Despite its problems, St. Lucia big with honeymooners

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

ST. LUCIA, West Indies - St. Lucia is one of those mountainous Caribbean islands that looks great from up high, both from an airplane or one of the Twin Pitons rising nearly 2,500 feet. From that height, with the sun bouncing off the Caribbean Sea, creating a thousand, dazzling crystals of light, the views are magazine and postcard-ready.

Down on the ground, of course, it can be a different story. The 238-square-mile island has more than its share of island beauty, but St.Lucia also has its share of problems typically facing Caribbean islandsnowadays. Narrow, pot-holed roads winding around mountain curves, filledwith drivers hell-bent on setting time trial records; you probably don'twant to rent a car here unless you want to get in on the quest for land-speed records.

The island has also fallen victim to the sort of crime that is on therise most everywhere in the Caribbean. In fact, a recent upsurge in violent crime - this year the homicide rate is more than double for the same time period last year - has the island on the verge of bringing back capital punishment. The government seems to be on a certain path toward re-instituting hanging, despite protests from human rights groups. The government's initiative has popular backing.

Like other islands, St. Lucia is making a painful economic transition, from an agricultural base, mainly bananas, to tourism; recent trading privileges in Europe have eroded to the point where many St. Lucia farmers are hurting.

All this being said, the island is still one of the most popular Caribbean destinations, mainly because of its breathtaking scenery and aplethora of great resorts. And in truth, much of the crime is drug and gang-related and directed at fellow islanders. As long as you take the usual precautions, you shouldn't have a problem.

Most of the islands have marketing nicknames and St. Lucia's is the "Helen of the West Indies," aimed at highlighting its natural beauty. St. Lucia loves its honeymooners and the honeymooners love it back.

Most of the development is in the capital city of Castries and at thenorthern tip of the island, where most of the tourists go. The architecture in Castries isn't particularly interesting because four major fires between 1796 and 1948 destroyed the majority of the old, colonial buildings.

Still, if you can get around the rest of the island - consider a drive-tour from one of the tour companies - you will find large stretches of unspoiled beauty with interesting, friendly little towns and villages in between. You may also want to time your visit around theJazz Festival or Carnival, which occurs in June and July.

There isn't a lot of golf on the island; as of this writing, there's only one 18-hole course and a resort nine-holer. A planned JackNicklaus design on the island is currently "in limbo," according to a Nicklaus Design spokesperson. But, St. Lucia is hoping the addition ofa GregNorman design at Le Paradis, a major resort development on the island's relatively isolated southeast coast, will turn it into a golf destination.

That may be difficult, considering the variety of courses available at islands like Puerto Rico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

Must plays

The St. Lucia Golf and Country Club doesn't have any knock-your-socks-off Caribbean views, but that's about the only thing that disappoints. The course is a rolling, tumbling gem that plays through the shadowing green hills that rise around you. There are enough elevation changes and sloping fairways and greens to make you wish you hadn't had that last rum punch at closing time last night.

"This is a beautiful golf course which incorporates a lot of nature,"Superintendent Paul Sheppard, who worked at St. Andrews Golf Club inTrinidad for 16 years, told Birdie magazine. "There are lots ofponds which attract wild fowl and birds. I'm very interested in the environment and want to get this golf course involved in some kind of sanctuary program for golf courses."

At 6,829 yards and with a slope rating of 138, it isn't a typical country club course, geared for the cocktail set who wants birdies to gowith their gin and tonics. The course has twisting, rolling fairways, some very narrow landing areas and quite a few blind shots.

Must plays in future

The planned Norman course at Le Paradis, promises to be a doozy, particularly No. 14, a 175-yard one-shotter to a green that juts out over Galet Bay, at the end of the Galet peninsula. On three sides, it's a 100-foot drop into the bay, down past the rugged cliffs and into the churning Atlantic Ocean. It will be a very scenic, dramatic hole, as will most of the rest of the course.

There will be an inland parklands section, rising to the ridgeline holes at 600 feet of elevation, then descending to four holes wrapping around the bay, perched atop rocky cliffs. The views on this part of theisland, overlooking the broader Praslin Bay, are something to behold, sodifferent than the calm, serene Caribbean side.

"There aren't many sites like this left in the world," said Brian Stevens of Norman's design firm. "I really think this will be unrivaled in the region."

The course is scheduled to be completed in 2007.

Solid seconds

The Sandals Regency course was designed by Richard Colon, from Barbados, a man who apparently never met a tight fairway he didn't like. Of course, he didn't have much room to work with, and it shows - the Sandals course is tighter than Uncle Harry's hat band, a tortuous, claustrophobic little track that keeps your driver in the bag, or should.

"Your first time around, play safe," said caddy Shannon Auguste. "If you're wild, you'll be in trouble."

The course obviously doesn't compare to the St. Lucia Golf and Country Club course, but then neither does the green fees. As mentioned earlier, Sandals guests play free, and anyone else can play for $30 for nine holes or $40 for 18. Caddies are mandatory, and expect tips of $5-$10. For that money, this can be a pleasant day of golf, even though you can never really cut loose with big wood on the 2,475-yard layout. Practice your long irons.

Off course

St. Lucia has scads of beaches to lounge on, as well as "drive-in" volcanos, mineral baths and banana plantations. It also has its version of a public market in Castries, one of the better ones in the Caribbean.

The Pigeon Island National Historic Park is well worth a visit, as isMorne Fortune, the "Hill of Good Luck," where some of the most ferociousbattles between the French and British took place. It has a military cemetery and museum.

Marigot Bay is probably the most beautiful of the island's bays, where several movies have been filmed.

The town of Soufriere is where the Twin Pitons, Petit Piton and Gros Piton are located. They're volcanic cones you can climb. Mount Soufriereis the drive-in volcano - you can literally drive your car in.

Dining out

There are dozens of good restaurants on St. Lucia. For something different, there is a restaurant at Pigeon Park called Jambe de Bois, named after a pirate with a wooden leg, the first European to make this island his home.

The Great House in Gros Islet serves French, international and Creoleand sits on an old plantation house. The Green Parrot in Castries overlooks Castries harbor, and is a hot spot for locals, expatriates andvisitors. The Coal Pot has been a fixture on the island for 40 years, and serves Caribbean and French dishes, like curried chicken in a coconut shell.

Stay and play

Again, there is a wealth to choose from. Bay Gardens Hotel in Rodney Bay is a good value; a lot of businessmen stay here. There are no views,but Reduit Beach is a five-minute walk. Internet connections are sometimes iffy.

Sandals has three resorts on the island, and they aren't cheap. For the budget-minded, there is the Hummingbird Beach Resort.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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