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The Globe and Mail
Veering Off The Beaten Path, Six Of The Lesser-Known Islands
By LASZLO BUHASZ
November 1, 2003
Lured by a combination of regional discounts, special packages and the increase in the value of the loonie, an increasing number of Canadians are expected to escape to the Caribbean for winter vacations during the next six months. Most will go with tours to large resorts on familiar islands such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Jamaica. But a growing minority will be looking for new experiences, away from the well-oiled machinery and easy comforts of mass tourism.
There are still places in the Caribbean around the edges of the sea and on some of its smallest islands where a slower pace prevails and solitude is easy to find. Here, then, are a half-dozen such small gems. They're not easy to get to and not all have first-class accommodations or conveniences such as bank machines and satellite TV, but each offers the kind of simple pleasures that are getting harder to find.
The first time I visited Bequia, almost a decade ago, I arrived on a small yacht that picked me up from privately owned Mustique, another tiny island in the St. Vincent and the Grenadines archipelago. We left from a dock near legendary Basil's Bar, where David Bowie and Mick Jagger used to drop by from their luxurious vacation homes to join on-island royalty such as the late Princess Margaret in raucous midnight revelries. After the high-octane opulence of Mustique, the wind-swept sail to Bequia was an ideal way to wind down to the laid-back, languorous pace of Port Elizabeth, Bequia's main village on Admiralty Bay.
A little more than 18 square kilometres in size, with a permanent population of about 5,000, the island (pronounced Bek-way) is the first, and largest, in the chain that straggles south from St. Vincent toward Grenada. Long a favourite of yachties, and visited by small ships such as Yankee Clipper, a tall ship operated in these waters by Windjammer Barefoot Cruises this lush, romantic island is isolated enough to remain unspoiled but lively enough to offer diversions for almost everyone.
Admiralty Bay is lined with pastel-coloured, gingerbread-trimmed homes, small shops and restaurants, and a lively market. The island has a tradition of boat-building, whaling and general seafaring, and visitors can find beautiful scale-model ships, old nautical charts and rare sailing books.
Hang around one of the beachfront bars long enough and you'll probably run into some of the local characters who acted as extras in the hit movie Pirates of the Caribbean, filmed last year around St. Vincent.
The islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines have long been a refuge for eccentrics, and Bequia is no exception. It's worth chartering a boat just for a seaside view of the cliffside Brewer House at Moonhole on the craggy southwest tip of the island. Or you can just "lime" out under the palms, take in the sounds of J. Gool & de Buccaneers at Coco's Bar and make the scene at the wildly popular Thursday night barbecue at the Frangipani Hotel.
Another tiny hideaway in the Grenadines that rarely registers a blip on tourist radars is Palm Island. This idyllic 52-hectare speck of hills and white sandy coves less than two kilometres east of Union Island is privately owned and offers a one-resort getaway with 40 deluxe accommodations in suites and a string of beachfront cottages. It has a swimming pool, tennis courts, spa services, a tiny nine-hole golf course, and fine dining in a beachfront restaurant.
Once an uninhabited tangle of mosquito-infested swamps known as Prune Island, it is a favourite stop for yachts that cruise these turquoise waters. Palm was almost single-handedly transformed from a wilderness of scrub by John Caldwell and his family, who bought it in 1966.
"Coconut Johnny," as he was known for his penchant for planting coconut palms wherever he went, died in his 80s a few years ago. The island's resort is under new management and has been completely refurbished, but his spirit lingers on.
This region of the Caribbean has long attracted an odd mixture of the rich, misfits, and small fleets of sail-borne dropouts from the northern rat race. But even here, where every harbour seems littered with unusual tales, Caldwell's life story stands out as a corker.
When I visited Palm Island shortly before he died, Caldwell regaled me for hours with hair-raising stories of his wartime service with the U.S. merchant marines and a single-handed crossing of the Pacific that ended in disaster when he was swamped by a storm and spent 49 days adrift with little food or water before washing up on the reefs of an atoll in the Exploring Islands of Fiji.
Desperate Voyage, his book recounting those adventures, is still in print. A great place to read it is on the beachfront veranda of a Palm Island cottage.
Just 11 kilometres off the coast of Puerto Rico, most of Isla Vieques was used by the U.S. Navy for bombing and shelling exercises for 62 years. The Navy moved out last year and the small island is now in danger of becoming the next big thing in the Caribbean.
For a while yet, however, it is likely to remain a tranquil, rustic escape from mass tourism where farm animals cross the roads at will, there is a blessed lack of traffic lights and, except for the 156-room Wyndham Martineau Bay, no mega-resorts or sign of the Golden Arches. The 132-square-kilometre island, also called La Isla Nena (small girl island), is surrounded by crystal-clear waters and has a wealth of white, sandy beaches and secluded coves.
The most interesting place to stay on the island is the dramatic Hix Island House, built and owned by Toronto-based architect John Hix. Situated on almost five hectares on a hill overlooking the coast, the Zen-like architecture of its three reinforced concrete buildings has been hailed as one of the Caribbean's most distinctive and eco-friendly hotels. It has also been used for fashion shoots by Esquire magazine and has been praised in a dozen major publications. Best of all, there are no phones, no televisions and no annoying interruptions with a turn-down service. Get there before the crowds arrive.
One of the least-developed and most terrain-challenged islands in the Caribbean is tiny Saba in the Dutch West Indies. Rising steeply out of the sea, this 13-square-kilometre rock has almost no flat ground. At 400 metres in length, its airport, at the bottom of a tongue of land that thrusts into the sea, is one of the shortest in the world. The only road on the island, to the community of Hell's Gate, climbs 2.5 kilometres and has 20 sharp curves. There are no beaches, not much in the way of nightlife and no fancy resorts.
There are, however, plenty of opportunities for challenging hiking on Mt. Scenery, the volcanic pinnacle of Saba. On a clear day from its peak, you can see the neighbouring islands of St. Martin/St. Maarten, Nevis, Saint Eustatius and St. Kitts.
There is also exceptional diving in the waters of Saba Marine Park, a preserve that protects the reefs surrounding the island.
And for those who just want a quiet retreat, there are a handful of small inns and guesthouses such as the Ecolodge Rendez-Vous, built to attract nature lovers, hikers and divers with 12 simple cottages. Even the most rustic have a reputation for cleanliness and basic comfort, and many visitors have remarked on the genuinely warm welcome and friendliness that can be expected from Saba's 1,200 inhabitants.
You won't have to worry about the noise of traffic on Guanaja, one of the Bay Islands off the north coast of Honduras. There are no roads or cars here, only water taxis that carry the few visitors to a handful of small hotels and diving resorts sprinkled around the coastline.
Even Bonacca, the main community on the arrowhead-shaped island, is built on a small cay off the south coast. The town has a network of lagoons that pass for roads and narrow walkways that snake through a maze of small shops and dwellings. Bonacca is not a place to linger for long. When I stayed overnight at the mouldering Hotel Alexander, I almost tripped over the hotel's "security" in an unlit breezeway an old gent clutching a rusty machete and snoozing in a plastic chair with his legs stretched across the corridor.
Most visitors to Guanaja are picked up by boat at the island's airport and go directly to one of a dozen hotels and small resorts spread around the coast. They range from small, simple "pension-type" inns such as East End Lodge to larger, more sophisticated resorts such as the Bayman Bay Club.
Almost every hotel offers diving and snorkelling, the island's biggest attraction. Guanaja is on one of the world's great coral formations, which stretches south from Belize along the coast of Central America. Beautiful underwater vistas can be easily explored off the northwest coast.
Bring plenty of insect repellent, though. "There's not a single mosquito on Guanaja," goes an island saying. "They're all married with very large families."
Isla El Gran Roque
The main island in Venezuela's Los Roques archipelago, Isla El Gran Roque includes 350 islets, reefs and spits strewn over 2,500 square kilometres of azure sea. This little-known cluster and its surrounding waters 140 kilometres north of Caracas and 160 kilometres east of the Dutch island of Bonaire are protected as the largest national marine reserve in the Caribbean.
Relatively unfamiliar to North Americans, the waters around Los Roques are a diver's wonderland, with an abundance of marine life and soft-coral walls that descend more than 61 metres in crystal-clear water.
A great way to explore the marine reserve is to use Isla Gran Roque as a base and hire one of the charter-yacht outfits for day trips to the best underwater sites.
If you go
Information about getting to Bequia, accommodations, yacht charters, diving and island activities can be found at www.bequiasweet.com and www.islandtimeholidays.com.
Windjammer Barefoot Cruises: www.windjammer.com. Operates an itinerary around the islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
A launch picks up visitors from Union Island, which can be reached by regional air service from international airports on Grenada, Barbados or Martinique. For reservations, call (800) 345-0356, or visit
www.eliteislandresorts.com and follow the links.
For more information , visit www.palmislandreserve.org.
Desperate Voyage by John Caldwell can be ordered through most bookstores or on-line at
You can get to Vieques from Puerto Rico by boat or airplane.
For ferry and air schedules and information , visit the Web site at www.vieques-island.com.
Hix Island House: (787) 741-2302; www.hixislandhouse.com.
There is regular ferry and air service from nearby St. Maarten.
For more detailed information about the island, accommodations and activities, visit the Web site at www.sabatourism.com.
Guanaja can be reached by regular small-plane flights from San Pedro Sula on the Honduras mainland.
You can find a map, accommodations and general information on Guanaja and the other two Bay Islands by visiting the Web site at www.letsgohonduras.com/web/ and following the links under "nature."
ISLA EL GRAN ROQUE
There are flights to Isla El Gran Roque from Caracas and Margarita Island.
For accommodation options, visit www.ecotourismonline.com/roques/accommodation/htm.
Two companies that offer crewed-yacht charter options in Los Roque are The Windward Island Cruising Company (visit the Web site at www.caribbean-adventure.com/us/venezus.html) and Explore Yachts ( www.los.roques/net/losroquesus.html).