John Graham-Hart, The Daily Telegraph, January 8, 2014
'The trail to the top of La Soufrière volcano is the longest and most challenging in St Vincent.” So my guidebook told me as I sat disputing my breakfast with a particularly determined yellow-breasted bananaquit. I couldn’t help thinking that that last sunset punch in Basil’s Bar wasn’t quite the quality decision it had seemed at the time.
My local mentor and fellow climber Ossie Holder reassured me. Just a walk in the park, he said, and as we began our drive up the island’s east coast all thoughts of the climb ahead were replaced by sheer delight. My luxury hotel quickly fell 100 miles and several decades behind and we slipped back into the barefoot days of my Caribbean childhood. As we drove through the villages, there were the children with whom I’d played on dusty streets or shining beaches, there the dark, cool shade of the mangoes, there the plump mothers, infants in their arms and baskets on their heads, and there was the old yellow dog, still asleep in the morning sun.
I’ve been back to the Caribbean countless times since I was a child, but my own Caribbean had seemed to have vanished like some tropical Brigadoon. Suddenly, wonderfully, here it was again – a landscape stippled with immaculately painted toy houses in pastel blues, pinks and yellows and everywhere a smile and a wave.
“Welcome to the last of the Caribbean,” said Ossie with a grin as we rounded a bend. Beneath us was laid out the lush, green Mesopotamia valley, the heart of St Vincent, which is so fertile it’s said that if you stick a pencil in the ground it will grow. But we had higher aspirations. We were headed up 4,000ft to the crater of La Soufrière. The trail itself starts at 500ft, so ahead of us was a three-and-a-half mile hike up 3,500ft of mountain. Even with my maths, this translated into 1,000ft per mile.
Our trek began gently enough, Ossie pointing out the flora and fauna, a tiny hummingbird nest, a darting lizard no bigger than a matchstick, a caterpillar the size of a hot dog, the trail borders of wild begonia. However, by the time we reached the halfway mark my interest in the natural world had taken on more than a touch of desperation. Every bug and bud became an object of intense fascination and I bombarded Ossie with a dozen questions about each, knowing he would have to take a two-minute break to explain.
After two hours, we broke out of the forest into the realm of the black hawks that wheeled over the highest reaches of the mountain. A final scramble and we were standing on the rim, beneath us a vast, lush crater more than a mile across, the only reminder of its violent past a lazy drift of vapour rising like the breath of a dozing dragon from a hidden vent in its now-forested central lava dome.
Was it worth the climb? It certainly was, and seemed to become more and more worthwhile the closer I came to the ice-cold Carib beer that was patiently awaiting my return 4,000ft below.
Less demanding but in its way equally rewarding was a gentler stroll around St Vincent’s capital, Kingstown. Orientating oneself is not exactly demanding. There are only three main streets, all parallel to each other and only two – Bay Street and Middle Street – of real interest. Both are lined with the shady colonial colonnades that give Kingstown its claim to be the Caribbean’s “city of arches” – there are apparently more than 400.
Bay Street is the home of the fishmarket, were James, a stallholder, wielded a flashing machete as he identified his shining produce for me – snapper, mahimahi, bonito, yellowfin tuna. Between Bay Street and the boutiques of Middle Street is the vegetable and spice market, tropical foodie heaven. At the west end of town stand both the Anglican and Catholic cathedrals, both worth a visit and so companionably close they seem to be offering Sunday worshippers a denominational option.
St Vincent is a volcanic island and so most of the beaches are black sand, with the exception of a short stretch on the south coast that takes in Indian Bay and Villa Beach and a luxury private island hotel, Young Island. This makes for some dramatic scenery, particularly up the west coast, where the road alternately snakes high into the forested mountainside and plunges suddenly down to meet the deserted shoreline.
This is not a road for the faint-hearted and I was glad Ossie was at the wheel again. The drive and the shorelines seem to be arranged for the perfect day. Below you are deserted beaches and coves ideally placed for a break and a swim. Slip down to Cumberland Bay for a drink and a chat with a passing yachtie. Opt for Peter’s Hope Beach and you share it with no one. At the end of the road are Fitz Hughes and the Beachfront Restaurant and grilled mahimahi straight from the sea.
All too often St Vincent’s visitors arrive and hurry on to the smaller Grenadine islands. But lovely though these islands unquestionably are, it would be a shame to head south without realising that you’re passing through, as Ossie so perfectly put it, the last of the Caribbean.
Petit St Vincent
In 1963, Haze Richardson, a yacht charter skipper, was asked by one of his customers to find him a private island to buy. Haze focused on the Grenadines and ultimately found a lush, beautiful, uninhabited island of 113 acres fringed virtually all around with pristine white sand. It was called Petit St Vincent.
The deal was done and Haze then supervised the building of 22 cottages, some hidden in the shoreline palms, others clinging to the hillside. One of the world’s great island escapes had been born.
Haze became the manager of the hotel and later the owner and, as the years passed, the island’s unique blend of simple luxury and castaway privacy caught the imagination of an international and varied band of Crusoes, ranging from celebrities and millionaires to young honeymooners looking for the ultimate romantic hideaway. The guests became fiercely loyal both to the island and to Haze.
And then the unimaginable happened. Haze died and the island was sold to Robin Paterson and Philip Stevenson. Who? And they wanted changes. What? The guests became seriously restless. What were these people going to do with “their” island?
They need not have worried. Brit Paterson and Texan Stevenson had bought the island because they too knew and loved it, and before anyone so much as picked up a shovel, all past guests were sent the new owners’ ideas and asked for their input. A waterside bar and restaurant were approved, as was a hillside spa, but televisions, Wi-Fi and telephones in the cottages were given a stern thumbs down.
PSV also needed an overhaul of basic utilities, and all cottages were long overdue a complete renovation. The work is now complete and some indication of its success is that three out of every five guests now book their next stay before they have even left the island.
My own secluded cottage was up a hillside with a truly outrageous view over the Caribbean. In the bedroom and sitting room, the designers have preserved the vaulted ceiling but painted the dark wood a French grey, brightening the rooms considerably. Fans turn nostalgically above but there is also now the option of that modern novelty, air-conditioning.
I communicated with the outside world by semaphore, or the PSV equivalent – two flags on a flagpole outside my cottage. Raise the red one and I would not be disturbed. Raise the yellow one and a white Mini Moke would arrive either to collect a room-service order I’d secreted in a bamboo basket on the flagpole or to give me a lift down to the beach or restaurant. I could also order a personalised meal, a private barbecue or candlelit dinner on my terrace or anywhere on the island.
On my first morning I had breakfast with no fewer than five hummingbirds flitting among the flaming yellow torches of Aloe barbadensis that bordered my terrace. I then strolled down to the main restaurant to meet a few of my fellow guests. It was empty. I tried the bar. No one. I headed for the dock. Not a soul. I then realised that this, of course, is an island to which you come to escape the world – everyone was relaxing either on the beach by their private cottage or in a palm-shaded hammock with, naturally, its own flag system.
And if your hammock begins to lose its magic, you can simply go down to the watersports area and charter anything from a windsurfer to a 40ft powerboat. You can take an open-water diving course, snorkel around the nearby Tobago Cays, sail across to Canouan Island with its 18-hole championship golf course, try your luck deep-sea fishing or brave the few hundred yards of blue-on-blue water to Petit Martinique.
However, I found that, strangely, even after an hour or two, my hammock seemed to have lost none of its initial charm.
In the afternoon, I snorkelled around the reef that surrounds the island, and although the water was never more than standing depth, the coral and marine life were astounding.
That evening I joined a sunset cruise on PSV’s lovely traditional Windward Islands sloop, built on the beach of Petit Martinique by its skipper, Jeff Stevens, an Englishman who paused on his way to Panama 21 years ago and somehow never left. The sloop is the third he has built in the islands.
“The Grenadines are perfect for sailing because the trade winds blow at 90 degrees to the island chain, which gives you a clear run without too much tacking,” he says.
Aboard with me were two couples who seemed in their different ways to be representative of their fellow guests – Chris and Anita Boyd from Hampshire, who had known the island before the renovations and were on their seventh visit, and Chris and Kristy Wallace, honeymooners from Chicago who had spent a couple of years saving and searching for exactly the right hideaway.
“Everyone was a little worried about the renovations,” Anita said. “But they really listened to their guests and they’ve got it exactly right. The cottages are beautiful and the restaurants are outstanding but they haven’t gone too far – they’ve been very careful to retain the island’s original castaway atmosphere.”
Kristy Wallace said she must have read a thousand reviews of potential honeymoon escapes online but the couple kept coming back to PSV. “It’s perfect,” she said. “Everything we hoped it would be. Total privacy when you want it but some wonderful things to do, too. Will we be coming back? You bet.”
The last word, however, has to go to “Goatie” Victory, PSV’s longest-serving employee, who has known the island for more than 40 years and who is now its unofficial grandfather. “The new owners have respect for the place. They don’t try to damage anything, just enhance it, not make it into something like Europe but try to keep it natural and beautiful.”
And, judging by the enduring loyalty of its guests, they are more than succeeding.