The best view in the Caribbean: Climbing in St. Lucia
The best view in the Caribbean: Climbing in St. Lucia
After flying west, you wake early. For a night owl like me, this is a wonderful bonus. On my first morning in St Lucia, with my body clock five hours ahead of local time, I was wide-awake soon after 4am. By well before six I had wandered out on to the balcony of my room to enjoy the warm air and watch the slow, mysterious way that day breaks in the Caribbean. The sky glows, the greys lighten, distant shapes resolve and then, imperceptibly slowly, colour drains back into the landscape.
This dawn was made even more special by the view. Anse Chastanet, the hotel where I was staying, is set in its own estate of (almost) virgin rainforest. The rooms, which are staggered up the hillside above the beach, look out over the canopy of treetops. Beyond is the sea and, to the south, just across the bay, the almost impossibly picturesque Pitons, twin cone-shaped mountains that form the trademark landscape of St Lucia.
As dawn broke, the forest canopy slowly came to life. Exotic birdsong echoed around the valley, while on the peaks of the Pitons long strands of wispy cloud, like the bloom of an active volcano, caught the first of the pinkish sunlight and streamed out over the sea. I watched intently because this morning I was due to climb the higher of the two. From my viewpoint, several miles away, it hardly looked possible. The vertiginous slopes were thickly forested and scored with the dark shadows of rainwater ravines and patches of sheer volcanic cliff.
But while the Petit Piton requires some serious climbing experience, conquering the slightly higher Gros Piton was, I had been assured, fairly straightforward, less of a climb, more of a trek. It would be an invigorating rather than a punishing start to a winter sun beach holiday.
So, after an early breakfast, I headed off, aiming to reach the summit before the day got too hot, and before an afternoon shower (always a risk in green St Lucia) might make the path too slippery.
I had a guide booked. If you are reasonably fit and agile there is no reason why you couldn’t find your own way up, but few tourists try it alone, and it soon becomes clear why. Not only is the path marked in only an approximate way, but a good proportion of those who attempt the Gros Piton – perhaps more than 10 per cent – are clearly not up to a two-hour climb and need help. They give up before the summit, defeated by the heat, or rain, the rough ground or just the sheer hard work of it all. We met two who had turned back before the halfway stage, and another who had struggled on, but who had turned an alarming shade of beetroot by the three-quarter mark. Two tourists had suffered heart attacks in recent months; twisted ankles are more common.
Sunset over the Pitons (Alamy)
Luciano, my guide, born in a nearby village, often makes the climb a couple of times a day. At 50 years old, he has seen the transformation of the island’s economy from one dependent on banana and coconut production to one highly reliant on tourism. The change has affected him more than most. As a boy he worked on the local coconut plantation. It is now abandoned, and instead he takes tourists up the Piton.
The first half mile or so involves a pleasant stroll through villages of tin-roofed bungalows that once served the workers on the coconut planation. Here the goats have clipped the grass into lawn-like swaths between clusters of palms, calabash and breadfruit trees. With the stream and waterfall in the valley below, it is an idyllic setting.
The real climb starts in the rainforest itself, first skirting around the lower slopes of the mountain, past tall, thin cacti, and then zigzagging up through the trees. At first these are mainly white and red cedars, but past the bench at the quarter-way point, Luciano introduced me to the “tourist trees”. He grinned as he picked at the thin pinkish bark peeling spontaneously from the trunk, like the recovery stages of sunburn. There are plenty of mangoes too, and, flitting through the branches, exotic birds with even more exotic names. I saw a couple of tremblers, and possibly a purple-throated Carib, though it might have been a pearly eyed thrasher. Sadly, I didn’t catch sight of the rarest of all, the green and blue St Lucia parrot, of which only a few hundred still survive.
We took a break at the halfway point, perhaps an hour or so up, and from here there is a rare gap in the trees with views out over the sea and the Petit Piton that forms the headland opposite. By now the going is quite tough. The mountain is formed of volcanic boulders knitted together by tree roots, which form trips and hollows at every step. The guides all carry a stick to steady themselves, though mine did some smart business renting his to the beetroot-faced man for $10.
The three-quarter point is marked by an ancient mango tree, and from there it is a hard rocky climb through the scrub before, drenched in sweat, you break out on to the open summit. Now you remember why you sacrificed a morning on the beach. You can see a hell of a lot from 2,619ft: the great emerald swath of southern St Lucia, with its pockets of forest, coloured houses clustered into small villages, the hazy grey islands just off the coast and, looming low in the far distance, the misty outline of St Vincent.
The virtuous glow attached to conquering the Piton was enough to carry me through the next couple of days at Anse Chastanet, waking up to the dawn, idling down to the beach, exploring the abandoned coconut plantation, snorkelling along the rocks. I’d have happily stayed for the rest of the week, but the point of coming to St Lucia was to see more than just this idyllically remote hideaway on the west coast. It is to the north of the island that most winter sun-seekers head. Here is the capital, Castries, and farther up the coast, most of the tourist accommodation.
The romantic resort of Anse Chastanet (Alamy)
My new base was Cap Maison, set on a high headland a few miles outside the main resort town of Rodney Bay. A complete contrast to Anse Chastanet, this is a new low-rise development, with a Spanish-colonial feel. But where the rooms at Anse were cooled by the sea breezes and ceiling fans, there were no televisions and the style was, well, Seventies chic, Cap Maison has air conditioning and the full array of in-room technology.
The beach at the foot of the cliff, a small sandy cove, can’t compete with its southern rival, but the gardens are lovely and the food is outstanding. The restaurant here, the Cliff at Cap run by chef Craig Jones, is one of the best in the Caribbean and combines local themes with imported treats. You might find the foie gras marinated in rum, the clams and squid served in a coconut foam, and duck breast infused with five different spices. And, if you can afford it, you can consume them with some of the greatest of French wines, from Petrus to Margaux.