Peak performance

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Tear yourself away from the beaches to discover the Caribbean’s verdant interiors. Paul Bloomfield laces up his boots to tackle the summits of St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis

To glimpse what it’d be like to visit Jurassic World, try hiking on St Lucia.

As I tramped through Edmund Forest Reserve, fantastical flora soared all around. The fronds of giant tree-ferns and broad leaves of fishtail palms swayed in the breeze. Vast buttress roots of strangler figs and chatagnier trees snaked across the trail, their branches draped with serpentine lianas. Gommier trunks oozed waxy white sap, scenting the humid air with a turpentine aroma. If a velociraptor had erupted from the lush undergrowth, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The ascent of Morne Gimie (pronounced ‘Jimmy’), St Lucia’s loftiest peak, offers a stern challenge. Though it’s not the highest in the region – at ‘just’ 950m, it’s over 500m shorter than La Grande Soufrière on Guadeloupe – the trail to its summit is a steep, undulating and sweaty haul through sucking mud, across babbling rivers and over slippery tree roots. It’s also a hugely rewarding hike. Delving into the primordial rainforest cloaking its slopes is a truly immersive experience, an opportunity for intrepid walkers to become completely enveloped by nature, and – if the capricious clouds permit – to enjoy spectacular views across the island.

My attempt on the summit of St Lucia was the first hurdle in a three peaks challenge I’d set myself, to be followed by the highest points on St Kitts and Nevis. Why tackle even one Caribbean mountain, you ask? Well, there’s the George-Mallory-on-Everest stock answer – “because it’s there”. More importantly, I took them on because exploring the interiors of the region’s islands offers a chance to glimpse the kind of raw nature you just don’t find on beaches. The West Indies are best known for their shorelines but, like a beautiful picture, if you want to appreciate the whole don’t just gaze at the frame, however gorgeous it is. Roam the inner highlands and you’ll meet people, see creatures, discover vistas you’ll miss if you stick to the coast.

Helping make this decision was the launch of Hike Caribbean, a new Antigua-based company that curates walking trips on the best summits and trails across the Lesser Antilles. Currently, the menu of treks spans six islands – St Lucia, Antigua, Montserrat, Guadeloupe, St Kitts and Nevis – but it’s expanding rapidly, with Dominica next on the wishlist. First up, though, was St Lucia.
It was dark when my LIAT flight landed at George FL Charles (Vigie) Airport late in the evening. But though I couldn’t see my lofty objective, the tortuous drive along the winding west coast highway confirmed what I’d already gathered: St Lucia is very much not flat. The south-west of the island in particular is lumpy with outcrops – the most famous of which are, of course, the picturesque Pitons looming over the lively, colourful town of Soufrière, its name a reminder of their volcanic origins.

WET AND WILD
When I woke next morning, hopes of a sighting of Gimie were dashed by clouds – not just at the summit but in every direction. Rain came in rhythmic waves and, by the time I met guides Smith and Miguel at the edge of the rainforest near the trailhead, it was teeming down. Up the concrete track we tramped, the warm downpour soaking my T-shirt and seeping into my boots, before ducking off onto a muddy trail signposted to Morne Gimie.

And that’s where the magic began. Because the clouds clinging to the treetops, and the ‘liquid sunshine’ sluicing down through the canopy, only made the atmosphere more potent. It helped that Smith – an expert birder – and Miguel peppered our hike with nuggets of information about the forest and its inhabitants.

Plucking a little nodule of the gommier’s white sap off a tree root as we passed, Miguel held it out to me, squashing it to release its sinus-clearing aroma. “It’s good for lighting fires,” he told me, “and in olden days some people used to rub it on their knees to ease arthritis. The wood is also good for making fishing canoes: we dig up the trunk and burn it inside, so it expands and we can gouge out the middle.”

Meanwhile, Smith was on the look-out – or, more accurately, listen-out – for creatures, of which there are quite a few in this forest. The Amerindian name for St Lucia, Ioüanalao, literally means ‘where iguanas are found’, and green iguanas still survive on the island – though the population of this huge reptile, growing up to 1.5m long, is low, and concentrated in the north-east. Big boa constrictors are more commonly seen on the Gimie hike, and fer de lance occasionally – though I was thankful not to have that information till after we’d finished, given the number of tree roots we used as ladders and stair-rails on steeper sections of the trail.

Birds there are aplenty, and the squawk of the St Lucia parrot – known locally as the jacquot – promised a sighting of this dazzling green bird with its red breast and blue facemask, though it remained elusive in the canopy. Instead, Smith serenaded us with his renditions of other endemic bird species: mountain whistler and St Lucia warbler, pewee and oriole, and the dramatically named scaly-breasted thrasher.

Did I mention that it was steep? The first mile or so was undulating, with slippery climbs and descents past patches of pink anthurium lilies, long, curiously phallic stamens rising from heart-shaped petals. After perhaps an hour, we clambered down into a bowl formed where a pair of cascades clattered into a gorge, feeding the Canaries river that flows west to the coast. Following the brook downstream for a hundred paces, we crossed gingerly on rocks slippery as ice and hauled ourselves up onto a trail that was more scramble than hike.

Perhaps we passed agoutis or iguanas – but then we could have walked within inches of a T rex and I wouldn’t have noticed, so testing was the climb. The rain had eased, but the path was slick and muddy; it took all my concentration and effort to haul myself up using roots as handholds. Finally, though, we emerged into a clearing where a metal pole, lugged up here by Miguel, marks the uppermost of Gimie’s summits. “When it’s clear, you can enjoy 360-degree views across the island from here,” smiled Smith ruefully. Today, though, the clouds were lingering, allowing just brief glimpses across the emerald carpet swathing the centre of the island. Still, the sense of achievement gave a warm glow, warding off the chill of the wind that swept across the clearing.

As we retraced our steps down to the falls, the murk cleared just long enough to reveal views of the island’s most famous pinnacles through the foliage. And after a celebratory Piton beer at the Rainforest Bar near the end of the trail, I retreated to my characterful room at the Fond Doux Plantation to plot my next move. This stylish, verdant resort – a collection of historic wooden plantation houses set in a lush cocoa plantation, with two excellent restaurants – is an ideal base for hiking adventures on St Lucia. Not only is it close to both Soufrière and Fond Saint-Jacques for the Morne Gimie trailhead, it’s also virtually next door to the Tet Paul Nature Trail. So after sluicing off the mud from our ascent, I scooted a mile or so up the road to Tet Paul.

Though it’s billed as a ‘trail’, there’s certainly more ‘nature’ than hiking here – the guided loop around what’s essentially a community organic farm is no more than about 1km. But with its restored traditional house packed with vintage equipment – everything from a rustic coffee grinder and antique sewing machine to a coconut grater – giving insights into the lifestyles of previous generations, and the guided tour revealing the medicinal uses of various herbs and plants, it’s a fascinating way to spend an hour or two. The highlight, though, is the viewpoint perched high above Jalousie Plantation Beach, providing jaw-dropping views of both Gros Piton and Petit Piton, and back to the four dinosaur spines of Morne Gimie.

MISERY NO MORE
Peak one conquered, the next challenge beckoned on St Kitts. Just over 200m higher than Gimie, Mt Liamuiga is a different kind of peak: a snoozing volcano, its summit actually the rim of an ancient crater. My St Lucia climb had prepared me for steep, slippery trails – and just as well. Fortunately, I couldn’t have been in safer hands (or, more pertinently, feet): O’Neil Mulraine is possibly St Kitt’s most experienced hiking guide, having led treks on this mountain for 40 years.

We met straight after breakfast at Belle Mont Farm, which is ideally placed for the climb – indeed, a branch of the trail starts at the top of the property. And from the moment we set out, O’Neil and his son, O’Neil Jr, peppered our walk with morsels of local lore. “There are around 400 species of tree in every acre of this forest,” O’Neil told me, “which receives up to 85 inches of rain each year.” Fortunately, the clouds stayed away, and the path – though vertiginous in patches, with tree roots acting as ladders on steeper stretches – was that bit easier to traverse, allowing me to pay more attention to the natural wonders all around. Pausing regularly, O’Neil pointed out some of the highlights: touch-sensitive mimosa leaves shrank away from our fingers; termites’ nests towered alongside the path; and plants of all different shades of green sprouted all around – gommier and banyan, tree-ferns, bromeliads and club mosses, huge mangoes nearing a century old, and strangler figs sending out roots that snaked across the track.

The fecundity of this forest is astonishing – no wonder the original Kalinago name for the island, Liamuiga (which since 1983 has been applied to the highest peak, formerly Mt Misery), means ‘fertile land’.

And, er, are there any snakes in the undergrowth? I asked nervously. “No snakes here,” O’Neil reassured me. “The French introduced mongoose, which wiped out all the snakes and iguanas.” No hissing, then; instead we hiked to a soundtrack of cooing red-necked pigeons and the glockenspiel of frogs. And then a strange retching noise…

“Monkeys!” exclaimed O’Neil and imitated their call, like a cat coughing up a hairball, to try to attract the primates. “They were introduced, too, and now they’re a terrible pest. Some say there are more monkeys than people on the island, and they wreak havoc on crops. The only thing they’re good for is eating – their meat is called ‘tree mutton’, a delicacy cooked in stew.”

After about an hour and a half, we emerged onto the rim of the volcano, to be rewarded with views down into the crater. A rainwater lake sparkled below and a brownish-white area revealed where volcanic vents puff out sulphurous steam. As we took a well-deserved breather and munched homemade banana bread, the faint sound of a whistle reached us – the toot of the sugar train that from 1926 circled the island, transporting the crop that was long the island’s main industry; today, it’s a scenic railway carrying tourists, not cane. And that shrill sound was my signal to descend and prepare for my final challenge, just across the Narrows to the south.

Nevis, it’s claimed, was so named because the cloud cover shrouding its peak reminded Christopher Columbus of white-capped summits in Europe – ‘Nieves’ means snows in Spanish. In truth, at 985m, Nevis Peak is just a little higher than Morne Gimie. But don’t be fooled: the gradients are steeper than anything I’d encountered so far.

I met my guide, Gailey, at the Poor Man Bar near the trailhead; his ear jangling with earrings and gold glinting in his teeth through a ready grin, he’s a cheery soul – which was a much-needed tonic at several points on the climb. The first stretch is deceptively gentle, shaded by breadfruit, far pork, lime and lemon trees, and passing an old sugar mill draped with vines like dreadlocks. We skirted a fire-ant nest, then delved into denser forest – and Gailey proclaimed: “That’s the end of the warm-up.” A few gloves were left on a rock, and Gailey offered me a pair. Foolishly, I declined – and quickly learned my lesson.

The ascent of Nevis doesn’t just take two legs – you need both hands to grab tree roots and fixed ropes; gloves are a good idea to avoid burning palms. Up we clambered, past ornate fiddlehead ferns and emerald bromeliads, startled by the shrill whistle of the ‘mango bird’, known to ornithologists as the pearly-eyed thrasher. The forest is more open than on Liamuiga, but no less steamy, and by the time we emerged at the top I was dripping with sweat.

The reward, though, was incandescent. The clearing at the peak was adorned with spider plants, red-orange blooms, lined with trees and ferns like a particularly wild botanical garden. And almost miraculously, a breeze picked up and scattered the clouds, revealing heart-stopping views: south-west to the island’s cheerful little capital, Charlestown, to other settlements scattered around the mountain’s southern flanks, and across to Montserrat and Redonda.

This, I thought, is why you lace up your boots, turn your back on the beaches and work up a sweat. To get a bigger picture of the Caribbean, head for the heights.

Hike Caribbean
Tailor-made walking holidays on islands including Antigua & Barbuda, Guadeloupe, Montserrat, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, with more options to come.
• +44 333 987 4694; www.hikecaribbean.com

More great Caribbean hikes

With volcanic peaks, coastal trails and lush forests, there are countless walks to try on the LIAT network. Here are just a few…

Antigua
The climb to Boggy Peak (officially renamed Mt Obama in 2009) is another sticky forest hike, but though it’s relatively low – a ‘mere’ 402m – it’s a rewarding walk, past atmospheric ruined sugar mills to a summit with great views west down to Dark Wood Bay. Other less-strenuous hikes include the woodland ramble from Wallings Dam down to beautiful, empty Rendezvous Bay and around Old Road Bluff to Carlisle Bay – watch out for manchineel trees. The walk from Falmouth Harbour to Nelson’s Dockyard and on to the Pillars of Hercules and up to Shirley Heights also offers spectacular views over English Harbour.

Montserrat
The Soufrière Hills volcano has been erupting for over 20 years, so the southern part of the island is currently a no-go zone. But there are plenty of trails to roam in the north of the island. Climb Jack Boy Hill for views south to the volcano, continuing on to Katy Hill and the Big River Trail to experience the elfin rainforest. Or take on the short, easy Oriole Walkway Trail up Lawyer’s Mountain for fabulous views across the island, and the chance to spot the vivid yellow breast of the Montserrat oriole.

Guadeloupe
The highest peak in the eastern Caribbean, La Grande Soufrière (1467m) is, as you’d imagine, a hike that’s both strenuous and smelly – you can’t ignore the sulphur scent emitted by the volcano. There is an upside, though: having conquered the peak on a two- to three-hour climb, you can soothe your weary limbs in the natural hot springs at the Bains Jaunes. Another great option is the trek to the Chutes du Carbet, a picturesque trio of waterfalls.

St Kitts
Though Liamuiga is the headline hike, trails leading across the island from the west coast also explore the interior. The hike to Dos d’Ane Pond is a strenuous half-day starting from near Romney Manor and ending at the namesake pond, emptying in a small but picturesque waterfall. A shorter walk along the narrow ghaut (ravine) called Bloody River is an atmospheric trek to the spot where the island’s indigenous Kalinago inhabitants were slaughtered by the British and French in 1626.

Dominica
At 115km, the Waitukubuli National Trail (waitukubulitrail.com) is the longest trek in the Caribbean, traversing almost the entire length of the island, from Scotts Head in the far south to Cabrits National Park in the north-west. You don’t need to hike the whole trail in one go, though – broken into 14 segments, it’s possible to tackle shorter stretches. Of course, the ‘Nature Island’ is blessed with a host of other hikes, most famous of which is the trek to the Boiling Lake, a flooded fumarole that bubbles like a witch’s cauldron.

St Lucia
The fang of Gros Piton is the target for many visitors; the short but steep haul, which can be made between 7am and 2pm, must be booked through the Soufrière Foundation. A more immersive alternative is the 10km cross-island trail between Vieux Fort and Soufrière, a must for birdwatchers or just those who love nature – you’ve a chance of spotting St Lucia parrots, boa constrictors and a host of other species.

St Vincent
Yes, another Soufrière… the Caribbean is full of whiffy volcanic peaks! St Vincent’s sulphurous summit is a testing 1234m climb, offering tremendous views. Elsewhere, the Vermont Nature Trails wind through verdant forest where you’re likely to spot the St Vincent parrot as well as crested hummingbirds and other beautiful birds.

Guyana
This wild country offers challenging treks for experienced hikers, most famously the five-day route to thundering Kaieteur Falls – watch for cock-of-the-rock, golden frog and harpy eagle in the forest, and swifts flitting out from their nests beneath the cataracts. The Panorama Nature Trail in the Rupununi savannah offers more wonderful birdwatching.

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