Travel

St. Lucia's Tropical Waters, Rugged Mountain Terrain, Rain Forest Offer Much To See

OFF THE WEST COAST OF ST. LUCIA — Coconut Man was glad to see us.

So, too, was Jewelry Man.

They paddled in dugout canoes to greet our tourist-filled catamaran as it sailed into Anse Cochon (the Bay of Pigs), a lovely bay on the west of coast St. Lucia.

Coconut Man offered to open coconuts with his machete to quench our thirst and provide snacks. The price was open to negotiation.

Jewelry Man stood in his dugout and placed his bracelets and other items for sale on a deck seat on the catamaran. He, too, was open to negotiation.

Sales for the pair were few, as the tourists donned fins, masks and snorkels and quickly slipped into the protected aquamarine waters. They didn't seem too upset.

St. Lucia (pronounced Saint LOO-sha) is one of the prettiest paradises you will find in the Caribbean. It is wild and still has a native Caribbean feel to it.

The island is well known for its above-ground scenery like lush tropical rain forests, drive-through volcanoes and the Pitons: Gros Piton that rises 2,620 feet and Petit Piton that rises 2,460, iconic twin peaks that dominate the coastline. But the island is gaining renown for its underwater scenery, too.

It is home to one of the healthiest and most diverse reef systems in the world. Divers and snorkelers can find more than 300 species of fish and more than 50 corals.

The visibility around St. Lucia varies from 20 to more than 200 feet underwater. The water temperature is a balmy 79 to 85 degrees.

At Anse Cochon, we entered an underwater world of extreme color and lots of fish. There were spotted-drums, goat fish, parrot fish, yellow snappers, grunts, damselfish, trumpetfish, peacock flounders and Bermuda jacks.

There were turtles and eels, along with schools of Creole wrasse and blue chromis. We spotted brightly colored fire coral, purple vase sponges, barrel sponges and soft corals.

I came away intrigued by the clusters of bright yellow tube sponges growing from the bottom and the schools of mini-squids or cuttlefish, most of which were 6 to 10 inches in length.

There are two patch reefs at Anse Cochon that both begin in 5 feet of water. The northern reef falls off to 60 feet of water and then combines with the Virgin Cove Reef. It is a great snorkeling site.

The southern reef falls off to 40 feet and offers varied terrain with reefs, boulders, walls and pinnacles for divers. It is a breeding ground for juvenile fish, including flounder.

A red-roofed resort clings to the steep green slopes above the bay. The waters lap at a sliver of white sand. A dive shop and bar are found on the beach.

Anse Cochon, lined with its fish-filled coral reefs and its coral-encrusted boulders, lies within St. Lucia's marine management areas, established to protect the reefs and the island's abundant fish life.

The preserves establish zones where local fishermen can continue to operate, plus sanctuaries and recreational areas.

The first such area, the Sofriere Marine Management Area, was established in 1994 because of growing concerns and conflicts. It covers about 7.2 miles of coastline. Sustainable management is the goal.

Anse Cochon is also home to two ships that were sunk to create man-made reefs: the Leslee M. was sunk in 65 feet of water in 1986 and the Dainu Koyomaru, a Japanese dredger, was sunk in 108 feet of water in 1996.

As good as Anse Cochon was, St. Lucia's No. 1 reef for fish spotting is generally acknowledged to be at Anse Chastanet, farther south along the island's west coast near Sofriere.

Not far from Anse Cochon is pretty Marigot Bay with its yacht-filled marinas, white sand beaches, palm trees and resorts. It is where the movie Dr. Dolittle with Rex Harrison was filmed.

The island has plenty of beaches, but it is not a sand-and-sun vacation spot. It is an island with lots to see and do.

St. Lucia, a one-time plantation island, has lots of wild country, especially in its mountainous center. Parts of the island are rugged and remote, dominated by jungle-covered mountains that reach 3,115 feet and notoriously bad roads.

The avocado-shaped volcanic island is 27 miles long and 14 miles wide and development hugs the coasts. Getting around the island remains a challenge.

The island, with a population of 156,000, is largely rural, dominated by banana and coconut plantations. It was a sugar cane island in the past. It is a lush, green, largely unspoiled and still-developing island.

St. Lucia, a well-known boutique island, is popular with honeymooners. It is home to some of the most luxurious (and pricey) small resorts in the world, many near the Pitons on the southwest coast. Some have only three walls — to get you closer to views of the Pitons and the ocean.

St. Lucia was featured in television's "The Bachelor: On the Wings of Love." It is also well known among foodies.

You can climb and hike to the top of the Pitons with local guides, if you are so inclined.

The Pitons — that's French for spikes — have been named a world heritage site by the United Nations, and Oprah Winfrey once put them No. 1 on her list of sites that you absolutely must see in your lifetime.

The twin peaks are believed to be the sides of an old volcano.

The first European settler on the island was Francois Le Clerc, a 15th-century French pirate with one wooden leg. England and France fought for the island, and it changed hands 14 times. England won out in 1796. The island became an independent country within the British Commonwealth in 1979.

English is the official language, although the French influence is evident everywhere.

Mother Nature is really the biggest attraction on St. Lucia. The island has lots of wild country in its rugged and remote central mountains About 13 percent of the island is protected rain forest with more than 30 miles of jungle hiking trails, secluded waterfalls and volcanic features, including boiling mud and steaming vents.

The mountains get nearly 140 inches of rain annually, most of it from June to November.

Hiking on your own in the St. Lucia nature preserves is not permitted. You can hire a forestry guide for $10 (U.S.) per person. The guide will make sure you don't get lost, protect the resources and protect you from poisonous snakes.

The St. Lucia Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries can arrange guided rain-forest hikes on its 19,000 acres. Check at 758-468-5645 or 758-468-5648, http://www.slumaffe.org/Forestry (underscore)Department/Rainforest(underscore)Trails/rainforest (underscore)trails.html.

The St. Lucia Trust (P.O. Box 595, Castries, St. Lucia, 758-452-5005 or http://www.slunatrust.org) also offers guided rain-forest hikes.

Private outfitters will also organize rain-forest treks.

The island offers mountain biking, whale- and turtle-watching, windsurfing, sailing, deep-sea fishing and plantation tours.

One of the island's biggest and most popular attractions is the Central Market in Castries, the capital. It is filled with West Indian spices, produce and local crafts.

Rodney Bay at the island's north end is one of the most-developed tourist areas, home to the island's longest beach, Reduit.

Anse La Raye hosts a tourist-friendly fish fry every Friday at 8 p.m. Gros Islet, a small fishing village, is home to a jump-up, a party that gets under way at 9 p.m. Fridays with lots of rum and beer.

For island information, write to P.O. Box 21, Sureline Building, Vide Bouteille, Castries, St. Lucia, West Indies, 758-452-4094 or 800-456-3984. The Internet site is http://www.stlucia.org.

You can also get information from the St. Lucia Hotel and Tourism Association, P.O. Box 545, Castries, St. Lucia, 758-452-5978 or 758-453-1811, http://www.slucia.com/visions.

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