Saturday, December 18, 2010

Turtles & Tourists

In the necklace of islands that make up St Vincent and the Grenadines, picture-postcard beaches and encounters with turtles are simply part of life (Saturday, 18 December 2010)
By Matthew Bell

It was the turtles. They were what turned me. I had never been much of an underwater kind of person – air is what I like to breathe, not seawater.

If anyone suggested snorkelling on holiday, I tended to smile vaguely and look the other way. I've always hated that moment when you sink into the water, weighed down by Timmy Mallett-size fins, feeling like you're going to drown. I disliked the snappy little mask vacuum-packing your eyes, and water drip-dripping into your nostrils while you tried to empty the breathing pipe. No thanks. But suddenly, it all made sense. It was worth it. Because there I was, on a Tuesday lunchtime, swimming with turtles.

That's a sentence I now want to write every December. Why didn't anybody mention how simple it all is? Legs back, face down and, serenely, you float on the surface. The fins miraculously buoy you up, instead of pulling you down. And there, just an arm's length away: a beautiful 200-year-old hawksbill. Greyish green, he was about the size of a coffee table, a square bald head on a leathery neck. A bit like a headmaster I once knew.

Actually, he can't have been 200 years old, despite what Orton King, the turtle expert, said. I checked afterwards – the oldest turtle ever recorded lived to 188. But they are extraordinary creatures: unlike my headmaster, they can change sex, and lay eggs on the beach.

The only rule of snorkelling with turtles is that you don't touch. But protocol doesn't dictate how long you spend with each turtle. I think I overstayed my welcome with him. I had been stalking him for nearly 15 minutes and, to be fair, he was eating his lunch. I had already had mine, a buffet on board the catamaran off which I had just plopped. I had chosen swordfish in a sweet Caribbean marinade, a little coleslaw on the side. He was having the algae, just a few tufts sprouting off the seabed. Nothing fancy.

But then it happened. He stopped, turned and fixed me with a withering look, before paddling away. It's a sight I shall never forget. He really was that headmaster. Except this wasn't an Oxford school room; this was St Vincent and the Grenadines, and a more exotic place it would be hard to imagine. St Vincent was once called Hairoun, meaning "land of the blessed". Today, those in the know call the necklace of 32 rocks draped along the eastern fringe of the Caribbean "SVG".

I met the turtle in Tobago Cays. This is an archipelago of five uninhabited rocks halfway down the chain; it has nothing to do with Tobago, the island off Trinidad. Until 1997 it was privately owned, but the government bought it back and turned it into a National Marine Park. In 2005 turtles started congregating here. Nobody really knows why. Perhaps they wanted to catch a glimpse of Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley, who filmed Pirates of the Caribbean here. We certainly did, all dutifully taking our cameras out as we sailed past Petit Tabac, a Robinson Crusoe-size mound, where Jack Sparrow was apparently marooned. (Never seen the film, myself.)

The one thing I knew about the Caribbean before arriving was that the sea is 1,000 shades of blue. I left Gatwick with the travel editor's words ringing in my ear: "You're banned from using the word 'azure'." Well, in Tobago Cays, the water is an electric green, like shining a torch through a Fortnum and Mason bag. Scientists say the luminosity is thanks to shallow water over a white sandy seabed, which reflects the sunlight. And boy, is it beautiful, even if the sky didn't live up to its side of the bargain, being 1,000 shades of cloudy.

Explorers say the last place on earth to be discovered will be the bottom of the sea. Now I know what they mean. There is a whole other world down there, so teeming with weird, colourful creatures, it looked like the set of Finding Nemo. Here were parrotfish and squirrelfish; striped fish and spotted fish; fish that looked like brains; some that came straight at you, grinning; others that swayed in rhythmic shoals. I did try to learn their names on the boat out, but gave up on trying to tell a "Secretary Blenny" from a "Sergeant Major". I needed to take the book down with me, but they wouldn't let me. I think I made out the "boring coral", the official name for the bits that don't look like a Lady Gaga headpiece.

Tobago Cays is no secret among the yacht set, who like to moor up in the shallow water between its five rocks, creating a sort of floating millionaire's car park. One Christmas Day, someone counted 177 boats here. On one morning, I, too, felt like a yachtie: the previous night I had shared a few rum punches with a Canadian couple named Rory and Lisa. I spotted them across the water. We hollered to each other as our boats passed. OK, so theirs was a fully crewed 60-footer, mine a day-trip catamaran. But that, reader, is the good news about SVG. To enjoy these islands, you need not wear pink shorts and call yourself a sailor. A network of ferries and light aircraft makes it possible for landlubbers to hop about, truffling out your particular favourite.

I started with a half-hour flight from Barbados to the biggest island, St Vincent. It's the commercial hub of SVG, a working island most tourists hurry through in search of that paradise beach. True, banana plantations, not piña coladas, are the main source of revenue here. But if you have time, St Vincent offers the most authentic insight into the local culture.

I spent a night in the capital, Kingstown. It's an attractive and busy port, laid out like Naples, around a bay, with a shark's jaw of spiky hills behind. Last Monday was SVG's general-election day, and the capital was festooned with campaign posters. "We naaah tun back", was the Red Party slogan; "Enough!" retorted the Yellows. (The Reds won.)

There's been a fighting spirit here for years. The island resisted colonisation longer than many in the West Indies, and the British and French spent much of the 18th century quarrelling over it before it eventually came under British rule. Grenadine House, where I stayed, used to be the British administrator's house, and is all white verandas and wicker. Today it's been swallowed up by suburban sprawl, but being high up, the terrace makes a good spot for watching boats to-ing and fro-ing in the harbour.

I was at the mercy of the inter-island ferry timetable, and had time only for a midnight swim in the pool and a few hours' sleep before catching the boat to my next island. But I didn't leave without learning my first local phrase. Standing half-heartedly in line on the dock, I felt a man push past. "Hey," I said. "I'm in the queue." "Sorry, man," he said, "I thought you was just breezin'." I did a lot of breezin' after that.

After Barbados, which is mainly flat, and St Vincent, which is largely hilly, you find the Grenadines are emphatically one or the other. I headed for Bequia, pronounced Beck-way, which is very much of the up-and-down sort, a ridge of hills running through the middle. It's like a small version of St Vincent – authentic, but not so hectic.

I had been here before. Not in person, but in my childhood dreams, because there used to be a framed photo of Bequia on my bedroom wall. It was a present from a St Vincentian (or Vincy, as they say) friend of my mum; the frame had real sand on it. But what I liked most about it was that it wasn't how you would expect a souvenir photo from the Caribbean to be, all coconut trees and Bounty-bar blue. Instead, it showed a small harbour, a beaten-up trawler and an old wooden jetty. So I knew what to V

Cexpect as the ferry pulled into the perfect half-moon bay of Port Elizabeth, Bequia's principal – and only – town. I couldn't spot the trawler, and the jetty looked bigger, but what the photo had accurately captured was an atmosphere of shabby calm, a world ticking along at half-speed.

By now I had been travelling for a day and a half since leaving snowy Gatwick (about four hours after the airport reopened). All I wanted was to splosh into the water that demanded to be called "azure". The culture could wait – I wanted that Bounty-bar beach. So I headed to the Bequia Beach Hotel, a 10-minute drive away, which promised a sheltered sandy beach (and an infinity pool, just in case).

There are plenty of beautiful beaches on this island, but surprisingly few hotels. It's something the Swedish owners of the Bequia Beach Hotel hope to capitalise upon, by expanding their existing 23-room hotel into a low-key resort – a mixture of seafront suites and private villas. The location is superb, bang in the middle of yet another half-moon bay, Friendship Bay, on the opposite side of the island.

Nine miles across the water, Mustique's profile crowns the horizon. It's a useful reminder of the thousands of pounds you're saving every time you wonder whether to order another rum punch. Everything here is at least two-thirds cheaper than on the island across the water that has hosted Mick Jagger, Princess Margaret and David Bowie (though not all at the same time, or at any rate in the same room).

Bequia gets a share of celebrities: Jude Law was here at New Year, and Rachel Weiss sashayed across the beach the other day. They weren't the first, though: former British Prime Minister Anthony Eden had a hideaway villa next door to the hotel, which is now available to rent.

The resort itself is not quite finished: a second showpiece swimming pool is under construction and builders saunter around the grounds. But the standards are high. My room was cleverly tiered, so I could see the sea from the pillow in the mornings. The bed was so wide it could have merrily fit Pop and Ma Larkin, and all the Darling Buds of May. For more private families, each suite has a separate child's room.

After swimming, and a spot of breezin', it was still too early for rum punch. So I took a tour of the island with Garvin, a poetic local guide. It was a leisurely drive through palm trees and plantains, the occasional burst of red bougainvillea cascading on to the road. The island measures only seven square miles, he told me, and has 6,000 inhabitants. He showed me the rows of rainbow-coloured boats, back from catching fish to sell to Martinique. Many of them are run by members of his family, the Ollivieres. We passed the old coconut-oil factory, closed after the last government decided coconut oil was too high in cholesterol for the people.

The biggest excitement on Bequia are the whales: every year the island is allowed to catch four, which they hand-spear from tiny fishing boats using wooden harpoons, and haul on to a designated platform in the middle of Friendship Bay. On the day of a catch, everyone stops what they're doing and rushes to the water to party. "If they caught one today, I would not be showing you around," said Garvin candidly. Despite such evident local enthusiasm, there have been calls for a tourism boycott from opponents of whaling.

At the whaling museum, Garvin showed me a picture of his ancestor, Athneal The Greatest Whaler. He earned his title because he once caught a whale straight in the heart, with a thrust of his spear. But Garvin says he is not brave enough to follow in his footsteps. "I would have to change my heart first," he said.
My next hop was not for the faint-hearted. By now I was ready for the ultimate desert island, where the only commerce would be the sale of seashells on the seashore. So I headed for Palm Island, a privately owned resort. To get there, first you take a light aircraft to Union Island, where the wafer-thin landing strip is sandwiched between the sea and a mountain. With only eight seats, everyone gets a good view, especially of the beads of sweat on the pilot's neck as you aim for the mountaintop, before a swoop down to the water.

Minutes later, an open launch was thrusting me across a scudding sea to Palm Island. This could be the one, I thought, eyeing up the slash of white beach and king-size hammocks swinging in the distance. And Palm Island is certainly small: 135 acres to be precise, 135 football fields to be approximate. There are no roads or cars, and you can cycle round it in 20 minutes. It's the kind of place you might want to see out your days. Perhaps that's why it used to be called Prune Island.

The name was changed by John Caldwell, a Texan sailor, when he bought a lease on the island in 1966 for £1 a year. In those days, like Mustique, the island was just a swamp, so he dredged it and planted hundreds of palm trees, discreetly hiding bungalows among them. Now, there are 43 suites, two restaurants and a spa. It is very much a resort-only island – there is no indigenous population. The clientele are of a genteel age, and the décor is very comfortable, if, like the guests, a little dated. But it's the sense of space that thrills – not just in the rooms, which are private and absurdly big, but across the island. Even when the resort is at full capacity, it feels empty.

The thing about Palm Island is that they like you to stay for at least a week. Who's complaining? If you get bored, there's a spa, swimming pool, library, gym, games room, an attempt at a nine-hole golf course and a bar that doesn't close until the last man leaves. And of course there's always the snorkelling. That's not a sentence I ever thought I would write. But then, I had never been swimming with turtles before.