The simple, unspoiled glory of the Grenadines, the lesser-known islands in the southernmost part of the Caribbean chain, is an exhilarating gift proffered to each traveler.
By Dominique Wellington
The simple, unspoiled glory of the Grenadines, the lesser-known islands in the southernmost part of the Caribbean chain, is an exhilarating gift proffered to each traveler. Untold realms of energy and light emanate from a flood of refreshing beauty found at every turn. Upon embarking into this new world, barricades of city life are quickly shed and the power of sea, sun, sky and endless space begin their magic. St. Vincent and the Grenadines may be reached only by boat or small plane (Mustique Airways} coming from the larger islands of Barbados or Grenada. This novel means of transportation adds a sense of adventure.
From the mother and capital of the archipelago, the large volcanic island of St. Vincent, to the second largest, Bequia, to the island of the super wealthy, Mustique, to newly awakenedCanouan, all the way to the beautiful, tiny island of Mayreau, each has its own magnetic beauty.
Bequia -- Island Wonderland
The late afternoon ferry winds its way around Devil’s Point on the west side of Bequia, arriving at the island’s primary hub, Port Elizabeth. We feel the clamor of excitement on the shore below, as cargoes of food and people are unloaded. Pausing at the top of the narrow steps, I examine the face of the island pointed toward the sea. From the top of the rolling, green volcanic hills sloping from azure skies to translucent seas, houses are scattered gracefully. Rimming the edges of the island, barely visible through the palm trees, are small shops, boutique hotels and restaurants. The overall picture is not of a sleepy island lost in its drems, but one of animated tranquility.
Clambering down the steps, we met Alvin, a taxi driver who became our on-call guide. Taxis are small, sturdy trucks able to negotiate hairpin corners and steep hills. Seated comfortably in the back of the open truck, we headed straight up the hills to the Old Fort, a country inn. Climbing higher, the view became more breathtaking until we reached the highest point, bringing us to the gate of the Old Fort.
The Old Fort, built on the ruins of an old French fort dating from 1756, took 10 years of labor and dedication to restore to its original ambience. In 1984 it was opened to guests who discovered one of the most enchanting, small hotels in the world. At this unique country inn set among tropical gardens, the chickens produce the morning breakfast, and every evening a pair of peacocks appear on cue, perched atop the walls of the old sugar mill, preening against the setting sun.
Each of the six guestrooms retain some of the original stone walls, and the combination of exposed ceiling beams and rafters creates a distinctly medieval feel, its simplicity graced with antiques and original paintings. In the open air, lower den of the fort, the Mediterranean-Creole cuisine is excellent. For romantic couples and honeymooners who enjoy great food by candle and firelight, an added attraction is the superb selection of classical music.
Strolling around Bequia is like Alice’s journey through wonderland. People look large while all the structures appear small and quaint. From the popular Frangipani Hotel, where yacht owners from around the world gather at the open air bar and restaurant, all the way to the Plantation House Resort, there is an intriguing walk that ducks under trees along a narrow path at the very edge of the water. The stone walkway extends the length of the waterfront, with sections carved out by people taking shortcuts. This became my artery — a daily walk to lunch at the Frangipani, then a walk past the Gingerbread Restaurant and boutiques, all the way to Maranne’s for homemade frozen yogurt. The water, even in this busy harbor, is clean and inviting. After a busy day, we would later return to watch the sun set from a strategic spot on the deck in front of the lovely Plantation House.
Bequia, island of fishermen and boat builders, has a magnetic appeal to the adventurous visitor, someone who prefers the tropical delights of smaller, more informal islands where beaches are secluded. Bequia has ample four-star and comfortable three-star hotels and budget guesthouses that include breakfast and dinner. Prices range from $150 double, per night, meals included, to a guesthouse single at $40, or a two-bedroom apartment for $340 per week.
Friendship Bay Hotel has a great beach location with a friendly staff, tennis courts, scuba diving, windsurfing, sailing and water skiing. It is ideal for water sports rather than swimming. Bequia’s best beaches are at Lower Bay and Princess Margaret Beach located close to the village center.
Evenings in Bequia are relaxed. You can spend them on a hill reaching for the stars, enjoy a five-course gourmet dinner, or take a walk to the Schooner to participate in the island’s karioke club. This is a guaranteed evening of laughs, even though the talented islanders set quite a high standard is singing ability. Nevertheless, with a group it can be a hilarious evening.
Palm Island — Island of Light
Flying from Bequia, Mustique Airways brought us to Union Island where we were met at the airport. From the airport it’s 10 minutes by cabin cruiser to Palm Island and its Palm Island Beach Club.
My first and lasting impression of this island is the wonderful impact of its radiant light. The soft, clean, white stretch of sand rimmed the island as far as the eye could see. Lines of palm trees followed the path of the beach along the enticingly translucent blue sea. Every sight evokes harmony; nothing blurs the natural beauty.
This tiny paradise island, the size of a handkerchief, is the fruition of a pioneer's dream. John Caldwell developed the former Prune Island from an unwanted, mosquitoed swampland, into Palm, the dream island it is today.
One of the most enjoyable attractions for vacationers at this relaxed, friendly resort is the quality and variety of the food. The atmosphere is non-imposing, and the management is in tune with the guests. The encircling sea is the source of all activity, from scuba diving to wind surfing. Rates: High season, $265-345 per couple; Low season, $245. Phone: (800) 858-4618.
Mayreau -- Exquisite Island of Yesterday
The boat ride from Palm Island to Salt Whistle Bay on the island of Mayreau took just 30 minutes. This half-moon bay, as still as glass with barely a ripple, has to take the prize for the purest, most picturesque and peaceful harbor in the world. Canadian couple Undine and Tom Potter fell in love with this island while sailing in 1977, looking for their own tropical paradise.
They bought a choice piece of land on a peninsula dividing the Atlantic from the Caribbean and opened the Salt Whistle Bay Club in 1980. Beneath the shade of tall palms and ficus trees, this lovely, casual resort features cottages built the island's bluebitch stone. Each cottage has its own private thatched-roof gazebo for meals. With her boundless energy and genuine warmth, being pampered by Undine Potter adds to the feeling of complete relaxation on this island.
Two experiences not to be missed while on Mayreau are a boat trip out to the uninhabited Tobago Cays for a day of snorkeling and a walk across the high hill and down into Mayreau's small village. It’s worth the hike, even in the hot sun. A Catholic Church, a school and a graveyard stand nobly at the pinnacle with a panoramic view of the horizon in all directions. Less than 200 people, many goats and a few sheep live happily here. It has all the charm of a forgotten island where people walk in beauty and survive by the bountiful sea.
Other Grenadine islands I visited briefly include Mustique, Canouan, and Young, all extraordinarily beautiful with their own unique character.
Young, smallest of all, is reached via a causeway from St. Vincent. The atmosphere at the resort is spectacular with excellent service, fantastic homemade breads and carefully selected fruits, vegetables, meats and fresh fish. It’s a joy to anticipate a meal here.
Mustique Island covers 1,400 acres where private homes that are spectacular showcases of international architects in collaboration with Vincentian craftsmen and builders. Island home of the rich and famous, Princess Margaret and many movie stars vacation here. Cotton House, an 18th-century cotton warehouse, was renovated by the late Oliver Messel and is now a lovely hotel with a graceful, somewhat familiar charm and southern belle appeal.
Canouan Island, birthplace of shipbuilding in the Grenadines, has a population of less than 700 and is another gem in the chain. The people here retain a sunny, shy, sweetness but also an avid curiosity about the larger world.
Getting there: American Airlines flies from Washington Dulles to Barbados via San Juan where you connect to St. Vincent, Bequia, Union, Canouan or Mustique via Mustique Airways. (800) 223-0599. LIAT Caribbean Airlines also serves St. Vincent and Union Island from Barbados, Grenada and St. Lucia. (800) 468-0482.