First things first. I’ve nothing against the relaxation and beauty of a Caribbean resort. White sand. Turquoise waters. What’s not to love? But after flipping back and forth on a sun lounger for more than a day or two, I start to get restless. And if you do too, grab a hat and some sunscreen, sling your camera over your shoulder and see what else these islands have to offer.
The easiest place to start is on the main island, St Vincent, in the country’s capital, Kingstown. At first glance, the streets look busy, but on closer inspection you’ll find no one’s actually moving very fast. People stop to chat in the road, fruit and vegetables lie in open containers, and the low-rise buildings sunbathe in colours of peach, lemon sherbet and cornflower blue.
St George’s Cathedral in the centre of town gives a crash course in the history of the place. Surrounded by sticky heat and tropical plants, it comes as a surprise to hear staid English assembly hymns on the inside and to see both psalms on the walls and palms through the windows.
But before the British got involved, the French were here, and before that, the Garifuna. An exhibition in Fort Charlotte tells their story, one of slaves escaping from shipwrecks or fleeing from neighbouring Barbados and intermarrying with the native Carib population to develop an identity of their own.
Another high point, quite literally, on the main island is the peak of the Soufrière volcano. It’s lush, it’s green, it’s beautiful and it’s damn hard work to make it to the top (even though it only takes a day). Something about the path, the humidity or perhaps my dismal levels of fitness made it a step by step, breath by breath pursuit. And I wasn’t the only one.
An altogether easier way of getting in touch with nature is to tackle one of the shorter hikes available on St Vincent’s and then plunge into the waterfall pool at Dark View Falls for a touch of refreshment.
Another option is to check out the island’s Botanical Gardens and get up close with the cheeky, beady-eyed national bird of the Grenadines: the Amazona guildingii resplendent in green, yellow and blue.
Life’s not all about St Vincent’s though (even though that is the other name the parrot goes by). But to get to the other islands, you’re going to need to take a boat.
Bequia (pronounced Beck-way) can be reached in a civilised hour or so on the Jaden Sun Fast Ferry; Canouan takes a little bit longer and if your sea legs are anything like mine, you’re going to need some anti-sickness pills.
Of the two, Bequia is a little more sophisticated, while Canouan throws a better party. Don’t tell anyone I said that, though. Island identities are a serious business around here with social rules, snubs and so many different accents, it’s hard to keep up.
But let’s say you get to Bequia (where I suggest you make a detour into the luxuriously lovely Bequia Beach Hotel with ye olde travel furniture and a friendly beachside bar). Once (re)refreshed, head back out onto the island.
Keep an eye out for Orton King, a self-made conservationist and character extraordinaire. He’s the owner, manager and director of Old Hegg, a turtle sanctuary that’s doing its bit to save this endangered species. Check out babies, injured turtles and King himself, who’s always keen to tell a tale or two about life on the islands and his unplanned venture into marine biology.
For a quieter time, visit the Sargeant Brothers’ boat shop, where men sit hunched over wood carvings and white sails, handcrafting model boats for the worldwide collector’s market.
And finally, there’s Canouan. An island where goats roam the streets, chalkboards announce upcoming regattas and the songs of steel band practice sessions drift out into the sunshine and across the open air.
It’s a place to wander around at leisure, through the back streets, across the sand. It’s a place to take your time and to get chatting to almost everyone you meet. It’s a place to taste the pace of Caribbean island life.
And that includes, of course, the coast. Those turquoise waters. That soft white sand.
After all, when it comes to the Grenadines, beach life isn’t an indulgence. It’s one hundred percent part of the culture. So perhaps you shouldn’t stay away from it for too long after all…
Abigail King is an award-winning journalist, travel writer and photographer who left a career as a doctor for life on the road.