FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

St. Vincent: Caribbean Calm

Oct 1, 2012
2012 / October 2012

We cut the boat’s engine as we approached an islet that seemed to levitate on aquamarine water so translucent I swore I could touch the reef 30 feet below. With our scuba gear on, my dive guide and I took the plunge and glided through a sunlit gallery glistening like a jewelry box with brilliant corals, neon sponges and gazillions of colorful reef fish. We spotted an eagle ray winging along the invisible current, then a four-foot-wide hawksbill turtle munching sea grass. And what might qualify as luck elsewhere was routine here when two reef sharks cruised 100 feet beneath us, gradually disappearing into the cobalt void.

This is Tobago Cays, a smattering of five deserted islands that remind me of the whimsical Far Side comic strip in which wretched castaways ironically contemplate their moribund fate. If there’s any joke, though, it’s on me. I hardly knew the place existed until I began hopscotching the 32-island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The name alone conjures idyllic, exotic islands, a siren call for travelers. But strangely, SVG has largely hovered off the radar for most North Americans, who typically flock to more promoted, developed islands like Barbados, the Virgin Islands and other West Indies destinations. Yet sailors in these parts are known to keep secrets. And in this quiet corner of the southeast Caribbean, SVG has long been an exclusive haunt of yachtsmen and sailboat charters who’ve prized the harbor-rich main island of St. Vincent and its portion of the Grenadines archipelago that swoops 45 miles southward like a kite’s tail, mCaribbean Calmarked with scores of desolate sheltered lagoons and cays.

St. Vincent is the largest and northernmost in the chain, dominated by the 4,048-foot Mount Soufrière volcano and chiseled by deeply embayed inlets with boulder-strewn shallows. The Grenadines, a chain of nearly 600 islets and islands scattered between St. Vincent and the separate island nation of Grenada, have just seven inhabited and delightfully underdeveloped islands: Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Union Island, Palm Island and Petit St. Vincent, each endowed with coral reefs and fine, white-sand beaches.

How these uncluttered Caribbean islands somehow escaped — for now — the inexorable expansion of so many other tropical destinations might have something to do with SVG’s defiant past.

When European explorers arrived on St. Vincent, the Kalinago native people were the primary inhabitants, who knew their island home as Hairoun, “Land of the Blessed.” Europeans called them Caribs, and the natives were aggressive in preventing the colonizing of St. Vincent. Their valiant resistance during the 17th century foiled colonists until long after most other Caribbean islands had well-established European settlements. Pirates were frequent visitors, too, using the islands as lairs to replenish supplies, which had an unsettling effect on potential settlers. Gradually, enslaved Africans who either escaped or became shipwrecked made their way to St. Vincent, intermarried with Caribs and became known as the Garifuna, forebears of people who populate much of SVG today.

In 1979, the nation achieved full independence as part of its West Indies Associated Status, but even then, large-scale tourism developments never took hold. After the destructive volcanic eruption of Soufrière in 1979 and obliterating Hurricane Allen the following year, the nation’s economy took a downturn until leaders decided in 1999 to diversify SVG’s economy to include tourism.

Visitors here are still a fraction of other well-oiled Caribbean destinations, but with the scheduled opening next year of the new Argyle International Airport on St. Vincent, the country expects a bump. Arrival capacity will be increased fivefold, and with a 9,000-foot runway that accommodates jets as large as Boeing 747-400s, St. Vincent expects direct flights to supplant a portion of the connecting flights (many involving two-day U.S. transit) now required.

Most travelers arrive on St. Vincent, an 11- by 18-mile island home to about 98,000 of the nation’s 106,000 residents. Outside of the compact asphalt and concrete capital city of Kingstown, the island reveals itself as earthy and unpretentious, dotted with colorful villages, agriculture, a mountainous interior, deeply forested valleys and an alternating coastline of gorgeous swimming beaches and lonely stretches of rocky coastline.

To see an area completely unaffected by tourism, head east to the raw Windward Coast, where cliffs drop abruptly into the roily Atlantic. This ragged, thinly populated coastline sprouts small hamlets alongside freshwater creeks tumbling from the evergreen mountain rainforest. Halfway up the Windward side is St. Vincent’s second-largest town, Georgetown. The modest enclave is surrounded by large coconut groves and is a handy stop for a cool drink and a place to stretch the legs. You’ll find a handful of narrow streets with small shops, eateries and rustic homes, all with friendly Vincentians who’ll likely ham it up if you point a camera their way. Drive the entire 30-plus miles northward to where the asphalt ends, and a rugged, bumpy drive will eventually deposit you at the Owia Salt Pond. This is a worthy hard-won daytrip where you can luxuriate in a huge natural sea pool enclosed by lava ridges. For snorkelers, it’s like a Jacques Cousteau episode in a giant tidal pool brimming with sea life.

St. Vincent’s Caribbean side enjoys the lion’s share of resorts and attractions, so I first settled in on 35-acre Young Island, just off the main island’s southwestern coast. With pools, fine dining, beach bars and all sorts of water toys on the beach, the private boutique resort is the kind of intimate place where you can simply relax and do nothing — or just about anything involving water.

I opted for the latter, each day taking the water taxi ashore and heading out by boat with Dive St. Vincent to investigate local dive sites. The crystalline waters yielded a bounty of marine extravaganzas, from shy seahorses to boisterous sea turtles — why St. Vincent is known in dive circles as the “Critter Capital” of the Caribbean. During evenings, I boated with other guests to nearby Fort Duvernette, or “Rock Fort,” a monolithic islet 50 yards off Young Island. Climb the super-steep 225 steps and you’ll be where the British fended off both the French and local Caribs with cannons that still remain. These days, it’s the perfect perch to watch the evening sun melt into the sea.

Farther up the Leeward Coast lies the island’s new tourism endeavor, Buccament Bay Resort, a departure from the small-scale resorts typical of SVG. Tucked in a rainforested valley on a beach of imported sugary sand, the pricey all-inclusive property is sprawling and hosts a contingent of sun-seeking globetrotters while catering to their every whim. And it succeeds with its luxe suites; several on-site fine-dining establishments; a spa; and a full-service dive and adventure shop, Indigo Dive.

With the dive staff as chaperones, I had the somewhat rare treat of being the only dive guest — anything was possible. I explored a well-known underwater cavern called Bat Cave, where indeed you enter an airy cave with swooping bats before submerging and eventually exiting 40 feet underwater. Just offshore, I dived several multicolored reefs loaded with sea life not more than a five-minute boat ride from the resort. Night dives under a full moon? Why not? We mingled with sea turtles, an octopus, cuttlefish and a menagerie of nocturnal creatures day divers rarely see.

St. Vincent’s Leeward Coast is an eco-outpost known for some ambitious hiking trails plumbing the rainforest. The biggest wow-factor destination is Dark View Falls, reached by an hour’s scenic drive up the coast before navigating into the dense, mountainous interior. Though fairly remote, it’s one of the island’s more accessible and picturesque tumblers, its 70-foot twin falls virtually hidden by massive stands of bamboo said to be the biggest and oldest in the Caribbean. After a reasonable hike in, I lingered in the pristine spray pool while hummingbirds and butterflies gorged on orchid nectar in a setting that seemed near magical.

Next in line south lies Bequia, first and largest island of the Grenadines chain. Even though it’s a mere 25-minute ferry from Kingstown, it bears little resemblance to St. Vincent. With a flotilla of international boats anchored in turquoise water, picturesque Admiralty Bay and the town of Port Elizabeth serve as the jumping-off point for sailing and diving in the northern Grenadines. From my digs at the Bequia Beach Hotel along zero-crowded Friendship Beach, I took to the water with local dive shop Dive Bequia and explored a sunken tugboat and florid aquarium-like reefs inside the bay.

Beyond the water, this sevensquare-mile island has its own sights to see. Head out on the standard two-hour drive tour and there’s a postcard shot waiting to be taken at nearly every turn. You’ll visit the 18th-century Hamilton Fort, a hilltop location with seeforever views of the bay and other SVG islands on the horizon. For a feel-good encounter I couldn’t pass up, I headed to the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary on the island’s northern Park Beach. A labor of love by weathered owner “Brother King,” his self-supported sanctuary gathers and incubates sea turtle eggs, then releases hatchlings once they’ve grown to a size that greatly increases their survival odds. Perhaps one of the sea turtles I encountered was raised here.

When the oppressive heat breaks in the evening, stroll the shady Belmont Walkway that meanders along the bohemian waterfront of Admiralty Bay to see a snippet of unadulterated island life. Here you can pop in to convivial local watering holes and restaurants like the Porthole Restaurant and Bar or Tommy’s Cantina. Tommy’s is the best place to sip cooling margaritas and watch island life pass by in all its manifestations, from moneyed yachtsmen and diving tourists to dreadlocked locals.

The final leg of my SVG journey brought me to Canouan, a dreamy fivesquare-mile island gem in the southern Grenadines. Green as an emerald, it’s blessed with a barrier reef that’s created an enormous tepid lagoon locals simply call The Bathtub, a feature that could double for lagoons I’ve seen in French Polynesia. An in-progress development, 300-acre Canouan Resort at Carenage Bay, lays claim to the shoreline here and has an adjoining world-class golf course. But up over the hill, on the leeward side near the tiny hamlet of Charleston Bay, life is still traditional. A hodgepodge of clapboard stores sell basic provisions while chickens, goats, iguanas and even turtles — Canouan means “Turtle Island” — roam freely.

Staying at the woodsy, boutique-ish Tamarind Beach Hotel & Yacht Club for four nights, I practically fulfilled a castaway fantasy on the island’s empty white beaches and walking trails draped by crimson-flowering flamboyant trees. And being an hour away from the isolated Tobago Cays Marine Park — the sharks, remember? — Canouan was the nautical gateway to some of the best underwater adventures I’d ever experienced.

A healthy ocean, paper-white sand beaches, islets crowned with arching palms, a friendly and natural vibe, relatively few people — it was the perfect final chapter to a magnificent Caribbean sojourn, one filled with an authenticity that I hardly knew existed.

Info To Go

International flights arrive at E.T. Joshua Airport (SVD) in Arnos Vale near Kingstown on the main island of St. Vincent. The gateways to St. Vincent and The Grenadines are Barbados, Grenada, Trinidad, St. Lucia, Martinique and Puerto Rico. Taxis are widely available on St. Vincent, and resorts on other islands include complimentary shuttles.

Weblinks

Bequia Beach Hotel
Buccament Bay Resort
Canouan Dive Center
Dive Bequia
Dive St. Vincent
Driftwood Restaurant
Indigo Dive St. Vincent
Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary
St. Vincent & the Grenadines Tourism
Tamarind Beach Hotel & Yacht Club
Tobago Cays Marine Park
Young Island Resort

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