Located in the Windward group of islands in the Caribbean Sea is St Lucia, an island whose early history is shrouded in mystery and myth.
If you delve into St Lucia’s history you will discover the island nation has been called by various names such as Iouanalao, Hewanorra and Sainte Alouise.
It was not until early 1500s when the Spanish called it Saint Luzia, Sancta Lucia, Santa Lucia before naming it Saint Lucia and celebrating its National Day on December 13.
It is now widely accepted, for example, that Christopher Columbus who set sail in search of Spice Islands, never set foot in St Lucia during any of his voyages.
This little-known destination, which is surrounded by Barbados, Martinique and St Vincent, is catching the attention of Western tourists who want to kick back and relax in warmer climes.
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Its close location to North America brings in American and Canadian tourists but it is also becoming popular with British and French tourists, and it is ready to welcome more visitors from Africa and Asia.
Beautiful rain forests
St Lucia is of volcanic origin with high lava ridges and craters. It has a mountainous centre reaching the island’s highest point — the 858 metres high Mt Gimie.
Tropical rain forests cover the interior and a number of small rivers flow from the central highlands, including the Dennery, Fond, Piaye, Doree, Canaries, Roseau and Marquis Rivers.
St Lucians are also proud of their two Nobel Prize winners — Derek Walcott who was recognised for literature, and Sir Arthur Lewis for economics.
Educated St Lucians reminded me several times that their island has more winners per capita than any other part of the world! Its golden sandy palm-fringed beaches and spectacularly beautiful rainforests are an attraction to visitors seeking a quiet holiday away from the maddening crowd.
St Lucians are laid-back and relaxed, work at their own unhurried pace with fishermen bringing their catch from the sea each morning and families selling bananas and other produce in roadside kiosks.
Visitors can also relax in some of exclusive hotels and boutique hideaways and enjoy poolside cocktails as they watch the sun rise over the hills and set among the waves.
Interestingly, the island’s capital, Castries has only one small airfield, the George F L Charles Airport which handles regional flights from the eastern Caribbean.
All international passengers arrive at the larger Hewanorra International Airport, a former military airfield used by the US Army, in Vieux Fort Quarter in the south. From there, they have a 90-minute drive for the 40-mile journey to Castries where most of the of tourist resorts are located.
Plenty to see
When I arrived in Castries, I asked a local what was there to see in this 30.5 square mile city with a population of 70,000. My question elicited a lack-lustre response: “There is nothing to see here. It is all very quiet.”
He was being economical with the truth. There is plenty to see and do in Castries.
Cruise ships pass through Castries and dock at Pointe Seraphine where there is a duty-free shopping centre.
All the hotels, resorts and restaurants are concentrated around the capital.
Also, not to be missed are landmarks including the Government House, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception — which boasts a capacity of 2,000 — and the Derek Walcott Square, which is named after the island’s Nobel Prize winning poet.
At the top of the 840-foot Morne Fortune Hill is Fort Charlotte from where one can get an excellent view of Castries.
The beaches near Castries — Choc Beach, Malabar Beach, La Toc and Vigie Beach — are a major tourist attraction. Some of the resorts popular with foreign tourists are Sandals, Windjammer and Sugar Beach.
Attractions include The Pitons, two volcanic mountains rising over 700 metres which are now part of Unesco World Heritage Site, Our Planet Centre in Castries, Sulphur Springs, which is the world’s only drive-in volcano, and the St Lucia Botanical Gardens.
Spectacle of colour
Besides Castries and Soufriere, the other cities worth visiting are Gros Islet and Marigot Bay.
Music and carnivals also play a pivotal role in the cultural life of St Lucia. The annual St Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival is ample testimony to the happy-go-lucky St Lucians’ love of jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, reggae, soca and calypso music.
The annual St Lucia Carnival, one of the biggest in the island, commands a following of not only the regulars who return to celebrate the pomp and pageantry, but also many who come from far to satisfy their curiosity and find out the tales and legends that surround it.
This island is reputed to be among the best places in the Caribbean to enjoy the biggest carnival celebrations. It gives visitors a glimpse into the exciting spectacle of colour, music and merriment.
The carnival features the best local soca and calypso artistes, and gives revellers an opportunity to compare the wares of the various carnival bands as they perform in a single venue.
A visit to the covered market is worthwhile if one is searching for handicrafts, cooking pots and bowls made from the Calabash tree, and other souvenirs. Do not forget to bargain as St Lucia is expensive and the East Caribbean dollar is pegged to the US Dollar.
A note of caution: There is growing crime in St Lucia and tourists have to take sensible precautions as they would in any other country.