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How I Spent My Winter Vacation

A trip into the wilds of St. Vincent and the Grenadines will transport you back to your sleepaway camp days – minus the pottery class and drama club.

Slipping my breakfast order into a bamboo mailbox outside my bungalow, I hoist the yellow flag above it into the air and follow the sound of Gregory Peck’s voice as it floats up from the beach. Down at the shore, Monday movie night is in full swing, complete with buttery bowls of popcorn, canvas director’s chairs and whispering waiters delivering drink orders. Roman Holiday plays out on a projector screen that luffs in the breeze like a sail. A group of boaters who have anchored in the cove for the evening are giving a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

Petit St. VincentWhat's up dock? Watching the sunrise over the water on PSV.

Having just arrived on the shores of Petit St. Vincent, a 115-acre privately owned island among the cluster of 32 that make up St. Vincent and the Grenadines, I’m still learning the ropes – the idiosyncrasies that make the resort feel as if little has changed since it opened in 1968. The 22 bungalows, hewn from volcanic stone and purpleheart hardwood, and perched at different lookouts, have no phones or wireless, so the “tree mail” and flags are a way of communicating with the staff (red means do not disturb; yellow means knock). The rooms are, however, equipped with a jar of homemade chocolate chip cookies and the property is peppered with billboards showing guests how to keep fit outdoors, with diagrams titled “Enjoy every move you make” and instructions on how to use the equipment. If it weren’t for the frothy piña coladas and fancy bathrobes, PSV, as the island is known locally, could be a souped-up summer camp for grown-ups.

General manager Matt Semark, looking like a fresh-faced Scout troop leader himself, in crisply ironed shirt and neatly side-swept hair, greets me. He enthusiastically describes his attempts to set up a garden on the island. (Lesson learned: Male papaya trees don’t produce fruit.) He and his wife, Anie, ever the can-doers, also put in a kitchen garden near the tennis courts that provides almost all the produce for the resort’s two restaurants.

The Stars, H.A. ReyH.A. Rey's stellar book contains a guide to the contellations and details about the movement of objects we see in the sky.

Walking back to my bungalow that night, I turn off my flashlight and stare up at the sky. I feel as if the black bowl overhead has turned me upside down, like the Little Prince perched on his spinning asteroid. The boat masts, strung with lights and bobbing in the water, appear as signal towers winking at faraway galaxies. A copy of The Stars, a 1950s illustrated book on constellations by Curious George author H.A. Rey, has been left on my bedside table.

A visit to St. Vincent and the Grenadines would not be complete without a field trip to St. Vincent, the largest and most northern island along the Grenadine chain, with its two different personalities: the leeward’s sandy beaches and calm bays versus the dramatic, volcanic cliffs on the windward side. Zigzagging along the road, my cab driver quickly turns the steering wheel between three and nine o’clock, gingerly beeping the horn before entering a blind corner. “The only straight piece of land here is the airstrip,” he offers with a grin, while I keep my eyes on a fast-approaching sharp turn. “Don’t worry – it’s an adventure.”

For Charlotte, KingstownThe view from Fort Charlotte overlooking Kingstown and the harbour.

He could be talking about the whole island. With its thickly wooded forests and rich soil, St. Vincent gives you the feeling of being let loose in nature. At its southern end is the Mesopotamia Valley, where three rivers converge, feeding the surrounding farmland. In the north sits La Soufrière, an active volcano. I first experienced the island’s dramatic scenery as a five-year-old on vacation with my mom, when I finally cast off my arm floaties and learned to swim. If PSV took me back to my summer camp days, the largely untouched landscape of its big brother, St. Vincent, was about to sharpen my wilderness skills.

My guide, Marlon Joseph, an avid hiker with an easy smile, meets me in Kingstown, the capital, to map out a plan: We’ll head to the leeward side, then make our way to the windward coast. Spiralling up into the mountains – some of which loom almost 500 metres above sea level – the near-vertical cliffside is covered in palm trees, bamboo, giant elephant ear plants and emerald grasses. But on the eastern shore, the topography transforms anew: beaches black with volcanic rock and sandstone bluffs carved out by the wind and rain.

Marlon JosephLiving on the edge: Marlon Joseph takes a load off after reaching the volcano's summit.

The turnoff for the hike up La Soufrière – the highest peak – leads us along a narrow, rocky road, past trees with sun-bleached tips blowing shaggily in the wind, like surfers standing watch. A sign marking the trailhead entrance gives the dates of all the past eruptions, but I follow Marlon’s lead and duck into the bush without looking back. Under the green tent of trees, we pass begonias and Chinese lanterns, fuchsia flowers with yellow “flame” tongues. “I think of time travel when I hike here,” Joseph says, hopping between gnarled roots in a pair of flimsy Toms. And I agree: The jungle is so pristine, I feel like we’re the first to discover it.

As the vegetation thins out, the path sinks into the ground, forming a trench of cool earth. Thick grasses claw at our ankles and calves until we emerge suddenly on a steep incline of loose black stones. “Some people crawl up this last part,” my guide tells me. Maybe that’s their way of respectfully approaching the sleeping giant, I offer, eyeing the remaining uphill stretch. When we finally reach the last crest, I peer deep into the immense crater lake where a small mountain sits like a floating island in a giant dessert bowl. Joseph points to a long rope ladder leading down into the valley, not far from where the ground is shooting out puffs of sulphur steam. My five-year-old self would have scampered down and tried to plant a flag on that volcanic moonscape in a second.

Tobago CaysIt's smooth sailing on the way to the Tobago Cays aboard Beauty.

On my last day in PSV, I’m armed with a towel, thick slather of sunscreen, snorkel and flippers as I head to the dock, where Beauty awaits. Our lanky and laid-back skipper, Jeff, built the traditional Windward Isle sloop himself, just across the water in Petit Martinique. She rolls over the big swells with such ease that most of us on board doze off in the bow. But we perk up as soon as the boat pulls into the Tobago Cays, a marine reserve 90 minutes north. When Jeff mentions this is prime sea turtle-spotting territory, I sit up straight. (Turtles were my spirit animals growing up, and I have the school essays, figurine collection and carefully painted papier mâché models to prove it.) Just off starboard, we spy a hawksbill sipping the air before diving back down. I slip on my flippers and mask and join him. Underwater, the turtles leisurely graze on sea grass. I float over what looks like the granddaddy of them all, his giant shell a patchwork of amber, ivory and brown. The ultimate camper, I think, his sturdy tent right on his back.

Ferdie's FootstepsLunch at Ferdie's Footsteps.

Travel Essentials

The 18th-century former home of a British diplomat, Grenadine House retains an Old World charm (vintage botany prints, wicker furniture, carved-wood palm-frond fans) with a bit of quirk thrown in (hello, life-size stuffed parrot hanging in the reception). The two converge at the West Indies Bar, where patrons sip tropical fruit cocktails on the terrace of this traditional English-pub setting overlooking the Kingstown Harbour.

01 The best place to spy a St. Vincent Parrot (the national bird’s plumage is colourful enough to upstage a peacock) is along the Vermont Nature Trail. Go early, when they’re munching on bananas for breakfast. 

02 After hiking La Soufrière, make tracks to Ferdie’s Footsteps, a short drive away in Georgetown. The restaurant fills up quickly at lunchtime, so call ahead for an iced ginger beer juice spiked with cloves. 784-458-6433

03 For conch roti, callaloo soup with dumplings and the local Sunset rum mixed with fresh coconut water, Aggie’s Restaurant and Bar is your go-to. 784-456-2110

04 Dating back to 1765, the Botanical Gardens comprise an all-star collection of exotic plants (royal palms, frangipani, ylang-ylang and purple jacaranda). Tour guide “Professor” Sinclair offers an entertaining walk through its history. 

05 Take a dramatic dip at Owia Salt Pond



Getting There

Air Canada offers daily non-stop service to Barbados from Toronto as well as two weekly flights from Montreal starting December 21. From Barbados, connections to St. Vincent and the Grenadines are available with local carriers.

Comments… or add another

Gail Allan

Sunday, December 22nd 2013 23:47
Thank you for such a great article on SVG, this has help me to share with my friends the diversity of what my homeland has to offer!
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