Paradise Found: St. Lucia

St. Lucia is better known for romance but its rollicking past lingers on.

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As morning mist slides down the bold shores of St. Lucia toward Marigot Bay, 18 sportfishing boats line up, waiting to hear the countdown over the VHF. Some had come from Florida, nearby Martinique was represented, and one boat even claimed a hailing port in Scotland. (Yeah right, buddy!)

Most everyone but me was on a boat to catch and release blue marlin in the annual St. Lucia Billfish Tournament. Going fishing was fine, but I was aboard Bacchanal Lady, an old Bertram 38, to troll for something else entirely. I wanted to get a sense of the back-story to St. Lucia's carefully cultivated image as one of the most beautiful Caribbean Islands (true), one of the region's best eating destinations (true), and a place with so many romantic villa resorts that the island has made the facilitation of human mating into its number one industry (Absolutely!).

The invitation to tag along was secured thanks to an island connection and a session of lies and laughter the night before aboard Bachannal Lady with Captain Bruce Hackshaw and his merry men.

Hackshaw, operator of Captain Mike's fishing charters, is an authentic sea dog. And like his father before him, he is a raconteur notorious in the lower Caribbean for his boisterous, bawdy, and extremely politically incorrect stand-up comedy, usually performed on the flying bridge of one of his Bertrams or while limin' on tournament docks-limin' being a St. Lucian term for a party and bullfest. As we headed north toward the Martinique Channel, Hackshaw begins his day with a bottle of "green tea." That is, a Heineken.

Hackshaw holds court now as the three DuBoulay brothers, Hackshaw's mate Cleus Joseph, and friend Treverne Yorke scan the horizon for birds and debris. Ideally, Bachannal Lady would be landing a marlin even bigger than the 940-pound fish that once earned Hackshaw a Southern Caribbean record. Taken together, this interracial, multi-generational crew puts a face to St. Lucia's fascinating history.

The DuBoulays were among the earliest planters on the island, but Cleus Joseph, a descendant of plantation workers, asserts seniority. He's got Carib Indian blood, he says, and the Caribs ruled St. Lucia long before the coming of Europeans and Africans. Nobody seems to know where the Hackshaws came from. Pirates, everyone assumes.

Fishing with the descendants of French planters, pirates, and Indians may offer a glimpse of St. Lucia's complicated past, but today the island is in the romance business. No one who has seen St. Lucia can doubt why it has been called one of the four most beautiful islands in the world. Oceanfront villa resorts catering to honeymooners have brought to the fore a new generation of transplanted and locally trained hospitality professionals and great chefs.

Before and during this transformation, yachtsmen from the U.S. and Europe cruised the sheltered bays of St. Lucia's western shore, making certain the boat was anchored off Anse La Raye by Friday evening to partake in the village's weekly open-air fish fry. Now, as St. Lucia's sybaritic offerings multiply, more large yachts have come calling, and the infrastructure for vessels of 100 feet LOA and longer is following close behind.

The biggest news for yachtsmen this year is the complete reconstruction of Rodney Bay Marina (www.igy-rodneybay.com) to accommodate more of the big boys. The same outfit that developed the swank Yacht Haven Grande in St. Thomas, International Global Yachting (IGY), acquired Rodney Bay Marina in 2007, from the estate of founder Arch Marez, who died in 2005. Under IGY's plan, Rodney Bay will be able to accommodate 32 megayachts of up to 250 feet along with more than 200 smaller yachts inside its hurricane hole basin.

Rodney Bay will become the second big-boat facility on the island. While I was there, the Marina at Marigot Bay (www.marigotbay.com) was accommodating several mega-yachts on its docks in Med-moor fashion. Looking out over the bows of these boats might convince you that you had docked in Tahiti. Besides the view, advantages of a layover here include walking-distance access to amenities at the Discovery at Marigot Bay Resort (www.discoverystlucia.com), which boasts a spa, pools, boutique shopping, and one of the island's best chefs.

Rodney Bay's new owner was careful to retain Marez's protégé and marina manager, a charismatic St. Lucian named Cuthbert Didier. Didier represents the marine side of St. Lucia's new paradigm; he's an advocate for the yachting community and sustainable development. He said he wants to ensure that St. Lucia's boom brings better education and jobs to ordinary St. Lucians.

Educated in the United States, Didier's waterfront home is filled with a music collection and posters of his African, African-American, and Afro-Caribbean heroes. One photo shows him partying with actor Morgan Freeman, who sails the Caribbean on his Shannon 43. Didier, 41, moves easily between the old and new St. Lucia, and between rich and poor. His friends are urging him to run for public office.

"We are not going to be Yacht Haven Grande here," Didier says as we tour Rodney Bay aboard his Sunseeker motoryacht. "We're still going to be a down-home island marina, but with the same level of service as Yacht Haven Grande. While we are catering more to megayachts, we are still going to be St. Lucia."

This is not Didier talking out of school. Rodney Bay Marina has been the finish line for the past 18 Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). The ARC is a 2,700-mile ocean-crossing event that brings more than 230 international sailboats to the Caribbean each year. Obviously, the demographics for cruising sailors are distinctly different from those of megayacht owners and crews, so IGY is being careful not to alienate this important element of the Rodney Bay clientele.

The new floating docks will be ready in time for ARC sailors, who get underway from the Canary Islands in November, and begin arriving at Rodney Bay an average of 14 to 21 days later. As anyone who has been to sea will tell you, sea-legs are not the only interesting biological phenomenon affecting ocean-crossers. Deprived of land smells for long periods makes a person notice them all the more intensely when they once again inhale the scents of terra firma.

Imagine, then, the moments after the ARC sailors have rounded Point du Cap and are heading south into the lee of St. Lucia. With the breeze blowing off island, nothing will prevent the mélange of aromas-hibiscus, bougainvillea, even the fertile smell of the soil itself-from conjuring a lasting olfactory association with the gorgeous scenery before them. In Rodney Bay they will celebrate Paradise Found with a frosty Piton beer at Scuttlebutts, knowing they will probably never have an arrival this good again.