In the middle of the Caribbean, where luxury isn’t too hard to find, sits Saint Lucia. Upon arrival, getting lost in paradise is almost inevitable and certainly advisable, writes Hamish Kilburn…
Stranded on a white beach with only my hand luggage and the clothes on my back, I can think of worse ways to spend a Friday. My initial preconceptions of this part of the world, which admittedly had been formed from other lenses, steered me to expect a fresh, sweet-tasting cocktail waiting for me somewhere next to a sun lounger sheltered only by a palm tree’s branches. But soon after arriving, I decided not to waste a golden opportunity like that. Instead, my heart told me to experience the real Saint Lucia – you know – the way the locals see it. Therefore, the rum punches would have to wait because the urge to discover what’s beyond the shores was stronger than any kind of liquor.
My first impression of the place came earlier that day at about 5am. It was painful but I allowed my eyes to adjust to the light that was piercing through our cabin’s curtain. I saw them at first almost by accident. The two famous brothers – or sisters – seemed smaller than they did on the postcards. It was as if someone had painted them faintly over the horizon. The Pitons, that were about three miles from touching distance, filled the window frame one moment, and were gone the next.
When we arrived I had originally pre-booked my cab driver, whose name was Shawn, to simply drive me to the hotel as I had all of 10 hours or so to kill in the sun before my flight back to London. But after catching sight of The Pitons from afar, I changed my mind almost as instantly as I jumped off the ship following three long days above ocean rollers. As soon as I got in the passenger seat, I asked if Shawn wouldn’t mind making a few detours on route. Before long, my now in-the-know guide of the island was showing me what most tourists miss, and the regular stops became a brilliant remedy for island car sickness.
“Give me one damm reason why I should ever leave this place?” Shawn said as he looked out towards the Atlantic Ocean reminding himself once more of the adventure that was on his doorstep.
It turns out Shawn used to be the local port agent, which painted a smug smile on my face when I realised that I had bagged myself the most qualified – probably over qualified for that matter – person to show me Saint Lucia the way I wanted to see it; raw and untouched. As well as this, he was also a well-known DJ on the island.
In between jamming out to DJ Shawn’s tracks, the road – if you can call it that – turned rural. One turn revealed mountains, the next ocean. As the car climbed small verticals, the vast scale of the island became apparent. Rather naively, I thought that every Caribbean island would be a simple mix of sand, sun and sea. But here, a whole rainforest grows and after learning that tarantulas and boaconstrictors nest among the greenery, I wouldn’t want to spend any time finding out how friendly the residents are.
Inland is a reminder of how the Caribbean island used to operate before it landed itself on the tourist map. Local villages, shacks and run-down garages line the quiet road, which I’m later told is the main highway. “The blue bags protect the bananas from insects,” DJ Shawn said. “And this was where the island’s value used to grow.” As with many islands dotted around the world, Saint Lucia, too, had to reinvent itself in order to stay relevant and remain on the map. Whereas once 80 per cent of its business was in the banana trade, it now sits scraping 10 per cent, which is great for someone like myself who is phobic of the yellow poison.
On the east side of the island – away from the cruise terminal in the capital city of Castries – rugged coastline that sits below tall mountains is the ultimate recipe for drama. First add a never-ending ocean as your base. Next, mix in large boulders that emerge slightly above a shallow surface. Leave to set for a couple of thousand years and, after sweetening with a cliff-hanging view, paradise is ready to serve, without a filter of course.
I asked if I could stay there for a minute to take it all in but in the end I think I greedily snatched 10, at least. There I was, stood barefoot, paralysed in thought on top of a wooden bench in order to get the clearest of views. My eyes picked and followed a wave that I imagined had travelled an entire ocean only for it to carelessly crash into the side of an island. I was utterly mesmerised, and despite hating myself for leaving, we were only halfway to the hotel so it was time to move on.
The narrow road continued, passing more farms and local car workshops, which stuck out like a sore thumb among the overgrown greenery on either side. When you see palm trees growing up the sides of mountains, you know that nature – not mankind – planted them there. Eventually, once we made it over another steep hill in the direction of the hotel, the road opened up again to yet another intense cliff edge.
Behind me, as far as the eye can see, was a series of striking, tall and dominant mountains, which suddenly overshadowed my attention. And there they were. Finally, up close and right in front of me, just like the postcard suggested, solidly stood The Pitons. In my head, I knew exactly where I was in the world, but in my heart, I felt lost – in wonder, amazement and awe – as I, insignificant in comparison to what was in front of me, creaked my neck to look up. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to climb them, though the urge to was hard to swallow. But I will, one day.
After what felt like the ultimate cab ride to the hotel – and believe me when I say there have been a few over the years – I arrived. Coconut Beach is conveniently positioned about 100 metres away from the international airport and all of two metres away from the ocean. It’s an ideal please to spend your final hours in Saint Lucia if all you require is a day pass to enjoy the last of the sun, sea and free rum punches. Even the honeymoon couple next to me at the lobby complaining about the extra haircut that was added to their bill didn’t distract my thoughts on what I thought of Saint Lucia.
Soon after checking in, I took full advantage of the free kayaks that were lined across the beach and for the first time that trip took my first dip in the ocean. After that I drifted carelessly along the coast while reflecting on what another awesome adventure I had been on. Yet again, each turn exceeded expectations as I continue to prove to myself that the real value in travel is the unexpected and unmatched experiences that happen along the way, of which there were many. But as with all great adventures in life, they must eventually draw to an end, as much as it pains us to admit sometimes.
After take off, I briefly caught fragments of the island; one beach among many soon disappeared as we climbed the night sky over the Atlantic ocean heading in the direction of London.