St. Vincent is a hilly, rugged island less than twenty miles long and covered with lush vegetation. It is topped by a 3,000-foot volcano and is largely unspoiled, because it lacks the stretches of white sand beaches that are so inviting to resort developers. So if you’re interested in an eco-tour before boarding a charter boat to head south, this is a great starting point.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines is one country and the group is usually referred to as one place. Scheduled flights are available from Puerto Rico, Barbados, Martinique, Grenada and Trinidad. St. Vincent is less a boating destination than a jumping off point to explore the island paradise to the south. Sunsail St. Vincent and Barefoot Offshore Yacht Charters offer bareboats at the Blue Lagoon, outside of Kingstown. Barefoot offers ASA certified sailing instruction; Sunsail’s facilities include docks, showers, a restaurant, and a great outdoor bar.
The first island to the south is Bequia, a two-hour sail from St. Vincent. Or you can bash more to windward for 15 miles to the exclusive island of Mustique. You’ll stay within St. Vincent’s jurisdiction until you reach Grenada, which is a separate country and requires a check-in with customs and immigration. From Kingstown, St. Vincent’s capital, to the island of Petit St. Vincent down at the southern edge of the country, is only about 45 miles, and you could cover it in a long day of sailing. But then you would miss the best part, which is the postcard-perfect middle.
A brief version of the region’s history goes like this: When Columbus plied Caribbean waters, St. Vincent was known by its inhabitants as Hairoun (“home of the blessed”) which today is also a popular local beer. Over the centuries, the Eastern Caribbean was settled by various groups like the peaceful Arawaks, who mostly originated in South America. Eventually however, they didn’t fare well against a new group of warlike cannibals, the Caribs, who subsequently moved in, killed the men, kept the women, and castrated and fattened some of the children for future banquets.
Two hundred years after Columbus, Europeans came en masse to settle and embed missionaries who often didn’t stand a chance against the Caribs but were unbelievably persistent. Slave ships from Africa soon followed, and some of them wrecked on the nearby reefs. Surviving Africans swam ashore, mixed with the Caribs and created a new group called Black Caribs who, of course, didn’t get along with the original Yellow Caribs.
As if that conflict wasn’t enough, by this time the French and British were waging half-hearted battles over the territory as well as fighting with the Caribs who were fighting each other. No surprise, superior technology of the day like cannons, muskets and ships prevailed and the problematic Black Caribs were eventually rounded up and shipped to Roatan off the coast of Honduras. St. Vincent, which spent much of its time under French rule, became a part of the British colony of the Windward Islands in 1871. In 1979, it became an independent state within the British Commonwealth.
Clearly, there are a few gaps in this story. You can get some even more colorful versions of local lore when you book a land tour; the guides are sometimes knowledgeable, and always imaginative, when they recount their proud heritage.
There are numerous land activities to choose from for any level of ambition. Booking a day tour is a great start, and the first stop is usually Fort Charlotte atop Kingstown where for a tip, a local will be happy to walk you around and give you a brief history of the fort that never saw battle. It now houses a women’s prison; in the spring of 2012 there were 16 inmates, versus 200 in the men’s prison. From here you can see down to the beach and the remnants of an old leper colony.
Make sure not to miss the botanical gardens, where a 2-hour tour will teach you much about the local plants and flowers. Our guide called himself “The Professor” and had been doing botanical tours for thirty years. He showed us several fascinating ways of using the local plants, but his enthusiastic delivery came at such a rapid pace that I was glad there wasn’t a quiz at the end. The gardens are also the place to hold a parrot on your hand, check out the descendent of an original breadfruit tree that was brought from the South Pacific by Captain Bligh, and eat delicious wax apples – they’re better than they sound.
Half-way up the leeward side of the island is Wallilabou, a small village where parts of the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean” were filmed. Much of the set details are still visible: fiberglass coffins and cannons, as well as some cast photos and shooting schedules which are laminated and posted on the walls inside one of the buildings. The Wallilabou Anchorage Restaurant must have been first in line to harvest the set leftovers, and it has various memorabilia and plastic pirates crawling around nets on the ceiling.
A little farther up the road are the Trinity Falls, where you can put on a swimsuit and go for a refreshing, if pounding, shower. You can also visit the big falls of Baleine on the northern tip of the island, but only by boat.
If you’re up for some exercise, consider hiking Soufriere, the 3,000-foot volcano that last erupted in 1979. The hike from the windward side follows a clear trail and I know someone who did it in flip flops (although that’s not recommended). The longer hike is from Chateaubelair on the leeward side, but it will take 8-10 hours round trip and requires a guide.
Finally, a scenic little anchorage is Young Island Cut, a stone’s throw from where you’re likely to charter your boat at the Blue Lagoon on the southern tip of St. Vincent. Due to random currents and an underwater cable, it’s best to catch one of the many moorings close to Young Island and then dinghy around to the rock which is home to Fort Duvernette. Several cannons were hauled up 190 feet to defend Calliaqua Bay from this rock. Understandably, they’re still there; once you climb the scenic but challenging staircase, you’ll know why nobody was ever sufficiently motivated to move the armaments again.
Unlike many traditional starting points for greater adventures, St. Vincent shouldn’t be neglected. It has much to offer before or after a charter and is completely different from the beach culture of the Grenadines. Take a day or two to explore, and hopefully you will get a more detailed (if not necessarily more accurate) version of the region’s history.