The man had been prowling for some time. Swinging a length of lead piping in his left hand and straining against the weight of a hessian sack with his right, his eyes peered up from his down-turned head, casting glances through the metallic evening light at every flat surface he saw. Finally, his gaze settled on a sturdy disused market stall in a darkened corner, where he unloaded six coconuts, and started smashing them to pieces.
Immediately, all eyes rose from the rummy tables and swung in my direction. Before my heart had the time to hit my throat, I felt a hand on my shoulder. The man next to me had levered himself from his stool, with a muted chuckle, and slowly walked to the pipe-wielding man; catching his arm mid-arch. Seconds later, the coconut massacre had ended and the clack of dominoes continued.
The peace-keeper was Lloyd. A towering man at over 6’5”, with shoulders as wide as a broomstick is long, and a cavernous, rumbling voice. He had welcomed me when I had skulked into the small courtyard of wooden shacks, sat me on a wobbling stool, poured me a glass of rum and dealt me into a game of poker. Lloyd ran the place; whether people liked it or not, he was in charge.
Right in the heart of St Vincent’s capital, Kingstown, this cluster of huts is known as China Town. By day it’s a prosperous market, but once vendors have loaded their carts and cleared their stalls it transforms into a makeshift casino. Now, under the glow of fluorescent bulbs, gamblers tossed cards into the centre of the plywood tables and reluctantly threw dollars to the grinning croupiers. Hatches dropped down and bars opened for the night, drawing in punters with booming reggae and an endless supply of cheap rum and local Hairoun beer, piled among ice in grubby polystyrene boxes.
In one corner a cobbler finished repairing the sole of a sandal, hunched over a portable radio straining to hear Geoffrey Boycott’s commentary of England getting thrashed by Pakistan; in another, two children scaled a precariously-stacked pile of crates, until they caught the eye of Lloyd and quickly got down.
Apparently, I was the first tourist they had seen in here for quite some time. Certainly the first they could remember to sit down and have a game with them, and at the rate I was losing money, I’m sure they would welcome more.
In general, tourist numbers on the island are refreshingly low. A 45-minute flight from Barbados, and scattered with only a few small resorts, most of the crowds from America and Europe bypass teardrop-shaped St Vincent for the Caribbean’s more developed countries or skip through to the Grenadines. This means those who stay are rewarded with an insight into authentic Caribbean life, a curious but charming welcome and stretches of sand all to themselves.
Composed of submerged volcanoes — with the active La Soufrière smouldering in the north, giving way to a series of dormant peaks running through its centre — the island’s 120,000 strong population is concentrated in small villages and towns dispersed around the coastal strip. At the southernmost point, Kingstown is protected by two arms of palm-covered rock stretching down from the stunted Mount St. Andrew; creating a natural port that protects the rust-splattered trawlers and hulking ferries from strong trade winds and turbulent seas rolling in from the east.
The next morning the silence was broken by a chorus of cockerels and dogs that woke the moment the sun was up, seemingly adamant the rest of the city should do the same. As I step out of my hotel — the quaint Grenadine House — it struck me that Vincentians set their alarm clocks long before the squawks and barks echo across the valley.
Already, school children in immaculately-pressed uniforms lolled in groups at every crossroad; mechanics clanged at engines in roughly cobbled side streets; and the grid of streets by the seafront were lined with stalls staggering under piles of ginger, yams and fearsomely hot scotch bonnet peppers.
Passing colonial administration buildings and dark-stone churches, I reach the epicentre of the early morning bustle. Here, queues of colourfully dressed women file out of a three-storey concrete block that rings with the hollers of the fish sellers inside. The morning catch has just landed and, as it’s the last haul before the weekend, half the island has come for their supplies.
Fishing is the lifeline for many people here and has been for centuries. Once a major exporter to nearby Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, trade is now centred around the island’s hotels and restaurants, and sating the locals’ enormous appetite for seafood. At the eastern end of the harbour, where concrete gives way to sand, is the fishermen’s wharf. Timber homes squeeze between the sturdy warehouses built from the ballast bricks that once steadied cargo vessels sailing to Europe laden with sugar, cocoa and cotton.
As I emerge from the tangle of buildings, I notice a fisherman at the shore dragging his battered tender up the beach. I lend a hand, and we slide the creaking boat into a lopsided shelter, roofed with browning palm fronds. Here, paint pots are at the ready to renew the green coat flaking off in leaf-like curls.
Further up the cove, a man with a panicked look in his eyes is gutting red snapper at a ferocious speed. Buoyed by being of use with the boat, I offer my assistance. “No thanks man, I’m late for market, but I got mysen in di riddim”, he replies in a concentrated tone, not looking up, as he sweeps through a snapper’s pink belly with a knife, and gouges out the innards. Tossing the guts to the gulls and the fish into a barrel.
He’s got his work cut out. He’s only half way through the catch and market closes in under two hours. He’ll do it, though. The Vincentians are a hard-working, determined bunch. Of course, this is tempered with a large amount of breezin’ in the sunshine, but a fighting spirit is deeply ingrained in their ancestral history.
In the late 17th-century, the Caribs — who had arrived on the island 300 years earlier — were joined by the survivors of Dutch and Spanish shipwrecked slave ships and escapees from the British plantations in Barbados. Together, they valiantly resisted colonisation until long after most other Caribbean islands had well-established European settlements.However, the lure of the fertile volcanic soil was strong enough for England and France to persist, and in the early 1700s the French become the first settlers who were allotted smallholdings on the leeward side of the island by the Caribs.
The French handed rule to the British 63 years later, but their legacy lived on, and a drive around the island the following day took me through the villages of Petit Bordel, Belle Vue and the sleepy hamlet of Sans Soucis (‘without worries’).
A new era
Heading east from the tiny capital, my guide and driver Ozzy eyed the sky while negotiating the tight turns that dropped on one side into the heaving Atlantic. Up above, a mass of lumpish grey cloud was sliding over the top of the island, gobbling up the summit of La Soufrière. The chances of visibility at the top were going to be low, but he assured me the two-hour trek to the crater would be worth it.
We pass a kilometre-long strip of burning orange soil, scraped from the cliff side, 10 minutes into the drive to the foothills. In two years time, this will be the runway for the island’s very own international airport. Currently, five of Liat’s tiny twin-propeller planes fly in from Barbados each day. In 2014, it will be Boeing 737s.
As we hurtle along the road, just about wide enough for two vehicles, it’s hard to imagine the island coping with tourism on a mass scale. Today’s a Sunday, and when we left Kingstown a cruise liner had docked and not one shop was open. It looks like it’s going to take more than just development to prepare for the growth — it is going to require a change of attitude.
However, many are optimistic about the airport and Ozzy’s one of them. The tour company he works for, Sailor’s, has been through some tough times recently and a reliable stream of tourists is what businesses like this across the island want and need.
And there’s plenty to keep them entertained when they get here. Aside from the verdant mountains, rich in birdlife and exotic flora, St Vincent is rimmed by secluded half-moon coves offering some of the best diving in the Caribbean — with an abundant reef-life that flourishes at 25ft as opposed to 80ft in most other dive destinations. Then there’s the series of waterfalls hidden in the jungle with pools as warm as bath water at their base.
It’s also an untapped surfing destination and as we trail the coast, I watch head-high waves reeling perfectly off craggy fingers of land. Ozzy tells me he’s only ever seen two people making the most of it — one man paddling out on a tree trunk, another on a fridge door. At least he got the colour of the board right.
Suddenly, we swing left and drop a gear to tackle the steep road leading through a banana plantation to the bottom of the trail. With our hiking boots on, and mosquito spray coating every bit of exposed skin, we trudge into the rainforest. The floor is puddled with the deposits of a recent downpour, and the ferns droop in submission under the weight of the water trickling down each frond.
The chortle of birds crescendoes as they emerge from their shelters. Ozzy points out every chirp and squawk he hears. A matt-black northern harrier hawk and an auburn cocoa thrush are trying to outdo each other on a branch overhead, while in the distance, an endemic whistling warbler adds to the cacophony. With a little guidance I’m soon in tune with the forest, and aware of life all around me. Plants grasp palm trunks, minute tree frogs bath in pools forming in the leaves and speedy hummingbirds dart from thimble-sized nests as we approach. Keeping a firm footing on the stony path became a challenge, as my eyes scanned the dense bush for a chance of spotting the elusive rainbow-feathered St Vincent parrot.
As we approach the summit, the vines and trees give way to waist-high brush that thrives at this altitude. At 4,000ft, I’d been told the views over the island and the distant Grenadines were spectacular. Right on cue, the last section of cloud drifted clear and the panorama was complete.
Behind me, the serrated ridge of peaks cut through the retreating cloud; to my left the emerald green Caribbean sea shone in the sunlight; and three steps in front was the smoking jaw of the volcano. At a kilometre wide, my eyes strain to see the other side of the ashen-grey bowl. At its base, white patches of steaming sulphur dot the floor like the marks of a recently stubbed cigarette, extinguishing any chance of life taking hold down there.
I hadn’t expected the volcano to be so visibly active and, as we descend, we follow the trail of a hardened lava flow cutting a path in the direction of St Vincent’s second largest settlement, Georgetown, following an eruption in 1979. I ask Ozzy when the next eruption might be due. “It could be next century, or it could be 10 minutes’ time… If so, I sure hope you can run in dem boots.”
Bidding farewell to Ozzy at the dock in Kingstown, I board the ferry to explore the kite-string of 32 islands that make up the Grenadines.
My first stop is Bequia (pronounced Beck-way), just under an hour away. At seven square miles, this is the largest of the Grenadines and has a permanent population of around 6,000 — a balanced mix of ex-pats and locals.
Port Elizabeth is the main hub, home to a bank, a cluster of restaurants, a tourist information kiosk and a market square that doubles as the bus terminal. From here, the 12-seater ‘dollar vans’ circumnavigate the island and provide a cheap and reliable form of public transport. I squeeze in with a group of excitable school children, and race to the Bequia Beach Hotel in the cheerily-named Friendship Bay.
The 23-room hotel is the closest thing you’ll get to a resort on Bequia. A collection of suites and villas surrounding a pool and a seafront restaurant look out onto the talcum powder white sand, and over the water to über-exclusive Mustique, crowning the horizon.
The nine-mile stretch of water between the two is a path for migrating humpback whales, which lends Bequia its history in the whaling industry. Today, the island is only permitted to catch four per year under international regulations, although this limit is rarely reached. Chasing the humpbacks in sail-boats and harpooning them with a hand-held spear is a tricky and perilous exercise. If one is hauled onto the concrete platform on the western fringes of the bay, an island-wide party ensues.
I spend the next two days flopping on deserted beaches, only accessed by the water taxis; operated by a few Rastafarians who are more than happy to wait while I jump off the side for a spot of snorkelling.
From Bequia, I trail further south to Union Island, hanging on the end of the Grenadines’ chain. If life on St Vincent and Bequia had the brakes on, then this blob of land has come to a complete standstill. Under palm trees in the centre of Clifton — one of two towns — dogs and goats slump in the shade and shopkeepers doze on their doorsteps. Beyond this, a single-track road winds through thick bush concealing clapboard homes and a scattering of modest guesthouses. My retreat, the Islander’s Inn, is hidden down a dusty track and once again I find myself in a Robinson Crusoe-style situation that’s a speciality in St Vincent and the Grenadines — a sweep of untouched sand, the red sun dripping over the horizon and not a soul to be seen.
There are no direct flights between the UK and St Vincent and the Grenadines. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic offer direct flights from Gatwick to Barbados; Liat operate five daily flights from there to St Vincent. www.ba.com www.flyvirgin.com www.liatairline.com
Average Flight Time: 8h30m.
Hopping between the main islands of the Grenadines is easy thanks to the cheap, regular ferries that leave St Vincent each day. Alternatively, there are domestic flights operated by SVG Air or private yacht charter. To get around the islands, locals tend to rely on the 12-seater ‘dollar vans’ that run until 10pm, although taxis are also available. www.bequiaexpress.com www.jadeninc.com www.svgair.com
When to go
January to May are the hottest, driest months, with an average daytime temperature of 29C. For the rest of the year the temperature rarely drops below 25C, but rainfall is more frequent, particularly in the wettest month, July. However, downpours are brief and this is when the islands are at their most lush.
Need to know
Visas: No visa is required by UK passport holders.
Health: No immunisations or medications are necessary.
Currency: Eastern Caribbean Dollars (EC$). £1 = 4.277.
International dialling code: 00 784.
Time difference: GMT -4.
How to do it
Kuoni offers seven-nights all-inclusive at Buccament Bay five-star resort on St Vincent from £1,799 per person including flights and transfers. www.kuoni.co.uk