FIRST-TIME travelers to St. Lucia will note two common sights along the winding roads of this West Indian island. One, of course, is the gorgeous blue ocean hugging the mountainous coastline. The other is a blue plastic bag curiously hugging the tropical trees.
``They protect the bananas,'' explained our cabby, driving like a madman to avoid potholes and stray goats in the road.
We were on our way from the airport on the southern tip of St. Lucia to Rodney Bay, in the northwest. The journey took us by the the island's rain forest and through its capital city, Castries.
St. Lucia is known for many things - its lush landscape, its huge twin volcanic peaks (``the Pitons''), its tropical produce, and its perilous standard of driving. Not to mention its stunning palm-lined Marigot Bay, featured in the film ``Dr. Dolittle'' and its claim to fame as the birthplace of Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize-winner in literature.
As food writers, we had come here to escape the long New England winter and to seek out some Antillean culinary adventures. The weather cooperated, not surprisingly, and so did the food. From callaloo soup and conch fritters to banana custard and mango ice cream, the delights were vast as we visited restaurants and attended a street party in the tiny village of Gros Islet.
But before the mouthwatering begins, here's a little history:
St. Lucia went back and forth between the French and British 14 times. Independent since 1979, the island now reflects both cultures. The official language is English, but most St. Lucians speak a patois of French. Driving is ``British'' - on the left side of the road.
Likewise, the cuisine is a mix of cultures - European and West Indian. St. Lucia's northern neighbor, Martinique, is known for its outstanding French-Caribbean cuisine. Down south, Grenada is known as the ``spice island.'' In light of its proximity and history, St. Lucia could be considered home to Creole cuisine in the purest sense.
St. Lucia's lush land and bountiful waters supply the island with much in the way of fresh ingredients: fruits (such as guava, mango, coconut as well as breadfruit, jakfruit, soursop, and other ``exotics''); vegetables (including an abundance of chile peppers, christophene, and dasheen); seafood (such as dolphin fish or mahi-mahi, and jackfish); and spices (such as curry, coriander, and cardamom). The unofficial national dish is callaloo soup, often compared to a hearty spinach soup. Bananas, the cash crop, and plantains show up on virtually every table in some form.
A popular restaurant among vacationers here is the Green Parrot.
Set about 3,000 feet above Castries harbor, the view is breathtaking from the hotel-restaurant's terrace. On a clear day you can see the mountains of Martinique. Award-winning ``Chef Harry'' is a gregarious character, who will often do the limbo with his guests. His menu weighs in on the chichi side of Creole, with such dishes as Chicken Frascaisse and Veal Eascapin, but local fare makes appearances in callaloo soup, Curry de Poisson (curried fish), and banana flambee.
Nowhere is the wealth of produce more evident than down the mountain from the Green Parrot at the outdoor market in Castries. Here scores of vendors, mostly women, set up shop on Jeremie Street selling everything from okra, coconut, and curry to fresh fish, goat meat, and live chickens. The scene wouldn't appeal to everyone (and Castries isn't exactly a picturesque Antillean colonial city), but for foodies, it's a must-see.
Jimmie James visits the market every morning. Perhaps the best-known chef of local food, especially seafood, he and his wife, Ellen, own ``Jimmie's,'' a casual open-air restaurant that overlooks Vigie Cove.
We ordered dolphin fish (mahi-mahi) and flying fish for lunch, which came with various vegetables. The original all-banana desserts ranged from spiced banana fritters to ``nude'' bananas with local honey. Fresh fruit juices, such as tamarind,were delicious and cooling.
A gentleman schooled in England, Jimmie pulled out all the stops when we returned with several friends for dinner. We enjoyed a feeding frenzy of jerk chicken, seafood specials, and endless vegetable dishes.
Jimmie, who also runs a jogging club on the island, is a gracious host, eager to educate tourists about the island's cuisine. ``It's all about using fresh ingredients,'' he says. ``And on St. Lucia that's not too difficult.''
* Other St. Lucian restaurants we recommend: St. Antoine's, Hummingbird, the Mortar & Pestle, and the Lime.