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Diving Into the Local Culture on the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia

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“Here, smell this,” said Hans Mathurin, 29, as he pulled off the road, rolled down his window and snatched a leaf off a bush. After a skull-rattling ride along treacherous, bumpy roads en path to a Creole cooking class, I wasn’t quite within the mood to smell, much less eat, anything, but I took the crushed leaf and inhaled.

It was a bay leaf — a typical ingredient in each St. Lucian Creole cuisine and, after all, many American dishes — but this bay leaf, with its intensely herbal, barely sweet fragrance, was unlike any I had ever encountered.

“Our flavors are in every single place here,” Mr. Mathurin said, and indeed, in every single place I went I saw the evidence — coconut trees, mangos, plantains, sugar apples, markets overflowing with produce. Add to this St. Lucia’s remarkable natural beauty — pristine beaches, tropical forests and the dramatic twin Piton mountains — and Eden gave the impression of the proper metaphor for St. Lucia.

St. Lucia normally draws what locals call the “sea, sand and sun” tourist: those searching for not far more than a beautiful beach from which to admire the breathtaking scenery.

For a long time, the island’s culture was just an afterthought. An all-inclusive resort might ask local dancers and musicians to perform or invite artisans to sell their crafts or prepare a “Creole Cuisine” night, but the main target was on exposing the guest to a somewhat diluted version of St. Lucian culture as a substitute of inviting visitors to get out and experience the community firsthand.

It was a trend that local business owners, with mounting cynicism, noticed. A holistic approach to tourism that mixes each the island’s environmental wonders and Creole culture appeared to be the one solution, and today, a latest tourism minister is leading the charge.

Ernest Hilaire, 54, appointed minister for tourism, investment, creative industries, culture and knowledge in August 2021, thinks that the tourism industry must be redesigned with the St. Lucian people at the middle.

“We imagine more St Lucians should take part in the industry and own it,” Dr. Hilaire said. “The notion that a lot of our tourism industry shouldn’t be actually owned by locals but by foreign interests shouldn’t be very encouraging for us.”

The main target under his leadership is community tourism: authentic local experiences that showcase the attractions, cuisine, traditional values and heritage of the St. Lucian people. As a substitute of a tourist purchasing a handwoven basket on the market or on the beach, the federal government will financially support local artisans through loans and grants to open a workshop where guests can see how the basket is made and possibly even learn to make their very own.

“Persons are now not satisfied to travel hundreds of miles and pay hundreds of dollars to return and just stay in a resort with a limited engagement of the surface,” Dr. Hilaire said.

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I knew I desired to have as much of a St. Lucian-owned-and-operated experience as possible. Though I’ve visited many other Caribbean nations, St. Lucia, known for its luxury resorts, was never on my list. It was too expensive, I assumed, and admittedly not a destination that appeared to market itself to African American visitors. As a traveler who likes to explore the varied cultures of the African diaspora, I assumed that St. Lucia probably wasn’t an excellent fit for a visitor like myself.

I couldn’t have been more mistaken.

I visited in October during Creole Heritage Month, when St. Lucia’s melting pot of Arawak, Carib, African, French and Indian-influenced culture is on full display. Street festivals, concert events, “bamboo bursting” — through which a length of bamboo is transformed into an air cannon — traditional madras-print ensembles and menus featuring the national dish of green figs and saltfish are only a couple of of the highlights. All of it culminates in Jounen Kwéyòl Day, with celebrations in communities large and small, where you’re more more likely to hear the widely spoken Kwéyòl language, also often known as Patwa, as a substitute of English. But you don’t need to go in October to experience this stuff. Most of them are there for the taking, yr round.

Choosing a locally owned property, I stayed at Fond Doux Eco Resort, near the town of Soufrière. Situated on a 250-year-old cocoa plantation, the 16-cottage resort was acquired in 1980 by Lyton and Eroline Lamontagne. The estate, which grows organic cacao, is deep in the center of a mostly undisturbed forest. Chances are you’ll spot the occasional rooster strolling by like he owns the place and tree frogs provide a soundtrack each night (soothing, perhaps, but loud; it’s possible you’ll wish to pack ear plugs).

On the primary day at Fond Doux, I made my way from my cottage, descending stone stairs carved into the mountain, and located my Chocolate Heritage Tour guides, Clinton Jean, 29, and Whitney Haynes, 17, waiting for me. Held each day, the two-hour tour is on the market to each on- and off-property guests. We strolled to a cocoa tree, where Clinton snagged a ripe pod and broke it open. Inside were the cocoa beans: nodules wrapped in a sweet, slimy white pulp often known as mucilage. We plucked out the beans (which islanders called “jungle M&Ms”) and sucked the citrusy mucilage, tossing the bitter bean.

We then checked out the boxes where cocoa beans are covered with banana leaves for 2 weeks to ferment, then placed into Nineteenth-century trays to dry within the sun. After drying, the beans are placed in an infinite cauldron at the middle of the property for the “cocoa-rina” dance, where an estate employee stomps on the beans for half-hour to remove blemishes and aid in shelling. After drying again for one more two weeks, the beans are handed over to Cornelia Judy Felix, the senior chocolatier, to be made into delicious chocolate bars.

After grinding the roasted beans and mixing the dark powder with melted cocoa butter, we hand-whipped the liquid chocolate to assist it cool. Ms. Felix promptly took over with a “you probably did your best” when my upper body strength failed, then we poured the chocolate into molds and placed them within the freezer. I left with a bar of dark chocolate I mostly made myself.

Dinner that night was at Orlando’s Restaurant & Bar in Soufrière. London-born and of Jamaican and Barbadian descent, the chef Orlando Satchell has lived in St. Lucia for 23 years and is the previous executive chef at Dasheene restaurant, on the luxurious Ladera Resort. Celebrating 10 years in business in December, Orlando’s Restaurant is within the chef’s home, where he offers intricately presented Caribbean cuisine in a five-course, $65 prix-fixe menu with dishes like carrot, pumpkin and green banana soup, and spinach risotto with grilled mahi mahi and mango salsa.

“I would like to raise the best way people see Caribbean cooking,” Mr. Satchell said. “My restaurant also gets visitors into the community of Soufrière to have a real Caribbean experience. After they come here, they’re coming into someone’s home, and though they could enter as strangers, they’ll leave as friends.”

After time spent in the agricultural southern a part of the island, I used to be excited to experience the more densely populated north. I ended by Cacao Saint Lucie, one other local, small-batch chocolatier, for sustenance. Just outside the fishing village of Canaries, the team offers the bean-to-bar experience alongside more advanced classes like chocolate sensory tasting and truffle-making classes. Stocked up with chocolate chip cookies, whimsically decorated truffles and nut clusters, I navigated the winding, hilly drive for my stay on the locally owned Sol Sanctum Wellness Hotel in Rodney Bay. Opened in January, the eight-room property has a 1,200-square-foot studio that hosts yoga, meditation, strength training and tai chi classes taught by local instructors, including Marise Skeete, a co-owner of the hotel. Guest rooms include yoga mats and each day vegetarian breakfast, but each day group fitness classes require an additional fee.

Though I desired to spend all day at nearby Reduit Beach, the primary reason for my trip north was to go to the Monsignor Patrick Anthony Folk Research Centre (F.R.C.) in Castries, the capital of St. Lucia. In 1973, Patrick Anthony (often known as Paba) helped lead a movement geared toward preserving Creole heritage.

By 1985, just six years after St. Lucian independence from Britain, the movement became a nongovernmental organization. In a beautifully preserved Nineteenth-century constructing, the official home of the F.R.C. was a reservoir for the extensive research done by Mr. Anthony, community volunteers and cultural activists. They amassed an intensive library of audio, visual and written histories of St. Lucian folk customs, Indigenous cultural practices, artifacts and documentation of the Creole language. Sadly, much of this was lost in a hearth in 2018.

I met the brand new executive director, Rhyesa Joseph, 29, on the temporary location of the F.R.C., a pale yellow constructing that formerly housed Monroe College at Barnard Hill. Ms. Joseph has the mammoth task of rebuilding each the middle’s physical space and cultural collection. She sees tourism as a possible vehicle to fuel its mission to advertise the Creole identity and empower communities, but desires to see a stronger connection between St. Lucian culture and the event of the island.

“We cannot leave culture out of anything when it comes to education, spirituality and political development,” she said. “Culture shouldn’t be an ornament on a shelf that we placed on and take off when we would like to. As an establishment, we would like to be certain that St. Lucians do not forget that culture is who we’re. It’s our lifestyle and it have to be celebrated and preserved.”

There could also be a protracted road ahead to create the blueprint for community-based tourism, but a slew of recent initiatives are paving the best way. This summer saw the launch of Collection de Pépites, an accommodations database of nearly 200 villas, bed-and-breakfasts, boutique hotels and inns with 35 rooms or fewer, designed to attract travelers away from massive all-inclusive resorts and toward more intimate properties across the island.

For imbibers there’s the Kabawé Krawl, a trail of traditional bars across the island that provide not only the chance to sip Bounty Rum and Piton Beer, but in addition to shoot the breeze with St. Lucians discussing the most recent football match, or to play a game of dominoes. Just like pubs in London, a kabawé is the Creole name for an area rum shop or watering hole that’s often the middle of social activity.

While many kabawés are accessible by foot, operators like Serenity Vacations & Tours offer guided excursions so you possibly can visit multiple kabawés without worrying about your blood alcohol level. In addition they offer trips to Gros Islet for the well-known Friday night Gros Islet Street Party where pop-up bars and barbecues fill the streets as St. Lucians serve up grilled fish, lobster and cocktails while calypso and soca play within the background.

I experienced St. Lucian hospitality firsthand once I booked a Creole cooking class with Serenity. The owner, John Mathurin, sent his son, Hans Mathurin, to select me up for a category that was to be held at their family home and hosted by John’s wife, Carol. After introducing me to that fragrant bay leaf, Hans and I pulled as much as a shocking home perched high on a mountain overlooking Gros Islet and the ocean. A full kitchen awaited, crammed with produce they’d grown in their very own yard: coconut, sweet peppers, plantains, bay leaves, breadfruit, soursop and more.

Perpetua Mathurin-Busby, a.k.a. Chef Maxx, guided me through marinating fresh red snapper with garlic and salt before roasting it directly over hot coals, and chopping peppers, onions and herbs for stewed chicken with brown sugar. We roasted plantains over coals, made a flavorful fish broth with the snapper heads, and steamed breadfruit, dasheen (a starchy root vegetable), cassava and green bananas.

By the point we sat right down to eat, Chef Maxx had educated me on the multinational influences in St. Lucian Creole cooking, and we were all laughing about our favourite culinary memories.

I could have easily been in a kitchen with my very own aunts and cousins, and the experience without end cemented a shared moment I won’t soon forget.

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