Island paradise, please, Captain — and hop to it
Martin Hemming tries to visit five Grenadines in a week, by taking the ferry
Join the jetty set: Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau
I was in the Caribbean and I’d set myself a challenge. It’s not normally the place for challenges, the Caribbean, unless that challenge is to drink oneself catatonic under a palm tree as a reggae-tinged Chris de Burgh cover wafts over from the beach bar.
I wanted to do some of that, of course — the palm-tree-based catatonia more than the Chris de Burgh — but I wanted to do it on more than one island, and I wanted to travel between these multiple islands by boat.
Island-hopping is quite the thing in most islandy places — Greece, Croatia, Scotland, the Philippines — but somehow it’s never really caught on in the West Indies, despite their undeniable islandy-ness. Most people pick their island and refuse to leave it for a week or more, which is totally fair enough and lovely. But I wanted to see whether it was possible to get a bit of backpacker buzz between the beaches, with some high-seas romance thrown in.
I also didn’t want to go near any sailors. So I Googled “Caribbean ferry timetable”. A boat called the Jaden Sun seemed to sail between the Grenadines at least every other day. That’d do.
Lobster or muscles? Catch of the day on Mayreau (Macduff Everton/Getty) Monday, 3.30pm, and we — Mrs H and I — were at sea, motoring out of Kingstown, the bustling, honking capital of St Vincent. The Jaden Sun is modern and speedy — twin hulls, 105ft, 34 knots, 218 passengers in airline-style seats — and, unlike the local airlines, punctual. It wasn’t entirely un-Caribbean, mind: the bar sold plain cake and plastic cups of Captain Bligh rum for £1.20; a bucket caught drips from an air-conditioning unit; and the emergency-exit signs were in, er, Norwegian.
It took two hours (and cost £27) to reach Mayreau, where I was immediately convinced this island-hopping idea was a good one.
Mayreau is essentially an excellent beach (Saline Bay) with a single paved road leading to an even more excellent beach (Saltwhistle Bay). There’s no room on its 1½ square miles for an airstrip, so the only way here is by boat. I strongly recommend that you stay at Dennis’s Hideaway, because it’s the island’s only hotel. Rooms are basic, Dennis’s lobster suppers anything but (doubles from £62; dennis-hideaway.com).
On Mayreau, goats wander. The shuddering bass from a birthday-party sound system kept us awake till midnight. In the morning, I visited the cute little Catholic church and bought a fridge magnet off 78-year-old Sylvia’s trestle table. (“She’s always on the hustle,” Dennis said.) It all felt local and authentic and uncynical. A travel treat.
How to make a classic Caribbean rum punch
But the hop must go on. Except the ferry doesn’t run on Tuesdays. Dennis, however, knows people. And, crucially, those people have boats. Marvin and Captain Jack — not his real name, but he does have his own pirate hat — took us and our suitcases out on D Fence, their motorboat, for what was ostensibly a snorkelling trip through the Tobago Cays, but amounted to the world’s most fun taxi transfer.
There was some light swimming with turtles and pointing at iguanas. We stopped for barbecued tuna with all the trimmings, and for a rum punch at Happy Island, a sand bar big enough to fit nothing else other than an actual bar. Marvin and Jack then dropped us off at that night’s stop, Union Island. Total cost, including lunch: £46 each, cash.
Union was nice, too, a kitesurfer’s paradise (ie, a bit windy). It’s a veritable metropolis compared to Mayreau — it has an ATM — but again the vibe was pleasingly local, young and old chillaxing under the almond tree in the cool of the evening. A steel band practised (badly) as my conch stew took an age to arrive in Lambi’s bar.
It was only just light — and still only Wednesday — as we wheeled our cases back onto the Jaden Sun for the 7am, 90-minute, £25 leg to Bequia. We’ve written a lot about Bequia in Travel. My colleagues have already exhausted the best adjectives. So I’ll just rather prosaically say that it’s great. Don’t miss Princess Margaret Beach, where she probably got drunk, and where we watched a class of adorable primary-school kids having a swimming lesson. And treat yourself to a lobster pizza from Mac’s (from £22). We stayed at the swish Bequia Beach Hotel, where the barbecue-night band did bravely take on Lady in Red. Despite that, we stayed a second night (doubles from £165; bequiabeach.com).
Tracking turtles in the Tobago Cays (Reinhard Dirscherl/Getty) Getting to our final stop was always going to be the tricky part. Because our last stop was the millionaires’ theme park of Mustique, whose holidaymakers have included Kate and Wills, and Bowie and Jagger (who I like to imagine singing Dancing in the Street together on the karaoke at Basil’s Bar). Mustique doesn’t do ferries. It does private jets, maybe the odd helicopter charter. They have let Jeremy Clarkson on, though, so I figured it was worth a punt.
In the end, I had to throw just shy of £200 in the direction of Captain Wayne
Gooding. During the rough, hour-long crossing in his fishing boat, Wayne — a
fiftysomething white Grenadinian of Scottish descent — showed us photos of
his greatest catches, including a 1,000lb marlin that took him 3½ hours to
reel in. Periodically, the engine would cut out, at which point Wayne would
reach down and yank seaweed — an increasing Caribbean scourge — from
Nights at Mustique’s Cotton House start at £364, B&B (cottonhouse.net).
It is, as you’d hope for that money, gorgeous. The general looks
of confusion as we bobbed up via a very un-VIP fishing boat were priceless.
Boats on Bequia (Walter Bibikow/Getty) Another sight that greeted us was also worth the premium. Because there she was, in her bikini, hunched on a lounger in front of the hotel’s beach bar, slurping a piña colada and smoking a fag. It was Princess Kate. No, not that one. I mean, of course, Miss Moss.
I was too scared to talk to her. Always the same problem with pretty girls. I’d prepared my “What if I bump into Bowie?” script, but I had nothing ready for Mossy. “I’m from near Croydon, too,” I could have said, by way of an ice-breaker. “You took a plane here? Oh, we just took a little fishing boat.” I like to think she’d have been impressed.
Martin Hemming was a guest of The Ultimate Travel Company, which can tailor-make a week hopping between St Vincent, Mayreau, Union and Bequia from £2,375pp, B&B, including British Airways flights via Barbados. Swap in two nights on Mustique and the cost rises to £3,795pp (020 3411 1948, theultimatetravelcompany. co.uk). You’ll have to arrange and pay for your ferries and boats locally; the hotels will put you in touch with local skippers. Find ferry timetables at jadeninc.com and discoversvg.com.
Water way to travel: more ferry good Caribbean routes
Although the ferry network between the islands isn’t as extensive as you might hope, especially between countries, there are some useful routes. In the southern Grenadines, Osprey Lines sails every morning from Grenada to heavenly Carriacou (from 90 minutes; one-way fare £20). On weekdays, it pushes on to even littler Petite Martinique (ospreylines.com).
The British Virgin Islands don’t offer as much interisland variety as the Grenadines, but they’re well connected by competing lines. For example, Speedy’s makes the half-hour crossing from Virgin Gorda to Tortola up to seven times a day (£13; bviferries.com). Several lines connect with the US Virgin Islands (bvitourism.co.uk/inter-island-ferries).
In the French Caribbean, L’Express des Iles zips from St Lucia to Martinique in 90 minutes, three times a week; it also calls at Dominica and Guadeloupe (from £55; express-des-iles.com).
All these hops sound too short? The overnighter between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico takes 14 hours (£65; acferries.com).
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