Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ben Mitchell goes island-hopping ...

... in St Vincent and the Grenadines, one of the hidden gems of the Caribbean

Published: 16/01/2010

BAMBOO trees creaking and swaying gently in the Caribbean breeze provided a soothing soundtrack as we sweated our way through the humid forest around the volcano which forms the centre point of the lush, green island of St Vincent.We were being led up to the crater of La Soufriere, in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG), and the first stretch of a fascinating three-hour trek was submerged in a world of beautiful forest.

But as we climbed further up towards the peak of the 4,000ft volcano, the landscape gradually broke out into the stony scrub-land that covers the top of the crater.Looking down inside, I found it difficult to get a feel for how deep it was. At first, I thought it was just 65ft down – and then I suddenly saw something moving around and realised with a shock that people were about 650ft below us.I could also make out the “island” – a hill growing in the middle of the crater where the volcano remains active beneath.

On May 7, 1902, La Soufriere erupted so fiercely that it killed 1,680 people. When it last erupted in April 1979, there were no lives lost – because of advance warnings.

At 21 miles long and 11 wide, St Vincent is the largest of the 32 islands and cays which make up this Caribbean group. Mustique, patronised by rock celebs and royalty, is another.

St Vincent is a hilly island dominated by La Soufriere, and as we drove up to the starting point of the crater walk, the winding road took us through what felt like a natural botanical garden.This is typical of the landscape of what is the best kept secret in the West Indies – the islands are full of secluded beaches, lush forests and charming and honest harbour towns, all surrounded by crystal clear, azure seas.But despite its relative obscurity, it is a place which many have fallen in love with, having provided the backdrop for much of the first Pirates Of The Caribbean movie and some of the second.

It is even possible to stay in the same hotel where the stars, Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley, laid their heads during filming. In some places, props left behind from filming are a magnet for tourists.

After our energetic climb up the volcano, guided by Sailor Wilderness Tours, we enjoyed a delicious picnic of home-made chicken, rice and beans overlooking the striking black sand beaches at Black Point, which look almost metallic in glinting sunshine.The spot also captured the imagination of the Pirates location scouts, not only for the unusual sands but for a tunnel carved more than 300ft through the rocks by slaves in 1815 to enable sugar cane to be loaded on to ships for export more easily.

However, St Vincent is not just about hill climbs. You can just as easily take part in those most Caribbean of pastimes, relaxing on the beach and “liming” – the local word for hanging out with friends.I stayed at the colourful Beachcombers boutique hotel, whose bright yellow, orange and blue buildings are nestled in a flourishing botanical garden with a pool overlooking the beach and its calm, lapping waters.This is a great spot for a dip or to play a game of beach football with the local children, or to stand amused as locals gallop along the beach on their horses.

Just 200 yards or so across the water is Young Island, a private hotel resort with a taste of Caribbean luxury.Visitors can choose from a variety of villas, either touching the shore with their own steps on to the beach, or have a more secluded location farther up the hill, hidden among the vegetation and overlooking the bay.There is no need for air-conditioning in this hotel as the rooms have been cleverly designed to make the most of the natural breeze, with the whole room surrounded in beautiful slatted windows which allow the air to circulate – but with wire meshing to keep the mosquitoes out.

One drawback to this corner of paradise, however, is that open windows let in loud music booming across the water from local bars every Wednesday and Saturday.The indoor-outdoor feel is made complete by the bathroom shower actually being in the garden with a view over the water, but with your modesty retained by a shoulder-high fence for a screen.

In the island’s main town, Kingstown, a throwback to colonial times can be found at Grenadine House with its elegantly restored restaurant and hotel rooms, which were chosen to sleep the Pirates stars during some of the filming.From Kingstown, I took the hour-long ferry trip to the laid-back island of Bequia (pronounced “bekway”).

Its tranquil harbour town of Port Elizabeth is studded with little boutiques where you can buy handmade boats and other local crafts while Rastafarians “lime” by the waterfront and residents visit the vegetable market, where there is a sign saying it is illegal to stuff food into the mouths of tourists.There is a range of high-quality, relaxed restaurants along the waterfront, including the evocatively named Devil’s Table. This is famous for being a lively attraction for locals and visitors alike at the weekends, but is quiet during the week, offering specialities including locally caught fish.

I stayed at the Bequia Beach Hotel in nearby Friendship Bay, a sister hotel of Grenadine House, and both have rooms decorated in a stylish throwback to mid-20th-century grandeur with colourful posters for Cuba and Miami on the walls.

Taking an exciting flight in a six-seater plane across to the Raffles resort on Canouan, I could see across the green islands of SVG sticking out of the translucent sea – and could just imagine the pirate ships of yesteryear sailing by.

And it is these unspoiled coastlines which remain thick with the tropical vegetation that brought the Pirates crew to film at the beautiful Tobago Cays, a perfect destination for sailing, snorkelling and diving trips.

I finished my holiday in style at the Raffles resort, which takes up half of Canouan and boasts a Donald Trump-designed golf course.But at this 88-room resort with 650 staff, the golf buggies aren’t restricted to the links as each villa is provided with its own vehicle to travel to the beach, swimming pool, one of the four restaurants, casino or spa.No luxury has been forgotten at this expansive site overlooking one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean, including a poolside sunglasses-cleaning service. And the luxury continues inside villas designed in a crisp, modern and extremely comfortable style.

While SVG remains a hidden gem, work has started on a new international airport to allow major carriers to fly direct, cutting the arrival time for visitors who have to go via Barbados, about 100 miles to the east.

Visitors might be well advised to enjoy island-hopping around this sleepy backwater while they can before too many tour groups start flying in.

Time to go: All year, but cooler between November and February.Ben Mitchell flew to St Vincent and the Grenadines with British Airways, which offers return flights ex-Gatwick to Barbados from £569.Operators to SVG include Caribtours, which offers seven nights’ half-board at Young Island Resort from £1,615, saving £520, including BA flights ex-Gatwick or Manchester, transfers and surcharges for selected departures from January 5 until March 31. Connecting flights ex-Glasgow costs from about £80.Beachcombers Hotel (www.beachcombers has double rooms from £46 per night, and Grenadine House ( from £85.Destination information from St Vincent and the Grenadines (, with advice also from (01273 600 030).

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