When you think of aquamarine water, white sand beaches and the occasional palm tree leaning out over the ocean, you might be thinking of the Tobago Cays in the Eastern Caribbean. Here you’ll take the kind of pictures everyone will think must have been Photoshopped, because nothing so perfect can still exist, can it?
There is only one way to get to the Cays, and that’s by boat. If you fly into and then charter out of St. Vincent, it’s an easy 32-mile sail to Horseshoe Reef which protects the group of four small deserted islands: Petit Rameau, Petit Bateau, Baradel and Jamesby. If you arrive late in the day when the sun is low in the sky and the visibility is not great to pick out the reefs, consider anchoring at Saltwhistle Bay in the lee of Mayreau Island just around the corner, and then come over the next morning. Never make the approach into the Cays at night; they’re low lying and surrounded by reefs that are unlit.
Because the Tobago Cays were designated a Marine National Park in 1998, rangers will visit your boat and ask for $10 EC (Eastern Caribbean dollar which is about 40 cents US) per person per day. You can also get moorings for $45 EC per night, but the anchoring is plentiful and easy in sand.
There are two ways to enter the Cays. The easiest is from the north between Mayreau and Baleine Rocks. You’ll be able to pick out day markers, but don’t cut corners. Squeeze into the channel between Bateau and Rameau and then anchor in the wide open area near Baradel Island. Exiting can be done via the southern cut, but take care to watch the water as this is a maze of unmarked reefs. This exit is a nice shortcut when heading down to Union Island, only about three miles to the south.
If you’re adventurous, you can exit Horseshoe Reef and make your way around to the east and out to Petit Tabac Island, which has a narrow sandy anchorage large enough for maybe two boats. If you’re lucky enough to be there alone, you will think you’ve dropped out of civilization altogether.
What does one do in paradise? There are few distractions and happily no nightlife so the Cays are about snorkeling, books, a cooler of beer, and forgetting the world for a while. The islands are small and fairly low but for a better vantage point on the many shades of crystal clear water, you can walk to the top of Petit Rameau or stroll around the pristine spit of white sand on Jamesby.
The snorkeling is sublime and though there is a small chop if the wind picks up, the reef provides mostly protected water. The southeast side of Baradel has a designated turtle viewing area. Take your dinghy through the buoys slowly and then beach it up onto the sand. Swim with the turtles as they feed on the grass only 8-10 feet below the surface. If you’re quiet, you can hear them chew. The turtles swim freely throughout the Cays, but they like the vegetation around Baradel so you’re most likely to spot them there. For non-swimmers, or the ultra-lazy, lay on a swim platform and put your head into the water with your mask on; chances are you’ll see a turtle or a ray swim by.
The Cays are open to the trades and there are days when there’s no question why they call this part of the Caribbean the Windward Isles. But the anchorage is well protected from waves and swell, so even on a night with a 40-knot blow we were perfectly comfortable and securely anchored in about 20 feet of water.
Parts of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Dead Man’s Chest” were filmed in the Cays. Take your camera and troll the various beaches; you might find a few angles that look like Johnny Depp is about to come around the corner.
Just because there are no stores or restaurants doesn’t mean you can’t eat well or go shopping. The area has its own set of entrepreneurs who will come by and take your orders for bread and ice to be delivered the next day. Others will come by selling hand-painted T-shirts and island jewelry, so you can shop from the convenience of your own boat.
For local meals, you can either buy lobsters (in season only) or fish (none of which should have been caught on the reef because it’s a protected area) from the local boat boys. One of the best meals I had was at a beach barbecue organized by the local guys on Petit Bateau. Although we had a storm move in that night, the feast went on in the spritzing rain on the beach under a string of light bulbs. Grilled fish, rice, vegetables and rum punch were served in hearty portions. I still think fondly about that conch chowder.
These islands are as pristine and peaceful as any place you’ll find in the world. If you plan to spend extended time in the Cays, bring plenty of sunscreen as there is little shade. And provision well before you get here because other than what the locals can bring you, there’s nothing else you can purchase. That’s part of what makes this small group of islands so perfect, they’re almost unreal.