Explore the Blissfully Quirky Grenadines

Conde Nast Traveler
Photographer: Nick Onken

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Photographer: Nick Onken

With roosters for alarm clocks, oddball characters right out of central casting, and rum punches so potent the ice won't float, the Grenadines are blissfully quirky and blessedly untouched by time.

The very first time I went to the West Indies, which must have been more than forty years ago, I flew in a small private plane that shook, rattled, and rolled its leisurely way on the seventy-five miles between Grenada and St. Vincent. Perhaps to amuse himself or to terrify me or quite possibly both, the pilot swooped down low—so low that people waved cheerily up at us from the decks of their yachts, giving me a closer view than I might have wished for of the tiny islands that lay carelessly scattered across the ocean below. "What," I shouted above the roar of the engine, "are they called?" "The Grenadines," he shouted back. Which was the entire extent of our conversation.

Some of the smaller uninhabited islands resembled oddly misshapen loaves of bread, others protruded from the sea like a giant's rotting molars; some reminded me of the elegant spires of submerged cathedrals, while others lay low like lurking crocodiles. Dotted about were sandy crescents covered in palm trees—cliché cartoon desert islands surrounded by reefs and limpid aquamarine water. Even the larger islands, most of which were no more than a couple of miles across—volcanic cones draped in dark-green velvet cloaks—looked scarcely big enough to be inhabited, but I could clearly see toy villages set high in the hills and toy boats bobbing in the harbors. I remember wondering what it could possibly be like to live your life on an isolated dot of land not much bigger than New York City's Central Park.

Over time, I found myself returning to Carriacou, the biggest of the Grenadines (an entirely relative concept in that it is no more than eight miles long by three miles wide), simply because my peripatetic father had acquired a plot of land beside a graveyard on the highest point of the island and had taken it into his head to build a tiny three-room house there. Whether through laziness or filial piety—I had, after all, traveled thousands of miles to see him—I was content to spend my precious vacation time there, but still in the back of my mind I always knew that one day I would find a boat to take me to those other islands which I'd first seen from the air so many years before.

Photographer: Nick Onken

Photographer: Nick Onken

And that day came late last year when some friends on Carriacou put me in touch with a man named Dave Goldhill, who lives in Windward, a windswept village on the east coast that has been known for its boatbuilders for longer than anybody can recall. All the boat people I knew in Windward—and I had known some of them for more than twenty years—had names like Maclawrence, Macfarlane, and Macdonald, descendants of adventurous or maybe just unfortunate shipwrecked Scotsmen whom fate had delivered to this desolate outpost two, three centuries before. Not only had they inherited their names and their by now somewhat diluted Celtic features, but most important of all, they had sustained themselves ever since by keeping alive their forebearers' supreme boatbuilding skills. Now, though, this ancient, close-knit seafaring community had apparently been joined by a New Yorker, for God's sake, who had settled in Windward, built two boats with just a little help from his new friends and neighbors, and now seemed willing and more than able to take me sailing in the Grenadines. (And it's worth noting, for those inclined to follow in my foot/sea steps, that Dave has also constructed four enchanting gingerbread cottages on his land which for reasons known only to himself he rents out for a ludicrously low price.)

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"Now here's the thing: There's no way you're going to have time to visit every single island, so let's look at the map and figure out the most interesting mix of places for you." It was dusk, and Dave and I were sitting on the terrace under a canopy of shocking-pink bougainvillea in front of his house at Bayaleau Point, with a huge crumpled map spread across the table, anchored at strategic points by hurricane lamps and tumblers of rum punch. (Not, I might add, the syrupy, adolescent, grenadine-infested toy drinks you get at every bar in the Caribbean but a lethal concoction composed of a Carriacou moonshine called Jack Iron—so evil that ice actually sinks instead of floating in it—diluted with fresh mango and soursop juice, plus a squeeze of lime and a dusting of nutmeg on top.) As I discovered talking to Dave, the most fascinating thing about the Grenadines—apart from their preternatural beauty—is that, small as they may be and close as they are to one another, each island has succeeded in holding on tight to its own distinct character. It's as if you are watching—and participating in—a completely different play each time you set foot on a new island.

As night fell and the frog and cricket symphony geared up for a stellar performance, we mapped out a plausible plan. Starting from our home base of Carriacou, we'd head out to Bequia (verdant and mountainous, with its restored eighteenth-century Old Fort guesthouse, where I'd stay), about forty miles to the north, then slowly meander back down south, stopping at Mustique (more a snobby gated community than a real place, full of English aristocratic vestiges of the late, not-so-great Princess Margaret, who'd once had a house there), skipping Petit St. Vincent (where if you have to ask the price for lodgings—$1,700 a night—it's probably best just to wave and sail on). Then we'd drop by Mayreau (population three hundred, with a single approximation of a village that nobody has ever bothered to name and one rather sketchy five-room hotel).

Like any serious captain, Dave needed a couple of days to get his boats in order—and explained that we'd be using the useful noisy motor one, the Mostly Harmless, for longer distances and the beautiful slow quiet sailing one, the New Moon, for shorter stretches. In the meantime, I was free to explore all my old haunts on Carriacou.

Perhaps the most seductive aspect of this island, at least for me, is its implacable refusal to ride the tsunami of tourism that has overwhelmed so many other places in the Caribbean. Walking down Main Street in Hillsborough, the capital, that first morning, just as the town was waking up, I realized how little had changed in forty years. Sure, there was a new hotel called the Green Roof Inn, owned by an enterprising Swedish couple, up on the hill behind me, and an even newer snappy beach bar, La Playa, that served organic (!) beef burgers with homemade papaya chutney from a little pink-and-green cabana overlooking one of the island's best beaches. And not far from the dock, I noticed a fancy deli with bottles of Veuve Clicquot (!!) in the window and a dazzling array of Italian salamis, pro- sciutto, olive oil, and freshly baked croissants and baguettes on sale inside. And yet, despite these chic and entirely welcome additions, I was relieved to see that the same old ramshackle rum shops that have long lined the main drag were open as usual for those of us in need of an early liquid pick-me-up and a roti doused in fiery hot sauce before facing the serious business of the day. Even more reassuring was the familiar sound of the rooster chorus—is there any point in bothering with a Caribbean island that is missing its rooster quotient? I've never thought so.

I learned long ago that it is impossible to pass Bill Paterson's shop—its dark, musty interior festooned with articles of clothing dangling from the ceiling, its shelves well stocked with a mysterious, murky drink called Sea Moss that locals mix with condensed milk and swear cures all manner of ills—without dropping by his terrace round the back, overlooking the harbor, where he holds court at his own particular version of a Carriacou tertulia. And the moment I sat down at his table, after he'd handed me a bottle of Hairoun beer, he inquired affectionately about my dad. "He not dead yet?" No, I assured him, despite being ninety-six, he was most certainly not dead yet. Then after we were joined by a couple of other regulars, the conversation turned to crime, something the island seems blissfully untainted by. "You see," Bill explained, smiling at his gentle metaphor. "Carriacou, she is still in her virginity."

Which clearly wasn't the case on Grenada, a mere twenty miles away. On my way out, I stepped into Bill's store, where I overheard two ladies discussing the island's apparently alarming crime rate.

Dave had warned me that we would have to make a very early start the next morning, and like a true New Yorker, he wasn't kidding. It was still dark when I was awakened by my favorite rooster alarm clock, and I quickly scrambled down the hill from my cottage to the beach and joined Dave and his crew—his daughter Ea, and Junior and Daine—to help load the boat. Luckily I was traveling light, since the boat was filled with lurching jerry cans of gasoline plus an enormous cooler containing plenty of water, some sandwiches, and a few welcome bottles of Captain Dave's patent Jack Iron rum punch. What more could any sailor possibly desire?

Photographer: Nick Onken

Photographer: Nick Onken

The rosy-fingered dawn (if it's Homer, it can't be a cliché, right?) was just breaking when we headed out into the famous wine-dark sea and the start of our odyssey (forgive me). As the sun came up, our little boat bounced past a seemingly endless number of mostly uninhabited islands, each with its own often inexplicable name. Large seemed to betray a sad lack of imagination, as did Ronde, but what was one to make of Mopion, Isle à Quatre, Bettowia, Baliceaux, or Savan? I could understand that Kick'em Jenny must have a bad habit of kicking passing boats about and that maybe some myopic person had thought that Frigate resembled a ship—not that I could see it.

Round about what may well have been lunchtime—who knew since I'd left my watch behind in New York as a gesture of defiant escapism—we dropped anchor near a group of rocks called the Pillories (a sad reminder of these islands' brutal slave history) and were rewarded with not just a swim, sandwiches, and a reviving swig of rum punch but the dazzling sight of Bequia's mountainous volcanic green mass rising straight up out of the deep-blue sea.

"Okay. We'll be back to pick you up in a couple of days—10 a.m. on Tuesday, right here. Have fun." Dave had cruised into Admiralty Bay, deposited me by the main dock in Port Elizabeth, Bequia's principal town, and was now headed back out to sea so they could be sure to reach Carriacou before nightfall.

Unlike Hillsborough, with its slightly ragged appeal, Port Elizabeth has a much sleeker aspect, with a handful of yachts in the harbor and the kind of artful bars and restaurants—I spotted one called L'Auberge des Grenadines—designed to appeal to tourists who might not appreciate the peculiar charms of Bill Paterson's salon or Hillsborough's ubiquitous, and sometimes raucous, rum shops. And yet, the island's tiny size (seven square miles) and the relative difficulty of getting there have kept it, like Carriacou, in its prelapsarian virginal state. Or at least that's what my cabdriver, Charles, seemed to imply when he referred to nearby St. Vincent, which administers Bequia among other Grenadine islands, as "the big mother country. We all just her little children, you see." As we climbed up the vertiginous road behind Port Elizabeth and farther and farther into the dense wooded hills, thick with breadfruit, frangipani, banana trees, and yes, plenty of roosters, he explained that the Old Fort, where I would be staying, is in Mount Pleasant, which is "very far away" and also where "the colored people live." I was totally confused: How anything on such a tiny island could be "very far away" was puzzling enough, but even harder to figure out was what a black person meant by "colored."

But when I asked him, I felt like a total idiot. It was so obvious: "Colored" is of course the opposite of oneself. "Don't worry, we nearly there," Charles assured me. And right on cue, the moment we arrived at the top of Mount Pleasant, with its sweeping views of the other Grenadines stretching far into the distance, as if through a theatrical scrim, I noticed that the people we passed on the side of the road were not of African descent. Nor were they well-off Europeans or Americans who had been lucky enough to have acquired holiday villas on this paradisiacal island. Far from it. Charles stopped the car and introduced me to a man named Coy Simmons, who, with his blue eyes, blond hair, and sun-battered face, could have passed for one of my Waspy Connecticut uncles, apart from the fact that he was dressed in a well-worn T-shirt and slightly threadbare shorts.

I asked Coy to tell me his story. In a thick West Indian accent, he said he was "of Scottish breed" and that his ancestors had arrived on Bequia via Barbados, as indentured servants "many hundreds of years ago," and that the entire "colored" community were all related to one another, and quite evidently unrelated to anybody else on the island. "No," Charles explained, "we always kept separate. They never come down to the sea, or build boats or be sailors, like the rest." Self-sufficient, independent, they had subsisted over the centuries by growing their own food, keeping a few goats and chickens—defiantly determined never to venture beyond their own isolated little enclave...and bloodline.

You do have to wonder what possessed a perfectly sane—or possibly not—German teacher to sail away from his home, his family, and his career and settle in the ruins of an eighteenth-century plantation in the middle of the jungle on a tiny Caribbean island he'd never heard of. But that's precisely what Otmar Schaedle did in 1978. And now, thirty-five years later, here I was at the Old Fort, sitting with Otmar's thirty-three-year-old son, Quirin—who speaks, like the true islander he is, with a wonderful mishmash of an accent that is mostly West Indian but with barely discernible touches of German and "real" English. "I guess my father is an adventurer and a romantic who must have felt constrained in Germany," he suggested. I guess so. After he showed me around the property's lush grounds—covered in traveler's palms, breadfruit, tamarind, banana, and mango trees, surrounding one of the most beautiful swimming pools in the world, which was happily slip-sliding its watery way over the edge—it was almost impossible to imagine what all this could have looked like when his parents first set foot here.

The ruins of the plantation house—or was it really an old fort?—have been transformed, using local stone and tropical wood, into the kind of hotel you never want to leave. As it so happened, I was the only guest, which gave me the added advantage of having Quirin as my tour guide. Spending a day with a true local gives you the delusion that you're really not a tourist at all, and so when it came time for lunch, instead of going to one of the fancy French joints in town, I asked him to take me someplace, anyplace, on the sea where his friends liked to hang out. "Well, I guess that would have to be Step Down in Paget Farm," he said.

As its wonderfully literal name suggests, the distinguishing feature of Step Down is the rickety steps that lead down from the street to a small terrace, furnished with a couple of tables, some plastic chairs, and a breathtaking view of the sea. Once the owner, known as Toko, arrived with two shots of rum, a couple of cans of Coke, and a large bottle of hot sauce and told us with a huge smile that we'd be having conch fritters and some unspecified fish, I knew we had come to the right place. No menus, no choice, and we could see the freshly caught fish in question being deboned, beheaded, and descaled by a gentleman named Boneless ("Because he tall and thin," Toko explained), who was sitting on some rocks nearby. It turned out to be one of the best meals of my entire journey.

If you happen to like your islands private, totally secure, devoid of any surprises (pleasant or otherwise), with nature bullied into subservient but still beautiful shape, sparsely populated by elegant and some quite famous inhabitants who rarely emerge from their secluded private villas, then Mustique is the place for you. But I could tell from the moment I arrived on the dock with Dave and Ea that it was most certainly not the island for them. And I somehow doubted it was my kind of place either. But never one to rush to judgment, I suggested we just settle into Basil's Bar on the harbor and have lunch before I went on an exploration of this strange neutered Caribbean country club.

Photographer: Nick Onken

Photographer: Nick Onken

Basil's Bar became famous in the seventies as the place where Princess Margaret liked to hang out when she felt in need of a cocktail or five and in the mood to mix with "real" people. The real people in question would have been "locals" like Colin Tennant, Lord Glenconner, who had given her a piece of choice property on the island as a wedding present, and various other members of that peculiar tribe known as the English aristocracy. The proprietor, Basil, a man of inordinate charm, with whom a young widow of the aristo tribe had run off, was regarded as an honorary "white" man because he knew how best to entertain the increasingly mercurial and difficult princess. (Shovel her full of flattery, washed down with extra-strong drinks and endless cigarettes.)

After lunch, I left Dave and Ea schmoozing with some local fishermen who are allowed to occupy a kind of mini-Soweto enclave down by the harbor, where they are welcome to sell their fish under restrictive rules laid down by the Mustique Company Ltd., which has owned the place since 1976. My cabdriver, Joel John, told me that there are four policemen from St. Vincent on the island, but that it is the company's thirty full-time security guards who are really in charge and patrol Mustique day and night to make sure that this particular slice of paradise remains just that: totally crime- and drug-free. Which must be reassuring to its zillionaire residents, but for this casual visitor the island has a curiously sterile and faintly depressing atmosphere. And I have to confess that, after my tour, I couldn't wait to get back on our little sailboat and rejoin the messy, noisy, dirty, complicated real world.

"Hey, I'm black boy, you want rum at my bar? You want a taxi? You want both?" Having just waded ashore on Saltwhistle Bay in Mayreau, my bag balanced on my head like something out of The African Queen, and waved Dave good-bye, I could have used a shot of Mount Gay, but it was only eleven in the morning, and good sense prevailed. So I hopped into Black Boy's ramshackle vehicle, and we roared away up the hill toward the only village on the island. And what might its name be? I inquired politely. "Oh, it don't have no name," Black Boy informed me cheerfully, steering with one hand as he waved around a nice plump joint with the other, his foot pressed down hard on the accelerator. "Hey, you want air freshener?" Before I could answer, he seized an aerosol can—which actually turned out to be furniture polish—and started spraying it around. A few minutes later, enveloped in a cloud of Eau de Pledge, somewhat dazed, I was deposited at the entrance to Dennis's Hideaway, one of only two hotels on the island.

With a population of three hundred, one road, a nameless village, a couple of tiny churches, a graveyard with thirty-seven "inhabitants," a total of six cars, and seven bars, Mayreau is the smallest (just one and a half square miles) and poorest of the inhabited Grenadine islands. Electricity arrived only in 2002, and until recently many of the houses were constructed of wattle and daub. Having just arrived from Mustique, I felt as though I had landed on another planet. But that was before I checked into Dennis Forde's oasis of serenity and charm. Still reeking of Pledge, I opened the gate and entered what felt like a secret tropical garden full of flowering bushes, a few friendly chickens, a small swimming pool, and a shady terrace where the tables were already set for lunch. Dressed entirely in white linen, Dennis greeted me, smiling, and said, "I'm just guessing, but I think what you need right now is a cool glass of rosé from Provence." How did he know?

Photographer: Nick Onken

Photographer: Nick Onken

"I happen to have some tuna that I got from a fisherman this morning, so maybe you'd like sashimi to start?" Oh yes I would. And I'd also like to hear how he had created such an improbable place on such an improbable island. As we sat down together, he told me his story. One of fourteen children, he had been born in Mayreau, but after his father died when Dennis was twelve, he was forced to go to work and joined a shrimp boat as a deckhand. By the time he was nineteen, he'd become captain of another ship and so began his career at sea. Eventually he ended up in England, where he married and started his own business, but he never forgot Mayreau. By the eighties, he had decided to come home, determined to transform what was then the village dump, known as Waterloo, into a tiny four-room guesthouse and bar.

Later that night, as I lolled in a hammock, listening to the soft chatter of the people on the terrace below, blissfully appreciative of the total absence of any traffic sounds (imagine an island with only six cars), I thought back to that first plane journey I had taken forty years before. Flying high above these islands, each with its own distinctive character and appearance, I'd had no inkling of the extraordinary variety of lives and adventures and communities so far below me. I recalled something I had once read in Columbus's diary, where he'd noted—gazing out from the deck of the Santa Maria at what we now know as Cuba—that he had just seen "the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen." He may have witnessed sublime beauty, but then so had I.

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