This island lies towards the bottom of the Caribbean chain and is classed as one of the Windward islands, so called because when beating north, these islands lie to windward. It is 22 Nautical miles south of the French island of Martinique, 620 square kilometres and has a population of just 175,000. We considered it to be a small island until we had spent a few days cruising in the Grenadines, after which we remembered Rodney Bay as a teeming metropolis complete with shopping mall. My impressions were of a plucky, independent island, incredibly lush and green with rainforest and striking mountains, two of which, the Pitons, are the symbols of the island. It has some agriculture and of course, tourism. As my first introduction to the Caribbean I admit that I was quite shocked by the contrast in living standards between the locals in the town outside Rodney Bay, Gros Islet, and the luxury villas and hotels for tourists that were built and being built all around the marina and coast line. It was all the more impressive then, that the local people we met could be impossibly charming. In Rodney Bay marina everybody was faultlessly helpful and professional. We twice had a temporary panic, when both
Simon and I left our back pack with wallets, keys and mobile phones in one of the marina bars on two different occasions. Both times we returned to find the bags had been carefully kept safe for us by one of the waitresses. The marina has all the facilities you could want from a marina with a chandlery which will order anything that is not currently in stock and an extremely helpful manager, Ian, who spent a half an hour looking up the codes for the paint colours that we might need to repaint our boom.
There was a full plan of events organised by the ARC who have their office on site and always have a friendly yellow shirt on hand to help out with any requests. For example, when John asked one of their staff who had grown up in Saint Lucia to tell him the names of some of the groups and singers we had heard being played at the Anse la Raye Fish fry, she gave him a list of a good twenty names to check out. This is another thing that struck me about the island at once. Music is everywhere. When I visited the mall on the day before their bank holiday, they were blasting out the coolest Caribbean Christmas songs on a sound system that compares with those used at the Notting Hill carnival. I was sure that there was going to be some kind of parade and looked around for signs of a celebration of some kind but was told that it was just the regular mall music. In the smallest and most spartan bars you often find a DJ with state-of-the-art laptop and mixing desk, being extremely serious about what he does. And the music? It’s not Bob Marley, although you certainly hear that played for the tourists. It’s impossible not to tap your feet to it, uplifting and contagious. Maybe those adjectives describe the Caribbean as well?
John and Cathy were keen to visit the island and to make the most of their remaining days here and I am grateful to them that they encouraged us to make the half day sail down to La Souffriere, the marine reservation halfway down the west side of the island (the west side is always the most developed as it is the sheltered side of the island, the eastern side always being wilder, more windswept and far less built up). The twin peaks of the Pitons frame the most picturesque bay, secluded and looking onto the lush vegetation that comes right down to the shoreline. The boat boys don’t miss a trick here and we were greeted by more than one boat, fighting for our business such as it was. “Welcome to Paradise” they say as they approach. With six crew on board we didn’t really need their help to pick up a reserve mooring buoy (anchoring is forbidden in this area) but they don’t like to take no for an answer. A small boat with two insistent vendors zipped ahead and picked up the strop for us to put a line through despite our remonstrances that we didn’t need their help. The snorkelling in this spot was, to my inexperienced eye, spectacular, although I maintain that snorkelling in the Mediterranean was never boring either. The variety of fish here is far richer of course, and the fish are definitely more colourful. I was excited to see star fish, parrot fish, spotted box fish, moray eels and brain coral and had mixed feelings on seeing a couple of the incredible lion fish, which I know to be an invasive species in this part of the world.
The marine reserve warden is a man about town called Pat Butcher (or rather worryingly, as I heard him called by one of the vendors, “Pat the butcher”). He came to visit us with a huge smile, a fast dinghy which he calls the Lamborghini, and a whole range of ideas for trips and dives for us. Did we want to climb the Petit Piton? No problem, he could organise that. Tomorrow he would pick us up with our guide. A dive? He was also a dive master and would fill our bottles up for us afterwards as well. He later intimated that should we want any “Bob Marley”, a local grown speciality, he could certainly get that for us as well. When we went to meet him in town later that night to pick up the dive bottles he was buying beers for the whole town in the local bar and his largesse extended to us as well. Enormous speakers were placed outside in the street so that the whole town could enjoy the tunes. I admit, we retreated to the end of the street to hear ourselves think, although the music was excellent, and the atmosphere was fun. Later, he offered to come and pick us up from the boat if we wanted to go back into town to party “no charge”. Pat is certainly a man who can organise everything. He surprised us by recognising that our boat was an Oyster and was shrewdly flattering about her. When Simon described the boat as “an old lady” he corrected him, “an old lady well cared for and with new dresses”. He offered us good prices for our excursions and dives because he said he wanted us to come back. We did and we might again.
I wanted to stretch my legs with a nice hike but wasn’t aware of what I had let myself in for with the hike up to the Petit Piton. I am grateful to John and Cathy for inviting me to join them. They are both fit as a butcher’s dog although they were both complaining about having lost their fitness levels over the last few weeks of enforced sedentary life on board the Princess. Still, a lifetime of mountain climbing, cycling, canyoning and diving put them in a class apart. They looked after me wonderfully, with John taking up the rear so that I never felt that I was lagging behind. The climb was a challenge for me, I’ll be honest. After a lot of huffing and puffing up a vertiginous slope we had the peak to scale. Our guide, Elias, nimbly hopped up the
steep slopes with bare feet, showing us how to use the ropes to haul ourselves up rock faces and squeeze through crevices. At one point I got stuck in a tight spot and needed a push to get any further. It was with a real sense of achievement that I reached the summit and the pride is easy to read on my face from these pics. And what pictures! The view from the summit across the island and to the bay opposite is stunning. Elias completed the whole trip without breaking a sweat or sounding out of breath at any point. His climbing kit comprised of a pair of flip flops which he put away at the start of the climb and the t-shirt on his back which doubled up as a hat as the sun climbed higher. Although he looked to be a man in his early twenties at the peak of his physical form, he informed us that he would be 40 years old next birthday. To add insult to injury he mentioned that he had been with his lady friend and hadn’t gone to bed until 4am the night before. Respect.
The little Piton is the most difficult climb on the island but there are certainly hikes for every level offering beautiful views of this lush island with its rainforest and coastlines. Pigeon island is less than an hour’s walk from Rodney bay and is connected to the mainland by an isthmus, a long tongue of beach. In the morning I enjoyed walking to the beach and watching the fishermen hauling in their nets, slipping between two worlds of the luxury time share flats around a tiny marina at the Landings and walking back through the sleepy village of Gros Islet.
We moved back to Rodney Bay for our final week in Saint Lucia, getting organised with the local painter, Elvis, the King of boat painting jobs. We moved out to the wide and generous anchorage after checking out at immigration and spent a couple of very comfortable nights there with hardly any swell at all. Rodney bay is a stunning place to watch the majestic frigate birds swoop down and do their fishing over the wide sweep of the bay. Our water taxi man told us the name of the birds which had greeted us on our approach to the island and which I had thought to be gannets. “They are gulls” he said, to my disappointment, then elaborated a little “we call them boobies”. Sometimes these impressive birds land on the bow of the boat but never stay long enough to have their photo taken.
Leaving Saint Lucia we already had a lot of memories to take with us from our ARC events, the hikes and swims, the people we had met and friendly faces. I look forward to returning and to visiting the capital, Castries, taking the local bus and perhaps returning to Pat “the Butcher” for a final dive in Paradise.