The part of the island to the north of Castries is the principal resort area, it contains the best beaches and the hotels are largely self contained. It is the driest part of the island with little evidence of the banana plantations or rain forest. The John Compton highway leaves Castries past Vigie airport and follows the curves of Vigie Beach and Choc Bay.
Where the road leaves the bay and just before it crosses the Choc River, a right turn to Babonneau will take you past the Union Agricultural station (about one mile) where there is a nature trail and interpretive centre. A mini zoo boasts a pair of St Lucian parrots. The trail goes through a nursery and herbal garden before going through Caribbean pine trees, latanier palms and cinnamon and bay trees. It takes about 20 minutes.
Back on the main highway, the road passes the turning to Labrellotte Bay (dominated by the Windjammer Hotel) before reaching Rodney Bay and the town of Gros Islet. Here is the site of the US Naval Air Station of Reduit. Built in February 1941, the swamps were reclaimed and the bay dredged. It was the first of a chain of bases established to protect the Panama Canal. Acting as a communications centre (code name ‘Peter Item’), it supported a squadron of sea planes. The base was eventually closed in 1947. The whole area now supports a mass of tourist facilities including the Rex St Lucian and Royal St Lucian hotels, restaurants and sport facilities. You can pass through the entrance gates of the old Naval Air Station or take the next left turn off the main road to reach the hotels and restaurants. If you drive past them all to the end of the road there is good access to the beach. Rodney Bay is an excellent base for watersports; it is ideal for windsurfing. At the back of the development is a 1,000-boat marina. Development is still taking place and at Rodney Heights a huge area has been set aside for condominiums. The normally sleepy fishing village of Gros Islet holds a popular jump-up in the street each Friday night, from 2200, music, dancing, bars, cheap food, rather touristy but enjoyed by night owls. Try the grilled conch from one of the booths selling local dishes but stay away from anyone offering drugs.
About three quarters of a mile after Elliot’s Shell filling station on the outskirts of Gros Islet, turn left to Pigeon Island National Landmark (see Flora & Fauna), once an island, now joined to the mainland by a causeway on which a 300-room Hyatt Regency hotel has been built with a bright blue roof, opening in 2000. The park was opened by Princess Alexandra on 23 February 1979 as part of St Lucia’s Independence celebrations (entrance EC$5). It has two peaks which are joined by a saddle. The higher rises to a height of about 360 ft. Owned and managed by the National Trust, the island is of considerable archaeological and historical interest. Amerindian remains have been found, the French pirate François Leclerc (known as Jamb de Bois for his wooden leg) used the large cave on the north shore and the Duke of Montagu tried to colonize it in 1722 (but abandoned it after one afternoon). From here, Admiral Rodney set sail in 1782 to meet the French navy at the Battle of Les Saintes (see under Guadeloupe). It was captured by the Brigands (French slaves freed by the leaders of the French revolution) in 1795 but retaken in 1798 by the English. Used as a quarantine centre from 1842 it was abandoned in 1904 but became an US observation post during World War II.
The island finally became the home of Josset Agnes Huchinson, a member of the D’Oyly Carte Theatre who leased the island from 1937 to 1976. The bay became a busy yacht haven and ‘Joss’ held large parties to entertain the crews. Her abandoned house can still be seen on the south shore of the island. On the lower of the two peaks lies Fort Rodney. There is a steep climb but well worth it for the 360 degree panorama. The museum (located in the Officers’ Mess and recently rebuilt to the original design) contains an interesting display of the work of the National Trust as well as a comprehensive interpretive exhibition. EC$10, open every day 0900-1800; museum closed Sun. The park also contains Jambe de Bois restaurant which is recommended for snacks and a cool drink 0900-1600, closed Sat. You can swim off the small beach, although sandy, it has a lot of broken coral. The park is a good place for watching sea birds. Offshore are the remains of the Castries telephone exchange, donated to the Fisheries Department by Cable and Wireless to make an artificial reef. It is also accessible by boat and there is a regular ferry service from Rodney Bay.
The road north passes through the Cap estate (golf course and the Odyssey St Lucia) to Pointe du Cap, a viewpoint some 470 ft high with a splendid panorama along the coast. If you wish to explore further the north part of the island contact Safari Adventures Ltd (T4528778) who run all terrain vehicles to Cas-en-Bas beach. A good circular walk from Gros Islet can be done to Cas-en-Bas taking the road past La Panache Guesthouse (ask the owner, Henry Augustin for directions if necessary, he is always willing to help) down to the beach (sheltered, shady, a bit dirty), then following tracks north until you reach the golf course, from where you return along the west coast to Gros Islet. You will see cacti, wild scenery, Martinique and no tourists. The sea is too rough to swim. If exploring the Atlantic beaches by vehicle, make sure it is four-wheel drive, check your spare tyre and tools, take OS map and water, be prepared to park and walk, and if possible take a local person with you. Always take local advice on the state of the roads, which change quickly. For more details, see Beaches & Watersports.
The road to Monchy from Gros Islet is a pleasant drive inland through several small villages. You gradually leave the dry north part of the island and climb into forest. The ridge between Mount Monier and Mount Chaubourg gives particularly impressive views over the east coast. You will also pass through Paix Bouche where it is thought that Napoleon’s empress Josephine was born. There are no road signs. Watch out for the names on schools and if in doubt at junctions bear west. At the larger village of Babonneau, you can turn right to follow the river down to the coast at Choc Bay or go straight on to Fond Cacao where a west turn will take you back to Castries. The road to Forestière is the access point for the climb to Piton Flor (1,871 ft).