Sunday, July 28, 2013

St. Vincent and the Grenadines (2013)

On May 21st, we departed at first light and had a pleasant sail from St. Lucia to St. Vincent.  We had ESE winds at 12-18 knots with six foot seas and reached the lee of St. Vincent shortly before noon.  This rugged volcanic island stretches 11 miles from north to south and seven miles from east to west.  The terrain is a combination of steep mountains and dense green forest and is sparsely populated compared to the other islands in the windward group.  The island of St. Vincent makes up about 90 percent of the total land in the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. 

The French were the first Europeans to try to settle on the island in the 18th century, but fierce Carib resistance kept the Europeans out long after most other Caribbean islands had been colonized.  This was the last stand for the Caribs, many of whom were from other nearby islands that had already escaped British or French rule.  They were eventually defeated though, and St. Vincent was traded back and forth between French and British rule for quite a few years until it was ultimately ceded to the British in 1783.  It remained under British control until the country gained their independence 35 years ago. 

Today there are about 100,000 people living on the island of St. Vincent.  Unlike the first three Caribbean islands we visited, tourism is not the most important part of the economy here, but instead agriculture, with the biggest crop being bananas.  Most tourists that visit St. Vincent just pass through the hub and capital city at Kingstown, before heading south to the islands in the Grenadines, which are more geared towards tourism.

On our approach to St. Vincent, we headed for Wallilabou Bay, a port of clearance near the middle of the west coast.  After hearing about recent issues with crime in this bay, our plan was to anchor in neighboring Keartons Bay instead.  This small bay is just south of Wallilabou, and there is a restaurant here called The Rock Side Cafe.  The owners, Orlando and Rosi, have installed moorings in the bay and are able to keep a close eye on yachts from their home. So far, they have not experienced the same issues as Wallilabou, making this an attractive option for us.

We pulled into the small bay and tied up both the bow and stern to separate mooring balls, which kept us from swinging around and pointed the bow into what little swell there was.  The water was crystal clear, so we went for a quick swim to cool off and found a small cave in the nearby cliff wall, which was good for snorkeling.  The customs office was only open from 5 pm to 6 pm, so we had some time to kill before heading ashore, which was quickly filled, as boat after boat of locals stopped by trying to sell us jewelry, fruit, bread, ice, fish, crafts – you name it.

Later that afternoon, we rowed to shore and met Allah, one of the employees of the restaurant.  He made the short walk with us over to Wallilabou Bay to show us where the customs office was located.  This was a beautiful bay and would have been an ideal place to moor Saviah, were it not for the reports of crime.  It was also the main location for filming the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.    A seaside pirate village was built here around the small hotel, restaurant and even the customs office in the bay.  While waiting for the customs officer to show up, we walked around the remains of the set and through some of the buildings.

Saviah moored in Keartons Bay and nearby Wallilabou Bay
After we met with customs, we hopped on a local minivan bus to the village of Barrouallie, about ten minutes north, where we completed our immigration paperwork at the local police station.  Allah was a huge help in guiding us there, as it would have been very difficult to find on our own.  By 6 pm, we were officially cleared into the country.

The moorings in Keartons Bay are free for dinner guests, so we decided to have dinner ashore that night.  It was a delicious creole meal with many courses, served on their backyard patio overlooking the bay.  We started with pumpkin and bacon soup followed by a salad, and then the main course of chicken and fish in creole sauce with rice, plantains, and peas.  As if we needed anything else, mango cheesecake was served for dessert.

That night, we talked to Orlando about doing a hike up to La Soufriere, the active volcano that is the country’s highest peak.  It has erupted several times in the last hundred years, most recently in 1979.  The mountain is located on the far north side of the island, and we would need transportation and a guide to do the hike, which Orlando agreed to coordinate.   

The next morning, we rowed back to shore early to meet Orlando, Allah, and Shema for the hike to the volcano.  The drive to the trailhead took about 30 minutes.  The roads wound up and down through the very rugged terrain and through areas with dense tropical rainforest.  As we neared the coast, many men were walking along the road with backpacks and carrying machetes.  Apparently, they make their living doing illegal marijuana farming on the hills of the mountain we were about to climb.  This is a big part of the local economy, and although it is technically illegal, many of the local people are involved and the police turn a blind eye to it. 

The hike started with a walk along the beach, accompanied by a dozen or so “farmers”, before turning inland and winding through huge lava tubes left from one of the previous eruptions.  From there, the overgrown trail wound about three miles through very dense vegetation.  Fortunately, Allah led the way with his machete, clearing a path for us.   Mango trees were everywhere, and we stopped several times to eat a few and fill our backpacks with more to take back with us.  Allah pointed out the many patches of marijuana plants growing on the hillside.  They were more like trees, and he said he used to climb them when he was a boy. 

After a few hours, we reached the exposed ridge for the last stretch to the top.  As soon as we did, the wind started to howl, and it began pouring rain.  We continued on and made the last 20 minutes to the top of the crater, completely drenched and shivering.  The rim sits at 4,048 feet of elevation and offers great views of St. Vincent and the Grenadine islands on a clear day.  Unfortunately, we could hardly see 50 feet in front of us through the dense clouds.  We huddled behind some shrubs on the rim for a little protection from the wind and had some sandwiches and hot tea.  Before starting the descent, there was a break between clouds allowing us a short glimpse into the crater, about 1,000 feet below.

hiking Mt. Soufriere
After the hike, we headed back to Saviah and topped off our water tanks using a very long hose that Allah brought out from shore.  The next morning, we untied our mooring lines and sailed south to the Grenadines, a chain of over 600 islands that stretch from St. Vincent in the north to Grenada in the south.  Most of these islands are tiny, some are privately owned, and only about a dozen of the larger ones are inhabited.  The northern two-thirds belong to St. Vincent, and the others belong to nearby Grenada.  There are about 16,000 inhabitants on all of the islands combined.

The most northern Grenadine, and one of the largest, is Bequia.  This was our first stop after making the 16 mile trip from St. Vincent that morning.  We sailed into Admiralty Bay on the west coast and picked up a mooring ball in front of Port Elizabeth, which is the only town on the island.  This is a charming seaside village where about half of the island’s 4,500 residents live.  It is a popular stop for yachts heading south, and the harbor was fairly packed with boats.  There is also a ferry service that brings locals and tourists over from other islands.  There is huge difference between St. Vincent and nearby Bequia, and it was hard to believe that they are part of the same country.  Like the rest of the Grenadines we visited, it is much more peaceful and laidback.

There are many restaurants and shops lining the shore, as well as street vendors and produce stands.  The bay has some really nice beaches, and the swimming was good right off the boat.  The plan was to stay for a night or two, but we stayed a bit longer to enjoy the tranquility, as well as the good protection from the strong trade winds that were blowing.  After five days in the bay, we stocked up on fruits and veggies at one of the produce stands and made the 25 mile sail south to the Tobago Cays. 

more Bequia
The Tobago Cays are a group of five small, uninhabited islands protected from the easterly swell by a big horseshoe shaped barrier reef.  The islands were under private ownership for several hundred years until 1999 when they were purchased by the state of St. Vincent and the Grenadines and turned into a marine park.  They are only accessible by boat, and you can anchor just about anywhere in the park where it is deep enough.  Park rangers come by to collect a fee of $4 per person per day, which we found to be well worth it. 

During the peak season, the park is usually very crowded with both cruising boats and charter boats that bring tourists over from nearby islands for a day of snorkeling.  During our visit at the end of the season, only a dozen or so boats were there at a time.  We saw quite a few turtles and the occasional ray when we were snorkeling, but were surprised at how few fish there were.  It seems that the human impact has taken its toll on the area. 

We still enjoyed our stay, appreciating the beautiful scenery, clear water and great swimming.  With no land mass to block the wind, the breeze kept us cool on the boat, and the reef broke the swell, making it nice and flat in the anchorage.  We also wandered around the uninhabited islands, which were pristine and had some nice beaches and hiking trails.  Vendors come over from neighboring islands, and would occasionally sell fresh bread and other food.  It would have been easy to linger here for months, but after a week, we were getting low on water and decided it was time to head out.

Tobago Cays
There are several islands within a few miles of the Tobago Cays, but we needed to keep moving south and only had time for one more stop in the country.  We chose Union Island because there was easy access to freshwater at one of the docks, and it is also a port of clearance. 

The island is approximately three miles long, a mile wide, and home to around 3,000 residents.  There are a couple of good anchorages on the island and the most popular one is in front of the town of Clifton.  After the short five mile sail from Tobago Cays, we tied up along the dock at the Anchorage Yacht Club to refill our water tanks.  The small anchorage in front of Clifton was crowded when we arrived, so we opted to go west a mile and anchor in the lee of Frigate Island. 

Quite a few years ago, a company decided to build a huge marina in the shallow waters between Frigate Island and Union Island, but after getting the main piers installed, the project was abandoned.  You can take a dinghy to Frigate Island and then walk on what remains of these abandoned docks that stretch all the way to the small fishing village of Ashton.  Unfortunately, the vegetation was quite dense making it hard to find the path, and the mosquitoes were really bad, so we gave up trying.  We headed back to Saviah and spent the night in the anchorage by ourselves, getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. The next day, to escape the mosquitoes, we decided to try the Clifton anchorage again. 

We found a small open spot in the crowded anchorage, but it was less than ideal.  Although it looks nice, there are only a few narrow strips where you can anchor between the numerous reefs and not room for many boats.   It wouldn’t take long to go aground if we dragged anchor, but the forecast called for light trade winds for the next couple days, so we decided it would work for a short stay. 

anchorage near Clifton
We rowed to shore and walked around the small town with its many colorful produce stands and brightly colored buildings.  The next day, we made the long hot walk up the northern side of the island, before returning to Clifton to do the short hike up to Fort Hill.  From the top, there were great views of nearby Grenadines and the much larger island of Grenada further to the south. 

Clifton on Union Island
After two days, we had seen everything of interest to us.  We cleared out of the country, and the next morning, we made the eight mile sail south to the island of Carriacou.