Thursday, December 11, 2008

Island Hopping


Let's go island hopping


With their great beaches, sunny weather and laidback charm, Windward Islands such as Mayreau, part of St. Vincent & The Grenadines, are a great escape from winter. (Toronto Sun/Robin Robinson)

Few Caribbean countries offer as many opportunities for island hopping as St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
On a recent one-week trip we visited 10 islands, and spent the night on four of them without ever feeling rushed. The experiences ranged from quaint islands such as Bequia, to the private retreat of Palm Island, as well as uninhabited cays where we swam with tropical fish and relaxed on the beach.
What makes island hopping here so easy is the close proximity of several of the Grenadines plus a frequent ferry and air service.

It may not be known for its beaches (for that visit the Grenadines) but St. Vincent does offer amazing scenery, best explored on a road trip on the windward or leeward sides of the island (both are equally rewarding).

Look for turnoffs to waterfalls, hiking trails and native petroglyphs. Add to that the oldest botanical gardens in the Western Hemisphere, and many early 19th century buildings in the capital Kingstown -- including Fort Charlotte. No mega resorts here but you will find St. Vincent has reasonably priced lodging and is a good base from which to visit other islands.

Legend has it a Carib chief who admired a horse owned by the British governor of the day, Sir William Young, swapped the island for the animal! There's no sign of a horse today, but it is possible to see agoutis, iguanas, lizards and the endangered St. Vincent parrot on this private island just 182 metres from St. Vincent.

There are 29 cottages set in lush tropical foliage but if not staying the night, come for the day (visitors are welcome with prior arrangement) and enjoy lunch, laze on the beach, play tennis, wind surf, snorkel or walk around the triangular-shaped 14-hectare island. The 24-hour ferry service runs on a demand basis. Young Island operates two yachts, which can be chartered for a day sail to Bequia or Mustique.

Though it measures just 8 km by 4.8 km, Bequia is the largest of the 33 islands that make up the Grenadines and after St. Vincent offers the most options for accommodation with at least 19 hotels and guest houses. We travelled by ferry (about an hour from St. Vincent) to this quaint island of 5,000 people. A bus tour took us to scenic lookouts, the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, a whale museum, the Hamilton Battery, and a model boat builders workshop.
Later we strolled through the capital of Port Elizabeth and relaxed on a golden ribbon of sand known as Princess Margaret Beach -- one of several nice beaches on the island.

The following morning we flew to Union Island (20 minutes, $40 US one-way) and boarded an 18-metre catamaran for a day of sailing with Captain Yannis. Mayreau, our first stop, is rimmed by virgin beaches. Up a hill there's a one-road village, home to 254 people, a stone church and a great view of the Southern Grenadines. Most visitors hang around on the beach, swimming or snorkelling.
After some R&R we headed for the Tobago Cays, one of those idyllic spots where water shimmers in every shade of blue imaginable. The Cays, which are uninhabited -- unless you count the large green turtles and octopus I met after diving into the water -- include five islands near a barrier reef that comprise a protected Marine Park. Here you can swim with goatfish, wrasse and parrot fish among elegant fans, and coral.

By late afternoon we're deposited on another gorgeous stretch of sand, this one on Palm Island, where we'll spend the night. Though it's a private island, with 37 luxury cottages and suites made from thatch, bamboo and terra cotta, day visitors are welcome if arrangements are made in advance. It's worth the effort to see the sunset from Casuarina Beach and to walk the nature trails, where you'll likely encounter large Green Iguanas in the trees. At night, fall asleep to the sound of waves lapping on shore.

With white sand beaches and interior rolling hills, P.S.V., as it's known, is another pristine private island. The only way you can visit this gem is by staying at its only resort.
Owners Haze and Lynn Richardson have created a tranquil getaway with 22 secluded cottages ($495 US per night), where you are ensured prompt service (two staff members for every guest), and tasty meals using local organic produce. There are no phones, TVs or computers. Instead guests communicate by raising a yellow flag for service. Activities include snorkelling, sailing, kayaking, windsurfing, water skiing or doing nothing at all.

Our next stop is Union, this time for a short tour of the island where, in the 18th century, the French and later the English were involved in the slave trade. Today Union is a stopping off point for yachtsmen, and its airport is the main gateway to the smaller Grenadine islands.
Union is distinguished by its near vertical peaks -- 304-metre-high Mount Toboi is the highest in the Grenadines. Attractions include 17th-century Fort Hill plus lagoons, reefs, beaches and bays. Union is ideal for a day cruise to the neighbouring islands of Mayreau, P.S.V. and the Tobago Cays, none of which can be accessed by air.

After a night in St. Vincent we fly to Canouan, a former farming and fishing community home to about half a dozen hotels and guest houses including one of the finest resorts in the Caribbean -- the 156-room Raffles Resort. Before entering this five-star property, however, we are forced to stop our vehicle several times for turtles. A few wayward critters had wandered onto the road. It seemed a fitting encounter on Canouan, a Carib word meaning "turtle island." The spacious grounds, which you traverse by golf cart, include an oceanfront spa, a casino, infinity pool, two lovely beaches and the Trump International Golf Club. No matter where you look, the views -- usually of the ocean and tree-covered hills -- will put you at ease.
My only regret is we didn't make it to Mustique due to lack of time and money. I wanted to see the villas of the rich and famous, including Brian Adams, David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Then I remembered that line from the Rolling Stones: "You can't always get what you want ..." But you can try!

For more on St. Vincent and the Grenadines check

This story was posted on Thu, December 11, 2008