Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sensational SVG--from the Daily Mail

Sensational St Vincent
PUBLISHED: 13:13 EST, 26 October 2012 | UPDATED: 13:13 EST, 26 October 2012

We are sitting around a bonfire on a sandy spit under wooded headlands, watching the seascape fade into the tropical night. 

Flame and shadow leap as gleeful children toast marshmallows on the end of sticks. A waiter — yes, a bonfire with waiter service — asks if I would care for another aperitif. 
The air is balmy, an oligarch’s flagship is lit up like a fairground ride offshore — you would not wish to be anywhere but on this beach. There are moments that define a holiday, for good or bad.

This one takes place in a hitherto obscure corner of the Caribbean. Unless you live in High Wycombe — the centre of its British diaspora — it is unlikely you will have heard much talk of the island of St Vincent.

That is about to change. In the Windward Islands between St Lucia and Grenada, St Vincent is the mainland for the Grenadines, which includes the royal playground of Mustique, 14 miles to the south.

St Vincent has long been one of the region’s poorest relations. An exporter of unskilled labour and powerful marijuana — known as ‘Vincy’ — grown in remote valleys of its volcanic landscape, St Vincent had done little to encourage the tourist dollars that keep the rest of the Caribbean afloat.

Such anonymity began to fall away with the arrival of Hollywood. Piracy nostalgia is hard to avoid anywhere in the region, thanks to Johnny Depp and the Jack Sparrow franchise. Many scenes in Pirates Of The Caribbean were filmed in St Vincent. Why? Because it is truly unspoilt — and cheap.

Depp stayed on his own 150ft yacht, but when he returned home he took with him a Vincentian chef; some souvenir. A more permanent fix to the island’s low GDP was needed than the pirate films. 
And so a $240 million international airport is due to be completed outside the capital Kingstown by the end of next year. The small planes that the island had only been able to handle previously will be replaced by 400-seat jets direct from Britain and the U.S. 

Soon St Vincent, just 18 miles by 11, will join the likes of Barbados, St Lucia and Antigua as one of the region’s tourist hubs. The new airport has been anticipated by the opening of the island’s first luxury resort at Buccament Bay, a switchback drive away on the leeward coast.

An awful lot is being bet on the success of these ventures. The resort is at the mouth of a striking river valley that’s below forested ridges, humped like dromedaries over which morning cloud sometimes spills; and with it sudden, thrilling rain.

Emptying from the highlands into a lovely, sheltered cove, the Buccament river is a gentle creek teeming with freshwater mullet that fight with ducks for leftover breakfast bread. 
Ibis stalk the banks. Even the most dozy sun worshipper will notice that the beach on one side of the river is a different colour than the other; the resort has brilliant white sand, the public beach by Buccament village the original volcanic black.

This is because the developers believe Europeans will not visit if the sand is the ‘wrong’ colour. So the white stuff has been brought in from Guyana. Let us not carp. The atmosphere is relaxed, the locals friendly and the beaches open to both. 

Frigate birds, pelicans and masked boobies wheel overhead. Nature is the island’s strongest suit. We take a walking trip up the Vermont Nature Trail into a 10,000-acre rain forest reserve. Its flora is a fascinating reminder of empire: breadfruit brought by Captain Bligh, ferns, buttressed hardwood with roots the size and shape of oil-tanker rudders, mimosa, balsa, strangler fig, hibiscus, begonia, poisonous dumb cane plants and bamboo. In the middle of one forest stream is a stupendous boulder spat out by the La Soufriere volcano during the 1979 ‘Black Friday’ eruption. 

We are after the St Vincent parrot, the national bird. Only a few hundred remain, endemic to the island. Our guide, Elroy, says that’s because they are gorged on the plentiful mango and plum rose they can’t be bothered to cross the few miles of sea to Bequia.

We hear, then finally see, two pairs as we break clear of the treeline. Yellow, green and blue, they also do look rather fat. On another day, we take a catamaran to Tobago Cays marine park, where you can snorkel with turtles. 

Flying fish escort us all the way back to the resort. But this is choppy, open sea and while a gang of Canadian pensioners sink rum punches like Newfoundland whalers, it all proves too much for young Pendleburys.

Matelots are busy sluicing my daughters’ lunches from the sundeck as a bride in an ivory gown stations herself at the gangplank to board for her wedding party. 

We wish the happy couple well and hurry away. But you can’t sustain a super-resort and international airport on nature trails and turtle trips alone. The other reason Buccament has caused a stir right across the Caribbean resort scene is the scope and ambition of its extra-curricular activities. 

High-end sports tuition figures large. On the first morning, I find myself breakfasting next to an Ashes-winning England Test captain and his strike bowler, who are running a cricket academy that week.

Later, I witness Michael Vaughan, in non-MCC yellow shorts, clean bowled on the beach by a local nine-year-old. Is his lazy hoik deliberate? It certainly raises a laugh from watching swimmers and his sidekick Matthew ‘Hoggy’ Hoggard, with whom I snorkel along The Drop, an offshore underwater cliff formed by cooling magma.

A couple of hours’ tuition at the Pat Cash tennis club answers the many questions raised by my  self-taught game.

The former Wimbledon champion is not there, but his head coach, a genial Londoner called James, proves an excellent tutor for children and adults. 

Next door is a soccer school affiliated with Liverpool FC. Steve Staunton, the Reds’ 102-cap former Republic of Ireland international, plays goalkeeper in a hard-fought staff versus guests scratch game on the artificial grass pitch.

These are the names and experiences of which sporting holidays are made. Meanwhile, my two daughters spend several afternoons at the performing arts academy, where they are schooled by West End musical performers. 
My teenage son just ‘chills’ on a lounger. Here there is something for all. 

Buccament Bay will change the face of St Vincent. It has changed since our visit and further major additions, including a Pat Cash tennis hotel, casino, nightclub and restaurants are planned for the future. 
Inevitably, a replica of Jack Sparrow’s Black Pearl pirate ship will drop anchor offshore. 

I hope the original magic of the island is not lost amid the luxury and razzmatazz. The latter is hard to beat anywhere in the Caribbean, but my heart is up in the Vermont Trail with the fat parrots.