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Soufriere, St. Lucia

Written on: Monday January 27th, 2014

A journal entry from: Caribbean 2014

On our night-time taxi journey from the port in Castries to our first hotel in Soufriere, we saw the remnants of a lot of small rock and mudslides along the mountainous road. When we dipped down to sea level to drive through a village, we crossed a river on what can only be described as a fairly makeshift bridge, which seemed brand new. The taxi driver explained that on Christmas Eve (2013) there was a massive rainstorm that devastated roads and seaside villages in St. Lucia. In this particular village, the bridge had been completely washed out. We would hear several other people talk about "the Christmas Eve flood" during our stay in St. Lucia; it sounds like it was a pretty rough holiday here.

When we arrived at our hotel, we weren't sure what to expect. I had purchased a Groupon for 4 nights and the Tripadvisor reviews were solid, but the fact that it was pitch black out meant that we couldn't quite tell where we were and whether the purchase had been a smart one. The man who checked us in was super friendly, and upon seeing our disappointment that the restaurant was closed for the night--we hadn't eaten in 8 hours--he promised to send someone down to our room with some tuna sandwiches ASAP. I say "down" to our room, because that is the first hitch with any hotel Groupon: you have to accept whatever room they have designated as the "room worthy of someone getting a really cheap room." In this case, the Groupon factor meant that our room wasn't even attached to the main hotel. The manager had explained to me via email that the room I was booking was 400m away from the main hotel on the same property; this was no problem for us, as we don't consider 400m a long distance to walk. Unfortunately, the pretty path I pictured in my head was in fact the steep, sidewalkless, main road for the entire West coast of St. Lucia. Not exactly a picturesque stroll!
 
So, the man who checked us in said he would give us a ride down to our room. We hopped in the hotel's van and another man got in the front seat. We drove down the hill and into the driveway of a cute green house, and the two men unlocked the door and showed us around. Our suite was HUGE--it took up the entire main floor of the house--and there was a sweet welcome message written with palm fronds on the bed. A basket of fruit from the hotel's own trees was waiting in the kitchen, and would be replenished each day. The men left, and promised that one would be back soon with our tuna sandwiches.

When he returned, we were blown away. These were incredible sandwiches! Triple-decker, lots of fresh veggies, and delicious tuna. Plus, huge pints of local juice to wash everything down. Things were looking very promising indeed!

It turns out that the man who delivered our sandwiches, Martin, was actually the night watchman. As he left, he showed us how there were 4 doors leading out onto the terrace and yard, and that each door had handle locks and deadbolts. He told us that he would come by a few times in the night to make sure that everything was secure, so we should not worry if we heard his car in the driveway, or someone walking around outside. He personally checked to make sure that all the doors were secure, and then, as he left through the front door, he watched through the window to make sure that we locked every bolt on the door. While this whole routine was clearly meant to make us feel safe, it certainly had a disconcerting tone. More than likely, he had been told to introduce himself to all the guests and make sure they knew there was someone monitoring their safety at night. Sadly, only days before we arrive in St. Lucia an Englishman had been murdered by burglars as he and his wife slept on their boat. Heightened fear on the part of tourists is bad for business, so Martin was trying to make sure that we knew that someone was looking out for us.

After we ate our sandwiches, Kevin went into the bedroom and moments later said, "Uh... don't come in here." So, I of course immediately leapt up and ran to the bedroom. On our headboard was a HUGE brown spider--the kind that has fat, poiny legs and a big round belly. "I told you not to come in here," Kevin said, as he lunged at the monster with his flip-flop. It was quick. It scurried onto a pillow. Kevin leapt onto the bed and took a second shot, but the demon ran behind the mattress and could no longer be seen. This presented a dilemma. Out of sight, out of mind? Or, Out of sight, next time I see you you'll be sinking your fangs into me while I sleep? Knowing that I was unlikely to get any sleep with this critter in, around, and/or under our bed, Kevin valiantly pulled the bed out from the wall, exposing the arachnid and catching him off guard. One whack of the flip-flop and the battle was over.

We gave a much warmer welcome to the other critter in our room--a morbidly obese gecko perched on the ceiling. This little fella was clearly a skilled insect hunter, having slain and eaten many a nemesis in his day. We felt comforted by the fact that, while we slept, he'd take care of any pesky mosqitoes or other spiders who had not yet felt our wrath.

In the morning, we woke up to the sound of rain and wind in the trees. It had rained the previous night and we'd hoped it would be gone by morning, but no luck. Kevin stayed in bed to catch a bit more sleep, but I couldn't wait to get up and find out whether our little outbuilding had the same view of St. Lucia's famous Pitons that the main hotel's website had boasted about. I pulled back a curtain leading to the huge outdoor terrace, and there they were, rising out of the sea across the valley from our hotel: two big, beautiful, perfectly triangular peaks. They were breathtaking, and despite the rainy weather I was very excited to explore Soufriere under these giants.

At 8am, the driver Paul swung into our driveway to haul us up the hill for breakfast. It was a buffet of "continental breakfast" fare with a Caribbean twist: sugar cane syrup for your pancakes, and "fried bakes" instead of bread. Fried bakes are basically deep-fried biscuits, and they account for 80% of the explanation for my 10-pound weight gain on this trip (the other 20% was the rum punch's fault).

Our hotel was perched on a cliffside high above the town of Soufriere, too long a walk along the road for us to safely get into town on our own. Each day, the hotel ran a free morning and afternoon shuttle to the town, so we hopped on the morning shuttle and headed into town to explore. 

We were decked out in our rain gear as it hadn't stopped raining all morning, but as soon as we got out of the van the clouds parted and it became sweltering hot out. We stopped to peel off a layer of clothing and cover ourselves in a layer of sunscreen. While we were thus engaged, a man approached and welcomed us, introducing himself as a local artist, "The Bird Man of St. Lucia." He asked if we were honeymooners (my guess is that the vast majority of visitors here ARE) and as we sunscreened he began carving a dried-up coconut shell. He worked very quickly with his sharp knife, scraps of coconut flying all over the sidewalk as he asked us questions about who we were, where we came from, and what our plans were while we were in St. Lucia.

A man came out of the house behind us and yelled at the Bird Man to clean up after himself, and he said he would, as soon as he finished our carving. It was starting to take shape: a nest with two hummingbirds, "for the lovebirds," he said. The man in the house remained on his porch to make sure that the Bird Man would clean up the scraps his carving left behind, and while he remained ever vigilant, his eye caught a local passerby and he began a religious debate with that man. Or, re-opened what we sensed was a long-running debate, carried out in small chunks whenever these men's paths crossed. The great absurdity of their debate (to me) is that they were both Christians; one was Protestant and the other Catholic. They were arguing about which one of them was "more right" about their Christian faith. As the Catholic on the porch berated the passing Protestant for the fragmentation of his wing of the church, the Protestant invited the Catholic to come over for lunch one day so they could have a proper conversation about it, and then he continued on his way. Bereft of a target for his nitpicking, the man looked down from his porch at the Bird Man and said, "You've got a lot of talent, but you are wasting your life." "I know, man," said the Bird Man. We paid him for our sweet carving, shook his hand, and went on our way.

We walked along the main beach-side road of Soufriere and could not get 10 steps without someone stopping us, shaking our hands, welcoming us, and asking us where we were from. The next part of this warm greeting, inevitably, was a plea to buy whatever handicraft they were selling. Upon your first polite "no" you are told gently that this is the only way the seller has to make a living; upon your second "no, thank you" the responding tone becomes more desperate, more pleading. So, you buy the fish made out of a palm frond and you carry on. And then the next person stops you and wants to meet you, and wants to sell you something, and you become exhausted by the whole dance, embarrassed of your own relative riches, and desperate for people to stop stopping you, and welcoming you, and pleading with you to buy what they have made. We ducked into a waterfront restaurant and ate lunch, and waited there for the afternoon shuttle to return. As we made our way back to the shuttle stop, we asked a man if there was a grocery store nearby. Instead of directing us, he walked us there (less than 2 blocks) and then waited outside for us to pay him something on our way out. Words to the wise: if you are going to Soufriere, bring a lot of small bills!

During our four days in Soufriere, it was rainy on-and-off, all day, every day. We mainly stayed up at the hotel, hanging around on our terrace or eating in the great open-air restaurant that was on-site. We did, however, take a few fun excursions from there.
 
First, we visited "The Drive-In Volcano" which is, as its name suggests, a volcano that the road leads you straight into the middle of. We took a quick tour and learned that the caldera, full of bubbling muddy pools that vent the volcano and help ease the pressure and prevent a full-on eruption, is in the same volcanic "stage" as the one in Santorini, Greece. One of our favourite memories of our Europe trip is wandering through the volcano and swimming in the volcanic hot spring, and this was a fun reminder. 

The stench at Soufriere's "Sulphur Springs" was more potent than any hot spring I've visited before (I read that some say "Soufriere" is actually an elision of "Sulphur in the Air") but you do get used to it quite quickly. The hills surrounding the caldera were full of mango and cashew trees, and also a whole lot of white pine trees that were imported and planted around the "bowl" of the volcano to prevent soil erosion. There were goats roaming the hillside, and tons of birds. Our tour guide said, "if you don't hear the birds, you run like hell!"

After our tour was finished, we headed down the pungent stream which began in the bubbling geysers and cooled off as it tricked down the riverbed. A few hundred metres below the geysers, we entered the hot spring pool and had a fantastic and relaxing soak. Then, a man gestured for us to get out of the pool and slather ourselves with volcanic mud from a few buckets that he had collected. We covered ourselves in the warm, grey, putty-like exfoliant, and then he told us to stand in the sun for a few minutes while the mud hardened. After that, we got back in the hot spring tub and rubbed the mud off. The final stage was a shower with cold, fresh water. My skin felt so amazing soft after this!

Still a little grubby from the mud bath, but super relaxed, we had Paul (the driver from the hotel) take us to another set of baths for even MORE relaxation. While the Sulphur Springs were quite heavily populated with tourists, our next stop at the New Jerusalem Baths was blissfully peaceful. After a quick 5-minute hike in from the road, we found ourselves at a network of 3 engineered infinity pools, layered along the hillside. The top pool was full of water flowing directly from a hot spring, so this water was the warmest. As water spilled over the side of this pool it fell into the middle pool and cooled off a bit in the process. Below that, the water made its last stop at the coolest pool, which was also more shaded by a tree canopy than the other pools, so the water in this last bath stayed nice and cool. I told Kevin I felt a bit like Goldilocks, traveling from pool to pool and deciding which one was "just right". Unlike the Sulphur Springs baths, full of tour groups, these baths were populated by locals who were literally there to take a bath, bars of soap and all.

Now thoroughly and completely relaxed, we met back up with Paul and headed back to the hotel.

Our only other outing of any note during our time in Soufriere was our date night at Boucan--the restaurant at the Hotel Chocolat--whose menu features cocoa in EVERY dish. It was a delicious and inventive meal, and while I was definitely done eating chocolate by the time dessert was finished, Kevin said he would have been happy to continue having chocolate in every food item he ate :) On the table was a "cocoa nibs grinder" beside the salt and pepper; Kevin drank chocolate beer (yum) while I ordered a glass of chocolate gin (tasted just like regular gin to me, but this was certainly the first time I've ever drank a tumbler of gin on the rocks!); we had a cocoa-crusted goat cheese appy, which was divine, and a salad dressed in white chocolate vinaigrette; for our mains, we shared a cocoa Ital (basically a vegetarian stew) and cocoa-crusted dorado fish--DELICIOUS. For dessert we shared chocolate truffles and chocolate-covered ice cream with mango coulis. Mmmmmmm. A delicious way to end our last day in Soufriere!

A taxi ride to our next destination, tourist-central Rodney Bay, was going to cost about $80-100 US. I saw an ad for a catamaran trip that left Rodney Bay, stopped in Soufriere to visit the Sulphur Springs, and returned to Rodney Bay in the evening. I emailed the company and explained that we were already in Soufriere, and had already visited the Sulphur Springs, but would love to join the last leg of their cruise in order to catch a ride to Rodney Bay. They were more than happy to oblige, and we paid $30 US each for a boat ride to our next destination, complete with an open bar, and a snorkeling stop at the black sand Anse Cochon (Pig Beach). This was quite possibly the best money-saving move I have ever made!

During the stop at Anse Cochon, the catamaran was swarmed with kayaks, dinghies, and canoes full of tchotchkies being sold to the passengers. The eager salesman would even paddle up to a person swimming and try to sell them stuff while they swam! The only successful sale we witnessed was that one woman was trying to snorkel despite apparently not knowing how to swim... she paid a kayaker to tow her around the reef.

Altogether a fantastic "travel day" and maybe the best ever way to get from A to B. Caribbean booze cruises: we are 2 for 2.