Mountain biking in St. Lucia: Blood, sweat and beauty on the grounds of slavery

By John Henderson
Special to the St. Petersburg Times

ANSE MAMIN, St. Lucia – I’ve traveled a lot through the Caribbean, and what I saw when our boat pulled up near shore here could have translated to a dozen islands. I walked onto a gorgeous, golden sand beach, in a half-moon bay surrounded by palm trees and dotted with comfy lounge chairs. Find a postcard and fill in a name.

But the scene on St. Lucia had a twist I had never seen anywhere in the Caribbean. Nor has anyone else. It isn’t anywhere else. Behind the ring of palm trees was a little wooden shack where a St. Lucian man greeted me wearing a tight blue and yellow Lycra shirt and black shorts. It’s not the kind of attire usually associated with snorkeling or kayaking. Forget sunbathing.

He led four of us behind the shack into a thick jungle right out of a Brazilian rain forest. A chorus of blue herons, bullfinches and blackbirds filled the air. It looked like I was either headed on a wilderness hike or an anaconda hunt. Instead, standing in the massive shade from the jungle’s near roof-like canopy, he pulled out a bicycle.

You’ve heard of mountain biking? Welcome to jungle biking, Caribbean style.

I had tried mountain biking once. Once. I did a hair-raising descent of the New Zealand Olympic Team’s training course, a journey that left my joints nearly as frayed as my nerves. I wanted to give it another try and figured jungle biking is tame enough for beginners like myself, not to mention a quirky off-the-beaten-jungle-path option during a Caribbean holiday.

I got off the beaten path, all right. But tame? Let’s put it this way: One look at what remained of the swimsuit I mistakenly wore tells you this was no quaint bike ride along a babbling brook.

Joevan Gabriel, 28, our guide for the day, gave us some instructions, mostly centering on safety.

“The front brakes are the sharpest,” he said. “If you use the front brakes alone this is going to happen: You fly over like Superman or Superwoman.”

He then gave us a rough outlay of the course. It’s massive. It consists of 12 miles of bike paths that snake and crisscross through a 500-acre property. Surrounding us were huge 150-year-old trees with tree trunks the circumference of grain silos. Speckled through the jungle were trees of breadfruit, avocado, banana, orange, tangerine, grapefruit and mango.

“If you get lost,” Gabriel said with a smile, “at least you will not go hungry.”

The beauty of St. Lucian jungle biking is it has something for everyone, from beginner hacks like me to world champions, one of whom had a hand in this course’s design. One main loop is a path of soft wood shavings that winds its way deep into the jungle. It’s as flat as a city park bike path. But branching off it are loops that take uphill detours with sharp turns and, just in case you think it’s not hard enough, they throw in half-buried tree branches and stones to circumvent.

It’s all owned by Anse Chastanet, a spectacular 600-acre, five-star resort where cherry-white cottages dot a hillside overlooking one of the best beaches in the Caribbean. This getaway for the very rich is an odd backdrop for one of the most tortured periods of Caribbean history.

We had all donned helmets, climbed aboard our top-line Cannondale F800 mountain bikes and slowly followed Gabriel down the main path. After a few minutes we stopped at a large, crude, rectangular structure with nothing but the walls intact. We walked through an opening where the huge door once stood. Here represented the center of what was St. Lucia’s biggest slave plantation.

In the 1700s, some of the more than 600 slaves worked in this structure producing sugar cane, molasses, cocoa and rum. In searing heat, we mercifully stood in the soothing shade and listened to Gabriel spin horrific tales of Mamin, the one-name Frenchman who ran the plantation. Above us on a hill still stands the small house where Mamin lived alone. Nearby us sat a giant iron vat where Mamin once boiled cane juice into syrup – and occasionally stuck unruly slaves’ hands.

“Sometimes he beat them so severely they had cuts and lacerations on their bodies,” Gabriel said. “Sea water was thrown on them to make it worse and he would have them in the sun for weeks without food.”

Those who tried to escape were often guillotined in the capital of Castries, where the executioner’s square still exists. To discourage escape, Mamin ringed the plantation with fer-de-lances, a poisonous snake with a bite that kills in less time than it took us to reach this structure.

The British abolished slavery in 1848 and the plantation, after ridding it of the snakes, continued to produce export goods that helped make St. Lucia today one of the Caribbean’s most stable and peaceful islands. It also provides a wonderful little jungle bike ride.

After Gabriel’s history lesson, we all took off exploring on our own. Mountain bikes make cycling very comfy. The fat tires provide a nice cushion as you negotiate rocks, branches and holes in whatever surface you’re navigating. I leisurely tooled around the main path, where at one time donkey carts hauled molasses barrels to ships headed to the American colonies.

I passed a 3 million-gallon fresh water reservoir that once provided water for the plantation and more fruit tress than I could count. It was the most eco-friendly, nature-filled bike ried of my life. Then I tried taking an intermediate loop and cursed my complete lack of cycling repertoire as the slightest incline made every rock and branch look like the Great Wall of China.

Frustrated and hot, I backtracked and parked my bike near a perfect water hole. I soaked my surprisingly weary bones in fresh water cooler than the Caribbean a few hundred yards away. I showered in the little waterfall as I listened to the birds sing and the breeze rustle through the leaves.

This sure beats a golf course.

Yes, at one time, Anse Chastanet management considered putting an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course here. That didn’t fly. While the plantation offers grim reminders of a sad time, a golf course would have uprooted those ruins. A horse riding operation was considered. That didn’t work, either. Having numerous horses on a jungle trail all day would be problematic, if you know what I mean.

But Michael Allard, one of the Anse Chastanet managers, brought up biking. Why not? The trails were still around from the 19th century. It’s environmentally sound. Youth on the island had discovered BMX cycling. The idea stuck. The resort contacted Connondale and had its people train the resort’s people.
In 2000, Bike St. Lucia began.

For an international splash, Cannondale sent out one of its riders, world champion Tinker Juarez, to check out the operation. He designed Tinker’s Trail, the K2 of mountain bike trails. Tinker’s Trail is a 1,000-foot jigsaw climb on a mountain that sticks out of the jungle like a skyscraper. I looked up and I didn’t know if it was more appropriate for a bike trail or an elevator.

“We don’t advise you to bike it,” Gabriel said. “We advise you to hike it.”

It appears Tinker Juarez designed the trail for Tinker Juarez. I asked Gabriel how many bikers have made it to the top. He said one: Tinker Juarez.

But having never met a mountain I didn’t attempt to climb, I trudged up. It was absolutely futile. The 60-percent grade was pockmarked with giant branches and rocks. Negotiating the tight switchback turns became an exercise in pain and futility. I’d ride 10 feet, nearly fall off and then get off.
However, it did make me feel young – when I was 6 years old trying to ride my first bike.

I hiked 95 percent of the trail. While feeling horribly inadequate pushing a bike up a bike path, the end result was worth it. At the top of the mountain I caught a spectacular 360-degree panoramic view of the Caribbean. Gros Piton and Petit Piton, St. Lucia’s majestic, jungle-covered, pyramid-shaped mountains, were right in front me. Below me was the construction of the Jade Mountain Club, Anse Chastanet’s newest resort, featuring a swimming pool with each room.

The royal blue Caribbean Sea provided the perfect frame for this remarkable portrait. I rang Tinker’s Bell, placed there for celebratory bikers at the top, and made my precarious way down. If going up was impossible, going down was terrifying. I careened around corners where one slip would send me rocketing into sticks and shrubs and whatever fer-de-lances hadn’t gotten the memo.

When I reached the bottom, I threw myself in the sea. The crystal clear, 83-degree water felt better than any massage in the Caribbean. As I collapsed on a lounge chair, I felt an odd breeze. I looked down. I had ripped my swimsuit in front from the bottom through to the waistband.

That sure never happened while snorkeling.

(The above appeared in the St. Petersburg Times on Sept. 16, 2007)