CASTRIES, St. Lucia — How could you not love an island that has the world's only drive-in volcano?
Or a town with its very own mountain called "The Hill of Good Fortune"?
The hill, Morne Fortune, which one travel guide translates as "Sad Mountain With Luck," rises behind Castries, the capital, overlooking the harbor.
The protective fort and cannons on its summit attest to the island's strategic value and why it changed hands between the French and British 14 times over the years.
All of which explains why St. Lucia is such a mixture, with its 125,000 people speaking both English and a French-Creole patois, why English pubs compete with French cafes, and why hotels and towns have both French and British names.
The cars, while mostly Japanese, are driven on the left side of the road as in England, but have their steering wheels on the left as in France (and the United States).
St. Lucia is one of the world's most serene, largely unspoiled islands, the most beautiful we've seen in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and Pacific. After being alternately in French and British hands for 160 years, St. Lucia remained under British rule from 1803 to 1967, when it became a self-governing state.
In 1979 it became an independent nation but remained in the commonwealth. When the United States landed troops on nearby Grenada in 1983, St. Lucia sent 75 men to support the Americans.
As our 33-year-old cabby, Patrick Edward, wheeled us around the leaf-shaped, 238-square-mile island (27 miles by 14 at its midsection), children waved as we passed small, family-owned banana plantations and bamboo forests interspersed with coconut palms, breadfruit saplings, and mango and red-flowered flamboyant trees.
Women walked along the road carrying two and three boxes of bananas on their heads.
Wielding machetes, neighbors were joining families to harvest bananas, the island's principal crop.
"People try to help each other," Edward said. "They helped me build my home. I help them build theirs. Friends lend a hand when we plant the banana trees, harvest them and clean up after the harvest."
In Castries, when we asked for a videocassette in a store that didn't carry the mini-size we needed, a customer led us half a block to the corner so she could point to a competing store a block away where we might find one.
South of Castries, as we rounded the rim of a mountain, we looked down on one of the most picturesque sights in the Caribbean. It was Marigot Bay where scenes from Rex Harrison's "Dr. Dolittle" and Sophia Loren's "Fire Power" were filmed.
A couple of hundred years ago a British admiral saved his ships from the French fleet by heading them into Marigot Bay and camouflaging them with palm fronds.
Today the harbor is a favorite haunt of "yachties," the owners of small sailboats that make it this far south in the eastern Caribbean's Windward Islands.
Through the mountains an hour or more below Marigot Bay are two of St. Lucia's biggest attractions--the Pitons and La Soufriere. Approaching the fishing port of Soufriere, two volcanic peaks, Gros Piton and Petit Piton, rise out of the sea. These lava-formed rocks, covered with greenery and visible from miles at sea, provide fantastic scenery both above and below the water.
They tower half a mile high above sea level and are 1,200 feet deep. Filled with coral formations and tropical fish, they offer some of the most unusual scuba diving in the Caribbean.
Although only 4,000 people live in Soufriere, it is second in size only to Castries, which has about 50,000 residents.
Above the town stands La Soufriere, which has a crater you can drive into. After parking your car, guides will lead you hurriedly over hot stones and through sulfur gas to the volcano's black pit.
They'll tell you not to worry about Soufreiere's erupting. "If it releases so much steam," they ask, "how can it erupt?"
Nearby you can bathe in mineral baths whose waters were sent to Paris 200 years ago and pronounced highly beneficial by Louis XVI's doctors. French soldiers recuperated in them here between bouts with the British.
Tracing the hot waters to their source, you'll come to a waterfall that changes colors during different periods of the day. Beautiful as it is, do not swim in the pond beneath the falls. It's a breeding ground for the dangerous bilharzia parasite.
Heading toward Moule-a-Chique, where the turquoise Caribbean joins the blue Atlantic at St. Lucia's southern tip, you'll pass through a rain forest filled with birds and see men cutting bananas, coconuts, fruit and cabbages around the villages of Choiseul and Laborie.
You may visit the major scenic spots during a four-hour drive of about 80 miles from Castries through verdant mountains and along magnificent coast.
Castries has been largely rebuilt during the past 40 years after being ravaged time and again by fires. Its Victorian library is not far from old wooden structures of French design in Columbus Square.