Does anybody think about the Caribbean in the summer? Fathom's Becky Cheang did and discovered that there's plenty to do in the off-season — and no crowds to grapple with — on the West Indies island of St. Lucia.
SAINT LUCIA – On a recent trip to St. Lucia, there were moments when I was transported back to my childhood home in Singapore. I loved the hot, muggy weather with the rare breeze, tropical fruit like soursop and rose apples (like the jambus I used to steal from my neighbor's tree), and blooms like ixora, bougainvillea, and heliconia. But the best part was realizing I had arrived in the middle of mango season (40 varieties and counting) — which pretty much sealed the deal for me.
Normally reserved as a winter getaway for folks in the Northern Hemisphere, there's something to be said about visiting St. Lucia in the off-season. I had five days and plenty to see, do, and taste. Here's how it all went down for me. And how it can go down for you.
A LITTLE HISTORY
In between Martinique and Saint Vincent, St. Lucia had a long tug-of-war history; the island was tossed between the English and the French fourteen times over 150 years before gaining independence in 1979. St. Lucia was attractive to both countries because of its fertile volcanic soil and booming sugar industry.
On the drive from the airport, we passed fields of banana plantations, the sound of the flamboyant pods shaking in the breeze, and whiffs of sulfur. Colorful buildings and architecture hint at the island's Indian influence. Also, a history of abandonment: Derelict buildings and incomplete projects (hotels, resorts, homes) can be seen from the road.
But the island has come a long way (especially since the '08 financial crisis). Boucan by Hotel Chocolat opened in 2011, Viceroy's Sugar Beach made waves in 2012, Marigot Bay got new management in 2013, and the annual late spring jazz festival on Pigeon Island has become one of the biggest festivals in the Caribbean. The tourism board shifted their Carnival celebration to the end of June so as to not compete with Trinidad's Carnival in April. The island has also started to cash in on their long history of cocoa and rum production, creating a host of activities and excursions for visitors.
LAY OF THE LAND
Twenty seven miles long and fourteen miles wide, the island is shaped liked a conch shell and is one of the more mountainous in the Caribbean. Most of the island is covered in lush tropical (protected) rainforest, mountains, and two iconic western peaks. Most locals live on the edges: Castries on the north side and Soufrière on the west side. Gros Islet, at the northern tip, also has a lot of activity.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
The 40-acre working farm is owned by the family behind Anse Chastanet and Jade Mountain resorts. Produce and plants supply the kitchens and serve as decorative elements at both hotels. The amiable and intelligent farm manager, Pawan Srivastava, lets visitors sniff, touch, and taste the tropical bounty.
During my visit, I walked under a passionfruit vine-covered archway, smelled lemongrass, bit into a Tahitian lime, had more than a few mangoes, tried a rose apple, and bravely ate a whole bird's eye chili pepper. Pawan cracked open a ripe cacao pod to reveal the juicy and super sweet cacao fruit (rightfully called "jungle M&Ms") that I snacked on for the rest of the tour. The farm has star apples, custard apples, and pineapples growing in their element. I loved the small patch of mimosas, also called forget-me-nots, that close their leaves when you touch them. It's a weed, but Pawan keeps it there for the guests' delight. The angel trumpet tree sitting right by the front is known for its "joy juice" — a hallucinogen you can drink as a tea.
WHAT I KNEW ON THE LAST DAY THAT I WISH I HAD KNOWN ON THE FIRST
Don't underestimate the mountain roads. I had motion sickness as a child and thought I outgrew it ages ago, but the hairpin turns and bumpy roads coupled with occasional potholes and the passing whiff of sulfur definitely got to me. (Thank you, Dramamine.) Plan your driving routes and explorations accordingly.
WHAT TO DO
Vendors line the partially indoor and outdoor market touting everything that's in season. We gaped at massive soursops and breadfruit and bought a bag of ackee for the road. In the spice section, I picked up cocoa sticks and a local hot sauce that I've been using on everything from omelettes to empanadas to sandwiches since I returned home. Coconuts overflow from parked truck beds. A man with a machete will slice one open for you and fashion a natural spoon from leftover husks to scoop out the coconut flesh.
Just a short drive from Soufrière, the world's only drive-in volcano lets you roll past steaming craters to a hot spring where you can take a mineral mud bath for a small fee. You can wash off in the nearby (very hot) mineral springs or in the showers.
Spices Cooking Studio
In the Cap Estate neighborhood, two ladies named Jenni and Lucy host Cooking Lime classes. (To "lime" means to hang out.) After learning how to combine and prepare ingredients, you mingle with other folks in the kitchen, sipping rum punch or fresh coconut water and snacking on fresh-from-the-oven sweet potato chips.
I learned how to toss a delicious breadfruit and salt fish salad, prepare a surprisingly complex Caribbean corn soup, and bake a cocoa tea flan served with rum cream and penne pis, a traditional cracker made from flour, water, and ginger, usually eaten during Good Friday and when fasting. It used to cost a penny a piece, hence the name.
Tree-to-Bar Chocolate Workshop
At Rabot Estate on Boucan by Hotel Chocolat, nursery supervisor Mr. Cuthbert Monroque leads guests on hour-long tours of the 80-acre farm and chocolate-making process. I included the "Mr." because his energy and enthusiasm for quizzing us about the cocoa made me feel like I was back in school. We picked ripe pods, walked through the fermentation room and sun-drying racks, and ended at the seedling nursery where we got to graft our own cocoa tree. If all goes well, in a few more years, someone will be eating chocolate from mine.
The process for making chocolate is complex, and, after getting through three cacao varieties (creololo, forrestero, trinidaro) and learning that certain clones are better than others, I started spacing out. That said, Mr. Monroque is able to answer anything, and I mean anything, about chocolate. Which cacao clone is less susceptible to disease? (ICS-1, 95, and 98 are the most resistant on the farm.) Why all the breadfruit, plantain, and papaya trees on a cocoa plantation? (Cocoa trees need shade and cocoa needs to be sustained with nitrogen from trees like these.) How is everything pollinated? (Midgies and ants.)
Post tour, there's a one-hour chocolate-making class where you hand-grind nibs, mix in cacao butter, and add sugar before pouring it into a mold.
WHERE TO STAY
Most hotels on the island are pricey and target honeymooners. There are some excellent programs for families too.
Cap Maison on Cap Estate is between Gros Islet and Castries. When you wake up by a cliff surrounded by Mediterranean tiles and architecture, it's easy to forget you're in the Caribbean. The delightful Welsh chef (hey, Craig!) arranges all the meals at the hotel restaurant and The Naked Fisherman by nearby Smugglers Cove, a private cove where water sports can be arranged for guests. For something special, book a multi-course wine pairing dinner in the Cellar, where you can sample the house rum aging in casks. (Sommelier Robinson George is also the hotel's rummelier, a joke that means "drunkard" in Patois.)
Capella Marigot Bay just finished major renovations last year with tons of cozy poolside lounging spots. Some rooms can be a bit of a climb to get to, but you're rewarded with excellent views from the private hot tub on your balcony.
Slightly north of Soufrière, Jade Mountain and sister property Anse Chastanet, both run by the Nick and Karolin Troubetzkoy, occupy a 600-acre beachfront estate. Jade Mountain is at once futuristic and reminiscent of Game of Thrones: stone columns mark the beginning of bridges that connect individual rooms to the main entrance, custom-designed colored glass tiles identify each room, and an open fourth wall affords guests panoramic views of the island. Guest privacy is so important to the staff that only the assigned butler (or majordomo) to that particular room is allowed to even step on the room walkway. But do venture out of it to have dinner at Jade Mountain Club where chef Allen, who sits on the National Mango Board (yes, it's a thing) advises on the menu. Come June, you can try the fruit a thousand different ways.
Farther south is Sugar Beach, a Viceroy Resort, a great spot for families. Casual dinners are served at Bayside on the expansive beachfront. The rooms are cozy and bright. Sugar Beach is currently the only spot on the island that offers night snorkeling. (You can read more about the hotel on Fathom: Paradise Found at Sugar Beach.)
WHERE TO EAT
Stop for a local roadside favorite, Creole bread, a grilled-cheese sandwich with freshly baked loaves. Fun fact: The specific kind/shape of bread is called teytey pan, literally "titty bread," because the ends look like nipples.
Golden Taste at Gros Islet has a great local menu written on a whiteboard. Conch fritters dipped in the local hot sauce are delicious, and there's great people-watching on Friday nights, when locals and tourists meet at the street-long dance party called Jump Up. All along the street you can also get spiced rum, Piton beers, and barbequed meats.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get There
St. Lucia used to be a schlep. But that all changed when JetBlue started offering daily direct (4.5 hours) flights from JFK International Airport (JFK) to Saint Lucia's Hewanorra International Airport (UVF). These days, most major airlines make the trip, including British Airways, Delta, Air Canada, American Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic. The airport is at the southern tip of the island. If you're heading to Castries from there, be ready for a winding 90-minute drive.
Renting a car is the best bang-for-your-buck option, but keep in mind that they drive Brit-style (on the left) on roads that are not generally well kept. Watch out for potholes and tight hairpin turns on cliffs with no guard rails. You will need to get a three-month driving permit for US$20 (EC$54), available at airport immigration, car rental companies, or the local police station. Alternatively, your resort can charter cars and drivers for daily excursions. For that option, be prepared to pay.
When to Go
I went at the end May, the best time for off-peak prices and nice weather. It's also just after cacao harvesting season and during peak mango season.
November through February: Temperatures are stunning (80s by day, 70s by night).
December & January: The coolest months are also the most crowded.
April through October: Getting hot, hot, hot. Note that August is also a rainy month.
Most places accept US dollars, but expect your change in ECC (Eastern Caribbean Currency). Especially at the market and Gros Islet, the vendors are extra appreciative when you pay in local currency. Restaurants generally include a ten percent service charge, but check to make sure. Additional tips are not essential, but always appreciated.