Visit: 26th & 28th July 2016
Saint Lucia is an island nation in the Caribbean of some 238 square miles. Mountainous and verdant, it is home to just one World Heritage Site. Situated at the island’s southwest corner are two dramatic hills known as the Pitons. These are volcanic plugs, which are features formed when magma hardens within a vent on an active volcano.
Our flight to the island was distinguished by the receipt of a minor upgrade to premium economy due to a combination of overbooking and another couple showing up at Gatwick airport too late to board. We enjoyed a complimentary glass of Champagne and had our food served on *crockery* instead of in plastic tubs. It didn’t make much of a difference to the overall experience, but it was a nice way to pass the eight hour journey before we touched down in the tropical heat of the mid-afternoon.
The main airport is right at the southern tip of Saint Lucia, but because our hotel was at the other end of the island we had a long journey ahead of us. I had read of US$80 taxi fares each way so decided it might be better to hire a car ourselves. They drive on the left in Saint Lucia, which helped. A tip for car hirers: if you’re going to be doing a number of foreign hires in a given year it is worth taking out third party car hire excess insurance in your home country. This allows you to avoid the common scam where the hire companies scare you into buying their own overpriced excess insurance on a daily basis.
It was an hour and a half’s drive to our hotel in Rodney Bay, and a nice way to open our eyes to the fact that we were really in Saint Lucia at last. We had a pleasant evening and then the next morning walked to a local site of interest known as Pigeon Island. This pair of hillocks originally sat on an island in its own right, but it has since been connected to the rest of Saint Lucia by land reclamation. In the colonial era Pigeon Island was strategically important for the British as it overlooked French-ruled Martinique just 20 miles to the north. I enjoyed seeing little bits of England in the tropics, much like in Barbados two years earlier – for example this post box that must have been erected since Elizabeth II came to the throne in 1952 but presumably before Saint Lucia gained full independence in 1979.
We hiked up to the cannon deck on one of the hills and then up to the top of the other, too. This we thought of as good practice for the main challenge of our trip, which was a hike to the top of Gros Piton. The fortification reminded me of the new and old forts that sit at either end of the Old Town of Corfu.
Our first view of the World Heritage Site, however, was to come not on our Thursday hike but two days before that, because I was talked into booking us on a speedboat day trip when walking along the beach on the way to Pigeon Island.
So at the appointed time, 8.15am, we were met on the beach by “Skinny Jimmy” and “Rasta Man”. After picking up another six or seven couples we scythed down the west coast of the island until we got to the town of Soufriere, below.
Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the town on their Caribbean tour of 1966, arriving aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia. Our interest, though, was in the wonderful view of the two pitons: the dramatically jagged Petit Piton in the foreground and the larger but gentler Gros Piton behind it.
As well as giving us this unique angle on the Pitons, the day trip also included a visit to volcanic mud baths, washing off in a waterfall, a local lunch and a snorkelling session. Natalie was a little reticent about getting into the water with a mask and snorkel, but we both soon discovered how incredible it was to swim with fish of many varied colours and to see coral of shapes I have only ever seen on TV. The snorkelling area is a bona fide part of the WHS, and well worth visiting if you find yourself in the area.
As we headed back up country Rasta Man cracked open the beers (named Piton, naturally enough) and a 5 litre bottle of home-made rum punch, challenging us to get through it all before we got back to our beach. The challenge was accepted.
Two days later we set the alarm extra early and hit the road at 5.30am for the two hour drive to the Pitons Management Area. It takes a lot longer to get there by road than by boat, but since I have no boat to my name we had no choice. The journey involved the windiest roads I have ever experienced, by some margin! There were almost literally no straight sections for the entire journey, as the road snaked up and down the forested hills that cover Saint Lucia.
There is no real climbing required on the ascent of Gros Piton, but it was a steep walk all the way up. Fortunately the route was entirely shaded from the sun by tree canopy so we didn’t have to worry about sunburn. There was a great viewpoint about halfway up from which we got a different angle on Petit Piton.
It was good to get to the top, where we found a few other tourists but it was basically quiet. The view from up there is not as good as the one halfway up because it looks out onto the relatively flat southern end of Saint Lucia. Still, you definitely get a sense of achievement as you appreciate how far you have climbed.
Our guide was suffering from sinusitis so we ended up beating her to the top by about 15 minutes. Soon afterwards it was time to descend. As we were carefully making our way down the hill we were stopped in our tracks by the sound of a gunshot and the whizzing of a bullet through the canopy. We carried on but then heard another. The look on the guide’s face told me it wasn’t something she was used to, so we got a little nervous about who was shooting and where exactly they were aiming! The mystery was solved when we caught up with a hiker who was an off-duty policeman. Apparently it is a local custom for policemen to fire their weapons for fun when doing something significant, like climbing Gros Piton! Doesn’t sound sensible to me, but there you go.
This rock-mounted WHS logo is one of the better ones I’ve come across on my travels. In terms of why the site is inscribed on the list, it comes in under categories xii (superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance) and xiii (representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features). Wildlife we saw included lizards…
… and hermit crabs, with their borrowed shells.
Now for a word on food:
Caribbean food is great! But where we stayed it was quite difficult to find. It seems all the restaurants cater to unadventurous tourists, so you find Italian, French and Indian restaurants, but not Saint Lucian ones. The trick is to eat where the locals eat, which can mean roadside shacks or in malls. We found a spot at the top of Rodney Bay mall where local food was sold and we went back again and again. A typical hearty lunch includes rice, beans, plantain, banana, yam, macaroni cheese, noodles and stewed meat or fish. I loved the cooked bananas in particular.
And then there is roti, which is basically curry in a wrap. Delicious!