Drawn to the many splendors of a lush, laid-back St. Lucia, visitors find life in the slow lane

THE CARIBBEAN, NICE AND EASY

October 04, 1992|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Contributing Writer

I am lounging on my terra-cotta terrace, overlooking the forested twin peaks of the half-mile-high Pitons. Purple and red streaks coat the sky as an orange sun melts slowly into the Caribbean Sea. The only sounds are palm fronds clacking softly in the breeze, the muffled roar of the sea and the high-pitched chirp of millions of crickets greeting the night.

Another lazy day bites the dusk in St. Lucia.

Lush and laid-back, this mountainous dot between St. Vincent and Martinique is a perfect retreat for those game for some genteel roughing it. This is not the place to come for gourmet dining, a wild night life, or hop-to service -- obsequious is not a word that will come to mind as you deal with the hotel serving staff.

Forget mellow drives through the countryside in your handy rental car. The very knock-'em-dead scenery and relative lack of development that recommend St. Lucia conspire to make it the drive from hell.

Muddy roads with potholes the size of refrigerators curve around cliff edges and through rain forest thick with banana trees and coconut palms, and an unwritten code allows everyone to drive in the middle of the road -- in both directions. Oncoming trucks always have the right of way, but aside from that common-sense credo for survival, islanders seem to navigate with a kind of subliminal radar as they dodge potholes -- and chickens and cows and goats -- like players in some mobile video game.

While St. Lucia is but 27 miles from top to bottom, the drive can take three hours -- if you make it. A young Connecticut couple I met were rammed by a truck the first hour of their jeep rental. They spent the rest of the day filling out police reports and the rest of the week holed up at their hotel, too shaky to venture farther than the reefs off the hotel beach for a little snorkeling.

You really don't want to rent a car here.

But you don't have to. Most of the island's dozen or so resorts offer day trips to the top sights, and -- even better -- there are plenty of owner-operated taxis, whose drivers often make excellent private guides. They not only can show you the key towns and natural wonders but also provide a sense of island flavor. You could well end up buying each other rounds of Bounty Rum, the local brew, after sharing a bumpy day on the road.

You also can tour via helicopter or boat -- perfect vantage points for appreciating St. Lucia's abundant splendors.

The island's main claim to fame is the Pitons, widely regarded as the Caribbean's most distinctive landmark. As you drive along the western side of the island, the Pitons play hide-and-seek, popping up behind a gorgeous seascape as you round a bend, then disappearing behind a host of palm-carpeted hills. It's almost worth the trip just to see these giants, but St. Lucia offers plenty of other rewards:

Other rewards

*The rugged interior rain forest: Covering 11 percent of the island, this dense and wet expanse is crisscrossed with rugged trails. Just driving through the countryside will provide plenty of rain-forest views, but there's nothing like traipsing through the lush foliage, banana and palm trees towering above. You might even catch a glimpse of the rare parrot Amazona versicolor, though there are few other wild animals in the rain forest. Most hotels provide easy-does-it tours into less dense parts of the forest; the more adventuresome -- and nimble -- can get deeper into the bush with a forestry service guide. Call the forest service at (809) 452-3231.

My hotel recommended an excellent private guide, Martial Simon -- (809) 454-7390 -- who actually owns land in the rain-forest area and operates a small craft shop next to the tourist office in Soufriere. He delighted in hacking dense overgrowth out of our way with a huge machete and shaking oranges down from trees for instant thirst-quenching.

*Sulphur Springs Park: Just outside the southern colonial town of Soufriere, the park is a 7-acre crater billed as the world's largest drive-in volcano. A walk through the crater, formed 40,000 years ago when a volcano collapsed, takes you past more than a dozen pools and hot springs bubbling and belching sulfur-laden steam. (The smell is like that of rotten eggs and is unforgettable.) A guide can be hired for a pittance at the entry gate.

*The Diamond Botanical Gardens Waterfall and Mineral Baths: Near Sulphur Springs Park, this is a wonderland of labeled plants and flowers leading up to rustic indoor and outdoor baths you can soak in for a small fee. The waterfall -- not huge, but pretty -- is just beyond.

*Pigeon Island National Park: Thanks to a causeway connecting the mainland with the small island just off the northwest coast, you can drive or walk to this 40-acre preserve and climb the stone steps to the ruins of the 18th century Fort Rodney. The sweeping ocean and island views from the top are gorgeous, and you can watch the yachts and cruise ships sail into idyllic Rodney Bay.

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