Easy In The Islands

Near the southern end of the Caribbean archipelago, St Vincent, Grenada, and the dozens of tiny Grenadine Islands between them are close enough to be covered in a single trip, yet they are divided into two nations, and offer a pleasing variety of experiences. Skye Hernandez starts in St Vincent and works her way south, savouring these islands' relaxing flavours

A great house on Grenada’s north coastA wealth of flowering plants thrive in Grenada’s rich soil. Photograph by SeanDrakes.comFor years, St George’s human “traffic light” was a favourite with locals and visitors alike. Now he’s been replaced by the electronic version. Photograph by SeanDrakes.comGouyave Bay. Photograph by SeanDrakes.comMarket day in St George’s. Photograph by Mike ToyNutmeg is largely still processed by hand in Gouyave and Grenville. Photograph by Roberta ParkinPalm Island, a privately owned resortPetite Bateau, one of the sparkling Tobago Cays. Photograph by Roberta ParkinSandy Beach on the Windward Highway. Photograph by Mike ToySt George’s, Grenada’s picturesque capital. Photograph by Mike ToySt Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Kingstown combines Flemish, Moorish, Byzantine, and Romanesque influences.  Photograph by Mike ToySt Vincent’s Botanical Gardens are the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Photograph by Roberta ParkinThe beach at Great River Bay, on Grenada’s Atlantic coast. Photograph by Mike ToyThe crater of La Soufriére. At 4,000 feet, the volcano is the highest peak in St Vincent. Photograph by Mike ToyThe glorious Falls of Baleine are a short walk inland after a boat ride up the leeward coast. Photograph Mike ToyThe Mesopotamia Valley, St. Vincent’s “bread basket”. Photograph by Mike ToyThe old Public Library on Halifax Street, Kingstown. Photograph by Roberta ParkinTraditional fishing boat. Photograph by Jim RudinYachts at the Sunsail Marina, St. Vincent. Photograph by Mike Toy

The Grenadines shine like jewels in the ocean, a sparkling
necklace strung between Grenada in the south and St Vincent in the north.
Collectively, these islands offer visitors an experience people have come
to think of as quintessentially Caribbean: idyllic beauty, a simple way
of life, and warm, friendly people. But each island also has its own distinctive
flavour, depending on what history, culture and geography have dished out,
creating surprisingly unique experiences for visitors.

First to St Vincent. People always seem surprised to hear I’ve been
to this “plain and simple” place. Most people in the Caribbean know at
least a few Vincentians, but the island from which they come remains a
mystery. The banana industry’s woes are well known, and most people have
heard that the Grenadines are a sailor’s paradise — but they still can’t
quite picture the place, or perhaps think of a good reason to visit.

But what makes St Vincent and the Grenadines so intriguing is precisely
the fact that there’s so much to do in such a small place. The Grenadines,
discovered long ago by yachting enthusiasts who revel in their tranquil,
clear waters and blissfully unhurried way of life, have long been known
to well-heeled tourists; but big sister St Vincent remains one of the region’s
best-kept secrets.

St Vincent has a fascinating history and unbelievably dramatic terrain
— it’s a real treat for adventure lovers and eco freaks. How many small islands
offer you the option of climbing a volcano, going dolphin- or whale-watching,
taking in an international cricket match, visiting a sanctuary for endangered
parrots, or sitting under the pulsing jets of a waterfall, all in a few
days? And that’s before considering the Grenadines themselves, where you
can hop a charter yacht from Union Island, scuba dive or swim among postcard-perfect
islands like Palm, Mayreau, and the Tobago Cays, see the homes of the rich
and famous on Mustique, or spend a day on idyllic Bequia or calm Canouan.
In fact, one of the first things you’ll realise when you get to St Vincent
and the Grenadines is that one visit isn’t nearly enough.

The best way to get a feel for rugged St Vincent is to
take a road trip. The “highway” doesn’t go all the way around the island,
so you must tackle each coast separately. The windward coast road takes
you into Carib country — the first excursion I made. Here I must introduce
Trevor “Sailor” Bailey, my guide for this trip. Sailor is a cyclist and
coach, president of the Olympic Association, and, with his wife Debbie,
runs Sailor’s Wilderness Tours and a cycle shop in Kingstown, St Vincent’s
capital. He’s a “leeward boy” from way up north in Chateaubelair, and his
love of the countryside, its mountains, waterfalls, beaches, caves, and
breathtaking cliff views, makes him a fun-loving and efficient tour guide
(as well as more of a landlubber than a sailor).

I was tagging along on a trip with a group of about 20 retired ladies
from St Michael, Barbados. As members of the Evergreen club, they travel
abroad every year, and this year they were booked at my hotel, the New
Montrose, just outside Kingstown. Their leader was Joan Bonnett, a funny,
energetic woman who had retired to her native Barbados after working for
many years in the UK.

After we were all settled nicely in the bus — with a prayer for the
road — we set off on our adventure. (Every now and again one of the Evergreens
would remember that they should be singing hymns, and strike up a tune,
trailing off moments later when the countryside proved too mesmerising.)

Soon we were driving along the rim of the Marriaqua Valley, looking
down into Mesopotamia (almost universally referred to as Mespo). This is
a wide valley, lush and deep green even at the height of this year’s brutal
dry season, famed as the breadbasket of the island — indeed of the southern
Caribbean. Produce from St Vincent goes by schooner to other islands — root
vegetables, bananas, mangoes, plums — and it’s always a treat for me to
go down to Kingstown harbour to see the boats being loaded.

We drove further into the Marriaqua Valley to the Montreal
Gardens, where an astonishing variety of trees and flowers grow in gently
sloping beds bordering a river, with the mountains rising in the near distance.
There’s also an anthurium farm, where we got a first-hand look at how moist
and rich the Vincentian soil is. The Bajan ladies attested to the fact that
after the 1979 eruption (the last to date) of St Vincent’s La Soufrière,
when ash fell over nearby islands, Barbados benefited from replenished soils
and especially fertile growing seasons.

We lunched at Black Point, on smoked herring, vegetables, breadfruit,
and the most unforgettable coconut dumplings, all provided by our good
Sailor. (Vincentians, like most people in the Caribbean, are serious about
their food: their staples are breadfruit (cooked over wood or coals), fresh
fish (fried or grilled) and lots of vegetables and fruits — all simple,
hearty, and very tasty.)

Later, on the way to Georgetown, the old English capital (the first capital
was the French settlement of Barrouallie on the leeward coast), we passed
a string of small villages, including Greigg’s, originally a “Black Carib”
village where once only the very brave would dare to stop, and which played
an important part in the island’s history. St Vincent was bitterly fought
over by the French and the British, and the latter finally won, under the
1783 Treaty of Versailles. But the indigenous Amerindians, many of whom
had intermarried with escaped African slaves, resisted the British (they
preferred the French who’d settled there earlier), resulting in the so-called
Carib Wars.

In 1797 the British deported 5,000 “Black Calinagos” (another name for
the Caribs) to Roatán, an island off the Honduran coast. The more
peaceful “Yellow Calinagos” were allowed to remain in the area beyond the
Rabacca River in the north. When we arrived there later that day, we clearly
understood the significance of this. The area is practically under the volcano.
When Soufrière erupted in 1902 (a few days before the more famous
eruption of Mt Pelée in Martinique, to the north), around 2,000
Caribs were killed (one-tenth the population of St Vincent in those days).
When you get to the ash-dusted Carib area, having passed the great dry
river full of rocks and volcanic and riverine debris, you realise how desperately
trapped those people would have been when that volcanic torrent came rushing
down to the sea.

I spent the next day in the capital, Kingstown, a busy port with three
main streets — Back Street (officially known as Grenville Street), Middle
Street, and Bay Street. A short “dollar bus” ride from my hotel and I’m
at Little Tokyo, the minibus hub from which buses travel to all parts of
the island. There’s much to see and hear, and for those interested in architecture,
several impressive stone buildings dating back to the 18th century or even
earlier, such as the three churches on Back Street, the courthouse, and
the police station. The new market, built in 2000, has brought many of the
food and produce vendors into a comfortable, hygienic modern building, but
there are several vendors who remain outside at the site of the old market
next to Little Tokyo (so named because a fish depot built with Japanese
funding stands nearby). Leaving the bus, I thought I might give the fish
market a look, but hearing calls of “Black fish, black fish!” I decide to
give it a pass. Black fish is the local name for the pilot whale, hunted
for food, and it reminded me that whaling is still very much a raw issue
in these islands.

Another thing I like to do in Kingstown is check out the
goings-on down at the wharf, where there’s also a shopping complex for cruise
ship visitors. If you’re lucky enough to be in St Vincent in May or June,
Bequia plums will be in season, and you can buy them in the Kingstown market
or on the roadside. The capital also has several good eateries, but the
Cobblestone Inn’s rooftop restaurant is a popular choice for lunch, as it’s
a bit removed from the hustle and bustle. Walk around and explore, you’ll
soon discover your favourite part of town.

I left a bit early and headed for the Botanical Gardens, established in
1765 (making them the oldest in the Western Hemisphere). A guide gave me
a detailed tour of the gardens and their rare and exotic plants and trees,
including the most famous exhibit, a sucker from one of the original breadfruit
trees brought from Tahiti by the famous Captain Bligh on his second attempt
to introduce these plants to the Americas (his first, as we all know, ended
in mutiny on the Bounty). The Botanical Gardens were originally set
up as a propagation station, using St Vincent’s fertile soil to breed newly
introduced species before transferring them to other British colonies. It
was an easy walk back to New Montrose, and I made it well in time for dinner,
which I enjoyed in the cool atmosphere of Vee-Jay’s Rooftop Restaurant in
Kingstown.

On my last day in St Vincent, in lieu of a visit to the
volcano crater (yet another reason for visiting the island again), Sailor
took me and Sheila, another New Montrose guest, for an early-morning hike
on the Vermont Nature Trails. We left the hotel at 6.15 am, for the short
drive from Kingstown. The trail, just off the leeward highway, is not difficult,
though there are a few steep areas requiring a moderate degree of fitness.
In the tropical rain forest it was breakfast time, and we soon heard the
calls of the endangered St Vincent parrot, louder than the other feeding
birds. It’s mango heaven at this time of year — a flutter of yellow feathers,
and we knew they were near. At a nearby lookout we saw several pairs of
birds flapping across the valley and disappearing into the trees. We covered
the trail in a little more than an hour, though to properly appreciate the
flora and fauna you might take two or three.

Later that morning we headed further up the leeward coast, which has better
roads and even more vertically impressive scenery than the wilder windward
coast. The sea is calm and the beaches covered with glittering black volcanic
sand. The road ends at Richmond, and we went as far as its neighbour Chateaubelair,
passing tiny fishing towns like Layou, Barrouallie (where sometimes you
can see strings of fish drying in the sun), Troumaka, and the intriguingly
named Petit Bordel, before settling down to lunch. We passed the Wallilabou
playing field, which for seven weeks earlier this year was the principal
set for Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, a swashbuckling movie starring
Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom, and some bearded Vincentian pirates. The
beards have been shaved off by now, and the field is empty, but the crew
did leave a small jetty with one of the props still attached.
It was a public holiday, and Sailor’s friend Chaka opened his restaurant
just for us to use the facilities. We had another hearty Sailor-made meal
before setting off once more for a nearby waterfall. Darvue Falls were a
short walk from the bus, just across a river, but you could spend an entire
vacation visiting St Vincent’s many waterfalls  — Trinity, Wallilabou,
Baleine, and dozens more. I left the island that evening, regretting that
I didn’t have the chance to visit Bequia or any of the Grenadines or to climb
the volcano — next time these will be first on my agenda.
But now I was heading south to Grenada.

Driving in the hills above St George’s during the dry season, you hear eerie
humming sounds that you can’t quite place, and can’t ignore. They were
slightly unnerving to me, until I found out that this weird music came
from kites tied to the roofs of houses, which sing all night until the breeze
dies down. What an expression of delight this is, in the season of lusty
breezes, brilliant flowers, and endless sunshine, to keep kites playing
all night, keeping company with your dreams.

Grenada has been one of my special places ever since my sister lived
there in the late 70s and early 80s, through revolution and disgrace, rebuilding
and hesitant growth — thick and thin — and now as it re-emerges in the post-9/11
era more confident than ever. You sense that something positive is happening
in Grenada, an energy not so apparent during my last visit two years ago.
With construction of new houses and hotels going full speed ahead, new
tourism projects flourishing, new restaurants, entertainment spots, and
shops opening up everywhere, there’s a feeling that life isn’t bad at all.

I was eager to see what had changed since my previous
visit. The day after I arrived I set off from Wave Crest Holiday Apartments
with Ernest Telesford of Henry Safari Tours, to make a round-the-island
jaunt. We began the trip at St George’s, one of the prettiest harbour towns
in the Caribbean. Looking down from Fort George, I could see the familiar
pastel-painted, red-roofed buildings curling around the Lagoon and the
Carenage, and rising up the slopes in neat patterns. I could see the new
cruise ship complex being built at the Esplanade, and soon we left the old
fort (now a police station) and drove past the construction area on our
way up the western coast.

Grenada is divided into six parishes, all separated by rivers, and we
were to pass through them all during our excursion. Up the leeward side
of the island, we drove through one picturesque fishing village after another,
whose inhabitants were probably either at work elsewhere, at school, or
in their gardens planting or fishing, for there were very few people on the
road.

We soon arrived at the popular village of Gouyave, the capital of St
John’s Parish. The main landmark is the nutmeg processing plant, where most
of the work of sorting and processing Grenada’s famous nutmeg and mace is
still done by hand. I’d recommend a tour, for the wonder of looking at a
scene from centuries ago — and for the powerful, heady smell that permeates
everything.

There used to be a saying in Trinidad, “You come from Gouyave
or what?” — probably introduced by Grenadian immigrants, and meaning roughly
the same thing as “behind God’s back” — indicating how remote the place
was once considered. But today Gouyave is called “the town that never sleeps”,
with its street parties and fish-fry nights, and party lights strung up
along its main street. It doesn’t seem at all remote any more.

At Duquesne Bay we left the coast and headed inland, then hit the coast
again at Sauteurs, near the northern tip of the island. This is the place
where Grenada’s last remaining Amerindian fighters committed suicide, rather
than submit to the French. We passed through the little cemetery to reach
the actual spot called Carib’s Leap. Jumping from this cliff, 350 years
ago, 50 men lost their lives to win their freedom. It stirs the spirit to
be here, despite the bustle of a nearby secondary school and the busy street
not far off.

Nearby is Belmont Estate, a spicy new stop on the Grenada
visitor’s circuit, though the 400-acre estate itself has been a working
coffee and cocoa estate for the past 300 years. The present owners, the
Nyack family, have expanded the property into an impressive and very pleasant
haven for visitors, foreign and local. You could spend a whole day at Belmont,
exploring the museum and gift shop, the lovely riverside gardens, and the
restaurant, set among rolling hills.

We met Belmont’s guide, Sharon de Couteau, who showed us around the estate,
first explaining the workings of the plant, where organic cocoa from Belmont
and nearby estates is processed. It always fascinates me to see how cocoa
changes from a white, mushy, sour-sweet pulp, through several stages of
fermentation and drying, into the chocolate that is one of the most satisfying
of beverages (at least for non-coffee drinkers like myself). We saw it
all at Belmont, and then Sharon offered us a taste of the end product.
Divine.

We had arranged to have lunch at Morne Fendu, a plantation house set
atop a hill with a panoramic view of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic
on opposite sides. Dr Jean Thompson, who now owns Morne Fendu, dropped in
to greet us, and she proved a very lively and outspoken host. The great
house, built of hand-cut stone in 1912, is today a guesthouse, and Dr Thompson
has added a seven-room extension with a purpose-built restaurant currently
under construction. Lunch was extraordinary: a feast of local specialities
like oil-down, callaloo, stewed chicken (Grenadian stews are particularly
rich, infused as they are with spices not used in other parts of the Caribbean),
fried fish, vegetable dishes, salads, and sumptuous savoury pies.

After lunch we headed off to Levera and Bathway beach, a
popular place for Grenadian families to spend a day picnicking and sea-bathing
along the coconut-fringed coast. Even on this weekday afternoon there were
quite a few people relaxing there, and they seemed unconcerned about a big
project underway nearby: the construction of a new cruise ship port, which
should be able to facilitate mega-ships from next season; there will also
be a hotel and golf course.

Nearby Lake Antoine is a sunken crater lake, bordered by a large plantation
where organic bananas are grown for Sainsburys in the UK. We drove past
the River Antoine Rum Distillery, where a strong and distinctive rum is made
in very much the same way as it was centuries ago, using a waterwheel to
extract the cane juice. I learned that Grenadians like to lick this rum back
in a hefty shot, followed by a gulp of water — the searing jolt of the rum
almost immediately softened by the cool water. I was to try it the next night
— yes, it’s quite an experience, not easily managed in polite company.

The south east coast is not as well known as the south
west, where the majority of Grenada’s hotels and tourist facilities are
located, but there are some lovely rustic places here, and this area is
a bird-watcher’s paradise. La Sagesse Bay is home to the La Sagesse Nature
Centre, originally a replica of an English manor, now totally transformed
by the construction of new rooms and a new restaurant.

The manor house and a group of older cottages are still there, part of
a collection of beautiful things that makes La Sagesse special. These include
joint owner Nancy Meransky, who was born in Poland, moved to the US with
her family as a teenager, then discovered Grenada on holiday and decided she
wanted to stay. Nancy says the 1979 Revolution practically began at La Sagesse,
when villagers stormed the place (declared out of bounds to locals by a previous
owner), triumphantly “liberated” the beach, and went down to swim in the
sea. All is quiet at La Sagesse now — except for the roar of waves — and
it’s become a popular country retreat within easy reach of forest trails,
yet near enough to St George’s for quick trips into town.

On my last night in Grenada I paid a visit to Victoria Slinger, who lives
with her husband Paul and their extended family at the Tower in St Paul’s
— a small village not far from St George’s, up winding roads on which Grenadians
drive at astonishing speeds, and yet seldom seem to have bad accidents. The
Tower was originally built by attorney C.F.P. Renwick in the early 20th century.
Renwick hoped that his first wife would grow to love the tropics if she lived
in a house that looked like an English castle. The marriage fell apart, however,
and Renwick eventually lost the luxurious stone building — during a disastrous
night of gambling, it is said. Since 1943, the house has been in the Slinger
family.

Paul Slinger’s humour and knowledge of historical trivia make his tour a
treat. The gardens are Victoria’s domain; she has carefully catalogued the
flowers, trees, and shrubs, including numerous herbs and spices, many of
them introduced by her. These include exotic ylang ylang, jasmine, turmeric,
ginger, allspice, cinnamon, curry leaf, water lilies, mahogany trees, avocados,
wax apples, and five varieties of mango.

It was from the Tower, when the tour was over and evening came, that I
heard those singing kites, proclaiming Grenada and the dry season. The idyllic
gardens seemed a perfect microcosm of the overflowing natural beauty of these
islands, and the soothing peace they offer to jaded nerves. And the Slingers’
hospitality mirrored the generous, open spirit of the people of Grenada, St
Vincent, and the islands of the Grenadines — the quality which, in the end,
is what will bring me back here yet again.

GRENADINE COCKTAIL

St Vincent and Grenada are only half the story. The islands of the Grenadine
chain open another world to the visitor, one that up to a few years ago was
a well-kept secret among yachting people, divers, and well-heeled holiday-makers
in search of privacy. Divided politically between St Vincent and Grenada,
the Grenadines are 100 tiny, rocky islands stretching across 35 miles between
the two larger islands. With perfect white-sand beaches, a wealth of undersea
life, and inhabitants whose relaxed ways are legendary, these islands offer
everyone’s idea of an idyllic Caribbean vacation. Day trips by ferry or yacht
charters are the best ways to discover these islands and the rich seas that
surround them. Here’s a quick tour of the main islands.

Bequia

The northernmost island in the Grenadine chain, Bequia lies nine miles
south of St Vincent and is about seven miles square. It takes about an hour
to get to Bequia by ferry from Kingstown harbour. The seafaring traditions
here include boatbuilding and fishing, A typical tour would start at Port
Elizabeth, the picturesque main town. A visit to the late Athneal Ollivierre’s
Whale Museum in Paget Farm (the displays include autographed photos of Tom
Cruise and Clint Eastwood), Orton King’s turtle sanctuary at Park Beach, and
the Seargent brothers’ model-boat building workshop in Port Elizabeth are
not to be missed.

Mustique

With its grand villas and exclusive hotel, Mustique has long been associated
with royalty and celebrity. It was acquired by a single proprietor in the
1960s and developed as a private resort for the rich and famous. It is now
more accessible to the regular day-tripper, but visits must be arranged through
the Mustique Company. Basil’s Bar and Restaurant is the watering hole for
yachtsmen and celebrities, and its proprietor, Basil Charles, is a local
institution.

Canouan

At about the midway point in the Grenadines, Canouan claims some of the
best beaches in the Caribbean for swimming and snorkelling. Significant
recent tourism development has included the establishment of the exclusive
Carenage Bay Resort and Golf Club in the northern part of the island. Still,
Canouan retains its quiet charm.

Mayreau

With about 250 residents, Mayreau is the smallest inhabited island in
the Grenadines. Its famous Salt Whistle Bay is a popular anchorage among
yachting and diving enthusiasts. Mayreau is an essential stop-off point on
yacht charters.

Tobago Cays

A small collection of uninhabited islets just off Mayreau, the Tobago
Cays are surrounded by the Horseshoe Reef, and are popular for snorkelling,
diving, and swimming.

Petit St Vincent

PSV, as it’s referred to locally, is a privately owned island which boasts
one of the Caribbean’s loveliest resorts.

Union Island

The most southerly of St Vincent’s sister islands, Union Island is only
three miles long by one mile wide, fringed with gorgeous bays, lagoons,
and reefs with perfect sailing waters. Union Island is the hub of the Grenadines’
yachting and airport traffic, and the place to arrange day trips to other
islands.

Palm (Prune) Island

Palm Island, about a mile from Union Island, is a privately owned island
resort, popular with visitors for a day trip to snorkel, swim, and enjoy
the yacht club and restaurant.

Carriacou

Carriacou is one of Grenada’s two dependencies. Two and a half hours
from St George’s by ferry, it’s a beautiful hilly island, and, at 13 square
miles, the largest of the Grenadines. The island retains strong African
traditions like the Big Drum Dances and Tombstone Feasts. Carriacou is within
easy reach of a constellation of tiny, sandy islets with white sand and
one or two coconut trees, popular for picnics, swimming, and snorkelling,
including Sandy Island and White Island. Carriacou can be reached boat or
small plane.

Petit Martinique

Tiny Petit Martinique is Grenada’s second dependency — a mere 486 acres.
Its main occupations are fishing and boatbuilding.