St. Lucia: An island that leaves you speechless

The scenic overlook that offers a breathtaking view of a fishing village and an improbably blue Caribbean Sea is a classic tourist trap. And St. Lucia has more than its fair share of them, where merchants hawk necklaces, painted shells, and jewelry to unsuspecting visitors.

After seeing our third commercialized vantage point, we asked our driver Angel if she could show us the real St. Lucia.

Our hotel, the Windjammer Landing, already had one of the best views on the island (see photo, below) and the kids already owned more knickknacks than they needed.

“The real St. Lucia?” she asked.

“The part the tourists don’t see,” I said.

For those of you at home who are thinking: “Yeah, that’s what I’m going to do the next time I’m on vacation!” I should add a little warning. Make sure you define “real.”

Very clearly.

Angel’s first stop was a small fishing village near Canaries (pronounced “Canneries”) that was as quiet as you’d imagine a Caribbean fishing village to be. We were almost certainly the only Americans.

Fishing nets dried in the sun next to a pier that extended into the clear, turquoise water. The villagers looked a little surprised to see a family of five pull up in a van. They probably thought we had made a wrong turn.

“I’m going to take you to a bakery,” Angel announced.

She disappeared into a small building and came back with five loaves of steaming hot Creole bread. Imagine a French bread that’s a little sweeter and softer, and you’ll get the idea. We devoured it.

After a scheduled stop at the festering Qualibouwe volcano just beyond Soufrière, Angel said, “Let’s visit my hometown.”

We knew Hurricane Tomas had slammed into St. Lucia last fall, because evidence of the damage had surrounded us from the moment we landed. Bridges were washed away, people were left without homes, and livelihoods were destroyed. But we didn’t know that Angel’s hometown of Fond St Jacques was hit the hardest by Tomas.

“There used to be a house there,” she said, pointing at a hillside. “I knew the family. They were swept away. They didn’t find the bodies.”

The kids stared at the bare hillside in silence. Living in Florida, they are no strangers to the devastation caused by a hurricane. But this tour was a sobering reminder of the perils of living in the tropics.

Fond St Jacques was a mess. A long vein of mud sliced through the village, rolling through a church and removing several homes with surgical precision. Earth-moving machines were slowly clearing the debris, but there was so much of it. No one could say how long it would take to clear it all away. Many buildings were boarded up, and it seemed unlikely they’d ever be habitable again.

And yet, the people we met didn’t seem unhappy. Angel introduced us to her sister, whose home was spared, and we met several relatives–none of whom seemed distraught. But when Angel spoke of the damage to her community, we could tell she was fighting back tears.

“The government told us to leave after the hurricane,” she said. “They said it wasn’t safe. But where do we have to go? This is our home.”

I can understand why they wouldn’t want to leave. St. Lucia is said to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean, and the next day, when we caught a ride up the Rainforest Aerial Tram, we could see why.

The tram, which looks like a chairlift but seats eight passengers in an open-air gondola, whisks you through the rain forest on the way up the mountainside, through dense forests of fern, hardwood trees, and ficus. As it turns on the summit, the tram ascends to give you a view from above the trees. It’s stunningly beautiful–emerald-green rain forest below, the Caribbean on one side, the Atlantic on the other.

Again, the kids were speechless.

Such contrasts between beauty and destruction, the kind that tempts you to invoke John Milton, are the grist for every travel writer’s mill. But I will abstain, thanks very much.

St. Lucia is what it is. You can visit the horrors of a hurricane, and pay attention to the half-finished homes, the crumbling bridges and roads, and the abject poverty many of its people seem to live in. Or you can admire its ethereal splendor, from the majestic Pitons to the serene Caribbean fishing villages.

I imagine you can spend a lifetime trying to reconcile these two worlds.