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Destination: Caribbean

A Poet's St. Lucia

Seeking the soul of the island through the words of Derek Walcott

February 22, 1998|JOHN B. VAN SICKLE | Van Sickle teaches classics at City University of New York

During our explorations, we happened on a gleaming white hotel that stands between the small Vigie airport (a larger international airport, Hewanorra, lies at the southern tip of the island) and Castries. Called the Auberge Seraphine, it has two levels of rooms wrapped around a terrace and pool with views toward the harbor. We looked at the rooms and introduced ourselves to the owner, Ernest Joseph, who, it turned out, once had Derek Walcott as an art teacher at St. Mary's College in Castries (Walcott is also an accomplished watercolorist). We vowed to make this our base of operations on our next visit.

The center of Castries is a short cab ride or 20-minute walk from Auberge Seraphine. "Omeros" pointed us to Bridge Street, at the end of which the cruise ships dock. On the way, one passes the New Castries market at the corner of Peynier and Jeremie streets, where vendors hawk orange and yellow spices, nutmeg, coffee beans and bars of pure chocolate that we tucked into our bags to take home as gifts.

Across Jeremie Street at the corner of Laborie, we found the Valmont Bookstore and a stock of more Caribbean writers than we knew, editions of Walcott from England and a detailed ordnance map of the island that became our vademecum as we explored.

Three blocks down Laborie Street, we came to the main square, which used to be named after Christopher Columbus for "discovering" St. Lucia in 1492. But in 1992, Columbus' 500th anniversary, Walcott won the Nobel Prize, and a local committee, reasoning that historians had debunked the discovery anyway, renamed the plaza Derek Walcott Square.

On the square, we visited the Carnegie Library to see the portrait of Harry Simmons, a journalist who encouraged the young Walcott and the island's most famous artist, Dunstan St. Omer, to paint in oils and words the island they saw around them.

Adding St. Omer to our quest, we walked across the square to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Here, the painter broke with French colonial tradition and frescoed the walls with images of black saints before a visit by Pope John Paul II in 1985. Retracing our steps past the library, we found the gallery St. Omer Artmagic, owned by the painter's son, and arranged to later visit the murals south of Castries that also illuminate the cultural framework of "Omeros."

Behind the cathedral, we took Brazil Street to Chaussee Road, then turned right to the house where Walcott grew up. In "Omeros," the writer describes the porch once trellised with bougainvillea and, alas, now replaced by the yellow storefront of a printing shop. Back beyond the square, we enjoyed lunch with Creole cuisine and local clientele at the bustling Pink Elephant.

Postponing a swim, we drove to the top of Morne Fortune, the hill that looms over the town, around some of the sharpest bends anywhere on the island. But at the top there are magnificent views, even as far as Martinique on the distant horizon. (Without a car, the Morne is an easy trip by taxi or transport.) "Omeros" fixed the Morne in our minds with its images of Irish Maud Plunkett in her garden looking down to the white liners docking. We found her favorite allamanda flowers still attracting hummingbirds. The Morne was the site of some of the many battles between the French and the British for control of the island. "Omeros" had prepared us for the mossy tombs of colonial officers and the military barracks, now transformed into Sir Arthur Lewis Community College (named after the island's other Nobel Laureate, an economist).

From the Morne, we continued along the main route south to the studio of one of St. Lucia's best-known artists, Vincent Eudovic. Famous for his knowledge of the island's native woods, he rescues roots and stumps of the now extinct laurier cannelle trees, which Walcott features in the poem as the gods of the forest and which were cut down to be shaped into dugout canoes for fishermen.

Visiting the Morne late on a Monday, we discovered that gentlemen can don jacket and tie and ladies can pick a roadside flower for their hair to take advantage of Ladies Night ("two dinners for the price of one") at the stagy Green Parrot. We spent $37 on dinner--essentially continental cuisine with local nuances--served by waiters in tuxedos.

For everyday lunches, though, we tried to watch our budget by sticking to local cooking at places such as Du Bois in Castries or Jimmie's near Point Vigie, where the owner is an old acquaintance of Walcott's. We found another Walcott connection at the nearby Coal Pot, an excellent but pricey restaurant whose proprietress is the lissome niece of Walcott's first flame, the blond Anna, who figures in his autobiographical poem "Another Life."

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