'Exclusive' resorts turn St Lucia into a place of us and them

Luxury developments from which local people are excluded have unhappy consequences, says David Allsop. But Alice Charles, whose family is from the island, believes it is still a special place

IN ST LUCIA, it's hard not to believe in God. There's a certain vibe here, a sense of spirituality that it is hard not to be affected by. In the end, it is this feel of the island that will stay with you; why even those who leave find it impossible really to settle anywhere else. Now I know why my mother has been homesick for more than 30 years. She last visited her homeland 12 years ago. Like thousands of other West Indians during the late 1940s and early 1950s, she left the island for the "mother country" in search of work and a better life. She was 18 years old.

The plane to St Lucia is packed with couples, families, groups of young men and women, all taking advantage of the many cheap package holidays to the Caribbean. When we step off the plane at Hewanorra airport we are instantly enveloped by the heat. Temperatures can reach the mid-nineties during the hottest time of the year from June to August, but it's not an oppressive kind of heat, thanks to the constant trade winds that caress, sometimes buffet, the island. At the airport, my mother says: "Everything's changed here. I don't remember it." But she is still more anxious to begin our holiday than I am, walking faster than I have seen her do in years.

The travel brochures, of course, call St Lucia paradise and for once, in our opinion, they are right. Nature has a hand in every corner. There is something growing on every spare inch of ground - banana, coconut, breadfruit, mangoes - all in a landscape so rich you want to cry.

It's not for nothing that the island is called the Helen of the West Indies, changing hands between the British and the French some 14 times over 150 years. The French influence is the most evident - you see it in family and street names, and also in the cuisine. And although the official language is English, most speak patois, a kind of broken French.

Whether St Lucia stays paradisaical is uncertain. Just like in the rest of the Caribbean, changes are afoot. The Americanisation of life, from cable TV to shopping malls, proceeds apace. The sugar industry is dead, and bananas are on their way out, immortalised in the song "Banana Death" by Trinidadian singer David Rudder.

Instead, we have tourism. New hotels and duty-free shops keep springing up at alarming rates, and the tourist board dreams up annual events to cater for tourists: events such as the annual five-day Jazz Festival, taking place in May, which in 1998 included jazz heavyweights Grover Washington Jr and Chick Corea as well as r 'n' b acts such as Mary J Blige.

This is my second visit to the island in three years and it is good to see it taking the festival to its heart. In previous years, ticket prices prohibited most ordinary St Lucians from taking part. In Castries, the capital, there are free concerts in the square named after poet and playwright Derek Walcott, the island's second Nobel prize winner. And for the first time, there are concerts in the south, in Soufriere.

The main part of the festival takes place at various hotel venues on the island - Club St Lucia, Windjammer, Wyndham - places that are usually off-limits to locals, unless they buy half-day "temporary membership". All-inclusive resorts, unfortunately, have arrived on St Lucia. Before you book, remember the damaging effect that this type of package can have on small local bars, restaurants and other traders.

There is a strong, indigenous beach culture in St Lucia and throughout the Caribbean. In the early morning and evening, locals hit the beaches for swimming or jogging. At weekends, families travel to beaches for a barbecue or to spend the day talking under the shade of coconut trees. The best beaches are along the west coast which faces the Caribbean Sea, calmer than the Atlantic. All beaches are public, but some feel more public than others. Hoteliers limit access by building right on the shorelines, forcing islanders to make lengthy detours to reach beaches, some of which can only be approached by sea.

In St Lucia, my mother and I find that a certain old-fashioned courtliness still prevails. It's rude to drive past someone on foot and not offer a lift, or not acknowledge people you pass on the street. There is a strong sense of community. Once a St Lucian always a St Lucian, even if it's by blood and not by birth.

In a supermarket, a woman comes up to me and asks: "Are you a Duval?" She's right. Duval is my mother's maiden name. "I thought so," she says, "you have the face." It is a comfort to be identified like this. I am no longer just another tourist. I, too, can lay claim to this island. As for my mother, she is acknowledged and welcomed wherever she goes. In Soufriere market, people come up to her again and again. They bring her coconuts, mangoes, tamarind balls coated in sugar. She is happy. According to her, the roads are better and things have really improved.

We are not exactly tourists, but we do the tourist sights. Across the road from Derek Walcott Square is the beautiful Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1897 with its high ceiling and rich decoration. The church used to be open throughout the day but now, sadly, has to be locked up after services. Too many people were using the building as a lunch- time picnic spot, among other things.

Another day, we drive past showcase houses (many built by St Lucians returning to the island for their retirement) to Vigie lighthouse, near the recently renamed George Charles airport. From here you can see all of Castries laid out like a map. You can even see as far as Pigeon Island, the site of the ruined fort dating back to the 18th century; and Rat Island, where Derek Walcott used to escape to as a boy to write.

With only a few more days on the island left, it is time to leave the bustle of Castries for Soufriere, a sleepy place where there is little to tell you what century you are in except for the presence of cars. As you drive along, the road suddenly twists to reveal spectacular landscapes, shot through with brilliant sunshine.

Mangy dogs lope around looking for a cool spot to shelter from the sun and scrawny chickens scrabble for food. Children walk along the road in pristine uniforms, socks pulled up, saving their bus fare for treats. And everywhere you see a shock of blooms - frangipani, hibiscus, bougainvillaea. In one garden an aloe vera plant has an eggshell on each spike like a sculpture. Then the Pitons, St Lucia's magnificent twin mountain peaks that dominate the southern skyline, hove into view.

On my last day, I wake early to visit the Sulphur Springs. There is still some damage from the last hurricane and the path down to the water is murky. The water is deliciously warm, thanks to the dormant volcano. Here, you can stand underneath a waterfall that feels like 100 tiny fists gently pounding your neck and back, or sit in a natural bath. Secluded by rocks and foliage, it is easy to imagine no one else exists. Life doesn't get much better than this. AC

FACT FILE

st lucia

Getting there

Unijet (tel: 08705 114114) offers flights from pounds 319 from Gatwick in January. Sovereign Worldwide (tel: 0161-742 2224) offers two weeks room-only at the Rex St Lucian, from 1 to 30 November, for pounds 829, including return flights with BWIA.

Caribbean Connection (tel: 01244 355300) offers two weeks room only at Windjammer Landing from 1 November to 14 December for pounds 1,386.

Other tour operators which organise holidays in St Lucia include: Caribbean Expressions (tel: 0171-431 2131); Tropical Places (tel: 01342 825123); Harlequin (tel: 01708 850300); and First Choice (tel: 0870 7500100).

Further information

St Lucia Tourist Board, 421a Finchley Rd, London NW3 6HJ (tel: 0171-431 3675)

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