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."
Most of St. Vincent is shockingly pristine. Except for a resort or two and a few business hotels near the port, it's more like Naipaul's Trinidad than, say, Bermuda.
As we skirted the wild coastline, we got to know our retired friends. Ray had been a clay modeler at the Jaguar factory in the north of England. Mrs. Ray (okay, so we didn't know each other that well) had been a bookkeeper. When we reached the falls, Ray watched Ilene dive in and swim up under the waterfall and pronounced her a "daredevil." I tiptoed in to stomach-freezing level.
After about 10 minutes, I realized I couldn't wimp out in front of old people. I swam as close to the crashing water as any sane person would and kissed Ilene because she made me.
On the way back, the rain came, right around the time Hal decided we had to see dolphins. As shower turned to downpour, he made for the deep water. Ilene rejected the plastic ponchos from the hold as too smelly, but Ray put one on and stared grimly at the horizon. I imagined him, with the same grim visage, sitting in one of those deadly landing craft that unloaded the boys onto the beach at Normandy. Hal had become Ahab, deaf to our assurances that we'd be happy to go home without the dolphins. And then we saw them! Little black ones in the distance, frolicking away. It was worth it, if only to get us back to dry land.
At the Byahaut, I clutched a cup of tea like a gulag prisoner and began to wonder whether nature wasn't overrated. In these primitive surroundings, the life-and-death struggle on our table between a moth and a tiny frog seemed a little too close to home. It was time to exit the biosphere.
The Charm of St. Vincent is that it has not been quaintified. This is also a reason not to linger. Kingstown is a commercial port whose open-air market is rivaled in unsightliness only by the very bad brick edifice going up to replace it. Bequia (pronounced "beck-wee"(, an hour's ferry ride away, is the opposite: a picture-postcard harbor filled with enviable yachts. We hired one of the cheerfully painted water taxis to take us to the Gingerbread Hotel, a waterfront spot I'd chosen for its name. Built in the scalloped, fairytale style of the Grenadines, it lived up to its billing. Our thirdfloor room was large and airy, with a fourposter bed in the middle and a balcony overlooking the harbor. The proprietor, Pat Mitchell, another transplanted Canadian, gave us a brusque rundown of the amenities, focusing heavily on antimosquito weaponry.
We ventured into the noonday sun, along the main street that hugs the harbor, past the souvenir shops to Daphne Cooks It, a little roti stand we'd read about. I ordered a curried beef, which was probably goat. When we asked after Daphne, the girl serving us waved her hand and said, "Upstairs."
The heat was making somebody kind of cranky.
Behind Bequia's beaches, its hilly green interior rises sharply. You can see some of the villas (many of them built by yachters who fell in love with the island) poking out from their lush landscaping. At a restaurant called Da Reef, we ordered shrimp-and-lobster salad and a couple of Hairouns, the local beer. We watched a man with a machete hacking up a fish on the beach. Ilene went to investigate. When his sister started yelling at him for "fing too many women," Ilene excused herself. Bequia is a little rough around its quaintly scalloped edges. In a wellpublicized case in 1997, two hard-partying Americans were charged with the murder of a watertaxi driver. They were released after spending 10 months in local jails.
One Bequia tourist trap worth falling into is the model-boat-building trade. In the back room of Sargeant's, at the edge of town, men sit whittling amazingly detailed replicas that range in scale from one to five feet, and in price from a hundred bucks to four grand. Worth every penny if you've got the pennies.
But, back to the mosquitoes. After a night of hunting the evil insects that had made it past the bed's netting, I woke up with a huge welt of poison on my forehead, right on the hairline. We tried an early game of tennis, but the Gingerbread's cracked, weedy court looked as if it hadn't been used since the colonists left.
Surely, We would not experience such hardships at our next destination, the famously opulent and manicured Mustiquea place for pashas, rumored to make St. Bart's look like Club Med. Colin Tennant, aka Lord Glenconner, founded this elite colony in 1958 as a place where his wealthy and titled friends, notably Princess Margaret, could winter. In the seventies, David Bowie and Mick Jagger showed up. Bowie sold his villa; Mick still has his even if he doesn't use it much.
One of the most beautiful women I have ever seen greeted us at the dock and took us in a white minivan up to the Cotton House, the island's only real hotel. As we were checking in, Yves, the manager, chastised us for not telling them when we were coming or how many people we were, a strange complaint considering that they had our confirmed reservation. He asked where we'd been. I mentioned the Byahaut.
"How did you end up there?" he sniffed, as if we'd been trapped in a homeless shelter.
We were led across immaculate grounds to a white building that housed the Tower, our compact but elegant room, with French windows opening onto a balcony and the ocean beyond. A silver tray balanced with a bottle of Perrier-Jouet and a frosty jug of liquefied tropical fruit arrived and was duly consumed. I did a Tony Curtis line from Sweet Smell of Success: "From now on, the best of everything is good enough for me!" The Cotton House is that kind of place. The kind with a "pillow menu."
Island residents gather every Tuesday for cocktails in the Cotton House's neocolonial reception hall. Some awful people who'd been on our plane from San Juan were there-a blond woman in a straw hat and a navy blazer who had said to a man in lavender pants and a golf shirt: "I do hope they don't make Puerto Rico a state, because then we'll have to give them aid."
The party gave Ilene an insta-anxiety attack: she was wearing palm-leaf Cotton House flip-flops because of a foot injury sustained while swimming that afternoon, and this was not a flip-flop affair. Still, she managed to cozy up to the island's unofficial ambassador, a Brahmin matron with addresses on Beacon Hill and Martha's Vineyard who's been coming to Mustique for 30 years. Through her, Ilene secured a session with Roxanne, the island's unofficial masseuse, at the Brahmin's own house for the next day. So transported would Ilene be by this experience that the following morning she'd declare, "If Madonna were here, she would be hanging out exclusively with Roxanne."
While this high-toned transaction was taking place, I was sweating in front of Tommy Hilfiger. Tommy reached over and expertly fingered the black rayon of my J. Crew shirt.
"You know why you're warm?" he said, looking as if he'd just stepped out of a meat locker. "This doesn't breathe. You need to wear cotton."
With that he was gone.
In the morning, we looked at some villas with the resident real estate agent and Tina Turner look-alike. Many of them were designed by or in the high- gingerbread style of Oliver Messel, a former theatrical set designer who established the tone of storybook luxury here. Most have glimmering pools and incomparable sea views and, considering the cook and maid service, are a better deal than the Cotton House.
We rented a Mulea grinding, heavy-duty golf cart that most people use to get around the islandand took it to the Firefly, a little guesthouse/restaurant/bar run by a glamorously louche English couple we'd met at the cocktail party the night before.
Not an Hotel, An Experience, the sign said. I could have done without the "an hotel" business. But the restaurant is a great vantage point, high above the ocean, with a terra-cotta terrace rimmed with wrought-iron railings. Never mind the superb cocktails and fish-and-chips. Riding a midday buzz and aspiring to loucheness ourselves, we were beginning to feel Mustique's mystique-or is it mystique's Mustique?Barman! Another round, please.
After lunch, we gravitated to the strip of shops by the waterfront. Ilene bought a pink bathing suit. I got a couple of little wooden birds on sticks. A two-hour massage and facial from a lovely Scottish lass at the Cotton House Spa primed me for the weekly "Jump Up" at Basil's Bar.
Basil himself is as much of an institution as his bar. He became a bartender at 17 and eventually rose to the status of island shareholder. Resplendent in a flowing red robe and gold Rolex, he stopped by our table to chat. He dismissed the Cotton House as "overpriced and overrated." After the all-we-could-eat lobster and barbecue-pork buffet, we danced amid giggling teenage girls to Bob Marley's "One Love." This wasn't quite the hot, sweatily sexy bacchanal I'd been led to expect.
The next morning the phone rang. I picked up.
"Tommy Hilfiger." He spoke his name with the supersmooth assurance of Casey Kasem announcing the number-one song in America. "I'm having a few old friends for dinner tonight, and we'd love it if you could join us."
I covered the receiver and made goofy faces at Ilene.
"Love to," I said. "But we're leaving in an hour."
"Fly back tonight!" Tommy countered.
"Can I take a rain check?"
We had to get to Canouan. There was a brand-new resort there! And turning down dinner at Tommy Hilfiger's house was actually cooler than going, I convinced myself. Ilene remained unpersuaded.
Canouan's Carenage Bay Beach & Golf Club is a tribute to modern technology and the basic human need to sip umbrella drinks at a swim-up bar. From the airport, you drive past the goats and hovels and I LOVE THE LORD churches into the gated resort community and golf course that, it is rumored, has been played by Bill Gates. To realize this $180 million project, roads, power and desalinization plants, and a large casino were built. Just watering the golf course costs $1 million a year. Our suite was huge. They all are. Jumbo bedroom and living room with coral-colored couches that double as daybeds. Kitchen area with cappuccino machine. (Italian management.) High vaulted ceilings, and doors made of dark Brazilian wood so heavy it sinks in water. Two bathrooms, the master outfitted with a huge tub, a bidet, and light Frette robes. Cable TV. A/C. Italian sparkling wine and a fruit basket.
The clientele is heavily Euro, mostly French and Italian. Swarthy men weighted down with gold and deeply bronzed size 0 trophy wives. Ilene saw one mother of two in a white knit bikini casually using a $3,000 piece of Louis Vuitton luggage as her beach bag. After lounging at the immense, banana-shaped pool, we walked a few paces down to the beach and rode a couple of water bicycles over the reef. A little later, we took a golf lesson from a French Canadian who told us that everything we did was wrong. Dinner, a beach barbecue, was another Euro fashion show: Mrs. Vuitton had switched into gold jeans and a leopard-print tank with full bra exposure. A man who looked like Charles de Gaulle walked by in a madras shirt, red jeans, and brown loafers.
I felt a desperate need to upgrade my resort wear. Ilene did so, dropping major plastic on various Roberto Cavalli creations at a boutique run by two extremely sexy and nice Italian women.
"At last, real shopping!" Ilene was moved to exclaim.
On our snorkeling excursion the next day, we met Mrs. de Gaulle, whose plastic surgery was outdone only by the number of outfits she wore during the boat trip (in amazed admiration, Ilene counted three). The Carenage dropped a couple of stars in our eyes when we saw the ratty catamaran they'd provided to take us to the Tobago Cays. The equipment was worse. Leaky masks. Flippers made for elves or Shaquille O'Nealnothing in between. Once in the water, though, you could see why fish freaks make pilgrimages here. The reef is spectacular, and so shallow that a few of us stood up in it and were yelled at by a local patrol.
Back at the Carenage that night, we found that the casino was closed. Ilene, who never met a blackjack table she didn't like, was crestfallen. Dying to check the place out, she asked for a tour the morning we were leaving. A large white building atop the resort's highest ground, it had a Monte Carlo-manquÈ look. Inside were baccarat tables and chemin de fer. Our Italian guide showed us where a gambling room was under construction, with tables for "crabs" and "slots for when the women get bored."
After the Freshly Minted Euros on display at the Carenage, we embraced the old-money shabby gentility of Young Island, our final stop. This resort island is just a few hundred yards off St. Vincent. A peacock was sitting at the door of our little cabana, and I chased him around in the rain, hoping he'd flash his plumage, NBC-style. He didn't. This was our last full day in the Grenadines. My only real goal was to go deep-sea fishing, which I'd never done. We set it up for the next day with Hal. At 7:30 a.m. it was raining again. Yesss!-a reprieve after being up late in the bar, drinking and bouncing to the strains of a tireless steel-drum band.
No such luck. Hal was right on time. Jim too, as well as a sharp-witted older gentleman named Henry, who turned out to have been one of the country's highest-ranking civil servants and a former UN official. Henry chatted on his cell phone with a doctor friend onshore as Hal hacked off chunks of sugarcane and gave them to us to chew on. The sun came out, but the fish didn't. Nothing but barracuda, the rats of the sea. Then I reeled in a tuna. Baby yellowfin. Three pounds maybe. More like sushi, really.
I could have cried.
Petit Byahaut St. Vincent; phone and fax 784/457-7008; www.outahere.com/petitbyahaut; doubles from $405.
Gingerbread Hotel Bequia; 784/458-3800, fax 784/458-3907; www.begos.com/gingerbread; doubles from $65.
Cotton House Mustique; 877/240-9945 or 784/456-4777, fax 784/456-5887; www.cottonhouse.net; doubles from $590.
Carenage Bay Beach & Golf Club Canouan; 784/458-8000, fax 784/482-0004; www.canouan.com; doubles from $260.
Young Island Young Island Crossing, St. Vincent; 784/458-4826, fax 784/457-4567; www.youngisland.com; doubles from $325.
Old Fort Country Inn Mount Pleasant, Bequia; 784/458-3440; dinner for two $80. Excellent callaloo and tropical chopped salad sweetened with grapefruit.
The Firefly Overlooking Britannia Bay, Mustique; 784/456- 3414; dinner for two $80. The fish-and-chips are essential, but are served only at lunch.
Basil's Bar On Britannia Bay, Mustique; 784/456-3350; dinner for two $80. There's a barbecue buffet at the Wednesday night "Jump Up." Surf 'n' turf and surprisingly good desserts the rest of the week.
Sargeant Bros. Model Boat Shop Port Elizabeth, Bequia; 784/458-3344. Scale reproductions of the island's once-famous whaling boats.
Treasure Boutiques Britannia Bay waterfront, Mustique; 784/458-4621, ext. 521. Lots of Tommy Hilfiger (he owns a sprawling villa here) and a few local items.
Aquamarine Carenage Bay Beach & Golf Club, Canouan; 784/458-8000, ext. 2403. Imported Italian women's clothing, from Roberto Cavalli evening wear to La Perla lingerie.
Hal Daize's speedboat is an ideal way to check out remote parts of St. Vincent-and go deep-sea fishing (784/458-4826).
Mustique Co. 800/225-4255; www.mustique-island.com. Two- to seven-bedroom luxury villas, from $3,000 per week (minimum stay one week). The rate includes a vehicle and household staff.
DO NOT MISS THE BOAT
It's a short sail between most of the islands in the Grenadines. An hourly ferry links St. Vincent and Bequia. The Passion, a catamaran run by a crusty ex-Marine, goes to Mustique. If you're in a hurry, take SVG Air (784/457-5124) or Mustique Airlines (800/526-4789).