Top 5 guide to St Vincent
Looking for a spring escape? Then head to verdant ‘Vincy’ for nature trails, wild drives, lively dives, laid-back liming and some of the best roast breadfruit in the region, says Lizzie Williams
My affable silver-haired taxi driver threaded us towards Kingstown from the airport. At a sharp hairpin bend, he stopped and pulled alongside a minibus coming the other way. “Maanin,” he nodded to the other driver. “Maanin,” replied the man, wearing a multi-coloured striped hat, smiling a wide Rasta grin.
And that was it: conversation over, and on we went.
This exemplifies the community spirit found on St Vincent, where people will stop – on a road, in a market, on the stoop of a rum shop or a neighbour’s house – to simply say good morning.
As St Vincent is dominated by brooding La Soufrière volcano in the north, there is little flat terrain, and the two main roads – the Windward and Leeward Highways – hug the coast and don’t quite encircle the entire 344 sq km island. On both, flamboyantly painted public minibuses (‘vans’) with music pumping and wiry conductors hanging out the doors carry the workforce and schoolchildren in and out of Kingstown every day from all over the island. It’s no wonder everyone knows everybody else.
Extraordinary friendliness and familiarity aside, lush, mountainous and agricultural St Vincent offers a number of attractions. Hiking and birdwatching are rewarding in the interior’s rainforests, and summiting La Soufrière is one of the best and least difficult volcano climbs in the Caribbean. Underwater, diving on the unspoiled reefs offers a colourful adventure, while coastal journeys reveal beautiful black-sand volcanic beaches and pretty fishing villages. St Vincent – ‘the mainland’ – also opens up access to the Grenadines, a necklace of 32 islands and cays dotting the Caribbean Sea to the south. Hop on a ferry in Kingstown, chugging in and out of each delightful island harbour en route.
• Replacing ET Joshua Airport in Arnos Vale, St Vincent’s new Argyle International Airport (www.svg-airport.com) opened in February 2017. Located 13km from Kingstown on the east coast, it’s served by regular LIAT flights from other Caribbean destinations. Taxis go along the Windward Highway to Kingstown (EC$80) via the main hotel area at Villa on the south coast (EC$60).
• Ferries linking St Vincent with the Grenadines dock off Kingstown’s Bay Street. The Bequia Express (www.bequiaexpress.com) serves Bequia, the closest island; journey time is one hour. Jaden Sun (www.jadeninc.com) runs fast catamarans to Bequia, Canouan, Mayreau and Union Island. There are other ferry options, too.
• ‘Vans’ run along the main Windward (east) and Leeward (west) Highways from the central terminal near the fish market off Bay Street in Kingstown; a short journey costs from EC$2.50.
Top 5 places to stay
1 Blue Lagoon Hotel & Marina
Best for admiring sleekly luxurious yachts, the 19 bright and colourful rooms at this contemporary and super-stylish hotel overlook the most prestigious marina on St Vincent – there is easy passage for sailors from here to the Grenadines. There’s a lovely crescent-shaped beach, a pool and a dive shop; the restaurants, bars and boutiques are connected by sunny wooden decks. Doubles from US$179. Ratho Mill; +1 784 458 4308; www.bluelagoonsvg.com
2 Beachcombers Hotel
Best for an all-round beach holiday, Beachcombers’ 48 modern rooms are scattered around a bougainvillea-filled garden right above Villa’s golden sands. It has a spa and pool, and with sailcloth walls, high ceilings and whirring fans, The Dock restaurant specialises in seafood; a steelpan band often performs. Doubles from US$125. Villa; +1 784 458 4283; www.beachcombershotel.com
3 Grand View Beach Hotel
Best for views of Indian Bay, this 50-year-old former cotton plantation house is set in eight acres of grounds in a commanding position on 92m-high Villa Point. It features 19 atmospheric rooms,
a restaurant with sea views, a pool right on the headland and a pathway down to the beach. Doubles from US$120. Villa Point; +1 784 458 4811; www.grandviewhotel.com
4 Young Island
Best for a luxury private island escape, the most northerly of the Grenadines is only a five-minute boat transfer from St Vincent. Facilities are extensive, with 29 upscale stone cottages set in tropical gardens, tennis courts, a spa, a dive shop and hammocks strung out on the marvellous white-sand beach. Doubles from US$282; Young Island; +1 784 458 4826; www.youngisland.com
5 Cobblestone Inn
Located in Kingstown, this 1814 sugar and arrowroot warehouse has been converted into a charming boutique hotel. The 26 rooms have polished wooden floors and exposed stone walls and arches, while the delightful rooftop restaurant/bar has fine harbour views. Doubles from US$80; Bay St, Kingstown; +1 784 456 1937; www.thecobblestoneinn.com
Top 5 things to do
1 Drive the Leeward Highway
The scenic 40km-long Leeward Highway from Kingstown to Richmond Beach on the west coast slips down into valleys and then sharply up to clifftops. There are wonderful views of coconut and banana plantations, forest-covered mountains, and the Caribbean Sea gently lapping into sheltered coves and onto black-sand beaches. Stops could include the Amerindian petroglyphs at Layou or the Pirates of the Caribbean movie location at Wallilabou Bay. Fishing villages, nature trails and waterfalls are other worthwhile distractions.
2 Walk the Vermont Nature Trail
Enjoy the green foliage, bubbling streams and crisp, clean air of the rainforest on this delightful 3.5km-long circular trail in St Vincent’s southern interior. It’s a habitat for lizards, (harmless) snakes, opossum and agouti, but most significantly the vividly coloured and extremely rare St Vincent parrot (Amazona guildingii), which is the national bird. Along the trail, the Parrot Lookout Platform is perhaps the best place on the whole island to spot this elusive creature. Also look out for the whistling warbler, crested hummingbird and purple-throated Carib. • www.nationalparks.gov.vc
3 Climb La Soufrière volcano
Rising to 1,234m, the island’s highest peak has slumbered peacefully since it last erupted in 1979. You can hike through enchanting forest to La Soufrière’s magnificent ash-strewn rim, and even climb down to the steaming lake in the crater itself. Well-marked trails start on both the Windward and Leeward coasts and take two to three hours to the summit. Or join a guide for the La Soufrière Cross Country Trail, which snakes 15km across the width of St Vincent. • www.nationalparks.gov.vc
4 Dive on the deep reefs
Scuba diving is more rewarding than snorkelling in St Vincent because of the deep reefs caused by craggy volcanic cliffs dropping from dizzying heights of several hundred metres straight into the sea. Divers will see walls encrusted with colourful sponges and lacy gorgonians, and draped with scraggly black coral that attracts a host of marine life from seahorses and frogfish to manta rays and nurse sharks. • www.divestvincent.com
5 Watch a game of cricket
Spend a sunny day with an excitable crowd watching a match at the Arnos Vale Ground, better known locally as the Playing Fields, the home ground of the St Vincent & the Grenadines cricket team and a venue for Windies Test matches. With an exquisite setting right on the Caribbean Sea, and outstanding views across to the Grenadines, it’s considered one of the most picturesque cricket grounds in the world. • www.svgcricket.org
Top 5 places to eat & lime
1 Flow Wine Bar and Kitchen
Best for international wine, craft beer and kicking back on fat leather couches or tables on the rooftop terrace, Kingstown’s most stylish spot has a menu to appeal to any appetite – pizzas and tapas are particularly good. It also operates the Flowt Beach Bar at the Blue Lagoon Hotel & Marina, which has tables in the sand and chilled music. James St, Kingstown; +1 784 457 0809; www.flowwinebar.com
Best for an affordable bite to eat or to just hang out with a cappuccino or cold Hairoun beer, this unpretentious place has open windows to catch the breeze above the bustle of Kingstown’s streets. It serves breakfasts, rotis, sandwiches and a daily local special such as goat water or fried jackfish. The music is turned up for the popular after-work lime. Egmont St, Kingstown; +1 784 456 1776; www.chillnsvg.com
3 The French Verandah
Best for tasty French cuisine with Caribbean flair and romantic candlelit tables on a waterfront terrace. Try traditional French onion soup, stuffed crab backs, escargots or conch salad. Stop by on a walk along Villa Beach Boardwalk during the day for a cocktail or smoothie at the bar. Mariners Hotel, Windward Highway, Villa; +1 784 453 1111; www.marinershotel.com
4 Café Soleil
Best for casual dockside dining and people-watching, this alfresco café-bar sits in the heart of the Blue Lagoon marina. The menu ranges from grilled fish and teriyaki chicken to filled paninis and gooey desserts. The Loft Restaurant & Bar, the hotel’s more formal venue, has a gorgeous interior and a fine-dining menu that features fish, lobster and lamb. Blue Lagoon Hotel & Marina, Ratho Mill; +1 784 458 4308; www.bluelagoonsvg.com
5 Bush Bar
Best for an authentic Caribbean vibe and relaxing in a hammock with perhaps a rum punch in hand. This delightful rural bar is rustically built with bamboo and thatch on the edge of the rainforest above the Buccament Valley near the Vermont Nature Trail. Eat tasty organic food, play dominoes, go on a nature walk or splash in the crystal-clear stream. Queensberry, Vermont; +1 784 491 8127; www.facebook.com/zbushbar
Top 5 places to visit
Surrounded by steep, green hills, the capital of St Vincent & the Grenadines was founded by French settlers in 1722, although the British ruled for 196 years. Easy to explore on foot, it features narrow cobblestone streets, a bustling wharf, red-brick colonial buildings, stately churches and arched covered shopping arcades. Kingstown’s vibrant community spirit can be appreciated at the lively fresh produce and fish markets, and at the many rum shops.
2 Botanical Gardens
Covering 20 acres on a hillside above Kingstown, these lush, colourful gardens were established in 1765 and are one of the oldest in the Western hemisphere. Indigenous and exotic tropical trees, plants and flowers include hibiscus, cinnamon, nutmeg, mahogany and royal palms. Look out for the breadfruit tree – grown from a seedling brought to the island from Tahiti by Captain William Bligh of ‘mutiny on the Bounty’ fame. www.botanicalgarden.gov.vc
3 Fort Charlotte
On a 195m-high promontory on the north side of Kingstown, this once fearsome fort was completed in 1805 and named after the wife of British King George III. It was never used to fend off attacks from the sea, but against indigenous people; unusually for a colonial Caribbean fort, the cannons point inland. There are commanding views of ships entering port and the Grenadines chain to the south.
4 South Coast
For sunbathing, swimming, snorkelling and great places to eat and drink, head to the south coast hotel strip along the Windward Highway. Popular beaches are at Indian Bay, Villa, Calliaqua Bay and Blue Lagoon, where the sand is fine and golden-coloured (the island’s other beaches are volcanic black sand). The Villa Beach Boardwalk links the hotels, restaurants and bars, and gives great views of Young Island and moored yachts bobbing offshore. Frequent vans run between Kingstown and Blue Lagoon.
5 Fort Duvernette
This eerie fort sits atop a 58m-tall volcanic plug in the sea next to Young Island. It was constructed in the 1790s to protect the colonial hub of Calliaqua, where sugar was loaded onto ships bound for English ports. Climb the 255 steps to the gun batteries for superb views across to Bequia and Mustique, and look out for frigatebirds and tropicbirds. Water taxis go from the jetty on Villa Beach Boardwalk.