As far as I can see in the distance, jagged peaks emerge from azure waters. As my boat sails nearer, I can’t help but be impressed by the white sand beaches that frost coves between rocky headlands and the carpet of vegetation that coats the island beyond. The Grenadines have long been a sailing destination and with good reason – this string of islets extending between the larger islands of Grenada to the south and St. Vincent to the north are alluring, within easy sailing distance of one another, well-stocked with vibrant fruits and vegetables, home to friendly locals and fun to explore as each has its own unique character. Union Island has a colorful market square in the entry port of Clifton and a handful of beachside restaurants and a few authentic homes for fishers at secluded Chatham Bay. The town of Port Elizabeth in Bequia is a comparative bustling metropolis, though maintaining a small town charm and pace that is unmatched on larger islands. Mustique is renowned as a high-end get away for the rich and famous, which means it didn’t make the cut of islands I wanted to visit but I’m sure the feeling was mutual. Mayreau is famed for its palm-lined beach at Salt Whistle Bay and a quaint church and equally touted village atop a ridge. I can attest that Salt Whistle Bay was stunning, but it was also packed with so many boats that there was quite literally no room for another and it lost some appeal for me. I anchored at quieter Chatham Bay that night instead. For me though, the true gem of the Grenadines were the Tobago Cays.
Under some level of protection since 1987 and formally a marine national park since 1997, the five islands and Horseshoe Reef encompassed in the Tobago Cays Marine Park would be my idea of paradise… if there weren’t quite so many people (and I visited in the low season). The Horseshoe Reef provides a calm refuge for marine fauna and even before we had moored, I could see sea turtle heads popping up all around us. My priority, of course, was seeing the iguanas promised to be on Baradel Cay just ahead. No sooner was the boat secured, than I was on my way to shore. The sun was low on the horizon so I knew the iguanas would either be soaking in the last rays on a warm rock or already be hunkered down for the night. I skirted the broad, white landing beach and headed to the island’s western facing rocks. There, in the sand just before the rocks, was verification that I was on the right track – an iguana tail drag. I scoured the terrain ahead to no avail, then I tucked into the bushes to begin my search for their bedding spots. It didn’t take long. Like most green iguanas, they take to the trees for the night and their knees give them away. A pair of jagged triangles jutting out from an otherwise smooth, round branch caught my eye. I craned my neck to find a pair of wary eyes peering down at me. Despite being classified as green iguanas (Iguana iguana), these were cream colored with vertical black stripes reminiscent of a zebra. This little glade hid seven among its branches, all head bobbing their disapproval at my presence.
I was back on Baradel Cay early the next morning, in time to catch the peak of post-dawn wildlife activity and prior to any real human activity. Iguanas were now abundant on eastern-facing substrates, basking in the sun or foraging in trees and bushes. An emerald baby scuttled across the trail ahead to disappear beneath a giant agave plant. Thorny acacia trees protected Scaly-naped Pigeon nests, Bananaquits flitted through columnar cactus, Black-faced Grassquits picked berries from the ground and nesting Brown Noddies dominated one cliff-side. A red-footed tortoise meandered out of the bushes, down the trail and obliviously past an unconcerned iguana munching its breakfast. The island was literally creeping, crawling and flitting with life!
Once it warmed up, it was time to investigate all the sea turtles that continuously surfaced amongst the bobbing boats. An area marked by buoys just off Baradel’s main beach prohibits anchoring and high speed dinghies to create a safe zone for sea turtles and their observation. I put on my snorkel gear and ventured off the beach into this zone. It wasn’t long before I found myself amidst a well-chomped meadow of seagrass covered in grazing Green Sea Turtles. It reminded me of cows in a pasture – except these were sea turtles! Watching this unlikely herd while listening to them rip and munch grass was surreal. Accustomed to a more-or-less constant flow of visitors, they were completely unfazed by a slow approach and would practically swim into you if you watched their progress in still silence. Aside from the turtles, the meadow housed a Goldspotted Eel, Long-spined Urchins, Cushion Sea Stars, and schools of both Pompano and Permit.
Jamesby, also known as South Cay, proved to be another great island. Pleasantly, it lacked the stream of visitors haunting Baradel and its turtle-watching zone, areas where solitude is only to be found in the earliest and latest gray light of each day. In addition to Jamesby’s greater privacy, it too boasted a stunning beach, vegetated cliff trails, iguanas, active birdlife and good snorkeling. One clearing along a trail even yielded signs of iguana nesting activity – test digs and uncovered hatched egg shells from previous years. And while there was no herd of sea turtles off-shore, there was a small but lively coral head just steps off the beach that was dominated by a massive school of grunt punctuated by interspersed colorful juvenile reef fish.
Petit Bateau, or Middle Cay, was relatively disappointing. It wasn’t overly populated at the moment, but certainly had the potential to be so as much of the beach was devoted to picnic tables and makeshift dining areas where boat boys and tour operators stage beach barbecues in peak season. It did have a short but pleasant hike up the southern point that provided nice views across to Jamesby, the reef, and the inviting beach on Petit Tabac, the one island outside the reef that I unfortunately didn’t have time to visit.
Petit Rameau, North Cay, wasn’t accessible due to wind and wave conditions on my visit, but I toured the southern and western edges by dinghy. Dry forest, all luscious green at the moment, covered all but the most coastal and jagged rocks on the island. Accessible or not, it was certainly beautiful.
But of all of the Tobago Cays, Baradel was my highlight. Iguanas, anoles, tortoises and sea turtles, what more could a reptile lover ask for? There aren’t that many destinations that I need to return to for a second visit, but this may well be one of them… in low season, of course.
- Boats are truly the best way to explore the Grenadines. I chartered from Horizon Yacht Charters in Grenada and they were excellent. They offer sailboat rentals year-around, either bareboat or crewed. Ellimae Byas was one of our crew members and also charters her own boat, Bon Bini, out of Carriacou for cruises and dive certifications. There are many other options, including The Moorings out of Grenada and either Barefoot Yacht Charters or TMM Yacht Charters out of St Vincent. Be aware that powerboat charters seem to be unavailable during hurricane season (June to November), which coincides with the period of low tourism.
- Aside from private boat charters, ferries and flights are available for inter-island travel within St Vincent and the Grenadines. Ferry options include the Jaden Sun Fast Ferry, Admiralty Transport, Bequia Express, MV Barracuda, MV Gemstar, MV Canouan Bay and the Mustique Ferry; information for the latter are summarized on the St Vincent and the Grenadines Port Authority website. SVG Air offers several scheduled flights within St Vincent and the Grenadines and Mustique Airways offers scheduled flights between Barbados and several islands within the St Vincent/ Grenadines chain.
- The Tobago Cays Marine Park is accessible only by sea. The best options for getting there to really explore include private boat or water taxis arranged from Union Island, Mayreau or Canouan. Some cruise ships offer side trips and tour operators in St Vincent, Bequia and Union Island offer day trips that include the Tobago Cays, though day trip options often only include a visit to Petit Bateau and in my opinion that’s not sufficient. If you find yourself solely delivered to Petit Bateau, plan to arrange with the local boat boys (be sure to choose a member of the Southern Grenadines Water Taxi Association, their numbers appear on the bow of their boats) to make the short and well-worthwhile trek to Baradel.
- Whether you’re a bookworm or not, the Bequia Bookshop in Port Elizabeth is worth visiting. It has an impressive selection of hard-to-find Caribbean books on just about any topic you can hope for.