Guest lecturer Sandy Cares’ animated and entertaining talks about people and events reveal colorful and unexpected aspects of the destination’s history, culture and traditions. Sandy has been lecturing aboard Oceania Cruises throughout the Caribbean and Central America since January 2014. Below, she shares her experience in the quaint capital of St. Lucia.
The little capital of arguably the most picturesque island in the West Indies typically merits a mere passing glance from the flotilla of tour buses that whisk by en route to more scenic destinations. A devastating fire gutted the city in 1948, leaving just a handful of landmarks so it typically doesn’t take much more than an hour to check out Castries – though there are several gems worth discovering.
Castries today is actually a hubbub of activity as tourists and locals interact in a kabuki dance wending and weaving their respective ways along crowded sidewalks amidst lively streams of human and vehicular traffic. Hawkers lining the curbs offer up tempting displays of tropical fruits, homemade sweets and ice creams, necklaces and eye-catching souvenirs, conch shells, fresh coconut water, and of course the island’s pride, fragrant ripe bananas. They even sell little glass bottles of banana ketchup, an island novelty, and other banana-based products including banana soaps and skin creams, along with banana liqueur.
Soon I am in front of the open doors of an imposing stone church that survived the fire and seems more suited to a French provincial town than in this tropical setting. Inside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception the neat rows of polished wooden pews can accommodate over 2,000 worshippers but only a scant couple dozen worshippers are scattered here and there in quiet contemplation. As the spiritual center for Catholics (Catholicism is the major religion of this island), the cathedral stands as a reminder of the French cultural influence when the island changed hands 14 times between the French and British during colonial times.
As my eyes adjust from the glaring sunshine outside, the interior walls of the Immaculate Conception explode in a riot of unexpected tropical colors. Convinced this is one of Castries’s secret gems, I am already rewarded for my decision to explore the town. In 1985 in anticipation of Pope John Paul II’s visit, local St. Lucian artist Dunstan St. Omer painted these walls using a vibrant West Indian palette to showcase black saints and black martyrs in homage to the island’s African slave legacy. It was Dunstan St. Omer that also designed St. Lucia’s blue, white, black and gold national flag.
Directly across the street, a big and preposterously old Saman tree waves me into Derek Walcott Square. Once called Columbus Square, this green space graced with a central fountain is a favorite gathering spot for locals. It was renamed to honor Derek Walcott, hometown hero and recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Walcott’s epic poem, Omeros, is loosely patterned after Homer’s ancient Greek works, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and gives voice to the millions brought to the Caribbean region against their will who sought a distinctly Caribbean identity.
Throughout the poem, he celebrates the natural beauty of St. Lucia and compares her to Helen of Troy, also fought over for her beauty. In fact, St. Lucia was at times referred to as “the Helen of the West Indies.” A statue in the park immortalizes Walcott, born in 1930. He built his career at Boston University, and nowadays, the occasional Walcott sighting assures locals that he is enjoying a well-earned retirement in his native land.
But Walcott’s is not the only statue in Derek Walcott Square. Remarkably enough, this little island of some 170,000 produced not one, but two Nobel Laureates. Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992. Sir Arthur Lewis brought home the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1979.
In a coincidence that Charles Dickens would savor, both Nobel Laureates were born on the same day, January 23rd, fifteen years apart. Today, their statues appear to stand about fifteen feet apart.
Nearby, a gracious red brick building with emphatic white trim dignifies the street corner. This is the Central Library, a Victorian-era building that survived the fire of 1948. Castries boasts no city or national museum, but the famous Castries Market is a lively center of commercial and social activity that might well serve as the island’s contemporary museum of living art.
Housed under conjoined red roofs, the stalls spilling into the sidewalks offer everything from bananas and bush medicines to carved wooden masks, coconut bird feeders and clay coal pots. Vendors eager to bargain down to a sale typically post prices in U.S. dollars instead of the local Eastern Caribbean currency as a convenience for North American visitors.
While it might not offer the majesty of the twin-peaked Pitons or the exotic appeal of the black sand beaches or the historic impact of Fort Rodney, the little island capital of Castries does offer a few memorable gems. And they were all in a pleasant hour’s stroll with plenty of time to return to the awaiting Riviera.