I dashed through the pouring rain into the covered dining area of the Hardwood Bar and Snacket on Paradise Beach. This beach had become a stop on my tour of Carriacou because of a random act of kindness in the Grenada Airport. I had been delayed by the tardy opening of the ticket counter, miserably squeezed between passengers in line for clearing customs and immigration for their international flights, and was fretting about missing my own flight due to these lines, when the gentleman behind me noticed my bright yellow SVG Air ticket stub. He reassured me that this madness wasn’t required for domestic flights and not once but twice arranged my passage to the next level of progress from his own spot nearer the back of the line. I made my flight and decided to celebrate by heeding my guardian angel’s recommendation to visit Paradise Beach. My newfound Samaritan lived on Grenada now, but had grown up on the country’s slower-paced island of Carriacou. Paradise Beach was one of his favorite haunts. Judging by the constant flow of locals even in the rain, it was clear he wasn‘t the only one to love this beach.
I’d barely shaken off my umbrella and walked up to the counter when one of the women sitting at a nearby table jumped up, opened a door leading behind the counter and hollered, “Mama Joy, you’ve got new customers.”
A slightly flustered woman emerged from a small kitchen to the side of the counter and rattled off the day’s lunch options. The smells wafting from behind her indicated that one couldn’t go wrong. Once I’d ordered, the customer who’d alerted Mama Joy to my presence volunteered to get my drink and set my table so the owner could return to her cooking.
Carriacou was just that kind of place. Everyone seemed to pitch in. A group of local men huddled under a beach shelter just beyond my covered patio refuge. In between downpours, they divvied up tasks, busying themselves collecting firewood, cleaning fish, kneading flour, borrowing utensils or ingredients from Mama Joy’s kitchen and eventually tending a large pot over an open fire pit. Curiosity got the better of me and once I’d thoroughly cleaned my overly full plate, and the rain had subsided, I went to see what they were cooking. I was immediately invited to their meal of “fish waters”. Despite having just finished a large and tasty lunch, I found myself in buoyant company working my way through a delicious fish stew, complete with okra and dumplings. As a thanks, I offered to buy my fish waters tutor a beer, but apparently that didn’t sufficiently accommodate the joint effort. He suggested that I ask Mama Joy for an “Antem” (my interpreted spelling), which proved to be a few measures of the potent local Jack Iron Rum poured into an empty soda bottle, a glass of ice, a bottle of coke, and a glass of water – an assortment designed for communal drinking, allowing everyone in the group to construct a drink just the way they liked it. It turned out that the sense of community in this gathering ran much deeper than the shared food and drink too. The reason my tutor had been placed in charge on this particular day was that his wife had recently died. His friends hoped to stave off loneliness with busyness.
Paradise Beach was certainly a worthwhile stop, as was Carriacou in general. Politically part of Grenada, Carriacou culturally and geographically blends better with the Grenadines, which geologically it actually is. At 13 square miles, it is the largest island in the Grenadines chain. Like most of the Grenadines, Carriacou boasts forested peaks, white beaches and a lifestyle built around boating. Windward, the island’s northeastern-most town, is known for its Scottish-descended boatbuilders who continue traditional practices today. I visited around Carriacou’s famous regatta week, and so in Windward saw only abandoned work sheds covering boat skeletons at various stages of completion. The builders themselves were all in completed boats, out on the water practicing for the regatta.
The normally mellow town of Hillsborough was bustling with pre-regatta preparations on my first visit. All around this and surrounding islands, boats of various size, shape and style were being prepared or transported for the big event. Children in tiny sailboats steered their way to Carriacou as they were towed across open ocean by larger sailboats. On my second visit, a week later I saw that preparations in fact continued right up to the moment of the races themselves. One crew was attaching its bamboo mast right on the beach prior to line-up and yet another was hammering its rudder into place even as the start horn blew. Hillsborough’s extensive beach, and the entire main street for that matter, was abuzz with locals from Carriacou, neighbors from surrounding islands as far away as Barbados and Antigua, former residents returned from abroad, foreign cruisers, and a handful of unsuspecting tourists. The day I attended were the local races and while it looked like chaos with regatta officials, race crews, support crews, spectators, vendors, children and boats strewn across the beach, as well as boats anchored within the race course off-shore, the correct boats miraculously lined up in the water for their start signal in a very timely fashion. Underlying the perceived mayhem was an orderly system that embraced the last moment hammering while successfully maintaining some semblance of the required schedule. And in the end, spirits were high, energy soared, a gracefulness prevailed and camaraderie appeared to reign even among competitors.
In quieter moments, away from the excitement of fish waters and regatta races, Carriacou is gifted with lullingly beautiful nature. Just about every cove has a splendid beach, many devoid of humans and their development. One of my favorites, with breathtaking views across the sea to Petite Dominique and Petite Martinique, was accessed via a pleasant mangrove nature trail just north of Windward. There are also several forested peaks on this little island and a couple are officially protected as national parks. An intersection at the town of Bogles features an impressive informational kiosk detailing various species that one might expect to encounter in the neighboring High North National Park, and other places on the Island. The Kido Ecological Research Station, a small, private non-profit organization facilitating local conservation and ecotourism activities, including this informational display, is claimed to be located nearby, near Anse La Roche Beach and the High North National Park. I confess though, that while I planned to visit this station, getting there wasn’t as straight-forward as I expected and I never made it. I turned back unsuccessful, discouraged by challenging roads, a lack of signage and several businesses en route that were definitively closed despite signs touting otherwise. The dirt road into the High North wasn’t exactly inviting either, but it was accessible by foot and was a worthwhile hike with dry forest, vistas, a variety of birds and even my one and only iguana sighting for all of Grenada. A giant, cream-colored male eyed me suspiciously from the roadside before diving into the vegetation below, not to be seen again. I later verified that they are eaten on the island.
In the south, signs proudly advertise marine protection for a zone extending from Paradise Beach around a headland into Tyrrel Bay. Included within this zone is quaint Sandy Island off of Paradise Beach and a mangrove lagoon on the northern end of Tyrrel Bay. Popular with coastal birds, Sandy Island is a mere speck of an island. Its white sands are flecked with pink invertebrate remains, the windward side is piled in coral skeletons and it’s true amazement is the reef system that extends from its beaches. This maze of living and dead corals hosts a breathtaking number and variety of fish and marine invertebrates, but the highlight for me was a hawksbill sea turtle.
Most of my hawksbill encounters have been fleeting, the critters jetting away at the mere suggestion of my presence, but this one lackadaisically chomped through coral skeletons at the edge of the reef despite my approach. It let me swim within a few feet, came up for a breath just beside me and meandered along to another patch of corals, allowing me to follow closely.
While less mystical and not particularly inviting for a snorkel given its murky waters, the mangrove lagoon proved a perfect venue for stand-up paddleboarding. Protected for its water-cleansing tree oysters, the area provides refuge for various fish, birds and even reptiles, like the tree boa I discovered coiled amongst the mangrove branches. Unfortunately, development of a marina at the mouth of this mangrove habitat will likely destroy it as occasional whiffs of sewage suggest it’s already at its cleansing capacity.
Further to the south of Carriacou are several off-shore islands, close enough to be a playground for island residents but far enough to feel remote. In fact, the first time in a week that our boat was the only one in view was when we anchored off of Saline Island, opposite Carriacou’s sparsely populated Manchineel Bay – possibly avoided for its namesake caustic tree. Saline Island housed an abandoned salt silo made of stone and coral on one end of its beach, the only remaining sign of its salt industry past. An abandoned wooden shack and a gravestone demarcated by ancient queen conch shells (known locally as lambi) were the island owners‘ signs to the government that the island was claimed, though in reality mostly by wildlife. The salinas that once yielded salt now house birds. Carib Grackle and Scaly-naped Pigeon nests claimed branches in every direction, with one small bush housing double-layered nests – a pigeon nest in the bottom branches and a grackle nest in upper branches directly above. American Oystercatchers wandered the rocky coast, Wilson’s Plovers the sandy beach, a small reef shark who seemed overly interested in my legs cruised along the mangrove edges and signs indicated that both iguanas and sea turtles use the island.
On the opposite side of a horseshoe reef with allegedly incredible snorkeling, White Island stands out as a distinctive beacon. Wide, white beaches banked by thick forest and turquoise waters erupt into a gnarled volcanic cliff on one end, defined by lava tube formations and wind-sculpted vegetation. It feels about as wild and remote as you can get in these parts, yet tucked up on a sandy bank in the shade is a clearing with benches, picnic tables, utilitarian driftwood and a painted sign from the “Lambi Queen and her crew” inviting visitors to enjoy the island and keep it clean. It’s the perfect place to cook up a big pot of fish waters and I bet the queen and her crew, whoever they might be, have done just that.
- Carriacou can be reached from Grenada by ferry on the Osprey Lines or by air on SVG Air.
- Carriacou can also be reached by private or chartered boat as part of a tour of the Grenadines. Please see my Grenadines blog for more information. I highly recommend Ellimae Byas who is actually based on Carriacou. She is a fabulous chef (she crewed through Horizon Yacht Charters on my trip), a dive instructor and charters her own sailboat, Bon Bini, in and around the Grenadines. I can’t say enough good things about Ellie.
- While I personally have no Carriacou land-lodging experience, the Green Roof Inn was frequently mentioned as a good option. I did visit the grounds of the Bogles Round House, hoping to eat at their restaurant. While I can vouch that it’s a lovely setting, it was one of the businesses that claimed to be open but had no sign of life once there.
- Despite the fact that Carriacou is a relatively small island, there are lots of places to explore and having a vehicle is very helpful, preferably a 4-wheel drive. I rented from Sunkey’s Auto Rental (Tel: 1 (473) 443 8382/ 1 (473) 456 5655; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) and despite the fact that the car looked a little worse for wear, it ran well and Sunkey was very accommodating. Wayne’s Auto Rentals & Services (Tel: 1 (473) 443 6120; Email: email@example.com) seems to be the largest operation on the island and is affiliated with a repair shop in Hillsborough. Other advertised options include Ade’s Dream and John’s Unique Resort.
- The Carriacou Regatta is held annually at the end of July, peaking in early August. Unfortunately, very little helpful information is available online. The official regatta website (www.carriacouregattafestival.com) that is cited everywhere currently has nothing more than a web-hosting rant. Some information can be found on Grenada tourism sites (Grenada Explorer for example) and their Facebook page. Since the locals all knew where to be when for what, my guess is that much is spread by word of mouth. Try asking local travel agents, hotel clerks, boat charter companies, ticketing agents or anyone else you might be making travel arrangements with for the latest information. Even recent information is subject to change though, some of the scheduling information I was given proved wrong. Keep in mind that this is the Caribbean, things change.