Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sailing Around SVG

Note: We don't do things like sailing and volcano climbing any more, so I like to post descriptions from people who do (as long as they write reasonably well!)

By Daryl Richel, FreelanceSeptember 14, 2009

It's Day 1 of our 11-day sailing adventure around this Caribbean country that comprises a group of islands located just west of Barbados. Our captain, Phil Hunt, my brother-in-law, is all smiles as he steers our chartered 46-foot sailboat through big waves.

I'm not having as much fun as Phil. The sun is warm on my shoulders as I bend over, staring into the beautiful blue water rushing along the smooth white hull. My breakfast has reappeared overboard, thanks to my first bout of seasickness.
All I can think of is how I'm going to cope with 10 more days of this living hell. Mariners say it's bad luck to start a sea voyage on a Friday ... it's a Friday.

Phil reassures me that this will be a long-remembered and spectacular holiday. The plan is to set sail every day (oh, please no) and head for islands ringed with white sand beaches, where we will snorkel with turtles, meet lots of friendly locals and eat great food. Sounds wonderful, except for the potential of spending my days coping with daily seasickness.

I want to have a good time here and so do the rest of my extended family (there are six of us). They all seem to be doing just fine in the boat's small cockpit. I bite my lip, pull up my bootstraps and do a little happy dance when, after a three-hour sail from St. Vincent, we arrive at our first island, Mustique.
Mustique is the quintessential Caribbean hideaway for the rich and famous. We drop anchor near what is reportedly Tommy Hilfiger's 100-foot yacht. Mick Jagger, Bryan Adams and Hilfiger have homes here.

As the sun is setting, we take our little zodiac to shore and the first thing I notice is the emptiness of the road. Every now and then a little golf cart putts by, but other than that, the street is deserted; it's just empty white sand beaches and palm trees.
Tonight we're eating at the Cotton House, an 18th-century cotton warehouse that has been painstakingly converted to a restaurant and hotel. The highlights of our gourmet meal include the fried seafood served in a brown paper bag and prosciutto sliced in the dinning room on a spotless, antique hand-cranked Italian meat slicer.

Although our first meal of the trip is in a high-end restaurant, most of the time we cook and eat on the boat. Life on a 46-foot sailboat may sound like a dream holiday, and for the most part it is. But there's work to be done, too.

When we're under sail, each of us has a job. Since I'm usually feeling a bit off during our crossings, my job is to cook for the family at anchor. Funny that the person with the most sensitive stomach is in charge of looking after everyone else's. The others are responsible for duties like closing hatches, managing lines and raising the anchor

Water is also a concern. We start the trip with 900 litres of fresh water and use it sparingly so we don't run out. Basically, each of us can use about 15 litres of water per day. In 10 days, I had one shower with soap -- on land, not on the boat.

Ten days and one shower might sound a bit scary, but we swim at least three or four times a day. After a swim, we stand on a dive platform on the stern of the boat and hose the saltwater off with a little fresh water. Very refreshing. I'm discovering that life on a sailboat is like camping with bed sheets and running water, except the campground never stops moving.

After our big night out at the Cotton House, we are all tucked into our private berths as the boat rocks back and forth. In the middle of the night, Phil and the rest of the family are suddenly all up yelling and screaming in the kitchen. Something is going very wrong. From the sounds of the calamity, it seems we've been boarded by a robber.

I jump up and discover the unwanted visitors are six or seven small bats flying wildly around the kitchen. The bats flew down the open companionway hatch and are feasting on bananas left on the counter. We clean up the banana shrapnel scattered over the highly varnished teak kitchen and try to get a couple more hours of sleep before we head off in the morning to our next island.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines is one of the few nations that doesn't have a military. You can see why as we arrive in Mayreau, a two-hour sail from Mustique. Mayreau defines the term "laid back" -- no police, 500 metres of paved road and about 300 residents.

The crossing to Mayreau is delightful so I'm starting to think my initial seasickness is behind me.

Tonight for supper we go to the Robert Righteous and 'de Youth Seafood Restaurant and Bar, a slap-dash eatery covered in hundreds of tattered posters of Mario Lemieux, the band Toto, Bob Marley and many more. Owner Robert Righteous has a booming voice and working-class hands.

Robert was born on Mayreau and worked on a shrimp boat for a few years: that explains the hands. He acquired the land to build the restaurant after he squatted on it until the government said he could just keep it.

As Robert works the room he says, "After five years of squatting, I told the government I was providing some work for the locals, so they sent a survey crew to look at the land and said I could keep it."

Robert and his kids ('de youth') run the restaurant. One of his boys is leaving the next morning to serve in the British military. There's a big party going on that has spilled into the street ... free beer and food for everyone!

The specialty of the house is rich and delicious conch fritters -- think escargot on steroids. Conch fritters are made from meat cut out of the huge conch shells found all over the Caribbean.
From Mayreau, we head to Union Island. The main city on Union is Clifton, from where we see car traffic for the first time since we left St. Vincent.

Many of the shops cater to foreign sailors looking to stock up on supplies. Frozen ricotta and mushroom metzaluna pasta, Camembert and calamata olives are available.

The most unusual restaurant and bar in the Grenadines is on a small fabricated "island" in Clifton Harbour, Union's main port. This is Happy Island and its owner and builder is Janti Ramaj.
"I built Happy Island," he says, leaning on his bar, "because I'm full of magic. I added lots of shells on top of a reef and then used cement to hold the whole thing together." He also added sand, planted some palm trees and built a little dwelling.
Happy Island is about the size of a four-car garage and it takes about 11 seconds to walk across, which means his project is probably the smallest land reclamation project in the world. Like Robert, he squatted on his Happy Island until the government said he could stay.

Janti smiles and says, "I have a good relationship with the government and I use solar power so I'm a model for sustainability."

Mass tourism would likely drive out small operators like Robert and Janti. Unlike almost every other country in the Caribbean, however, mass tourism is not king in the Grenadines. That's mostly because the islands are accessible only by smaller boats and aircraft; S.V.G. doesn't have an airport that can handle big jets, either.

As a result, small, locally owned hotels and restaurants abound, instead of the mega-resorts seen in places like Jamaica and Barbados. The Grenadines' most spectacular islands don't have a single hotel or restaurant.

The Tobago Cays is a national marine park made up of five small islands. The park's formula to preserve the area's coral reefs and marine life is simple: no development. Zero.

Once our anchor is firmly set in the soft white sand, we jump off the boat for our first snorkel in the cays. We're all hoping to catch a glimpse of a sea turtle and can't believe our luck when we see one on our first swim. A Hawksbill about the size of a stovetop is eating short blades of sea grass just three metres below us.

We thought how lucky we were to see a turtle the first time out, but discover that turtles are so common in the park it's almost impossible to go snorkelling and not see one.

On our last day we make a beeline from Bequia to St. Vincent. The boat is due back at the charter company by noon. S.V.G. and the West Indies region is famous for the trade winds that seem to never stop blowing (even at night!). That's why it's so popular with sailors.

The wind is blowing and I'm seasick again, this time even worse than 10 days ago. It's only the second time I'm seasick on the trip -- once at the start of the trip and now again at the end. Barfy bookends, but I'm happy to go through a little hell to get a lot of heaven ... and it's not a Friday.


- Chartering a sailboat: Chartering a boat in S.V.G. costs around $3,500 per week. We used Barefoot Yacht Charters If you don't know how to sail or don't have a friend or brother-in-law with an extensive sailing resume, you'll have to pay for a captain at $120 per day.

- Getting there: Air Canada flies to the Barbados via Toronto. From Barbados, the 45-minute flight to St. Vincent on a twin propeller Dash 8 that seats about 40 people is operated by LIAT Airlines and costs about $50 one-way. If you want an authentic meal while you wait for your flight to St. Vincent, you wouldn't find one at the airport. There's a funky rum shack right across the street from the airport that serves local specialties like macaroni pie and fried flying fish.

- Visas: Canadian citizens with valid passports are issued tourist visas at the St. Vincent airport.

- What not to wear: It is illegal to wear or import camouflage clothing in S.V.G. .

- Money: S.V.G. uses the Eastern Caribbean Dollar (EC) which is fixed to the U.S. dollar at a rate of $2.68 EC for one U.S. dollar. U.S. and Canadian dollars are also excepted at many businesses. Hotel and restaurant costs are about the same as in Canada.

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