Luscious St. Lucia

My recent visit to St. Lucia was also my first, and it was a revelation. After more than 25 years of criss-crossing the Caribbean, I may have finally found the most stunningly beautiful island of them all. Driving along frangipani-lined roadways that wound around verdant peaks high above bays and beaches, I was presented with views each more spectacular than the last. Below the shimmering seas, I was rewarded by coral vistas that were both original and extraordinary, as impressive as anywhere in the Caribbean.

After arrival at the Vigie Airport in the capitol town of Castries, we drove via taxi van towards the village of Soufrière (Soo-Fray), on the western coast about 45 minutes away. The island is a montage of white and tan sand beaches, undulating palm-fringed bays, quaint fishing villages and lush forests carpeting volcanic peaks that rise above it all.

The Pitons, the island´s signature mountains are ancient volcanic peaks, two tall and steep verdant spikes that rise directly from the Caribbean Sea at the western coastline just south of Soufrière Bay. Petit Piton, 2,438 feet tall, the more northerly of the two, and Gros Piton, 2,619 feet tall, are among the most remarkable natural features in the Caribbean. The Pitons are strikingly beautiful from several viewpoints, whether approached from land or sea. Not only did these notable landmarks mesmerize me from my perch at Anse Chastenet, the resort where I stayed, but later I would find that several of the most popular dive sites were directly beneath the Pitons, creating the experience of mountains above and mountains below.

Diving or snorkeling directly off the beach was an unexpected treat, accessible and of surprisingly high caliber. In fact, I took all of my close-up photos no more than a hundred feet from the beach entry, directly in front of the resort´s dive center. Aided by a slight current that is scarcely apparent until you are well offshore, the reef is clean and healthy, showing only minimal signs of wear. Accompanied by a guide from the dive center (a legal requirement in St. Lucia) who was both friendly and skilled in critter location and photography, I found many good subjects. These included Banded Butterflyfish, Spotted Morays, coneys, Banded Coral Shrimp, juvenile Spotted Drums, and schools of Blackbar Soldierfish stacked tightly in coral recesses. Our guide also led us to several Longsnout Seahorses in colors that ranged from an orange-brown to black.

The reefs directly in front of and adjacent to Anse Chastenet are a designated marine park, protected and secured by local law. The coral reef within this marine reserve wraps itself around the scenic bays and craggy rock outcrops of the coast, providing a varied seascape of coral gardens, sloping reefs, caverns and steep walls. Color and shape fill every view and each kick of the fin reveals new combinations of rock, coral and sponge.

Along the sloping reef platelet corals and especially Clubbed Finger Corals abound, adorned with orange crinoids, Deep Water Seafans and sponges of every color and configuration. Schooling fish align themselves along the reef like paid actors posing for pictures. Current may be nonexistent or ripping depending upon time and location. Where it exists, it may parallel shore, then whip around a rocky outcrop, undulating and waving vertically or horizontally over submerged peak or shelf. When this occurs, you are taken on a roller coaster ride that can be entered or exited from the leeside of a pinnacle or coral head. Swimming into the current will allow you to hold position momentarily for a picture or pose.

The best and most memorable reef systems of the tropical world have distinctive and original visual appeal, and I found this in St. Lucia. This is apparent in the dizzying display of complex and intricate sponges and by the general biological diversity of marine life that is fairly typical of the southern Caribbean. Where current occasionally or consistently influences reef growth, basket, vase and barrel sponges are twisted into gnarly, asymmetrical shapes. But St. Lucia´s location is influenced in equal measure by northern Caribbean elements as well. Huge blocks and boulders strewn across the bottom are coated in encrusting mustard hydrocorals, orange encrusting sponges, and purple and yellow seafans. Stacks of boulders often formed caverns and swim-throughs. This combination of southern and northern biology provides St. Lucia´s reefs with a unique, individual look.

The main boat dive sites available at Scuba St. Lucia/Anse Chastenet are within a five- to 15-minute boat run from the dive center. Just around the corner, a three-minute boat ride away, is the beautiful dive location Fairyland. This area lies just off a coastal headland and is subject at times to strong currents, which keep the reef sparkling clean and the visibility crisp. Here is where I found the most unusual sponges, their shapes modified into twisted fantasies by the current flow. Here, too, were huge blocks and boulders strewn across the bottom, looking like the result of some gigantic natural catastrophe. This site exhibits multiple identities with a changeable look that varies with depth and location—from cavern-pierced shallows to a medium depth fish-filled plateau to a deeper section usually guarded by a school of Horse-eye Jacks.

A 15-minute boat ride to the south, across Soufrière Bay, brings divers to the base of the magnificent Petit Piton mountain. The awesome cliff face here was used as a backdrop for a flight scene for the film Superman II. Divers can duplicate Superman´s flight here—underwater. Strong currents propel divers along the steep coral-coated slope in excellent visibility. The sites is named, of course, Superman´s Flight.

My favorite reef site is an extensive area known as Coral Gardens, located further south at the base of Petit Piton´s sister mountain, Gros Piton. Here is a continuous reef slope decorated by large and beautiful underwater bouquets—conglomerations of large Barrel Sponges, coral pinnacles and Deep Water Seafans. This is an excellent site for general scenery and wide-angle photography; visibility is usually very good, averaging about 80 feet.

There are several good wreck dives in the area, the best known and most popular being the wreck of the Lesleen M. She´s about 35 minutes north of the dive center, the longest boat ride regularly undertaken by Scuba St. Lucia. The 165-foot coastal freighter was intentionally sunk by the Department of Fisheries in 1986 as an artificial reef. Now, only 14 years later, the wreck is covered with such a beard of sponges, bryazoans, hydroids, hard and soft corals that it must be seen to be believed. The wreck is intact and sitting upright on a sand and coral talus bottom, making orientation easy. Highlights include a superstructure decorated in a froth of sponge and soft corals. The interior is home for a stacked school of Blackbar Soldierfish. Aft and below is a single propeller and rudder covered in reef growth.

It will be difficult to tear yourself away from even one day of diving, but you must or you will be missing a closer look at one of the most beautiful islands in the world. Fortunately, there is a cluster of visual attractions close to the resort and the village of Soufrière. In addition to the ever-present Pitons, there is Sulphur Springs, a moonscape of steaming, bubbling baths and fumeroles billed as the world´s only “Drive-in Volcano,” and Diamond Falls and Mineral Baths, a series of hot springs and tropical gardens highlighted by the Lower Diamond Falls, one of the prettiest cascades on the island. The fumeroles, hot springs and the Pitons are all striking visual evidence of the volcanic birth of the island. If you dare devote a second day to interior exploration, about nine miles away is the St. Lucia Rain Forest nature preserve, 20,000 acres of trails and ridges including a view of Mt. Gimie, the highest peak on the island (3,117 feet).

Regardless of how you plan your time, a week at Anse Chastenet will only be an introduction to the possibilities for incredible vistas above and below St. Lucia. In addition to an unforgettable holiday, it will surely have you planning a return visit halfway through your stay.