Walkin’, walkin’, walkin’ II: Tet Paul Nature Trail, Soufriere, St Lucia

St Lucia is a “soft adventure” travel paradise, which means that there are hiking, walking, and biking opportunities galore here. We decided to check out the newish two year old Tet Paul Nature Trail, located in the farming community of Chateau Belair, since visitors had described it as having the most amazing views of the two pitons (peaks).

Most people take a tour bus to get to this place but, since we’re on a shoe string here, we decided to take local minibus transport; after all, a fleet of them are parked right outside our hotel every single day. After a filling cooked breakfast at the new coffee shop kitty corner to the hotel, we hopped on the old red van headed down to Vieux Forte in the south; after it filled up with 15 people, all crammed into a claustrophobia-inducing tight space, we were off down the incredibly winding main highway.

After a ride of about 15 minutes, we were deposited at the entrance to Fond Doux Holiday Plantation, and followed the signs all the way up a long, winding road to the top on which we found the Tet Paul entrance hut. Along the way we passed a couple of munching cows who lowed at us plaintively. Before entering into the site, we had a cup of coffee to cool down from the 2 mile trudge up the road.

Our guide Pascal, a young local guy, took us through the six acre site, pointing out all the local vegetation and explaining how they work the plantation. An “antique house” – small wooden two room hut – and a cassava flour-making area also give an idea of local life back in the day.

From the trail are some of the most spectacular views of the South of the island, the Jalousie Bay, Petit Piton and Gros Piton, as well as Martinique and St. Vincent on clear days.

The gentle ascent features a variety of exotic fruit trees, (e.g. guava, soursop, avocado, pineapple, okra) as well as medicinal plants and trees. Work on the plantation is done by local rastas, one of whom was lounging in the shade as we passed by.

Two viewpoints in particular give fabulous views, one out over Gros Piton and the panorama of green to the Maria Islands offshore from Vieux forte and the other over the Jalousie Plantation and Petit Piton.

From the top of the “Stairway to Heaven” we could see the great Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy’s villa right below us, its huge blue pool glinting in the sun like a jewel.

The local community, with the help of landowners in the area and the Soufriere Foundation, worked for six years to get the funding for this nature walk and it provides employment for local youth who are trained in hospitality and tourism and given the necessary background to be able to conduct tours of the area.

After a tour of about an hour or so, we headed back down the hill to the main highway, intending to wait for a returning minibus. While there, I chatted to a guy also waiting; when a friend in a pickup truck stopped to pick him up, we also were offered a ride. Sitting in the back of the speeding pickup truck as it careened around the sharp switch backs almost did me in but we reached the turnoff to Jalousie Beach without incident. Just as we were clambering out of the back, another van rolled up whose occupants were kind enough to offer us a ride part-way down to the beach – huzzah! We didn’t make it to Jalousie, though, but back to Malgretoute and into the refreshing pounding surf. On our way back, we saw not just the usual mom and baby goat, but also another mom and two tinier babies, born not very long ago. The two very little ones, hearing us coming, tried to hide in a crack in the rock cliff but as we approached closer, were frightened into running back to mom.

A huge five masted sailing ship, dwarfing all the other anchored sailboats and catamarans, cruised into the harbour and anchored for the afternoon, which meant that the town was much busier than usual with both locals and tourists milling around the downtown area.

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Walkin’, walkin’, walkin’ … in Soufriere, Saint Lucia, West Indies

We love it here! The day comes early in Soufriere: about 3 am, we hear the dogs start to bark; next, at 5, come the roosters with their strangled cries; then, about 5:30, the men yelling at one another across the plaza beneath our windows. By 5:30 all the fruit and vegetable vendors have their wares laid out on the sidewalks.

Needless to say, we are up at 6. Every day the weather has been the same, dark clouds atop the hills behind the town and a brisk wind blowing them seaward, where, just as they float above our hotel, they break up into tiny whisps and disappear over a cloudless ocean. Occasional rain bursts of a few minutes at a time freshen the air – wonderful! The temperature ranges from about 20 in the morning to 25 or so midday.

Soufriere is a poor town; quite a few folks hang out on the streets trying to sell transport or trips to various places. But these are very expensive. We’d heard that the water taxis stop right near the hotel and were imagining taking them daily to various places … Well, the reality is that we can’t afford them. A trip to one of the two most famous beach areas near here is EC$150. return for two people (that’s about $60). Paying $60 a day for water taxis is just not in the cards for us. So … walkin’, walkin’, walkin’ …

The second day here we saddled up the backpacks and headed off north in the direction of Anse Chastanet, one of the two good beach and resort areas around here. Along the way, we passed the town cemetery, in which a gravedigger was whistling while he worked, surrounded by holes in the ground and mounds of dirt.

Just past the cemetery, the road becomes a semi-paved, pitted, rutted one lane track that heads precipitously up into the hills that surround the town. It is steep!

As we walked uphill, a few cars and vans passed us, loaded down with tourists headed for the resort, the undercarriages of the vehicles just barely clearing the rough ground. Along the top of the ridge, several expensive villas sit, some with their grand walls, vases, and flowers reminding us very much of Fiesole, Italy. We could see Malgretoute Beach at the foot of the Petit Piton from the road. After about an hour, we arrived at Anse Chastanet resort, a four-star property on the small bay.

This place is extremely expensive; one night here will run you from $600 to $1,000 a night. And within this resort is another called Jade Mountain, a concrete bunker on the side of the hill that looms over the bungalows below.

We had a beer at the beachside bar and then rented a couple of loungers beneath a palapa on the public side of the beach (the larger beach area north of the restaurant is reserved for house guests of the resort).

Apparently there is pretty good snorkelling and diving here and all day long boats of various sizes came and went, depositing people from visiting cruise ships on the beach.

On this trip, we have seen hardly any Americans anywhere; now we know where they all are, on cruise ships in the Caribbean. It was actually strange to hear so many American accents in one place.

After several hours of fun in the sun, we packed up our gear and headed back up the road from which we’d come. Luckily, after walking not too far, a van stopped and offered us a ride back to town – huzzah!

Yesterday, our destination was once again Malgretoute beach, just south of town along what used to be a road and is now pretty much a goat track (literally!). We think that perhaps the road was destroyed in the last hurricane that ripped through here in October 2010. We enjoyed a quiet day of beach combing and snorkelling – lots of sea urchins here – a great lunch of creole chicken at the restaurant, and a chat with a visiting French couple.

Walking back, we purchased a small carved calabash pot from a local rastaman.

Goats, cows, pigs, and chickens roam freely here, running in between the playing kids and working adults.

Back at the Downtown ranch, we pulled our chairs onto our balcony and enjoyed a drink while listening to the sounds of the town below us and gazing out over the Petit Piton and the sea.

In the downtown area, there are three or four restaurants and a couple of bars. Mostly, tourists do not stay in Soufriere itself; they come on cruise ships to Saint Lucia for the day or they stay in expensive resorts out of town. Other than us, there may be 4 or 5 others staying here.

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From Barbados to Soufriere, Saint Lucia, West Indies

We’d arranged for a taxi to pick us up at the Coconut Grove Hotel at 3:50 am for our 6:30 flight to Saint Lucia and set our alarm for 3:20. All was ready to go as we drifted off to sleep (well, Ty drifted, I listened to him snore …) Then, merciful oblivion … when I woke with a start to a blank-faced alarm clock and, checking the watch, realised it was 3:50 and we’d almost slept through our taxi ride. After 5 minutes of throwing on clothes and dragging the bags to the van we were out the door at 4:00 and on the LIAT prop plane to Saint Lucia, where we landed some 45 minutes later.

Marcus picked us up and transported us down the very windy up and down coast road to the old capital of Saint Lucia, Soufriere, in the south west. Soufriere is French for “sulphur in the air”, a reference to the island’s “drive-in” volcano and its sulphur hot springs. Although we can’t smell them, apparently there are no snakes in this area because they hate the sulphur fumes. Set in a narrow valley backed with tall palm tree carpeted hills, this town was designated as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2004. Just south of town are the two Pitons (peaks), Petit Piton and Gros Piton, narrow, steep spikes of rock jutting skyward on the edge of the coast.

The town itself has narrow streets lined with colonial shop houses, a small central park in which the cathedral sits, and a bustling waterfront, from which water taxis ferry people back and forth to farther away beaches. Soufriere reminds me quite a bit of Levuka, the old colonial capital of Fiji, although this place is much older and busier.

We’re hanging out at the Downtown Hotel, one of a very few hotels in town, and we have a very sweet large room with a wrap-around deck on the fourth floor, offering a view of both the water and the downtown area. We’re right across the street from the cathedral and from the minibuses that travel north and south up and down the coast. Many vendors on the streets downtown sell fresh fruit and vegetables, especially bananas – there are several banana plantations here and, as a result, no wild monkeys. We can see chickens crossing the road all day long here and a few dogs trying to steal food. Bob Marley lives on here, in the dreadlocks, colours, and music of reggaeland Caribbean.

After dropping off our bags, we grabbed a coffee and pastry at the nearby bakery and headed off along the waterfront in the direction of Petit Piton. As we walked, many locals wanted to chat and, of course, sell us merchandise and taxi rides. Walking south out of town, we passed many fishermen’s houses, their boats anchored and nets hung up to dry. I’m not sure what the fishing is like here but seafood is expensive. Once at the end of town, the paved road became a dirt track and led us along the edge of the tall coastline cliffs to Matgretoute Beach.

Coming down towards the beach, we passed a ruined structure with many, many rusting wheelchairs stacked up outside; we later found out that it used to be an old folk’s home and was closed just last year. It’s going to be torn down one of these days to make way for a resort.

The beach was virtually deserted; only a couple of tourists and one local guy were about, and the restaurant/bar was closed.

We were told that it couldn’t be done, but we decided that we’d try to walk all the way along the coast to Jalousie Beach, a beautiful area that lies in between the two pitons. Scrambling over rocks large and small and trying to avoid the pounding surf, we made it perhaps half-way around the base of Petit Piton before being stopped by sheer cliffs over which we couldn’t see a way. The walk was beautiful and we could see the water taxis zooming by as they deposited more visitors on the far off beaches. After making our way back again, luckily the restaurant was open for business and we were able to down a pint and some food just as we were feeling quite bedraggled.

For you history buffs, here’s a few tidbits: Like Barbados, the first peoples here were Amerindian; Spaniards arrived first in the 15th century but didn’t bother colonising the island because it had no gold. The English first landed in 1605, and the French in 1651. The two countries fought over Saint Lucia for 150 years, the country changing hands between them 14 times; as a result the country is often referred to as the “Helen of the West Indies”, a nod to Helen of Troy’s role in igniting the Trojan War. In the 18th century Saint Lucia was a slave-holding society, slaves beings used mainly as agricultural labour in the sugar industry. Slavery was abolished finally in 1834. In 1842 English became the country’s official language, but almost all the place names here are French and the locals speak a Franco-Creole patois. Saint Lucia became an independent nation in 1979 and its population is 172,000.

As usual, Ty’s everyone’s friend here; the guys call him the Hell’s Angel or Mr Pirate.

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Desert Island and Plantation Walk

A glowing golden orb woke us this morning – lo and below, the sun! We’d decided to take a boat trip should the day be good and, yes, it was good. After our usual great breakfast, Ty and I walked with our snorkelling gear to the wharf to wait for the boat to the small island of Caqalai, south west of Ovalua. This island is owned by the Methodist Church and the one budget accommodation here (can’t call it a resort – it’s very rough) is run by local villagers. (Ty told me to avoid the bathroom at all costs …)

While we were waiting for our boat, we watched a boatload of old village ladies row one man out to the reef to fish for the day. Our boat was an 18 foot aluminum deep water skiff with a large outboard motor onto which the captain brought several cans of gas. After we headed away from the dock, Ty made a joke about smoking around gas cans and, sure enough, our captain lit one up right next to many gallons of gasoline. Needless to say, I was unhappy about it, having visions of explosions and wondering whether I’d be able to jump overboard in time, should the boat blow up. It didn’t happen.

The boatman snaked his way through barely visible channels between coral outcroppings, heading for a break in the reef and deep water. Once we were out beyond the reef and into the open ocean deep swells rocked the boat as we jetted our way along. The first brief stop was Motoriki Island, where a woman came out of what looked to be uninhabited jungle to pick up a few bags of groceries from the boat. On our way we also passed Snake Island, a tiny mushroom shaped bit of land with one palm tree, the quintessential cartoon desert island.

We were deposited on the golden sand of Caqalai (pronounced something like Thungalai) where we snorkelled, walked the beach, swam, read, and had lunch with the two people currently in residence at the “resort”. While snorkelling, Ty was followed by a large fish with whom he swam for a bit (not a shark, although there are reef sharks here and tiger sharks somewhere in Fijian waters). As the afternoon progressed, dark clouds rolled in and on our way back again, the heavens opened and we were absolutely soaked with torrential (luckily warm) rain.

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Wed Sept 28

We’d decided that, if Wednesday was sunny, we’d go with Nox on his plantation tour; it did look good in the morning, so after breakfast, we headed out down the road towards the cemetery. Climbing the stairs to the top of the graveyard, we walked towards the mountain, passing a small plantation of cassava (tapioca) and corn on the way.

Each of these small planted areas belongs to a single person, and the produce from each plot is shared with the village and, sometimes, sold at the market in Levuka. On the far side of the cemetery a work gang of youth from the Methodist church were looking after a plantation; these folks come to town for a week and spend a day working on each of several plantations in the area. We could hear them laughing and singing across the grave stones.

We followed a small goat track up and up the mountain, passing small planted plots of cassava, cava, cabbage, tomatoes, taro, plantain and bananas, as well as gigantic mango, breadfruit and popo (papaya) trees laden with fruit.

Resting for a bit under a mango tree, we chatted with two men carrying machetes heading barefoot up to their own plantations higher in the hills. Nox explained that at age four boys begin to work on their own plantations and are given plots close to the village to make it easy for them and encourage them to work hard. They begin with small machetes and work up to the full size scythes carried by village men.

Along with food crops, Nox also pointed out medicinal herbs and plants; for example, a vine called mile-a-minute is used, when crushed, for diarrhea.

This vine, quite similar to morning glory, grows amazingly quickly and can be seen covering almost every tree and plant in the forest. We also came across wild pineapple and two different varieties of chilli, as well as a red-flowered plant whose small round seeds are used for children’s games.

After a walk of about two hours we came to Nox’ uncle’s camping cabin at the top of one hill, next to a peak called Gorilla Mountain. Here, rather than go back and forth to the plantation each day, family members camp out for a week at a time to get serious work done sowing and planting. This day seven members of Nox’ family were hanging out at the cabin while his cousin Mary prepared food for them over an open fire in the very rough cabin kitchen. After spending some time there sampling some of the produce, we headed back down the mountain and through Nox’ village back to the Homestay. On our way down the hill, cane toads and lizards hopped and slithered out of our path back into the bushes with every step.

As an aside, cane toads are an invasive species, first introduced into Australia to eat some kind of beetle in the sugar cane fields and then spread throughout the South Pacific. As is often the case with these well-meaning ideas, this one back-fired big time; cane toads can grow to enormous size, have poisonous glands on the backs of their necks, and are voracious consumers of all the small local fauna – big pests.

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