The Grenadines: A Tropical Playground

I’ve earned the right to hate everything about the Grenadines. Having paid $1000 for PCR tests and a two week quarantine to get into the country, we’d just cleared in when a volcanic eruption covered the islands in a thick layer of toxic ash. Things were just starting to normalise when a tree branch fell with the accuracy of a well-aimed lance and pierced my foot, fracturing my bone in the process. As I was starting to regain mobility, a series of minor medical issues sent me to the local clinic where a life-threatening condition was misdiagnosed. While the personal disasters were mounting, neither natural catastrophe nor medial calamity were enough to send me barreling for home. Given the rap sheet, I’d say that says something about the country. 

When you’ve been cruising for an extended amount of time, it is easy to see how countries may start to blend into each other. But they never do. Given the proximity of islands throughout the Caribbean, it is easy to assume one sandy cay is the same as the next. But they aren’t. The Grenadines are a perfect example of this. The 32 windward islands that make up St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) are spread across 60 miles within the Southern Caribbean Sea and are geographically close yet geologically distinct from each other. From black volcanic shores to white sand beaches, from dense tropical rain forest to aired scrubland, from colourful fishing villages to empty bays and high-end luxury services to spartan local fare, the options are limitless. If you want it, the Grenadines has it.

And we wanted all of it. John and I arrived in the Caribbean in early 2021 and spent our time sailing throughout the Lesser Antilles, searching for an area where we could island hop without having to go through expensive PCR tests and lengthy quarantine periods every time we wanted to move islands. We knew that the Grenadines provided cruising grounds that offered this, and we made our way towards the island group in early April. We made a quick dash for Bequia as soon as we had completed our two week quarantine in Saint Vincent. While I knew we were leaving the main island unexplored, the call for a relaxed island vibe and the beat of steel drums far outweighed the tourist activities of St. Vincent. After all, not much moves mountains and St. Vincent was all tall peaks and deep-cut valleys. Hiking waterfalls and the rim of a crater would wait until the steel drums were starting to rattle their own tune inside my brain. 

But some mountains do move — particularly exploding ones. One week out of quarantine and La Soufrière, the youngest and largest volcano in the country, erupted after 40 years of laying dormant. The plume rose 26,000ft into the air and then slowly descended down on us, settling a thick layer of ash onto every surface throughout every corner of the Grenadines. All who could move, moved as quickly as they could. We pulled up anchor though a thick haze of ash and sailed south in a compact line of fleeing vessels. The Tobago Cays lay in the southern end of the island chain and we settled in there to wait out the fallout with a dozen other boats. It took a few days for the wind to shift and blow the ash away, and when it did we got our first glimpse of the glorious Grenadines. After a false start, we were ready to do what cruisers do best: Relax and party — each in equal measure.

Tobago Cays and the Lesser Isles

Fortunately, we were in the perfect place for it. The Tobago Cays consist of five uninhabited islands in the southern Grenadines surrounded by an expansive reef system on the outside and a  crystal clear, white sand lagoon on the inside. Green turtles and sting rays slowly swim past and under the boat while colourful fish swiftly pace along the nearby outlying reef, creating an aquatic wonderland. When we were ready to dry out, we wandered ashore in search of large iguana and small land turtles on our hike up the hilltop for stunning views of the tropical beauty that lay below. Late afternoons invariably turned social as cruisers gathered under the palm trees to tell a few tales over a few cold beers. We shared potluck meals and built bonfires, and occasionally we wandered across the island to enjoy a local barbecue where the daily catch of fish or lobster would be cooking on the open grill, the only service provided in the Cays. Our days were exactly what Caribbean cruising was supposed to be: Long, slow and lazy. Had it not been for my desire to see the rest of islands, we would have spent all of our time in the Tobago Cays exactly as Captain Sparrow had in the Pirates of the Caribbean, sacked out in the shade of a palm tree with a belly full of rum. 

After a few weeks of paradise, however, it was time to move on and see the rest of the Grenadines. While there are a few dozen islands within the group, the majority of cruising destinations are focused on the nine inhabited islands and a few of their surrounding islets. Each island has its own unique character and to experience the nuances of each was rewarding. Union provided a prime spot for kitesurfing where days were dominated by wind-sport activity. Mayreau offered my favourite anchorage where Atea sat a boat-length from the white sand, palm-lined shore. Canouan brought a touch of opulence, where we dined in a luxury restaurant built for the affluent and sat seaside sipping colourful fruit-wedged cocktails from the open-air bar. 

Our focus changed as we shifted from island to island, depending on those small nuances. Either we were racing in the wind on top of the water, or we were eye-balling fish as they swam along the reef, or we were rolling around in the gentle surf. Regardless of the island or the bay, our days were filled with a soft breeze and warm, clear water. We were travelling with a few other cruisers at the time, so our salt-filled days invariably ended in beer-filled nights. If we weren’t on the beach raising our glass to the setting sun, we were gathered in a cockpit toasting to our good fortune. A succession of days slowly turned into run-on weeks which developed into a set pattern as life  continued on in pretty much the same fashion as it has in the Tobago Cays. The names of the bays changed, but the experience remained the same: Beach, siesta, drink. It was time to find somewhere that would add some diversity to our days, and Bequia was just that place. 

Bequia: The Cruisers Mecca

We were finally in Bequia, the cruisers Mecca of the Grenadines, and back to our original starting point. Well out of high-season and not long since the recent volcanic eruption, only a few cruisers had returned to Admiralty Bay. Many of the restaurants and bars were closed, but a few were working hard to keep the regulars returning. The Marina Bar had Thursday barbecue specials, Jack’s restaurant had Friday night happy hour and Daffodils had Sunday potluck. Many of the tourist attractions were down to reduced hours or open by appointment only. While services were minimised, the atmosphere was great and we were able to experience a quieter, more local scene than the charged atmosphere of high season. We were travelling in company with three other boats and pretty soon we had established our own collective routine: Beach yoga and a dip in the ocean in the morning, a dive or inland hike in the afternoon and sundowners on the beach or happy hour rum punch in the bar in the evenings. 

We would plan different excursions to break the routine, visiting a salt-farm, a fruit plantation, a pottery shop, a heritage museum and a turtle sanctuary. We ordered specialty cocktails at a floating bar and ate lavish meals over extended lunches in upmarket restaurants. We explored the windward bays and hung out with the locals, learning how to crack a coconut with a rock, roast it in the fire after salting it in seawater. We ate salt-fish cooked over the heat of a fire while learning how to carve designs in seeds with a stick. We walked through local villages where the bones of humpback whale were discarded on the side of the road and we climbed up the mountainside for fantastic outlooks over the sea. Life in Bequia was full of options and opportunities, if you made the effort to seek it out. It was a different kind of paradise from the sleepy islands that stretch south beyond it, but it was rich and rewarding all the same. 

After two months living an idyllic carefree lifestyle, however, we were feeling that our existence was falling into a set pattern again. The itch had returned and we were ready to dust the fine, white sand off our backsides and put some intrepid into our travels. Saint Vincent hadn’t appealed to us when we first arrived in the Grenadines as we were looking to insert ourselves into that picture-perfect postcard, the one with a slanting palm tree casting its shadow over still, clear water. But we needed a change of scene, and that scene was glaring down at us from 4,000 feet.

Saint Vincent: The Heart of the Grenadines

We were curious to see the aftermath of the volcanic eruption and sailed to the far north of the island where the damage from the volcano was visible. Pyroclastic flows had devastated the northern part of the island, reshaping the landscape as it carved a path of destruction to the sea. Acres of felled trees were left blackened and charred, rivers were redirected and new valleys were carved out by the flows. Houses lay flattened by the weight of the ash deposited on rooftops, entire crops were wiped out and 16,000 people had been evacuated from the red zone, leaving villages scarred and deserted. Anyone within the “red zone” was on their own. We visited villages where active settlements had turned into ghost towns and only a small handful of determined residents had refused to leave. We were in one of these towns when heavy rains created a flash flood that drowned the houses and streets in a torrent of ash-filled mud. Regardless of hardship, the people were hospitable and welcoming. It was humbling to experience such warmth from people who had suffered through so much.  

But there is more to Saint Vincent than hardship and destruction. The island has its own unique beauty with high mountain peaks and thick verdant forest, jagged boulders overhanging shear cliffs that rise up from the black sand shores. We had been travelling in company prior to our departure for Saint Vincent, so to be on our own in this rugged land was a welcome change. We found our “new favourite” in a tiny one-boat cove, where we stern-tied Atea and made her fast to the rocks on either side and enjoyed the serene solitude of our private sanctuary. Our over-night stop turned into a succession of days filled with cliff-diving, rock climbing, bush walks and beach bonfires. We sat in pitch-black bat caves, hiked steep mountain tracks and found rock art hidden in the bush. We watched the blinking light of fireflies at dusk and the mysterious flashing light of jellyfish at night. We’d left the party in Bequia in search of something different, and we found it in our very first stop in Saint Vincent. 

But there was so much more coming our way. As we slowly made our way north, the beauty of the island slowly unraveled before us: I wanted to hunt for first-century petroglyphs and wander through age-old ruins, and we found them. I wanted to walk through dense rainforest to stand under raging waterfalls, and we stood there. I wanted to jump off tall cliffs into the clear water below, and we jumped. I wanted the thrill of swimming through the total darkness inside deep fissures in the rock, and the adrenaline pumped. I wanted to sit with the seamen and hear to their stories, and we listened. We’d come up to St. Vincent in search of something different, and different was unfolding by the day.

I had a certain expectation of what Saint Vincent would be like, but nothing prepared me for the gruesome sight of a whale hunt. I knew whaling was legal in the Grenadines, but I didn’t believe it to be true when we were told “black fish” had been caught that day. True to word, four pilot whales were towed in by longboats in the evening. It was both horrifying and fascinating to witness. While every fibre of my being opposes whaling of any form, we travel to open our eyes to new experiences. We were invited to join in as they skinned and butchered the animal on the beach in the morning and watched as they boiled the fat to extract oil and cut the meat into slices to lay on drying racks. We even tasted the fried skin and accepted the whale teeth that were offered to us.

My misfortune may have earned me the right to hate the Grenadines, but my experiences have given me nothing but the feeling of great fortune. Everything about it is fabulous: The cultural diversity, the geographic proximity, the scenic beauty. Each island has its own unique character, and that diversity means you can choose to relax in its pristine beauty or dig deep into its rugged underbelly. I wanted peaceful solitude and I got it. I wanted to rub shoulders with the locals in a dusty bar and I got to. I wanted decadence and I indulged in it. I wanted social with fellow cruisers and we created it. I wanted intrepid and I found it. How could I have known that a small group of islands could offer so much in so many different ways?

One Reply to “The Grenadines: A Tropical Playground”

  1. Hi John – I spent 3 months in SVG in 1980. It was absurdly beautiful then, but very few tourists, and only a few cruisers. Much of the time I was crewing with some friends, talking US students from the St Vincent American School of Medicine, believe it or not! They had few redeeming features and no boat skills…
    Between cruises we would run French wine bought in Martinique at French prices and run round the British islands selling to all the restaurants at a tidy profit! Very fond memories, Jim

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