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Castries, St Lucia
Magnificent St. Lucia-with its towering mountains, dense rain forest, fertile green valleys, and acres of banana plantations-lies in the middle of the Windward Islands. Nicknamed "Helen of the West Indies" because of its natural beauty, St. Lucia is distinguished from its neighbors by its unusual geological landmarks, the Pitons-the twin peaks on the southwest coast that soar nearly ½ mile (1 km) above the ocean floor. Named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004, the Pitons are the symbol of this island.
The capital, a busy commercial city of about 65,000 people, wraps around a sheltered bay. Morne Fortune rises sharply to the south of town, creating a dramatic green backdrop. The charm of Castries lies in its liveliness rather than its architecture, since four fires that occurred between 1796 and 1948 destroyed most of the colonial buildings. Derek Walcott Square (formerly Columbus Square), a green oasis bordered by Brazil, Laborie, Micoud, and Bourbon streets, was renamed to honor the hometown poet who won the 1992 Nobel Prize in Literature-one of two Nobel laureates from St. Lucia (the late Sir W. Arthur Lewis won the 1979 Nobel in economic science). Some of the few 19th-century buildings that survived fire, wind, and rain can be seen on Brazil Street, the square's southern border. On the Laborie Street side, there's a huge, 400-year-old samaan (monkeypod) tree with leafy branches that shade a good portion of the square. Directly across Laborie Street from Derek Walcott Square is the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, which was built in 1897. Though it's rather somber on the outside, its interior walls are decorated with colorful murals reworked in 1985, just before Pope John Paul II's visit, by St. Lucian artist Dunstan St. Omer. This church has an active parish and is open daily for both public viewing and religious services.
Pigeon Island National Landmark. Jutting out from the northwest coast, Pigeon Island is connected to the mainland via a causeway. Tales are told of the pirate Jambe de Bois (Wooden Leg), who once hid out on this 44-acre hilltop islet-a strategic point during the French and British struggles for control of St. Lucia. Now Pigeon Island is a national park and a venue for concerts, festivals, and family gatherings. There are two small beaches with calm waters for swimming and snorkeling. Pigeon Island, Gros Islet. Admission charged.
Rodney Bay. Hotels, popular restaurants, a huge mall, and the island's only casino surround a natural bay and an 80-acre man-made lagoon named for Admiral George Rodney, who sailed the British Navy out of Gros Islet Bay in 1780 to attack and ultimately destroy the French fleet. With 232 slips, Rodney Bay Marina is one of the Caribbean's premier yachting centers: each December, it's the destination of the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (a transatlantic yacht crossing). Yacht charters and sightseeing day trips can be arranged at the marina. Rodney Bay is about 15 minutes north of Castries; the Rodney Bay Ferry makes hourly crossings between the marina and the mall, as well as daily excursions to Pigeon Island. Rodney Bay Village, Gros Islet.
Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens and Mineral Baths. These splendid gardens are part of Soufrière Estate, a 2,000-acre land grant presented by King Louis XIV in 1713 to three Devaux brothers from Normandy in recognition of their services to France. The estate is still owned by their descendants; Joan DuBouley Devaux maintains the gardens. Water bubbling to the surface from underground sulfur springs streams downhill in rivulets to become Diamond Waterfall, deep within the botanical gardens. Through the centuries, the rocks over which the cascade spills have become encrusted with minerals and tinted yellow, green, and purple. For a small fee, you can slip into your swimsuit and soak for 30 minutes in one of the outside pools; a private bath costs slightly more. Soufrière Estate, Diamond Rd., Soufrière. Admission charged.
Fond Doux Estate. One of the earliest French estates established by land grants (1745 and 1763), this plantation still produces cocoa, citrus, bananas, coconut, and vegetables on 135 hilly acres; the restored 1864 plantation house is still in use, as well. A 30-minute walking tour begins at the cocoa fermentary, where you can see the drying process under way. You then follow a trail through the lush cultivated area, where a guide points out various fruit- or spice-bearing trees and tropical flowers. Chateaubelair, Soufrière. Admission charged.
La Soufrière Drive-In Volcano. As you approach, your nose will pick up the strong scent of the sulfur springs-more than 20 belching pools of muddy water, multicolor sulfur deposits, and other assorted minerals baking and steaming on the surface. Actually, you don't drive in. You drive up within a few hundred feet of the gurgling, steaming mass and then walk behind your guide-whose service is included in the admission price-around a fault in the substratum rock. Soufrière. Admission charged.
The Pitons. These two unusual mountains, which are, in fact, a symbol of St. Lucia and were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004, rise precipitously from the cobalt-blue Caribbean Sea just south of Soufrière. Covered with thick tropical vegetation, the massive outcroppings were formed by lava from a volcanic eruption 30 to 40 million years ago. It's possible to climb the Pitons as long as you have permission and use a guide, but it's a strenuous trip. Soufrière. Admission charged.
Soufrière. The oldest town in St. Lucia and the former French colonial capital, Soufrière was founded by the French in 1746 and named for its proximity to the volcano of the same name. The wharf is the center of activity in this sleepy town (which currently has a population of about 9,000), particularly when a cruise ship is moored in pretty Soufrière Bay. French colonial influences can be noticed in the architecture of the wooden buildings, with second-story verandahs and gingerbread trim that surround the market square. Soufrière Tourist Information Centre. The Soufrière Tourist Information Centre provides information about area attractions.
The island's best-known products are artwork and woodcarvings; clothing and household articles made from batik and silk-screen fabrics, designed and printed in island workshops; and clay pottery. You can also take home straw hats and baskets and locally grown cocoa, coffee, and spices. Duty-free shopping is at Pointe Seraphine or La Place Carenage, on opposite sides of the harbor. You must show your passport and cabin key card to get duty-free prices. You'll want to experience the Castries Market and scour the adjacent Vendor's Arcade and Craft Market for handicrafts and souvenirs at bargain prices.
Diving and Snorkeling. The coral reefs at Anse Cochon and Anse Chastanet, on the southwest coast, are popular beach-entry dive sites. In the north, Pigeon Island is the most convenient site.
Fishing. Sportfishing is generally done on a catch-and-release basis. Neither spearfishing nor collecting live fish in coastal waters is permitted. Half- and full-day deep-sea fishing excursions can be arranged at either Vigie Marina or Rodney Bay Marina. A half day of fishing on a scheduled trip runs about $85 per person to join a scheduled party for a half day or $500 to $1,000 for a private charter for up to six or eight people, depending on the size of the boat and the length of time. Beginners are welcome.
Horseback Riding. Creole horses, a breed indigenous to South America and popular on the island, are fairly small, fast, sturdy, and even-tempered animals suitable for beginners. Established stables can accommodate all skill levels and offer countryside trail rides, beach rides with picnic lunches, plantation tours, carriage rides, and lengthy treks. Prices run about $60 for one hour, $70 for two hours, and $85 for a three-hour beach ride and barbecue.
All of St. Lucia's beaches are open to the public, but beaches in the north are particularly accessible to cruise-ship passengers.
Pigeon Point. At this small beach on Pigeon Island, on the northwestern tip of St. Lucia, you'll find golden sand, a calm sea, and a view that extends from Rodney Bay to Martinique. It's a perfect spot for picnicking. Amenities: food and drink; toilets. Best for: solitude; snorkeling; swimming. Pigeon Island National Landmark, Pigeon Island, Gros Islet. Admission charged.
Reduit Beach. Many feel that Reduit (pronounced red-wee) is the island's finest beach. The long stretch of golden sand that frames Rodney Bay is within walking distance of many hotels and restaurants in Rodney Bay Village. Amenities: food and drink; toilets; water sports. Best for: snorkeling; sunset; swimming; walking; windsurfing. Rodney Bay Village, Gros Islet.
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