Travel: Picking islands in a sea of plenty: On a recent trip to the Caribbean, Hunter Davies planted his flag on a handful of new discoveries
Never done island-hopping before, always preferring to get there and flop in one place, but with age I now think I should see as many places as possible, before they or I fade away.
The farther you explore in the West Indies, the longer it takes to get there and the fewer the luxury hotels. The prices don't seem to go down, but you do meet a higher class of person. 'Very popular with members of the aristocracy,' so it said about Grenada in my Elegant Resorts brochure.
We flew from Gatwick, on a BA flight to Grenada via Antigua. That's always a drag, having to stop and refuel when you're knackered, so we put in the time by nudging each other and hissing: Is he a Lord, is she a Duchess? We spotted a lorra shell suits, but no poshos.
The Calabash Hotel, the best on Grenada, didn't look all that aristocratic at first sight. The group of tired-looking plebs sitting by the bar turned out to be travel agents on tour. I do wish they'd keep them out of sight. The hotel is fairly small and modest, compared with those ritzy places on the West Coast of Barbados, but ever so tasteful, English-owned and run, just 28 suites in two-storey cottages in a horseshoe round a pretty beach. My ambition in life is never, never to stay in a block hotel again - you know, one building, with corridors and stuff. I hate them.
Every good hotel should have one little thing, some gimmick, apart from being good. At Cobblers Cove in Barbados, uniformed waiters come on to the beach mid-morning, lugging silver tureens, to serve hot consomme after your swim. Daft, but I grew to love it. At Calabash, one's own personal maid prepares one's own personal breakfast each morning from her little kitchen in each cottage. How lovely, said my wife. Daft, I said, I'm going to the dining room to meet people; but I didn't, and I grew to love it. It reminded me of somewhere, having one's own personal woman running after one . . . home.
Didn't meet any lords, though regular guests said they had previously spotted Princess Alexandra, the Duke of Buccleuch, the Duke of Argyll and the Duchess of Northumberland, though not all together. I did meet an awful lot of yachties. The Grenadines is an adventure playground for them. One morning, walking the beach, I came to a little marina where a very tanned gent was rowing himself ashore from a pounds 1m yacht. He was from Liverpool, he said, been on board for the past 18 months, since selling up a chain of shops. He disappeared into the marina's shop, then came out moaning. 'They wanted 29 EC dollars for a fuckin' varnish brush,' he said. 'Not paying that.' Then he rowed back to his pounds 1m yacht.
Grenada is your usual West Indian island, sort of pear-shaped, with the normal sort of population, some 110,000. But it's lusher than most and the people are friendlier - and its capital, St George's, is the nicest Caribbean capital I've visited. No nasty docks, no dusty streets, no dodgy lanes, just a pretty, hilly, colonial town set right on the sea, perfect for promenading. There's no mass tourism, no honey pot sites - except for the nutmeg factory at Gouyave. Big crush when we arrived, at least 20 people going round, watching 200 local woman crack nutmegs and sort out the shells. That was about it, really, but jolly fascinating. Did you know Grenada is the world's second biggest nutmeg producer? (Indonesia is the biggest.)
The women were working in total silence. Poor things, I thought, not even a trannie. Then I saw the notice: 'WORKERS] Bring God's peace inside and leave the Devil's noise outside.'
It's almost impossible to believe that, exactly 10 years ago, lovely little Grenada, with its relaxed friendly people, was being invaded by 6,500 US troops. They came to rescue some US medical students, so they said; in reality they wanted to sort out a handful of Cuban advisers and a few local Commies. The result was 255 dead, and a lot of bad farce. The taxi driver who took us on an island tour pointed out where the Marines landed - straight into a mangrove swamp, from which they retreated sharpish. They had arrived with only a tourist map of the island. They tried to make copies on board ship, but all they had was a reducer. It was only when they captured some Cubans that they got their hands on a proper map. War does eventually help the tourist industry, creating places to be seen. The official guidebook lists Fort George, where Maurice Bishop, the prime minister, was assassinated in 1983, as being 'open for sightseeing'.
St Vincent is your usual West Indian island: pear-shaped, population 120,000, plus all those islands. We went first of all to the nearest, Young Island, just 200 yards off the southern tip of St Vincent. This is one of the world's earliest whole-island resorts, and still one of the most picturesque - a 25-acre, privately owned rocky islet, with 29 wood-framed cottages hidden in the lush vegetation. The most spectacular is cottage 27, high up in the trees so you feel you are alone in the Caribbean. I got up the 70 steps once, then had to move. My knees - I should never have played Sunday morning football till the age of 50. So we moved to a beach cottage, which was just as pretty.
We spent four days on Young Island, and loved it, but it could get claustrophic if you didn't take some jaunts on one of their three luxury yachts. I like yachts, but only looking at them. That's where the romance is, not the dreary hanging around on board all day doing nothing. It was worth a short sail though to discover Bequia, my favourite find this year so far. Just seven square miles, population 5,000, nicely tatty main town and harbour at Port Elizabeth, attractively undeveloped (that's if you're a visitor; probably not so attractive for residents). Lot of yachties, so the bars and waterfront restaurants are lively, but inland is virgin country.
We ate in an amazing place on top of the island called the Old Fort. All over the world, wherever you find a really inaccessible pretty place, the chances are there's an idealistic couple already there, having opted out of the rat race, running away from civilisation. (And also from themselves, that's what I usually think, being cynical.) In this case they're German, with three incredibly blond children. They've created one of the most artistic little hotels anywhere in the Caribbean.
On another little island, Carriacou (part of Grenada), just as pretty but even less developed, we came across another couple, English this time, running a very pretty little hotel, the Caribbee Inn. Took ages to find, at the end of an unmade road, and I thought this will be my second discovery - until they showed me reams of raves from the New York Times and said they were booked up six months ahead.
The last place we stayed was Petit St Vincent, exclusive and magnificent, another whole island, but big enough - some 113 acres - to have brilliant two-hour beach walks or hilly climbs. I do like to stretch my legs, aches permitting.
Terribly expensive, yet understandably so, as the island was uninhabited and everything had to be imported and built from scratch. Even now, they still get their meat from Boston, Mass, via land, sea and air. The whole island is beautifully cared for, sand raked, grass manicured, paths immaculate, silent Mini Mokes bringing you room service. You order by raising a yellow flag outside your cottage. Red flag means do not disturb. That's their gimmick.
Now, this is hard to express, as the American owner-manager does try terribly to get things right, but I found the staff, well, a bit stand-offish. Not something you usually find in the West Indies. Perhaps it was my M & S shorts or cheap flip-flops, but I did find it hard to get my order taken at the bar, as if I wasn't there. Posh visiting yachties were treated just as coldly. Vincentians, as a people, are pretty taciturn and reserved. Like rural Cumbrians, they like to winter you, summer you, then they might say hello.
My wife, being a true Cumbrian, loved PSV, as regulars call it. As with all three places we stayed, it was stacked with regulars, all boasting. On holiday, my wife doesn't want to make chums, meet jolly waiters, become friends with the staff. I do, alas. A weakness - I don't know where I get it from. I'm even prepared to talk to aristocracts. Perhaps next time we'll meet some.
Accommodation: Calabash Hotel, Box 382, St George's, Grenada (one week from pounds 1,010); Young Island, St Vincent (one week from pounds 1,550); Petit St Vincent, The Grenadines, St Vincent (one week from pounds 1,955). Smaller, but very nice hotels: The Old Fort, Bequia, St Vincent (six bedrooms, from pounds 80 per person per day); Caribbee Inn, Carriacou, Grenada (10 rooms, from pounds 100 per person per day).
Further information: Elegant Resorts, 24 Nicholas St, Chester, CH1 2ER (0244-329671) offers all-in holidays to both Grenada and to St Vincent and the Grenadines. Grenada Tourist Office, 1 Collingham Gardens, London, SW5 0HW (071-370 5164). St Vincent and Grenadines Tourist Office, 10 Kensington Court, London W8 5DL (071-937 6570).
(Photographs and map omitted)
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