Castries, St. Lucia — FROM the leaning rail of a sailboat, you can see what St. Lucia is made of. Sailing south along the western side of the island, we pass fishing villages clustered and perched along the flank of forested hillsides. Straight ahead, the pair of volcanic peaks called the Pitons loom into view. We make a tidy entrance into Soufri`ere Bay, drop sails, and go ashore. Standing on a palm-draped, pebbled beach, with tropical woods at our backs and the bright Caribbean Sea all around us, we've discovered a place where sea and forest are inextricably tied. The rain forest echoes with the songs of birds, crickets, and frogs.
Fishermen haul red snapper out of the sea, and hill farmers tend soil around their bananas. St. Lucia is a small Caribbean gem, unhurried by time, blessed with rainbows.
St. Lucia measures about 27 miles long and 14 miles across at its greatest width. It is one of the larger Windward Islands. You can see both of St. Lucia's neighbors on a clear day - Martinique lies 21 miles to the north, and St. Vincent 26 miles to the south.
All the qualities of a great Caribbean getaway can be found here: long, isolated beaches, posh resorts, busy markets, endless days of sunshine punctuated by rain showers and rainbows, delicious local food, and warm, generous people.
And something more - the interior rain forest reminds you of a South Sea island. You can look down on a green canopy of tree ferns and vines and, through the mist, half expect some great colorful parrot to appear.
In fact, count yourself fortunate if you catch a glimpse of the rare St. Lucia parrot, considered one of the most endangered parrot species in the world. This pretty bird lives in the island's rain forest, where it mates for life and raises only two young a year. It's found nowhere else in the world, and current estimates indicate that only 100 parrots remain on the island today.
I thought I knew the meaning of green mountains, having arrived directly from my home state of Vermont, but St. Lucia gives an exalted definition of green. If you were to float high over this island, you'd see an emerald framed in Caribbean blue.
The mountains seem to go on forever, one after the other, disappearing in tiers of multihued peaks. A north-south spiny ridge blanketed by tropical woods winds through the island's interior, culminating in the peak of Mt. Gimmie (3,145 feet).
Misting showers - islanders call it ``liquid sunshine'' - turn everything the color of wet moss and make great rainbows. St. Lucia gets about 150 inches of precipitation yearly in the rain forest proper. The rain cascades down the mountains and flows into rivers cutting their own valleys.
``A giant stroked the land with his fingers making ravines to the sea,'' one observer said. Producers of the movie ``Superman II'' were so captivated by St. Lucia that they chose the island as the paradise Superman flies to to pick a flower befitting his love, Lois Lane.
Authority over St. Lucia has seesawed between the French and English for close to 200 years. Britain finally took possession of St. Lucia in 1814, yet the infusion of French culture runs very deep. While English is the official language, most islanders speak a patois of Creole French.
The best way to see St. Lucia is by car. You'll need to purchase a temporary Caribbean license for $12 (US), and don't forget to drive on the left. You can, of course, hire a guide or taxi, and it might be recommended, as no good road maps exist and it's easy to get lost.
We drove from the main town of Castries in our rental and quickly discovered patience is mandatory in negotiating St. Lucia's roads. A winding, narrow macadam generously endowed with potholes does not a joy ride make. The views around every bend tempt you, but keeping your eyes on the road is crucial.
As frenetic-paced Castries disappeared in the rearview mirror, the track soon entered the wild, steep coast of St. Lucia. We aimed our car down a road from another time and passed small towns with names like Anse La Raye and Canaries. St. Lucians use machetes to keep the forest from the door.
In between villages, the road roller-coasters through luxuriant stands of banana, coffee, and cocoa trees and meanders along cliffs with alternating views of the sea and forest.
We got a flat tire a few hours into our sojourn at a spot that our guidebook revealed as the fer-de-lance haven on the island. Both the fer-de-lance and boa constrictor inhabit St. Lucia but are rarely encountered, as they are shy, lethargic, nocturnal, and confined to the woods. We had no interest in meeting the poisonous snake, so I changed the tire in world-record time. A word of caution: Never drive an inch on St. Lucia without a working jack and spare tire.
We reached the town of Soufri`ere, at the southwest corner of the island, to visit St. Lucia's natural wonders. The sulfur springs found here are touted as the world's only drive-in volcano; in fact, the springs are a caldera emitting the rotten-egg smell of sulfur, sought out by some as a curative agent. Nearby you can enjoy a natural hot tub at the Diamond Baths, where King Louis XVI built mineral baths for his French troops in 1784.
After lunch, we took the road south of Soufri`ere. Most St. Lucians walk, and the roads are the main thoroughfare for schoolchildren, housewives, business people, and farmers with bananas on their heads. If you want to discover the real St. Lucia, spend some time driving. The roads are the lifelines on this small island; they allow you a glimpse into the lives of its people.
We saw barefoot farmers cradling machetes stare in surprise as we drove by; women pounding tubs of washing and then laying clean clothes at the edge of the road to dry; uniformed schoolchildren giggling among themselves and offering shy waves. Along with the fascinating procession of human life on St. Lucia's roads, you'll find goats, chickens, and pigs, too.
The island can be explored on foot, by car, from the rail of a boat. No matter how you discover St. Lucia, once found, this island restores your belief in special places.
Avis operates from many of the hotels, and has its its main office for the island in Castries. Those who want to leave the driving to someone else can try Caribe Touring at (809) 452-2689, or John Warner Day Tours at (809) 452-6337.
Cunard's Hotel La Toc is a grand combination of the best of St. Lucia; call Cunard at (800-222-0939). Dasheene, where private villas are available for rent, is one of a kind, situated on a ridge between the Pitons 1,000 feet above the sea; call (800-526-9059). The St. Lucian at Reduit Beach has the best beach on St. Lucia, hands down; call (800-221-1891).
For more information, contact the St. Lucia Tourist Board, 41 E. 42nd St., New York, NY 10017: (212) 867-2950.