Caribbean Beat Magazine

In love with St Lucia

There's no lack of adventure in St Lucia. Donna Yawching went on a wild safari ride, in a vehicle that seemed to be driving on its side; joined a lazy sail on a party boat; and plunged into a hot sulphur bath. And that was just the beginning. Come join the trip

  • Castries. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Choiseul. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Choiseul. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Ute Lawaetz. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • Balenbouche. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Sans Souci. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • The dining area of the main house. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • One of the bedrooms at Balenbouche. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • Anse Mamin Beach. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Government House, Castries. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Donkey Beach. Photograph by Donna Yawching
  • Derek Walcott Square, Castries. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Photograph by Donna Yawching
  • Rodney Bay. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Reduit Beach. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Anse Chastanet and Grande Caille. In foreground, Anse Mamin. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Hummingbird Beach. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Catholic Church, Soufriere. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • A disappearing view of Castries. Photograph by Donna Yawching
  • Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • St Lucia's newly-opened, only 18-hole golf course at Cap Estate. Photograph courtesy Golf and Country Club
  • Rodney Bay Marina. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Sulphur vents at Soufriere. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay
  • The St Lucia Jazz Festival in session on Pigeon Island. Photograph by Andrea De Silva
  • Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Part of the pristine rainforest. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Kids at Anse La Raye waterfall. Photograph by Chris Huxley
  • Gros and Petit Pitons. Photograph by Chris Huxley

St Lucia is the perfect place to christen your new camera. If ever an island could be described as photogenic, this is it.

Apart from the obvious star performers – those amazing Pitons – the island offers one photo op after another, from the splendid white-sand beaches of the west coast to the rugged mountain ranges of the interior. Up close and personal, you can zoom in on a fisherman repairing his nets, a craftswoman plaiting a rug, a banana farmer harvesting his fruit. Scenery and folklore are in abundance; and at the end of the day, a well-appointed hotel, an elegant dinner, and a lively night scene. The best, one might say, of all possible worlds.

Five days isn’t a lot to fit all of this in; but as my BWEE Express flight landed at Vigie airport, I was determined to try. The next morning, map in hand, I sallied forth with local driver Mac (short for Macarinus) Charlemagne. White steeds being in short supply, we made do with a car.

The concrete seaplane ramp of a former US Naval Air Station can still be found at Rodney Bay if you know where to look; but it is hardly the area’s most notable attraction. Housing a 1,OOO-boat marina (and a corresponding population of yachts), Rodney Bay is the pulsebeat of St Lucia’s tourism, offering the highest concentration of hotels, restaurants and nightspots on the island. The area’s showpiece is the beautiful Reduit Beach, whose dazzling sand and crystal water offer a perfect setting for the Royal St Lucian Hotel, the beachfront’s most elegant denizen. “Nelson Mandela stayed here,” Charlemagne murmurs reverently, as we pull up outside. Strolling through the cool blond marble foyer and the beautifully landscaped grounds, I can see why.

Should Mr Mandela’s fellow guests ever feel the urge to shed their dinner jackets and let down their hair, however, they need venture no further than the nearby village of Gros Islet, on the far side of the marina. “Friday Night in Gros Islet” is well on its way to becoming a tradition: a large and cheerful street party, where the smell of local delicacies mingles with lively music and livelier crowds to create a memorable ambience. This is definitely the hottest way to kick off your weekend.

Our first day on the road proves to be a study in contrasts. After the mandatory obeisance at Reduit, we pay an equally reverent visit to Pigeon Island National Park, once the base of colonial hero Admiral Rodney, who won the decisive Battle of the Saints against the French in 1782. Pigeon Island changed hands 14 times before finally being ceded to Britain in 1814; its name (according to Charlemagne, anyway) was derived from the pigeons which conveyed messages to and from nearby Martinique. Today, with both battles and birdcall safely in the past, the popular park plays host each May to the renowned St Lucia Jazz Festival. Also passe is its status as an island: in 1970- 71, a causeway was constructed that linked it to the mainland, just at the point where the Atlantic Ocean once met the Caribbean Sea. Now, like a hopeless lover, the Atlantic pounds against the north shore of the causeway, while on the far side, the serene turquoise Caribbean turns her back indifferently.

We move on. Charlemagne (I still can’t get over this royal medieval name, in such an unlikely time and place) coaxes his car up the precipitous, crumbling roads of the Cap Estate, St Lucia’s most expensive piece of real estate, with its18-hole private golf course and extravagant villas. This is the driest spot on the island, all scrub and thorn bushes; but the views down the coastline are nothing less than spectacular. Is this a foreign enclave, I wonder, as is the case in so many other Caribbean islands? Charlemagne assures me that “a lot” of St Lucians (“the fortunate ones”) seek out the Cap’s rarified heights. Where do the “unfortunate” ones live, I query? His laconic answer: “Countryside.”

So countryside it is, then, for us: down into the steep green valleys of the banana plantations, moist and lush with little rivers winding by and grinning kids perched on bridges. The plantations are huge: rows upon rows of broad green leaves and fruit (still on the trees) tucked away in blue plastic bags to protect against bruises. “If one of those brown leaves touches the fruit, it leaves a mark,” explains Charlemagne; the bananas would then be rejected. Before tourism, he says, “everybody” worked in bananas. Indeed, with about 60,000 of its 148,000 inhabitants depending on the crop for employment or income, St Lucia has long been the largest banana producer in the Windward Islands.

This particular little castle in the air, however, is set to come tumbling down, as the United States attacks the “favoured” status which Caribbean bananas have traditionally enjoyed in post-colonial Europe – this despite the fact that American companies already control about 60 per cent of the European banana market, while the overall Caribbean market share is seven per cent. Enjoying tremendous economies of scale as well as superior technologies, the Americans are able to export bananas (grown on Latin American plantations) at about one-third the price of the Caribbean. Their insistence on “free trade”, therefore, backed by recent rulings of the World Trade Organization (WTO), will probably sound a slow death knell for this folkloric Caribbean industry.

Which explains why the St Lucia government is turning with increased fervour toward tourism, and is taking great pains to win over the citizenry to the concept. “They’re trying to bring some of the tourist dollars to everyone’s table,” explains Charlemagne, who was a policeman before hitching his wagon to the tourism star. In an effort to spread the pickings around a little, the St Lucia Tourist Board organises seminars for guides and taxi-drivers, and is attempting to promote the concept of heritage tourism, wherein traditional crafts and activities are encouraged as indigenous tourist attractions.

Still, no matter how many country women grind cassava farine to make bread and “pone”, or weave cache-cache grass into baskets, the real horsepower for St Lucian tourism comes from the big operations: the upscale resorts that run hundreds of rooms and employ thousands of people. Sandals La Toe, Sandals Halcion, Rex St Lucian, Jalousie Hilton, the brand-new Hyatt: these are the places that pull in – and spend – the big bucks. As the Tourist Board’s Maria Fowell points out, much of the industry’s explosive growth over the last decade (from 125,000 stayovers in 1988 to 252,000 in 1998) can be attributed to “investment fuelling other investment.” She adds, a little wryly, “There are hotels whose marketing budgets alone exceed the Tourist Board’s entire annual budget.”

With the American axe hanging over the banana industry, Fowell says, it is “very clear that tourism is crucial to the development of the island.” While it is still “arguable” whether tourism or agriculture is the bigger industry, she concedes that “tourism brings in more money.”

It does indeed. In 1997, according to a Tourist Board report, “The sector provided a net contribution of EC$226 million in foreign exchange and exceeded the gross earnings of all other economic sectors.” As of December 1998, tourism directly employed 12,000 people full-time: about 16 per cent of the total labour force. And the direct jobs are just the tip of the iceberg; the number of indirect and “induced” jobs created by the needs of the industry (suppliers, construction, agriculture, etc.) is even greater. Not to mention, of course, the income which the government rakes in from various related taxes and licences – estimated at EC$44 million in 1998.

Despite the industry’s obvious appeal, Fowell says the St Lucian government does not intend to let development fever rampage out of control. “They’re not prepared to allow anyone to just do what they want,” she declares. “The emphasis is on quality, whatever the size.” Besides, she adds, “the topography of St Lucia makes it impossible to overdevelop.”

I see what she means by this the next day, when I set off to visit the village of Soufriere and its attendant volcano. After battling through the inevitable traffic-jams of Castries, we head south on a smooth sweep of brand new Millennium Highway (which doesn’t last very long: we’re soon back to narrow, winding reality).

The scenery along the way is never less than dramatic: steep, craggy mountains clad in thick rainforest; deep green valleys hiding little rivers. In St Lucia, it seems, you’re always either going sharply up or sharply down; and if not, then you’re certainly going around a sharp curve. The entire heart of the island is uninhabited, unscarred by roadways: a series of forest reserves that can only be accessed on foot. Even if development were permitted, the mere thought of it would be enough to give you a headache.

The road south winds past the perfect curve of Marigot Bay (a popular “hurricane hole” for passing yachts), and through the picture-pretty little fishing village of Anse La Raye (tour bus territory). We stop at a small roadside shack where mother and daughters grind cassava farine to turn out round flat loaves of oven-hot cassava bread. I’d be lying, though, if I were not to admit that it’s an acquired taste: the outside is nice and crisp, but the wet and mushy inside appears to be barely cooked. Still, I’ve done my bit for heritage tourism!

Then we’re above the village of Soufriere, and this first glimpse of the fabled Pitons is breathtaking. Believed to be ancient volcanic plugs, these twin peaks rise almost sheer-sided out of the sea, a visual defiance to hikers. Needless to say, some energetic souls do take up the challenge (there are guides to be had; Gros Piton is the safer bet); all I can say is they must be part mountain goat. Charlemagne and I are content to admire from afar.

The village of Soufriere is sleepy and picturesque, with narrow streets and quite a few old French colonial houses; however it is the Sulphur Springs a few kilometres further on that really interest me. We can tell when we’re getting close: the air is suffused with the rotten-egg stench of sulphur. But by the time we pull “into” the main crater (“the world’s only drive-in volcano”, the brochures all proclaim proudly), I hardly notice the smell.

Ever since a foolhardy guide fell into one of the bubbling sulphur craters some years ago and suffered third-degree burns, it’s been forbidden to stroll amidst the hot springs (some of which reach temperatures as high as 275˚ F.). You can therefore no longer go: “Ooh!” as your guide fries an egg on a rock. Instead, a high viewing platform looks out across a Dante-esque landscape of seething charcoal-coloured pools and evil-looking clouds of low- hanging steam. It would be no surprise to see a skeletal hand grope slowly out a darkly bubbling pool; or perhaps a quick flash of tail and trident. The indigenous Caribs appropriately called it Qualibou, the place of death.

As the water burps its way to the surface and flows out of the main crater, it cools rapidly; a short distance downstream it is just the right temperature (87˚ F) for a nice hot smelly sulphur bath. I sit in a rocky pool under a small gray waterfall, and wait to see if- as promised by the guide – I will emerge looking ten years younger. Hardly; but it does feel good. The scent of sulphur clings to my hair all day.

Novel though the experience might be, sulphur baths are not, obviously, everyone’s cup of tea, and St Lucia does offer less diabolical pursuits. Scuba diving and snorkelling are best off Anse Chastenet, near Soufriere and around the Pitons; experienced divers might be attracted to the more adventurous sites near Vieux Fort. Other watersport equipment is available at Reduit Beach, and boats can be chartered for sailing or fishing trips.

Visitors with strong knees and hardy derrieres can opt for a horseback expedition into some of the more remote corners of the island; and those who prefer more pedestrian pursuits can always settle for a round of golf at Cap Estate or Sandals La Toc. Energetic souls can enjoy long steamy hikes into the rainforest reserves, where the endangered St Lucia parrot is attempting to make a comeback; and dedicated nature lovers can seek out both birds and wildlife on two east-coast offshore reserves.

Party boats are popular, and I did succumb to the temptation of a sunset sail on the Brig Unicorn, a lovely old square-rigger that has starred in numerous pirate movies, not to mention the TV series Roots. The Unicorn, constructed in Finland in 1946, is (according to the captain) officially the last authentic brig to be built in the world: a classic tall ship with billowing sails. She chugs gently up the coast to the lively beat of steel band music; then sails back dreamily as the sun reddens the horizon. It’s all very pleasant.

Too tame for your taste? Then try an ATV (All-Terrain- Vehicle) tour: they’re anything but. Safari Fun (book through Sunlink) will come close to shaking the teeth out of your head as they take you to places inaccessible to any sensible vehicle. Washed out roads, dry riverbeds (or, in the rainy season, wet ones – “Nothing stops us,” declares driver and co-owner Alan Benjamin), mud, boulders, gravel, sand – these rugged eight-wheelers can handle it all. In some places, the “road” is so deeply rutted the vehicle
seems almost to be driving on its side; luckily, its top speed is about 20 kmph.

As we bump along between the scrub and thornbushes of St Lucia’s north tip, the back of the ATV fishtails excitingly around every corner. We pause to view the wild and beautiful Donkey Beach, where cacti seem to be the only plants able to withstand the strong wind. The coast in this region is rocky and dangerous, with pounding seas and treacherous currents; wave-cut platforms are awash in whitewater.

The adventure ends on Casen-bas Beach, where we get the chance to drive the ATVs, making our own fishtails on the sand. As Benjamin says, “This tour gets your adrenalin up, it gets it down; It gets everyone involved.”Your teenagers will love this tour: I (somewhat older) certainly did. Great-grandma, on the other hand, should probably give it a miss.

And then there’ s Castries. A place to go if you love to sit in traffic. When that palls, you could visit the Cathedral, at the heart of the city. Somewhat stolid on the outside, the interior makes up in brightly-coloured paintwork what it lacks in stained glass: a kind of Caribbean baroque. Its walls are famous for the murals by local artist Dunstan St Omer, featuring a Black Christ and other figures; a wonderful red, green and gold screen of intricately carved wood surrounds the altar. The entire wooden ceiling is also densely, if somewhat more conservatively, painted with figures of (presumably) saints.

Opposite the cathedral, Derek Walcott Square appears at first glance to offer a cool green refuge (and what’s more, the only one) from the heat and bustle of downtown. The 400- year-old samaan tree spreads wide and shady, and the little handstand offers an attractive focus. Only one problem: if you’re hoping to relax on a bench, you’ll have to do it outside the square; the gates are locked!

The square is empty, except for a vagrant who has somehow gained entry, and is fast asleep on the bandstand. A policeman stands vigil at the gate. “The square is only open for special occasions,” he informs me, “like the Jazz Festival, or Christmas. Otherwise, people would destroy it, mash up the flowers, play cricket and all kinds of games.” I think to myself that public squares were meant to be played in, and that there must be other ways to protect the flowers. Later, I rehash this conversation with a native St Lucian His wry comment: “So we’re paying the police to guard the vagrants!”

Castries also boasts a lively market scene, and duty-free shopping can be found at nearby Pointe Seraphine. The streets are busy, but offer little of architectural (or other) interest, since the town was burnt virtually to the ground several times in its past. The few surviving French colonial buildings, with their overhanging balconies and gabled roofs, give a hint of what has been lost.

But loss – or the past – is not foremost in the collective St Lucian psyche these days. The future is what counts, in this bilingual little nation where English (with a soupcon of a French accent) is the official language, but Kweyol (Creole) remains the true lingua franca. A future built on an industry that continues to enjoy solid growth (tourism was up 11.6 per cent between 1997 and 1998); and a population very much interested in making it happen. Yes, we have no bananas?No matter: StLucia has found something else to offer the world: itself. Something (as the national slogan says) simply beautiful.

Speaking in Tongues

One of the quirkier details of life in St Lucia is the language. English is the official language, and is used in schools, government offices, business places, etc. But if you listen carefully, you’ll hear that everyone speaks it with a slight accent. Not just the normal song-speech of the Caribbean, but an accent that sounds. . . well, foreign. French, to be precise.

Because of its history of on-again off-again colonisation by the French until 1814, the true common language of the post-emancipation St Lucian is a French-based Creole (or Kweyol). It is the language of familiarity, the language of the cradle; it is, essentially, the mother tongue of the country.

And yet, here’s the strange thing. Among themselves, particularly on first contact, the locals often speak English, accent and all. A St Lucian entering a strange territory and seeking directions, for example, will automatically couch his questions in English. The response will be the same. Then, a few minutes later, both parties will break down and launch happily into Creole; and this, finally, is how the vital information will be communicated.

Puzzled, I query Charlemagne about this strange ritual. He explains that it would be considered unseemly, even low-bred, to approach a stranger in Creole. “They would think,” he says disapprovingly, “that you really come from the country.” After the initial contact, however, the dialect is socially acceptable. English, then, would seem to be a language of wariness, a means of keeping a slight distance until certain parameters have been established.

Another St Lucian explains it more bluntly: “I guess some people turn up their noses at Creole.” Not any more, though. The language, which for so long was discouraged, is enjoying a resurgence: it is being taught in schools, and entire radio shows are broadcast in the vernacular. Today, Kweyol is once more accepted as a vital part of St Lucia’s rich cultural tradition.

Dining out

My first stop, that first night, was the Snooty Agouti: who could resist the name?

As it turned out, the agouti (never seen in person) must be the only snooty thing about this charming cafe-restaurant in St Lucia’s busy Rodney Bay area. The rest of the establishment, non-rodent staff included, exudes a casual, make- yourself- at home atmosphere. There are books, magazines and deep, comfortable armchairs; and even a computer, for the cyber-addicted.

• The Snooty Agouti has now been renamed Jambe de Bois and is located on Pigeon Island.

You can (and I did) spend a couple of hours there with a pot of mint tea and a slice of sinful chocolate mousse pie maison, soaking in a selection of blues and jazz that turns live on Thursdays and Sundays. (They do real food too, at reasonable prices: try the lamb curry.) One night, lured partly by the chocolate pie, if truth be told, I ended a long day in one of the Agouti’s cushy armchairs. Nearby, a simply-dressed young woman breast-fed a bright-eyed baby. Minutes later I looked up and she was onstage, laying down some sizzling jazz vocals while the baby gurgled contentedly on a variety of willing shoulders. A hard act to beat.

Another good place to catch some hot music with your meal is Half Yellow Moon, new on the scene and designed (explains proprietor Rob Taylor, himself a sax player of no mean ability) to focus on live entertainment. The roomy stage is visible from every angle of the erratically-shaped restaurant and bar. A giant mural pays homage to musical greats such as Bob Marley and Billie Holiday.

Most evenings you’ll find Rob himself blowing up a storm, followed by a local band. Anything from jazz to soca to country and western (this last is wildly popular in St Lucia, apparently) could be on the musical menu; and the food menu isn’t bad either, featuring good grills and seafood, and a decent salad bar. “There’s no other club like this on the island,” declares Rob, and I’m inclined to believe him. While not as cozy as the Agouti, the Moon has style. Both restaurants are located at the heart of the Rodney Bay action, mere steps from popular bars like the Triangle, the Lime, and Shamrocks Pub.

A stone’s throw from all this bustle, Spinnakers on Reduit Beach offers a complete change of pace with its laid-back, yachtie atmosphere. If it were any closer to the water, you could catch your dinner live as it swam past. With its breezy wood-and-thatch decor, cheerful rock music, and a sporty-looking wait-staff in tailored shorts and running shoes, this is the kind of place to rendezvous with friends, lean back with a frosty beer and enjoy the gentle lapping of the waves. Seafood is the strong point here, but the grill is good as well.

Strangely enough, my most disappointing food experience was also the priciest: at a well-known steakhouse (which had best remain nameless), where quantity unfortunately took precedence over quality. This was food designed to pander to a North-American stereotype: literally a meat-and-potatoes meal with no pretence (or attempt) at cuisine. My rib-steak was gristly and slightly overcooked; and the service was patchy – or perhaps a solo female diner doesn’t rank high. Which didn’t prevent them adding an automatic 15 per cent service charge. I missed my unpretentious Agouti.

The Rodney Bay/Reduit area offers too many restaurants to mention: my stomach couldn’t possibly stretch as far as my eyes. In Castries, Panache Cafe opposite Derek Walcott Square offers an economical and satisfying buffet lunch downstairs; and a more sophisticated a la carte menu
upstairs. Nearby, the famous Rain, housed in a lovely old colonial house, was closed for renovations.

In the Soufriere area, the restaurant of choice (pricey, but spectacular if only because of the view), is the Dasheene, in the upscale Ladera Resort. Perched halfway up a mountain, this is an establishment that offers award-winning cuisine along with an eye-to-eye view of St Lucia’s iconic pitons, unimpeded by anything so prosaic as a front wall or window. It’s a combination that’s hard to beat; and why would you even want to try?

Truly Special

Every now and again, a traveller stumbles across something – a place, a person – that feels truly special. It’s usually a combination of intangibles, not easily defined. The most luxurious hotel, the finest restaurant, will be enjoyed then (often) forgotten, while the simple B&B perched on a cliff, with a congenial host and hearty home-cooked food, might stay with you forever. It’s a question of feeling not just pampered, but enriched.

I came across this rare pleasure in an unexpected corner of St Lucia, at a place called Balenbouche. Halfway between the south-coast villages of Choiseul and Laborie – a region that already feels frozen in time- Balenbouche Estate is almost like a dreamscape: a 200-year-old estate house drowsing in the late-afternoon sun. Below an immense banyan tree an old horse drifts grazing; and a slight German woman d’un certain age abandons her lawn mower and hurries to greet us, wiping her hands on her pants.

This is Ute Lawaetz, who 17 years ago single-handedly wrested Balenbouche from the clutches of dereliction to restore it, not to glory, really, but to itself. The beautiful, high-gabled plantation house has not been renovated, enhanced, gussied-up or Disneyfied for the tourist market: it retains its simple charm-and its slightly wonky veranda railings.

Furniture is “period”; but the house is not a museum, it is very much lived in by Uta and anyone who cares to rent her two extra bedrooms with their four-postered mahogany beds. Meals are served on the veranda; and don’t be surprised (though I was) when a little land tortoise stumps solemnly past your chair.

Balenbouche’s 150 acres embrace a spooky old sugar-wheel (with an appropriate ghost-story attached), and a lovely river with tranquil pools that flows into a black-sand cove where the waves crash
in (and an even better ghost-story lurks). Its pastures house several more horses and a herd of cows; small-scale agriculture is done, but as the markets continue to shrink for cocoa and bananas, the place depends ever more heavily on the presence of tourists.

Former servants’ quarters have been transformed into utterly charming little cottages with airy verandas, decorated with an artist’s (Ute’s) touch. I stayed in one; and certainly my bathroom, constructed essentially of river rocks and air (no ceiling, and only half the requisite number of walls, the other half consisting of thick banks of palms and ferns, for that authentic Adam-and-Eve feeling!) was unique.

That night, I sat on a wooden swing below the spreading flamboyant tree and did something I hadn’t done for years: I twisted round and round, then leaned back as the ropes swirled me back to zero. Overhead, tangled in the branches of the enormous banyan which must be almost as old as the house itself, a million stars spun by, seeming almost close enough to catch.

South of Soufriere

South of Soufriere, in the shadow of the majestic Pitons, lies the area known as Choiseul; and if anyone were to ask me to name my favourite region in St Lucia, this would be it. Lacking the dazzling white sand of Rodney Bay (down here, the beaches are a volcanic black) and the elegant mansions of Cap Estate, and with nary a trendy restaurant or nightspot for miles, this, for my money, ranks as the “real” St Lucia.

Here, the villages are tiny and sleepy, each a scattering of houses strung along the spines of high narrow ridges that run in parallel lines down to the coast. From the top of one ridge, you can gaze across at the next; but the communities are kept separate and distinct by deeply carved river gorges whose slopes are heavily cultivated in sweet potato.

Choiseul offers scenery totally unlike any other in St Lucia: a landscape of wide open vistas below an  unimpeded sky. The people (many of Carib descent, as evidenced by their hatchet-sharp cheekbones and red-brown complexion) are polite and helpful when we ask for directions through the maze of tiny, winding roads; this is not an area noted for its street signs.

It is, however, noted for its craftsmen – or more accurately, women. This I discovered, was the place where clay coalpots are made, and the bamboo baskets as well as straw hats and the finely- woven grass mats, from the size of a plate to the size of a room. Every ridge, it seems, has its specialty.

In the village of Martin, Irene Alphonse makes coalpots and clay figurines with mud dug a few yards from her front door: digging and piling and wetting and pounding the clay until it is ready to work. She rubs the finished product smooth with a stone when it is dry, and fires it in a rudimentary kiln. Some of  her handiwork is commissioned by the big hotels; but others – like the coal pots – are destined for the villagers. It is a rare St Lucian who does not have a coalpot in his home. Charlemagne, my driver, insists that it makes a difference to the taste of the food. And who am I to doubt him?

If you want a sturdy bamboo basket, you have to wend your way (asking directions periodically) to Morne Sion, where a stocky middle-aged fellow known as “Nounou” risks painful cuts and slivers to strip bamboo into thin flexible strips; then weaves them into shape using a strong vine. He learned the skill from his father; but says, “None of my children don’t want to make it; they say it’s too hard.”

Not so in Cafiere, where the mother-daughter team of Josephine Hill and Clara Theophilus, surrounded by a brood of youngsters, plait the “cache-cache” grass into long braids and roll them tightly into place-mats and rugs. Josephine takes a fancy to me; she offers spontaneously to make me a mat, and promptly sets to work, sewing the braid firmly in place with invisible stitches, using a different grass. The oversized needle is really a sharpened umbrella spoke; the result is amazingly tight and neat, with a sunburst effect around the edge for decoration. Clara points toward the neighbouring ridge, and tells me that over there, they do straw hats and handbags. “Each side has their thing they do,” she explains.

What I like about these Choiseul women (and man), I decide, is the unabashed pride they take in their handiwork. Josephine is highly critical of those who plait and roll their mats carelessly, leaving them loose and prone to unravellinq, She herself has been plaiting cache-cache “a very long time: from my mother’s house.” Her daughter Clara speaks of working through the nights, because at 3.00 a.m., the straw is soft.

“I love doing this, because I love creating,” she says, dreaming of someday having her own store. And Irene Alphonse, a woman who clearly brooks no nonsense, describes her feeling for the clay: “For young people today, it’s as if the clay is something dirty; but to me, I could rub it all on myself and go down to the village. I am not feeling ashamed; I am dirty with the clay; that’s my work.” The apathy of the young people towards the traditional crafts is an all-too-common complaint.

Still, all is not (yet) quite lost. In the village of Choiseul proper, I am elated to discover- at last! – that an ancient skill has found a refuge. Having noted the modern construction of the west coast fishing boats, I had almost given up hope of seeing the traditional “canot’ of the indigenous Caribs. These sturdy, sea-going pirogues are made, essentially, of a single hollowed-out log from the gommier tree, with ribs of white cedar. They’re heavy as sin; but stable and seaworthy.

As we pull up at Choiseul’s beach, the first sight to greet my eyes (rivalling the savoury
smell of frying fish which greets my nose) is a handsome young fisherman, Darius Mitchell, busily engaged in painting the interior of his boat a brilliant red. “It’s easier for people to see, if you’re in distress,” he explains. In Choiseul, Darius says, canots far outnumber fibreglass boats because of the way they ” cut” the water, as opposed to “riding” the waves like their newfangled rivals. Another man
adds that the fish in wooden boats stay fresh longer; the heat of the fibreglass changes both colour and taste.

“This is tradition,” Darius says proudly, as he bends over his newly-renovated canot. “We prefer these boats.” Looking at the canot’s graceful curves and gay colours outlined against the sea, it is easy to understand why.