Don’t take it from us! Hear what the experts have to say..
Above is a simple map of the Gros Piton Trail,
The team have also been working hard to bring you an Interactive map of the special areas you get to see while climbing the mountain as well as taking in the spectacular views and stress points (areas where most find difficult). We will also be including short video clips of different areas where hikers are able to get the best and most memorable photos of the journey.
Your Humble Islander
“At one stage I turn around and spot Gros Piton and Petit Piton. I could swear they’re taunting me. I taunt back: I’ve conquered you already, Gros Piton. Give me a little time until I can feel my legs again and I’ll be climbing Petit Piton too!”
I feel like some kind of Indiana Jones intrepidly making my way through the jungle. We’re only a couple of minutes into the hike and I’m already feeling the burn. I’d love to enjoy the scenery but after the third stumble over a tree root I decided that it’s probably better to watch my feet.
I’m in St. Lucia and am doing one of the island’s musts: the Grand Piton hike. Located on the western side of St. Lucia, just south of the town of Soufrière, lays two of the island’s most iconic sights: Gros Piton and Petit Piton.
The Pitons of St. Lucia are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and also inspired the design of the country’s national flag. They’re like imposing sentinels watching over Pitons Bay and can be seen on almost any tourist brochure of the island, often with an invitation that makes it sound much easier than it is: ‘Climb Pitons St. Lucia!’
While both Pitons can be climbed, you need special permission to climb the smaller of the two, Petit Piton. It’s true what they say about dynamite coming in small packages, since Petit Piton St. Lucia is steeper and much more challenging. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it can in fact be dangerous.
Most visitors to the island opt for a Gros Piton hike tour instead. The Gros Piton nature trail is much more manageable and can be done in about four hours, give or take. While the mountain is higher, 2,619 feet to be exact, the incline is more gradual and you don’t need to be an experienced mountaineer to get to the top.
I’m now beginning to wonder what on earth I was thinking. Why didn’t I just choose a day on the beach instead of opting to hike Gros Piton? This may be a hike but an easy one it clearly isn’t going to be. I’m really grateful for all those hours that I went to the gym and actually did a work-out.
The first part wasn’t that hard: The gently sloping path started at the interpretive centre in Fond Gens Libre, where my tour guide arranged one of the Gros Piton nature trail guides for us, and soon the beautiful landscape made way for the jungle we’re now finding ourselves in. It’s really just because our pace is so fast that I know I’m not quite as fit as I’d have liked to be. But before we set out, the guide showed me on a scale model of the mountain what our route would be like and I know that soon the Gros Piton elevation is going to increase quite rapidly and the fun and games will be over.
We round a bend and suddenly I know why I’ve decided on this Gros Piton hike: Through a break in the vegetation I catch a glimpse of the ocean and then I can also see the summit of this mountain we’re on! Our guide waits patiently while my companions and I take some pictures and try to spot the birds we can hear in the trees. I wonder if anyone can tell that I’m really just using my camera as an excuse to catch my breath.
We continue on. Up and up we go, me still trying not to trip over loose rocks or tree roots. Even though we set out early, it’s hot. Very hot. I’m glad I listened to everyone who told me I should bring enough water. Besides, at the rate I’m drinking it, the weight I’m carrying in my small backpack is quickly becoming less of a problem.
At one point the trees clear again and I see Petit Piton up ahead in the distance. Everyone oohs and aahs and have their cameras at the ready. The guide tells us that this is the halfway mark. The what? Yes, unfortunately I heard correctly: We’re not there yet! Not nearly! We take a break and I dig out a banana and a granola bar from my backpack.
Time to reapply the sunscreen again too. I chat to both the trail guide, a member of the Gros Piton tour guides association, and the guide from my tour company. They’ve both done this hike hundreds of times and tell me that many hikers, about half in fact, decide that this is where they throw in the towel. No shame in turning back then, I guess, but I’m determined to make it to the top, even if it means I’ll never walk again afterwards.
We set off again and I can now see why, even though this part is shorter in distance, it takes about the same amount of time to cover as the first part. This is grueling! Most of the trail consists of steps, many of them not much more than boulders, and in places I need to scramble and grab whatever’s close at hand so that I won’t fall over. I’ve heard about the thorn-covered vines known as the Devil’s walking stick that I shouldn’t grab. Right now I don’t care if one of these babies crosses my path, though.
All I can think of is how my thighs are on fire, and not in a good way. I open my mouth to start saying something and then realize just in time that I was about to ask like a whiny child: Are we almost there yet?
And finally we are. I made it and it feels as if I’m standing on top of the world. Except that I can’t see much. There’s so much vegetation that it’s completely blocking any kind of view I might have had. We climb down a little and reach a small platform. This is what I’ve come for: The view is incredible! The landscape of St. Lucia unfolds below me in all its fine greenery. Soufrière looks like a tiny little toy town.
I spot Vieux Fort in the distance and because it’s a clear day, I can even see Saint Vincent across the blue ocean. Climbing Gros Piton in St. Lucia may just have been the most difficult, most rewarding thing I’ve ever done – the best experience of my life but one I never want to have again.
I sip on the Piton beer that I’ve dragged up here because it’s the thing to do when you climb either Piton mountains in St. Lucia and then it’s time for the return trip. I’m elated since it’s all downhill from here but make no mistake: Easy it’s not. The path is a little slippery at times and I’m glad that my boots have a good tread. Apparently you can do the Gros Piton tours in sneakers too but I prefer the ankle support my lightweight boots give me. If I twist my ankle here, the guide will have to carry me down and I like him too much to put him through that.
Finally we’re back at the interpretive centre. We say our thanks and goodbyes and then it’s off to Sulphur Springs to soak in the volcanically heated, mineral-rich mud on this trip arranged for us by the friendly locals of Real St. Lucia Tours. At one stage I turn around and spot Gros Piton and Petit Piton. I could swear they’re taunting me. I taunt back: I’ve conquered you already, Gros Piton. Give me a little time until I can feel my legs again and I’ll be climbing Petit Piton too!
Kelly & Matt
The Caribbean island of St. Lucia is a popular port of call for Caribbean cruises. Since the island is famed for its natural beauty and its warm and friendly people, it’s understandable that for many passengers a shore excursion in St. Lucia is the highlight of their trip.
A common complaint, however, is the exorbitant costs of setting foot on dry land and exploring the country. This needn’t be the case, though. You can indeed enjoy the wonders that St. Lucia has to offer without having to dip into the kids’ college fund or your retirement savings. You simply need to investigate alternative options to the St. Lucia shore excursions that your cruise line will try to sell you.
Most cruise lines give you the impression that the most convenient and risk-free way to explore the different ports of call is to book your shore excursions through them. While sometimes this may certainly be the case, in reality it’s more convenient for them than it is for you, the passenger. The simple fact that they often want you not only to book St. Lucia cruise trips but also to pay for any shore excursions months in advance is rather telling already.
After all, you have no idea how you’ll feel on a specific day months in the future. On the day that your ship arrives in St. Lucia, you may be feeling a little queasy, for instance, and the last thing you’ll want to do is to sweep along through the jungle on that zipline tour you’ve booked. Or it may be a clear and beautiful day where you’ll wish you’d opted for a hike up Grand Piton or along the Tet Paul Nature Trail instead of that island highlights tour where you spend half your time in a bus. This is of no concern for the cruise line because they’ve been paid already.
Another point that cruise lines use to get you to book your St. Lucia cruise shore excursions months in advance is that it’s a time-saver. They tell you that you won’t have to stand in line, trying to decide what you want to do, but will be able to step off the ship and right into an unforgettable cruise excursion in St. Lucia. What they don’t tell you unless you read the fine print is that the availability of these excursions is subject to change.
So, you arrive in St. Lucia and suddenly find that your booked trip to Soufrière is not available. Now you need to find an alternative but everything you may have been interested in is fully booked already and you end up going on a trip you’re not really interested in, simply so that you won’t waste the money you’ve already paid the cruise line.
Why opt for independent alternatives?
When you have to choose between cruise shore excursions in St. Lucia provided by the cruise line and ones provided by independent, local tour operators, the main thing it comes down to is a matter of money. The excursions provided by the cruise line are usually much more expensive. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that they use local operators to provide, for instance, land or water taxi services. These contractors need to be paid and the way to do that is to include their fee in the price of the St. Lucia tour.
So, the cruise line adds some middle men already. The second is that the cruise line wants to make money off the shore excursions to St. Lucia too, so they add a mark-up to every contractor’s fee in order to get a, often not-insubstantial, part of the profit. They’re in fact making money off you even when you’re not on board the ship! This is of course standard business practice but a savvy shopper will know that you can save a lot by cutting out the middle man.
Another factor to consider is that by choosing an independent tour operator for your St. Lucia cruise excursions, you know where your money goes to. If you’re a responsible traveler, you probably want to rest assured that your money will benefit the local economy more than it does a huge company with its headquarters thousands of miles away. Booking St. Lucia sightseeing tours through the cruise line makes it almost impossible for you to know just how much, or how little, the local contractors are being paid.
In addition, with a smaller, independent local tour operator, the chances are much higher that the profits from the cruise shore excursions in St. Lucia will go towards putting food on the family’s table, paying for a child’s education or even benefiting other local small businesses than paying for the new swimming pool at the Tuscan villa of some company CEO who maybe doesn’t even know where St. Lucia is.
If the quality of the experience is more important to you than the cost, going with the independent operator is once again the better option in most cases. That operator wants you to come back to St. Lucia again and again, wants you to bring more of your friends and family next time, wants you to recommend him or her to everyone you know and wants you to write good reviews on websites like TripAdvisor. Therefore it’s in his or her interest to provide you with the best possible service all the time, every time.
The operator who has a contract with the cruise line, however, doesn’t have as much of a vested interest in whether or not you enjoy your St. Lucia cruise trip. After all, he or she will get paid by and keep getting new business from the cruise line even if you weren’t all that happy with the service. In addition, when awarding contracts, it’s entirely possible that the cruise line goes for the lowest bidder rather than the one that promises excellent quality at a slightly higher price, because this will increase the profit margin.
Another factor that you may want to consider is that for the cruise line, it’s easier to have a set schedule with so much time at this attraction, so much time for the next and so much time for breaks in between. You have to fit their schedule instead of them having to fit yours.
The independent operator who takes smaller groups on St. Lucia cruise trips has more room for maneuver. If you want to spend a little more time taking a mud bath at Sulfur Springs and a little less time at Government House, it’s much easier to accommodate you. In addition, the smaller tour group makes the experience more intimate, personal and authentic and it’s easier for the guide to answer all the questions you might have.
The issue of convenience
As we’ve already pointed out, cruise lines want you to think that booking shore excursions through them is more convenient for you when, in fact, it’s more convenient for them. Aside from the fact that booking far ahead doesn’t leave you with much flexibility, consider the scheduled tour times. Cruise lines schedule their shore trips at specific times so that they can get the maximum number of clients and make more money.
But imagine that the night before your ship docks in St. Lucia, you put on your dancing shoes, had a raucous time in one of the on-board bars and have generally been painting that floating town red. Now you have to be up at six in the morning so that you can be ready to report for that half-past-seven excursion the required fifteen to thirty minutes before.
Are you really going to appreciate the sights of the island on a St. Lucia shore excursion if you’re not even properly awake yet? And considering that the excursion is probably not going to take much more than three hours or so, does it even make sense to be up that early if you’re then going to have the entire afternoon free?
With an independent tour operator, you get to go on the excursion of your choice when you are ready on not when the cruise line wants you to. Maybe you’ll have less time to enjoy the island but at least that will be quality time.
Another issue is the one of method of payment. Booking through the cruise line usually means you use your credit card and pay in US dollar, while the small, independent tour operator may require a cash payment in the local currency. While it’s certainly more convenient not to have to change currency, think about it: You’re going to want cash with you to buy snacks, drinks and souvenirs while ashore, so you’re going to have to change currency anyway. Will it really take that much more time to change a larger amount so that you can pay the tour operator?
Besides, you can easily find out ahead of time more or less how much your St. Lucia cruise trip is going to cost you by doing a quick online search. Many independent operators allow you to book online too, so the argument about saving time by booking ahead through the cruise line becomes invalid.
What about the risk?
Cruise lines will tell you that if you don’t book your St. Lucia shore trips through them, they won’t take any responsibility for any mishaps. If you don’t get back to the ship on time, that’s really your problem and they’re not obliged to wait for you. This is true, of course, but you shouldn’t let that scare you into paying more for the trips they offer. The fact is that in popular cruise-ship destinations like St. Lucia, independent tour operators know how incredibly important it is to get you back to your ship on time. They know that if you miss the boat because of them, they’ll lose future business, so they’ll do everything in their power to make sure that they stick to your schedule.
An easy way to minimize the risk is to plan your St. Lucia cruise tour with care. When you’re browsing around for trips, find out about the duration of the different packages. Most of these are designed with cruise passengers in mind so rarely last more than about three hours. This already helps you to plan how much you can pack into your day but if you want to be sure that you leave enough time to deal with unexpected delays, check the brochure with the cruise line’s trips. Then ensure that you don’t book your independent trip to depart later than the last similar one on the cruise line’s schedule.
Also remember that the right travel insurance package will cover you for missed departures. And let’s face it: If for some reason you do miss your departure time, there are worse places to be stranded in that paradise!
How to choose an independent tour operator in St. Lucia
In St. Lucia, like in all popular tourist destinations, there are tour operators and there are Tour Operators. If you want to be sure that you’ll get the best value for your money, don’t just go with the first tour that approaches you as soon as you step of the boat. Shop around and see what’s on offer, how professional the different businesses seem to be and whether you get the feeling that they treat you like a real person rather than as a walking cash machine. Follow your instinct and don’t go with an operator if at any moment you don’t feel a hundred per cent comfortable.
It’s a good idea to do a little research ahead of time too. Simply do an online search of tour operators in St. Lucia. Many companies, such as Real St. Lucia Tours, have their own websites detailing their services and the trips they offer that cater for cruise passengers. Compare prices and packages of St. Lucia shore excursions and, most importantly, read other travelers’ reviews before making your final choice. Then, when you step on shore, you’ll see why so many people fall in love with the beautiful island.
When my wife and I I signed up to do the Gros Piton Hike in Soufriere, we had no idea it would of been so much fun. Needless to say I was not disappointed in how easy the booking process was along with our guide "Fiasco", that's the name he said his grandparents gave to him.
The Gros Mountain Trekking was great: we ended up taking many photos at the various scenic spots along with learning of the historic background of the mountain and surrounding community.
Before we booked this we researched on it quite a bit and what we found most frequent on the reviews were people inquiring on whether the trail is difficult. From our new found experience that depends on whether you go with a group or simply opt to do a private hike - no extra cost - so there isn't any rush to keep up and everything is at your own pace.
My wife and I found Everything about the experience excellent and we really couldn't ask for a more informative guide who made learning about the environment and history of the surrounding area very entertaining. When we booked the climb, all arrangements for transportation and water was included. We ended up stopping at a nice local restaurant for a well deserved meal. We simply couldn't of asked for more and the whole experience surpassed our expectations.
James and Camille