St Lucia: The really wild show

St Lucia's volcanic beaches may be the attraction for many, but there's more intrigue in the rainforest-smothered interior — its mountainous canopy of green is where the real Caribbean still lives and breathes.

By Lydia Bell
photographs by Gary Latham
Published 27 Mar 2015, 13:10 GMT, Updated 1 Jul 2021, 16:56 BST

Meno is mimicking the call of the red-necked pigeon, the warbler and the bullfinch, and the squeaky song of the banana quick. His call works — they throng towards us. "See how my birds come when I call!" he cries, laughing merrily. "When Father Nature calls, they come."

Hummingbirds start flickering around us, too. "Now I'll make a sound to attract the bigger birds," he says, and starts imitating the ghostly call of the oriole, then the peewee. They flit miraculously overhead.

Meno, my birding guru, has been branded Father Nature — due to his extensive knowledge of the forests' healing powers. It started at just three years old, when he became dangerously ill with pneumonia. His mother, who'd already lost two of her 12 children in infancy, sent him to his forest-dwelling herbalist grandma to give him a fighting chance. She nursed him back to health with nothing but citrus leaf tea and other medicinal forest plants. In gratitude, Meno devoted his life to learning what else the forest could teach him.

We're out the jungly back of Anse Mamin, a velvety-silver, volcanic-sand beach on the Anse Chastanet estate in the southern reaches of St Lucia, where an old cast-iron cauldron, made for boiling sugar cane juice into molasses, is being used as a barbecue. The estate is home to two of St Lucia's most elegant hotels — Anse Chastanet Resort St Lucia and Jade Mountain Resort. The former has been around since the 1970s, the latter — built by the same family in 2006 — is the sine qua non of St Lucia luxury hotels. But it retains much of its bird-filled wildness, interpreted beautifully by its birding experts.

At Jade Mountain there's no fourth wall in the rooms, so you share your boudoir with the elements and creatures of the jungle. This is not a hotel for lovers of connectivity and state-of-the-art entertainment systems; it's more about holing yourself up with the best view in the world. Finding a brown booby with its beak in your cappuccino is an occupational hazard. Out here in the forest, they rule the roost. Meno shows me a hummingbird nest as big as the circle made by your thumb and forefinger. They're preyed on by mangrove cuckoos, which feast on hummingbird chicks. Overhead, a kestrel flies past with a crested hummingbird in his beak.

We walk on dank, peat-brown paths, dusted with the tiny cream flowers of the cocoa bean tree, past a large cedar tree which has twisted itself over a rock; over fallen blooms, under huge mango trees and past tinkling streams to a soundtrack of rolling surf. It's rainy season and we pad through the water-drenched forest, covering our heads with elephant leafs. We admire the calabash tree, the shells of its fruit used throughout Caribbean history for barrels, bowls and cups. Termites have devoured some of the trees, or as Meme put it: "The termite says, 'I will yum yum that tree'."

He plucks a West Indian bay leaf from a tree for me to inhale its scent, pausing to ask the tree: "May I have one of your leaves?" His grandmother told him to do that, Meme says. "Because would you like it if someone came up to you and pulled out one of your hairs?"

I meet Meno's cat, which lives in a hut on the estate. He appears on the forest path. "Tiger! Come say hi to our visitors," commands Meno, who acquired him as a sick, weak, abandoned kitten, fed him up, and had him neutered so he wouldn't wander.

The ruined remains of the plantation have been semi-swallowed by the forest. They include a ramshackle house, high on a rock, a former slave cottage and the old grinding and boiling room — the disused molasses steam boiler now coated in moss amid ruins given over to giant ferns, tree roots and vanilla vines. The beach is named after the first owner of the plantation — a sugar, avocado and coconut farm worked by 60 slaves. Any who escaped and were caught were guillotined in the main square in Soufrière in front of the rest of the enslaved population. The molasses they helped to produce were shipped to Martinique for refining. In the 1700s, the Caribbean's first dam was built here, and many of the plantation's human bulldozers died in the process. It's still intact, still regularly lashed with tropical rain, its water the colour of pale moss, and the only visitor today is a white heron standing stock-still on its edge like a question mark.

Pitons peak

St Lucia rises like a green fang from the Caribbean, its twin Pitons the long-standing poster girls for Caribbean tourism. The island is the ultimate honeymooners' crash pad, nicknamed the 'Helen of the West Indies' for its siren beauty. Covering just 238sq miles, it's peppered with a rich seam of once-in-a-lifetime couples' digs. But there are many more strings to St Lucia's bow. The island changed ownership 14 times, belonging to the French and the British seven times each, and this cultural legacy has infused the local Kwéyòl village communities. They come alive with 'fish frys' and 'jump up' every night of the week. The local cuisine is a heady fusion of African, European and indigenous influences, inflected with the increasing sophistication of the hotel scene but underpinned with the unfussy, earthy, spiced, slaughterhouse food of colonial times.

St Lucia is mountainous. Those who lie on her volcanic beaches do so in style, but there's more intrigue in the rainforest-smothered interior. From St Lucia's highest points, you gaze over a canopy of green. You can't get off the beaten track in flat Caribbean islands — everywhere you go you're trespassing. But the interiors of mountainous, volcanic islands are defined by histories of escape and hiding. Slaves escaped to the hills. They're hotter, wetter, and denser. They have pregnant pools of water and secluded waterfalls. These are the places where the real Caribbean still lives and breathes, away from sun loungers and cocktails.

The Pitons tower above a caldera-like formation — part of a vast volcanic complex that arcs 434 miles along the Lesser Antilles. They're remnants of lava domes formed over 300,000 years ago by a collapsed strata volcano. It's all very well gazing at them from the beach or hotel window, but trudging up one of the two spires lends a different perspective. I have zero ambition to scale both (and I hear that precious few follow through with this idea after they've climbed one). At 5am, when I arise to climb Gros Piton, it's drizzling and my ambition is thinning, but I press on. There are good and bad things about climbing the Pitons in rainy season. I'm happy to see the St Lucia oriole, the St Lucia pewee and the St Lucia warbler and all three main varieties of hummingbird — the Antillean crested, purple-throated carib and green-throated carib — feasting on a blooming tree. But the path is a sodden, steep mess of leaves, roots and mud. At 2,614ft, scaling Gros Piton involves a five-hour trek in the rainy slush. I fall three times. But the clouds part as I reach the summit. From here, I can see right across to Martinique. The summit is cool, lush and quiet.

The closest town to the Pitons is Soufrière, founded by the French in 1746. It's no sanitised tourist town; instead, it shimmies to the sound of reggae, dancehall and vehicle horns and retains a cut-off, country air with its tumbledown, colonial-era buildings. At the northern end of Soufrière Beach, you'll find the tiny, pleasantly faded Hummingbird Beach Resort, owned by the vivacious Joyce Alexander Stowe. The simple rooms have Piton views and there's a Creole restaurant that serves local fish and freshwater crayfish. Soufrière sits inside the horseshoe-shaped caldera of a four-mile-wide volcano. The town has the second-deepest harbour in the Caribbean. Nearby are the Sulphur Springs, the hottest and most active geothermal area in the Lesser Antilles. They like a marketing campaign in these parts, and bill the 111-acre park as 'the Caribbean's only drive-in volcano'. A walk through the crater takes you past fumaroles, pools and hot springs bubbling and belching with sulphur-laden steam. In one pool you can see the remains of a bathhouse, built in 1902 as a tourism enterprise in the days when you could only get up here by carriage. I slide into the hot, dark pool with a gaggle of honeymooners and slather myself in dark mineral mud, breathing the egg-tinged air.

Nature trail

The epicentre of the super volcano is the impeccable Sugar Beach hotel, located on the former Jalousie Plantation, which we reach by boat from Anse Chastanet, motoring past a huge crevice in the sheer rock where thousands of fruit bats live. Sugar Beach is situated right between the Pitons. The imported sand from Guyana, sophisticated restaurants, beamed wi-fi and kaftan-clad girls can't dim the spiritual power of this spot. Pristine coral reefs lie just offshore. I submerge myself to float past a reef that falls away to create breathtaking 140ft coral wall; large trumpet fish are my constant companions, as is a fat little turtle, but there are also myriad sponges, finfish, molluscs, echinoderms and worms.

Another precious spot is the Des Cartiers Rainforest, where a trekking route has been carved close to the international airport. Because it's a fair way from the tourist centres of the north, and there are other, more accessible, areas for walking, it's ill-visited — attracting about 20 visitors a month. We walk the trail alone to the call of the mountain whistler, which sounds like a rusty-hinged door being opened. The river gushes below. The forest is flushed with sunshine after rain and we see a broadwing hawk gliding above and catch sight of the lesser Antillean flycatcher and the St Lucia black finch. Best of all are the playful St Lucia parrots, which plunge off their cliffside roosts to soar over a ridge line we're watching from a clearing. Deforestation by humans has been the devastating factor for this, their national bird.

We walk past a number of exotic species of flora brought in from the Blue Mountains of Jamaica to help prevent landslides after hurricanes. These include the blue mahoe and the ross mahogany. The park's guide tells me that there's a newly burgeoning movement in St Lucia towards environmentalism and protection against deforestation, headed by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, which has operated in St Lucia since the 1970s and works with the country's Forestry Departments on the restoration of endemic species and the control of invasive species.

On another nature trail, we come face to face with a classic Caribbean political dispute. On Tet Paul Nature Trail you walk for about 45 minutes through six acres of lush country in the farming area of Chateau Belair, with panoramic views over the rippling green countryside of the south of the island, including Jalousie Bay, both Pitons, and Martinique and St Vincent. Part of the Piton Management area, it's controlled by the Soufriere Foundation. A land owner, who lives in Britain, is busy cordoning off the trail with palm trunks when we arrive, because, she says, they have not paid her dues. She and her siblings were born in a tiny cottage on the land. She waves us through anyway.

The whole of the south is studded with wild spots of spectacular beauty such as these: the lush, jungly Mamiku and Badolin gardens, and the prettiest of plantations. The Rabot Estate is the spiritual home of chocolate, and a tour of its cocoa plantation is a must for chocoholics. At Soufrière Estate's Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens, you can't swim but you can watch the water cascading down a mineral-stained rock face. At Latic waterfall, we chat to Rasta owner John Celie, who lives off grid and feeds us starfruit wine and roasted breadnuts. If it wasn't raining I'd be happy to get maximum value from my $10 entry fee and spend all day here. At Toraille Falls, I get a 50-minute deep-tissue back, neck and shoulder massage and a refreshing plunge.

The north of St Lucia may be a hub for hoteliers; the epicentre, Rodney Bay, with its central urban area bristling with commerce, restaurants and malls, and the wider bay populated by big-brand hotels. But even Rodney Bay has its own nature trail, at Mount Pinard. The fun way to cover the two-mile route is by Segway, with the Mount Pinard Segway Experience crew. While chugging along, the guides deliver charming nuggets of St Lucian history and point out local butterflies and flowers.

We stop to feed the freshwater fish at Stone Face Fish Pond and pass Second World War bunkers to gaze out on a sweeping vista of Rodney Bay and its glistening Marina, Pigeon Island, Reduit Beach, Mount Gimie, Martinique and the vast expanse of the Caribbean. At the highest viewpoint, vendors sell mangoes, pineapples and papayas. At Pigeon Island, we walk pine-shaded paths to discover a tiny sandy beach and the horizontally laid-back Jambe de Bois restaurant, named after the French pirate Francois de Clerc who had a wooden leg and lived here with his band of men, ransacking passing Spanish ships.

On our northern sojourn, we stay within 20 minutes reach of Rodney Bay's bright lights. But Trouya Pointe peninsula is as quiet as night. Here, our hotel, C'est La Vie provides a pretty, gingerbread-house-style villa home, set in abundant gardens with a series of pools. From here, a narrow trail leads down to a deserted beach. Nature might rule in the south, but with a little research, you can find your northern idyll too.


Getting there
British Airways and Virgin Atlantic fly from Gatwick to St Lucia.
Average flight time: 8h30m.

Getting around
The island is only 27 miles north to south and 14 miles east to west, so a hire car or prearranged taxi is the best option.

When to go
The best time to visit is November-May, with temperatures around 27C, as it can be very hot and wet from June-October.

Need to know
Currency: Eastern Caribbean Dollar (ECD). £1 = 4.25ECD.
Health: Wear repellant to lower the risk of infection from mosquito-born disease chikungunya.
International dial code: +1.
Time: GMT -4.

Places mentioned
Anse Chastanet Resort St Lucia: From $330 (£210) a night in a standard room, based on two people sharing.
Jade Mountain Resort: From $1,275 (£775), staying in a Sky Sanctuary room, based on two people sharing. Rates are subject to 8% tax and a 10% service charge.
Sugar Beach: From $405 (£258) excluding 20% tax and service charge, room only.
C'est la Vie: From $400 (£255) a night, based on two adults sharing, B&B, including return airport transfers and use of the Premier Concierge service.
Jambe de Bois: T: 00 1 758 452 0321.
Tree to Bar Experience at the Rabot Estate by Hotel Chocolat: Guided walk around the Rabot Estate. From $88 (£56).

More info

How to do it
Motmot Travel has seven nights at Anse Chastanet from £2,595 per person based on two sharing a Superior Hillside Room, including return flights, breakfast and dinner, airport transfers, bird-watching and hikes on the Millet Bird Sanctuary Trail, and a dolphin- and whale-watching boat trip. Alternatively, the same package, only staying in the Fox Grove Inn, costs from £1,495 per person, based on two sharing an Ocean View Room.

Carrier has seven nights all-inclusive for the price of six at Jade Mountain Resort from £3,640 per person, based on two sharing a Star Sanctuary. Includes return British Airways flights via Gatwick and return private transfers. Offer valid for travel 1 July-30 September 2015.

Reader offer from     

Save £700 and pay from £1,299 per person for seven nights

Escape to the Caribbean with a stay at the stylish Anse Chastanet

Click here to visit the website and book this great travel deal or call, quoting the correct promo code. T: 020 7644 1738. Promo code: THPSTAPR

Published in the April 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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