There’s a good reason why St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) was chosen as a prime shooting location for the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie a decade ago—it’s a destination untouched by mass tourism, where the castaway vibe of yore very much lives on, and at prices generally less (with key exceptions such as boldface-name magnets like Mustique) than neighboring destinations. This 32-island chain is the place for those true get-away-from-it-all types, located way down off the beaten path in the Caribbean’s Windward Islands (about an hour’s flight east from Barbados).
That said, SVG will be interesting to watch in the next several years because of one particular potential game-changer: the December 2014 inauguration, after six years of construction, of the $240 million Argyle International Airport on the main island’s eastern coast about 30 minutes from Kingstown. While right now SVG’s airlift is limited, poor in quality on LIAT (as even the local authorities freely admit), and available only through Barbados, this 9,000-ft. runway will be able to handle widebodies from Europe and North America without a problem, and the government is in talks with a number of international airlines. The minister of tourism, sports and culture, Cecil McKie, recently declared that the country hopes to triple its tourism arrivals by air (just under 78,000 in 2012) within two years, though local lodging capacity (now around 1,900 visitors at any one time) is certainly not going to triple.
According to Glen Beache, CEO of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority, “What this new access will allow us to do is not only raise our profile with the traveling public, but also allow us to work closely with the airlines, for example putting together packages with them and tour operators, which we have never been able to do before. That will help moderate prices. We will however continue to position ourselves as a uniquely unspoiled bit of the Caribbean.”
1. capital indulgence
Of the 32 islands, only eight are permanently inhabited. St. Vincent is the capital and largest of them—and boy, is it hilly. Capital city Kingstown is bustling and funky, dubbed “the city of arches” thanks to the arcades of its colonial-era stone buildings. A must-see is the St. Vincent Botanic Gardens, the oldest of its kind in the Americas (est. 1762). This 20-acre park has a variety of tropical flora including the original breadfruit tree brought in 1793 by Captain Bligh (yes, that Captain Bligh, he got around). It’s also well worth a drive to a hill just north of town to see 207-year-old Fort Charlotte, with sweeping views over Kingstown and up the coast.
It’s once you get out on the island, however, that St. Vincent’s true charms start unfolding. Wallilabou Bay, a 45-minute drive north of Kingstown, is the site of “Port Royal” in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The set is still there, with a little museum about the production, a bar, and a plank to walk—er, dock to dive off—should your clients so choose. Recommend clients visit Dark View Falls, quite a sight in the middle of the rainforest (one can get a close-up look by crossing a bamboo bridge), and the pool beneath is splendid for splashing around. Beaches here are a mix of white and volcanic black sand; top strands include Indian Bay and Villa beaches, not far from Kingstown (though they can get crowded on weekends).
Highlight: The pinnacle (literally) is of course La Soufriere, a 4,049-ft. volcano in the north of the island where the hike to the still-steaming crater is in itself a dramatic eco-experience, on a trail taking one through dense, exotic tropical forests.
2. yachtie hangout
We also spent some time on the second-largest island, Bequia, an hour from St. Vincent by ferry and with something of a following among international yachties. Just seven sq. miles and a population of just under 5,000, this also hilly bit of real estate is so sleepy it makes St. Vincent seem downright hectic (it does perk up quite a bit during the annual Easter Regatta, though). The attractions of the main town, Port Elizabeth, include the Belmont Walkway, a cement sidewalk along a stretch of Admiralty Bay passing an engaging string of bars and small properties including, most prominently, the Whaleboner, the Fig Tree, and the Frangipani Inn. The other main activity of interest is a wee spot of specialized shopping, for model boats from Mauvin’s and nearby Sargeant Brothers, or intricate scrimshaw knicknacks by Sam McDowell at the Bequia Bookshop. There’s also a little whaling museum on the road out to the airport (whaling was big here historically, and locals are still allowed to hunt four whales per year using only traditional methods), not to mention some glorious beaches such as Princess Margaret and Lower Bay strands south of Port Elizabeth.
Highlight: Quite charming is retired fisherman Orton King’s labor of love, the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary, a modest collection of pools under a roof that since 1995 has saved thousands of hawksbill marine turtles—it’s a unique and moving experience.
3. private oases
The handful of other Grenadines where folks go to get away from it all include the private island of Mustique, made a byword for exclusivity when Queen Elizabeth’s sister built an estate there and was followed by a parade of the rich and famous that continues to this day (Basil’s Bar and Cotton House resort are the marquis names here). There’s also Canouan, with the Canouan Resort and the Trump International Golf Club; tiny Mayreau, with only a guest house (though a villa development is on the way); the single-resort isle Petit St. Vincent; and Union Island, which thanks to its cragginess is dubbed the “Tahiti of the West Indies” and has some guesthouses.
Reachable by a short ferry hop from Union, there’s also the paradisiacal, 135-acre Palm Island, home to just a single eponymous resort, along with a handful of vacation homes. It’s an idyllic place, fringed on almost all sides by some of the yummiest Caribbean beaches we’ve ever lolled upon. Apart from activities such as snorkeling and Hobie Cat sailing, this island is just big (and flat) enough to make it great to explore with the complimentary bicycles provided, hopping off for a dip at a deserted strip of sand or a hike up a cactus trail. A touch of Anglo “exoticism” is lent by a weekly staff cricket match in which guests are invited to participate.
Highlight: Five-hour catamaran trip out for some snorkeling off the beach in Mayreau and over the reefs and lagoons between the five Tobago Cays; the latter in particular an absolutely incredible experience because of the chance to float in the crystalline waters mere feet away from large, majestic sea turtles.
• Young Island Resort, located on its own 13-acre island just 200 yards offshore and about 20 minutes from Kingstown (a little motor ferry crosses back and forth every few minutes, day and night). This classic resort has 29 mostly freestanding cottages (four categories) scattered across a lush hillside, with facilities at beach level including a lagoon-style pool; a good restaurant spread among a series of mini thatch-roofed pavilions; a bar area; and just off the beach itself, a floating bar you can wade out to during the day. A variety of non-motorized watersports equipment is included, and apart from some hilly hiking trails, there’s a Har-Tru tennis court uphill (lit for night play). The units themselves sport an appealingly old-fashioned island flavor, with wicker, tile floors, and vertical-louvered windows that do a dandy job of bringing the breezes in (but lack amenities such as TV). Depending on season and category, unit rates range from $472 to $1,222. Agent rates are $99 pp dbl.
• The larger, all-inclusive Buccament Bay Resort offers a more contemporary luxury feel and is located some 45 minutes up the coast from Kingstown. It consists of two pools and 100 1-, 2- and 4-bedroom villas, each with a plunge pool and the full panoply of amenities including flat-screen TV and air conditioning. Dining includes international, sushi, Indian, steakhouse, and beachside buffet, and there’s a bevy of activities on offer, from a well-equipped fitness center and spa to a kids’ club, tennis courts, diving, and evening entertainment. There are also onsite performing arts and sports programs that bring in some pretty big names (tennis champs Lee Childs and Pat Cash, to name just two). Rates range from $630 in low season for a 1-bedroom villa sleeping two to $2,482 in peak season for a 4-bedroom villa sleeping eight.
• The elegant, historic Grenadine House is ideal for clients who would like to be able to stroll around Kingstown. They might consider spending a day or two of their stay at the 18th century one-time residence of the islands’ British governor, whose 20 elegant, air-conditioned rooms have an appropriate colonial decor (as well as WiFi but no TV). There’s a pool, as well as a couple of bars and a fine dining restaurant with an exquisite international menu. There are five accommodation categories, with rates ranging from $150 to $230 per night, continental breakfast included. Agent commission is 10 to 15 percent depending on number of room nights. One- or 2-night complimentary stays are offered to agents, depending on availability, as well as onsite services such as spa treatments and meals.
• Bequia Beach Hotel is an 8-acre spread on the southern coast between Port Elizabeth and the airport. Its 59 rooms, suites and villas (seven categories of accommodations) are furnished in a nostalgic but updated Tommy Bahama-style decor, evoking a bygone Caribbean while yet very 21st century in their creature comforts (purposefully lacking only TV, to encourage unplugging—WiFi also works far better in the lounge off the reception area than in the units). There is a pair of exquisite dining options—one with a view from slightly up the hill, the other right at beachside—as well as a spa, gym and pool. Rates range from $250 to $900 per night including breakfast, depending on category and time of year; agent commissions run 15 to 20 percent, depending on how many units are booked per year.
• Palm Island Resort has 43 air-conditioned units (six categories) and facilities concentrated mostly along the beach at the northwest corner of the 135-acre island, with a pair of top-of-the-line villas on the opposite side (easily reachable by bike or golf cart). Units are well equipped, most with furnished terraces, but only a select few with TV and none with WiFi. Decor varies, but it mostly tends toward the rustic—woody, rattan, red-tile floors. There are two great open-air restaurants (which have recently started a big push to feature dishes featuring coconut from the ubiquitous local palms), a pool, tennis courts, a small spa and gym, and a lounge/library with satellite TV and WiFi. Rates range from $845 to $1,535 per night dbl, all-inclusive, and on stays of seven nights or longer includes inter-island transfers from Barbados. Agent commission is 15 percent.
Until Argyle International Airport enters service in late-2014, St. Vincent’s E.T. Joshua Airport (SVD) is served by LIAT and SVG Air primarily from Barbados but also from Antigua, Dominica, Grenada, St. Maarten, Saint Lucia and Trinidad. Onward connections are then available to the Grenadine islands of Bequia, Canouan, Mustique, and Union Island (SVG Air also flies from Barbados to islands in the Grenadines).
Bequia Beach Hotel: bequiabeach.com
Buccament Bay Resort: buccamentbay.com
Grenadine House: grenadinehouse.com
Palm Island Resort: palmislandresortgrenadines.com
St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority: discoversvg.com or discoversvg.com/index.php/en/travel-agents
Young Island Resort: youngisland.com