(This article originally appeared in a 2008 issue of the now-defunct B Magazine.)
There are few places on the globe that still enjoy anonymity. While St. Lucia is far from being undiscovered, the island nation is still relatively unknown to most Americans, who would have trouble pinpointing its tiny Eastern Caribbean location on a map. But that may not be for long — and not just because Oprah Winfrey has included one of its main landmarks in her top five “must-see” attractions of a lifetime. St. Lucia’s many wonders allow for vacations that range from laidback and relaxing to adventurous and adrenaline filled.
The island’s iconic attractions and target of Oprah’s commendation, the Pitons are the heart of St. Lucia, being both the most recognized landmarks in the country and the inspiration behind their namesake local beer. Gros (Big) Piton and Petit (Small) Piton mark the highest points on the island, whose topography is marked by undulations of verdant hills and dales. If you choose not the climb the peaks, consider a sunset sail just off the coast, during which you might even catch a glimpse of the phenomenon known as the green flash.
The Pitons are reminders of the island’s volcanic activity, evidence of which can still be seen at what the island bills the “world’s only drive-in volcano.” At this sulfur-scented outpost, just yards away from viewing platforms, the caldera’s surface bubbles and boils with evidence of underground activity. The crater itself is now prohibited to foot traffic, ever since a guide fell into scalding, waist-high water while jumping up and down on the surface, perhaps in an attempt to show its sturdiness (or his foolhardiness). Nearby, however, mineral-soaked pools formed by the caldera’s run-off have become a destination for those seeking the water’s therapeutic qualities, and it’s not unusual to find mud-caked bodies lying about and baking in the sun.
The majority of the island’s interior contains 19,000 acres of protected rainforest, with nearly 30 miles of hiking trails that weave their way through the habitat of orchids, palms, and the national bird, the brightly colored Jacquot. Skirting the forest are myriad world-class beaches, which in turn lead to renowned scuba diving sites, including several wrecks that even non-certified beginners can navigate. The island’s variety of underwater sights has earned it an international reputation as a diving destination among the world’s best.
Scuba isn’t the only activity for which St. Lucia has received acclaim. Among the burgeoning kite-surfing community, the island has become known for its consistent trade winds that are constant day and night throughout most of the year (November-August). Various kite-surfing schools have sprung up to profit from this idyllic setting and weather pattern, with the result that its “secret location” has long since been revealed to the sport’s neophytes.
But even those without a favored sport can enjoy the island’s adventures. One of the island’s most popular attractions, the Treetop Canopy Adventure offers the thrill of flying on a zipline through the top of a rainforest canopy as you dangle one hundred fifty feet above the ground. The course lines reach up to 800 feet in length from platform to platform, meaning you can get quite some distance on each leg around the track — as well as some speed. It’s not a difficult sport to learn, and more than one acrophobe (one who is afraid of heights) has conquered her fear of heights by soaring on a wire, often during one of the island’s frequent rain showers. A daring aerial course, complete with hoops to leap through, is available for those seeking an extra adrenaline-filled challenge.
But it’s not just fun and games on this Eastern Caribbean isle. Despite its relatively tiny population, St. Lucia, as well as the island’s local culture, has gained notoriety in recent years, mainly due to the fact that, per capita, the nation claims the largest number of Nobel Laureates of any nation in the world. Both Sir William Arthur Lewis (Economics, 1979) and his Honorable Derek Alton Walcott (Literature, 1992) have been bestowed with this distinguished award — which makes St. Lucia tied with Australia, a nation thousands of times its size, for the number of native Nobel Laureates.
Which means St. Lucia has a rich culture all its own. Outside of the noted tourist sites, the island has several must-do attractions that many visitors happen upon only by chance. The Friday-night Gros Islet jump-up is a street festival that has grown to embrace both locals and tourists alike. Vendors hawk homemade food and crafts, while the self-declared festival ambassadors lead the revelry through the packed-dirt streets with a thumping bass and lots of meet-and-greet grinding — a sort of mini Carnaval. On Fridays, on the other side of the island, the fishing village of Dennery hosts a weekly surfside fish fry, not quite as exuberant as the jump-up to the north but every bit as authentic. Although the island is small in square miles, travel times from one coast to the other can be quite lengthy, but visitors should not let these distances discourage them from experiencing true local flavor.
St. Lucia has hotels to fit most any budget, including the newer (and pricier) mega-resorts and those right off the main drag in the capital of Castries. But for a one-size-meets-all option, consider Coconut Bay Resort and Spa, located a shell’s throw away from the international airport on the island’s south shore, near Vieux Fort. Coconut Bay has a unique layout: a bisected floor plan that keeps families separate from the singles and couples that mingle on the property’s opposite half, where hammocks and cabanas abound. The all-inclusive resort has several top-notch amenities, including on-site restaurants (in addition to the buffets), spa, children’s play area (including two water slides), and the island’s first paintball course. Theme nights, including an outdoor buffet featuring live entertainment and all-you-can-eat local cuisine, comprise the regular roster of resort activities. Before departing St. Lucia, be sure to stock up on banana ketchup, the island condiment that is as ubiquitous as it is addictive.