SOUFRIERE, ST. LUCIA — There’s a lazy Sunday afternoon feeling to this pretty town. Brightcoloured boats dot the harbour.
Soufriere is the second largest city in St. Lucia and home to some 300,000 people. On this day, most have retreated to the quiet of their homes or to the volcanic black sand beaches for a bob in the sea. Only the rustic bars show signs of life on a hot weekend afternoon.
Soufriere is an easy boat ride from Castries, the capital. In fact, it used to be St. Lucia's capital. The town is best known as the home of Sulphur Springs, billed as the Caribbean's only drive-in volcano.
Clots of cruise-ship passengers crowd the area, taking photos of themselves taking photos. The stench of sulphur fills the air. Steam vents from the crater as the guide talks about the formation of the island. Fifteen minutes after you got off the bus you're back on.
But this isn't the real St. Lucia. It's an island of remarkable beauty. To simply visit the volcano is to ignore the luxury of a sail down the coast, with its little villages and fishing boats dotting the landscape like so many toys.
It doesn't pay tribute to Soufriere, a slow-eyed place clinging stubbornly to the faded beauty of so many Caribbean towns, places where your silly questions will be treated with tolerance, where men still sit at tables and play dominoes on the sidewalk and where an empty beach is more than an advertising dream.
As you leave Soufriere, be sure to stop at the overlook for lovely views and the chance to talk to "Big Mama" (aka Teresa) who sells what she calls "Viagra rum" with tremendous conviction. You'll want to spend some time admiring the twin Pitons, two mountains that are the landmark of the island.
George Foreman lives on St. Lucia, a fact that raises pride in the locals. They know him as the boxer, not the purveyor of electric grills. Nobel laureate Derek Wallcott hails from St. Lucia. Oprah has a place on island that locals say is her second home.
"It's very expensive too," confides Hilary Moise, a cab driver. That's no surprise, you say.
A cab ride will usually net you a skilled tour guide. A funny blackboard sign on the side of the road requires a lengthy explanation of the charcoal business on the island. It seems you can become very wealthy from charcoal. It's the cooking fuel of choice here.
Trivia rolls out of Moise. The island is 85 per cent Catholic and you can't swing a cat without hitting a Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. Country music is wildly popular and you're more likely to hear George Jones than Bob Marley.
For the tourists, there are Rain Forest Sky Rides. You can either zip line through the rainforest or travel in a tram. There's no athleticism to the tram but it's thrilling and educational. The sound of plants rubbing against the car sounds like the growl of an animal. The guide casually mentions the wild pigs, boa constrictors, bats and tarantula who call the rainforest home.
You'll get some great photos but it is not for the vertiginous. It's not for the poor either, as the ride will set you back $72 US, not including the cab fare from your hotel.
For cheap fun, head to the Castries market to watch the haggling over fresh fish, meat, root vegetables and fruit. It's a riot of smell and color, the tiny stands tucked a hip's distance from the next. Upstairs, there's an informal bar and restaurant where you can watch the harbour and puzzle at the appeal of giant cruise ships.
For an utterly different view of St. Lucia, take a cab to the Fond Doux, a charming hotel set on a 250-year-old plantation. Ninety-five per cent of its cocoa goes directly to Hershey's.
Owner Eroline Lamontage says she wants to present an authentic St. Lucian experience.
"There's a time in your life when you want an all-inclusive experience," says the former accountant, "and a time when you don't." She's got 130 acres and just 12 guest cottages. Privacy is guaranteed. There's a small house available for rent, an original building she had disassembled and reassembled on her property. It's a dream of gardens, a bedroom meant for love and slumber and enough room to pretend this really is your home.
If you walk the grounds with a staff member you'll be taught about the agriculture and horticulture of the property. You may have the chance to taste fresh cocoa bean nuts, fleshy and citrusy and delightful.
Fond Doux can also arrange spa services, which was about the only way they could add to perfection.
If you're a person who loves the all-inclusive experience, the Almond chain has some wonderful choices. Be warned: They mean what they say about the dress code. If you show up for an elegant dinner wearing shorts or a T-shirt you'll be sent back to your room to change.
But if you've packed a shirt with a color, enough sunblock and a will to relax on a piece of paradise, this is the place for you.
IF YOU GO: :
* The language of St. Lucia is English. The currency is Eastern Caribbean (EC) dollars. American cash is accepted many places. Bank machines are plentiful. There's no problem using credit cards unless you're haggling in a local market.
*Charters and Air Canada flights will get you to the island from Toronto.
* Looking for a place to stay? If you like all-inclusive comfort, pick one of the Almond resorts. Rooms are spacious, the food good and the beaches gorgeous. Best of all, the economy has driven prices down.
* If you have a sense of adventure, a solid bank account and don't need to be spoon fed your fun, Fond Doux Holiday Plantation is perfect. It's a still-active 250-year-old coffee plantation nestled on lush grounds. Only 24 people can be accommodated at any time, lending the spacious grounds an even more exclusive feeling. Prices start at $300 (US) in the winter. The owner calls it "laid back luxury" and she's right.