I'm no Alex Haley, but this feels just like home
Was it a holiday or was it the return of a prodigal son? Peter Victor was in two minds about a trip to his parents' birthplace
Sunday 29 November 2009
As we step off the plane, the Caribbean warmth grabs us in a bear hug – the three kids squeal with delight. St Lucia! Sun-kissed holiday destination and world capital of the clichéd barefoot-on-the-beach wedding.
But it is more: it holds our roots, the source of our history and tiny family legends. We breathe in warm air, feel the sun on our backs. We've travelled thousands of miles to a place that only a generation ago we would have called home.
We ride in the taxi from Hewanorra Airport on the island's southern end to the tourist resorts and hotels that blanket the north. Banana plantations and rainforests, clinging to volcanic hillsides, roll past the windows. I ponder the island's place in our family's DNA. My parents came to Britain from here in the early Sixties' assisted-passage rush to the Mother Country. My baby sister, born, like me, in England moved to St Lucia nearly a decade ago. Mum joined her two years ago: returning "home", I suspect, for good.
We are not staying; this is just a holiday: flight from Gatwick, luxury hotel villa, beaches and booze. I feel divided: part tourist, part prodigal son. It strikes me that St Lucia, small as it is, is also divided: one island, but two worlds. Just 27 miles long and 14 miles across its widest point, its sights, sounds and smells are almost as unlike Britain as can be. Yet, it feels familiar. Everyone speaks English; kids wear uniform like at any good school in the Home Counties.
It even has its own north/south divide. In the north are batteries of all-inclusive resorts, private beaches, golf clubs, multimillion-pound homes on the marina at Rodney Bay, and Castries – the capital. The south counters with the Pitons, banana plantations, a volcano, cloud-covered rainforests, exotic wildlife, less congestion, a more relaxed atmosphere and some pretty amazing beaches of its own.
Likewise, our holiday is divided. We spend the first week in the north, at a villa at Windjammer Landing, one of the most popular resorts on the island, less than 15 minutes' drive from Castries. The second week we pile in with my sister at her large house in Micoud, on the south-east coast.
We check in to Windjammer, rum punch in hand and settle into a three-bedroom villa. It is swish; kitchen, dining area, en suites for each bedroom, a swimming pool and hot tub. We swim or wallow and take in the panoramic sea views. We feed ourselves if we feel energetic; catch the shuttle bus down to one of the hotel's four restaurants if we don't. We succumb to eating, drinking cocktails and lounging around. It takes a conscious effort not to forget all that lies outside the resort's perimeter.
At the end of our week of luxury, we descend like an invading horde on my sister, who takes care of mum, her own young family and what seems like an army of assorted dogs.
In the UK, the children are guarded closely and never allowed out of sight; here they wander off in little gaggles to explore Micoud's beaches and trees. The beach police are never far away and every adult keeps an eye out.
We tour banana plantations with their Sainsbury's Fair Trade signs everywhere. My grandfather grew bananas on his patch of land at the top of a steep and treacherous mud path. I climbed it barefoot as a teenager and was bitten on the toe by a massive ant. He worked his land and sold the bananas for export almost until he died, just after my father. The signs bring a lump to my throat, and I feel silly.
We eat in local cafés and eateries in shopping malls: in England, the kids might have cavilled, but here they wolf down the spicy fish, jerk chicken with fig, plantain, yam and rice and peas.
We bathe in the hot, grey, stinky mineralised waters close to the volcano near Soufrière, where my parents grew up. The waters have now been made tourist-friendly, with broad pipes feeding a large plunge pool. The children listen round-eyed to how their granddad washed in the milky flow winding through its natural channels long before any of this was built, and how he took me along the first time I visited the island, aged 13.
Each excursion is an adventure in family history. A stop for a meal suddenly turns into visit to a great-uncle or an unexpected meeting with a long-lost cousin. In London, we look back half a century and our line disappears without trace. Here, on holiday, we extend backwards to infinity.
On this island of two worlds, we are the children of two cultures. For me, the link is vital, immediate. Though I've been here only three times, my identity is imprinted with my parents' memories of island life, their journey from here to the biting cold weather and welcome of 1960s England. For my partner, Katy, it's a chance to fill in blanks in my useless recall of, or my reluctance to rake over, family history.
While normally, out of shyness, I don't speak my parents' mother tongue, the French patois of the island, I understand every word. When we visit my uncle, it feels natural to start in patois before we lapse back into English. To the children, one generation removed, it is just a foreign language. But they feel their link to the island, through me, through myriad cousins, aunts and great-uncles.
We sit on the beach at Micoud with new friends made from among the locals, delicious barbecue sizzling, ice-cold, locally brewed, Piton beers in hand. Hilroy, who moved "home" from London's East End a few years ago, is lauding the sheer joy of living on the island. After a few more Pitons, I start adding to his list of Lucian joys. I ponder whether I feel some bone-deep connection to St Lucia and its people. My English identity, dry and ironic, asserts itself: This isn't Roots and you're no Alex Haley, son.
As we fly out, we strain to see out of the cabin window: below is the beach where we barbecued and swam, the pick-up truck we used to tour the island. The children ask when they are going to see their cousins again and I realise it will be years before we return to where, ultimately and at least in part, we came from.
"Dad, can we go back and live there like Aunty Tracy?" my eight-year-old son asks. "No, son," I explain. "It was a holiday; it's not our home." But, for much of the journey back to England, it is where my heart is.
How to get there
Peter Victor and family were guests of the St Lucia Tourist Board (stlucia.org). He flew to the island with Virgin Atlantic (08448 747 747; virginatlantic.com) which offers return flights to from £571. He stayed at Windjammer Landing Beach Villa Resort (0808 178 1819; windjammer-landing.com), which offers a four-bedroom villa from £4,232, accommodation only.
Breakfast costs a further £18 per adult and £12 per child, aged four to 12 years, per day. Half-board costs £48 per adult and £33 per child per day. All-inclusive board costs £84 per adult and £30 per child per day. Windjammer Landing is offering Independent on Sunday readers a special rate of 20 per cent off room rates and all-inclusive packages as part of Windjammer's celebration of its 20th anniversary. This deal will be available until 30 November 2010, quote promotional code 010.
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