The small Caribbean island of St. Lucia is a rich composite of history and stunning natural beauty, offering the visitor a unique blend of cultures, dense rain forests, volcanic mountains, and, of course, gorgeous white sand beaches. If you get bored here, there's no one to blame but yourself.
St. Lucia is nicknamed "Helen of the West Indies," likened to Helen of Troy because of its lengthy history of dispute between the British and the French. The remnants of that long conflict are still apparent in the culture, the names, and the customs of the island, but today St. Lucia is an independent nation under the British Crown of HM Queen Elizabeth II. It′s one of the most popular Caribbean destinations, and tourism is big business here. Lavish, all-inclusive hotels lure sybarites intent on doing serious beach time, while simple fishing villages peppering the coast and the central rain forests ripe with fragrant Frangipani and orchids, offer a deeper look at the island and her people. St. Lucia is both the adventurer's paradise and the luxury hound's libation for relaxation.
Pirates and rum; bananas and volcanoes; British and French—the rich history of St. Lucia is as captivating as a child′s adventure storybook. Before any British or French ship touched the shores of the island it was inhabited by Amerindians, starting with the peaceful Arawak Indians over 1,200 years ago. Eventually, the more hostile Carib people migrated to there from other islands in the Caribbean, and drove the Arawaks south and into slavery. St. Lucia was known back then as Hewanorra," which can be translated into "there where the iguana is found," (if the name sounds familiar, that′s because today it′s also the name of the airport at Vieux Fort). When the Europeans stumbled across the island in 1499, they found more than a few iguana there. Gorgeous beaches, and land ripe for colonizing was in their sight line. It would be another hundred years, however, until a settlement would be attempted.
The pirate Francois Le Clerc, more infamously known as 'Jambe de Bois' or 'Peg Leg', and his crew of 330 men, were technically the first Europeans to settle the island. They used nearby Pigeon Island to target and plunder unsuspecting ships navigating the strait. It wasn′t until the British landed on the island in 1605 that a sanctioned European settlement attempt was made, but they were driven off the island and into the sea by the hostile Caribs. The first successful, permanent settlement came in 1746, when the French founded the city of Soufriere at a cove where the Piton mountains meet the sea in the southern part of the island. The city was named after the distinct sulfurous smell wafting in from nearby volcanic activity.
Following the French acquisition of St. Lucia, many of the sugar plantations that are still scattered across the island were built. King Louis the XIV even built a bathhouse near Soufriere to take advantage of the 'agreeable' climate and to promote his troops' health. The British eventually tried a settlement attempt again in 1651, spurred on by their last failure and France′s success, immediately igniting a fierce dispute with the French. The British and French hostilities over who owned the island continued for over 150 years and St. Lucia changed hands 14 times during that period. French soldiers and freed slaves called Brigands fortified themselves in the covered hills and attacked any British presence, making it difficult to claim control of the island for an extended period of time.
Ruins of military fortifications dot the west coast, and the large barracks and fortress at Pigeon Island are solemn reminders of the drawn-out conflict. Many of St. Lucia's inhabitants speak a version of French Patois called Kwéyòl, along with the official language of the island, English. The island was finally ceded to the British in 1814, and remained of vital importance to the empire. Castries became an important fueling point for coal-driven steam ships during the later half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The United Kingdom granted the island complete independence in 1979 as a state in the Commonwealth of Nations.
St. Lucia Today
While St. Lucia's predominantly plantation-driven economy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was vital to the growth and prosperity of the island, tourism has far surpassed agriculture as the dominant source of prosperity for the small island. Banana export is still an important source of income for the island, but St. Lucia is one of the best ecotourism destinations in the Caribbean due to its largely untouched interior and growing reef system. The Pitons are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and widely considered to have the most scenic view in the entire Caribbean. Not everyone is going to be packing their mud-caked hiking boots for the mountain trails, or their snorkel for the coral reefs, though—many just come for the beaches. The resorts situated on the brilliant white sands of the northwest coast make an ideal location for Caribbean weddings or honeymoon getaways.
St. Lucia is not a very big island, covering an area of only about 239 square miles, but its tumultuous winding roads make parts of the island more secluded than others. Of the 160,765 inhabitants, nearly half live in the largest city, Castries, with the rest populating the cities of Soufriere, Gros Islet, and Vieux Fort, or spread out in the small villages and fishing communities along the coast. Well over 80% of the population is of African descent, their ancestors the slaves who worked the plantations that were the island's original source of wealth.
The people in St. Lucia are what make the island so special, and locals go out of their way to welcome visitors to their island. Small community markets are a great way to meet these people and immerse yourself in their culture as the smell of fresh fish and the sounds of people bartering over coconut and coal stoves envelopes you. Take a few moments to watch the kids playing cricket in an old banana fields or empty street, and break for lunch at a local haunt, striking up a conversation with the outgoing island residents. You′ll find it′s a whole different world from the beach umbrellas and cocktails at the resort up the road.
The St. Lucian diet is heavily influenced by the creole cuisine that dates back to the plantation days. Feast on delectable fried plantains, jerked chicken and rice, and wash it all down with a cold Piton beer, or the Caribbean's other most popular export -- rum. The fish markets of the island bring a wide variety of seafood tastes to the island such as crab and grouper. Make your way up to the bustling village of Gros Islet any Friday night for the weekly Jump Up, an evening block party with food vendors and drinks, and music surging through the little streets. Soca, zouk, and reggae are widely popular, and the annual jazz festival draws international acclaim. Every July, the Carnival celebration is executed with irresistible Caribbean flair and celebration.
St. Lucia is a popular Lesser Antilles destination featuring all the picturesque views and beautiful weather (temperatures are in the 70s and 80s year-round) you would expect from a Caribbean getaway. Look a little deeper, though, and what you'll find is a place that′s much more than the sum of her beautiful beaches -- it′s an island filled with magic and charm and adventure.