’s up and coming Kalalu World Music Festival.
One of the Windward Island chain of the Lesser Antilles, St Lucia sits north of Trinidad and Tobago and neighbours the French overseas department of Martinique, with which it shares a distinctly French influenced Kweyol culture and language. In fact, October is Creole Heritage Month and culminates with International Creole Day or Jounen Kweyol, a worldwide celebration by all countries that speak the Creole language.
With average temperatures in the mid-80s, St Lucia is blessed with a variety of terrain. While the south of capital Castries is volcanic, mountainous and fertile, the north and the east coasts have less rugged scenery. Of course tourism is the main revenue earner, and with beaches, water sports, nature trails and adventure activities there is plenty to do and see for beach bums, families and thrill-seekers throughout the year.
About half of the island's 170 000 inhabitants live in the hot and bustling capital Castries, which sits in a sheltered bay on the northwest coast. It’s easy to get around this city of old and modern architecture. And you can't miss the street vendors, hawkers, limers, school kids and diverse characters in this relaxed town.
Derek Walcott Square is a cool oasis – a monument to the acclaimed writer and Nobel Laureate, and to another laureate, Arthur Lewis.
Central Market is the place to get tasty local food - St Lucia’s national dish is green fig salad - green bananas, with saltfish, spring onions, peppers and mayonnaise, fried bakes, fish, chicken, dhall (a fried bake made with chick-peas cooked with either tuna or saltfish), and fresh water coconuts or local guava, mango, lemon, tamarind or passion fruit juices.
Castries and the country itself is no problem as most places are within walking distance; rental cars or bikes are cheap; or get a maxi taxi to travel Lucian’s style.
Don’t forget to greet fellow passengers with a “good morning” or “good evening”– politeness is appreciated here. Prices are reasonable about $3 EC dollars to nearby buzzing Rodney Bay and it’s Marina, a prime yachting centre close by; tranquil Babonneau, steep-hilled Gros Islet or tourist heaven Pidgeon Island. You shouldn’t pay more than EC $15-20 for longer journeys.
The islands main beach resort is Rodney Bay and it has a mall, restaurants, hotels and bars backing on to Reduit Beach also known as The Ramps - a stretch of golden sand within view of historic Pigeon Island.
This historic beauty spot - the major venue for the Jazz Festival in summer - isn't actually an island though. It’s joined to the mainland by a manmade causeway and has two secluded beaches walking trails dotted with historical sites of 17th century ruins, some of which have been restored into bars and restaurants.
St Lucia's rugged terrain lends itself to adventure - from hiking and walking tours along many of the trails and paths through the rainforest, to biking, horse-riding and quad-biking. Those with a head for heights can fly through the air on a zip-wire ride that cuts through the rainforest, or the more relaxing Aerial Tram that skims the treetops to give passengers bird's eye views of the beautiful surroundings.
Rodney Bay and Castries areas. But this adds to an already impressive range of accommodation - mostly in the north where large, all-inclusive hotels for families and couples compete with intimate hideaways that suit independent travellers.
Some of the island's tranquillity is disturbed by building and renovation especially in the
Don’t forget the south of the island though because in the coves of the Leeward coast smaller, original properties with distinct Caribbean flavour are waiting to be discovered.
And there's the nightlife; Lucians love the Gros Islet Friday Night Jump-Up where a raucous mixture of Caribbean music is the backdrop for barbecues, local food and all round good times. Competing with this session is the Friday Seafood Feast in the west coast village of Anse La Raye, just south of Castries, where all kinds of seafood is prepared in front of your eyes and regular live bands or sound systems provide the music.
And if you miss either of these sessions, you can take the drive to the Saturday Night Fish Fiesta - in the village of Dennery.
Soufriere is St Lucia's oldest and most historic town, named by the French after the whiff of sulphur that drifts down from the world's only drive through volcano. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is most famous for its dramatic natural surroundings including the islands landmark twin volcanic peaks The Pitons.
St Lucia is not difficult to get to either. Virgin Atlantic fly three times a week from London Gatwick; British Airways travels weekly, increasing to three times a week from October this year; and XL flies out once a week from Gatwick.
And in December you even get Showtime in Paradise, Professional Boxing with a Caribbean Flavour hosted by The St. Lucia Tourist Board and Black Entertainment Television proving that this Simply Beautiful island packs a memorable punch.
The highlights of the year’s events are the 10-day Jazz Festival in May and the 6-week Carnival season that starts early June and closes towards end of July.
The Jazz brings together critically acclaimed jazz artistes and mainstream soul and r&b stars alongside Caribbean performers for a 10-day island wide extravaganza. With a line up including superstars Angie Stone, Dionne Warwick and Anita Baker joining Michael Bolton and Dianne Reeves the range of acts in beautiful surroundings makes for a feast of music and a chance to get around the island as well. With daytime and evening fringe events in Castries, Dennery, Soufriere and Anse La Raye the highlight is the 4-day open-air fete at historic Pidgeon Island. This year showcased performers as diverse as soca veteran Crazy from Trinidad and Tobago through to top-billing hip hop superstar Wyclef Jean.
St. Lucia’s 6 week carnival season is a marathon starting June with the calypso season and climaxing as July ends with a lively mas’ parade through the streets of Castries. A record eleven Carnival bands participated this year with slogans such as St. Lucia Carnival 2KGreat and A Bigger and Better Carnival!
Competing with TnT and Brazil is a big challenge and although the pre-Lenten carnival essence is absent soca and calypso fanatics get the same jump and wine, fetes and carnival bands.
With Ricky T's hit soca single "Pressure Boom", putting the island on the map the quality of the islands soca and calypso is seen alongside calypso veterans such as Invader and Ashanti.
St Lucia Heritage Tours (Tel 758-4516058) runs tours including natural features such as waterfalls and traditional activities such as making cassava bread or catching cray fish, and Kweyol (crËole) culture and history.
The National Trust (Tel 758-452 5005) has excursions to nature reserves offshore on Maria Island and Fregate Island, which can be booked through a local tour operator.
The National Trust or the Forestry department (Tel 758-4502231, ext 306) run field trips and trail hiking in the forest reserves.
www.rfat.com (RainforestSkyrides – [758-458 5151]
Image by St Lucia Jazz.
Shaun Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.
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