I’d earned the right to hate everything about the Grenadines. Having paid $1,000 for PCR tests for Covid-19 and endured a two-week quarantine to get into the country, we’d just cleared in when a volcanic eruption covered the islands in a thick layer of toxic ash. Things were just starting to normalize when a tree branch fell with the accuracy of a well-aimed lance and pierced my foot, fracturing my bone. As I was starting to regain mobility, a series of minor medical issues sent me to the local clinic, where a life-threatening condition was misdiagnosed.
And yet, neither natural catastrophe nor medial calamity was enough to send me barreling for home. That says something about the country.
The 32 islands that make up St. Vincent and the Grenadines, part of the southern Caribbean’s Windward Islands, are spread across 60 miles. They are geographically close, yet geologically distinct. There are black volcanic shores and white sand beaches, dense tropical rain forests and aired scrubland, colorful fishing villages and empty bays, high-end luxury services and spartan local fare. If you want it, the Grenadines has it.
And we wanted all of it. John and I arrived in the Caribbean in early 2021 and headed for the island group in early April. We made a quick dash for Bequia as soon as we had completed our two-week quarantine on Saint Vincent. While I knew we were leaving the main island unexplored, the call for a relaxed island vibe far outweighed the pull of tourist activities. Hiking waterfalls and the rim of a crater could wait until the steel drums were starting to rattle their own tune inside my brain.
But then, La Soufrière—the youngest and largest volcano in the country—erupted after 40 years of being dormant. The plume rose 26,000 feet into the air and then slowly descended upon us, settling a thick layer of ash onto every surface throughout every corner of the Grenadines. All who could move moved as quickly as they could. We pulled up anchor and sailed south in a compact line of fleeing vessels. We settled in at the Tobago Cays with a dozen other boats. It took a few days for the wind to shift and blow the ash away, and when it did, we got our first glimpse of the glorious Grenadines. It was time to relax and party.
Fortunately, we were in the perfect place for it. The Tobago Cays consist of five uninhabited islands surrounded by an expansive reef system on the outside and a crystal-clear, white sand lagoon on the inside. Green turtles and stingrays slowly swim past and under the boat while colorful fish swiftly pace along the outlying reef, creating an aquatic wonderland.
When we were ready to dry out, we wandered ashore in search of large iguana and small land turtles on our hike up the hilltop for stunning views. Late afternoons invariably turned social as cruisers gathered under the palm trees to tell a few tales over a few cold beers. We shared potluck meals and built bonfires, and occasionally wandered across the island to enjoy a local barbecue where the daily catch of fish or lobster would be cooking on the open grill. Our days were exactly what Caribbean cruising was supposed to be: long, slow and lazy. Had it not been for my desire to see the rest of islands, we would have spent all of our time in the Tobago Cays, sacked out in the shade of a palm tree with a belly full of rum.
The majority of Grenadine cruising destinations are focused on the nine inhabited islands and a few of their surrounding islets. Each island has its own character, and to experience the nuances of each was rewarding. Union Island provided a prime spot for kitesurfing. Mayreau offered my favorite anchorage, where our 50-foot cutter-rigged Atea sat a boat length from the white sand, palm-lined shore. Canouan brought a touch of opulence; we dined in a luxury restaurant and sat seaside sipping fruit-wedged cocktails from the open-air bar.
From island to island, depending on those small nuances, we either were racing in the wind on top of the water, or eyeballing fish as they swam along the reef, or rolling around in the gentle surf. Regardless of the island or the bay, our days were filled with a soft breeze and warm, clear water. We were traveling with a few other cruisers, so our salt-filled days invariably ended in beer-filled nights. If we weren’t on the beach raising our glass to the setting sun, we were gathered in a cockpit toasting to our good fortune. A succession of days turned into weeks that developed into a set pattern. The names of the bays changed, but the experience remained the same: beach, siesta, drink.
When it was time to find somewhere that would add some diversity to our days, Bequia was just the place. It’s the cruisers’ mecca of the Grenadines. Our visit occurred well out of high season and not long after the volcanic eruption, so we saw only a few cruisers in Admiralty Bay. Many restaurants and bars were closed, but a few were working hard to keep the regulars returning. We were able to experience a quieter, more local scene that included beach yoga and a dip in the ocean in the morning, a dive or inland hike in the afternoon, and sundowners on the beach or happy hour rum punch in the evenings.
We would plan different excursions to break the routine, visiting a salt farm, a fruit plantation, a pottery shop, a heritage museum and a turtle sanctuary. We ordered specialty cocktails at a floating bar, and ate lavish meals over extended lunches in restaurants. We explored the windward bays and hung out with the locals, learning how to crack a coconut with a rock and then roast it in the fire after salting it in seawater. We ate salt fish cooked over the heat of a fire while learning how to carve designs in seeds with a stick. We walked through local villages where humpback whale bones were discarded on the side of the road, and we climbed up the mountainside for fantastic outlooks over the sea. Bequia is a different kind of paradise from the sleepy islands that stretch south beyond it, rich and rewarding all the same.
After two months, the itch returned to travel, and we were curious to see the aftermath of the volcanic eruption. We sailed to the far north of Saint Vincent, where pyroclastic flows had reshaped the landscape while carving a path of destruction to the sea. Acres of felled trees were blackened and charred, rivers were redirected, and new valleys were carved out. Houses lay flattened by the weight of the ash on rooftops, and entire crops were wiped out. Some 16,000 people had been evacuated, leaving villages scarred and deserted. Anyone within the red zone was on their own.
We visited villages where active settlements had turned into ghost towns, and only a small handful of determined residents had refused to leave. We were in one of these towns when heavy rains created a flash flood that drowned the houses and streets in a torrent of ash-filled mud. Regardless, the people were hospitable and welcoming. It was humbling to experience such warmth from people who had suffered through so much.
Still, Saint Vincent is uniquely beautiful with high mountain peaks and thick verdant forest, and with jagged boulders overhanging sheer cliffs that rise from the black sand shores. In a tiny, one-boat cove, we stern-tied Atea and made her fast to the rocks on either side, then enjoyed the serene solitude of our private sanctuary. Our overnight stop turned into a succession of days filled with cliff diving, rock climbing, bush walks and beach bonfires. We sat in pitch-black bat caves, hiked steep mountain tracks, and found rock art hidden in the bush. We watched the blinking light of fireflies at dusk and the mysterious flashing light of jellyfish at night.
As we slowly made our way north, the beauty of the island unraveled before us: I wanted to hunt for first-century petroglyphs and wander through age-old ruins, and we found them. I wanted to walk through dense rainforest to stand under raging waterfalls, and we stood there. I wanted to jump off tall cliffs into the clear water below, and we jumped. I wanted the thrill of swimming through the total darkness inside deep fissures in the rock, and the adrenaline pumped. I wanted to sit with the seamen and hear their stories, and we listened.
I had a certain expectation of what Saint Vincent would be like, but nothing prepared me for the gruesome sight of a whale hunt. I knew whaling was legal in the Grenadines, but I didn’t believe it until we saw four pilot whales towed in by longboats. It was both horrifying and fascinating to witness. We were invited to join in as they skinned and butchered an animal on the beach in the morning, and we watched as they boiled the fat to extract oil and cut the meat into slices to dry. We even tasted the fried skin and accepted the whale teeth offered to us.
In the end, the Grenadines gave me nothing but the feeling of great fortune. Everything about these islands is fabulous: the cultural diversity, the geographic proximity, the scenic beauty. Each island has its own unique character, and that diversity affords every cruiser choice. How could I have known that a group of islands could offer so much in so many different ways?
Island Cruising Tips
Planning a voyage to the islands? Our friends at Caribbean Compass recently polled their audience of experienced Caribbean cruisers for seamanship and lifestyle advice that first-timers can use. Paste these tips on your nav table before you go.
"Check for northerly swells." They can make many usually navigable channels and comfortable anchorages untenable, and eyeball navigation difficult. These swells are generated when major storms affect the mainland United States and roll out into the Atlantic. We watch the “surf” animations at stormsurf.com. If you see lots of south-facing arrows where you’re heading, you’ll want to adjust your itinerary.
"When entering and leaving harbors, forget the plotter—use eyeball navigation." And when relying on eyeball navigation, do not head east before 1100 or west after 1400, as the sun’s angle at those times may be insufficient to effectively gauge water color. Never enter a harbor at night.
"Invest in the best possible anchor" and go at least one size up from the recommended size. Faith in your anchor is a must-have in the islands, where conditions can change with even a slight wind shift.
"Be sure your anchor is set." This begins with dropping the hook over a bottom that gives it a chance. I’m never sure I’m fully set until I’ve pulled back with the throttle—and then only if there’s no wind shift.
"Always stay in tune to the weather: aboard, ashore, awake or asleep." A good islands skipper awakes to a weather change like a mother to the rustle of her newborn child.
"Carry lots of spare parts." Nothing’s worse than to be stuck in the islands waiting for a part to arrive. (Although, really, there are probably worse places to be stuck.)
I have cruised the entire range of Caribbean islands extensively. I know every rock, reef and bump in the area. My best piece of advice? Don’t be as cocky as I am. "Study your cruising guides and know the local procedures." After arriving in Soufriere, I once got taken for $300 by a local kid who offered to secure our mooring and whisked us ashore for provisioning in his dinghy. Had I read our Doyle Guides cruising guide, I would have known that the buoys belonged to a government association, and that rangers would come and collect the fee, which was about 20 bucks.
In the busy season, marine service companies in the islands are fully stretched, "so book ahead" and don’t assume that instant attention is always possible. If you do need service, get more than one quote and ask about guarantees, delivery, materials and work methods. Use local cruiser networks to seek out the best skilled technicians.
"Don’t overlook security." When at anchor, never retire to bed in your unlocked boat with a dark cockpit. A cockpit light and a well-secured companionway are good deterrents to uninvited guests. Monitor the Caribbean Safety and Security Net: safetyandsecuritynet.com
"Have patience." Island life moves at a different pace. Remember, we’re self-invited guests. Embrace the pace and enjoy the culture.
"Say 'hello' or 'morning' to islanders on the street." You are the visitor, and it is expected that you will reach out first. You might be rewarded with a big smile and a conversation that will open doors to the island.
"Know before you go." Visit caribbeancompass.com, which has an easy-to-use search function. You’ll find a wealth of information, just like these tips, informed by years of Caribbean cruisers’ firsthand experiences.
This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue of Passagemaker magazine.