Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Farewell to the Grenadines

For this final St. Vincent and the Grenadines blog, I'm going to concentrate on what's undoubtedly the most thrilling experience in a region filled with exceptional adventures: sailing through the Tobago Cayes.

No, we haven’t jumped to another country. The Tobago Cayes aren’t in Trinidad and Tobago. They are St. Vincent’s maritime national park, a collection of uninhabited, idyllic islands surrounded by some of the most fertile reefs on the planet.

One can take a day cruise to the Tobago Cayes from every island in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, but I did so in the most logical way: from Palm Island which is just a half-hours sail from the national park. (Another near-in option is Union Island).

Palm Island beach and pier
Palm Island is a private island resort that boasts around 70 guest rooms and 20 villas for rent. It’s not as upscale as Mustique, where meals are taken on white linens to the accompaniment of tinkling glasses and quiet laughter. Here, a local guy with a guitar makes dinner a reggae party, and beat-heavy Caribbean tunes are piped in for other meals and at the always crowded bar. The décor of the rooms and public spaces is also a bit more pedestrian but so too, thankfully, are the prices. Ignore what you see on the Palm Island website. By booking a package here, one that includes airlift, room, and all meals and drinks, its possible to shave hundreds of dollars off the published rates, dropping the price, in some cases, to about $500 per couple per night. In this part of the world and with this many inclusions (airfare, lodgings, tennis courts, gym, small golf course, and yes, unlimited and unwatered down booze and food) that ain’t bad.

But back to the Tobago Cayes and their enchantments. Nitty gritty details first: A daylong tour by catamaran, including a nice lunch, snorkel gear and guides, comes to $90 per person from most outfits.

Most cruises start in Mayreaux, the smallest of the nation’s inhabited islands. Visitors are let off on a bar-laden beach, where the welcome is relaxed and not at all pushy (unlike other areas of the Caribbean, which I won’t name here, vendors wait for you to come up to them. They don’t dog your footsteps or shout at you to buy).

On Mayreaux one swims for an hour, explores the little island, or if you're lucky, watch the Cirque-du-Soleil-like show being put on by the kite boarders who use the cove just behind the main beach. After strapping on special surf boards, they let loose a C-shaped, 10-foot long kite. It billows up almost immediately, whipping the kite boarders this way and that, on the water and flying above it at times. (In another lifetime, one in which I’m physically coordinated, I’d like to master kiteboarding. It looks like a hoot).

From Mayreaux visitors head out towards the reefs. I apologize that I didn’t have an underwater camera with me, so you’ll just have to take my word for how spectacular the ocean life is here. You snorkel in shallow water so close to the top of the reefs you have to arch your back to keep from touching them (or at least I felt I had to). And as you float above, schools of iridescent fish scoot by below. Because feeding the fish is illegal here, they don’t swarm you as they do in Hawaii. Instead, you get to watch these creatures interact with one another in a natural, unforced manner. The Grenadines are known as the “critter capital” of the Caribbean, so part of the excitement of snorkeling here is seeing all of the miniscule little creatures floating this way and that. Rare in other parts of the world, these worms, sea horses and other tiny beings are so abundant here they’re easy to spot even when one’s snorkeling rather than scuba diving.

As exciting, one also makes a stop at the turtle feeding grounds to snorkel among these massive and ancient creatures (some as old as 200 years, scientists now believe).

I’ll leave you with a view of the island used in Pirates of the Caribbean for the shipwreck scenes. If I had to be stranded anywhere, this stretch of the Caribbean would certainly be my choice.