Local markets, spicy food and real people to mingle with: self-catering in St Lucia is your key to getting a true taste of Caribbean life, says Liz Edwards…
Had it all been a terrible mistake? As I lay awake for too much of our first night on St Lucia, I couldn’t help wondering. Because although I had made sure that our cottage — cute and characterful on a former plantation estate — came with a kitchen, I had neglected to check it would actually have windows. We had bars for security, floaty curtains for modesty and mozzie nets for sanity. But amid dense greenery and without glass, our bedroom came with a mega-decibel lullaby. In lieu of sleep, we had a drumbeat downpour, we had singing cicadas, we had countless croaks and ribbits and — bai-ee-ai — the full, fortissimo frog chorus. We all groaned together. But my husband was so cross — irate of the Caribbean — he couldn’t even relish his ‘I told you so’ moment.
It had all made perfect sense to me back home. On European holidays, I’d reasoned, we loved the villa thing — stocking up at the market, chatting with the grannies over the shopping basket, hanging out with villagers in the nearest bar. This time we’d do all that, just in tropical temperatures in the Caribbean. And with less bling than Barbados and less edge than Jamaica, St Lucia would be the easiest, friendliest, safest Caribbean island for us to get a taste of local life.
My husband was sceptical. He’d visited the mountainous island in a former life as a brochure writer and knew its strengths as the honeymoon favourite, all discreet service and petal-strewn romance. I’d convinced him we could find something more authentic than a hermetically sealed resort, make a more natural connection with the island than we would on a hotel excursion. We’d stay in the less-developed south, self-cater, self-drive, self-congratulate.
‘Broad lawns flowed between magnificent mango, banyan and flame trees’
And yet here we were, wishing for some of that lovely hermetic sealing. Predictably, as we emerged the next morning from our shrub-surrounded cottage into the sunlight, things looked brighter. We were staying on Balenbouche Estate, an old coffee plantation in the south of the island that’s now a hybrid of organic farm, heritage site and accommodation — ours was one of a handful of cottages dotted around the Deep South-y grounds. Broad lawns flowed between magnificent mango, banyan and flame trees; an old rum still sat here, a rustic cotton barn there; waterlily ponds ran alongside a path to one of the estate’s wild beaches. Hummingbirds and finches flitted; there were cats, dogs, cows and horses — and at the centre of it all were the lovely 19th century wooden plantation house and Uta Lawaetz, the hippy-fierce, Austrian-born woman who’s kept the place going since the 1980s, when her former father-in-law owned it. As we listened to her stories over breakfast on her breeze-cooled verandah that morning (our own cupboards still bare), it all began to feel rather romantic and heartwarming and natural.
And things were about to look brighter still. An overseas supermarket is a thing of joy, isn’t it? Shopping becomes a brilliant treasure hunt for comedy brand names, unfamiliar packaging, what’s-that-for? ingredients, who’s-that-for? flavours. I love it, and I loved Massy Stores, 15 minutes’ drive east of the cottage. The big fruit ’n’ veg section was awash with all kinds of roots, sea moss and ‘Vel’s Mauby Bark’ (still no idea). We weren’t surprised to find a million barbecue and hot pepper sauces (we bought fearsome Viking, the local brand), but were taken aback to see Essential Waitrose olives, Bovril, Dorset Cereals and Branston Pickle. A cornflakes pack came with a recipe for Chicken Party Salad (very ’70s dinner party);
Best of all, we found Alma at the till. Scanning the contents of our enthusiastically loaded trolley, she had plenty of time to let us pick her brains about St Lucian ways to spend our week. We should go to the Choiseul craft centre just beyond Balenbouche to buy straw hats and clay pots, she said; to Soufrière market for island- grown fruit, veg and herbs. She sucked her teeth when I asked if there was a less touristy alternative to the Sulphur Springs volcanic mud baths: ‘Those baths keep me looking young. You might see me there this weekend!’
Tips noted, groceries decanted, it was — finally! — beach time. We’d already spotted a likely suspect; 10 minutes east of Balenbouche we nosed the car off the main road and down into Laborie (‘Lab-ree’), a drowsy wee town that was big on its street names: Dame Pearlette Louisy Drive, Martin Luther King Street, Elvis Presley Boulevard. And the beach? You might not spot it in the brochures — one too many fondant-fancy houses on the lush hills around the bay, perhaps; no hotel staff to rake the sand — but it was no scrub. Half a dozen little motorboats bobbed prettily in the shallows, palms leant protectively over the sand from between fishing shacks and sea almond trees. We paddled, sandcastled and swam, the beach our own, frog chorus forgotten. Lunch — grilled-fish wraps — was a few metres away at palm-thatched Salt Rush Café, where the only other customers were Stuart and Wendy from Alberta, house-sitting for a friend on the island and back here at Salt Rush for the fifth time in a fortnight. They’d been to the volcano, visited the botanic gardens, but were happier here contemplating the horizon. I asked Wilson, the guy in charge, if it was always this quiet. ‘Sometimes quieter in the day,’ he shrugged. ‘But it’ll be different this evening…’
With that, Wilson had saved us a long, twisty drive in the dark. Friday evenings on St Lucia, as on other Caribbean islands, mean Fish Fry — time for a barbecue- fuelled street party. A few towns do them; the one in Gros Islet sounded cheesy so I’d earmarked Anse la Raye, a 90-minute wiggle up the west-coast road, as St Lucia’s best local-tinged bet. But there was no need to go that far. Laborie’s monthly Fish Fry was tonight.
And a very casual, community-spirited affair it was —with twerk-along sound systems turned up past 11. Even shouted conversation was tricky, so I did well to make out the verdict from Brad, my picnic-bench neighbour: ‘The fish is better at Gros Islet but you get lots of tourists! Laborie is for St Lucians!’ We grazed on grilled fish, pork stew, savoury doughnut ‘bakes’. There was ‘fig salad’, a mix of tuna and green banana — like that ancient Yellow Pages TV ad with the bloke ordering pizza for his pregnant wife — which actually tasted excellent (moral: never doubt the pregnant lady). At half-nine we called it a night; we’d had enough of the volume, though my husband found the silver lining: ‘Maybe the tinnitus will drown out the frogs.’
That wasn’t the last we saw of Laborie, but we did explore other bits of the island, too. You’ll spot the twin Piton peaks on everything from beer labels to the masonic-looking national flag, but you’re probably not allowed to leave without seeing the west-coast icons in the pointy, jungle-clad flesh. Luckily they’re quite big, so we didn’t have to switchback too far up the west coast before they began sliding in and out of our windshield view.
Petit Piton certainly looked pretty impressive looming up behind the seafront at Soufrière. Either we arrived too late to see its streetside market in full flow or it was having an off day (whereas Alma’s tip about Sulphur Springs, a few miles back, was a goodie — we shared its murky 30C waters with visitors and St Lucians, and left feeling soothed and smoothed). But one vendor did show me the Creole way to drink from a green coconut — the top machete’d off flat (no Piton-pointy whittling), and no straw. What price dignity when authenticity and single-use plastics are at stake, I thought nobly, as it dribbled down my chin.
But the best view of the Pitons came 600m above sea level at Tet Paul, a community-run nature trail through an organic farm, where we learnt a bit of history, and a bit about local produce, medicinal plants and other exotic flora — but mainly gawped at the sight of both Pitons rearing up dramatically from the sea. The beer label hadn’t done them justice. But my husband still had amphibians on his mind: ‘They’re like giant toads emerging from a pond.’
The furthest north we got was Rodney Bay, where the topography was less crumpled, and life more obviously tourism-focused. The yacht-filled marina, especially, felt a world away from creaky Balenbouche and homespun Tet Paul, but it was another community enterprise that brought us here. Keen to get out on the water, I’d found Jus’ Sail, a company offering day charters on the restored Great Expectation, a historic Carriacou trading sloop; owners James and Pepsi also run a training scheme for local youngsters to help them out of unemployment.
As a means of wrapping some heritage and social responsibility up in a rather lovely, lazy afternoon, their sunset cruise was hard to argue with. James, Pepsi and a scheme graduate, OB, chatted sailing, history and potent punches as we tacked across the bay, the boat tilting 45 degrees one way then 45 degrees the other. Pepsi said that out here they were often treated to a green flash, that optical effect as the sun finally slips over the horizon. That day, moody tufts of cloud framed the sinking sun — and hooray, a pop of green like a magician’s flourish.
‘Half the fun we had in St Lucia was driving the twisty roads and waving back at grannies leaning gossip-ready on their verandah rails’
It was wonderfully relaxing; of course it was. But quite honestly, half the fun we had in St Lucia was driving its twisty roads, waving back at grannies leaning gossip-ready on their verandah rails. We’d crank up the country and western on the radio (St Lucians love it), stop at random roadside joints, and follow our noses down little tracks to Piaye and other empty beaches. We even found we’d grown fond of (or used to) Balenbouche’s eccentricities. We assumed the teeny tree frogs in the sink and the doorstop-like toad in the corridor were doing their bit to keep mozzie populations down. We supplemented our supermarket breakfast with mangoes collected from the lawn. We felt more immersed in the island’s nature than we would have in a pest-controlled, manicured resort. So maybe we could do without windows after all. No pane, no gain?
Words by Liz Edwards
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