A strong Geordie voice came over on the PA, “Ladies and Gentleman, we hope that you have had a pleasant flight and thank you very much for flying with us today on Virgin Atlantic. A very warm welcome to Antigua.” In unison, the entire plane sits up …..
“only joking, welcome to Barbados! Just checking that you’re all awake. The temperature outside’s dead hot!”
Getting to Canouan is an adventure in itself. Canouan, which means ‘island of tortoises,’ is a small archipelago in St.Vincent & The Grenadines, accessible by plane from Barbados and not too far off the coast of Venezuela. The first part of our journey was now over, nine hours on our Boeing 747 to be followed by a very short transit in Barbados before boarding a much smaller inter-connecting island flight to Canouan, the last one of the day.
I’m fine with big planes but as we walked up the steps of this small 19 seater propellor-engined carrier, I began to feel nervous. Curious to watch the pilots at work, I picked a seat as close to the front as possible. If I’d have wanted to, I could have reached right into the cockpit and started the engine myself – which half distracted me from the slightly bumpy take off. The plane would first land at Union Island before heading on to its final destination, Canouan.
Canouan has a rugged terrain. It’s a hilly narrow piece of land filled with shrubs and the white beaches are home to a few coconut palm trees. The hotel that we were staying in faces the Atlantic coast and at this time of year, June, there are several wind and rain storms that rage in quickly but don’t seem to last very long. Nevertheless we had made it. We’re greeted with enthusiasm and warm temperatures and there’s no denying the smiles on our faces as we looked out at the surrounding clear blue waters.
Day one was spent exploring the reserve that makes up 70% of the island and will soon accommodate a small number of luxury hotels. This investment is a positive change that the locals welcome. So far it has resulted in development to the island’s infrastructure, including a new runway and marina. One of the most significant changes will be a new school for kids aged 11 – 18 years. We soon appreciate the strangeness of not seeing any teenagers. After the age of eleven, kids are packed up and sent to live with family on neighboring St. Vincent for secondary school.
The village is in the middle of the island and consists of scattered brightly coloured houses built up the hillside facing the Caribbean sea that lead down to a central pier which is the focal point of trade, the ferry and supply boats which dock here once or twice a week. I’m told that on such occasions, returning islanders who have been in St. Vincent come back carrying huge bags of fried chicken.
There are a few pop up bars along the coast which make a nice setting for sundowners, with names like Coconut Bar. Between these lie huge piles of conch shells which have been collected to be used as land fill. Similarly, the seaweed which has plagued the Caribbean over the last few years during this season is used as both fertilizer and land fill. Its decomposing state leaves a soft smell of sulphur in various areas.
We’re told by our guide that Canouan is the safest place in the world, “Our police station closes at 6pm and in the morning, you can go there to your buy eggs.” A multi-purpose service which enables the authorities, if they don’t already, to meet everyone on a regular basis.
The island has a population of 2,500 people, plenty of strays dogs, goats and one lonesome donkey. It’s also the hometown of Canouan’s most celebrated hero, Adonal Foyle, a former NBA player who keeps a house here and opens it up for barbecues and drinks on a Friday or Saturday night when he visits, which is frequently. This idea is standard on the island, with scarce restaurants or bars several of the houses on the main road open their doors once a week or so inviting folk in for rum, beers and food for a couple of bucks.
These are not the only places to go for a drink though. There are now a few beachside venues that offer a more substantial menu in idyllic settings which visitors and tourists tend to populate. There is Shenanigans and Foxy Jack’s which are fairly new and close to the marina as well as L’anse Guyac, a rustic spot located on the reserve with a private cove and relaxed music. We visit here on our last night for fabulous conch ceviche and strip steak, as well as grilled Mahi Mahi, West Indian curry and rum punch. “Just don’t ask for sunset,” says our new friend Melissa – who was born and raised in St. Vincent and now works on Canouan full time. Sunset turns out to be a home brewed rum with a hell of a kick, exporting it is strictly forbidden.
As we drive around on golf buggies through the reserve, we come across several tortoises, which have given the island its name. Nobody seems to know precisely when these creatures came to live here but they have flourished and we’re told that no matter the size, these orange-footed, red-spotted reptiles all have thirteen spots.
After touring the island on the first day, we finish with a swim in the warm, choppy Atlantic sea.
The following day we hike up Mount Royal which takes us 45 mins or so and offers a panoramic view across the island from 877 ft up. We’re delighted to find several larger tortoises up here soaking in the sun with us.
The highlight of the trip without question is a catamaran trip to Tobago Cays. Right before setting off, we make our way down to Shell Beach, one of the few on the Atlantic side that has not been infested with seaweed, for some rays but this is shortly interrupted by a sweeping rain storm hitting us sideways and drenching us. No matter. After about 20 minutes this ends and we board our vessel which sails the length of the island and onwards to the Caribbean side. As we come into the Cays, our eyes widen and our jaws drop. The waters of the small rocky islands that we’re passing through are the clearest aqua-marine I’ve ever seen and the islands are fabulously unspoiled and empty
We anchor when we begin to see sea turtles swimming around us everywhere. These graceful animals pop their heads up to breathe before diving under the waves to the bottom of the sea to find food.
It takes no persuading to get into the water as quickly as possible and equipped with fins and snorkeling masks we’re soon tailing one about five feet in front of us. We dive down after him, he glides effortlessly to the bottom before acknowledging our presence turning around and swimming straight towards us. Acting as a tour guide to these unfamiliar waters, he swims by our side for a few minutes, so close that I could have reached out and stroked his shell. I think better of it although I’m told afterwards that they’re so friendly, it wouldn’t have been an issue if I had.
The strong winds are against us as we zig zag back to the shores of Canouan, smiles across all of our faces as we retell stories of what we have just experienced describing each of the turtles that we saw. The largest, about two and a half feet long.
It’s sad to leave the island, and our new friends are even sadder to see us go. “Don’t leave Jess, you gon’make Canouan cry” and on cue the heavens open up above us.
Back on our small carrier, we’re a little less nervous for take off this time and reassured when the pilot announces that we’ll soon be stopping at St. Vincent before heading onto Barbados, “our flight time is approximately five minutes, hang on tight for take off.”