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Culturally intact Caribbean islands that aren't owned by billionaires are hard to come by, but the low-key island nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is exceptionally calm, pristine exception. So get there by hook or crook — or by cruise ship, if you can — since who knows how long the tranquility will last once long-awaited, nonstop international jet service from North America and European gateways takes off.
This 68-mile-long Windward Islands archipelago of 32 islands and cays (only nine of which are inhabited) is ideal for island-hopping, stand-up paddle-boarding, and dancing in the company of suntanned celebrities like Tommy Hilfiger, Kelly Ripa and — who knows? — maybe even Mick Jagger.
Here are some of the cruise ships that call on St. Vincent and the Grenadines:
Canouan’s rustic beaches — outfitted with comfy solo-, double- and triple-person hammocks — unleash instant decompression. The sleepy, chic isle of 1,200 has fewer oceanside bungalows than it does ex-pat Italians who now make up the majority of the populace, keeping things decidedly low density. With such constituents come palates accustomed to high standards. The rustic island imports an impressive array of Italian, French and other European gourmet goods. Burn off the patés, cheeses and foie gras by traversing Mount Royal, the island's highest point at 900 feet, to witness panoramic views of all the Grenadines plus nearby St. Lucia.
Launch from Canouan for the Tobago Cays, a mini archipelago of five uninhabited islands within the greater island chain. Skim the biodiverse Salt Whistle Bay aboard Captain Yannis catamarans for up close and personal jaunts that reach Gilligan’s Island-style empty, remote beaches. Disembark around Baradal Island to glide with the schools of sea turtles that don’t object to humans joining their underwater gangs.
The private yet visitable (with permission by the homeowner owned company, the Mustique Company), lush and storied Mustique is a paradise of the most manicured order. Island attitude lives by a strict regimen: Detoxify by day, debauch come night. (David Bowie and Iman, Sir Paul McCartney and Prince William and Princess Kate Middleton unwind here.) Beach access off Cotton House (one of only two hotels other than private residences available by personal invitation or for rent) boasts long stretching sandbars and calm waters, ideal for stand-up paddle boarding and observing the comforting imperfections revealed by relaxed, casually dressed celebrities and royals. Firefly is the other hotel on the island.
On St. Vincent, just a half-mile north of main city, Kingstown, are the vibrant Botanic Gardens, developed in 1765 to grow spices and medicinal plants. Today, the 20-acre spread a sanctuary of fragrant flowers and towering tropical trees. For bird enthusiasts, an aviary center houses 500 endangered parrots. (The St. Vincent parrot is the national bird.)
Stop by the Kingstown Market for spices, fruits and flowers if you're in town on a Friday or Saturday. Nearby is an 18th-century church. Just outside of town is the old Fort Charlotte, built in 1905 on a hill overlooking St. Vincent Bay, and epic for idyllic Instagram images.
Few know that St. Vincent is also the “Critter Capital of the Caribbean.” Responding in kind, Indigo Dive has created thoughtful, eco-sensitive excursion for divers of all levels curious to explore vibrant coral reefs and attendant underwater characters. Along with those ubiquitous sea turtles, excursions bring divers face-to-face with starfish, frogfish and sea horses. Beginning divers can get under the surface on Day 1. If he’s working that day, ask for Dale to lead your journey down under and tell him Shira sent you.
St. Vincent is not St. Barth, but because of the cachet of guests coming to Mustique, Cotton House’s gift shop and nearby boutiques like Pink House have some lovely if overpriced merchandise to splurge on. Sometimes you just need a $80 pair of Havaianas, after all.
St. Vincent’s all-inclusive Buccament Bay Resort offers passes for day visitors. With food and drink covered and five restaurants to choose from, the focus turns to the plethora of activities available for all age groups. The resort has an all-weather soccer pitch, cricket and rugby (lest we forget that St. Vincent is a former British colony). To cool off, there are three pools and a wide beach encircling the resort. Eight-hour passes cost $150 for adults and $75 for children.
The Cotton House on Mustique is one of only two places to stay unless you’re personally invited to crash in the private homes of Mick, Paul, Tommy Hilfiger, etc. The 17-suite hotel hosts a weekly cocktail party in the Great Room for the entire island, residents and guests alike. Once in, help yourself to an endless supply of champagne and canapes.
While aboard the Captain Yannis catamaran, I proposed an excursion to the skipper beyond the requisite snorkel: I wanted to engage my inner local eater and catch my prey -- hunt-to-table if you will. Armed with snorkel goggles and fins, I slipped underwater spotting white jellyfish, trumpet fish, rays and sea urchins. I braved the dirty work, catching a few prickly urchins, then squeamishly plunged a butter knife into the porcupine-like shell of one. Courageously, I scooped out the sweet, yellow, yolk-like meat, added lemon and swallowed the sucker raw.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines rocks nearly perfect weather year round. As this is paradise, assume the weather stays anywhere between 75 and 85 degrees, with wet season in the summer and full hurricane season in fall.
Cruise ships moor at the Kingstown Harbor, close to the main town on St. Vincent. Smaller ships moor along Bequia, Mayreau and other Grenadine islands.
Rent a car: Driving is on the left. Snag a temporary driver's license for $18.50 (50 East Caribbean Dollars) at the police station on Bay Street or at the Licensing Authority on Halifax Street. On Mustique people drive “mules” or golf carts and motorcycles, which can be rented. Use your horn as you round a sharp curve or make a sharp turn.
Taxis: There are no taxi stands. The government fixes all rates, so verify the fare with the driver prior to departure. A rate sheet is available from the Tourist Bureau Office in the Government Administration Building on Bay Street in Kingstown. Fares increase late at night and in the early morning.
Inter-island flights: SVG Air (tel 457-5124) flies between St Vincent and Bequia, Canouan, Mustique and Union Island. There are smaller airports on Bequia (tel 458-3948 or 458-3984), Canouan (tel 458-8049), Mustique (tel 458-8368) and Union Island (tel 458-8750 or 458-8587), as well as a private airport on Palm Island. SVG’s country code is 784.
Documents: U.S. and Canadian citizens need a valid passport.
Language: The official language of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is English.
Currency: The Eastern Caribbean Dollar is the currency of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. U.S. dollars are accepted as are major credit cards.
Safety: St. Vincent and the Grenadines is a pretty safe place. As always, don’t flash large sums of money or expensive items and take precautions when traveling in remote areas or at night.
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“Travelers traditionally come to scuba dive or snorkel the island chain’s reefs, and the private island resort of Petit St. Vincent just added a new dive center run by the marine conservationist Jean-Michel Cousteau.”
“Traveling on foot from the cruise ship dock, you can spend an intriguing day exploring the traditional Caribbean port of Kingstown. For something further afield, hop on a ferry to the stunning island of Bequia, which balances remoteness, accessibility, development and affordability.”
“Mount Royal is tall enough to disguise a secret lair, and the beaches are so pretty that James Bond girls would feel right at home on them.”
Islands magazine on Canouan