Mountains, sea and forests make St. Lucia popular with U.S. tourists

Writer Kristin O'Meara explored St. Lucia by land and by sea on a recent visit. Her report follows:

GROS ISLET, St. Lucia -- In the St. Lucia National Rain Forest Reserve, a shirtless man shouldered a machete as he walked barefoot along the side of a dirt road through the forest.

We met him again at the crest of a serpentine hill. Our Jeep braked beside a ramshackle stand that tilted uncertainly against a tree on the side of a pockmarked, red dirt road.

A local man offered all of us freshly sliced local pineapples and bananas -- the St. Lucia version of fast food.

The tab for the snack? About $1 apiece.

Then I saw the view from the hill of the Cul de Sac Valley, with forests, mountains and mists that set off a picture-snapping frenzy among my companions.

St. Lucia is full of encounters and views like that.

Flanked by the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea, the island is increasingly popular with U.S. tourists, and its improved roads and spruced-up infrastructure are evidence of the success of tourism here.

Success has brought a modicum of affluence to the island. Many people now drive cars, creating some problems with traffic congestion, according to our guide.

Although paradise is not yet lost, shopping malls are fast encroaching upon the island.

Despite the presence of cement mixers and the blare of honking horns, St. Lucia's wild mountain beauty remains its prime asset.

Lush greenery gives way to beaches -- some with black sand, some with white.

On a boat tour that departed from the Hyatt Regency St. Lucia, we took in the sights along the Caribbean coast, including many dive sites.

Our first stop was Soufriere, where empty, dusty streets brought to mind a deserted Western town.

A short drive from Soufriere brought us to Diamond Falls and Botanical Gardens.

The gardens are part of a 2,000-acre land grant from King Louis XIII of France to the Devaux brothers of Normandy in 1713.

Owned and operated by the Devaux descendants, they have an impressive array of flowering plants, specimens of bamboo and massive trees along with a Japanese garden.

We followed a sulfurous stream up a narrow path past swimmers splashing in man-made pools.

These were the mineral baths, and although we all packed swimsuits, none in my group opted for a dip.

Instead we hiked to the falls, which tumbled down a multicolored backdrop of mineral deposits in shades of yellow, green and orange.

Back in the boat, we were headed for a lunch break and snorkeling when a pod of pilot whales appeared and occasionally broke the surface.

I clambered to the flying deck for a better look, where I got my first view of the Pitons, the two mountain peaks that are St. Lucia's most-photographed site.

After lunch, the group put on snorkeling gear to explore a protected reef, part of St. Lucia Marine National Park. Here, among the brain coral, shimmered varieties of angel fish, grouper and other fish.

Later, the skies darkened and gray sheets of rain washed over the boat deck. After a few moments, the rain stopped and the skies brightened again.

St. Lucia is like that.

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