A syrupy cruise
Whole sections of mountains wrapped up in forest blur past the taxi window. Waterfalls and parrots clad in clown costumes take things easy at the heart of this turmoil of old, dozing volcanoes. The island, tentatively explored by Columbus in 1498, was constantly the subject of bitter, bloody disputes between England and France over the ensuing centuries. France ended up releasing its grip. Today, only a few familiar village names survive along the roads, like so many rags flapping in the wind heavy with moisture. On the North-West side of the island for example, there’s a delicious hamlet called “Petit bordel” (Little shambles). Ozzi, the Rasta driver, tosses his 30-year old hair piled up under his yellow and green hat as he asks what would have become of the country if it had remained French. “Doubtless something reminiscent of Martinique or Guadeloupe, with lots of buildings and motorways. We prefer our independence all the same, even though I still don’t understand way we can’t seem to manage to create a Caribbean Union. I have the sense that the only thing which brings the Caribbean together is the cricket!” The cricket and perhaps one of the most beautiful seas in the world…
A sea horse as long as your forearm
In the area surrounding Young Island, not far from the peaceful capital Kingstown, the sight of a ﬂotilla of yachts in a bay where the wind casts barely a ripple gives you a real boost. Cap’n Browne, the spitting-image of Eddy Murphy, is the skipper of the 46-feet catamaran Allicat. “This is yachting heaven, man! I’ve come back from the US. You can have everything there, drive a luxury car and see the latest films at the cinema. They don’t have that though!” he says dismissively as he looks out at the sea bulging like a tortoise in the sunshine. “Here though, you have to learn to make do with a single brand of shampoo. It’s too bad for you if you have dandruff, man!” Yachties with irritated scalps will take the necessary precautions. Aside from this minor inconvenience, the region with its steady North-Easterly tradewinds has everything you need for easy sailing along the archipelago, and it is very safe as you can be within sight of land constantly. Before lapping up the drops of this West Indian syrup though, a few dives are called for to familiarise yourself with the local specialities. Indeed it’s here, in these little protected coves to the South of Saint Vincent that some of the creatures which delight macro photographers far and wide can be found wiggling about. At the foot of a rock covered in sponges and soft corals, a sea horse as long as your forearm, is the star of the seagrass bed. Razorfish emerge stunned from the sandy bottom before diving back into it as easily as they would if it were clear water. There are also the ridiculously named jawfish, which are extraordinary fish that go to the entrance of their territory to welcome the diver. The closest you can get to them is around 1 metre, beyond that the animal rarely appreciates the overfamiliarity and instead slinks back into its chambers. You often find two such species in Saint Vincent: the banded jawfish (Opistognathus macrognathus) are a little brownish in colour and kind of grouchy, but are basically good natured at heart with some very beautiful protruding eyes with green glints. Then there is the buck, the opistognathus with the golden head (Opistognathus aurifons), a pure explosion of colours and elegance, which wiggles about in front of the objective with the indecency of a starlet in Cannes. The majority of the 44 sites in Saint Vincent also boast the usual Caribbean fry, fricassees of fairly small, original fish such as pipefish, sea horses, frogfish and other batfish, accompanied by a salad of fine gorgonia, the whole thing served up in a clear water. This is the case year round, except around the month of April perhaps, when the waters of the Orinoco, take it upon themselves to venture up this far instead of wisely sticking to the coast of Venezuela. This sudden supply of mineral nutriments then leads to an algal efﬂorescence, which fertilises the reef life but seriously restricts visibility for a few days.
Model boats, a tradition
Among the 600 islands and islets, which make up the elegant Grenadines string, Bequia (pronounced Bekoueh) is the pearl which floats the furthest north. It was here, soon to be three centuries ago, that the men of the French slave ship La Concorde inadvertently crossed tacks with the famous Blackbeard. A few shots from old gun later, they abandoned the ship to the audacious pirate and were disembarked at Bequia. It could have been worse. On the island today you can come across women who swivel their hips like pepper mills. And then there are the men too, with clear eyes and faces the colour of baked bread, descendants of the sailors who scattered their bones across all the lands of the West Indies Arc. Curtis Ollivierre, the 5th generation on the island of Bequia, hails from a tribe of French and Scottish seamen and, as is common among those who live in windy countries, driftwood is part of his life. In smoky English which would have had a big impact, he tells how his cousin Athneal hunted whale with a harpoon. It’s a tradition which harks back to the times when the American schooners were recruiting islanders to sail risk free in these waters, despite their abundance of sandbanks, coral reefs, shallows and other treacherous perils. Even though Bequia still has its annual quota of four humpback whales, today the trade in wooden model boats appears to be a rather more lucrative business. Lawson Sargeant, one of the first to have the idea of recycling the knowledge of the old carpenters through making scale models, began his craft in 1966 with the creation of coconut yachts. “At the time, we cut up our shirts to make the sails! Then our technique considerably developed and we switched to using wood from the gum tree.” 20 years and a few wood shavings later, he presented the Queen of England, who was visiting the island, with a splendid replica of Britannia. It appears that her gracious Majesty still has the little masterpiece at Buckingham Palace. Offshore, sails as white as freshly grated coconut dance on a sea of intense blue, whilst the verdant zones are diluted into the austral horizon. It’s hard to resist the call of the South.
If you disembark in Mustique you’d better have your Gold card handy as it’s an island for the rich and famous. Canouan is the same as it has been rented for 99 years to the Raffles Resort chain, where the luxury hotel complex with its golf course and casino, is managed by Donald Trump. In any case, the diving here isn’t exciting. You’d do better to leave these good people to themselves and slip along to Tobago Cays, a whole string of islets reminiscent of Eden. We arrive there as the sun is pouring into an inky sea without a sound. The catamaran ghosts along past the boats already at anchor, restrained by the nose like horses tired out by their long race across the waves. Aboard are the yachties and cocktail cruisers, happy yachtsmen who, a glass in the hand, chat about the itinerary for the following day: romantic couples, that’s how they seem in the dark at least, toast to their future happiness; captains sporting caps make the end of their cigarette glow red in the darkness, intellectual lovers of the offshore read some big novel between two gulps of Martini… In the early hours, the sea, thus far generous in blues, has suddenly turned to emerald. An omnipresent emerald, which flirts with the tongues of white sand from the islet of Baradel, slips under the Jamesby palm trees, lent over at 45° as they should be, and challenges the green of Petit Rameau. Horseshoe reef, a showcase for such coral shapes, is without doubt one of the most beautiful anchorages in the world. On the outside, on the fringing reef, the ocean’s fury is snuffed out in a great roar of thunder with waves of jade and silver. Beneath the surface, this great turbulence gives way to a powerful current, silent as a river. You have to let yourself drift along the barrier of coralline under the curious gaze of the barracuda. The shoals of brown and blue chromis disperse as the divers approach, as if blown away by a mysterious explosion. Rivers of fusilier fish pass by without a sound and sometimes you see the slender silhouette of a blacknose shark outlined against the sunlight. It’s sometimes hard to make the choice between the air and the water. Indeed, in the Grenadines, it’s a daily dilemma.
The country forms part of the Leeward Islands to the South-East of the Caribbean Sea and is situated 34km to the South of Saint Lucia to the North of Grenada. It comprises the island of Saint Vincent (which covers 344km2 of the country’s 389km2) and the northern islands of the Grenadines archipelago, which feature around thirty little islands, less than a dozen of which are inhabited.
You can sail and dive here all year round even though it’s better to avoid the seasons of Christmas and Easter, periods which are very busy and hence more expensive. There are a few storms at the end of the day from July to November. The sea is particularly calm from April to November.
With coral reefs in good condition and clear, warm water, dives in Saint-Vincent-and-the-Grenadines have a lot of plusses. However, be careful as the current can be strong. Some drift dives are reserved for level 2 divers. Saint-Vincent-and-the-Grenadines boasts around 45 dive sites. Don’t overlook the large island of Saint Vincent, which has some great surprises in store as regards wrecks, especially in the port of Kingstown and in the macro domain (sea horses, frogfish...). The Indigo Dive Centre has teamed up with TMM Yacht Charters for diving. All the skippers are trained in diving and are familiar with the sites. Tank hire: around 30 ¤. There is the possibility of getting air in Bequoa, Union and Moustique, at around 7 ¤. The centre also offers personalised instructor services for 85¤ a day. +784-493-9494, www.indigodive.com
For further information :
Saint-Vincent-and-the-Grenadines tourist office : +784-456-6222, www.discoversvg.com
Voyage aux Caraibes (Travel to the Caribbean)
Yacht charter, with or without crew, and the arrangement of flights and transfers :