If you’re looking for a one-stop shop of postcard-worthy photos to illustrate the beauty of the Caribbean, all you need to do is take a camera to the Tobago Cays Marine Park in St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).
There you'll find deserted islands for beachcombing, with such charming names as Petit Tabac, Jamesby and Baradol, their white sand dotted with palm trees. The waters surrounding those five uninhabited islets are innumerable, almost unreal shades of blue and green. Swimming in those waters are hawksbill turtles, nibbling sea grass in a protected sanctuary. Nearby coral reefs are teeming with life, the clear, calm water allowing snorkellers and divers perfect views of stoplight parrotfish, blue tangs, sergeant majors, fairy basslets, blueheads, horse-eye jacks, trumpetfish and other iridescent, colourful beauties.
But SVG -- a chain of islands between St. Lucia and Grenada -- is more than idyllic picture-postcard moments, although there are plenty of those. There are 32 Grenadine islands -- only nine are inhabited -- each with its own personality. The best-known is probably the private island of Mustique, an exclusive getaway for the rich and famous (Sir Paul McCartney got married there), but others are accessible, refreshingly undeveloped and untouristy.
And if you need a thesaurus to describe all the shades of blue in Tobago Cays, you need a poet to document the greens of the lush, mountainous terrain of the biggest island, St. Vincent. The steep hills of its 344 square kilometres are thick with tropical-rainforest vegetation: the variegated emerald-and-white leaves of the screw pine, dusky palm fronds, the pale, fragile greens of the young ferns and grass, and the glossy jade of seagrape leaves.
The sides of the verdant hills are scalloped with gardens cut into the steep sides in rows like fish scales. Adding pops of colour are houses, often on stilts, painted in hues of melon, turquoise, lemon and tangerine.
St. Vincent is a volcanic island; La Soufrière ("emitter of sulfur") in the north is still active -- the last eruption was in 1979 -- and its lava has contributed to another of the island's unique features: black sand beaches. One luxury resort trucks in white sand to appeal to tourists' idea of a Caribbean landscape, but in my view, this isn't necessarily a place to lie on a lounge chair, but a place to explore -- there's a new discovery around every corner in the winding road.
If you're looking for a slightly more beach-bummy vibe, however, Bequia (pronounced BECK-way) is a lovely, horseshoe-shaped island an hour by ferry from St. Vincent with the white sand you expect. It's a favourite with "yachties," who anchor in its sheltered bay, and it has a laid-back, Jimmy Buffet feel to it, with a host of casual restaurants and bars along its main drag. Although it's tourist-friendly, it still feels unspoiled.
It has a long whaling history and the citizens are still allowed to kill four whales per year -- but only the old-fashioned way, with long boats and harpoons.
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Young Island Resort (www.youngisland.com) is technically part of St. Vincent -- you could swim there if you were so inclined -- but it feels like a world unto itself. It's easy to see why visitors return there year after year (during my visit, a couple was celebrating their 50th anniversary here, the same place they celebrated their 20th). The place feels enchanted, as if the minute-long boat ride from the mainland has taken you back in time.
The resort seems to have been built into the five-hectare island, rather than on it. The winding paths follow the natural curves of the hills, and the adorable stone cottages -- with louvered windows on three sides that let in cooling breezes at night -- feel as if they've been there since colonial times (although they're sparkling clean with all the amenities).
The Captain Bligh Lounge, lit with jewel-like coloured lanterns, is the perfect place to relax after a long day of reading in a hammock, whether you like the privacy of a club chair or the social atmosphere along the polished dark wood of the bar. You can imagine gentlemen in cream linen suits and mutton-chop sideburns enjoying a cigar and a pre-dinner gin and tonic in days gone by.
Even if you spent your entire vacation without leaving the resort, you'd see plenty of exotic creatures, from iguanas to the multicoloured St. Vincent Amazon parrot. One morning in the fabulous outdoor shower, surrounded by flowering vegetation, I saw a green chameleon, a tiny frog, a hermit crab, a hummingbird and a frigate. I half-expected them to animate and flit about to help me dress, a la Disney's Cinderella.
Dinner and breakfast are served by the water, under pagodas with thatched roofs made on-site. Every meal starts with your choice among five loaves of freshly baked bread -- white, wheat, cinnamon, raisin and coconut -- a homey touch that is followed by delicious food, combining continental flair with Caribbean flavours. Pumpkin, breadfruit and fresh fish turn up often, in elegant presentations that are both innovative and satisfying.
One night at dusk, I climbed the hill up the hand-cut stone steps to see the sunset from the top of the island. A startled agouti leaped out of my way, and the tree frogs began their peeping chirp, an iconic sound of the Caribbean evening. By the time the retro glass globe lanterns lighting the path came on, the noise had reached an almost comical din, like high-pitched church bells all ringing at once. It was a magical moment that seemed to encapsulate the varied charms of this beautiful country.
If you go:
- The currency in SVG is the Eastern Caribbean dollar. Currently the rate of exchange is US$1 EC$2.60. Most places accept U.S. money, but you will get change in EC.
- As a former British colony, SVG has retained a certain formality. Though many beach locations are informal, it is rarely appropriate to wear beachwear or flip-flops to dinner.
- The water in SVG is perfectly safe to drink. The islands are admirably good about promoting this fact, rather than providing bottled water.
- Wearing camouflage is illegal in SVG and Barbados. The law is strictly enforced.
- The national beer is a very drinkable blond lager called Hairoun, so called from the original name for the island, bestowed by the Carib Indians. The rums are Captain Bligh and Sparrow ("brown rums"), SVG white rum and local favourite Sunset Very Strong, which is 84.5% alcohol by volume. The first two are very nice sipping rums; the last, not so much.
- St. Vincent is the only island in the SVG archipelago that has an airport with a lit runway, allowing night landings. From Winnipeg, currently you must fly to Barbados via Toronto (leaving at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m.), then connect to St. Vincent on another airline. Because dark comes early near the equator, it is not possible to get to any of the Grenadine islands the same day, so if your final destination is, say, Bequia or Palm Island, you will have to overnight in St. Vincent.
- The country's new airport, Argyle International, is under construction with an expected completion date of September 2014. It will have direct flights from Toronto and New York, making travel to SVG much easier.
- You'll probably want to rent a car (they drive on the left), but if you really want to relax and enjoy the landscape, hiring a guide for a couple of days is a lovely luxury. Sailor's Wilderness Tours (sailorswildernesstours.com) offers hiking, biking, sea cruise and sightseeing options with reliable drivers.
- Flights between islands on puddle-jumper planes are reasonably priced and only take 15 to 30 minutes. Check Liat or SVG Air for rates.