A Place Worth Fighting Over

A Place Worth Fighting Over

Link to published story by David Holahan, photos by Kyn Tolson

Any grade school student in Saint Lucia can tell you that their Windward (and winsome) Island has changed hands 14 times in battles between Britain and France. “We are the most fought over place on earth,” the proprietress of our resort’s gift shop says of her country, which has been independent from the UK for 41 years.

This history of colonial wrangling is a point of pride today. Helen of Troy, after all, inspired only one war.

Saint Lucia is indeed a desirable isle, clad in lush greenery, accented by volcanic peaks, and warmly embraced by the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. Where once sugarcane and later bananas ruled, tourism is now king and accounts for two thirds of the island’s GDP.

My wife and I and our friend Nancy are happy to contribute. The first order of business (before we even check in) at St. James’s Club Morgan Bay, a resort with 335 rooms and a surfeit of bars and restaurants hugging a curvaceous beach, is a rum punch--delivered unsolicited on a silver platter. A week’s worth of all-inclusive food, beverages and on-campus activities await.

St. James’s Club lies on the west coast, near the northern tip of Saint Lucia, which is about half the size of Rhode Island and shaped like a sweet potato standing on end. There are pricier as well as more modest places to roost, but this one fit our budget and exceeds our expectations. For about $5,000, my wife and I get a spacious water-view room for seven nights, all our meals and libations, plus round-trip airfare—five hours from Kennedy—and car service to and from the Vieux Fort airport, a scenic hour-long ride.

We could spend the entire week blissfully without venturing outside our gated Eden--but like Helen, Saint Lucia is a compelling temptress.

Our first excursion is with Hackshaw’s Boat Charters, a dolphin-and-whale watching sortie down the island’s west coast, past authentic and riotously hued fishing villages—places we will visit on foot another day.

We get skunked on the whales (sperm, humpback and pilot species are nowhere in sight), but we tag along with a surging pod of some 400 dolphins, pantropical spotted and Fraser’s varieties, as they gambol about the boat, chasing down flying fish that erupt all about us. Brown boobies and terns attack the moveable feast from above. All that’s missing is David Attenborough's narration.

Andre, our captain, is an amiable family man who points out the habitats of visiting celebrities, like Oprah and Matt Damon, and the locales where various movies have been shot, such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Superman.” Until he bursts out laughing, the captain has one of his shipmates, the journalist, convinced that the large storage tanks outside Castries, the island’s capital, are “where we keep the rum.” The half-day cruise cost $60 per person with tip, inclusive of food, beverages and local gossip, of course.

Another day we go for the trifecta—snorkeling, hot mud bathing, and a nature walk to the top of Tet Paul, a nature preserve that affords vertiginous views of much of the island, including the iconic Piton peaks, gros et petite. Mount Gimie, the tallest point on the island at 3,117 feet, is also in view. A broad-winged hawk soars overhead. On a clear day you can see the neighboring islands of Saint Vincent to the south and Martinique to the north.

Gerian, our gregarious and garrulous guide, introduces us to island culture and some of his friends along our route. We take a tutorial in Soca and Suk music, but the head-slapper is that old-timey country music is way popular with Lucians. In fact, the island’s informal anthem, “Born Lucian” by native son Gozilay, is a twangy toe-tapper that many islanders have as their ring tone. Listen to his video on YouTube, but good luck getting his infectious ditty out of your head.

After stops in the timeless fishing villages of Anse La Raye and Canaries, and hydrating on coconut water straight from the source, we park in Soufriere and take a small boat to nearby Sugar Beach for some decent but not spectacular snorkeling. The drab coral, like coral worldwide, shows the bleaching effects of warming waters.

The mud baths, fed by 100-degree thermal springs from an inactive volcano, afford gritty ablutions. An international cast of tourists turn their sunburned bodies into ambulatory objets d’art using a palette of black, grey and white sludge. It’s a very moving exhibit. Your bathing suit will smell of sulfur for days.

It is a fulsome 9 to 5:30 adventure that lives up to its billing as “a day of laughter and sunshine” and introduces us to the splendor of the island’s human and natural habitats. Gerian, who is 29 and has audio/visual talents, energetically films much of our pilgrimage and promises to send us a copy. For $100 per person plus tip, it’s a day well spent.

Another time we hike into the wilderness, on the Jacquot Trail at Rainforest Adventures in the island’s interior. The guided $50 apiece trek, while advertised for “fit” tourists, is much steeper (and slipperier) than expected and several clearly unfit boomers in our group opt to take the aerial tram down (purportedly for $35 extra, although they are not charged). We three tough it out, but find the three-hour experience disappointing. This is one of several places on the island that sport ziplines.

The following day, two of us take the resort van into Castries for “market day,” and amble about town on our own, buying a bootleg CD of Lucian country music from a man doing business out of his parked car. We walk by the national library, a salmon-colored Victorian gem, and farther along enter the wide and welcoming doors of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

This marvelously ornate 1899 wood building, said to be the largest church in the Caribbean, is an architectural as well as religious inspiration: the light pouring through its array of stained glass windows and skylights ignites the brightly painted and multi-hued wood ceiling, walls, and tondos. It is the spiritual heart of St. Lucia, the majority of whose 180,000 residents are Catholic.

Wandering back to the van, we scope out Chef Robby’s Restaurant & Bar, up a flight and overlooking the cruise ship-infested harbor: it’s a Castries’ landmark that specializes in “exotic seafood and land game.”

Meanwhile, the third of our trio is off ziplining and admiring a waterfall. We arrive back at St. James’s in early afternoon anxious to find out what the cocktail of the day is and to plan our next day’s agenda: going nowhere and doing next to nothing under a palm tree on the beach.

Hanging around the resort all day is nothing to be ashamed of. Reading a Dorothy Sayers murder mystery (from the resort library) and taking serial naps on a shady chaise lounge should be a human right, if it’s not already. This is one of the few places on earth where raising red flags, which are handed out by resort staff, is a good thing: it signifies that the bearer needs another, perchance a frothy BBC or a Piton, the indigenous lager. A BBC is a scrumptious mélange of Baileys Irish Cream, banana and coconut milk.

Between naps, type A types are tempted by an array of all-inclusive club activities, such as Hobie Cat sailing, waterskiing, beach volleyball, fitness and Caribbean dance classes, tennis, and cornhole tossing.

Clearly there are too many choices, on and off campus. Among the many things we don’t do: jet ski, kayak or parasail; climb Gros Piton (a frightening prospect); ride horses; or tour the rum distillery. Sometime less is more.

We become addicted to Godzily’s down-home (and ungrammatical) lyrics:

I'm born Lucian
And I am proud of where am from
Look how we having fun tonight
And everything is just right
We are the Helen of the West
That's why we different from the rest