by Fred Mawer, The Telegraph, June 27, 2018
With its landmark Pitons – a pair of green volcanic fangs rising out of the ocean – and a mountainous interior coated in rainforest, St Lucia is one of the Caribbean's most dramatic-looking ports of call. It also has lovely beaches, but such is St Lucia's beauty it would be a shame to just flop about under a parasol all day. A relaxing and popular way to take in the scenery is on a boat trip down the west coast. For the more active, hiking or zip-lining in the rainforest, or climbing a Piton, is also highly recommended.
Cruise port location
The vast majority of cruise ships dock in Castries, St Lucia's capital, in the north-west of the island: this guide is aimed primarily at visitors arriving here. Smaller vessels with a few upmarket cruise lines drop anchor near Pigeon Island (in the north) and Soufrière (in the south-west), using tenders to get guests ashore.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
In Castries, most ships dock across the harbour at Pointe Seraphine, 15-20 minutes' walk to the centre of town. A water taxi from Pointe Seraphine to downtown Castries costs US$5 return (around £3.70). Some ships dock at La Place Carenage, which is pretty much in the centre of Castries.
It's about 20 minutes' drive from Castries to Rodney Bay, the island's only resort and the location of the best beach. From Castries to the Soufrière area – location of the Pitons and Sulphur Springs Park – takes about 75 minutes, much of the journey on a very windy road. You should consider taking a boat trip instead to Soufrière.
Minivan buses operate on the main routes. There's no scheduled timetable, and the vans pull over to drop off and (if room) pick up along routes. For cruise-ship passengers, the most useful service really is Castries to Gros Islet/Rodney Bay, which costs EC$2.25 (East Caribbean Dollars) – about 60p, with vans departing from near Castries' market. The buses drop you off at Rodney Bay Mall, about 10 minutes' walk from the beach.
The best ways to explore the island are on a group excursion or by taxi on a tailor-made tour: drivers can make good guides. Agree a price in advance on taxi journeys, and establish whether the quote is in US or EC dollars.
The traffic between Castries and Rodney Bay is often heavy at evening rush hour: don't get caught out, and be late for your ship's departure.
Best beaches for cruise-ship visitors
Reduit Beach in Rodney Bay is the number-one choice – a mile of soft golden sand, safe swimming, watersports galore, and at the northern end the Splash Island over-water obstacle course and an enticing beach bar/restaurant (Spinnaker's). A lower-key alternative with fewer facilities nearer to Castries is attractive, long and little-developed Vigie Beach – some cruise-ship excursions head for the beach café at its southern end by the little airport.
If touring or on a boat trip to the south west, several very inviting beaches await: dark-sand Anse Cochon, backed by jungle; silvery Anse Chastanet, next to the lovely hotel of the same name; and Anse des Pitons, with imported white sand in an astonishing spot between the Pitons, by the fancy Sugar Beach hotel. All offer outstanding snorkelling from the shore, with equipment to rent.
What can I see and do in four hours or less?
Don't dawdle long in Castries – it's not especially attractive, and St Lucia's highlights definitely lie elsewhere. An hour in the capital, taking in the market, grassy Derek Walcott Square and the cathedral (colourful murals inside), is ample.
If you only want to spend half a day exploring, stick to the north of the island, which is far closer to Castries. Pigeon Island – despite the name connected to the mainland by a causeway – is an appealing national park, with the remains of 18th-century fortifications, hills to climb for knock-out views, and a couple of pretty little sheltered beaches where you can swim, rent kayaks and try Snuba diving, a cross between snorkelling and proper diving.
There's also decent golf on the Cap Estate, and from a centre inland near Babonneau, Rainforest Adventures lays on the best of several zip-lining experiences on the island, as well as a serene aerial tram over the rainforest canopy, and guided hiking through the forest.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
St Lucia's superlative scenery lies in the south-west of the island. Though cruise lines offer some half-day tours down here, to enjoy the sights without rushing and to the full you really want to choose a tour that lasts the whole day or most of the day.
This could be a boat trip with beach/snorkelling time (see above for best spots); a land-based tour; or – arguably the best option – by sea one way, by road the other. A private taxi tour is another option. Bear in mind that the Pitons look at their most spectacular from the sea, but you can get fantastic views of them from land too.
Whichever type of tour you choose, ideally you'll visit Marigot Bay, a deep-set, verdant and extremely photogenic 'hurricane hole' that is often full of snazzy yachts. Near the languid little town of Soufrière, you should also drop by the well-maintained Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens, and Sulphur Springs Park, where you can see (and smell) the pools and rocks of a dormant volcano and bathe in thermal (and supposedly health-giving) mud baths.
If you're adventurous and fit, you could hike with a guide to the top of the Gros Piton (2,619ft), for the sheer challenge and amazing views. The trek up and down the mountain usually takes four hours; with the travel time from and back to Castries, the whole trip will last about eight hours; see grospiton.com. Cruise lines also offer shorter and far less demanding guided walks in the vicinity of the Pitons.
Eat and drink
Restaurants and cafés serve Creole, Caribbean and international dishes. Lots of local fish is on offer – the catch of the day is usually a good bet. Do try the locally-brewed Piton beer, a tasty light lager.
For a high-quality lunch, recommended options include: The Coal Pot, by a marina five minutes' drive from Castries' cruise terminal; Cap Maison's restaurant The Cliff at Cap, near St Lucia's northern tip; and Ladera's restaurant Dasheene, in a jaw-dropping spot overlooking the Pitons.
Don't leave the island without...
Browsing in the large craft market in the centre of Castries close to the waterfront - it's the best place for inexpensive local souvenirs, such as cocoa tea (St Lucia's version of hot chocolate), cinnamon sticks, nutmeg balls, bags of spices, sulphur soap, baskets and pottery. Also look around the colourful fruit and veg market next door.
For superb wooden sculptures by local carvers, visit Eudovic’s Art Studio at Morne Fortune, a 15-minute drive from Castries.
Back in Castries, Pointe Seraphine has a sizeable and pleasant open-air duty-free shopping complex, that is also well stocked with local art and mainstream gifts. A smaller selection of similar shops is available at La Place Carenage shopping centre.
Need to know
Flight time from the UK
It takes around eight and a quarter hours to reach St Lucia from London.
While St Lucia generally feels pretty safe, there have been incidents of violent attacks on tourists. Be especially wary at isolated beaches and beauty spots, and leave valuables on the ship.
St Lucia's official currency is the EC dollar. US dollars are also accepted almost everywhere, but expect to be given change in local currency. US$1 is worth EC$2.70 – the exchange rate is fixed. ATMs issue EC dollars.
Best time to go
December to April is the busiest time of year, and also when accommodation is more expensive. June to November is more humid and wetter, and the Caribbean's official hurricane season. Major storms are most likely August to October. The two big annual events are St Lucia Jazz festival in May, and carnival in July.