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Friday, February 22, 2008

Exploring St Lucia - Diamond Gardens and hot baths

Three days since I last wrote, and we've almost finished the tuna, although I had to rescue a large amount of it when Gesa tried to skin and debone a piece before cooking it. I swear there was more good meat in the 'chuckaway' pot than the cooking pot. I cooked those bits up too and they make a good tuna mayo salad.

Anyway, it's been a very enjoyable three days, exploring inland a litle bit and seeing some wonderful places and people. I'll break with the chronology here and describe, in this post, our visit to the Botanical Gardens and Hot Baths, then find some time to write a posting about the Sulphur Springs (or 'drive through volcano' as they like to exagerate it here) and the Plantation tour. Lastly, and by promising it I'll force myself to write it, I'll try to tell a little bit about where we are in Soufriere and the ingenious ways a few of the local guys try to extract cash from you.

We read through the St Lucia sections of a couple of guidebooks, visited tourist information and made a short list of things we wanted to see. As usual, there are plenty of taxi drivers wanting to tell you that everything is a long way away and asking a lot of money for the trip there. We looked at the map and realised that the Diamond Botanical Gardens were well within walking distance so we set off out of town. As soon as you get away from the waterfront, where too many people are used to too many tourists with too much money, the town becomes quiet and interesting, and you can drop your guard a little and enjoy the scenery more. After a short while, the road forks and we climb steadily upwards beside a plantation filled with coconut, cacoa, banana and other trees. The route becomes wooded and cool, even the kids let up on their complaints about walking and enjoy themselves.

Shortly we reach the entrance to the gardens. I'd seen, somewhere in a local sailing newspaper, reference to this place, with not just the gardens, but a beautiful waterfall and hot baths. The article mentioned that there was a private baths you could use for a few extra dollars, so I chatted to the lady at the gate and yes, that's no problem. She charged us entry to the gardens just for the adults, and for the baths the kids go half price. Total cost $70EC, about £14.

We begun to walk through the gardens, beautifully laid out some twenty five years ago around the partially restored 18th century baths. These had been senselessly destroyed during the French revolution but a couple of the baths were rebuilt in the 20th century. The gardens were just lovely, and at that point fairly empty. We realised that we could walk to the waterfall, take a bath and then be ready for lunch and the bulk of the gardens after that, so we tore ourselves away and discovered the Diamond Falls themselves. The river flows from the volcanic sulphur springs higher up, and is black with mud and minerals from there. We chatted to a gardener, who told us that the water is holy, because it supports no life at all - which doesn't seem particularly divine until he elaborates that that means no mosquitos. The minerals have coloured the rock a beautiful yellow and orange which contrasts with the dark water.

We are soon at the baths, where a set of three outdoor pools look tantalising, dipping a finger in the warm water even more so, and the pools look over the rainforest valley. I begin to wonder if we've made a mistake paying extra to be inside a hut! Asking the attendent, she gives us a key and directs us up some steps, where a small wooden gate leads into a little courtyard ringed with flowers and woodland. Unlocking the door in a small building, we find ourselves in a delightful changing room with steps down to two tiled baths, each with a big valve at one end. We are about to put on swimming costumes when we realise that there's no point - no-one can see us and we don't want to carry wet stuff back down the hill, so it's a skinny dip for us all. Opening the valve in the baths gives a gush of hot, crystal clear water filtered straight from the springs. A little tap above offers some cold water if it's too hot, but we found it just perfect.

Even the presence of two excited and playful children didn't spoil the beauty and romance of these baths, and the pleasure of just sitting and soaking in hot mineral water is made all the more delightful by the fact that none of us have been near a bathtub in three or four months. (don't worry, we do take regular showers)

Once we have soaked to a suitable level of wrinkliness, we dried off and were ready to leave when the rain began to pour down outside. This was a blessing, in fact, as we opened the windows to the changing room and let the cooler air blow through, looking out at the gorgeous view of the gardens. When it finally eased a bit, we left to find other visitors huddled in the gift shop or under other shelters and figured we'd got the better deal.

We try to have lunch but find that the 'snack bar' has a very limited selection and a queue, so we opt for ice creams now and a late lunch in town. We slowly tour the rest of the gardens then stroll back down the hill, pick up some fresh fruit in town and go to a little local bar we've found quite near our anchorage. The woman who runs it opens at 9am, closes whenever in the evening, and sits all day in her nearly empty bar, serving the few who stop by and chatting to friends who pass the door. There's a pool table, where $1 releases the balls, apart from the two missing ones, and the kids play their version of pool (push the white ball around without cues!) It takes an agreeably long time for them to finish a game, so they require minimal parental refereeing in the meantime. We drink a few beers and have a good lunch before returning to the boat and relaxing before the usual bedtime ups and downs getting the kids into pyjamas, brushing teeth, reading stories and 'will you just please go to bed and leave us alone...' We're all asleep by 9pm.


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