Soufriere Day Tour: Drive-in Volcano, Piton Waterfall and Diamond Botanical Garden

[Warning: This is a bit of a Grumpy Old Lady post] We wouldn’t want to leave Soufriere without seeing everything there is to see in this part of the world. So yesterday we decided to spring for a taxi ride around the area, visiting the drive-in volcano, the Piton Waterfall, and the Diamond Botanical Garden and Waterfall. Charles picked us up at 11 and off we zoomed to the first stop, the volcano.

Billed as the world’s only drive-in volcano, this place looks more like a small strip mine, a white and orange bald patch on a hill in which small pools of grayish-black water bubble and steam. It’s the only venting area in what is a gigantic caldera encompassing the town of Soufriere and the surrounding area.

Coming off the main highway, the stench of rotten eggs filled the air as we approached. At the entrance were several guys selling rasta paraphernalia and gigantic conch shells; before we even get got to the gate, they were on us to buy something. Rolling down the road a few hundred meters we stopped at another shopping area and were immediately greeted by a guide who will “show us around and give us information about the area”.

In this country every site, whether rain forest, garden, or waterfall, has an entrance fee and it is almost impossible to go anywhere without a guide; one cannot hike in the forests or on the hills without a local person guiding. We can’t enter into a garden or, indeed, go almost anywhere without someone there to guide us, even when it is not at all necessary or wanted. And, of course, it’s made clear by large signs that each of these guides expects a tip (and not a small tip, either, something substantial). [Even downtown, people approach us in the street, ask where we’re going, say they will take us there, even when we can see the place 20 feet down the road, and then expect a tip - we are walking wallets and almost every interaction is about money]. In the various sites I have no objection to someone guiding me, if there’s a reason for it (like telling me something about the place that I don’t know or can’t figure out for myself). But, at the volcano, there’s no reason to have a guide because the area is completely self-explanatory and the path to the edge of the sulphur ponds is only a hundred meters or so. Anyway, to me the volcano seemed much ado about nothing …

Back in the car, we cruised past Malgretoute Beach and turned off on the way to Jalousie to the Piton Warm-Hot Waterfall, where, this time guideless, we walked a few hundred meters into the rainforest and down a set of steep stairs to a concrete viewing platform with two smallish mineral water pools from where we could see the waterfall and, behind, out across the water to Anse Chastanet.

It was very pleasant to sit here in this green and shady space and watch the water spill down the hill into the pools below.

On the way to our final stop, we paused at the top of the hill to look out over the town, purchase some more souvenirs, and drove through Soufriere to the Diamond Garden.

Here, once again, a guide scooped us up as soon as we emerged from the car and led us, way more quickly than I’d like, on a whirl wind tour through part of the garden, then waited somewhat impatiently for a tip, before hustling back to the entrance to pick up more tourists – we were not very happy.

Anyway, while inside the garden we saw some interesting plants, especially a gorgeous Red Torch Ginger, and the usual tropical flowers, birds of paradise, crab claws in different colours, and tropical plants such as Bromeliads. The garden is also a bird sanctuary and Ty was lucky enough to see a parrot.

By the time the tour was finished two and a half hours later, we felt as if we’d been metaphorically hoisted by our ankles and shaken to extract every last coin from our pockets; we’d spent 400EC$ (about $160), way too much for the “Soufriere Experience”, in my opinion. [While the Tet Paul tour was worth the money spent, (and we wanted to support this excellent project), I can’t really say the same about this day’s visits]. The thing about this town is that everyone wants a piece of us; of course, it’s been the same everywhere, but the people are particularly persistent about it here. They will not let us be; every day the same people want us to pay them for something, whether necklaces, weed, home brew, boat trips, taxis, or walks down the road. The relentlessness of it gets tiresome. I understand and agree that the local people should benefit from the tourists who come here and, unfortunately, most of the visitors who arrive on boats are loaded onto minibuses and driven around without being given time to walk around the town and spread the wealth. This, I think, is really the shits; however, that said, the constant hassle is also off-putting. But we still like the place.

See more pics here.

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.

See more pics here.

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.

See more pics here.