“Here, smell this,” said Hans Mathurin, 29, as he pulled off the road, rolled down his window and snatched a leaf off a bush. After a skull-rattling ride along treacherous, bumpy roads en route to a Creole cooking class, I wasn’t quite in the mood to smell, much less eat, anything, but I took the crushed leaf and inhaled.
It was a bay leaf — a common ingredient in both St. Lucian Creole cuisine and, of course, many American dishes — but this bay leaf, with its intensely herbal, slightly sweet fragrance, was unlike any I had ever encountered.
“Our flavors are everywhere here,” Mr. Mathurin said, and indeed, everywhere I went I saw the evidence — coconut trees, mangos, plantains, sugar apples, markets overflowing with produce. Add to this St. Lucia’s remarkable natural beauty — pristine beaches, tropical forests and the dramatic twin Piton mountains — and Eden seemed like the perfect metaphor for St. Lucia.
A tourism shift
St. Lucia usually draws what locals call the “sea, sand and sun” tourist: those looking for not much more than a gorgeous beach from which to admire the breathtaking scenery.
For decades, the island’s culture was just an afterthought. An all-inclusive resort might ask local dancers and musicians to perform or invite artisans to sell their crafts or prepare a “Creole Cuisine” night, but the focus was on exposing the guest to a somewhat diluted version of St. Lucian culture instead of inviting visitors to get out and experience the community firsthand.
It was a trend that local business owners, with mounting cynicism, noticed. A holistic approach to tourism that combines both the island’s environmental wonders and Creole culture seemed to be the only solution, and these days, a new tourism minister is leading the charge.
Ernest Hilaire, 54, appointed minister for tourism, investment, creative industries, culture and information in August 2021, thinks that the tourism industry has to be redesigned with the St. Lucian people at the center.
“We believe more St Lucians should participate in the industry and own it,” Dr. Hilaire said. “The notion that so much of our tourism industry is not actually owned by locals but by foreign interests is not very encouraging for us.”
The focus under his leadership is community tourism: authentic local experiences that showcase the attractions, cuisine, traditional values and heritage of the St. Lucian people. Instead of a tourist purchasing a handwoven basket at the market or on the beach, the government will financially support local artisans through loans and grants to open a workshop where guests can see how the basket is made and maybe even learn to make their own.
“People are no longer satisfied to travel thousands of miles and pay thousands of dollars to come and just stay in a resort with a limited engagement of the outside,” Dr. Hilaire said.
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I knew I wanted to have as much of a St. Lucian-owned-and-operated experience as possible. Though I’ve visited many other Caribbean nations, St. Lucia, known for its luxury resorts, was never on my list. It was too expensive, I thought, and frankly not a destination that seemed to market itself to African American visitors. As a traveler who likes to explore the various cultures of the African diaspora, I thought that St. Lucia probably wasn’t a good fit for a visitor like myself.
I could not have been more wrong.
An immersion course in cacao
I visited in October during Creole Heritage Month, when St. Lucia’s melting pot of Arawak, Carib, African, French and Indian-influenced culture is on full display. Street festivals, concerts, “bamboo bursting” — in which a length of bamboo is transformed into an air cannon — traditional madras-print ensembles and menus featuring the national dish of green figs and saltfish are just a few of the highlights. It all culminates in Jounen Kwéyòl Day, with celebrations in communities large and small, where you’re more likely to hear the widely spoken Kwéyòl language, also known as Patwa, instead of English. But you don’t have to go in October to experience these things. Most of them are there for the taking, year round.
Opting for a locally owned property, I stayed at Fond Doux Eco Resort, near the town of Soufrière. Situated on a 250-year-old cocoa plantation, the 16-cottage resort was acquired in 1980 by Lyton and Eroline Lamontagne. The estate, which grows organic cacao, is deep in the heart of a mostly undisturbed forest. You may spot the occasional rooster strolling by like he owns the place and tree frogs provide a soundtrack each night (soothing, perhaps, but loud; you may want to pack ear plugs).
On the first day at Fond Doux, I made my way from my cottage, descending stone stairs carved into the mountain, and found my Chocolate Heritage Tour guides, Clinton Jean, 29, and Whitney Haynes, 17, waiting for me. Held daily, the two-hour tour is available to both on- and off-property guests. We strolled to a cocoa tree, where Clinton snagged a ripe pod and broke it open. Inside were the cocoa beans: nodules wrapped in a sweet, slimy white pulp known as mucilage. We plucked out the beans (which islanders called “jungle M&Ms”) and sucked the citrusy mucilage, tossing the bitter bean.
We then looked at the boxes where cocoa beans are covered with banana leaves for two weeks to ferment, then placed into 19th-century trays to dry in the sun. After drying, the beans are placed in an enormous cauldron at the center of the property for the “cocoa-rina” dance, where an estate worker stomps on the beans for 30 minutes to remove blemishes and aid in shelling. After drying again for another two weeks, the beans are handed over to Cornelia Judy Felix, the senior chocolatier, to be made into delicious chocolate bars.
After grinding the roasted beans and mixing the dark powder with melted cocoa butter, we hand-whipped the liquid chocolate to help it cool. Ms. Felix promptly took over with a “you did your best” when my upper body strength failed, then we poured the chocolate into molds and placed them in the freezer. I left with a bar of dark chocolate I mostly made myself.
Dinner that night was at Orlando’s Restaurant & Bar in Soufrière. London-born and of Jamaican and Barbadian descent, the chef Orlando Satchell has lived in St. Lucia for 23 years and is the former executive chef at Dasheene restaurant, at the luxurious Ladera Resort. Celebrating 10 years in business in December, Orlando’s Restaurant is in the chef’s home, where he offers intricately presented Caribbean cuisine in a five-course, $65 prix-fixe menu with dishes like carrot, pumpkin and green banana soup, and spinach risotto with grilled mahi mahi and mango salsa.
“I want to elevate the way people see Caribbean cooking,” Mr. Satchell said. “My restaurant also gets visitors into the community of Soufrière to have a true Caribbean experience. When they come here, they’re coming into someone’s home, and though they may enter as strangers, they will leave as friends.”
‘Culture is not an ornament on a shelf’
After time spent in the rural southern part of the island, I was excited to experience the more densely populated north. I stopped by Cacao Saint Lucie, another local, small-batch chocolatier, for sustenance. Just outside the fishing village of Canaries, the team offers the bean-to-bar experience alongside more advanced classes like chocolate sensory tasting and truffle-making classes. Stocked up with chocolate chip cookies, whimsically decorated truffles and nut clusters, I navigated the winding, hilly drive for my stay at the locally owned Sol Sanctum Wellness Hotel in Rodney Bay. Opened in January, the eight-room property has a 1,200-square-foot studio that hosts yoga, meditation, strength training and tai chi classes taught by local instructors, including Marise Skeete, a co-owner of the hotel. Guest rooms come with yoga mats and daily vegetarian breakfast, but daily group fitness classes require an extra fee.
Though I wanted to spend all day at nearby Reduit Beach, the main reason for my trip north was to visit the Monsignor Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre (F.R.C.) in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia. In 1973, Patrick Anthony (known as Paba) helped lead a movement aimed at preserving Creole heritage.
By 1985, just six years after St. Lucian independence from Britain, the movement became a nongovernmental organization. In a beautifully preserved 19th-century building, the official home of the F.R.C. was a reservoir for the extensive research done by Mr. Anthony, community volunteers and cultural activists. They amassed an extensive library of audio, visual and written histories of St. Lucian folk customs, Indigenous cultural practices, artifacts and documentation of the Creole language. Sadly, much of this was lost in a fire in 2018.
I met the new executive director, Rhyesa Joseph, 29, at the temporary location of the F.R.C., a pale yellow building that formerly housed Monroe College at Barnard Hill. Ms. Joseph has the mammoth task of rebuilding both the center’s physical space and cultural collection. She sees tourism as a potential vehicle to fuel its mission to promote the Creole identity and empower communities, but wants to see a stronger connection between St. Lucian culture and the development of the island.
“We cannot leave culture out of anything in terms of education, spirituality and political development,” she said. “Culture is not an ornament on a shelf that we put on and take off when we want to. As an institution, we want to make sure that St. Lucians remember that culture is who we are. It is our way of life and it must be celebrated and preserved.”
New initiatives on the horizon
There may be a long road ahead to create the blueprint for community-based tourism, but a slew of new initiatives are paving the way. This summer saw the launch of Collection de Pépites, an accommodations database of nearly 200 villas, bed-and-breakfasts, boutique hotels and inns with 35 rooms or fewer, designed to draw travelers away from massive all-inclusive resorts and toward more intimate properties across the island.
For imbibers there’s the Kabawé Krawl, a trail of traditional bars around the island that offer not only the opportunity to sip Bounty Rum and Piton Beer, but also to shoot the breeze with St. Lucians discussing the latest football match, or to play a game of dominoes. Similar to pubs in London, a kabawé is the Creole name for a local rum shop or watering hole that’s often the center of social activity.
While many kabawés are accessible by foot, operators like Serenity Vacations & Tours offer guided excursions so you can visit multiple kabawés without worrying about your blood alcohol level. They also offer trips to Gros Islet for the well-known Friday night Gros Islet Street Party where pop-up bars and barbecues fill the streets as St. Lucians serve up grilled fish, lobster and cocktails while calypso and soca play in the background.
I experienced St. Lucian hospitality firsthand when I booked a Creole cooking class with Serenity. The owner, John Mathurin, sent his son, Hans Mathurin, to pick me up for a class that was to be held at their family home and hosted by John’s wife, Carol. After introducing me to that fragrant bay leaf, Hans and I pulled up to a stunning home perched high on a mountain overlooking Gros Islet and the sea. A full kitchen awaited, filled with produce they had grown in their own yard: coconut, sweet peppers, plantains, bay leaves, breadfruit, soursop and more.
Perpetua Mathurin-Busby, a.k.a. Chef Maxx, guided me through marinating fresh red snapper with garlic and salt before roasting it directly over hot coals, and chopping peppers, onions and herbs for stewed chicken with brown sugar. We roasted plantains over coals, made a flavorful fish broth with the snapper heads, and steamed breadfruit, dasheen (a starchy root vegetable), cassava and green bananas.
By the time we sat down to eat, Chef Maxx had educated me on the multinational influences in St. Lucian Creole cooking, and we were all laughing about our favorite culinary memories.
I could have easily been in a kitchen with my own aunts and cousins, and the experience forever cemented a shared moment I won’t soon forget.