(Toronto sun) – St. Vincent and the Grenadines is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places to visit in the Caribbean but my first impression of this unspoiled archipelago is the friendliness of the people.
Vincentians, or Vincies as they commonly call themselves, are truly welcoming.
From the moment I board a direct flight in Toronto to the customs and immigration lineup, in St. Vincent, conversations with locals flow easily.
“You are going to love St. Vincent,” one young woman tells me after learning this was my first visit to the country, which lies between St. Lucia to the north and Grenada to the south.
It’s made up of 32 islands — nine of which are inhabited — and smaller cays like the protected Tobago Cays Marine Park, where swimming with wild turtles is a given and the horseshoe-shaped coral reefs are a snorkeler’s dream. “The stars at night light up the sky. It’s like no where else,” she says.
Others overhearing our conversation chime in with “welcome” and suggest places I should visit. Taxi driver Quincey Lewis is my next introduction to the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, chatting away as we drive to a small boat launch to make a five-minute crossing to our first destination of Young Island Resort — the only resort on the small, idyllic private island with a definite laid-back vibe.
“We have an international airport now and we are wanting more people to come and discover us. It’s been a long time coming,” he says of the new airport that was first talked about more than a decade ago. “But it’s worth it.”
Eight months after the opening of Argyle International Airport last February, Air Canada Rouge began a weekly, non-stop autumn/winter service from Toronto’s Pearson airport and added a second direct flight between Dec. 16 and April 28.
Anxious to get Canadians down to this Caribbean destination, the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority also chartered flights throughout the summer with Sunwing (operated by GG Tours www.ggtours.ca).
Before the direct flights began, Canadians came here via Miami and Barbados — a journey taking considerably longer than the current five hours.
“I get excited to meet new people from around the world. Seeing smiles on each visitor gives me a smile in my heart,” says Lewis, whose Foreign Tours company shows visitors the best places to visit on St. Vincent island.
A favourite stop is Dark View Falls, at the foot of La Soufriere volcano, in the northwest of the island, or taking visitors on a hike through the lush hillsides. Another is a stop at Wallilabou Bay, where the opening scenes of the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie were filmed.
“We are unique because we are not just one island but a string of islands all with something different to offer,” he says.
Lewis’ exuberance doesn’t go unnoticed. It seems everyone we drive pass waves or calls out his name. When I later interview Glen Beach, a former tourism minister for the country now CEO for the St. Vincent and the Grenadines Tourism Authority, he brings a knowing smile when I mention Lewis’ name.
St. Vincent’s moniker “land of no strangers” is accurate and it’s clear to both Beach and myself that Lewis has become the unofficial goodwill ambassador of the country.
The park ranger keeps an eye out to ensure the Tobago Cays in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines remains pristine and boats donât cause damage to the unspoiled, extensive reefs in the uninhabited archipelago. (Kim Pemberton photo)
Beach says there were approximately 78,000 tourists who arrived by air last year while another 225,000 arrived by sea (mostly on cruise ships).
“The numbers will be bigger next year — at least 350,000 for the cruises ships. The cruise ships depend on repeat visitors and with the opening of the airport, there’s been a lot of attention on St. Vincent and the Grenadines and what it has to offer,” says Beach.
During the peak season, between January and April, there were only 26,595 stay-over visitors and of these, Canadians accounted for 3,228. United States visitors were the highest in number at 8,153 and Europeans were a close second at 7,296.
Some of the islands I explored in St. Vincent and the Grenadines:
Young Island – Located just off the main island of St. Vincent, you are only minutes away by boat to the private island resort. Here are 29 one- and two-bedroom cottages, some with their own pool and all with views of the Caribbean.
Bequia Island – Just an easy one-hour ferry ride away from St. Vincent is the largest of the Grenadine Islands — Bequia (pronounced Beck-way) Island at only 18 square km.
There are many great white sand beaches from which to enjoy the crystal clear, turquoise waters, but a favourite has to be the Princess Margaret beach (named after the Caribbean-loving royal who spent much of her free time in nearby Mustique in the Grenadines.
Where to stay: Bequia Beach Hotel, a charming, Colonial-style hotel reminiscent of the 1950s, with a view to Mustique.
Petit St. Vincent – This private island, on 46 hectares, deserves the title of “best island for switching off,” which was given to it by Be Inspired Magazine from Small Luxury Hotels. It’s also listed among National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World.
With no televisions or phones for distraction, guests signal their island-roving butlers by raising the yellow flag outside their cottage to indicate a service request has been made. The 50-year-old resort completed renovations to all of its 22 cottages (eight of which are on the hill and the rest are on the beach — with reefs just footsteps from the shoreline).
The island also has a dive shop run by Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the legendary marine environmentalist Jacques Cousteau. Besides diving, guests can also enjoy snorkelling, sailing, kayaking, and windsurfing or visit the hillside spa and wellness centre mixing traditional Balinese spa culture with Caribbean traditions.
Palm Island – Another true tropical island hideaway is Palm Island. Built in 1999 on 54 hectares, Palm Island has five beaches, two lagoons and is just a short boat ride away from the popular, must-see “jewel of the Caribbean” Tobago Cays. There’s also a turtle refuge on the island and it’s not uncommon to see tortoises and iguanas walking about.
At the Palm Island Resort there are six room categories but all have views and, in most cases, easy access to the expansive beachfront. The resort offers many entertaining activities for guests, from crab racing and Caribbean Nights rum tasting, where “people always know the start of the rum tasting but they don’t know the end,” general manager Katie Rosiak says with a smile.
Canouan Island – You know you are on an easy-going island when the police station shuts down at 6 p.m. and locals regularly sell eggs out of the station, says Mandarin Oriental Canouan resort services manger Melissa Soloman.
The luxury hotel has 30 spectacular suites, with sweeping views out to one of the longest reefs, at over one mile in length in the Caribbean. There are also three white sand beaches, including my personal favourite, Shell Beach, easily accessible by golf cart or have your butler arrange for you to take a quick zodiac boat across the bay to reach it.
Piles of conch shells can be found on one of the beaches on Canouan Island. (Kim Pemberton photo)
Mandarin Oriental Canouan Resort is located on the 485-hectare Canouan Estates and shares great amenities such as an 18-hole golf course with panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea and a childcare centre like no other (it has everything from a water fountain play centre to a mini pool table).
The Estates also has 16 villas, with two to four bedrooms, in the resort’s rental pool. A new marina opened last year on Canouan, where a shopping plaza is being built and Shenanigans Restaurant & Beach Club which currently caters mostly to the yachting community. Be sure to check out the Canon fisheries centre nearby, where piles of conch shells line the beach.