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Windward Islands: A Variety of Cultures, Island Style

With so much variety and easy sailing between islands, it's no wonder the Windward Islands (from Martinique south to Grenada) are such a popular cruising and charter region. The same easterly trade winds that named these the Windward Islands make for excellent sailing and pleasant tropical temperatures. Each island has its own distinctive flavor, stemming in part from its particular cultural heritage (French, English, Creole). While most of these are volcanic in origin and an easy day’s sail apart, Barbados is coral-based and a hundred miles upwind of the rest of the chain.

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Windward Islands Overview

Martinique

Great beaches, exceptional food and wonderful watersports are just a few of the offerings available on the exotic French Caribbean island of Martinique. Yachtsmen will find some very sophisticated pleasures here, including haut cuisine and the latest fashions—especially in Fort-de-France, the island’s capital, which is located on one of the safest, most beautiful bays in the Caribbean.

 

Catamarans are a popular charter option in the Windward Islands.

Martinique also has an active volcano – Mont Pelée, which erupted in 1902 and left thousands of residents dead. The Museum of Vulcanology tells the story in somewhat grizzly detail. Visitors can find fantastic hiking and nature-watching along the volcano’s slopes. Known as the “Isle of Flowers,” Martinique also has numerous botanical gardens.

There are plenty of long sandy beaches to lounge on here. Great surfing can be found at Presqu’île de Caravelle, and Martinique is also known for its snorkeling and diving. Pointe du Bout is the island’s main resort area, featuring golf, shopping and casino nightlife. The village of Carbet, which for a short time was home to the famous French painter Paul Gauguin, is worth a visit.

Popular marinas include Pointe du Bout, across from the capital; Le François on the Atlantic in Sainte-Anne, and Port de Plaisance, which is Guadaloupe’s largest and best-equipped yacht basin.

St. Lucia's Marigot Bay is a natural hurricane hole.

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St. Lucia

Thanks to its Pitons – twin pyramid-shaped peaks – St. Lucia is one of the most easily identifiable islands in the Caribbean. It is a garden of delights for nature enthusiasts, who come to hike its volcanic mountain slopes, which soar up to 3,000 feet above the sea, and visit its rainforests, waterfalls and sulphur springs. The coral gardens at the foot of the Pitons are a hotspot for scuba divers and snorkelers.

For centuries, St. Lucia also has been a haven for sailors. The gem-like Marigot Bay, located on the west coast, is a natural hurricane hole where the British fleet hid from the French back in the 18th century. Today, it is home to a modern megayacht marina.

But it is Rodney Bay, at the island’s northern end, that is the island’s true yachting capital. The 232-slip Rodney Bay Marina, an Island Global Yachting facility, is the “finish line” for the annual Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC) in November, which draws more than 200 sailboats. The marina’s new superyacht pier hosts luxury charter vessels, while several bareboat charter fleets are headquartered in the area. With beaches, shopping and nightlife near at hand, Rodney Bay is both a happening destination in itself, and gateway to the southern Caribbean.

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St. Vincent and the Grenadines

Sailors have long considered St. Vincent and the 40-mile Grenadines island chain to be among the best sailing grounds in the Caribbean, rivaling even the British Virgin Islands. These relatively untouched isles, where much of Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed, provide a glimpse of the region as it looked in years gone by.

While St. Vincent is only served by regional air carriers, making it a bit remote, starting a cruising vacation from this West Indian island saves hours of sailing transit time from St. Lucia to the north or Grenada to the south. A favorite eco-tourism destination, St. Vincent has a 3,000-foot active volcano, La Soufrière, which last erupted in 1979. Hiking to the smoking crater area is a popular day trip.

Most visitors anchor out in the Grenadines, and the anchorages are spectacular here. One of the best is deep, horseshoe-shaped Admiralty Bay on Bequia, at the north end of the chain. The upscale Mustique and charming Canouan are also must-see stops, as is pristine Tobago Cays Marine Park. The Grenadines are all fairly close together, which makes for a relaxing itinerary with short morning sails and plenty of time to enjoy the area’s abundant snorkeling, diving, dining and star-gazing opportunities.

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Grenada

Known as the Spice Island because of the aromatic crops grown in its fertile soil, Grenada is one of the most beautiful destinations in the West Indies. The capital, St. George’s, is a pretty colonial port town that has been compared to Porto Fino in Italy. This is the site of the big new Port Louis Grenada marina, which is designed to hold yachts up to 90 meters in length; several other yacht harbors also are located at the southern end of the island.

Beaches are a big draw in Grenada. One of the best is Grand Anse, nearly two miles of sparkling white sand bordering a wide, sheltered bay. Snorkeling is superb in various spots around the island, there are wrecks for scuba divers to explore along the reefs, and in the winter, there is always a chance of a whale sighting. Inland, Grand Etang National Park and Forest Preserve is a popular day trip, offering rainforest hikes around the rim of an extinct volcano.

These are sailing waters; the bareboat sailing fleets located here, including Horizon Yacht Charters, recommend itineraries north through the Grenadines. In addition, the huge Grenada Sailing Festival brings two weekends of racing and partying to the island each year in late January.

Barbados lies about 100 miles east (and usually upwind) of the rest of the Windward islands. Photo: Mount Gay Rum Round Barbados Race, http://www.mountgayrumroundbarbadosrace.com/index.html

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Barbados

With its sublime beaches, charming colonial towns, fascinating museums and thriving nightlife, Barbados offers the chance both to escape the hectic pace of everyday life and to indulge in an array of unique cultural pursuits – many with a British accent. Bridgetown, the island’s historic capital, is also the site of world-class duty-free shopping.

Sports of all sorts are an attraction here. Horseback riding and tennis are popular, and the Bajans (as the islanders are known) take their cricket seriously. Barbados’ crystal-clear waters, teeming with marine life, provide great snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities.

Barbados is a relatively flat, green island, featuring abundant bays and gradually sloping beaches, but there are also dramatic sandstone cliffs soaring several hundred feet in height. The island’s lush inland geography also invites exploration. Thanks to the mild, subtropical weather, Barbados abounds with an astonishing assortment of plant life.

The island is a lonely sentinel in the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles, about 100 miles east of St. Lucia. Sailing charters are popular here, although many luxury charter motor yachts also include Barbados in their itineraries. Port St. Charles, an upscale marina facility located on a tranquil stretch of the northwest coast, can shelter yachts up to 130 feet.

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