The Caribbean isn’t just for minor royals and hedge-fund hoorays. A DIY island-hopping adventure with local guides means great wildlife and an unaffected vibe. A report by Kevin Rushby for London’s Guardian.
Brent leaned back and pointed into the tree. “Snake’s up there, fo’ sure. See?” I looked but couldn’t see anything. Brent chuckled and fetching a long stick, gently poked into the leaves. Then I saw it: a boa constrictor, four feet long, moving swiftly away. “He’s a squeezer,” said Brent, “I’m always tellin’ people not to kill he. No danger at all. No venomous snake on the island.”
A hummingbird motored past and began bathing in raindrops on a banana leaf. We’d had a brief downpour and now the cloud, with its torn gauzy skirt, was heading off towards St Vincent, nine miles away across an immaculate blue sea. In the opposite direction, southwards, was a spread of islands, including Mustique. Most people have heard of Mustique but not the other islands I could see: Isle A Quatre, Baliceaux, Battowia, Canouan, Union and the one I was standing upon, Bequia (pronounced Bek-way). All are part of St Vincent and the Grenadines, a sovereign state comprising 32 islands in the Caribbean Sea, nine of them inhabited.
The only reason I was here, I reflected, grinning to myself, was because of a chance conversation with a neighbour back home. Bec Horner had sung the island’s praises so highly that I decided to come. I was glad I had.
“See that tall peaked island?” asked Brent, pointing, “that’s Canouan. Behind is Tobago Cays and Mayreau – good place for swimming with turtles.”
We moved to the top of the hill, Bequia’s highest point at 881 feet. Brent showed me his “helicopter armchair”, a conveniently shaped red lump of rock that held a commanding view all the way down the jungled slopes to the natural harbour of Port Elizabeth. Bequia is only seven square miles in area but steep forested hills and a twisting coastline make it seem larger. With a scattering of white sandy beaches, a few hotels and homestays, one ATM, no traffic lights and a population of around 5,000, Bequia is a delightful backwater.
By day three of my visit, and my walk with Brent, I was being hailed by new acquaintances: “Kevin – yeah man!” No wonder the place has a reputation for easygoing amiability. I was visiting during the off-season (mid-April to mid-December), too: the bay only contained about a dozen yachts, plus several local fishing boats.
Back in England, the trip had not appeared so simple. The devastating hurricane season had left me wondering if I would ever make it out for my island-hopping adventure. Then there were stories about the Caribbean being overrun by hedge fund managers in Bermuda shorts. But the hurricanes had not struck the southern Caribbean (they rarely do), and the hedge fund hoorays were clearly confined to Mustique.
My plan was to fly to St Vincent, take the ferry to Bequia, then fishing boats to small islands and a yacht excursion to Mayreau and Tobago Cays. If I had time, there was the promise of other ferries and boats, onward to Carriacou, Grenada, then Trinidad and South America. I liked that sense of possibility: the opportunity to extend, perhaps indefinitely.
For now, the plan was to make contact with a Caribbean that is the antithesis of the Mustique experience. In this, Brent – known locally as Bushman – was something of a godsend. I’d found him through a tip from Bec but the only advertising for his bush walks appeared to be a tatty flyer on a bar wall in Port Elizabeth. “It was made for me by one foreigner 25 years back,” Brent said. “He was my first customer. Tellin’ me I have something special – bush knowledge.” (Brent’s hikes cost £15 an hour, +1 784 495 2524.)
To my ears Brent spoke like Bob Marley impersonating Francis Drake, a west country Elizabethan sailor swagger on a bedrock reggae rhythm. The only problem was, when talking to me Drake was forefront but when we encountered a local friend, Marley took over and I was lost, unable to believe that I was still hearing English.
Under the hair, the bandana and the tan, Brent is a white man, a descendent of 17th-century Scottish emigrants. From Cromwell’s time onwards, they had arrived as exiles, poor settlers and indentured labourers, often treated little better than slaves, punished for being on the wrong side in the civil war or having Jacobite sympathies (post-Culloden many died in Tilbury Fort but more than 900 were sold into the colonies). The islands were proving more fascinating and complex than I could ever have hoped.
Brent’s grandmother was a charcoal burner who taught him about the bush. He learned which leaves could make tea, sting like a bee and flavour whale meat. That was a tradition the Scots had brought with them: whaling. Brent pointed to the straits between Bequia and Mustique. “The humpback swim along there,” said.
Brent told me about a bar in the area where most locals live, Paget Farm, on the wilder Atlantic side of the island. “Go there if you want to know ‘bout whalin’.”
Next day I took “the dollar bus”, a shared minibus taxi, and found the place. Toko’s was a seaside concrete bunker down some steps with a balustrade made of whale ribs. Inside it was stuffed with treasures gathered by Toko during a lifetime of seafaring: tribal masks, shells, ancient wine bottles, a coral-crusted Nikon camera found on a wreck, and of course, whalebones – lots of them.
Toko proved to be an imposing, thoughtful character who told me tales of chasing humpbacks and how the meat was shared. There was a sense that the whale hunt united the old community, the original Bequians, not the snowbird westerners who build villas that are empty half the year. (That, incidentally, is one way to stay – hunt down an out-of-season villa, then harpoon the price; everything is negotiable.)
The Bequians still hunt the occasional humpback, in a sailing boat with a hand-thrown spear. It’s a far cry from Japanese factory ships slaughtering and processing dozens of animals but there is a collision of values with tourism and the St Vincent government is under pressure to outlaw the practice, as they recently did for turtle-killing.
I’m as inconsistent as anyone. I’d never touch turtle or whale meat but at Toko’s I did order lobster and barracuda for US$20. Later, I discussed with local fishermen about hiring a boat to visit Isle A Quatre. Someone quoted US$500, a suggestion I shot down immediately. Had ordering the lobster, I wondered, raised expectations?
Once I had established that I only required transport, then a couple of hours to explore and snorkel, the price dropped to US$150, still a hefty slice from my budget. In the end, all my arrangements fell through because an electrical storm hit the island that night. Next day, it rained until mid-afternoon. The weather, it seemed, had broken, but I didn’t care: the rain showers were refreshing and sent the jungle into a frenzy. Hummingbirds with electric blue crests zipped around freshly washed flowers, hawks squawked gleefully overhead, yellow bananaquit birds raced around carrying nesting materials while a vast frog chorus hooted from every corner.
Having seen that the life force above sea level was healthy, it was below the waves I now wanted to go. In the sleepy waterfront settlement of Port Elizabeth I found a delightful blue wooden cabin by the water guarded by an amiable parrot called Charlie. This was Dive Bequia (single dives £59). The photographs on the walls convinced me. I booked a couple of dives.
British co-owner Cathy Howard had come on holiday to Bequia 23 years ago and ended up staying, beguiled by the easy charm of the island; her business partner and husband was a US pilot called Bob. We motored out around Hamilton Point, an old British gun emplacement, and dived on a reef known as The Devil’s Table. In the next hour I saw more moray eels than in all my previous dives, plus two large octopuses, a brace of wrecks, several enormous lobsters, shoals of fish and a turtle. “You could see more of those at Tobago Cays,” said Cathy.
Finding a boat to the Cays marine park wasn’t difficult. I went with Octopus (trips every Tuesday, £120, meals and drinks included), a beautiful 63-foot yacht, captained by Nolan from Paget Farm with his crew: Gangsta and cook Erry, the latter an expert in my favourite Bequian dish, a fish roti – basically a fish curry in a flatbread. “When I’m not sailing,” she told me, “I sell ’em off a stall in Paget Farm for two dollars.”
The famous Tobago Cays were a few hours’ sail away and there was only time for a quick snorkel when we arrived. There are five small islands inhabited by iguanas and birds. On one is a daytime crew of cooks from Union Island who sell lobster and fish to the visitors but no one is allowed to sleep on the islands.
Next day a long snorkel along the reef turned up mating stingrays, lots of moray and snake eels, plus several hawksbill turtles browsing on the sea grass near Baradal island. Nolan eventually got me out of the water to visit Mayreau, the smallest permanently inhabited Grenadine island with just 300 residents. There are good views from the hill and a couple of beach bars.
The voyage back meant bracing squalls but the sun came out as we anchored off Port Elizabeth. Most of this little settlement is stretched along the waterfront. There are plenty of restaurants: check out The Fig Tree where one of the island’s notable personalities, Cheryl Johnson, weaves together good food, dance classes, yoga, live music, a book club and a mean rum punch. A more traditional bar is Papa’s where local reggae stars Rockstone play on Tuesday nights. If you are into music, also check out The Hub, a grassroots arts association. Alternatively, stroll around Port Elizabeth on a Sunday, the church choirs will entertain you the whole way. Walking south along the boardwalk brings you to Princess Margaret beach where the woman herself once landed before realising she was on the wrong island and quickly departed for Mustique. Beyond that is Lower Bay, also a good beach. I bumped into Brent over there on my last day.
“There’s a squeezer up there,” he said, pointing to a tree below which a pair of tourists were snoozing. “Wanna check out a fine spot for hummingbirds?”
I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do. As we walked, we talked about the island. “Only problem here,” said Brent, “is that nothing ever change.”
I nodded sympathetically. I was just a visitor, a snowbird, blowing in from the cold for a couple of weeks but I couldn’t help but hope that Brent’s problem should never be resolved.
• More information at discoversvg.com.