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Thursday, January 12, 2012

TRAVEL GUIDE: Saint Lucia - Soufriere, Marigot Bay, Castries & Rodney Bay

Petit and Gros Piton: UNESCO World Heritage Site

What better way to escape the cold than by going to the Caribbean for some sun? Here is a travel guide for anyone considering a trip to Saint Lucia based on my recent trip.

Quick Overview:


- Saint Lucia [pronounced LOO-SHA] is a British Commonwealth country that changed hands between the English and the French 14 times since 1660
- Tourism is the main economic activity (although some sites say UK-bound bananas is still first but declining quickly)
- English the the official language but 95% of locals speak a French-based Creole (called Patois)
- Most of the cities and beaches are on the west coast. The middle of island has a rain forest and is mostly untouched by man
- Roads are extremely narrow, full of blind turns (hairpin turns up/down steep hills every 10 seconds). Drivers honk when turning a curve and although there aren't many cars on the road, it's intimidating for non-locals. The east coast road is easier to drive but parts of the road were collapsed due to landslides from last year's hurricane.
- Negotiating is part of the culture, especially with taxi drivers. In some places, all the drivers are together so it's hard to get a good price (collusion) but in the cities, you can walk a few blocks and easily find another cab. I will outline the rates we got in the taxi descriptions below for each city.
- EC$ (East Caribbean) is the local currency and pegged at 2.71EC$ = 1 USD. USD were accepted everywhere so there is no need for EC's but most people accept USD at a rate of 2.5 EC= 1 USD so you lose a bit. I will quote all prices in USD.
- Local buses cost less than $1 (2.50 EC) but there is no schedule so good luck getting one. They also don't stop unless you wave them down on the highway. They are also more like vans than buses and we tried to get on one once but every bus was filled to capacity. At that price, it makes sense that buses are always full.


Towns we visited starting from the airport at the bottom  (clockwise): Sourfriere, Marigot Bay, Castries, Rodney Bay
Soufriere: A Town on the West Coast



I must say that this town provided the most authentic local experience. We lived and ate among the locals and there were not many tourists in the area.

Taxi: From the Hewanorra International Airport it cost us $75 USD. Cabbies started off by asking for $100 and there is a "surcharge" for each passenger over 3 people. The first taxi guy was rude and abrupt and we opted to wait and got another guy who was a good guide and explained a lot of things to us. Most cabbies don't talk so it's up to you to find the nicest ones to make the most of your ride.

It is customary for taxis to wait for customers at the location, even if it is for a few hours. At Fond Doux (see further below) we made the mistake of telling the taxi to comeback when we were done instead of waiting and after waiting 90 minutes after the agreed upon meeting time, we had to get a another cab. Taxis get paid at the end and since he never came for the return trip, we essentially got a free one way ride.

Hotel: The Downtown Hotel was in the middle of the town. We were on the upper floor and the hotel was surprisingly clean. I was expecting bugs but I didn't see one in five days, not even mosquitoes (I'm not sure why, maybe the Sulfur Springs has something to do with it). There were two groceries stores within a minute walking and a ton of small shops like bakeries etc. We got fruit off the street (no need to negotiate, it was pretty cheap) and there was a guy selling baguettes. There was also a Chinese restaurant downstairs which I was skeptical about because of it's appearance but the food is the same as here in Montreal (and better than some places here). It is convenient and tasty so I  recommend trying it out.  



Hiking Up the Gros Piton, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The official entrance fee was $30/person and about a $40 cab ride from the hotel. We found a random guy outside asking if we needed cab and he offered to take us to the Gros Piton for $200 (5 people + transport). I asked for $150 and we settled on $160 although I feel that he would taken $100-120. The guy said he had a boat and we waited 30mins for his boat friend to show up. He then tells us that his "cousin" will take us up the mountain. 15 minutes into the ride, our driver backtracks for 10 mins to help some random yacht dock which is kind of weird as we paid him to bring us to the Piton directly. Anything for a buck I guess. We finally get to the Gros Piton from the back door which is pretty much the trail that locals take for free. Our guide sets a super fast pace as he wants to get home as quickly as possible and I think I saw him for 15min of the 2h20 hike on the way up. I didn't appreciate his attitude of trying to rush up and down so I took the liberty of taking extra breaks.

This was the first time I hiked for more than 30mins and it proved to be challenging. Lots of steep edges and boulders require you at times to use your hands. Pictures don't capture the steepness so you'll have to take my word on it. There was almost no flat ground at all to rest your legs as you are always climbing up. The trick is to take multiple breaks and have 1-2L of water. The view on the top I must say is anti-climatic. The feat of the hike is definitely more fulfilling than the view. The top is comprised of a bunch of boulders with a mediocre view, there is no man-made lookout point. It took 1h30 to hike down and although not as tiring, the tricky part is in not twisting an ankle as there are multiple loose rocks of all sizes covered in leaves. You're bound to slip a few times after a few hours and you just have to be really careful. I can't picture non-fit people doing this so be sure that you are able to climb for a good four hours before venturing off. At the end I was proud of myself for climbing up the Gros Piton.


The top of the Gros Piton


Sulphur Springs
A dormant volcano that is geothermically active. The tour is super short, like 5-10min and you can walk it in like 2 mins. the most fun part was going into the "mud" bath. The water is naturally hot (45 degrees Celsius) and you can to rub sulfur all over yourself. I liked it because it was the first time I had a mud bath and to sit in the heated natural pool is kind of freaky.


Fond Doux Estate
A working cacoa plantation. Like most of the tours on the island, they were max 20min and often much less. We saw how they process the cocoa beans by stepping on them (called the "coco-rina").



Anse Chastanet
A nice calm beach, 30min walk from the hotel up a rather steep road (think 60 degree incline).


You lose a lot of perspective with a photo, this is actually really steep...



Ladera Hotel
Went here for a few drinks and the view of the Pitons.

The view from Ladera

Marigot Bay & Castries, the National Capital and Largest City



The beach at Marigot Bay is accessible via a water ferry (the ride is less than a minute, it's about 50m and if you could walk it it would be super fast). If you patron the Doolittle Restaurant or the Marigot Beach Club and Dive Resort, there is a free ferry, otherwise it is a $2 round trip for the paid ferry. The funny part is that the "free ferry" never comes or only comes around once an hour while the paying one was there all the time. I guess the paid one has incentive to be on time while the free one is poorly maintained.

Castries is nearby and the capital of Saint Lucia. It hold 1/3 of the countries population and there is definitively more a of city feeling here.

Taxi: From Soufriere we were quoted $75 and one cabbie was willing to go to $50 but no lower. We were however expecting something like $30 seeing how we thought it was less than half the distance of the first cab ride. We then run into another guy who tells us he can do it for less, $48. He tells us to wait while he gets the "bus". What?

Rule #1: Ask whoever is soliciting a ride if they OWN the vehicle. These people may be middlemen who just call up a cab and take a cut. Sometimes it works out, but at least you will know what you are dealing with.

So the guy comes back with a public bus. These buses actually look the same as taxis (vans) but I read that buses have license plates starting with "M". After telling the middleman that I knew this was a bus, he lowered his price to $40. To put into perspective, a ticket for a public bus is $1. Seeing how my group didn't like negotiating we took the ride. I think this is what they refer to as a "gypsy" taxi and it ended up being the cheapest ride.

When leaving Marigot Bay, there are three taxis at the ferry dock who collude with each other. You don't have much bargaining power unless you are willing to walk up the hill for 10 minutes to find another cab.

Hotel: Marigot Beach Club and Resort
The beach and resort are one and our group rented a villa that consisted of 3 rooms, a kitchenette and a living room. Note that the kitchenette and living room are actually part of the balcony and is completely outdoors. We cooked in the kitchenette and ate at some local restaurants off the resort (about 15min walk). The food is pretty cheap outside the resort, about $8 for a good portion of local food. There is a grocery store right across the bay (right where the ferry is) so if the ferry is there, it's 2 mins away, and if it's not, it can be an hour wait. There are three pool tables, of which only 1 had a full set of balls and it was a popular way for us to sit back and relax. Reception closes at 1pm because of the holidays and it was a bit of trouble to get service (i.e. kitchenette did not have pans, stove did not work, no beach towels, ferry not running). However, the beach was calm for swimming and the scenery was nice. If you like the outdoors, the villas will suit you wonderfully.



Superheroes on the beach
Castries Market
We went to the market on Saturday and it was pretty huge. Streets were closed off and it was packed with people. Like many markets, many stalls sell the same items over and over. What was interesting to me, was that people in the market sell chow mein, the noodles typically found in Chinese restaurants. It turns out that all the local caribbean dishes use chow mein. Interesting. We ate in an alley that was full of small restaurants or what looked more to be people's kitchens. Each kitchen had food on display in aluminum tins and one or two tables in front. It was so packed! The food was flavorful, abundant and cheap ($8). There were tons of huge cruise ships that were docked and a lot of tourists wandering around. It seems to be a very different world compared to Soufriere and Marigot Bay.






Rodney Bay
We had the all-inclusive package here. It's funny how you don't have any details until you show up to the hotel. Breakfast was from 7:30am-9:45am, lunch from 12:30pm-2:45pm and supper from 7pm-10pm. I must say that the buffet was excellent with about 12-15 types of food and always a good variety of mains. You can choose to take food a la carte (not so good) but it takes at least 30-45min to get your food and everyone around you will be almost done. The desserts were the only disappointment because it seemed that most items were prepackaged grocery store snacks. (Apparently, as per Ryan's Blog, they do even worse than this in Barcelona). The waves at this beach were significantly stronger and there were red flags raised half the time. The shore was a bit steep so you could be standing with water at your knees and then be hit by a big wave over your head so be careful!

Taxi: From Marigot Bay, we took a water taxi for $100 (5 people). It was cool because I don't generally go on boat rides but at the same time, it was super windy (which made it cold) and bumpy. I was sick the next day with a fever and this might have been the cause.

Hotel: Saint Lucian by Rex Resort was nice and affordable. There was a choice of eating at the restaurant, The Mariner (buffet or a la carte), select items at The Oriental and a few other ones in which you had a $15 credit. Although it was peak season, the resort seemed half empty. Not many people were there during the meals, I would say only a quarter full. They had tennis courts so naturally we had to try them out. In terms of water sports, non-powered rentals were free (pedal boats, kayaks) and powered sports cost about $50 for 30mins (jet ski, para-sailing).

Timothy, bartending here for 25 years. He's a good guy.
View of Pigeon Island and its two peaks from the hotel
Tennis: The first time we went, they had four rackets and the second time, three, although no one else was on the courts. All the rackets had broken strings, were old Kennex or Wilson rackets from the 1980's and had badly smashed frames as if someone slammed them into concrete 50 times. One of the racket heads was literally cracked in half. The courts also seemed to be about 20 years old. Nonetheless, we were able to make-do with what we had and have fun.




Pigeon Island
While no longer an island (it was artificially joined to the mainline with the dirt extracted to create the Rodney Bay Marina), it was once used as the location of strategic forts by the British to spy on French ships in Martinique. We paid $5 to get in and there is no guide. It took about 90min to walk around the site and climb the two peaks and we ended the walk with a visit to the beach on site.



View from the top of Pigeon Island
Shopping Malls
A two minute walk from the resort gets you to a few shopping malls. The malls are smaller versions of typical malls you'd expect in a larger city. They had a bunch of fast food chains (Domino's seemed to be a big thing), clothing stores and banks. The prices seemed to be on par with back home so unless there was something on special, there wasn't much to get. Some stores do charge duty-free prices and you need to provide ID and your flight number out of the country. I picked up a Nike dri-fit shirt for $16 which is a good price.

Sunsets on the Beach
We got in some fun silhouette shots by running along the beach and catching multiple "sunsets" (sun being eclipsed by the landscape). The sun sets really quickly and you can actually see it going down (the "path" of the sun is shorter than at higher latitudes so it sets faster).  



Final Thoughts
Overall, the trip was adventurous and fun. We learned a lot about the local people by talking to them and the visiting different sites. The people were generally friendly and less aggressive than in other countries. There was no safety threat, which might not be the case in some other places (i.e. Mexico) so that was also a plus. If you plan on visiting Saint Lucia, I hope that this guide will make your trip as fun as it was for me. We had a good balance between adventure (hiking, swimming, nature walks...), relaxation and local learning which I think many people easily overlook when going to an all-inclusive in the Caribbean. Feel free to let me know your experiences in Saint Lucia or elsewhere!


15 comments:

  1. Your best post so far!!! Beautiful! Amazing pictures and complete descriptions!

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  2. breath-cutting pictures

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  3. Very detailed post...awesome job! Love the pics!!

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  4. Thanks! Hope you learned about St. Lucia!

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  5. Wow! Amazing post!

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  6. The place is so awesome. Would you know if there are any water sports around the area? Like water white rafting or kayaking? I would definitely visit the place.

    gatlinburg white water rafting

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  7. That was a really good read. Thank you. Me and my wife are going to St. Lucia this Nov for our honeymoon, and you sharing your experience makes me want to do more while i am there. Thanks again.

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  8. Hi,

    Could you help e figure out how to get to Pigeon Island? Last time, I took a taxi from Castries, stayed overnight at Rex Resorts and saw a roadside ad for a boat going over to Pigeon Island. I cant find the info online though so any help would be appreciated. I'm going to be in St. Lucia just for the day (cruise stop)so all I'll have time to do is take a cab to wherever I can get over to the island.

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  9. Hi there,

    Pigeon Island is actually a peninsula and not an island so you can just cab it there!

    Randy

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  10. Hi Randy,
    I enjoyed reading your blog, great information. I will be traveling there for 9 days and had two questions I was hoping you might be able to give some insight on. I would like to stay in only two towns to avoid checking in and out of hotels often. I for sure plan to stay in Marigot Bay and am undecided between Castries/Gros Islet and Soufriere. Looking for good beaches for snorkeling and some local culture, mainly. What were the main differences between these towns and which would you recommend?

    Secondly, it seems like cabs are pretty pricy but I am not sure how well the public bus (van) system works. Considering renting a car but the narrow curvy roads and driving on the left seem a little intimidating. What would your recommendation be for transportation around the island for this length of stay? –Erin

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  12. Erin,

    If you want to see a small town, then go to Castries. You get to see the hustle and bustle of urban Saint Lucia. It's not big at all but it does look pretty urban.

    If you want to see a village, then go to Soufriere. This was much more of an eye opener for me. I'm talking like meeting real locals and see people selling fruits on blankets in the streets and the feeling that you are really in a different world. Some people live in tin roof sheds and there are not many tourists here at all.

    Marigot Bay was probably the least impressive place. It's no different from any beach and there isn't anything around it. You won't meet locals and it's pretty much where all the tourists go.

    It depends if you want to meet locals or hang around the beach and relax.

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  13. Thanks so much for the information, Randy, I appreciate the advice. I prefer to feel like I'm in a different world when traveling, sounds like Soufriere is more my kind of place. I really enjoyed your photos and blog, thanks for sharing your experience!

    Erin

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