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Aug 26, 2019

9 min. read

From mountaintop to beachfront, discovering Saint Lucia's tropical mystique.

I wanted to write a story about Saint Lucia that didn't immediately highlight the Pitons. The towering volcanic spires are said to be the most photographed landmarks in the Caribbean. They lend their name to Saint Lucia's most popular lager. Heck, they're on the country's flag. My storytelling instincts practically screamed: Don't you dare visit this unique, vibrant island and come back with an article focusing on its most obvious attraction.

And yet there they are, tantalizingly close as our plane makes its approach to Hewanorra Airport in Vieux Fort, on Saint Lucia's southern tip. Seen through my small window, the peaks are striking, though less verdant than expected. (I'm told this is due to our arrival at the tail end of the dry season. After a few months of rain, they'll return to picturesque lushness.)

Still, much of the island remains green and fertile. We pass countless small banana plantations and groves of mango and breadfruit trees—plus grazing goats and cattle—on a van ride from Vieux Fort to the resorts in the north. The road skirts the Atlantic coast on one side, with Saint Lucia's rainforest on the other. Largely uninhabited, the dense jungle is popular with hikers, zipliners and birdwatchers with an eye out for the rare Saint Lucia parrot.

My own enthusiasm is slightly tempered at present. I'm intent on maintaining equilibrium as we navigate the winding, hilly highway, though I'm also conscious that this drive is a distinctly Saint Lucian experience. More than vegetation or wildlife, it's the terrain that makes Saint Lucia a natural wonder.

The volcanic island is bisected lengthwise by a precipitous ridge of mountains. While not extraordinarily tall (the highest point, Mount Gimie, is 959 metres above sea level), they dominate both landscape and living conditions: Colourful homes stand on concrete pillars built into foothills; resort villas are carved into coastal cliffs. It's no coincidence that more populous areas like Castries and Rodney Bay are in Saint Lucia's northern reaches, where the topography is more forgiving.

A boy sits on a dock watching the ocean.

The contrast of highlands, bluffs, beaches and harbours is clear the next day, as I travel by catamaran along the western coast to Soufrière. The charming French Colonial–style town sits within the depression of a dormant volcano. It's also the gateway to Sulphur Springs, a "drive-in volcano" and hot spring where visitors slather themselves in mineral-rich mud and take obligatory selfies before relaxing in a geothermal pool.

My own dip is followed by a quick drive to the Toraille waterfall. With a handful of other visitors, I wade beneath the cascade, the cold water quickening my heartbeat and tightening my pores. I'm thoroughly invigorated as I reemerge into the tropical heat—but that feeling of vitality may not be solely the work of my hot-and-cold immersion.

"They have a special energy," I overhear someone exclaim. "You just feel different when you're near them." That them is the Pitons, and this is hardly the first time I'll catch islanders and tourists alike asserting the spires' magnetism. Another good one: "When you look at the Pitons, you realize that God was a Saint Lucian." Or, more directly: "You're now entering heaven." So says Mario, our guide along the Tet Paul Nature Trail, as we reach the summit of one of the best and most accessible spots for seeing the Pitons from on high.

From the trail's base—which features a modest café, plus gardens that supply it with spring onions, guava and other organic produce—it's about a 25-minute ascent to a viewpoint that puts us right between the majestic pair of Pitons. For a closer look, you can climb the cairns themselves: Trekking up and down the larger, 800-metre Gros Piton takes about four hours; conquering the steeper Petit Piton takes twice as long, and calls for mountaineering expertise. Climbing isn't in the cards for our group, but the mountains have nonetheless worked their magic. Our boat trip back up north is a boisterous hour of conversation and energetic dancing to DJ-spun soca and calypso tunes.

I'm lucky to also see the Pitons from a much more exclusive vantage point: the open-air dining room at Jade Mountain Resort. Overlooking Soufrière Bay, the luxe sanctuary appears chiseled from the island itself, with wood- and stone-accented guestrooms accessible only by a network of vine-wrapped bridges. It's the sort of exotic location you might see in a James Bond movie, a bucket-list resort that undoubtedly contributes to Saint Lucia's reputation as the world's top destination for honeymooners. Lacking my wife on this trip—and the requisite funds for a splash-out stay of my own—my time at Jade Mountain is limited to an exquisite lunch of local greens and fresh-caught mahi-mahi.

A group of people sitting outside of a bar.

Instead, my stay is split between two resorts in Saint Lucia's north: the sprawling Windjammer Landing and secluded Calabash Cove. The former is a 24-hectare collection of suites and whitewashed villas that climb from beachfront to hilltop. Due to its size and all-inclusive offerings, Windjammer is enticing for families and larger groups. The latter is an adults-only destination par excellence, a gem of a boutique property with Instagram-ready amenities. I spy more than one couple staging photos beside the sweeping infinity pool and in the extensive, heliconia- and frangipani-filled gardens.

Both properties are a short drive from Rodney Bay, the island's main tourist town. During my visit, it also happens to be hosting Saint Lucia's annual jazz festival, and I'm fortunate to catch shows by Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride and other luminaries of the genre. Though Saint Lucia doesn't have a grand jazz tradition, the nearly 30-year-old fest is nevertheless one of the longest-running events of its kind in the Caribbean, and its concerts are well attended by music lovers attired in their evening finery.

Likewise, the area surrounding the performance venue is lively with rum punch-sipping merrymakers hopping amongst restaurant patios and nightclubs. It's a fun scene, if a little too common to urban centres everywhere; I regret missing out on the more distinctive Friday night street party in nearby Gros Islet. At the weekly "jump up," hawkers grill jerk chicken, ribs and fish, and hole-in-the-wall bars sling Piton beer plus boozier options, while island rhythms emanate until the wee hours of morning.

I do, ultimately, get a hint of that local hustle and bustle with a visit to the Castries Central Market. Established in the 1890s, the Saint Lucian capital's vast bazaar is, like all such places, part farmers' market, part general store and part souvenir stand. The foodie in me is drawn to the smiling grannies and their produce-lined picnic tables, and the alleyway kitchens cooking up island favourites like salt fish, roti, and lentil- and plantain-rich bouillon. But it's too early for a meal, so I make my way toward the tchotchke vendors.

Mindful that most of their wares are not necessarily authentic, I still hope to find something at least a little unique to take home. On the advice of a friend, I grab a few bars of sulphur soap, as well as some wooden toys for my kids—before spotting the Pitons, colourfully rendered on canvases large and small. The pictures are all different, but of a similar aesthetic; they're also being sold by multiple vendors, none of whom are apt to negotiate a price I can manage with my last bit of pocket money. I don't blame them, of course, nor am I especially disheartened.

Though I leave without a painting, the Pitons have enchanted me. I promise myself that I'll return to see them, and Saint Lucia, again soon.

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