My cruise of the eastern Caribbean on the Norwegian Gem visited five different islands. But for me, the highlight of the cruise was the one in the middle — the beautiful island of St. Lucia.
To be frank, most Caribbean islands look and feel much alike. But from start to finish, St. Lucia is a treat — a lush, green island with spectacular views of the sea coast as you climb up steep roads into the mountainous interior, and some impressive attractions once you got there. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, it’s all about the beaches. But where else can you drive into a live volcano and see one of the region’s great sights: the sharp profile of the Twin Pitons rising up beside the deep blue sea?
There are other activities on offer for cruisers visiting St. Lucia, including some fine beaches and the chance to go zip-lining. But I couldn’t resist the trip to La Soufriere volcano, and the promise that we would drive right in. To get there, we drove through the pretty city of Castries, with its classical buildings painted in pastel colours, before heading out into the countryside.
And then we were off, driving along the coast on a highway that overlooked the vivid blue sea. And up, into the interior, on roads with switchbacks that some might find unsettling. Along the way, there were a few colonial ruins to see, and some great views of the bay at Castries, with our ship moored in the harbour.
It’s close to a two-hour drive from Castries to the town of Soufriere, where the volcano is situated. And to break the trip, we stopped in a sleepy fishing village called Anse La Raye, named for the stingrays the original French explorers saw in the bay. The rays are gone now, but the town is still a good fishing spot.
And nowadays it’s also a hot spot for tourists driving the island. The centre of town is a full-on tourist market, with shops selling t-shirts, hats and a thousand items made from sea shells. But if you wander off the main street, there are 100-year-old buildings that look like the set of a pirate movie.
The road passed through some of the greenest country I’ve seen in the Caribbean, much of it planted with bananas. And here and there, small clusters of houses perched on hillsides. It looked like an idyllic life.
If the countryside didn’t keep you interested, the tour guide kept you laughing, with facts and stories about St. Lucia. The island has a colourful history, starting with the Carib Indians and proceeding through seven regime changes between the English and the French. Today, Creole French is the first language of many St. Lucians, and the island has a legal code based on both English common law and the Quebec Civil Code.
The island of St. Lucia also has some unusual wildlife, including five kinds of dangerous snakes, including the deadly fer-de-lance and the boa constrictor. Our guide lives in the country, and sometimes these crawlers decide to visit. One day she went to her clothes closet and found she had an extra belt — one that moved.
There are also has iguanas, which are protected by law. So it’s not a good idea to cook one and put the whole episode on Facebook, as one local did. Apparently he’s now in jail.
There was another stop as well, at a botanical garden filled with gorgeous tropical plants and sign boards covered with biblical quotes. I’ve seen the fruits of the tropics before, but a lot of people were surprised to see what chocolate looks like when it’s still in the pod (that’s it on the bench, below). I tasted one of the cocoa beans, chewing off the sweetish white pulp before crunching into the seed — it tastes nothing like chocolate.
Next on the menu was cashews still in the shell, which we didn’t sample. The shell is very hard, which makes them difficult to process — and that’s why they’re so expensive.
Finally, the town of Soufriere, and the volcano that bears its name. The town itself is nothing special, though it has a native charm of its own. This is where the Queen likes to visit when she comes to St. Lucia, we were told. But even if you didn’t like the town, it’s hard to beat the amazing view of the Twin Pitons from the road as you approach (that’s the photo at the top of this post).
And then on to the main attraction, the volcano. A winding road led through dense vegetation to reveal a scene that looked like a moonscape. This was Sulphur Springs, the island’s famous thermal area. And once we opened the door of the van, there was no mistaking where we were: the sulphur smell was strong.
The springs have an information centre and a video explaining how the hot magma pushes up through the earth’s crust in this spot. In fact, the ground we were standing on was actually inside the caldera of a volcano that collapsed hundreds of years ago. However, it’s still active: nearby, we took a short hike to a spot where natural pools of hot grey water bubbled like witches’ cauldrons.
Back in Castries, a fellow cruiser and I walked through the town, wading through crowds of children in crisp school uniforms. The city has some handsome colonial buildings, including one of the first Carnegie libraries (below). We toured a small park and a lovely church in the city centre. But the mood became a bit darker when a teenage boy approached and politely told us to put our cameras away before somebody snatched them.
Every paradise has a few snakes, and it looks like St. Lucia is no exception. Still, of all the places I visited on this cruise, it’s the beautiful island of St. Lucia that sticks in my mind. Maybe one day I’ll return.