If someone blindfolded you and put you on a plane to Saint Lucia, you might think you were in the South Pacific upon landing. Much more than the clear blue waters and powdery beaches commonly associated with the Caribbean, Saint Lucia is a land of striking diversity. Only 27 by 14 miles, this gem of an island has verdant mountains, lush rain forests, and even a dormant volcano with skin-smoothing sulfur mud baths. And yes there are lovely beaches, but they share the stage equally with these other attractions. It’s the perfect destination for anyone looking for more than water sports and sunbathing from their Caribbean vacation.
When to go
High season (read “expensive”) in Saint Lucia is in the winter, from December through April. There’s a lot going on in summer and early fall, but hurricanes are a legitimate concern, so it’s best to avoid this time of year. To save money and avoid crowds, booking in the shoulder season – May and June – is ideal. While the rainy season technically begins in June, the weather is still good, and the hurricane risk is low. Music lovers should consider visiting in early May to attend the St. Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival that’s held on Pigeon Island National Park.
Where to Go
It’s best to stick to the western, Caribbean Sea, side of the island. The eastern, Atlantic Ocean, side has dramatic coastline, but it’s windy, and the waters are too rough for swimming and most water sports.
On the Caribbean side, most visitors head to the northern part of the island around bustling Rodney Bay. The beaches here are more characteristically Caribbean, with calm, clear waters. On this part of the island you’ll also find a greater variety of accommodations, from all-inclusive resorts to stand-alone hotels, plus more affordable and kid-friendly options.
The northern part of the island also moves at a quicker pace and is the place to be if you’re up for an active nightlife. Restaurants and bars line popular Reduit Beach, which also offers a range of watersports and is an ideal spot to enjoy sunset. To party with the locals, you’ll want to head to Gros Islet on Friday night for their popular street party featuring music, dancing, local eats, and plenty of local Piton beer and rum punch to fuel a good time.
South of Rodeney Bay is the capital of Saint Lucia, Castries. It’s not the prettiest of towns, but it is colorful and bustling and definitely worth a visit. Cruise ships dock here, and not surprisingly, there’s a huge market with vendors eager to sell the usual vacation trinkets, plus a wide array of fruits and spices. The market has a busy lunch area where you can try local dishes like callaloo soup, roti, and green figs and salt fish.
The southwestern part of Saint Lucia feels like a different island altogether. While most tourists seem to stay in the north and do excursions to the south, dividing your time in both is the best way to fully experience Saint Lucia. The southwest, around the town of Soufriere, is dominated by lush rainforest and the twin Piton peaks that rise majestically above the sea.
Accommodations here tend to be more exclusive, tranquil, and expensive. Beachside resorts, like Anse Chastenet and the Viceroy Sugar Beach Resort, are definitely in the splurge category, but you’ll find slightly more affordable options inland, many of which offer shuttles to the beaches. We stayed at Fond Doux Plantation and Resort, a 135-acre working cocoa plantation, in a spacious two-bedroom cottage that was literally in the middle of the jungle amidst coconut and mango trees, gorgeous flowers, and exotic birds. (Be sure to bring plenty of bug spray, as well as ear plugs — the rain forest is like nature’s version of Times Square!)
While quieter, the south is the best part of the island to take in nature and enjoy adventure activities. A highlight is to climb to the summit of the higher of the two Pitons, Gros Piton. The trek is moderately strenuous and takes about four hours both ways. Local guides are required to accompany you, and at the time we went, cost about $35 (probably negotiable), though you’ll pay more if it’s part of an organized excursion that includes transportation to the trail head and lunch. If you don’t have the time or stamina for Gros Piton, the Tet Paul Trail near Fond Doux offers a beautiful hour-long guided nature walk that leads to a vista with stunning views of both peaks.
Other popular activities include the Diamond Botanical Gardens with tropical flora and a waterfall, as well as the Sulfur Springs mud bath and drive-in volcano. The best snorkeling and scuba diving can also be found in the southern part of the island (Anse Chastenet’s dive center is top notch), so its best to reserve this activity while you’re staying on this part of the island or as part of an excursion from the north.
Most guidebooks will tell you not to rent a car, and it seems like most visitors heed this advise. We decided to buck the conventional wisdom though and rented a car. Because Saint Lucia is so mountainous, the roads are a bit hairy with lots of pot holes, but they were better than we expected and having a car allowed us far greater freedom to explore the island.
Other ways to get around include taxis, which are not cheap, and the local buses, which are actually vans that run on a fixed route, but seem to stop wherever you want them to and are quite reliable. Taking the “bus” at least once is a great way to experience life as a local. As you plan your itinerary, keep in mind that the main airport is on the southern end of the island, so if you’re staying in the north, you’ll need to arrange transportation if your hotel does not offer shuttle service. From the airport, it takes about 45 minutes to get to Soufriere and it’s an hour and a half to Rodney Bay. For us, the car rental fee ended up being cheaper than taking taxis every time we wanted to go somewhere. We also enjoyed having the freedom to explore on our own and even hit the local super market for snacks and drinks.