I’m not even halfway up Gros Piton, the taller of St. Lucia’s signature twin peaks, and I’m already starting to perspire from places where I didn’t even know I had pores. My shins. My elbows. My earlobes.
It’s an inauspicious start to what I’ve dubbed my “Surf and Turf” tour of St. Lucia, a lush 238-square-mile isle in the West Indies’ Lesser Antilles. Over the course of a week, I plan to scale the 2,619-foot summit of Gros Piton, scuba dive along the coral reefs, and horseback ride through the waves. But at this moment, my body is screaming, “Abort! Abort!”
“Please tell me this is the steep part,” I gasp, scrambling up yet another massive pile of rocks behind my guide, Chad William, a lean, taciturn man with a sparse, bushy beard. “If not, just lie to me, man,” I implore him. “Keep hope alive.”
Hailing from the tiny village of Fond Gens Libres, founded at the foot of the mountain by freed slaves more than 200 years ago, William hardly breaks a sweat as he negotiates the trail, which was carved centuries ago by villagers seeking high ground as the invading British threatened to capture and re-enslave them.
But it’s not just the mountain’s historical relevance that has brought me here today. It’s the promise of unparalleled panoramas.
More than two hours into the hike—after scampering across moss-covered boulders, up a ladder and through the crotch of a colossal tree shaped like a wishbone—we reach the climax of our climb. Leaving the shade of the forest, we enter a clearing and find ourselves confronted by a stunning view of one symbol of St. Lucia—the 2,460 foot conical peak of Petit Piton—while standing atop the other, Gros Piton. Both thrust straight out of the turquoise Caribbean, book-ending a white crescent beach as they strain upwards to pierce the sky.
My legs are aching and I’m panting like an obscene phone caller, but having craned my neck to admire these seemingly insurmountable peaks during two previous visits to St. Lucia, attaining this summit as rewarding to me as climbing Mount Everest. And after finally reaching the bottom of Gros Piton again, four and a half-hours after starting up, an ice-cold Piton—St. Lucia’s local brew—is the sweetest nectar I’ve ever tasted.
If the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Gros Piton wets your appetite for adventure, you can also sign up for ziplining, mountain biking, Segway tours, and guided hikes through the 19,000-square-mile Edmund Forest Reserve, home to 37 bird species, three types of snakes (including the poisonous fer-de-lance), and 1665 plant species, from wild ginger to laurier canelle, whose root can be made into a very, er, stiff drink. “That’s the St. Lucian equivalent of Viagra,” forestry officer Nerius Mitchel explains with a sly smile.
While I don’t spy the distinctive fan-shaped leaves of a marijuana plant, Mitchel admits that it, too, can be found among the dense rainforest foliage. “Rasta men plant the wacky backy in the forest illegally,” he says.
In search of a safe, natural high—one which won’t land me in jail—I saddle up a few days later for a horseback ride along the Atlantic. My eyes glaze over as I picture myself riding a glistening stallion through the crashing surf, surrounded by a battalion of Baywatch-worthy hunks.
I’m brought out of my reverie when one of the stable hands calls for my steed. “Give me Stampede!” he shouts as he measures me up.
“S-Stampede?” I stammer, anxiously scanning the stable for a rampaging beast. “Nooooo…Stompy!” he says with a laugh, handing me the reins to a smallish, docile brown horse. He may be a Pinto among Porsches, but he’s just my speed.
Once we’re saddled up, my companions and I slosh down a muddy residential road towards Cas En Bas beach, accompanied by three cheerful guides who buoy us along with their hearty mantra, “St. Lucia…no pressure, no problems!”
When the tree-lined path opens up to reveal a wide swath of sand licked by the sea, I see what they mean. It’s a Sunday afternoon, and the beach is filled with families enjoying a leisurely afternoon. Men and boys grunt good-naturedly over a game of cricket while children splash in the ocean.
Stripping down to our bathing suits as our guides remove the saddles, we ride bareback into the waves, gliding through the bathwater-warm water right up to the horses’ chests. It’s exactly as I imagined—except that, in my minds’ eye, I looked a heck of a lot more like Bo Derek than I do in the photos snapped by my friends.
But my aquatic adventures aren’t over. St. Lucia boasts a multitude of dramatic dive sights, ranging from a freighter sunk in 60 feet of water near Anse Cochon to coral reefs sloping from 20 to 145 feet off the coast of Anse Chastanet.
As a relatively inexperienced diver, I opt for a shallow dive with a maximum depth of 38 feet off Pigeon Point on the north end of the island, led by a team from Sandals Grande. “I guarantee you’re going to see lots of humans and lots of water today,” assures Martin, one of two guides aboard our boat. Irwin, the second guide, goes so far as to promise a few fish.
We are not disappointed. Shortly after we take a giant stride into the clear, tepid water, Irwin spots a puffer fish darting amongst the coral. The puffer’s tiny fins, which seem comically small for his fat little body, flutter daintily at his sides as his googly Marty Feldman eyes gape at our trail of bubbles, seemingly as curious about us as we are about him.
I hear the crunch-crunch-crunch of rainbow-colored parrot fish munching coral as a school of little blue chromis arrives to escort me through their neighborhood. Then the current picks up, and I’m flying through the water, the reef unfolding below me like a crazy quilt of colors and textures.
I struggle to take in all the details–the Christmas tree worms clinging to the coral; the intricate folds of sponges which remind me of giant clams in the Pacific; a sleeper goby, the biggest I’ve ever seen, hunkered down like a bodyguard outside a shrimp’s hole.
When we suddenly find ourselves swimming against the current, which repels us as powerfully as an invisible force field, Irwin signals that its time to go up. Reluctantly, I begin my slow ascent towards the surface, as charmed by St. Lucia’s sun-dappled depths as I was by the peaks of the Pitons.
IF YOU GO
More information: St. Lucia Tourist Board, http://stlucianow.co.uk
Planning a hike: If you want to explore the Edmund Forest Reserve or climb Gros Piton, contact the Forest and Lands Department (tel. 758-450-2078) first to obtain permission and arrange for a guide. (Your hotel may be able to assist you in making arrangements). Note: Although Petit Piton is not as tall as Gros Piton, it’s a much more arduous and dangerous ascent; climbing it is not recommended.