I knew we were in the right place when my girlfriend started crying. We had just flown to an island 484 miles south of Puerto Rico and were pushing off a beach in a skiff that would take us to our hotel. A mistimed jump aboard had drenched Ilene's black pants and half her black Playboy T-shirt. As we pulled far enough from shore to see where we were-surrounded by white sand, green hills, and Caribbean blue-hot, happy tears drizzled down her cheeks. The baptism was complete. Salvation was at hand: St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
S.V.G. is the official abbreviation for the 33 islands and cays that fall between St. Lucia and Grenada. It was among the last of the region's island colonies to gain independence-from Britain, in 1979. It may also be the last to submit to the pink-skinned invaders who've laid claim to almost every other paradise island in the Caribbean. Getting here still isn't easy. A two-hour American Eagle flight from San Juan-with, in our case, no working bathroom.
And yet, people do come. Yachters party on Bequia. Nature nuts seek out St. Vincent's volcanic jungle. Palm Beach super-WASP's and rock stars have been fleeing to Mustique's colony of lush villas since the late fifties. Privately owned islands like Mustique or island resorts like Young Island, Palm Island, and Petit St. Vincent give the Grenadines an aura of gated exclusivity. But it's not all like that. Banana boats that could have ferried Graham Greene bump up against lavish modern luxury. There are still empty beaches and locals who don't want to sell you T-shirts. Traveling can still be done on the cheap. The Grenadines are, to borrow the title of a recent film, the high-low country. And our weekend-to-weekend migration would be a very high-low holiday.
The Power Relaxation was to start with a wind sprint of nonstop action on St. Vincent: rain-forest trail, volcano hike, all-night partying in Kingstown. That didn't happen.
"I don't think we're going back to Kingstown tonight," Ilene said.
Wobbling giddily on barstools, we sucked down our first-but not our last-fruit punches. We had arrived at our hotel, a tiny eco-conscious enclave called the Petit Byahaut. The Byahaut is accessible only by water and has just five rooms. Did I say rooms?Gilligan and the Skipper had cushier quarters. No TV, no phone-only a VHF radio for emergencies. Guests sleep in tents. All right, tents outfitted with queen-size beds and running water. Built into the rocky hillside outside the tents are a proper toilet, sink, and shower. A few steps away, there's a platform with a pair of hammocks sheltered by a roof. The place is just on the right side of civilization for a softy (like me) whose idea of roughing it is having nowhere to plug in an electric toothbrush.
We scrambled up the steep stone path to our room and squirted ourselves clean with the hot-water-bag "shower," loving our little eco-Eden. Over a dinner of blackened dorado we chatted with Sharon, who runs the place with her husband, Charles. A couple of graying hippies, they both have the same blissed-out manner. He's a former real estate man from California; she's an artist from Canada. I tried to bond with Sharon over the fact that we grew up in the same province, but she wanted to talk about their solar-powered refrigeration and Charles's dream of living in a three-sided house. There are a lot of these sorts of people in the Grenadines: refugees from the rat race doing a modified Gauguin thing. Sharon may start the morning by cleaning the bathrooms with twigs, or whatever, but she reads the Wall Street Journal online every day.
Climbing the 4,048-foot active volcano soufriËre is a four-hour trek through dense rain forest that even locals avoid. The falls of Baleine, on the other hand, promised to be a gorgeous tropical wonder.
We did that instead.
Our guide, Hal Daize, picked us up in his speedboat the next day. Already on board were a spry older couple and a grizzled deckhand named Jim in a teal Florida Marlins T-shirt. We cruised up the leeward (western) side of the island in the late-morning sun. A gray heron passed us effortlessly.
"I could keep up with him, but I don't think you'd like the ride," Hal said.
Hal, a cheerful, confident man in his early thirties, proved an able guide. He showed us brown boobies perched on the black volcanic rock and a huge frigate bird-or man-o'-war, as the fishermen here call it circling high above. As we passed the smokestacks of the abandoned sugar plantations, Hal lamented that sugar is now imported. Bananas and coconuts are still exported, as is arrowroot. St. Vincent is the World's leading producer of the stuff, used as coating for computer paper more often these days than as an antidote for poisoned arrows.
Because the Leeward Highway stops about three-quarters of the way up the island, we were soon looking at lush valleys accessible only by boat. The rich volcanic soil turns the hills up the coast endless shades of green. On some of the beaches we saw the small colored boats of the ganja farmers.
Hal said, "I never get tired of lookin' at these valleys."