So far I’ve not really seen much of the ‘real’ Caribbean, or at least the one that the tourist brochures will have you believe is the real Caribbean. However, I’ve spent the past week on a whistle-stop tour of three such countries which make up part of the Windward Islands. St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent are all tiny compared to Cuba, Puerto Rico and Haiti, the three previous islands I’ve visited on this trip. The Windward Islands (along with the Leeward Islands) spread out south in an arc from Puerto Rico until almost to the coast of Venezuela in South America. St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent are all part of the Caribbean Commonwealth, once called the West Indies, and were part of the British Empire for most of the 20th century.
Life on all three of the islands is fairly similar, with a relaxed take on most things. Tourism is a key industry for them, although this being hurricane season, many of the tourists are not around. Having been to these islands several times before, I spent little more than a day in each. I feel I know them like the back of my hand and any ‘must sees’ or ‘must do’s’ I’ve done on previous visits. So the only ‘must do’ for me this time around was ‘aisling’ – a word I have invented and use quite often, basically meaning to wander up and down the aisles of supermarkets.
First stop was St. Lucia, famous as a honeymoon destination and for the twin volcanic ‘pitons’ in the south of the island. I stayed in the very north, as I always do, at the Bay Gardens Hotel in Rodney Bay which is where the ‘best’ day-to-day shopping is to be had on the island. Choice is fairly good with many of the same groceries available as in the USA. Rodney Bay is a popular area for retired folk from abroad, as well as the choice place for expats on assignment and so there’s little lacking here in the way of food. Since its independence in 1979 (six days after I was born, in fact!) St. Lucia has gone about its business with no major upheavals or social or economic woes. The main source of revenue is from tourism, although there is also a healthy offshore banking sector.
Forty miles south of St. Lucia is St. Vincent, or St. Vincent and the Grenadines to give it its full name. Even more laid back than St. Lucia, its tourism industry is not as well developed as that of its neighbours (including Barbados) but for some that is its charm. Certainly the capital, Kingstown, has a more edgy feel to it than most Caribbean capitals. Away from the beaches where Mick Jagger likes to holiday and the coves where scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed, I stayed slap bang in the middle of the capital at the Cobblestone Inn, my usual home away from home in Kingstown. It’s pretty much the only hotel in the capital and has a certain colonial character to it which brings a smile to the face. It’s also next door to Basil’s, a St. Vincentian institution and most popular place amongst expats for a beer in town. I say town but the place is very small, with all of the outlets I needed to visit within a couple of blocks. The tourism sector of the island is still in the early stages of growth and the economy is still very much reliant on agriculture. Sixty per cent of the population are employed in banana production but with such reliance on one crop this leaves the economy rather vulnerable, not least of all to hurricanes which can wipe out the whole of the island’s banana crop – and have indeed done so.
My flight out of St. Vincent was at 6 a.m. and the lady at the Cobblestone Inn suggested I book a taxi for 5 a.m. This may sound like it’s cutting it a bit fine but the airport in St. Vincent is so tiny that from the moment the taxi pulls up it takes less than five minutes to reach the departure gate. Flying with the LIAT airline (they fly all throughout the Caribbean, as any regular to this part of the world will know) in a dodgy looking propeller-driven plane we flew over the ‘Grenadines’ and arrived in Grenada, all before half six in the morning.
Grenada is very similar to St. Lucia. Their GDPs and tourist industries are alike and, to me, both have the same ‘feel’ about them. Most commercial activity in Grenada takes place in the south west of the country around the area of Grand Anse and the capital, St. George’s. The Spiceland Mall is the equivalent to the Rodney Bay Mall in St. Lucia and the True Value supermarket, like Super J’s in St. Lucia, has all you need for the weekly shop. The peace since independence which St. Lucia has enjoyed, though, has not been mirrored.
It’s hard to imagine it happening now but back in 1983, nine years after it gained independence, Grenada was invaded by the USA. The then government was overthrown in a coup by a pro-communist government who executed the prime minister. This was during a precarious time in the Cold War and Ronald Reagan’s administration did not want another ally to the USSR in the Caribbean and so sent in 7000 troops to restore a more acceptable government. The date of the invasion (25 October) is now a public holiday in Grenada and thankfully things have been peaceful ever since.