Slow Travel in the West Indies
There is no better way to extensively explore the West Indies than by boat. There’s just not.
This string of islands peeling north from Venezuela to Cuba is made up of many countries and offers no backpacker trail, no comprehensive ferry itinerary. You can fly to one island at a time for a holiday but to attempt more than one or two would be prohibitively expensive and, in many cases, simply impossible.
You can see the next island in the chain on a clear day. It might speak a different language and have a vastly different history but it’s right there, a neighbour on the near horizon. Perhaps ten miles, maybe twenty.
Stepping stones from South to North
My geography of the Caribbean was so shaky it was essentially non-existent before I arrived. I’m pretty sure I did not know that Grenada was a country before we started planning the journey there, let alone a Caribbean country.
In fact, I’m not sure I couldn’t named many islands in the West Indies at all. St Lucia, sure. Antigua, yup knew that one. Umm…Any others?
It’s hard to think back to a time Before Knowledge of something particular. But I just didn’t know anything about this island chain that actually spans over 2000 miles. As it turned out, I eventually went onto sail the entire length of it in a rather erratic fashion.
If you get into the tradewind belt around the Canaries and just sat there, you’d eventually find yourself washed up in the Windward islands. Which is basically what happened to me. We set the headsails and were merrily pushed along for 28 days.
I could smell Grenada over 24 hours before we set our anchor down in a reef-gated anchorage.
Grenada sells itself as The Spice Island thanks to its major exports of nutmeg and mace. Who knew? It’s also probably one of the friendliest nations I’ve ever found myself in and there’s an insatiably jovial atmosphere wherever you go. Grenadians on the whole seemed permanently laid back and happy – a stereotype, but one that seems true.
Between Grenada and St Vincent are the Grenadines which, interestingly, belong to St Vincent rather than Grenada. Here lies little islands bordering on the quintessential definition of paradise. Small, tropical and palm-fringed with clear waters and white sand. They’re mostly hilly with little jungles and embarrassingly perfect postcard beaches.
Hard to reach, they’re also quiet on the tourist front. Islands like Canuoan and Mayreau barely feature as tourist destinations at all. Others, like Bequia, get the cruise ship traffic but when there’s not a ship in town, it’s all very relaxed and casual. A few sailors in tatty clothes sipping beers and trying to make the WiFi work.
North again got us to Martinique via a night stop at St Lucia. Martinique is an extraordinary place. It’s all banana palms and copies of Le Monde splayed open on patisserie tables next to espresso cups. It’s traditional yole racing and bucaneer chicken side by side with croissants and Carrefour. It’s as French as France as as West Indian as…well…the West Indies. It’s the most exquisite blend of culture I have ever seen.
Onwards to Guadeloupe then Antigua for race week. Buoyed up by sun and rum, Antigua continued the overarching theme of the West Indies with its relentless friendliness and laid back nature. If there were only one thing that connected these islands then it would be island-time. There’s no rush anywhere but the start line of yacht races.
And even then, the local traditional boat races are affairs constructed entirely from laughter and fun.
To Saint Martin, a dual-natured island half French, half Dutch. It seems mad that such a small island could be split down the middle, two squabbling European countries eventually settling on a halfsies agreement. The French side is utterly French, the Dutch side more American than anything else.
Starting at the other end
We fled the West Indies for six months while hurricanes trundled around the Atlantic and brushed shoulders with those resilient island nations. We settled in Panama for its mangrove safety.
But we returned.
This time sailing along the further north west of the chain, along Cuba’s southern coastline until the Bahamas.
The Bahamas are an archipelago of innumerable islands and islets, cay and coral reefs. It’s a labyrinth of land and water. So much so that’s it’s hard to tell whether the Bahamas is more water or more land.
Every island in the Bahamas is different and yet every island is the same. They all have the same flat, scrubby land with clear water and savage reefs. Yet each is shaped differently, like Tetris blocks dumped a stone’s throw from each other, worn by the Atlantic and Caribbean.
Unrecognisable from the mountainous, jungle islands of the Windwards, the Bahamas are the West Indies without the rainy volcanoes.
By the time I left for the out islands of Europe again, I had sailed the length of the West Indian island chain. I knew it well, could place the countries in order, remember their differing shores and overflowing fruit markets.
It was an education. I knew little about it before I went and I left feeling like I’d only scratched the surface. In many islands we met sailors who had arrived one day and never left. Drifting up and down the archipelago with the seasons.
I can see why.