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Hiking St. Lucia

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Hiking St. Lucia

Postby KarenS » Mon Jun 19, 2006 7:27 am

From by Bob Downing
Knight Ridder Newspapers

CASTRIES, ST. LUCIA, West Indies - They were, quite simply, the steps from hell.

The killer steps - all 566 of them - ascended through the greenness of the tropical rainforest on St. Lucia, an eye-popping and alluring West Indies island.

Jim McNair of Broadview Heights, Ohio, and I huffed and puffed up those steps. We were dying, and we both knew it.

We stopped more than once to catch our breath and to try to determine whether we were really making any progress up the steep slope on the flanks of Piton Flore.

Our guide, Mitchell Adams, showed no ill effects of climbing the steps. He wasn't even breathing hard.

In fact, Adams was very proud of the steps on the Forestiere Rainforest Trail. He had built them over 2 1/2 months.

The steps were part of what was otherwise a delightful four-mile rainforest hike that we had arranged through the St. Lucia Forestry & Lands Department.

Volcanic St. Lucia - famed for its signature twin peaks, Gros Piton and Petit Piton - is one of the lushest, most unspoiled and prettiest Caribbean islands.

It has a rich history and was a battleground between England and France.

English is the official language, although most residents speak a French patois, and French influences abound.

Mother Nature is really the biggest attraction on St. Lucia. The island has lots of wild country in its rugged and remote central mountains that reach 3,145 feet. The interior of the one-time plantation island remains largely inaccessible.

Much of the rainforest on St. Lucia (pronounced LOO-sha) is protected. The St. Lucia Forest Reserve covers about 19,000 acres, or about 13 percent of the avocado-shaped island that is 27 miles long and 14 miles wide.

Nearly 30 miles of trails extend into the rainforest. The mountains get nearly 140 inches of rain annually, most of it from June to November.

We took a cab to the trailhead from the port city of Castries. The cab wound its way east for 30 minutes through narrow streets, up twisting and turning roads, climbing into the hills.

The road dead-ended at the preserve at Forestiere, where we met Adams for our introduction to the St. Lucia rainforest.

Our hike offered the chance to glimpse the endangered St. Lucia parrot, which has blue, green and red feathers. It is found only on the island. Its numbers are down to 500.

Hiking on your own in the St. Lucia nature preserve is not permitted. You can hire a forestry guide for $10 (U.S.) per person. The guide will make sure you don't get lost, protect the resources and also protect you from poisonous snakes, Adams said.

He led us into a jungle of green, all shades and textures of green, on a morning with leaden skies and heavy rains.

The loop trail follows part of the Old French Road that once crossed the island. The trail wends its way through a mature, pristine rainforest, a lush and verdant world.

The trees forming the upper canopy are massive, some reaching 180 feet. The most common species is the gommier. Another key species is the bois canon, along with giant fig trees, balsa and mahogany.

Other canopy trees include the chataignier, supported by giant buttresses that spread from the trees' bases, and the non-native blue mahoe, a type of hibiscus from Jamaica.

Beneath the forest giants is a dense midcanopy of trees and tall shrubs ranging from 20 to 70 feet in height, including tree ferns up to 40 feet high and bamboo grasses up to 60 feet high.

Small streams cut through the forest and provide the only openings in the jungle.

The 26-year-old Adams grew up in the rainforest. He had us sniff L'encens tree leaves, which have a pungent scent. He also dug under a rock in a stream to find a female freshwater crab.

Steps aside, the hike is not difficult. You can also hike to the top of nearby Piton Flore at 1,870 feet and enjoy its vistas.

We never saw the St. Lucia parrot. But St. Lucia provides some of the best birding in the West Indies, with 160 species.

St. Lucia is on the verge of becoming a hot, upscale destination. The island has been dominated by small resorts, inns and guest houses, but that is changing. The island has about 5,200 hotel rooms. It is also known for its restaurants.

The island, with a population of 156,000, is largely rural and dominated by banana and coconut plantations.

The landmark Pitons dominate the island's southwest coast, which features azure waters. Gros Piton rises 2,618 feet; Petit Piton, 2,438 feet. You can climb and hike to the top of both peaks. You also can drive into a simmering volcano near La Soufriere that features bubbling mud pots and sulfurous gases.

In Castries, the Morne is the highest spot; it has an old fort, army barracks that are now a school, and great vistas.

The island also offers diving, snorkeling, mountain biking, whale- and turtle-watching, windsurfing, sailing, deep-sea fishing and plantation tours.
Karen for
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