The Magellan as usual docked at breakfast time in the port of Castries, joining two other cruise ships that had already found their moorings. It was going to be a busy day for the inhabitants of the 2nd largest island in the Windward Islands.
St. Lucia was discovered by Juan de Cosa who travelled with Columbus, but it is thought that the first European to settle on the island was a French pirate called Farncois Le Clerc, better known as Jambe de Bois or ‘Wooden Leg’. The island was alternately French and British for the next 150 years before being ceded to the British in 1814, it achieved its independence in 1979. They sensibly drive on the left and speak English, as should all civilised nations.
Castries has quite a chequered history having been destroyed by fire on three occasions; 1805, 1813 and more recently 1948. It is probably well over due for another one.
When planning our cruise we had selected this port as one of our a chill-out days, so after an early breakfast we headed on foot to Vigie Beach as soon as disembarkation began at 8.30am. The walk took us through the town and along the landward side the island’s airstrip and took around half an hour to complete. The beach itself was a narrow strip of silver sand, fringed by trees and ran alongside a densely packed cemetery separating it from the seaward side of the airstrip.
We bagged a prime spot under a large leafy tree leaning precariously over the beach, it provided the necessary shade. Our chosen spot had the added interest of being next to the start of a long rectangular section of the graveyard. Despite being within 500m of a small hotel the beach was relatively deserted, save for a few souls occasionally passing enjoying the warmth of the sea between their toes. Apart from the obvious locals, most that passed by were English, either staying in the nearby hotel, or from one of the cruise ships. From one couple we learnt that the graves behind our little encampment were Commonwealth War Graves (Choc Bay War Cemetery). We spent the entire morning sitting under the tree, paddling in the waves and chatting to those passing by. As a finale to our morning we strolled down the beach until we lost interest in sun, sand, sea and the occasional light aircraft taking off or landing. Returning to our earlier bivouac (now occupied by another couple) we continued along the beach to the frontage of the hotel, stopping awhile to lounge on one of their comfortable and shady beach sofas. Disappointed that we weren’t approached by the staff to have drinks we moved on to a small beach stall where Sue spotted a pretty little dress, perfect for Sarah’s baby girl and she made a purchase.
We chose to change our return route back to the ship and followed a road that took us over a small hill and through the bustling suburbs of Castries. The roads were very busy with motorised traffic of all kinds, however drivers seem very aware of pedestrians, always giving them a wide berth and stopping on every occasion when you indicated you wished to cross a road. The centre of the city was a manic hive of activity, filled with the noise and hubbub that is often the case in a much larger metropolis. A small river runs through the shopping area, but depressingly this is more like an open sewer, filthy black water contaminated with debris of all kind floating downstream, it doesn’t do the city’s authorities any credit and certainly isn’t in keeping with the surrounding backdrop of lush green hills dotted with expensive looking properties. On our way to lunch on the Magellan we passed a few unfortunate beggars, such a sad and thought provoking comparison of what the next few hours would hold for each of us. I thought: There but for the grace of God go I, it doesn’t sit well on my mind when I choose not to be a good Samaritan.
With appetite satisfied, we again joined the chaos of Castries (the ship was very conveniently berthed less than 50m away) and navigated our way through the maze of narrow, dark passages that separated a myriad of stalls selling a mix all sorts of colourful and touristy thingies, including fruit and veg. Surprisingly we came across a couple of fellow passengers buying mangoes and papaya, surely they couldn’t still be hungry?
On our wandering we came across the Cathedral by chance. Outside a side door was a very large crowd of people all smartly dressed in red and black, it sounded like a service was taking place inside. Being ever inquisitive, we stepped though the door to discover that every seat was occupied and the priest was indeed giving a sermon. Asking a smart looking gentleman leaning against the door, we discovered that it was a funeral, I sheepishly suggested that he must have been a very popular person, his reply was, “Maybe.” Moving to the front of the building and the main entrance we discovered that the associated square was also full of red and black garbed folk, as indeed were all the side streets. Prominently there was a large group dressed in similar colour football kit. Speaking to a lady sat on a nearby wall, we discovered that she had been born in London and had moved to Antigua six years ago, she explained that a ‘big’ supporter of the islands’ Labour Party (colours: red and black) had died, he was also involved with the local soccer team. She professed she hadn’t such a large gathering before, like her, many of the people had never met the man, but they wanted to pay their respects. I guess he must have been very well respected on the island, it is a shame we didn’t get his name, but doing a little research on the internet I did come across a rather disturbing item of news from the St. Lucia Times.
Moving on we spent some time looking for a dress for Sue, but despite roughly a million or so possibilities on offer, we drew a blank, none seemed to satisfy her clinical observations. However, it didn’t take me long to stock up on my small cache of local beers, it pays not to be so fussy.
We made sure we were back on the ship for 4pm as the St. Lucia Dunnottar School for children with developmental disabilities were going to perform in the ship’s theatre. They comprised of a small calypso band of 8 children accompanied by a very gifted teacher who had taught them to produce some beautiful rhythms. Their very proud mothers were chaperoning them and could be seen joyfully gyrating in the wings to some very catchy and popular tunes. Needless to say they were a terrific hit with our fellow passengers and brought about a standing ovation. The look on the children’s faces was a treat to behold as we clapped and clapped. I am sure the money collected afterwards was quite considerable, it helped to alleviate my earlier lack of philanthropy and will no doubt go some way in helping maintain the school, possibly in buying some more musical instruments.
Our next door neighbours holiday each year in St. Lucia and love the little island, I can see why. The gulf between the rich and poor has been more evident here than any of the other Caribbean islands we have so far visited and an obvious lack of attention to health and safety issues in urban areas should be more of a concern to the island’s leaders than it appears to be. Ideally tourism should benefit the population as a whole, I am not so sure that it does here. I find the issues behind the funeral we came across as quite disturbing and certainly out of keeping with the impression the tourist board wishes to give. I may be over-egging my opinion of the island, I hope so.