For years, my desktop has been a virtual drop zone for mountains of travel brochures, an island of glossy photos coaxing me to visit yet another version of the ultimate getaway. Normally, I give these the quick once over and then cheerfully crumple and shoot them across the room to a round basket. Occasionally, though, one catches my eye, and Iíll spend hours ogling its images of tropical beauty from some island gem until I simply canít take it anymore.
It was in this mentally obsessive state that I boarded a plane and headed toward the lush island of St. Lucia. Visions of pristine reefs, rain forest covered mountains, hot springs, silvery beaches and a dormant volcano swirled through my head.
Diver and school of Horse-eye Jacks, Fairyland, St. Lucia.
I arrived at my place in paradise late in the evening. It was poised high above the outskirts of Soufriere, a charming fishing village roughly an hourís drive from Castries, the island capital and headquarters for the Vigie Airport.
Rich aromas filled the cool summer nightís air, the air sweetened with scents of fresh greenery and flower blossoms, which changed at every twist of the winding road.
The following morning, the brochures came alive. I stared out from my roost high above the beach at Anse Chastanet Resort. Directly in front of me were two spiked mountaintops thrusting out of a magnificent blue seaóPetite Piton and Gros Piton, island icons in every sense of the word.
Diver and barrel sponge, Fairyland.
It didnít take long before I was in the water and wowed again. St. Lucia underwater is a classic case of sensory overload. Beneath both pitons, the vibrant seascape continues downward to the great abyss. The most popular dive sites (part of the St. Lucia Marine Reserve) conveniently skirt the base of each mountain like a string of pearls.
Many of the dive boats visiting these reefs transport divers from the far reaches of the island in order to experience some of St. Luciaís best diving. For them, itís a 30-minute boat ride; for those staying near Soufriere, itís only a few minutes.
Life was clearly easier staying close to all the diving action. On the other hand, if itís exciting nightlife and partying through the wee hours youíre after, I suggest staying near Rodney Bay. From Soufriere, the drive takes about 45 minutes.
Climbing a tree to pick coconuts.
I found the nightlife in the Soufriere area to be most exciting underwater. Close encounters with the nocturnal kind at Anse Chastanet Reef included prowling critters such as Ruby Brittle Stars, Spotted Morays and even an octopus.
Piton Wall is a classic St. Lucian dive site. Currents vary in strength here, ranging from nonexistent to hold onto your booties. Healthy corals share space with a bustling dose of marine life. Nearby, divers starting out at the base of Petite Piton in Anse des Piton (Piton Bay) will skirt a ski-slope contour that abruptly becomes a sheer, plummeting wall about halfway through the dive.
Spotted Moray Eels and Caribbean Spiny Lobsters inhabited many of the reefís crevices, while Coneys and Red Hinds waited patiently in a queue for some personal grooming. This detail work was being performed by a couple of Pedersen Cleaner Shrimps.
Bird of Paradise flower.
Directly across the bay is Coral Gardens, another popular site. Adorned with as many colors as might be found on a painterís palate, its steep slope is rich with black gorgonians, Yellow Tube Sponges and a variety of purple vase and brown barrel sponges. The place is also loaded with trumpetfish, a relatively shy species found hanging vertically either solo or in groups of two or three among the camouflage of soft corals.
Just around the point separating Soufriere Bay from Anse Chastanet is Fairyland, another diverís delight complemented with huge rocky outcroppings, abundant corals and yellow seafans swaying back and forth in the shallows. The middle grounds, between 30 and 50 feet, are infested with barrel sponges, many of them embraced by a crinoid or two.
Wreck of the Lesleen M.
For excitement, itís the occasional turtle and a recurring school of Horse-eye Jacks holding their own against the often-present current most divers love to see. Sometimes the nutrient-rich flow is moderate, yet at other times the reef has to be viewed during a brief, swift flyby. The stronger the current, the clearer the visibility, though. Sixty to 80 feet is the norm, but it can reach more than 100 feet on a good, fast day.
One of the most beautiful wrecks Iíve laid eyes on in a long time is the wreck of the Lesleen M. Sitting upright at 65 feet at Anse Couchon, this flamboyant artificial reef is coated with a variety of soft corals and colorful sponges. A clan of Blackbar Soldierfish permanently resides in an interior corridor of the 165-foot cargo freighter. French Angelfish, Spanish Hogfish and Yellowtails are just a few of the other beauties found finning around the superstructure.
Diamond waterfall, Soufriere.
A closer gander at the wreck yielded plenty of smaller stuff, too. The yellow seahorse posing next to a tiny porthole, and the black frogfish perched atop a rail on an upper stern deck were just a couple of my other exciting finds. Critters such as these are also found at some of the natural reefs in the area. At Grand Caille, I happened upon a multicolored frogfish twitching its transparent lure as it tried to attract something to eat. Seahorses are also seen from time to time at several of the other sites.
Just as the pamphlet promoting this wonderful place promised, there were plenty of topside things to do while off-gassing between dives. I hired a taxi and headed straight for the scenic sights at Soufriere Estate, home to the peaceful Diamond waterfall, mineral baths and botanical gardens. This multicolored deluge, stain-streaked by mineral deposits, was the highlight of the tour; therapeutic hot mineral water spilled into a series of bathing pools at its base. King Louis the XVI of France funded the construction of these acclaimed curative baths in 1785 to appease his troops, which occupied the island at the time.
Diver and lizardfish, Turtle Reef.
It was the French who first colonized St. Lucia in 1650, but over the course of 150 years its possession exchanged hands with the English 14 times. It was finally handed over to En-gland in 1814. De-spite the islandís constant upheaval, King Louieís baths were preserved.
Billowing steam and more than two dozen pools of boiling mud are viewed from a catwalk that surrounds what is called a drive-in volcano, just a few minutes away. The seven-acre crater is reminiscent of the lunar landscape, and with it comes air thick with sulfur fumes as well as other minerals cooking from below.
Ruins of an eighteenth century French Colonial Plantation, Anse Mamin Estate.
On a cooler note, a romp through the vast St. Lucian rain forest by way of trails that wind through nature preserves such as the Edmund Reserve and Barre delíIsle Forest Reserve reveals a greenhouse full of exotic flora and fauna. Highlights include bromeliads, orchids and gingers. But itís the elusive and rare St. Lucia parrot that most nature lovers hope to see.
Once my weeklong journey of chasing dreams and living harmoniously with nature drew to a close, I spent my final afternoon relaxing on the silver sands by the bay. Reminiscing about all of the wonderful things I had encountered, my senses indicated that Iíd indeed stumbled upon my dream destination. The brochure hardly did it justice.
St. Lucia is one in a tiny string of islands known as the Lesser Antilles. At 27 miles long and 14 miles wide, the 238-square-mile island is the second largest in the Windward Island chain. Plotting it on a map puts it almost smack in the middle of neighboring islands Martinique to its north and St. Vincent to the south.
Anse Chastanet Resort
Forty-nine guestrooms are nestled in the lush mountainside overlooking Anse Chastanet (Chastanet Bay), and no two rooms are alike. Each is secluded, romantic and airy; cooled by gentle trade winds blowing down the mountainside. Louvered windows permit perfect cross ventilation, a design of owner/architect Nick Troubetzkoy.
More than two-thirds of these hillside rooms offer incredible views of the sea. Another 12 are located on the beach a short distance from the dive center. A pair of restaurants serves extraordinary fare characterized by distinctive Caribbean, Mediterranean and French flare.
Frogfish, Grand Caille Reef.
Anse Chastanet also features a mini spa that provides massages, facials, wraps and scrubs for that total relaxed feeling.
Jalousie Hilton Resort and Spa
Facing Anse des Piton (Piton Bay), which lies directly between the pitons, the beachfront view at Jalousie Hilton is spectacular. Set among the dense tropical foliage, 112 individual cottages are well hidden along the hillside. Most have mountain views, but some offer views of the sea.
With all the creature comforts of home, each unit comes complete with its own personal plunge pool, a wonderful amenity for those early morning wake-up calls or romantic evenings under the stars.
Four excellent restaurants cater to a full array of appetites, and 24-hour room service is available. A full-service spa offers massages and aromatherapy and features a beauty salon. Thereís also an open-air fitness center next to the tennis courts.
Scuba St. Lucia Dive Center
Scuba St. Lucia is a full-service dive center offering PADI and SSI course instruction, and full equipment rental and service. Snorkeling gear is also readily available. The onsite photo center features camera and video rental, E6 processing and photo instruction.
Three spacious and speedy boats carry divers to the reefs in minutes. The Miss Ina and Miss Bertha are 42 footers and the Norma is 36 feet long, each is powered by twin outboards. Boat dives are scheduled twice daily, morning and afternoon. Night dives are done from shore Tuesdays and Thursdays at Anse Chastanet Reef, located 150 feet from the dive centerís doorstep. A half-day trip to the wreck of the Lesleen M departs every Thursday morning and is followed by a reef dive at Anse Couchon.
A jungle biking adventure aboard Cannondale suspension bicycles has recently debuted at neighboring Anse Mamin. Courses start near the beach and then trail through eighteenth century plantation ruins before finally branching off into different levels. A number of trails are suitable for first timers and several more are for advanced riders.
Special thanks to Anse Chastanet for providing diving and accommodations.