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St Lucia: Helen of the West Indies.

PUBLISHED: 13:06 16 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:19 20 February 2013

The cathedral, Castries

The cathedral, Castries

It's tempting to kick back and relax on the island of St Lucia, but as Karen Bowerman reports, there's a fair amount to see and do too

Its tempting to kick back and relax on the island of St Lucia, but as Karen Bowerman reports, theres a fair amount to see and do too

St Lucia was once described as the Helen of the West Indies, largely because its strategic location (within easy reach of North America) meant it was frequently fought over by Britain and France.

But the tropical Caribbean island has another, more obvious, similarity with Helen of Troy: its golden sands, palm fringed beaches and acres of rainforests, are strikingly beautiful.

Compared with its island neighbours, Barbados, Martinique and St Vincent and the Grenadines, tourism on St Lucia has grown relatively slowly. Life remains laidback and relaxed; days evolve at their own, unhurried pace: fishermen bring in their catch; families sell sweet bananas from roadside stalls; the sun rises over the hills and sets among the waves.

If you want to take things easy there are plenty of exclusive hotels and boutique hideaways offering poolside cocktails and attentive service. If you prefer to be active you can hike through the jungle, go climbing or enjoy a variety of water sports.

Admittedly its not cheap, the Eastern Caribbean dollar (EC$) is pegged to the US dollar and prices are equivalent to those in Europe, but visit during high season (December to April) and youll be blessed with temperatures of around 28 degrees and any rainfall will last just seconds, as if just to clear the sky.

International flights touch down at Hewannora airport in the south. Its a 90 minute drive from there to the north or northwest, home to the majority of tourist resorts.

Then, you can lie by the pool or take in the sights or, do a little of both, since at just 27 miles long and 14 miles wide and with good, asphalt roads, you dont have to travel far to get around.

The coastal capital, Castries

Not everyone speaks favourably of the St Lucian capital, Castries. When I asked a local woman for suggestions on where to go, she replied, quite emphatically, there was really nothing to see.

Admittedly the town isnt picturesque, but theres a covered market which sells typical tourist mementoes and local handicrafts such as baskets, clay cooking pots and bowls made from the inedible round fruit of the national tree, the Calabash.

Prayer and prize winners at Castries cathedral

Castries cathedral (the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) which seats a staggering 2000 (around 70% of St Lucians are Roman Catholics) is also worth a look, as is Derek Walcott Square named after one of the islands two Nobel Prize winners.

St Lucians are very proud of their Nobel award winners; I was told about them several times and the fact that the island has more winners per capita than any other country!

Busts of the two men (Derek Walcott who was recognised for literature and Sir Arthur Lewis for economics) can be found in Castries square.

The iconic Pitons: St Lucias famous twin peaks

Soufriere (pronounced Sou-fray) on the islands southwest coast is one of St Lucias main tourist attractions.

The approach (from Castries) is via a serpentine coast road that affords great views of the islands iconic twin peaks, the Pitons. The volcanic mountains, which seem perfect triangles, surge straight out of the sea and soar a staggering 3000ft (almost half a mile) above sea level.

If youre looking for a challenge you can climb Gros Piton with the Gros Piton tour guides association. Self-guided tours arent permitted.

Bubbling pools and Soufrieres Sulphur Springs

The town of Soufriere is part of a caldera formed around 40,000 years ago when an erupting volcano collapsed in on itself.

Theoretically the volcanos still active but an eruption of molten lava is highly unlikely.

Our guide led us to the viewing platform, promising, with a large dose of irony, a replica of Yellowstone National Park.

The attraction amounts to a few bubbling pools and an expanse of white, grey and yellow-tinted rocks. Visitors used to be able to walk around (which would have greatly enhanced the experience) but the area was understandably cordoned off after one of the guides fell down a fissure. He suffered severe burns, but survived.

What I did enjoy was a dip in the areas hot springs, where I slathered myself in mineral-rich mud and lazed on rocks in the sunshine. This simple attraction, with its malodorous smells, is totally unspoilt. The guy in the hut is more interested in making sure you have a good time, than checking you have a ticket.

There are a couple of very basic, open air showers and two wooden changing rooms. Most people leave their bags on a bench at the bottom of a tree.

Nature and NASA at the Our Planet exhibition

If youre interested in the environment, spend a few hours at Our Planet in Castries where profits are channelled into local environment projects.

The exhibition aims to raise awareness of St Lucias fragile environment and gets the message of conservation across thanks to high tech effects and interactive displays.

In a darkened room a life size hologram of a guy in a Hawaiian t-shirt, encourages me to take the Energy Challenge. On a panel there were various sources of power including fossil fuels, wind and gas. I plugged in various sources, feeling as if I were on a game show.

This is looking very good! my mentor said, until there was a rise in carbon dioxide levels and the planet was under threat.

The exhibitions piece de resistance is a large globe which displays data fed daily from NASA. I tracked weather patterns, earthquakes and international air travel. But what I found most staggering of all were the thousands of lines that indicated that days facebook connections. They criss-crossed the world so frequently that in places I could barely make out the land.

Fresh air and adventure: St Lucias lush rainforests

St Lucia has 19,000 acres of lush, tropical rainforest that covers much of the mountainous interior. If you want to experience it, one option is to head north to Babonneau where you can go zip lining or take an aerial tram ride.

Our guide (on the leisurely open-air gondola tour) was Samantha Duncan who knew the name of every plant we pointed out to her.

Ive travelled in cable cars over rainforests, but never through them and gliding straight through the canopy was by far the better experience, with massive leaves and dangling creepers brushing against the sides of our carriage.

In just 30 minutes we climbed 1,400ft up La Sorciere (the Sorcerers mountain) spotting dried-up ravines, butterflies, giant tree ferns and heliconia flowers that are pollinated solely by hummingbirds. There were also 300 year old fig trees whose 4ft wide trunks drink 8 gallons of water a day.

We travelled 14 miles into the forest until the air grew cooler and we paused, to take in the grandeur of our wild surroundings.

About an hour later with our feet back on the ground, we hiked through the rain forest, stopping to admire colossal termite mounds.

Pigeon Island : for relaxing and recreation

Outdoor enthusiasts are also likely to enjoy Pigeon Island, although its technically no longer surrounded by sea: a causeway was built in the 70s.

Its a one-time pirate stronghold and British garrison with rusty cannons, crumbling barracks, a former officers kitchen, a gun battery and the hilltop remains of Fort Rodney. I hiked to the top to take in the view of the bay and spotted a mongoose, darting into long grass at the bottom of Signal Peak.

Pigeon Island is St Lucias prime recreational spot with beaches, green lawns, woodland and peaks. It also has the quirky Jambe de Bois caf where former ship wheels and winches have been fashioned into furniture.

The cafs named after the islands 16th century pirate and first European settler, Francois LeClerc, nicknamed Captain Jambe de Bois because of his wooden leg.

Its the perfect place to enjoy the islands favourite beer, a Piton, overlooking its tiny coves. But make sure youre not legless when you leave!

SEE FOR YOURSELF

Stay at the boutique Calabash Cove Hotel & Spa on St Lucias northwest coast, with gardens that slope down to a small, secluded bay. The hotel has 26 rooms and 9 garden cottages with plunge pools and hammocks. Snorkelling gear and kayaking is free. The hotel also arranges weddings. www.calabashcove.com

For further information on St Lucia: St Lucia tourist board: www.stlucia.org

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