Gros Islet, St. Lucia – A Great Place to Visit on Independence Day
Recently close friends asked us to share a week with them at East Winds Resort in St. Lucia. While we are not great fans of all-inclusive resorts, we agreed because it was rated #10 for all resorts worldwide by Trip Advisor and more importantly, it was in St. Lucia. It had been a life long desire to visit this island which many experienced travelers rate as the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Gros and Petit Piton are legendary landmarks and it is de rigeur to climb one of them before you die. What I was not expecting was the ease with which you can slip into a true local experience as we found out in the village of Gros Islet on Independence Day.
East Winds did not disappoint, but the very purpose of all-inclusive resorts is to insulate the guests from the local inhabitants, while one of the primary reasons to travel the world, at least for us, is to see how people live outside the cocoon. The hour and half drive from the airport had revealed a lush, mountainous landscape dotted with small villages and, in the few flat areas, banana plantations. The people we passed were uniformly dark skinned, well dressed and for the most part, smiling. From the window of the taxi, St. Lucia appeared to be reasonably prosperous. There were small shantytowns here and there, but the first overall impression was of a tropical paradise in which the residents were secure and happy with their lot in life. The only way to find out if this initial appraisal was accurate would be to get out and mingle with the locals, which we were able to do the next day.
Gros Islet is a small community just north of the Rodney Bay marina, where multi-million dollar yachts are tied up beside decrepit, but brightly coloured fishing boats. We had passed through it on the way to Pigeon Island, one of St. Lucia’s must see attractions, and decided we would walk back to the village after visiting the island.
The trip to Pigeon Island had gotten off to an unusual start. It was a short walk down a narrow lane from East Winds to the main north-south highway and about halfway there a middle aged black woman stopped her car and wanted to know if we wanted a ride. It turned out she was headed to Castries, opposite of the direction we were going. I couldn’t help but thinking what the chances would be of a middle aged white woman spontaneously stopping to offer a black couple a ride in similar circumstances. It was an example of what we would discover about these lovely people.
Getting around St. Lucia, at least for short distances, is very easy and cheap using the mini buses that run at frequent intervals up and down the main highway. These buses are also good places to meet people who are anxious to talk and provide helpful advice. Between them, St. Lucians speak a unique Creole patois which was completely unintelligible to our ears, but they also speak clear English which made for easy communication. The most striking thing we noticed on first getting into the minibus was the voice of Patsy Cline emanating from the radio, followed by Hank Williams and other honky tonk singers of a bygone era. As we found out over the next few days, this is the most popular type of music on St. Lucia, not reggae, hip hop or calypso. Who would guess?
It was a short walk back to Gros Islet from Pigeon Island, but two different worlds were on display. Just outside Pigeon Island, which cost $13 EC to enter, local families were picnicking on the beach much as North Americans did fifty years ago. Every family seemed to include at least three generations, all dressed immaculately as this was not only Sunday, but Independence Day as well. Many of the vehicles sported the handsome blue, yellow and black St. Lucian flag. The little ones were playing tag and other children’s games, screaming with delightful laughter at some minor success or failure, while the older kids tried their hand at cricket or soccer. The moms and grandmoms were spreading out the provisions from enormous hampers while the men sipped beer and looked on benignly. It was a picture of enormous contentment based on the simplest things in life – food, family and freedom.
This portion of beach gave way to a gated Sandals resort which forced us to walk on the road to get around it. It made us wonder why the people who stayed here felt the need to have this beautiful beach truncated so that no one could walk the whole length. Next to Sandals is The Landings, one of the most heavily promoted developments in the Caribbean. It was possible to get back to the water through a construction entrance but we soon found our way blocked by an artificial canal. However, there was a bell which we rang and soon a cheerful fellow in a small zodiac arrived to transport us across for a small tip. From here it was clear walking into Gros Islet.
While Gros Islet is by no means a well off community, at least monetarily, it is a far cry from some of the neighbourhoods in Castries or villages in the south of St. Lucia. The houses may be small, minuscule in some cases, but they are well maintained and brightly painted. The town is dominated by the large Catholic church where it appeared that services had just ended as the streets were full of individuals wearing Catholic Synod 2008 tee shirts. Others were dressed in what can only be described as their best finery – large hats and bright dresses.
Now that religious observances were taken care of, it was time to celebrate Independence Day. It is no exaggeration to say that fully half of the town’s businesses seemed to be small bars, almost all sporting the ubiquitous Bounty Rum and Piton Beer signs. The streets were festooned with streamers bearing the St. Lucian flag and everyone was in a festive mood. Even the dogs, that roamed freely up and down the streets, without any apparent owners, seemed especially friendly as they vigorously wagged their tails upon anyone paying them the least attention.
We entered a bar where many of the former synod attendees seemed to be congregated and ordered Pitons, which is the excellent local beer. Inside we noticed a number of tables of recent church goers sipping sherry and talking in the reserved tones that seem to be mandated by that libation. Taking our beers to the veranda of the bar we struck up a conversation with a number of the patrons who were all uniformly polite and interested in talking to us. They displayed a keen interest in all things Canadian. One particularly loquacious fellow appeared to have over imbibed on the communion wine and was clearly an embarrassment to the others who quietly admonished him to cease and desist.
During our week on the island we consistently found that as tranquil and laid back it was inside the gates of East Winds, the real fun began once we set out to explore this island paradise.