Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Luscious St. Lucia

A snorkeller's paradise, a diner's delight

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St. Lucia is a lush, tropical Caribbean island in the West Indies, catering to all walks of life, from sun-soaking resort visitors to more-adventurous villa dwellers.

As we descended into Vieux Fort at the southern tip of the island, I was taken by the mysterious, jagged views of the Pitons, the renowned mountain peaks that were featured in the movie Superman II.

Our destination was Soufriere, a fishing village on the west coast, known for its wide range of unique attractions and rustic charm. Soufriere boasts two beautiful beaches -- Jalousie and Anse Chastanet -- the world's only drive-in volcano, waterfalls and cocoa plantations.

The vast green-blue stretches of the Caribbean extended to our left, while the road snaked up and down rolling hills covered in miles of lush rainforest. Coconuts, palm trees, mangoes, tamarinds and banana trees all flew past our window, as our driver took the neck-breaking turns like a rally racer.

Skirting around the rugged west coastline, our cab driver gave us the names of the little villages we drove through as we headed west: Laborie, La Fargue, Choiseul. Most names of villages, towns and bays come from the French, who fought the British over possession of the island from 1651 to 1814.

Each side ruled the island seven times, with the British finally securing dominance over St. Lucia, which remains part of the Commonwealth. Thus, islanders speak both English and Patois or broken French.

The villas

It was 32C at 4:10 p.m. when we arrived at the Stonefield Estate Villas, which had once been a plantation. We caught the tail end of the wet season: short showers with tiny drops, lasting only a few minutes.

Stonefield, five minutes uphill from Soufriere, entices travellers with private villas, pools and even your own kitchen. The walk to our villa was quite steep, like most areas on the island.

Our villa was beautiful, breezy, air-conditioned, with a kitchen and ocean view, complete with its own small, private pool. We had a generous veranda with a hammock and a secluded yard, where one could enjoy breakfast, lounge by the pool or take in the panoramic view of the Caribbean Sea, framed by the Petit Piton to the left and a mixture of banana, coconut, palm and mango trees to the right.

In the Caribbean, the sun sets at 6 p.m. and, as everything sank in complete darkness, we were immediately surrounded by a cacophony of sounds. Birds, crickets and tree frogs, all making their noises, made my earplugs a necessity.

Our room had screens and slat windows, but no glass, typical features of accommodations on the island.

The next morning, the sound of gentle rainfall and the whooshing of the gigantic banana tree leaves woke us up. We enjoyed baguettes and nutmeg jam as part of our Creole breakfast at The Mango Tree Restaurant, which draws you in with gorgeous views and nightly specials, including a delectable vegetarian menu.

Jalousie Beach

Stonefield offers free shuttles to Jalousie Beach, a 10-minute drive south of the estate. The beach is nestled between the two steep peaks, known as the Gros and Petit Pitons. There is a narrow strip of white, warm sand, but the entrance to the green waters is rocky. The area is divided by a boating dock, and the marine reserve area to the right of the beach is open for free snorkelling.

Swim a few dozen feet from the shore and you are in a snorkeller's paradise. Schools of needle, puffer, trumpet, parrot and damsel fish, as well as chromes, the occasional sea snake and lobster, await you.

Jalousie Plantation Beach Resort charges US$20 for renting a beach chair; however, the beach is public and guests can use it freely.

Morne Coubaril Estate

A 15-minute walk uphill from Stonefield is the beautiful Morne Colbier Estate. A short tour for US$7 shows visitors how cocoa, sugar cane and coconut are processed, using traditional methods. Tasty samples of each stage of production are provided along the way. We were treated to roasted cocoa beans and fresh coconut milk, to mention a few. There is an excellent gift shop on the estate, which has local coconut candy, a must for anyone going to the Soufriere area, as it is difficult to find anywhere else on the island. Cocoa tea, another local delight, is also sold.

Drive-in volcano

The visit to the St. Lucia drive-in volcano was unique. The collapsed crater of the dormant volcano that last erupted in 1780 is accessible by car. Visitors take a 30-minute tour, observing the unusual landscape -- a conglomerate of sulphur, magnesium, copper oxide, sapphire and other minerals.

Steam flows upward from the numerous boiling pots of water and mud, and the overpowering stench of sulphur resembled that of a truckload of rotten eggs.

The name of the nearby town, Soufriere, is from the French, meaning sulphur in the air.

Sulphur springs flowing from the volcano reach temperatures of 80C.

You can bathe in their healing warm waters, but the best time is in early morning.

Anse Chastanet Beach

Anse Chastanet Beach is amazing, with its black volcanic sand. The resort, like Jalousie, offers beach chairs for a fee of US$15.

The area boasts some of the best snorkelling around the island. Scuba St. Lucia offers two daily snorkel and dive tours.

Our morning trip took us to Superman's Flight, at the base of the Petit Piton. The strong current allowed for an easygoing snorkel, and the clear waters offered a delight of vivid marine life alongside the coral reef wall. We saw snappers, groupers, parrot and trumpet fish, a solitary barracuda and other schools of fish.

Lunch at Anse Chastanet's Trou au Diable waterfront restaurant is a must. A delicious pumpkin soup tingled our taste buds, while the chef prepared the catch of the day: dorado.

Seared to perfection, the fresh fish, served with spicy Creole sauces, satisfied our appetites. The restaurant's vegetarian menu is also impressive. The view is great, the atmosphere relaxing and the food amazing. Worth the trip on its own.

In the afternoon we slipped into the waters again to snorkel at the Devil's Hole. Once again we enjoyed coral heads and schools of fish, similar to yet less abundant than Superman's Flight.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Tips for the frugal traveller:

-- Do not buy East Caribbean dollars (ECD), the currency in St. Lucia and other Caribbean islands, before departing for your holiday. Not only do you have to buy American currency first, but you also receive only two ECD for every U.S. dollar. However, in St. Lucia, the ECD is pegged at a whopping 2.7 for each dollar. So, by waiting I saved $250 Cdn for every US1,000 converted. Not a bad sum for doing nothing.

-- Take your own snorkel gear. Some dive shops include free snorkel rentals with their trips; however, some places charge up to US$20 per trip or per hour. If you're planning to do a lot of snorkelling at different sites, buying your own gear will save you money and peace of mind. A good snorkel set (mask, snorkel, fins, strap and carrying bag) costs about $250. If you use the money saved by not converting your money prior to your departure, then the snorkel gear is free.

--Watch for seat sales. I set up WestJet's main website as the home page on my computer and every time I started my web browser the page reminded me to check and compare tariffs. WestJet's lowest Internet price I found for a one-way ticket to St. Lucia in early December was $204.99, before taxes; the highest price was $799.99, before taxes. Prices for the return trip fell in the same range.

-- Avoid visiting towns or tourist sites on a Sunday or a cruise ship day. The country shuts down on Sundays, as St. Lucians spend the day going to church and enjoying time with their families. On the day a cruise ship arrives on the island, everything is extremely crowded.

-- Take your own sunscreen because prices in St. Lucia are up to three times higher than in Canada and varieties may be limited.

-- Avoid booking tours from resorts as they charge up to five times more, are usually crowded and are not always available. Instead, decide beforehand what site you want to see or ask your cab driver for suggestions. Then, get them to take you around. Agree on a fair price beforehand and enjoy touring at your own pace, receiving personal attention and care and being able to stop when you want to. Michael's Taxi Service had great, reliable drivers.

ACCOMMODATION

To find out more about Stonefield Estate Villa Resort and Spa, go to www.stonefieldvillas.com. To look for flight and accommodation packages at St. Lucia resorts, go to www.westjetvacations.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 17, 2011 D4

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