Fair Helen of the West Indies offers spectacular cruising in the Lesser Antilles.
Part of the Windward Island chain south of Martinique and north of St. Vincent, St. Lucia’s dense green volcanic terrain etches sharply against the Caribbean sky. Its posh five-star honeymoon resorts cling to lush hillsides draped in a canopy of rainforest sprinkled with an abundance of tropical flora. At water level, gold-sand beaches dot the coast, but it is the landscape and the vibrant West Indian life that beckon.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, 27-mile-long “Fair Helen of the West Indies” was considered the prize of the Windwards, and ping-ponged between the French and British 14 times before it was declared British by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Since 1979, St. Lucia has been an independent member of the British Commonwealth. But the French heritage remains, declaring its allegiance at every turn. The local patois is Creole-based, as is the local cuisine and charming, ginger-bready architecture populated by mostly Roman Catholics. Yet superstitions and a rich folkloric culture speak to African traditions that seem to override the European cultures.
Yachts making passages north or south through the Lesser Antilles or St. Lucia-based chartered vessels will often stop at the main harbors along the western coast. Mile-wide Rodney Bay on St. Lucia’s north end is the center of the island’s traditional tourism. A popular anchorage skirts the southern shore off pretty Reduit Beach and, just about dead center, a narrow channel leads to the Inner Lagoon and Rodney Bay Marina. An impressive Island Global Yachting facility, the marine offers quality dockage, moorings, and a boatyard supported by a plethora of independent yacht services that can manage most any yachting needs. The well-stocked branch of Island Water World chandlery, several waterfront restaurants, a handful of shops, and a weekly farmers’ market make up the marina village. Just outside the gates is a large hardware store, while at the southern end of the lagoon a dinghy dock provides easy access to two good-sized supermarkets, Super J Mall, and a few more upscale eateries, including highly rated Edge where you can tie your dinghy next to your table.
North of the Inner Lagoon channel, the bay’s shore curves around to Pigeon Island connected to the mainland by a manmade causeway. The former home of notorious pirate Jambe de Bois, the 40-acre island is now the Pigeon Island National Park, which sports a botanical trail, the ruins of Fort Rodney, an interpretive center housed in a restored 1824 officers’ quarters, and a major venue for the 23rd Annual St. Lucia Jazz Festival in May. Another of the bay’s several anchorages lies just off Pigeon Island, and a convenient dinghy dock provides access to the park and the festival. The 12-day event kicks off on April 30th, but the main-stage events begin on May 9th at Pigeon Island.
While Castries has a wide and welcoming anchorage, we left the boat in Rodney Bay and visited the pulsing capital—home to a third of the island’s 170,000 population—by land. For a true island experience, take a local mini-bus from Rodney Bay Marina’s main gate into downtown Castries. Whether by boat or island transport begin at La Place Carenage near the dinghy landing, and wend your way along densely packed Jeremie Street where dozens of local produce market stands spill out onto the street. The Central Market is a “can’t-miss” with orange pyramidal roofs that float above stalls selling Callaloo, ginger, hot peppers, mangoes, star fruit, pawpaw, and much more.
Nearby, in the Old Market Building, aisles and aisles of stalls sell local (and not-so-local) baskets, woodcarvings, brightly colored clothing, and all kinds of necessities. Walk a little farther inland to Derek Walcott Square (named for the Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright), where park-like grounds surround a giant Samaan tree that gives way to the 19th-century Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Inside, intensely colored murals feature floor-to-ceiling pineapple motifs and primitive biblical scenes. Other attractions include the Morne Fortune Historic Area, the governor-general’s residence and Fort Charlotte.
Relax for a couple of days in charming Marigot Bay. This idyllic hurricane hole is surrounded by verdant, steep hills that cascade to the water. Edging the southern shore, the docks at the recently acquired Capella Marigot Bay Marina & Resort are backed by the multi-story Marina Village with shops, eateries, a café, bakery, spa, market, a bank, and a customs office, with more to come in the next year. A shuttle ferry takes landlubbers to Labas Beach, a small peninsula of palm-tree-shaded sand that guards the inner harbor. Stalls offer beach chairs, snacks and a variety of water sports.
The shuttle also darts around the harbor servicing the cozy waterfront restaurants—most with airy outdoor dining decks—and small resorts that line the roadless north shore. Among them is our favorite eatery in the Windwards: Rainforest Hideaway, one of the Lesser Antilles’ most stylish, romantic and highly rated restaurants. Diners arrive by private launch from the mainland dock, but cruisers can just dinghy from the mooring field. The ambiance of the over-water dining room is magical with exquisite food to match and prix-fixe menus that are—considering the experience—reasonably priced. Provisioning in Marigot is limited to smaller markets and a couple of vendors who ply the harbor in colorful skiffs overflowing with local produce, but ask for individual prices first; there is a tendency to pull a number out of the stratosphere for your basket of goodies.
At St. Lucia’s southern end, The Pitons—twin volcanic peaks that soar about 2,000 feet above Soufriere Bay—are the island’s most recognizable feature. The marine park is part of St. Lucia’s Marine Management Areas (SMMA), so you will need a permit to enter. Buy a park pass and clear out before leaving Marigot Bay. (Soufriere may not be the most comfortable place to visit.) Then pick up a mooring in the lee of these spectacular peaks; it’s a good jumping-off point for the southward passage to St. Vincent or direct to Bequia. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Gros Piton and Petit Piton—joined by the high Piton Mitan Ridge—boast slopes covered with unique vegetation. At least 148 plants have been identified on Gros Piton and 97 on Petit Piton plus over two dozen bird species, including five that are endemic to this extraordinary place.
The mooring balls might be a bit of a challenge, so consider the assistance of one of the helpful boat boys who always seem to appear ($10 EC plus a soda). He’ll grab your line and thread the ring for a stress-free experience.
Cruising St. Lucia can be a bit of a challenge, but if you take care, check in with the marinas and customs officials, and consult the various web-based guides, you will have a safe and happy visit to one of the Caribbean’s most spectacular islands.
By Beth Adams-Smith, Southern Boating April 2014