The Tobago Cays, in the heart of the legendary Grenadines, typify that screen saver tropical island that one fantasizes about when stuck at the office: a protected marine park with a 1,400-acre sand-bottom lagoon, five uninhabited islands, and a 21/2-mile-long vibrant colorful horseshoe reef.
My photographer and I have long wanted to visit these enchanted islands. This spring, we finally got that chance.
The Grenadines are a chain of small islands in the southern Antilles from St. Vincent in the north to Grenada in the south. People count from 32 to more than 600 islands, depending on how they define the small cays, some of which rise only barely above the water. Only a handful are inhabited — St. Vincent, Grenada, Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Mayreau, Union Island, Petit St. Vincent, Palm Island, Petite Martiniqu, and Carriacou. Of these, St. Vincent and Grenada are considerably larger and much more populated than the others, many of which are only accessible by boat.
The Grenadines are known for their magical coves, beautiful beaches and sandy-bottom bays, which make them perfect for anchoring and exploring. And as it’s only a maximum half-day sail to get from one to the next, you can move around the islands at a comfortable, relaxed pace.
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Our plan was to spend our first night on St. Lucia, make the long crossing past St. Vincent over to Admiralty Bay on Bequia, then hit the Tobago Cays, where we would chill out and spend some time. As we had chartered the boat for 14 days, we also planned to visit some of the Grenadines’ other magical islands, bays and beaches.
Our only long sail was the nine-hour passage across the channel between St. Lucia and St. Vincent, which dished out some big winds, rough seas and heavy currents, both on the way out and on our return.
We chose St. Lucia as our base because it has an international airport and a good selection of charter options. It’s also a destination of its own, with great beaches, waterfalls, jungle and resorts. While there, we spent a few days at Anse Chastanet Resort, which has one of the island’s best beaches and lots of amenities (spa, scuba center, mountain bike trails and rentals). It’s also close to many of St. Lucia’s prime sites, including the Soufriere Drive-in Volcano, the Enbas Saut Waterfall Trail, the Diamond Falls Botanical Gardens, and the Gros Piton hiking trail.
We chartered our boat from Sunsail as they have a large fleet, good support, and we’ve had good luck with them in the past. They recently started offering “flotilla” sailing — a new concept where a number of charters head off together with a common itinerary. Along the way, you can share experiences, dinners and evening cocktails.
The flotilla also provides you with a lead boat with a guide, a technician and a host who brought us fresh rum punch every evening when we had our daily briefing. That being said, it’s still bareboat sailing, so you need to have experience to do this trip.
The guide sets a rough itinerary, but every boat has the freedom to make its own plan. We stayed mostly with the pack, as we made fast friends with the other cruisers in our group and enjoyed their company.
Our boat was a Jeanneau 39, which is just the right size for two people for 14 days. We each had our own bathroom, a large V-berth for sleeping, and two smaller cabins in the back to jam our clothes, snorkel gear, fishing tackle and the like.
Our first day we had a pleasant three-hour sail down the west coast of St. Lucia to Piton Bay — a gorgeous spot that lies between the cone-like peaks Gros and Petit Piton. There’s a nice white-sand beach here and good reefs for snorkeling (we spotted a hawksbill sea turtle and a southern stingray).
Pitons Bay is a marine park, which means you have to grab a mooring ball because anchors damage the coral. The fee is $20, which was pretty standard everywhere. The marine parks also charge a park fee of about $10, also standard.
The next day we made the long passage across the channel to St. Vincent. It was a bit tiring, especially for the first day, and it was nice to finally tuck in behind the leeward side of St. Vincent and have a comfortable protected easy sail down her west coast.
St. Vincent is much less touristy and developed than St. Lucia, and the terrain is more mountainous, rugged and lush. It’s not surprising scenes for the movie Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed here.
Security here can be an issue for cruisers, according to our guides, who grew up on St. Vincent. The only real safe harbors are the southern tip of the island, a spot we planned to visit on our return.
Just past the southern tip of St. Vincent we caught sight of Bequia and set course for our next anchorage, Admiralty Bay. Bequia is a quaint former shipbuilding and whaling island that has become popular with travelers and expats. As a result, it has a large selection of good restaurants, bars and boutique hotels.
We found a delightful French restaurant, L’Auberge des Grenadines, on the edge of the bay. A jazz quartet entertained us as we enjoyed our first of many lobster dinners.
In the morning, we had breakfast at the outdoor cafe of Frangipani Hotel across the bay. The owner, Sir James Mitchell (the former prime minister of St. Vincent), stopped by and chatted with us about his family’s former shipbuilding business.
Our next port of call, Mustique, is a semi-private island and vacation spot for the British Royal family and other celebrities. As such, the island isn’t super friendly to cruisers — they charged us four times the going rate for mooring and confiscated our camera gear while we toured the island.
Mustique has one of the best bar/restaurants in the Grenadines, called Basil’s. This hip spot, which is right on the water and hosts a jazz festival each year, has great food and great music. The owner, Basil, is a warm, witty, worldly character who invited us to feed his “pet” moray eels and sting rays that come up to the bar at night to eat leftover lobster shells.
After Mustique, it was time to hit our primary destination, the Tobago Cays. I’ve heard many times about the wonder and splendor of this cruising destination. In spite of the dramatic build-up, it lived up to the hype.
As we sailed into the magical lagoon, surrounded by pristine white sand beaches and swaying emerald palms, sea turtles popped their heads above dazzling turquoise-indigo water as if to say “hello and welcome.”
Friendly “boat boys” helped guide us into the lagoon and showed us a safe place to anchor where we would not disturb the coral reefs or the turtle feeding grounds. With creative names like “Mr. Quality,” “More Time” and “More Fresh,” these locals also provide banana bread, fish, lobster, beer, rum, shirts, shorts and pretty much anything that might be lacking.
One of the more famous boat boys, Romeo, hosts a fantastic fish and lobster beach barbeque on long wooden tables under shade palms and sea grape trees on one of the islands. If you get to the Cays, Romeo’s barbeque is a must-do.
We spent our days there snorkeling the many reefs, which are rich in colorful corals and sea life — small black-tip reef sharks, spiny lobsters, brightly colored shrimp, moray eels, southern rays — I even saw an octopus eating a conch, a first for me.
We also spent a lot of time exploring the turtle sanctuary off Baradal Island, where we swam with so many of these docile, graceful creatures, I lost count.
We could have stayed at Tobago Cays for a very long time, but we had a couple more spots to check out, and had to get the boat back to St. Lucia, so we said goodbye to our sea turtles and headed to Chatham Bay on Union Island.
Chatham Bay is an unspoiled horseshoe-shaped harbor with a long, delightful beach. All you’ll find there, aside from bucolic beauty, are a couple of beach shack bars, the most famous of which is Vanessa and Seckie’s “Sun, Beach and Eat Bar,” where cruisers leave their T-shirts hanging from the rafters.
Our whole flotilla ended up at Vanessa’s, where we drank a few too many rum punches and Hairouns (St. Vincent’s local beer) and got embroiled in a heated game of gin rummy.
We also visited Petit St. Vincent and Mayreau island. The former is a private resort island. But unlike Mustique, they’re friendly to cruisers. We enjoyed a wonderful steak and lobster dinner at the beachside restaurant while a steel drum band played.
Mayreau’s Saline Bay, essentially a small fishing village, is a great place to get that local feel. We were there on a Sunday and families were barbequing on the beach and the local bars were full. It’s also a good place to provision, as the island has a couple of small but well-stocked stores.
Our last stop before heading home was tiny Young Island, just south of St. Vincent. This entire island is a resort that had very nice beachfront bungalows, one of which we rented on for the night — our only night off the boat.
As I lay in our cottage listening to the soothing rhythm of waves and the gentle rustling of the breeze, I knew the next day we’d be returning our boat and boarding a plane for home. While my tan would quickly fade, I knew the vibrant beauty of the Grenadines would stay with me for the rest of my life. I don’t usually return to the same place twice. However, the Grenadines might just be an exception.
Travel writer Eric Vohr and photographer Michaela Urban have an eco-travel website: www.travelintense.com.
Going to the Grenadines
Getting there: American Airlines offers connecting flights from Miami to St. Lucia (UVF-Hewanorra International) with roundtrip fares starting around $600.
Sail charters: Sunsail, Rodney Bay; 877-651-3451; www.sunsail.com. Prices vary significantly depending on the season and type of boat. In May (off season) a flotilla trip on a 41-foot monohull bareboat is $6,442.84 for 14 days. In March (peak season) the same boat is $10,296.18 for 14 days.
St. Lucia, www.stlucianow.com
St. Vincent and the Grenadines, www.discoversvg.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Prices listed for hotels and restaurants include tax and service charge of 10 percent each.
Anse Chastanet Resort, Soufriere, St. Lucia; 1-758-459-7000; www.ansechastanet.com. High-end bungalows, semi-private beach, mountain biking, snorkeling, scuba. Bungalows from $420.
Young Island Resort, Young Island; 1-784-458-4826; www.youngisland.com. Beachfront bungalows on a private island, ferry to mainland. Bungalows from $472, including breakfast and dinner.
WHERE TO EAT
Dasheen at Ladera, Jalousie, St. Lucia; 1-758-459-5156; www.ladera.com. Luxury dining with hilltop view overlooking the Pitons and Jalousie Beach. Entrees start at $43
Young Island Resort, Young Island; 800-223-1108; www.youngisland.com. Quaint beachfront high-end restaurant with great local cuisine. Four-course prix fixe menu $50 (no a la carte meals).
L'Auberge des Grenadines, Admiralty Bay, Bequia; 1-784-457-3555; www.caribrestaurant.com. French cuisine with live lobster pool, overlooking the bay, private dinghy dock, great wines. Entrees start at $18
The Frangipani, Admiralty Bay, Bequia; 1-784-458-3255; www.frangipanibequia.com. Good local food, great outdoor deck overlooking Admiralty Bay. Entrees start at $26.
Petit St. Vincent Resort, 954-963-7401; www.petitstvincent.com. Wonderful outdoor restaurant on the beach with a great barbeque and steel band. Entrees start at $16