ST VINCENT and GRENADINE
I am a Caribbean tenderfoot.
I've been there a thousand times with Caribbean aristocracy like King Tubby, Prince Buster and Lord Short Shirt but I've never dipped my toe in the perfect waters or been caressed by the constant breezes. Now I've tasted nature Caribbean style at her luxury five-star best all I can tell you is GO. Now. Jump on the next Virgin flight to Barbados and take it from there.
I found St Vincent, off the track in the Windward Islands, with no major tourist resorts. Why? Black SandBut the Caribbean means perfect white sand beaches, and the necklace of small islands, the Grenadines, that run down from St Vincent are bedecked with them.
St Vincent's beaches themselves are black or grey or coffee-coloured. It's the volcano, La SoufriÀre, old Granny, that's to blame, still ruling the island from four thousand feet with a sulphurous and cindery fist. She last blew in 1979.
St Vincent looks like a children's fairytale island from the sea, hundreds of pointy conical hills covered in green, a battalion of little volcanoes from a time when the earth was bubbling all over with them. For US$100-120 any taxi in Kingstown will drive you up to the trailhead for Old Souffry, with refreshments and a trail guide to take you up to the crater.
It was a wet day. Souffry was inside her mantle of cloud. The drive along the dramatic Windward coast was raw and wild, with the Atlantic surf lashing at apocalyptic black sand beaches. They'd call it a lovely day in Galway. Riverbeds, normally dry, were now full of people with their arms up to their elbows in the torrents. We stopped. People ran at us holding plastic bags. Eva pushed her gap-toothed smile and a polythene bag of black stuff through the taxi window. "Nice. Chree chree. "
Close up, it was full of little wriggling things, like embryonic newts, some kind of Hell spawn. I backed off. Our taxi driver bought a twenty dollar bag. Chree chree are tiny baby fish that appear after the rains. They are a delicacy and are cooked whole in chree-chree cake, favoured round Christmas. Delicate sweet savoury fishcakes, we had some later.
Meantime we drove up through banana plantations, dripping with sweaty rain and dangling thick with fruit, to the rainforest trailhead. It was a wonderful monochromatic walk up through the steamy tropical forest. The path is easy and well kept. Cracks like pistol shots ring out through the rainforest as huge bamboo canebrakes sway in the wind and bamboo bark splits explosively from the stem.
Our guide was Erd, a local bad boy with a hip hop haircut and a neat bullet wound in his calf from paramilitary police who came round burning ganga bushes and busting the growers. Erd's two hundred and fifty plants had become a two thousand dollar fine.
We crossed the first wide lava run halfway up where mists and rainforest open, a big party spot. Then before leaving the tree line behind comes The Garden where the forest canopy opens out with bright volcanic flowers and butterflies. Out on the cindery top, Erd showed us Soufriere Grass that grows nowhere but here, is a surreal bright green and looks like a furry volcanic Bonsai christmas tree. E rd stuck a piece in his locks. Whether from the forbidden picking of the Souffry grass or out of sheer bloody mindedness, old Granny greeted us with stinging horizontal rain, a deluge so violent I had two inches of water in my boots in thirty seconds and my journey notes dissolved into a mush in my rucksack.
With her crater full of mist we couldn't clamber down the sides for the full brimstone. So we looked at the mist and saw nothing while our skin was pumiced by the harsh volcanic rain. Wringing my socks out later they were gritty and black from Souffry's cinders.
We whisked up the sunnier leeward side to the Baleine Falls in the north in a motorboat. The whole island, every volcanic cone, is covered with a dense green blanket. Deep valleys and steep gullies packed with banana plantations and coconut groves slip down to the water's edge.
Small fishing villages with no road access lie in bays along magical black and coffee coloured shores. Dark beaches lined with coconut palms sparkle mysteriously like black diamonds in the sunlight. By one of these obsidian strands Mrs Wangford learned how to snorkel.
Watching underwater, I shall take with me forever the image of her streaking down at forty five degrees through turquoise water to the coral stands with the princess parrot fish, dusky damsels, electric Blue Tangs and watchful moray eels.
Baleine Falls are stunning. A short walk into a cut in the basalt cliffs take us into a moss- and fern-lined bowl with sixty foot waterfalls cascading into a sapphire plunge pool of cool sweet water. Then back into the boat for some rum punch. We stopped into Wallilabou Bay for lunch, met some Rastas who rowed across to sell us whatever pilot whale teeth they had, and had some creole fish beans
and rice for US$9.
Inland just north of Kingstown is a valley of surreal beauty. With its rich volcanic soil the whole island is green and fertile, but in the Mesopotamia Valley nature is exuberant, bursting out everywhere, valley floor to vertiginous walls. Over the glistening banana trees and rustling coconut groves tower abrupt green velvet cliff faces. A volcano falling into itself created the sudden and surprising depth of this valley. Looks like a bright green tropical version of the cauldron subsidence in Glencoe. Even in the mist and rain its magic isn't dampened. Like Glencoe, this is a holy spot.
Toyota vans loaded down to their back axles with bananas creak into Kingstown. On Mondays the banana boat is in port. Suddenly the whole of the Banana Boat Song made sense and in a flash changed from pure cheese to a top work song.
"Day-oh, is a day-ay-ay-oh, daylight come and I wanna go home".
See, they're packing the banana boat through the night. Look, there's the tallyman.
"Tally me banana, daylight come and... "
I was off. And Harry Belafonte, acceptable face of black culture to 1957 British suburbia, was vindicated at last.
On a rock jutting out of the sea near Villa Beach is a large white cross Below it a local landowner who owned much of this developed shoreline, is buried standing up, they say, to better see the sunset. His other eye, however, is still unblinkingly fixed on his old shoreline property Two hundred yards offshore is Young Island, an exclusive and expensive resort which has uniquely white sand beaches unlike the rest of St Vincent They kindly put us in one of their beach huts with its back-to-nature no telephone-radio-TV philosophy and its own outdoor shower, jacuzzi and gazebo. Suited me, at night time watching the fireflies and listening to the astonishing tree frogs. These little critters, barely one inch across, can belt out a good tune all night long. Pound for pound they beat Pavarotti hands down.
Over dinner on Young Island the air was thick with phrases like "offshore banking" and "no question of money laundering". Wealthy people seemed to enjoy staying offshore. See how their offshore money feels. One night Sir James "Son" Mitchell came over and introduced himself. The only Prime Minister of St Vincent for sixteen years, he had just stepped down to give way to a younger man of his choice. When I enquired after his recent resignation, he leaned forward and said reassuringly "It's all right. I'm still First Minister. "
Hearing we were going to Bequia, he brought me some brochures for his own hotel there, the Frangipani. A hands on politician in a family-run country Recently the nice lady who runs Young Island married the master brewer who makes the ultra-strong Guinness in St Vincent. The brewer's name is of course Mr Porter.
I heard it first stepping into the Paradise Inn. Instead of reggae it was Patsy Cline wanting me to Pick Her Up on My Way Down. Turns out this is Cross Country Radio, the local St Vincent Country station. Thick West Indian accents introduce George Jones and Merle (H)'aggard. The station ident - 104. 3 - becomes "one-oh-far-pint-tree". Like in Africa and all the Caribbean, Country is popular in the Grenadines.
I shook out my breadfruit print Hawa'ian shirt for a pilgrimage to Kingstown's Botanic Gardens, the oldest in the Caribbean. A photo-opportunity awaited by the first breadfruit tree, grown from the original brought by Captain Bligh from Tahiti in 1793The gardens were beautiful but the breadfruit tree unremarkable. I still posed. The Cannonball Tree however had a forest of woody tendrils, like Medusa's serpentine locks, growing horizontally out of the trunk. Inside, cannonballs burst into the unlikeliest waxy pink flowers, explosions of colour burning out of the knotted mass of tendrils. Some wonderful trees scrape the sky here. The Peach Palm from Peru is impossibly slender and high, swaying and defying gravity, wind and any known law of nature. The Talipot Palm is huge and squat and slaps in the breeze like venetian blinds.
They like their car stickers big in St Vincent. Toyota vans with blacked out windows cruise through Kingstown with bandana'd bad boys hanging out the front. The vans are covered with ragamuffin slogans" Corney" had "Shocking Vibes" and was "Reddy Fuh Dem". "Explosive" had "Hush Mouth" and "Hot Off the Grill". Some were more religious like "Zion" with "Bitter Blood" Best was "Sly Dog" who advised us all to "Have Some Behaviour!".
The sailing in the Grenadines is the best in the world bar none Reliable north-easterly winds and beautiful islands with great anchorages all help. We sailed gloriously over to the next island Bequia ("Beck-way") with Johnny Olivierre. His is a big Bequia family of seafarers and whalers. Bequia's whaling tradition goes way back and they still take one whale a year. Johnny's uncle was Athneal Olivierre, the last harpoonist to kill a whale single handedly with a handheld harpoonA small whaling museum is run by cousin Harold. We saw some fine naïve paintings on wood and whalebone of Athneal in harpooning action - "Athneal Done Strike De Whale" or, when dragged underwater by a whale, Athneal cutting the rope pulling the boat and all the men into the deeps Good stuff. A true hero.
Bequia is a delight, rustic, hilly and green, laid back, with colourful houses and Rasta shacks on the golden beaches. A dream island, it is the main yachting haven in the Grenadines. Port Elizabeth has all you can need I like Lower Bay, a friendly down home neighbourhood with beautiful beaches. Rastas do nice juice, Theresa's is jumping and you get a good fish dinner at Keegan's. A place to Lively Up Yourself. This island has wonderful beaches, dramatic surf on the Atlantic side, calm lagoons on the Caribbean, with fine snorkeling and diving.
Harold Macmillan once rented a house on Bequia. He first thought "You've never had it so good" living there. He was right. I haven't.
©Hank Wangford 8th January 2001
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