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marigot bay sunset sailboat sail st lucia caribbeanWhen I caught my first glimpse of St. Lucia from the deck of a cruise ship, sailing past the famous Twin Pitons on the island's verdant west coast, I was ready to declare it the loveliest island on our itinerary -- and I hadn't even stepped foot on it yet. The dramatic mountain peaks seemed to emerge straight from the sea; beyond them was a wilderness of tropical foliage, shimmering green and gold in the early-morning sunlight.

I'm not the only visitor who's been struck by the island's beauty, which has earned it the nickname "Helen of the West Indies." Though St. Lucia has plenty of visitors, both from cruise ships and a steady influx of honeymooners, the island has remained unspoiled -- largely due to the locals' commitment to protecting its rain forests and other natural resources. A sizable percentage of the island (some 19,000 acres) is protected as part of the St. Lucia National Rain Forest.

What development there is on St. Lucia is mostly in the area around Castries, the island's colorful and energetic capital city. It's worth a look, especially if you're in search of duty-free goods or local handicrafts, but to appreciate St. Lucia's natural beauty you'll want to take a bus, rental car or cab out of town. Perhaps the prettiest part of the island is in the south, and most visitors head there first to visit the former French colonial capital, the lush Diamond Botanical Gardens and the world's only drive-in volcano. Other options include trekking through the rain forest to one of the island's many hidden waterfalls, or taking a snorkeling excursion to the sunken wreck off of Anse Cochon.

Settled first by the Arawaks and then the Caribs, St. Lucia became a hotly contested territory with the arrival of Europeans. It was passed back and forth 14 times between the British and the French from the mid-17th century to 1814, when the Brits finally took possession for good. Traces of both cultures still remain in the language -- many St. Lucians speak both English and a French Creole patois -- and in distinctive place names like Soufriere, Gros Islet, Rodney Bay and Pigeon Island.

What to See
The area in and around the 18th-century city of Soufriere is one of the loveliest parts of the island. Located in the shadow of the Pitons, Soufriere was once the capital of St. Lucia back when it was a French colony, and today its colorful buildings with gingerbread trim still hold plenty of historic charm. This is home to the Soufriere Drive-In Volcano, where you can get up close and personal with a collection of multi-colored sulfur pools -- an extraordinary sight, but be prepared for the stench!

A more fragrant option near Soufriere is the Diamond Botanical Gardens & Waterfall, where you can stroll through acres of lush flowering plants and trees and even go swimming in one of the mineral baths near Diamond Waterfall. Originally built at the behest of King Louis XVI of France, the estate is now owned by the descendents of its 18th-century owners.

twin pitons piton st lucia beach palm trees One of those much-hyped (but still fascinating) attractions is the Pitons. These twin mountains, whose peaks rise right out of the ocean for almost a half-mile, are on the island's southwest coast. If you're ambitious and physically fit, it's possible to hike up Gros Piton; be warned that it's a challenging and time-consuming climb, and you'll need both a guide and permission from the St. Lucia Forest & Lands Department. For other travelers, the best way to see the peaks is from the water; various local tour operators offer boat excursions that sail along the coast. The Pitons are also visible as you drive in and around Soufriere.

Try your hand at deep-sea fishing with a half- or full-day tour. Captain Mike's, a family-run company, operates six boats from a harbor just outside of Castries. Both neophytes and experienced fishermen are welcome.

Fun for both children and adults is a visit to Pigeon Island, at the very northwest tip of St. Lucia. Once home to a group of Carib Indians and later a pirate hideout, today the island is part of the St. Lucia National Trust, with beaches, a restaurant, and the historic remains of the barracks and garrisons where the French and English once fought for control of St. Lucia. Learn all the compelling history of the island at the Museum and Interpretive Centre, housed in the former British officers' mess building, which has been restored to the way it looked in 1808. Don't miss a hike up to the hilltop ruins of Fort Rodney for sweeping views of the sea and the mainland.

Those interested in snorkeling should head to Anse Chastanet or Anse Cochon to explore spectacular reefs, colorful marine life and -- at Anse Cochon -- an old sunken ship.

Go horseback riding along the beach with Trim's National Riding Academy. You can even swim with your horse! (The "Swim with the Horses" trip is a very popular option -- advance reservations are recommended.)

Golfers should check out the St. Lucia Golf Resort & Country Club, an 18-hole course open to the general public. There's a well-stocked bar and pro shop. Temporary membership, golfing equipment and lessons by the resident pro are available.

Want to see the island from a different perspective? St. Lucia Helicopters offers 10- to 30-minute aerial tours (you can fly over the north or south parts of the island, or choose both), complete with commentary on the island's history, rain forests, indigenous species and more.

Looking for beaches? Choc Beach is just a 20-minute taxi ride from Castries, and offers a lovely stretch of white sand. The white-sand beaches at the aforementioned Pigeon Island have all sorts of amenities, including a restaurant, historical museum and water sports. Anse des Pitons is nestled between St. Lucia's famous twin peaks and is a good place for snorkeling or diving. (Fun fact: This beach was initially made of volcanic black sand, but the white sand that you see today was imported to "improve" its appearance.)

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