Cruise from Grenada to little-known, little-developed, and therefore absolutely fascinating St. Vincent and the Grenadines
I was finishing my $2 breakfast of saltfish and breadfruit at the beachfront cafe in Hillsborough, the sleepy port town that passes for Carriacou's main center of commerce, when the waitress asked how much longer I would be staying on the island. Just another hour or so, I told her, then I would be setting out for the next stop on my itinerary - Union Island. Its craggy, volcanic outline loomed on the near horizon, about a dozen miles to the north. "So then, you'll be taking the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line to Union Island," she said.
"No," I told her. "I'll be taking the mail boat."
The waitress laughed.
"Same thing," she smiled. "That's what we call the mail boat around here."
I gazed down the beach toward the town dock where two sinewy crew members were busily loading all manner of cargo-sacks of rice, cases of soft drinks, boxes of canned goods and clothes - into the hold of a 35-foot wooden sloop. The sailboat wasn't much to look at, and it certainly offered no cruise-ship amenities - no teak deck chairs, no casino, no steel drum band on the aft deck - but it was eminently seaworthy. And the price was right. For about $6 it would deliver me to Union Island, a rollicking, two-hour ride into the precious necklace of islands that is St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
This is one of the world's most fabled cruising grounds, a dreamy destination where sleek sailboats rent for $5,000-plus a week and ritzy, private-island resorts charge upward of $300 per person a night. But for travelers willing to take the time to do a bit of planning and forego only a few of the niceties - how much is nightly turn-down service really worth, anyway? - a vacation in paradise beckons for only a fraction of those prices. Using a network of inter-island ferries and mailboats, the transportation cost for a week of island-hopping from Grenada to St. Vincent, allowing you to stop at numerous idyllic outposts in between, is about $75. Along the way is waterfront lodging for less than $30 a night, fresh fish dinners with all the trimmings for $5, and stretches of deserted beach that are free for the walking.
Your companions on this seaborne sojourn? Except for a few intrepid tourists, most passengers on the ferries and mailboats are locals-businessmen on leisurely commutes, students on holiday, big extended families heading for reunions on neighboring islands. The atmosphere is laid-back, the mood gracious and convivial. Yes, the seas can occasionally kick up and make you glad you packed the Dramamine. But it's typically smooth sailing, and certain perks enhance the authenticity of this mode of travel.
On the leg between Union Island and Bequia, for instance, I shared a foredeck bench with two brothers who were returning to their native island after several weeks of work on a freighter. When we arrived on Bequia they insisted that I join them in the family car for a quick tour of the tiny island, which still bears a hint of its Scottish heritage and is one of the last outposts of whaling in the Caribbean. It turned into a four-hour excursion in which the brothers showed me their favorite hangouts, including a "secret beach," a sweet crescent of sand reached only by a narrow footpath that snaked around a hillside. We eventually wound up at their grandmother's house, where she greeted our arrival with a mid-afternoon repast of curried chicken and yams, then sent me off with a sackful of hot-out-of-the-oven coconut bread.
The actual Royal Caribbean Cruise Line passengers can strap on the feed bags and have all they want of those midnight buffets and lavish suit-and-tie dinners. I'll gladly settle for the amenities that come when you island-hop like a local.
Setting out from Grenada - a dash of spice
The best place to begin an island-hopping vacation in the lower Windward Islands is Grenada, the lush "Isle of Spice" that anchors the southern end of the chain. Here is the Caribbean in microcosm - from volcanic peaks and sprawling rain forests to white, sandy beaches and coral reefs ripe for snorkeling. It's a little bit French, a little bit British, yet wholly a culture unto itself and, thankfully, one that has largely escaped the sort of cookie-cutter tourism that has turned too much of the Caribbean into a mishmash of overpriced resorts and generic, umbrella-drink restaurants.
While Grand Anse, the two-mile strand that ranks as one of the Caribbean's beast beaches, is a lovely place to while away a sunny afternoon that stretches into an evening of music under the palm trees, the hotels along its shoreline charge prices approaching the stratospheric. No matter. Just a ten-minute walk west leads to Morne Rouge, a pocket-size bay with a shimmering sliver of sand - call it Grand Anse Lite - and enticements all its own. Consider the Gem Holiday Beach Resort (473/444-4224, fax 473/444-1189, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), a 20-unit, family-owned and - operated beachfront hotel where, for $65 a night ($20 more in season) I settle into a two-room efficiency suite with a full kitchen, a broad balcony overlooking the bay, and a blessedly icy A/C system. Elsewhere on Morne Rouge, or within walking distance of Grand Anse, there's the Grand View Inn ($60 a night in low season; 473/444-4984, fax 473/444-1512, www.grenadagrandview.com) and the Blue Orchid Hotel ($55 a night in low season; 473/444-0999, fax 473/444-1846, www.blueorchidhotel.com). One tip for securing an even lower price - ask for the "Caricom" rate, which is about 10 to 15 percent below the posted rate. It is typically reserved for islanders - members of the Caribbean community - but many hoteliers will extend it to foreigners, too.
"We cater to families so we tend to be a lot more relaxed than the brand-name hotels," says manager Julia Moore, whose mother built the Gem Holiday Beach Resort in 1987. Moore always makes it a point to buy arriving guests a drink at the bar of the hotel's Sur Le Mer restaurant, an open-air affair no more than ten paces from the sea. This is more than just the usual "welcome drink" gimmick, since it typically turns into another drink or two and then a plate of appetizers arrives - papaya, pineapple, cheese - while Moore offers insider tips on the best way to see her native island.
I follow Moore's suggestion to arrive early - by 7 a.m. - at the market that's the bustling heart and soul of St. George's. Founded in 1700 by French settlers, the city is perched around one of the Caribbean's most charming harbors, and the market, with its warrens of plywood vendor stalls and canvas tents, occupies a football-field-size habitat atop a hill in the center of town. Six days a week (the market is closed on Sundays) farmers and fishermen arrive before dawn to spread out their wares - mounds of mangoes and bananas, vast piles of snapper and mackerel. There are also the ubiquitous "spice ladies," who are often relentless in their pursuit of customers. Dickering is part of the deal here. For about $10, you can buy enough nutmeg, cinammon, cloves, and other spices to last a lifetime. And aromatic spice necklaces, strung on fishing line, are about $3 after the bargaining is done.
Breakfast, at one of the many unnamed cafes, is coffee with fish 'n bake (chunks of salted cod in a crispy hot muffin) for about $2. But for a sit-down meal, one can hardly do better than Deyna's (on Melville Street along the Esplanade, 473/440-6795) where Diana Hercules, one of the island's finest traditional chefs, holds court starting with breakfast at 7:30 a.m., through a busy lunch, and serving dinner until 10 p.m. Her "sampler dinner" of Grenadan specialties, which changes daily and can feature anything from marinated kingfish and callalloo soup to curried lambi (conch) and rice, peas, and chicken, runs about $7.
Like most Caribbean islands, there are no real deals when it comes to renting cars on Grenada. Expect to pay at least $50 a day for a four-cylinder stick-shift compact with an air-conditioner that may not work. But Grenada is wonderfully served by a public transportation system consisting of countless white or red Mitsubishi minibuses that are constantly on the prowl. If you are walking down the street and hear a beep behind you, it means a minibus driver is advertising that he has room. Hop in and the fare is one East Caribbean dollar (about 40 cents) no matter where you are going around St. George's. For an extra buck or two, drivers will sometimes alter their established routes to deliver you directly to your hotel or to a restaurant (private cabs can be expensive and fares should be negotiated in advance). Outside of St. George's, minibus rates are based on an inscrutable scale that I never managed to figure out. All I know is that I spent an entire day traveling via minibuses, going from one end of Grenada to the other and back - through the rain forest preserve of Grand Etang National Park to the lovely beach at Bathway on the island's north tip - and it cost me about $9.
Fly like an Osprey: Carriacou
Grenada is actually a three-island nation that also includes Carriacou and Petit Martinique, about 25 miles to the north. Carriacou, (pronounced "Care-a-koo") offers more lodging and restaurants than Petit Martinique and is popular with day-trippers from Grenada who come to enjoy empty beaches. Shuttling twice daily between Grenada and Carriacou is the Osprey Express Ltd., a sleek, modern ferry that serves the first leg in the island-hopping trek to St. Vincent. It boasts an air-conditioned main cabin with seating for about 60, along with a snack bar. Most passengers, however, opt for the deck, at least in balmy weather.
The 90-minute voyage (about $30) skims Grenada's west coast, dipping close to the fishing village of Gouyave (its street party on the final weekend of each month is one of the Caribbean's liveliest) and past "Leapers Hill" in Sauteurs. It was here, in 1651, that the last band of Carib Indians on Grenada - some 40 of them - jumped to their deaths on the rocks below rather than submit to French rule. The Osprey also cuts a careful path around "Kick 'Em Jenny," an underwater volcano that sits between Grenada and Carriacou and still kicks up on occasion.
Once delivered by the Osprey to the main dock in downtown Hillsborough (population, about 700), it's only a three-minute walk to Ade's Dream (Main Street, 473/443-7317, fax 473/443-8435, e-mail: email@example.com), a two-story, 23-unit guesthouse with exceptionally clean, air-conditioned double rooms starting at about $40 a night. It's owned by the enterprising Adele Mills, a friendly seventy-something islander who also owns the adjacent supermarket, as well as Seawave restaurant across the street, where a dinner of chicken 'n chips is about $4. Nearby, the Sand Island Cafe does wonders with the traditional saltfish-and-cakes breakfast, soaking the fish in coconut milk and adding carrots and cabbage (with side dishes of grapefruit, bananas, papaya, and coffee, it comes to about $5).
For such a small island and one that takes some degree of forethought to reach, Carriacou serves up a surprising number of worthy accommodations. The most notable new venture is the Green Roof Inn (473/443-6399, www.greenroofinn.com), which offers five rooms in an immaculately tended home on a bluff at the north end of Hillsborough Bay. It's the loving project of a Swedish couple, Jonas Gezelius and Asa Johansson, who have appointed it with Danish/Scandinavian furniture and given special attention to sprucing up an otherwise scrubby landscape. There's a small terrace restaurant and prices for a double room range $40 to $70 per night with breakfast. Just up the road-there's really only one road on Carriacou - sits John's Unique Resort (473/443-8345, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), with 17 rooms. Shrouded in bougainvillea and featuring a restaurant, John's rates run $20 to $55 per night.
So what's there to do on Carriacou? The beaches are the big thing. And the most easily accessible strand is Paradise Beach, which runs for a good mile or so just south of the island's airport. Indeed, things are so slow on Carriacou that the main road also doubles as the airport's runway (a barricade blocks automobile traffic when planes are approaching). The Hardwood Bar & Restaurant, on Paradise Beach, is a good place to sip a Carib beer or, for the brave, sample the local form of distilled punishment: Jack Iron rum. Bottled on Carriacou and weighing in at almost 160 proof, Jack Iron is so close to pure alcohol that ice cubes sink straight to the bottom. It is carefully measured out in small beakers and sipped over the course of a very long afternoon. If you want to make friends quickly in a Carriacou bar, then simply order a small flask of Jack Iron - an entire quart costs only $7, but that can kill you-and invite other patrons to join you in polishing it off.
The owner of the Hardwood Bar & Restaurant, Joseph Edmunds, also runs a water taxi from the beach in front of his establishment. For about $4 a head, he'll haul visitors out to Sandy Cay, about a mile offshore. It's an idyllic beachy spit - barely a half-mile long, no houses, no nothing, not even a tiki bar - featured on countless postcards. No trip to Carriacou is complete until you've spent a few hours playing Robinson Crusoe on its shore.
Onward to Union Island
"She's a good ship, mon. Just close your eyes to the way she look."
So says Troy Gellizeau, captain of the mailboat Jasper, as he takes my fare (about $6) for the passage from Carriacou to Union Island. At first appraisal, the Jasper does not inspire confidence. The mast, cut years ago from a cedar tree, is bound with bailing wire. The bamboo boom, splitting from the assault of sea and sun, is lashed with duct tape. And we, the half-dozen or so passengers, are forced to sit on the deck, since cargo consumes every square inch of cabin space.
Other than hiring a charter plane ($200) or a water taxi ($80), hitching a ride on the Jasper, which also serves as the twice-weekly mail boat, is the most expedient way to continue northward through the Grenadines. And, for anyone willing to endure a passage that is not guaranteed to be dry - it rains almost daily and waves of even middling size send spray over the bow - the Jasper is a compelling throwback to an era when most interisland travel took place on small sailing vessels. Flying fish skip the waves ahead of us and, about halfway to Union Island, three dolphins appear in our wake, marking our course for a mile or so, leaping to our happy whoops and hollers.
Once we arrive at the port of Ashton on Union Island, Gelliceau, a 25-year-old descendant of Portuguese sailors who ventured to these islands more than 200 years ago and married African slaves, transforms into a willing unpaid guide, shepherding us through customs and immigration, then hiring a cab at a deep discount to take us to our lodgings. Union Island has long been a favorite stopover of yachties who tie up to replenish their stores, but the island's hotels were out of range for budget travelers. That changed with the opening in 2000 of St. Joseph's House and Cottage (784/458-8405, www.unionisland.com), which gives vacationers a chance to sample Union Island without breaking the bank. The lodgings are on the grounds of St. Joseph's Catholic Church and were the brainchild of Father Andrew Roache, who started the guesthouse to help sustain his church.
The suites, which rent for $40 a night, are decorated with bright fabrics, wicker furniture, and come with private bathrooms. There's no air-conditioning, but the ceiling fans work just fine, and the guesthouse sits atop a hill where there almost always seems to be an easterly breeze. The view from the balcony is magnificent - a sweeping panorama of turquoise waters and nearby Palm Island and Petit St. Vincent (private enclaves with pricey digs). In addition, guests can raid the church's sprawling kitchen.
Two other affordable options exist on Union Island. Lambi's Restaurant (784/458-8549), a favorite watering hole for sailors, also runs an inn where basic rooms go for about $55 a night. And Sydney's Guesthouse (784/458-8320), near the airport, offers a deal for guests who also want to visit the nearby Tobago Cays, the cluster of deserted islands a few miles east that are home to what is arguably the best snorkeling and diving in the Caribbean. For an additional $65 above the nightly rate of $35, Sydney will take guests there in his boat for a half-day excursion. That's about half the price of competing trips.
The ferry Baracuda, which makes a thrice-weekly route through the southern Grenadines, leaves the Union Island dock promptly at 7 a.m., whistle blaring. It's a sturdy, steel-hulled ship with room for a dozen or so cars on the aft deck and, when fully booked, a couple hundred passengers. This is the milk run, and after a brief stop on Mayreau, then another on Canuoan, we arrive at Port Elizabeth, on Bequia's Admiralty Bay, two hours later. The fare: $9.
Bequia is the Caribbean as imagined by the Brothers Grimm. A storybook island of pastel cottages and gingerbread-trim houses, it boasts one of the loveliest main drags in all the Caribbean, a quiet street with a flower-filled median that becomes a pedestrian-only pathway as it stretches along Admiralty Bay. The largest of the Grenadines, Bequia is still quite small - less than seven square miles - and with a rental car it can be roamed in its entirety in a day. But it's easy enough to hoof it from one side of the island to the other, and cheap taxis and minibuses are available for the haul back.
My room at the Frangipani Hotel (784/458-3255, www.frangipanibequia.net) was just as quaint as the rest of Bequia - a four-poster with a "mozzy" (mosquito) net, hardwood floors, and from my balcony, a view of the bay not 30 feet away. There's no air-conditioning and the bathroom is down the hall, but at $40 a night there is little room for complaining.
There's no shortage of affordable lodging on Bequia, rimming the bay and ascending into the nearby hills. Canadians Glen and Trudy Wallace opened Deja View Apartments (707/897-6537, e-mail: email@example.com), with a hillside vista of the bay, two years ago. The apartments, with complete kitchens, rent for $80 a night and can sleep four people. Off-season rates are $400 a week. A bit closer to the water, the Village Apartments (784/458-3883, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) offers package deals, including tax-inclusive lodging for two for three nights, plus one day's car rental, for $147.
When it's time to eat, the Green Boley Restaurant, on the beach about 200 yards west of the Frangipani, serves up chicken roti with all the trimmings for $4. Dawn's Creole Cafe, on the beach in Lower Bay, makes a mean goat water - the Caribbean version of Irish stew - for $4 and serves a full breakfast for less than $5.
Under the volcano: St. Vincent
The last leg of the trip puts me on the Bequia Express (784/458-3472), one of two ferries making several runs a day on the nine-mile passage from Bequia to St. Vincent (about $6). Compared to the torpor of the outlying islands, Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is positively kinetic. There are occasional traffic jams and newly-sprouted shopping malls, but all in all there is an underlying Caribbean sense of "No problem, mon."
From the ferry dock, it's a $3 cab ride (or a ten-minute walk) to the Heron Hotel (784/457-1631, e-mail: email@example.com), which with its $60 double rooms has long been a favorite of budget travelers. It's certainly convenient - right next to the main taxi stand and just a block from Kingstown's pride, the new three-story public market. For cheap eats, one has to venture no further than the market, where take-out joints like Cammie's (784/451-2932) serve massive plates of fish, beans, rice, and plantains for $3.
Those looking for a quiet escape would do well to head south to Indian Bay Beach where the Coconut Beach Inn (784/457-4900, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) offers its ten rooms starting at $45 a night. The rooms, though small, are air-conditioned and nicely appointed, with a tiny beach just outside. It looks across the 100-yard wide channel to Young Island, a private retreat where the nightly tariff reaches $250. The inn also has a fine little restaurant where the Chinese chef melds his cooking background with Caribbean specialties to create dishes like a spicy red snapper in black bean sauce with rice for $8.
At nearly 18 miles long and 11 miles wide, St. Vincent is a big island - residents of the outlying Grenadines refer to it as "The Mainland" - and to fully explore it could easily take the better part of a week. But for one great day, rent a car and head up the windward coast. The highway snakes above black-sand beaches and past vast stands of towering palm trees-miles and miles of them - that, along with the broad fields of sugar cane and banana, are testament to the island's rich volcanic soil. If you're lucky, the clouds will break and you'll be granted a view of the beast itself - 4,000-foot-high La Soufriere, an active volcano that last erupted in 1979 and still offers the occasional rumblings. Pull off the road, sit back, and enjoy.
From St. Vincent, return to Grenada on a 40-minute flight by small plane ($85). British West Indies Airlines and Air Jamaica fly between Grenada and the U.S.
The how-to's of ferry-hopping
Ferry service in the Caribbean, though reliable, is subject to occasional changes in schedule. It's wise to contact the ferry office to double-check the schedule and avoid getting stuck on an island. The Osprey, which makes daily runs between Grenada and Carriacou, posts its schedule on the Web site www.grenadaexplorer.com and can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com. The mail boat Jasper typically leaves Carriacou for Union Island on Monday and Thursday, anywhere from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. Call Ade's Dream guesthouse (473/443-7317) to check its schedule. Check schedules for the Baracuda by calling 784/456-5180. For more information on the Bequia Express, call 784/458-3472 or visit www.grenadines.net.