Top tip for St. Lucia, because we love you: Do not rent a car. The island’s roads twist up and down the hills and mountains in a series of alarming hairpin turns that skirt rocky crevasses with nary a guardrail in sight. It’s a roller coaster ride that often morphs into bumper cars — witness the mangled masses of auto salvage at roadside junkyards. Who wrecked those cars? “Americans,” said our driver, Willet McLean. In St. Lucia, they drive on the left-hand side of the road, adding to the chaos. Apparently, we’re not so good at that. “We put signs in the rental cars that say ‘Stay to the Left!’ but . . . they forget.”
Even if a hired driver is behind the wheel, good luck trying to relax. St. Lucia seems to have one speed limit — Vin Diesel in “The Fast & The Furious.” (We learned to politely ask our taxi drivers to slow the heck down, when dying in a ravine seemed alarmingly probable.)
That warning aside, we love St. Lucia. We’ve visited so many times — at least 10 — that we heard more than once, “You’re Saint Lucian now!”
Don’t we wish. But we’ll settle for showing up regularly to soak up the sun, the music, the vibe, the color, and the natural beauty that elicits a “Wow!” every time — the palm-fringed beaches, sulfurous volcanic mud baths, and rain forests dripping with Seuss-like foliage.
Where to stay: beach vs. jungle
Saint Lucia is about 27 miles long and 14 miles wide, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Caribbean Sea to the west. If you crave ocean views and easy beach access, plan to stay in north St. Lucia, near Rodney Bay. The drive from Hewanorra International Airport, in the south, will be a long one (90 minutes-ish), but you’ll quickly forget all that when you glimpse the crystalline water and golden sand that draw guests here.
Resorts are clustered in Gros Islet and Rodney Bay, along with restaurants, shops, and clubs. There are some big, all-inclusive properties, including Sandals, but we like a smaller option (85 villas), The Landings Resort and Spa (from $486 including breakfast; www.landingsstlucia.com). The hotel sits on a slice of white sandy beach with a cute beach bar and marina with water toys — even water skiing. If you’re traveling with little ones, it’s a good bet — a kid’s club and family pool are among the amenities. Note that some of the villas are privately owned, but you’ll mostly notice the place is full of Brits. Maybe that’s why The Landings offers butler service.
If you want to go off resort, the resort will set up transportation. On your own, you can walk to Pigeon Island, home to a smattering of beach bars and restaurants, two small beaches, and — the best bit — the Pigeon Island Historic Site, a British and French military base dating to the 1700s. Walk up to Fort Henry for fabulous views of Rodney Bay and beyond.
Want to stay someplace close to the most popular attractions? Base yourself in Soufrière in west St. Lucia. Soufrière is situated snugly under Petit Piton (the smaller of the island’s famous twin peaks), and the views of velvety green mountains are spectacular. Pronounced Soo-Fray, the name comes from the smell of sulfur emissions from the now-dormant volcanic plug.
We found our new favorite island digs on our most recent visit, Stonefield Resort (from $365; www.stonefieldresort.com), a collection of 17 villas nudging Petit Piton, overlooking Soufrière Bay. Each villa has its own private pool and a hammock, perfect for admiring the exquisite setting. The villas are luxury treehouse chic, featuring canopy beds swathed in netting and garden (outdoor) showers. There are no TVs in the villas, and no kids (except for one family-friendly villa). Within the property is Mango Tree restaurant (excellent), an outdoor pool, a small spa, and a yoga deck. Stonefield isn’t on the beach, but they offer a complimentary shuttle service to Malgretoute Beach. We’d spring for a taxi ride to Sugar Beach (also close by and much nicer).
Is there stuff to do besides go to the beach and drink Piton Beer? Yes indeed
The west side of St. Lucia is home to myriad activities, including Sulphur Springs, the “drive-in volcano” mud baths, (definitely smelly, but fun), Diamond Falls mineral bath and gardens, Project Chocolat (a bean-to-bar chocolate experience), Tet Paul Nature Trail, and Anse Chastenet Beach, one of the island’s top snorkeling beaches.
And you can hike those pitons! We’ve summited Gros Piton (2,618.9 feet). Not gonna lie — it is challenging, steep, and the heat will get you. But the views! Petit Piton at 2,438 feet is even more technical and difficult, requiring climbing ropes. There’s also Mount Gimie, at 3,117 feet. Lately, St. Lucia Tourism is promoting the Three Peaks Challenge, inviting tourists to climb each of these peaks during their stay, with local guides from 758 Adventurers. (St. Lucia requires a local guide, bookable for a fee, for its most popular hikes.)
How to avoid cruise ship crowds
Ah, cruise ships! You’ll notice them — white, gleaming, and enormous — dominating the port of Castries, the island’s capital city. Some also dock in Soufrière. Although the population of St. Lucia is about 180,000, the island will host an estimated 600,000 cruise ship passengers in 2023. About 400 cruise ships visit St. Lucia between November and August. Unless you’re on a ship yourself, you’ll want to avoid these masses of folks (identifiable by the lanyards around their necks and the guides with “lollipop” signs leading them around).
Taxi and hired car drivers have the inside scoop on this: Steer clear of Reduit (pronounced “Redway”) Beach, and Vigie Beach, both popular excursions with the cruise lines. Happily, “there are plenty of good beaches to go around,” says driver Thomas Prospere. At this point, cruise passengers basically do it all, in terms of the island’s highlights, so it’s best to visit popular attractions like Sulphur Springs after 4 p.m., when the cruisers are back on the ship.
And you might consider booking a newer attraction, such as Bamboo Rafting (from $95; www.stluciabamboorafting.com) on the Roseau River. A guide will use a pole to transport you along this gentle river, on a bamboo raft inspired by the ones banana farmers once used to transport their crops.
How to get there
Speaking of rides, St. Lucia is a four-hour flight from Boston if you’re flying directly. JetBlue (www.jetblue.com) offers seasonal nonstop service, operating on Fridays and Wednesdays. But given the island’s allure, it’s worth some effort to get here. And did we mention the food? The Pink Plantation House and the Coal Pot, both in Castries, offer some of Saint Lucia’s best bites, along with Orlando’s Restaurant & Bar (and the aforementioned Mango Tree) in Soufrière.
It isn’t just us who are besotted with this gorgeous green island. We spent some time with St. Lucia first-timers — not to mention newlyweds — Jess and John Maxey from Philadelphia, fellow guests at Stonefield Resort. These two made the most of their trip, climbing Gros Piton, soaking in the mud baths at Sulphur Springs, visiting Sugar Beach, and indulging in the requisite couple’s massage at the resort. Their impressions?
“We had a terrific time!” John Maxey said. “The beauty of St. Lucia was even greater than we expected.” They had high expectations for the resort, he said, “which were exceeded the moment we entered our villa.”
We tried to manifest a bit of their honeymoon gloss before we headed home. In fact, we did look a little more glowy than usual, even in the unflattering light of Logan airport. Or maybe it was the volcanic mud.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com