THE CARIBBEAN, NICE AND EASY Drawn to the many splendors of a lush, laid-back St. Lucia, visitors find life in the slow lane

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I am lounging on my terra-cotta terrace, overlooking the forested twin peaks of the half-mile-high Pitons. Purple and red streaks coat the sky as an orange sun melts slowly into the Caribbean Sea. The only sounds are palm fronds clacking softly in the breeze, the muffled roar of the sea and the high-pitched chirp of millions of crickets greeting the night.

Another lazy day bites the dusk in St. Lucia.

Lush and laid-back, this mountainous dot between St. Vincent and Martinique is a perfect retreat for those game for some genteel roughing it. This is not the place to come for gourmet dining, a wild night life, or hop-to service -- obsequious is not a word that will come to mind as you deal with the hotel serving staff.

Forget mellow drives through the countryside in your handy rental car. The very knock-'em-dead scenery and relative lack of development that recommend St. Lucia conspire to make it the drive from hell.

Muddy roads with potholes the size of refrigerators curve around cliff edges and through rain forest thick with banana trees and coconut palms, and an unwritten code allows everyone to drive in the middle of the road -- in both directions. Oncoming trucks always have the right of way, but aside from that common-sense credo for survival, islanders seem to navigate with a kind of subliminal radar as they dodge potholes -- and chickens and cows and goats -- like players in some mobile video game.

While St. Lucia is but 27 miles from top to bottom, the drive can take three hours -- if you make it. A young Connecticut couple I met were rammed by a truck the first hour of their jeep rental. They spent the rest of the day filling out police reports and the rest of the week holed up at their hotel, too shaky to venture farther than the reefs off the hotel beach for a little snorkeling.

You really don't want to rent a car here.

But you don't have to. Most of the island's dozen or so resorts offer day trips to the top sights, and -- even better -- there are plenty of owner-operated taxis, whose drivers often make excellent private guides. They not only can show you the key towns and natural wonders but also provide a sense of island flavor. You could well end up buying each other rounds of Bounty Rum, the local brew, after sharing a bumpy day on the road.

You also can tour via helicopter or boat -- perfect vantage points for appreciating St. Lucia's abundant splendors.

The island's main claim to fame is the Pitons, widely regarded as the Caribbean's most distinctive landmark. As you drive along the western side of the island, the Pitons play hide-and-seek, popping up behind a gorgeous seascape as you round a bend, then disappearing behind a host of palm-carpeted hills. It's almost worth the trip just to see these giants, but St. Lucia offers plenty of other rewards:

Other rewards

*The rugged interior rain forest: Covering 11 percent of the island, this dense and wet expanse is crisscrossed with rugged trails. Just driving through the countryside will provide plenty of rain-forest views, but there's nothing like traipsing through the lush foliage, banana and palm trees towering above. You might even catch a glimpse of the rare parrot Amazona versicolor, though there are few other wild animals in the rain forest. Most hotels provide easy-does-it tours into less dense parts of the forest; the more adventuresome -- and nimble -- can get deeper into the bush with a forestry service guide. Call the forest service at (809) 452-3231.

My hotel recommended an excellent private guide, Martial Simon -- (809) 454-7390 -- who actually owns land in the rain-forest area and operates a small craft shop next to the tourist office in Soufriere. He delighted in hacking dense overgrowth out of our way with a huge machete and shaking oranges down from trees for instant thirst-quenching.

*Sulphur Springs Park: Just outside the southern colonial town of Soufriere, the park is a 7-acre crater billed as the world's largest drive-in volcano. A walk through the crater, formed 40,000 years ago when a volcano collapsed, takes you past more than a dozen pools and hot springs bubbling and belching sulfur-laden steam. (The smell is like that of rotten eggs and is unforgettable.) A guide can be hired for a pittance at the entry gate.

*The Diamond Botanical Gardens Waterfall and Mineral Baths: Near Sulphur Springs Park, this is a wonderland of labeled plants and flowers leading up to rustic indoor and outdoor baths you can soak in for a small fee. The waterfall -- not huge, but pretty -- is just beyond.

*Pigeon Island National Park: Thanks to a causeway connecting the mainland with the small island just off the northwest coast, you can drive or walk to this 40-acre preserve and climb the stone steps to the ruins of the 18th century Fort Rodney. The sweeping ocean and island views from the top are gorgeous, and you can watch the yachts and cruise ships sail into idyllic Rodney Bay.

*Maria Islands Nature Reserve: Off St. Lucia's southeastern tip, the Marias are two small islands with abundant flora and fauna. North of the Marias, also on the eastern coast, is Frigate Island Nature Reserve, a roosting place for its namesake birds. The National Trust -- (809) 452-5005 -- arranges tours to Frigate Island and the Marias (the latter are closed during the May-to-July nesting season).

*Miles and miles of perfect crescent beaches: Offshore reefs afford excellent snorkeling and diving, but many of St. Lucia's best beaches are accessible only by boat. You can arrange, through your hotel, organized diving or snorkeling excursions, or strike a deal with one of the local hucksters who may approach you on the hotel beach, offering to shuttle you to one of the reefs in his little motorboat. It's a good idea to ask the hotel's beach staff if the person is reputable; also, you'll have to provide your own snorkeling gear -- usually available free to hotel guests.

Make sure to explore "city life" as well -- from the small villages that are little more than a few rough-hewn houses, to the bustling, traffic-clogged capital of Castries in the north, where you'll find St. Lucia's better restaurants, a big open market and the island's only traffic light.

Prettiest town

The prettiest town by far, and the one most deserving of leisurely exploration on foot, is the fishing community of Soufriere in the south. Here, more than perhaps anywhere else on the island, you'll feel St. Lucia's French heritage. The pastel and whitewashed wooden houses around the tree-filled central square have balconies with carved wooden balustrades, vestiges from colonial times.

Here, as throughout the island, one hears the Creole patois that is the native tongue (though English is the official language). That dual national tone is explained by the island's history. From the mid-17th century to the early 19th century, St. Lucia was continually fought over by the British and the French, changing hands 14 times, until it finally ended up British in 1803. It became a politically independent member of the British Commonwealth in 1979.

Although St. Lucia, once the poorest nation in the Caribbean, has become a tourist haven, the money hasn't yet filtered down to the poorer sectors -- a fact evident in Soufriere's one-room schoolhouse.

Strolling through town for the day, I came across the small school just as classes were letting out. Dozens of blue-uniformed children, from tots to teen-agers, streamed out -- too many, it seemed, to have come from that one building.

I went in to explore and found an exhausted-looking headmistress, who told me the school had 300 children, preschool to junior high, all in a room about the size of a small movie house. Twelve grades were taught simultaneously, delineated only by large chalkboards balanced atop long tables. Asked if so many children and grades in one room were daunting, she confessed she was "cooling out" (the St. Lucian equivalent of burning out) on teaching.

A different kind of bustle was in full swing a few blocks away at the waterfront. Arriving at sunset, just as the fishing boats -- 30-foot hollowed-out tree trunks -- came in with the day's catch, I joined the villagers scurrying to buy silvery fish still flopping madly on the pastel-painted boat bottoms.

Along the shore, men with leathery faces from a life of sun and salt air sat quietly mending green and blue nets, while children in school uniforms skipped by and dogs and pigs darted across the narrow road. Alongside one pink boat, a small child played happily in a giant cardboard box, as if it were the flashiest new fad at Toys R Us.

If it's Friday night and you're at the northern end of the island, hop a cab to the little town of Gros Islet, near Castries. This normally quiet village once a week erupts into the hottest spot on the island with its rousing "Jump Up." The block party, which starts about 10 p.m. and goes deep into the night, takes place on the town's dirt main street, a narrow stretch bordered by a couple of bars and little stores.

At one end, huge speakers blast music from reggae to swing, as young and old dance everything from jitterbug to lambada. Along the side of the road, meanwhile, women in head scarves sell fish cakes and barbecued chicken with fiery sauce, and men hawk cans of Heineken beer from plastic coolers. Originally just an occasional neighborhood get-together, Jump Up began to attract tourists a few years ago and is now a happy mix of islanders and visitors, who become looser and livelier as the night goes on and more beer goes down the gullet. It's wild -- but safe.

If you're lucky, you may even hear a "shak shak" band, an island original featuring a banjo, a violin, a guitar, and two bean-filled cans that are rubbed together to create a distinctive West Indian beat.

The real reason

That's about it for sightseeing -- not exactly a plethora of organized amusements, but that's not the reason to come to St. Lucia. Memories likely will be as much about islander life as tourist life.

My clearest memory is of my first bumpy ride from Hewanorra International Airport to my hotel above Soufriere -- an 18-mile journey that took nearly two hours. Cows and goats grazed placidly by the side of the road, and women scrubbed clothes in a rocky stream bed, their hair up in pink and green curlers in preparation for a Saturday night out. Men carrying huge sacks of sugar and grain on their heads trudged slowly along the steep terrain, their backs hunched under the weight of the load.

We bounced violently down the road, veering out of the way of on coming trucks and slowing to a crawl behind open jeeps brimming with women in head scarves and bare-chested men wedged between mounds of vegetables and bananas on their way to market.

"Can't we get around them?" I urged the taxi driver -- trying to be pleasant while at the same time venting my impatience with the delay. If this were Miami, horns would be honking like crazy.

"Relax, mon," he called over his shoulder, if anything, slowing a bit. "What you come to an island for, you wanna be in a hurry?"

I was about to argue, then realized he had a point. Besides, I had come to see the sights of St. Lucia, and here they were -- even if I would have preferred a shower, a nap and an ice-cold drink before encountering them.

So I settled back in my seat, and we talked about life in St. Lucia and life in America and our families and our governments and a dozen other subjects I can't remember now but that seemed important at the time. By the time we got to my hotel, I wasn't in such a rush to get to the registration desk after all.

My driver, however, couldn't stay to chat. He was busy stuffing suitcases into the trunk of his cab as his fare back to the airport rushed, sweating, into the back seat, calling out: "We're gonna have to hurry!"

If you go . . .

St. Lucia has two airports -- Hewanorra International at the southern tip of the island and Vigie in the north. Since the road system is so bad, fly into the airport closest to your resort.

Currency: A dollar is worth about 2.6 East Caribbean dollars (EC $2.6). U.S. currency is widely accepted, as are credit cards.

Entry requirements: A U.S. passport is necessary. There is an EC $20 departure tax -- about $8.

Electric current: 220 volts; a converter is necessary.

Where to eat:

Except where noted, all phone numbers are in area code 809. In St. Lucia, dial only the final five digits.

Castries

*The Green Parrot, 452-3399. Great views from setting on Morne Fortune. Excellent fish and steaks, and lots of tropical fruits and vegetables. There's a floor show Saturdays.

*San Antoine, 452-4660. One of St. Lucia's best restaurants, famous for crawfish in lemon garlic. Front room tables overlook ,, the harbor. Expensive.

*Les Pitons, 452-3081. At Cunard Le Toc Hotel, popular for fresh lobsters.

*Rain, 452-3022. In the center of town overlooking the main square, this place has strong drinks and is popular for pizza. Garden seating in back.

Soufriere

*The Hummingbird, 454-7232. At the foot of the hill leading up to Anse Chastanet Hotel. Creole food is excellent; good fish curries and ceviche.

*The Still, 454-7224. Set in an old rum distillery and open only for lunch, this is a good place to sample tropical fruits and vegetables, many grown on the owners' plantation and served buffet style. Green banana salad, christophine, breadfruit, pepper pot beef, johnnycakes and fried plantains are among the local delicacies.

Activities:

*Helicopter tours: St. Lucia Helicopters (453-6950), based at the Pointe Seraphine shopping center near Vigie Airport, runs excursions over the southern part of the island (over the rain forest and the Pitons; $70 per person for a 20-minute tour) or the north (over Rodney Bay up to Cap Estate; $35 for a 10-minute ride).

*Day sails: The Unicorn (452-6811) is a 140-foot square-rigged sailboat that looks like an old pirate ship. They stuff this ship to the gills with a maximum of 100 passengers, but most report it's an enjoyable trip, sailing the coast, seeing the Pitons and Botanical Gardens, and snorkeling offshore reefs. Hotel pickup, buffet lunch and drinks, and snorkeling are included in the price of the eight-hour trip -- $58 per person; children 5 to 12, $29; under 5, free.

For a similar experience on a smaller boat, sail the coast on the 56-foot catamaran Endless Summer (452-8651). The trip itinerary basically the same as the Unicorn's, but Endless Summer takes 70 people instead of 100. Charge: $58 per person; children under 12, $29.

*Plantation tours: Tours of the Marquis Estate, on the northeast coast, and the Errard Plantation, on the east coast, will take you through the process of growing and harvesting bananas, coconuts and cocoa. Tours can be arranged through hotel tour desks.

*Nature treks: Guided hikes in the Pitons and into the rain forest ++ can be arranged through the Forest Service (452-3231 or 452-3078). An excellent private guide is Martial Simon, who also runs a small craft shop in Soufriere (452-7390).

Information:

For information and promotional pamphlets, write the St. Lucia Tourist Board, 820 Second Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017; telephone (212) 867-2950.

The tourist board has offices in St. Lucia at Pointe Seraphine shopping center near Castries (452-4094) and on Bay Street at the Soufriere waterfront (454-7419).

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