St. Lucia is the sort of island that travelers to the Caribbean dream about--a small, lush tropical gem that is still relatively unknown. One of the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles, it is located midway down the Eastern Caribbean chain, between Martinique and St. Vincent, and north of Barbados. St. Lucia is only 27 miles long and 14 miles wide, with a shape that is said to resemble either a mango or an avocado (depending on your taste). The Atlantic Ocean kisses its eastern shore, while the beaches of the west coast owe their beauty to the calm Caribbean Sea.
A verdant, mountainous island halfway between Martinique and St. Vincent, St. Lucia has evolved into one of the Caribbean's most popular vacation destinations—particularly for honeymooners and other romantics enticed by the island's striking natural beauty, its many splendid resorts and appealing inns, and its welcoming atmosphere.
The capital city of Castries and nearby villages in the northwest are home to 40% of the 180,000 St. Lucians. This area, along with Rodney Bay farther north and Marigot Bay just south of the capital, are the destinations of most vacationers. In the central and southwestern parts of the island dense rain forest, jungle-covered mountains, and vast banana plantations dominate the landscape. A tortuous road follows most of the coastline, bisecting small villages, cutting through mountains, and passing by fertile valleys. On the southwest coast, Petit Piton and Gros Piton, the island's unusual twin peaks that rise out of the sea to more than 2,600 feet, are familiar landmarks for sailors and aviators alike. Divers are attracted to the reefs found just north of Soufrière, which was the capital during French colonial times. Most of the natural tourist attractions are in this area, along with several more fine resorts and inns.
The pirate François Le Clerc, nicknamed Jambe de Bois (Wooden Leg) for obvious reasons, was the first European "settler" in St. Lucia. In the late 16th century Le Clerc holed up on Pigeon Island, just off the island's northernmost point, and used it as a staging ground for attacking passing ships. Now Pigeon Island is a national park, connected by a causeway to the mainland; today Sandals Grande St. Lucian Spa & Beach Resort, one of the largest resorts in St. Lucia, and The Landings, a luxury villa community, sprawl along that causeway.
Like most of its Caribbean neighbors, St. Lucia was first inhabited by Arawaks and then the Carib Indians. British settlers attempted to colonize the island twice in the early 1600s, but it wasn't until 1651, after the French West India Company suppressed the local Caribs, that Europeans gained a foothold. For 150 years battles over possession of the island were frequent between the French and the British, with a dizzying 14 changes in power before the British finally took possession in 1814. The Europeans established sugar plantations, using slaves from West Africa to work the fields. By 1838, when the slaves were emancipated, more than 90% of the population was of African descent—roughly the same proportion of today's 180,000 St. Lucians.
On February 22, 1979, St. Lucia became an independent state within the British Commonwealth of Nations, with a resident governor-general appointed by the queen. Still, the island appears to have retained more relics of French influence—notably the island patois, cuisine, village names, and surnames—than of the British. Most likely, that's because the British contribution primarily involved the English language, the educational and legal systems, and the political structure, whereas the French culture historically had more influence on the arts—culinary, dance, and music.
The island becomes especially tuneful for 10 days every May, when the St. Lucia Jazz Festival welcomes renowned international musicians who perform for enthusiastic fans at Pigeon Island National Park and other island venues. St. Lucians themselves love jazz—and the beat of Caribbean music resonates throughout the island.