St Vincent and the Grenadines was our Caribbean destination number five, following Curaçao, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Grenada. This exotically named archipelago is 200km west of Barbados and less than 100km north of Grenada. It consists of 32 islands and cays, several of which are geared towards wealthier tourists. Mustique, Palm Island, Petit St Vincent and Young Island are all privately owned with high-end, all-inclusive resorts, and if you’ve got USD10 million-plus to spare you can buy your own too – no kidding.
Aside from offering the rich and famous luxurious hideaways, St Vincent and the Grenadines appears to be a paradise for yacht owners, especially the Grenadines, with tourism investments seemingly more geared towards the needs of the well-off boat tourists than backpackers on a shoestring like us.
That said, we still met a few backpackers that bunny hopped the islands without their own mode of transportation or an offshore bank account. You just need to research a bit more (including the old-fashioned ask the local) to figure out how to get from A to B and experience what the islands have to offer without paying an arm and a leg.
With so many to choose from and bearing our budget in mind, we split our time between three islands: Union Island (and its neighbours in the Southern Grenadines), Bequia (in the Northern Grenadines) and St Vincent with the capital Kingstown.
The first hurdle to overcome was to cross borders by boat. Apart from hugely expensive water taxis (and the odd other boat crossing the 10km channel between Carriacou in Grenada and Union Island), the M/V Lady JJ, a former fishing boat, is the only regular ‘ferry’ between the two, leaving Carriacou Mondays and Thursdays at (or rather any time after) 1400h. We shared the bumpy one hour ride with five other passengers, four crew and countless cargo boxes of various shapes and sizes (including cartons of frozen chicken legs from Brazil which weren’t so frozen any more after enjoying the afternoon sun in the back of the boat – needless to explain why we only ate fish in St Vincent and the Grenadines).
Getting to Union Island safely was a whole different matter. Contrary to my (naive) imagination, the Caribbean Sea is anything but calm, and trying to hop from a fixed jetty onto a small boat dancing on the waves, can be a bit hit and miss. In our case, it was a hit, as Paul bumped his head on the wooden planks that provide a bit of shelter from the sea spray and relentless afternoon sun, while another passenger smashed her shin against the stern as the plank linking the boat to the jetty slipped off. To the captain’s credit, he did take Paul to the hospital on Union Island to make sure his head wound wasn’t anything serious. No stitches were necessary, but a shaved head was required to assess the damage and apply the bandage.
If the above hasn’t put you off the journey, here are some tips: Check out the Lady JJ Facebook page and contact the captain in advance to make sure he is going on the date you have in mind. This website has some good instructions for the border crossing. The police station in Carriacou is behind the Tourism Authority building, directly opposite the jetty. Don’t be surprised: the police officer will keep your passport, hand it over to the captain with all his other paperwork for the crossing, and you won’t get it back until you go through immigration on Union Island.
A nice place to while away the time as you wait for departure is the Kayak Kafé, a little restaurant 50m or so to the right of the jetty (as you look out to sea).
We stayed only two nights on Union Island, at Saint Joseph’s House (a clean place with air conditioning, hot shower and a basic, shared kitchen but at USD91 per night too expensive for what it was). We would have liked to stay longer but only found reasonably priced accommodation upon arrival on Union Island (TJ Plaza has double bedrooms starting at under USD50 per night), at which time we had already made onward plans.
Our primary goal for our trip to Union Island was to visit the Tobago Cays, five stunning, uninhabited cays surrounded by several reefs, teeming with marine life and water in all imaginable shades of blue. Initially, no boat was going to go out the only day we could, however, we ended up securing a last-minute booking (at USD95 per person via Erika Marine Services) on the schooner Scaramouche.
We spent a beautiful day, stopping for a swim and snorkel at Mayreau (with just under 300 people, the smallest of the inhabited Grenadine islands), swimming with green sea turtles at the Tobago Cays (beware of strong currents at Horseshoe Reef), and checking out Palm Island (they are okay to share their stunning white-sand beach with mere mortal day-trippers).
Sailing the Caribbean on a gorgeous old schooner, graciously and silently, with not much more than the sound of creaking wood and the occasional seabird curiously following us, will be a long-lasting memory.
Initially, we had planned to slowly island-hop north by boat. The Grenadines used to be serviced by several regular ferries and cargo ships, but this wasn’t the case when we travelled. For example, the Jaden Sun (still mentioned in many guidebooks and blogs as recently as 2016) now operates between Antigua and Montserrat. Even the Tourism Authority wasn’t sure which boats were still going. As it turned out, at the time of our journey, at least the MV Gemstar still travelled between the Grenadine islands and St Vincent.
With so much uncertainty, we decided to go with the only reliable option, a flight to St Vincent with the Grenadine Air Alliance followed by a (bumpy) ferry ride on the Bequia Express. This way, we at least saw some of the other islands from the air. The flight itself was quite entertaining too: after all, where can you still watch your captain pilot the plane through a large opening to the cockpit these days.
For the next week, we stayed at a FlipKey property on the eastern side of the Bequia (pronounced back way), on a steep hill overlooking Friendship Bay. While just XCD1.50 per person shared minivan bus ride away from Port Elizabeth, our spot was very quiet and local. On walks around the area, we could see Mustique and some of the uninhabited islands south of Bequia. We checked out some of the beaches too but found that all the eastern beaches (facing the Atlantic) were full of seagrass and sand flies and too rough to enjoy a swim.
There aren’t that many roads on Bequia, so it may be unsurprising that by the end of our week, we had walked almost all of them, including from Port Elizabeth (and back)
- to Fort Hamilton which overlooks Admiralty Bay, Port Elizabeth’s harbour,
- along the Belmont walkway to Princess Margaret beach and via the Princess Margaret trail to Lower Bay in the South-West, and
- to Park Beach near the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary in the North-East.
We decided not to visit the turtle sanctuary. Not being in favour of animals held in captivity in general, we disagree with the rescue methods applied and tight living conditions.
We enjoyed a nice roti at Porthole just before the start of the Belmont walkway (I had conch shell for the first time in my life) and had fun watching the locals celebrate May Day in Port Elizabeth. The island is so small that location instructions for the party address stated ‘under the Almond Tree’ and everyone seemed to know where it was and was there.
With the ferry terminal in Kingstown and the new airport in Argyle (we had booked our short-term rental accommodation nearby) at opposite sides of the island, you have no choice but travel across – in a shared minivan taxi (at XCD3 per person) or a private taxi (at XCD120). Choosing the less pricey option, we (backpacks on our knees and groceries bag to our feet) shared a minivan with 15 other passengers, plus driver and money collector. Aside from feeling like sardines in a can, this was the scariest minivan ride on our journey to date. With soca music blaring so loud that the van’s windows vibrated, the driver sped recklessly along St Vincent’s windy roads, often overtaking without a clear view of oncoming traffic. Thankfully, I had taken seasickness tablets that morning for the ferry ride. Locals must have a strong stomach… and be deaf by the age of 40.
We jumped off at an intersection where, according to Google offline maps, we would just have to walk another kilometre to get to our seaside apartment accommodation. You would think that 2 1/2 months after the opening of a new airport, Google would have updated its maps… think again. Thanks to Google, we walked down roads that ended at the airfield fence… not much fun in the midday heat. In the end, we stopped at a roadside shack, had some lunch and asked the friendly owner to call our host… who picked us up an hour later. Thanks, Gwen.
Despite our out of the way location and experience with local minivans, we day tripped up the west coast… by minivan bus. First, we checked out Kingstown’s Botanical Gardens, a quiet, relaxing spot above the city with a variety of trees providing much-appreciated shade. Founded in 1765, it contains several tree species introduced by Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. It also houses about ten St Vincent parrots which are endemic to the island and sadly endangered. While we would have preferred to see them in the wild (there are only about 500 left in the mountainous interior), the birds in the aviary looked healthy. We also encountered a species of tree we had never seen before – a cannonball tree – full of stunning, sweet-smelling flowers.
Riding further up the west coast, we cooled our feet at Wallilabou Falls (a small waterfall in a beautiful tranquil rainforest garden), and our search for lunch led us to Wallilabou Bay where scenes of Pirates of the Caribbean 1-3 were filmed.
The bay, surrounded by rainforest cliffs, is absolutely stunning. Most of the movie set sadly, due to a lack of investment by the government (more to that below), has crumbled into the sea. Thanks to the enterprising spirit of some locals though, you can still explore some remnants of the set and look at paraphernalia left behind by the actors and crew.
As with most other islands we visited, we also hired a car for a day. We aimed to explore the east coast and hike up La Soufriere, St Vincent’s highest peak and an active volcano. Leaving our place at 0600h, we arrived at the Rabacca trailhead just before 0700h.
The turn-off sign from the main road is hardly noticeably – keep an eye out for it once you leave Georgetown. The road up there is paved but gets smaller and smaller the further up you go. Again, Google offline maps don’t show the whole road. You just need to keep going. Eventually, you’ll reach a small parking lot with a few buildings.
Strenuous but doable (without a guide), the trail is easily recognisable for the most part. It took Paul and me two hours each way/ four hours in total (including breaks). We were alone pretty much the whole time. Only on our way down, we met a group of three hikers with a guide.
The first section leads from the car park over five or six ridges, with steep drops on either side, through the rainforest with steep bamboo steps to an old lava flow. Next to the flow (and a bit away from the path) is a shelter.
Continuing up a steep path on the other side of the flow, the next section leads through more rainforest. However, as you go up higher and higher, you notice the temperature cooling and vegetation changing… until you reach a second old lava flow.
The final section consists of highland bushes with the odd fern tree. There is no shade from here to the summit. You walk on loose gravel and small boulders. Watch your steps (especially on your way down) as the surface is very slippery. Up here are several options to get to the top but they all seem to lead to the same trail, in the end, so don’t panic if you don’t recognise the path on your way down. As you near the summit, it gets noticeably windier.
After passing a wind shade area, you’ll see a gravel patch ahead with a ripped up flag, indicating the crater edge is close. It is very windy up there, and the crater drops several hundred metres, so be careful.
Do check the weather forecast before you go. We went on a day when it was supposed to be clear in the morning and with a risk of a thunderstorm in the afternoon. It ended up being misty and rainy for most of the hike up (which was actually good as doing it in full sun would have been worse) and a bit clearer with the occasional shower on the way down. The weather opened up just as we reached the crater and long enough for us to catch a glimpse of the immense crater and the new dome forming in its centre.
Somewhere, I had read about the sleeping trees. There are trees along the road up and around the trailhead with huge, hand-like leaves that are white on the underside. When the weather is bad the trees turn their leaves upside down, appearing white or as the locals say asleep. So don’t attempt if the trees are asleep. The morning we hiked, the trees had turned about a quarter of their leaves, so I reckon the indicator is not a bad one.
Returning to the trailhead by 1100h, we continued our road trip up the east coast, passing many villages along the way. As we drove through Georgetown earlier that morning, we had already noticed that half the buildings had crumbled and were uninhabited. Up here, many roads (and houses close to river beds and shorelines) had been washed away by torrents. The area was badly hit by hurricanes and torrential rain on numerous occasions over the last few years, most recently in November 2016, and the destruction in the north-eastern communities is very visible.
We travelled to beautiful Owia Bay, close to St Vincent’s northernmost point, taking a refreshing bath in the Owia Salt Pond, natural rock pools protected from the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. Sadly there is some broken glass on the beach and in the water. While it didn’t taint our enjoyment, best is to visit the site with surf shoes.
On the way back, we had planned to stop at another National Park site, the Black Point tunnel (an about 100m long tunnel, dug out by slaves in the early 19th century) but as there was a lack of signage we sadly missed it.
As with most of the Caribbean islands we visited, we found the people of St Vincent and the Grenadines to be genuinely warm and friendly. We chatted with many locals, and never did we feel that anyone tried to take advantage of us.
St Vincent and the Grenadines felt to us a bit like a tale of two extremes:
- On the one hand, there are the tourist dollars of the rich and famous, flowing back into the pockets of those owning the private islands, the high-end resorts, the yacht clubs and marinas in the Grenadines.
- On the other, there is the real thing, in which locals while outspokenly proud of their country discard rubbish on roadsides and beaches, and with a government that is not able and/or willing to invest in the country’s infrastructure (besides a shiny new airport that took 12 years to build).
St Vincent, for example, has 14 National Park sites. While staffed with people who are enthusiastic about their jobs, the sites are not well maintained. According to our host, who has lived on the islands for seven years, the Tourism Minister refuses to support investments in sites related to slavery. Slavery though is part of the history of St Vincent and the Grenadines, and learning about the islands’ past is not only interesting for travellers but even more important for future generations of islanders.
It seems to come down to local, private initiatives to maintain and develop facilities but even then, the government seems to make life difficult for those who want to drive change. An article of the Ins and Outs of St Vincent and the Grenadines 2017 Magazine, for example, reported about a headache and frustration the restoration of the Belmont walkway and Princess Margaret trail has caused Action Bequia, a local not-for-profit initiative that seeks to improve Bequia’s facilities (without government support).
Would we return? Absolutely. To us, there is huge untapped potential for St Vincent and the Grenadines to clean up its act and become a destination for travellers of all budgets that are interested in exploring its natural beauty, in learning about its history and in meeting its genuinely friendly people.