Saturday, July 05, 2008

Another Tourist Column

Land of the blessed
Grenadines Island holiday like being in a little bit of paradise
Posted 7 hours ago

As our small prop plane started to descend into St. Vincent, I was mesmerized by the turquoise glow of the Caribbean Sea and the endless stretch of black sand beaches along the coast of the island.

We landed before sunset on the island that used to be called Hairoun, which means land of the blessed. The name rings true with its towering volcano, genuine local people and separation from mass tourism.

The island's airport, located 160 kilometres west of Barbados, can't handle big jets. The appeal is that it's an off-the-beaten-path vacation spot.

The drive to the volcano along the windward coast to the countryside took us through banana and coconut plantations. We stopped along the way to pick soursop, breadfruit and guava that were growing in abundance.

After eating fresh guava and picking some other fruit, we arrived at the base of the volcano for a trek up to the top.

I certainly wasn't ready for the 2 1/2-hour steep hike in the suffocating humidity of a tropical rainforest.

To gauge your progress, the hike can be split into four quarters -- each with a distinctive landmark, such as large boulders or an opening in the trees.

I barely made it to the end of the first quarter before collapsing on a stair created out of bamboo. After some much needed water and mangoes, we to the next quarter.

As we hiked, I heard the crunch of bamboo leaves underneath my running shoes, the sound of trees scratching against each other and the eerie quiet of a place far away from civilization. We travelled through bamboo groves, rainforest and vegetation stunted by the altitude before reaching the top.

The hike seemed to last forever and was tougher than anything I've ever done. There were moments I just couldn't go on and had to sit on a rock trying to muster enough energy to continue.

As soon as I turned around and saw the view, I realized that the sweat, pain and almost bursting into tears was worth it.

Royal tire

The view was absolutely breathtaking.

I sat on a rock munching on some Caribbean treats while peaking into the crater of the volcano several hundred feet below. A thick, mysterious fog covered the landing and made me feel as if I was in heaven.

The way down was less physically challenging, but more dangerous. I fell down the steep trail twice after slipping on loose rocks.

I was left with large scrapes along my left leg, but that was a small price to pay to be able to tell people I climbed a volcano.

The next day, I boarded the Bequia Express ferry in St. Vincent to visit the biggest of the Grenadine Islands, Bequia. St. Vincent and the Grenadines is made up of 32 islands with almost 110,000 people.

Curtis Ollivierre, who owns a local taxi company with his wife Sandra, showed me where to get good coffee on the island, where to buy sunblock and took me to some model boat shops.

Bequia, almost 15 kilometres south of St. Vincent, is known for its whaling traditions and boat-building shops.

Sargeant Brothers Model Boat Shop is a Bequian store operated by artisans who have perfected the craft of carving wooden replicas of whaling boats. Small pieces of the model boats can take days to make and bigger pieces can take as long as three weeks.

Sergeant Brothers welcomed me into their shop and showed me where the boats are made. Bequians say their island is the jewel of the Caribbean because of how the tourists easily fit in.

"It's because of the people. They're friendly and the atmosphere is completely different than the other islands,'' said Lawson Sargeant, a model boat builder who runs the Bequia Maritime Museum.

While walking along the beach, a man selling jewelry saw the large gashes on my leg from falling down the volcano the day before. He picked an aloe plant, cracked it open and told me to put the soothing liquid that oozed out on the scrapes.

After exploring small shops, vendors on the road and boat shops, I headed to the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary.

A local man named Orton King took it upon himself 12 years ago to nurture turtles from the moment they are born. The turtles live in tanks at the sanctuary until they are around 36 centimetres long. That's when King releases the turtles back into the ocean.

Back on the mainland of St. Vincent the next day, I took a two-minute boat ride across to Young Island. I settled into a fenced-in private cottage surrounded by mango, almond, coffee and nutmeg trees on the 14-hectare private resort.

The cottage had an ocean-view terrace with a hammock, lawn chairs and steps leading down to the beach. A door in the bathroom led to an outdoor shower with an ocean view.

After checking in, I set sail on Young Island's own 13-metre yacht with Capt. George Kydd along the Leeward coast of St. Vincent.

Guests can charter a yacht for around $500, which includes food and drinks for up to four people for the day.

We stopped to eat lunch at Wallilabou Bay after a few hours on board admiring the view of the island from the Caribbean Sea. The restaurant was on the set where scenes of the Pirates of the Caribbean Black Pearl and Dead Man's Chest movies were filmed.

Cruising the islands doesn't have to stop with a tour of the coast of St. Vincent. On my last day in the Caribbean, I took a tiny plane ride from St. Vincent to Union Island where I boarded an 18-metre catamaran with Beresford Clifton as the captain.

Clifton described the routes he took us on and points of interest along the way. The first stop was Mayreau, the smallest of the inhabited Grenadines. It doesn't have an airport and has a population of around 250 people.

The island has beautiful white sand beaches, swimming and snorkelling areas.

"There is a small resort on the island and to spend the night it's about $350 US,'' Clifton said as he pulled the boat up to the shore. After exploring the island, we got back on board for a lunch of Caribbean fish, chicken, rice and other treats that the chef cooked in the galley below the deck.

The next stop -- the Tobago Cays. We docked and then walked to the other side of the island for swimming and snorkelling. The Tobago Cays are a cluster of five uninhabited islands surrounded by a horseshoe reef. Local boat vendors often drift to the islands selling handmade jewelry, food and many other delights.

Palm Island was the last stop on the Grenadine cruise. The island has been uninhabited by locals for many years and is now an all-inclusive resort with five white sand beaches. The perfect end to an all-day boat cruise was a dip in the ocean.

Five days in the Caribbean made me understand why the locals kept saying, "Why go to a resort in Mexico when you can come to paradise?''

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* From Barbados, a short flight with LIAT, the Caribbean Airline, will bring you into St. Vincent. See

* If you're going to climb the volcano, pack lots of water and food and wear hiking boots for good grip while descending. Hazeco Tours can guide you on a hike up the volcano for around US$75, including snacks, lunch and water.

* For a tour of Bequia, Curtis Ollivierre with Challenger Taxi will show you all the island hot spots. Along with tours and taxi services, he rents Suzuki sport utility vehicles. Accommodations:

* Beachcombers is a cosy 31-room hotel with a beachfront restaurant. The nightly rates during peak season range from around US$99 for two people to $270 for penthouse suites, including a continental breakfast.

* In Bequia, the Friendship Bay Hotel is about 10 minutes from Port Elizabeth. Rates during peak season range from $290 a night for an ocean-view room to $775 for an executive suite. www.friendshipbay. vc