Uncovering St Lucia's natural wonders, from volcanic spas to storied mountain trails
To the uninitiated, St Lucia is as tranquil as it appears on postcards. But, taking its cue from the volcanic forces that formed it, the island nation serves up plenty of high drama — from oozing mud baths to storied sailboat trips and mountain trails.
Have you ever heard a frog’s whistle? It’s made up of two notes, the second slightly longer and higher than the first. I’d describe it as a chirpy ‘ger-leep’.
And when thousands upon thousands of whistling frogs start ger-leeping from damp hiding places in the early evening — making great bubblegum blows with their throat pouches in a chorus that seems to swell by the minute — they sound like a mass rally of penny-whistle players.
It’s fabulous. And, now the sun has set, the weather is ratcheting up the atmosphere further. Rain drums mercilessly on the iron-clad roof and dashes itself into a fine mist on the wooden railings of the veranda. Lightning jags across the night sky, and in that neon-lit fraction of a second, I see rain draping a grey shawl over the bay and across the silhouette of the mountains. Then darkness rushes back and thunder rolls like the deep, long growl of some celestial guard dog behind the sky, deeper and longer than any thunder I’ve ever heard before.
It’s particularly fabulous because my room, high on a ridge at the Ladera Resort, has no windows. Or, indeed, a front wall. This is ‘open concept’ accommodation, the sleeping area running seamlessly into the veranda and out to the natural world beyond. There are plenty of luxuries — bespoke furniture has been carved by the resort’s team of carpenters, there’s a private plunge pool and even a mobile phone to reach a personal butler should I need him — but they aren’t a cocoon. Lying beneath the mosquito net of my four-poster bed, I watch and listen and drift off to sleep. The frogs keep calling, like pipers on a battlefield.
It’s a dramatic first night, but then volcanic St Lucia was born out of nature at its most frenetic, heaved from the bowels of the Earth. There’s a reminder of that genesis just a few minutes away.
“You’re about to smell something strange,” Jarvis Leonce tells me the next morning, which isn’t what you want to hear from a large man driving a small taxi with its windows closed. Fortunately, though, he’s talking about the smell of Soufrière, a settlement whose French name translates as ‘sulphur in the air’ in reference to the eggy scent that hangs over it. This is a town built at the heart of a volcano.
“The lava is only a mile below the surface,” says Yarmi Alexander, a guide who meets me at the entrance of Sulphur Springs St Lucia, a geothermal theme park of sorts. “The volcano could erupt at any time. People here call it ‘living on the edge’.” They must be a hardy lot, I think. But the truth is, the risk is low. “The last eruption was in 1766, and it wasn’t violent,” Yarmi tells me. “Volcanoes don’t just blow without warning. We have instruments to monitor activity, and nature offers signs — animals start to leave and the plants die.”
However, there’s a persistent danger here for those who fail to respect the volcano. We walk a short path past lush ferns and a series of little waterfalls to a place that seems the very counterpoint to life itself. The greenery abruptly gives way to a barren swathe of ash-white rocks and pools of dull mud that bubble violently like witches’ cauldrons. Steam billows and the odour of sulphur stings my nostrils. Three jet-black birds flit about like bad omens. It could be a stage set for the devil.
“When the volcano erupted 30,000 years ago, the cone collapsed and this is what was left,” explains Yarmi. The temperature of the springs, thick with mud, is 100C, and in the past, visitors would walk out across the baked, crusty surface to boil potatoes in the pools. But an accident changed all that: a tourist guide named Gabriel suffered seconddegree burns after falling through. “He was jumping up and down to prove to his group that the surface would support his weight,” Yarmi says, shaking her head. She points to where it happened. “We call it Gabriel’s Hole,” she confides, which must have been the cherry on top of the embarrassment suffered by poor old Gabriel.
But, treated with care, the sulphur springs work wonders. Nearby are mud baths, a joyous wallowing spot where locals and tourists alike gather to splash and laugh in three chocolate-hued pools. Taxi driver Jarvis has returned to take me through the experience because — like someone following a cherished family recipe — he believes there’s a proper way of doing things.
First, I must be soaked. I ease myself into a hot pool, the mud at the bottom soft between my toes, and lie back making angel wings on the surface. Once warmed through, I’m removed from the pool to be basted all over in sloppy grey mud from a bucket. Next, I’m left to dry for a few minutes, the mud hardening on my skin. And then the finishing touches. Jarvis works from another bucket of darker mud, applying dabs here and there to my chest and legs with the care of a pastry chef piping icing. He spends most of his time on my back, though, and seems to write a message of some sort; soon, I begin to worry I might be the victim of a practical joke and that other bathers will take it in turns to kick me. But when his work is complete, Jarvis shows me a photo on his phone, and I see he’s painted an impressive profile of the Piton Mountains and the words ‘St Lucia’ across my shoulders.
Up the mountain
The Pitons are St Lucia’s best-known landmark, a pair of lava domes called Gros Piton and Petit Piton that appear on everything from postcards to bottles of local beer. Gros Piton is the taller by 180ft, and has a two-mile hiking trail to the top that I just have to try. When I meet my guide, Marva Williams — “as in ‘marvellous’!” she says playfully — I learn that it has history, too. “The village here at the start of the trail is called Fond Gens Libre (Valley of the Free People), because it was established by escaped slaves,” Marva explains. We pass a scattering of colourful houses with corrugated roofs. An old man bids us good morning from his doorway, standing behind a handwritten board advertising his hardboiled eggs and homemade ice-cream.
Most St Lucians are descendants of slaves brought from West Africa between the 17th and 19th centuries by French or British colonists, who were forever wrestling for control of this strategic base in the Caribbean. Slaves were worked to collapse on the plantations, boiling up sugar cane in great iron cauldrons that you can still see around the island, now rusting and sometimes filled with flowers or turned into fish ponds. Captured runaways were burnt with molten molasses or executed by guillotine in Soufrière’s main square.
But in the late 1700s, fired with the spirit of the French Revolution, the slaves rebelled and came together as freedom fighters under the leadership of a fierce woman called Flore Bois Gaillard. They were known as the Brigands. Enacting brutal poetic justice, they caught and guillotined their former masters. Flore razed the plantation she’d been forced to work on, killing the owner who’d abused her over many years. So determined were the Brigands that they even succeeded in driving the British from St Lucia for a time, ushering in a year of freedom before the status quo resumed. These were turbulent, volcanic times.
Gros Piton was Brigand territory. The trail begins gently enough, wrapping lazily around the side of the mountain. There are mango trees and red cedars, and a coppercoloured tree called wild gombie whose bark peels like sunburnt skin and is boiled in tea to settle upset stomachs. After a while, we reach a stopping point high above a river so meandering in its journey to the coast that the area is named Drunken Bay. The sea lapping at the cove below is gin-clear. “The slaves used this as a lookout, beating a drum or blowing a conch to warn the others when they saw a ship coming in,” Marva tells me.
And when they did, they could disappear up the mountain. None could have covered the trail quicker than Marva, however. She crabs her way over roots and rocks in a sideways climbing style that couldn’t be described as graceful but is certainly speedy. “I hold the record,” she announces proudly. “Thirty-eight minutes up and 20 minutes down.” Today, with me in tow, it’ll take more than three hours. As the gradient steepens, my breathing becomes heavy and my T-shirt damp and clinging. I scrabble across a trunk toppled during Hurricane Elsa a few months ago, and slide briefly, heart in mouth, on a boulder made slippery with lichen. A breeze sweeps in, and the branches of the surrounding trees creak like a ship’s rigging.
An hour has passed before we reach the only other hikers we’ll meet, a couple of American honeymooners sitting silent at the edge of the trail, their faces red with effort and strands of hair plastered to their foreheads. I sense we’ve interrupted a frank exchange of views. “Three out of 10 people give up,” Marva tells me when we’re out of earshot. “They say ‘I’m on vacation, this is too much like hard work!’ But there’s no way you’re going back down early on my watch — I’m getting you to the top, all 2,619ft!”
She’s as good as her word. Some 30 minutes later, we emerge abruptly from the narrow neck of the trail into a glade with yellow mountain flowers and a pile of rocks where lizards bask in the sun. A bronze-breasted bullfinch peeps boldly at us, and takes some biscuit from my fingers. We’re at the peak. “Congratulations on conquering the mountain,” Marva says, producing a couple of bottles of Piton lager she’s been carrying in her rucksack. Below, the landscape undulates with dark green hills, their ridges veined with multicoloured rooftops. The sea melts into a hazy horizon.
Weathering the storm
The next day, after driving to the north of the island, I meet two people whose lives have been transformed by that sea. Their names are OB and Krishna, and they crew a traditional sloop, Good Expectations, in Rodney Bay. It’s a beautiful, clearly cherished boat, painted yellow and blue with a mast that’s glossy with varnish. OB sits crosslegged at the tiller, threading a careful course through the marina. “Respect, respect!” he calls to a man who passes in a dinghy, and then offers me a beer from a cooler box. “We treat you right!” he says with a grin.
OB’s is a feel-good story. Languishing on a scheme for the unemployed, he was offered a chance to try sailing by James Crockett, co-owner of a small charter company called Jus’ Sail. In that moment, the wind filled OB’s sails, too. “For the first time, I’d found something I could commit to,” he says. “This sloop was built on a beach by guys who used the horizon to make sure its lines were straight.” Above us the boom swings and pulleys whirr, Krishna tugging on ropes until the sail bulges tight. “Yeah, there’s something about a sailboat.”
“James chooses those who are passionate,” Krishna says, settling again on the deck. She too was a recruit on Jus’ Sail’s training programme for disadvantaged local youth, and has even sailed across the Atlantic. “I was seasick for a few days, but I had to get over it.” Like OB, Krishna is conscious of another path she might be walking. “If it weren’t for James, I don’t know where I’d be.”
We’re in open sea now, following the coast and unpicking its tales. There’s Pigeon Island, bristling with 18th-century fortifications built by British Admiral Rodney, and with a snack shack named after a notorious pirate called Peg-Leg le Clerc, who lived here in the 1550s and pounced on passing treasure ships. We also see The Naked Fisherman restaurant on the beach, where local anglers come with their catch in the morning. “They fish naked so the hooks don’t catch their clothes,” Krishna explains. “Word spread and crowds of tourists started gathering at 5am to watch the naked guys selling fish.” “For a while, that place was booming!” OB laughs. “But now the naked fishermen have to wear shorts.”
The breeze lifts and the sloop tugs eagerly onward. “She’s heavy, but she’s fast,” OB says, returning to his favourite subject. “Back in the day, boats like this were used for smuggling: rum, cattle, everything.” A brown booby skims low across the sea before rising abruptly and dropping with a savage stab at something beneath. “Once, we were in a regatta when a storm blew up,” he continues. “There was a 42ft catamaran — all carbon fibre this and that — and it never stood a chance. Its sail tore and engine packed up. But this vessel cut through the storm as if it was nothing. She’s been put to the test.” He falls silent as he gazes at the distinctive shapes of frigate birds gliding on the breeze, and I realise with a jolt that this sloop hasn’t just provided OB with a better life — it’s become a metaphor for his life itself.
Late morning the next day, I arrive at a food truck in a bustling lay-by beside a main road in Gros Islet. I’ve a lunch appointment with Stacey Martin. “But you cookin’ — all I doin’ is watchin’!” Stacey says firmly when I arrive, before swaddling me in an apron and wedging a chef’s hat on my head, then setting me to work chopping spring onion. Next, I’m stirring a bowl of flour and shredded codfish, adding hot sauce, and watching Stacey demonstrate how to roll the dough into balls. I roll my own, drop them into the deep fat fryer and a few minutes later remove a dozen crispy accras — salt fish fritters, a Caribbean speciality — and await Stacey’s judgement. “Well, let’s see who’s gonna die first,” she says, and takes a bite. “It’s nice — beautiful in fact,” she nods approvingly. “Although rather large,” she adds, tempering her praise so it doesn’t go to my head.
Stacey is a force of nature as formidable as any on the island, a whirlwind in leopardprint shoes. Covid-19 hit hard. When she lost her job at a bar, Stacey turned a negative into a positive by making real a long-held dream to become a cook and open her own business. Now, customers drive from miles around to collect lunches of braised oxtail and green fig salad from her Cool Runnings Kitchen truck. She’s up before dawn preparing pots of goat curry, and after the lunches are served, she heads off for her evening shift as a waitress at Cap Maison Resort & Spa. Now she’s offering cooking experiences for travellers, too. “I have a lot of energy,” she tells me, unnecessarily.
Everyone knows Stacey. Cars honk as they pass the truck — which is as unforgettable as its owner, every inch painted with palm trees and the gold and green of the Jamaican flag (Stacey was born there). “This guy, he made accras today,” she calls to a man with a cigarette in his mouth who’s sitting on a nearby wall. “They were quite big!” “Once you’ve done it, you never forget,” the man replies with a broad smile.
When we’ve finished eating, Stacey takes me on a tour of the lay-by community, past the car wash and Jake’s Barber Shop, to a drinks van with a sign outside saying, ‘No credit! My friends are those who pay!’ Owner Steve hands us beers across the counter. “After a meal, you gotta have a cold one,” Stacey explains. We sit on plastic chairs and drink as the vacuum hums in the car wash and cars drive past. “Life’s all about the good times!” calls our friend, who’s still perched on the wall. And he’s right, to a point. But Stacey and OB — and the whistling frogs in the forests — know it’s about the tough times, too, and how you weather the storms.
Getting there & around
British Airways flies nonstop from Gatwick and Heathrow to St Lucia’s Hewanorra International Airport (40 miles south of the island’s capital, Castries). Virgin Atlantic also operates flights from Heathrow.
Average flight time: 8h40m.
It’s easiest to get around St Lucia by car. Car hire is available from the airport; you’ll need a temporary permit, which can be arranged by the rental company. Taxis can be booked through your hotel or picked up at ranks in towns. Inexpensive private minibuses also travel between towns and villages.
When to go
High season is November until end of March, when it’s dry and sunny at around 28-30C. June to October sees a lot of rain and the chance of hurricanes. The shoulder season of April to June is a good time to visit as the weather is warm, 25-30C, and prices are cheaper.
Where to stay
Ladera Resort. Suites from £550.
Cap Maison Resort & Spa. From £387, half-board.
How to do it
Elegant Resorts offers a Peak to Beach package, featuring three nights in a luxury suite at Ladera Resort, four nights in a sea-facing suite at Cap Maison Resort & Spa, a visit to Sulphur Springs, sunset cruise, Gros Piton hike, transfers and international flights from £5,895 per person.
‘Eat like a local’ experiences can be arranged through Cap Maison or by messaging Stacey Martin via Facebook.
Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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