chitta chatter

island time

Posted in being human, food, peace, photos, simple pleasures, travel, winning by Nancy on January 5, 2014

We hadn’t been out of the country since India, 2010, but D figured he could safely take off the week of Christmas to New Year’s so he told me, “we can go anywhere.” Which I correctly interpreted as, “we can go anywhere that doesn’t require a torturous 22-hour plane trip or armageddon-strength antibiotics.” Add to that my requirements of turquoise seas, secluded beaches and potent rum drinks and the field narrowed considerably.

Paradise Beach, Carriacou, West Indies

Paradise Beach, Carriacou, West Indies.

I had seen the “Caribbean Island Hopping” episode of No Reservations (pirated, of course) several months earlier, after which I became mildly obsessed with finding a relatively painless way to get to the Grenadines, a small chain of islands in the West Indies blissfully unmolested (mostly) by tourism. But after copious amounts of research, I realized that getting there from the north would be torturous indeed, requiring flights from LAX to Miami to Barbados to St. Vincent (already nearing the 22-hour mark), with a likely unplanned overnighter in Barbados, not to mention the plane and/or ferry trips from St. Vincent to Bequia then Mayreau and any of the other islands we might want to hit up…. Uh-uh. Not happening. Not with only a 7- or 8-day window for the entire trip. We were going to have to look at this from another angle.

I ran across a post on a sailing blog about the Grenadines that had every good thing to say about Carriacou, the southernmost island in the chain, and one of two (Petite Martinique being the other) governed by Grenada rather than St. Vincent, the northernmost, which governs all the rest. A 15-minute puddle jumper would get us to Carriacou from Grenada (which has direct flights from Miami), then we could take day trips by boat to some of the other islands. Now this was more like it. And once I learned that there was an organic cacao farm cooperative and chocolate company on Grenada, well… to paraphrase Jules, “Shiiittt, Willie Wonka, that’s all you had to say.”

So at 3am on Christmas Eve, like a couple of coked-up elves, we headed off on our journey: LAX to Miami to Grenada. Word to the peckish: if you’re stopping at the Miami airport with any time at all between flights, do yourself a favor and head to Cafe Versailles for a guava-cheese pastry and cortado. Ay. Díos. Mío. But I digress…

Our flights ran smoothly, and on our arrival in Grenada, we were greeted by a steel drum band and bottomless rum punches to keep us entertained and anesthetized while we made our way through the Immigration and Customs lines. (Take note, ‘merica.) We then cabbed it to our B&B, Jenny’s Place, at the north end of Grand Anse Beach, where managers Meg and Erik had kindly kept the restaurant (The Edge) open late for us. While Erik whipped up some pasta with a killer, totally improvised, peanut-ginger callaloo sauce, we took a couple steps off the deck to dip our toes in the warm Caribbean sea… our limin’ baptism.

Sunset swim, Christmas Day, Grand Anse Beach, Grenada

Sunset swim, Christmas Day – Grand Anse Beach, Grenada.

Christmas Day turned out to be kind of a bust because everything was closed (islanders take their holidays seriously) and it rained off and on. And though Thursday was mostly sunny, most businesses were still closed for Boxing Day, this being a former British colony and all. We did, however, find the Grand Anse craft market open when one of its resident artisans lured us there from the beach. He actually had some cool pieces on offer, mostly jewelry carved from driftwood. His neighbor at the next stall, Ras Ian, wasn’t as much of a salesman, but he’s heavily into Jimi Hendrix and Willie Nelson, so he and D had a lot to talk about… he plays guitar, too. He also makes jewelry, but his medium of choice is (found) tortoise shell. Really nice stuff. Really nice—really high—guy.

With the beach bars finally open but their kitchens still closed, we headed back to The Edge for a bite to eat before our flight to Carriacou that afternoon. We would be staying at another (smaller) B&B for most of our time there, but due to a conflict with their reservations, we offered to stay our first night at a hotel closer to town, the Grand View. Bob, our B&B host, picked us up from the airport, drove us to the Grand View and made sure they could set us up with dinner as well as a picnic lunch for our boat trip the next day. We seemed to be the only guests there, but they really put a lot of care into the food. The concierge / bartender / waitress was really keen to hear D’s reasons for being a vegetarian and we got into a long discussion about factory farming, GMOs, etc.. Being a sensible person, she was naturally appalled that anyone would raise animals and crops that way and assured us that they don’t do it like that in Carriacou. Cheers to that. Here’s hoping they never will.

The next day would be the highlight of the trip: our boat excursion to the Tobago Cays. I had read about Dave Goldhill, who has a house and several rental cottages (which he built himself) at Bayaleau Point on the windward side of the island, near the village of the same name. He’s a New Yorker who’s been living in Carriacou since the 70s, running day trips on a sloop (the New Moon) and picnic launch (the Mostly Harmless) that he built, and like all the locals here—expats and natives alike—he’s quite a character.

We set off with a group of Danes—who were all staying at the Bayaleau cottages—and our skippers for the day, Junior and the one whose name I never got. Pretty chill dudes, but with a fierce need for speed. Still, they were adept at reading the waves and slowing down at critical moments to avoid giving us all whiplash. The ride alone was worth the price of admission ($115 US/pp). The 2 grandparents on the trip may not have enjoyed the journey quite as much, but they definitely got down with the destination once we stopped for rum punch and snorkeling (together again).

D and I had never snorkeled before but we figured this would be a good time to start. We figured wrong. Later, one of the Danes told us that it’s best to learn in completely calm waters… as opposed to, say, the middle of the Caribbean. I threw in the flippers after a few minutes of trying but D persevered long enough to get a few cool shots of the reef.


Coral reef, Tobago Cays.


Coral reef, Tobago Cays.


Daniel taking a breather, Tobago Cays.

Once the others had gotten their fill, we moved on to another spot where we hoped we’d get to swim with the sea turtles. No sooner had the anchor dropped than we spotted their leathery little dinosaur heads bobbing along the waves. That was all the incentive I needed to get back on the horse, as it were. I grabbed the camera, strapped on the mask and fins and jumped in. But it was like aquatic whack-a-mole with these things… they were popping up everywhere but vanishing faster than I could even point, much less shoot. Still, just seeing them right there in front of our faces made for such a “holy shit” experience… when you’re busy taking pictures, you tend to miss those.

After turtle stalking, we tied up to one of the cays and went ashore for lunch. Behold:


Tobago Cays – 27 Dec. 2013

Resident iguana, Tobago Cays.

Iggy the Maitre d’, Tobago Cays.

Then it was on to Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau, population 300. The waters were much calmer there—which is why it’s such a popular anchorage—so the guys suggested I give snorkeling another try and pointed out an area of coral I might want to explore. Muuuch better this time. The coral wasn’t terribly vibrant, but there were some sea urchins living in it, and several varieties of tropical fish… one little zebra-striped guy followed me around like a stray puppy.

Limin'. Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau.

Limin’ – Saltwhistle Bay, Mayreau. (That’s the Mostly Harmless to the right.)

More snorkeling, more of Dave’s Magic Elixir (i.e., best rum punch ever), more lolling on the sand under the mangroves, then back to Carriacou.

Nearing Carriacou, we encountered this beast… equipped with a heliport, natch.

Once ashore, I settled up with Dave’s daughter and ex-wife (who very kindly bestowed upon me that killer rum punch recipe), then Dave came down to hang out with us while we waited for our taxi. He asked what made us choose the Grenadines for our holiday and I told him it was that No Reservations episode that got the ball rolling, but the Grenada Chocolate Company sealed the deal. Small world that it is, turns out the late David “Mott Green” Friedman (Grenada Chocolate Company founder / mastermind) was a friend of Dave’s. If I remember correctly, he said they met through Paul Johnson—who designed Dave’s boat, the Mostly Harmless—when Mott was just starting to get into sailing. D and I both enjoyed hearing Dave’s stories about Mott as well as his own life as an expat on Carriacou, living off the grid and outside the system. Inspiring stuff. Hell, why run away with the circus when you can be a pirate, right? (Plus, no clowns.)

Our taxi finally rolled up, so we said our goodbyes and made our way back to the house in L’Esterre where we would spend the next 3 nights. It was a bit remote, but a beautiful spot overlooking Sandy Island and its cruiser/yachtie contingent. “Seaclusion Suites” have their own (essentially) private beach and are just around the point from a black sand beach which we never did hit up. But the dinners prepared by Bob’s wife, Marie, are reason enough to stay there. Before coming to Carriacou, she had worked for years in the hospitality industry in Florida as a restaurant GM, but she’s been cooking since she was a wee lass in Czechoslovakia. And I am still craving her fish cakes.

Seaclusion is also within a 20- to 30-minute walk from both Tyrell Bay and Paradise Beach, the latter being our hands-down favorite beach of the entire trip. Partly for the calm waters and the view of/proximity to Sandy Island, but mainly because of the Hard Wood Bar: truly, THE quintessential beach bar. Limin’ at its finest.

Hard Wood Bar, Paradise Beach, Carriacou

Hard Wood Bar – Paradise Beach, Carriacou.

Sandy Island from the Hard Wood, Paradise Beach, Carriacou

Sandy Island from the Hard Wood – Paradise Beach, Carriacou.

The fish (barracuda) plate for me, the veg plate for D, washed down with the local Carib lager… we could’ve stayed there all day. Every day. But Sandy Island was just sitting there, waiting for us to cavort along its banks and bury our toes in its sand. So we hopped aboard the Hard Wood’s dinghy for the 1-minute ride over. There’s no real shade to speak of (or a bar), so you wouldn’t want to stay all day, but we slathered on the zinc oxide and floated in the crystal clear water until the boat came to pick us up as we requested, precisely 1 hour later.

Sandy Island, across from Paradise Beach, Carriacou

Sandy Island, across from Paradise Beach, Carriacou.

I had heard about a place in town (i.e., Hillsborough) called Patty’s Deli that was supposed to have an excellent selection of wines, assorted gourmet noshes and, apropos of my personal addiction, freshly baked croissants. So after we took a little rest from all the resting we did on Paradise Beach, we headed into town to investigate. It’s a fer piece from the B&B, so we opted for the bus. Buses here are essentially group taxis that seem to be the main means of transport for most island residents. At $3.50 EC / $2 US per person (at least, for us), the fare was a little higher than the buses on Grenada, but the driver kindly went a couple blocks off-route to get us to Patty’s. Unfortunately, it was already closed, so we stopped in Bill Paterson’s for a beer instead. Paterson’s is a general store in the front, party in the back. Or so I hear. That particular holiday weekend late afternoon, it was just a party of two. Nice view, though, and really nice folks, as is the norm on Carriacou.

Next, we wandered into the Kayak Kafe for an excellent papaya-banana smoothie before heading back “home” for dinner. As we approached the bus terminal, I asked one of the drivers if he was going to L’Esterre. The guy riding shotgun threw his head back and said, in that West Indian lilt that makes everything sound agreeable, “Awwww… ‘im now go!” Which I took to mean, “Dang, the L’Esterre bus just left!” But all was not lost. He busted out his cellie and called the L’Esterre driver who came back around to pick us up! The bus was JAMMED, too. And in further contrast to LA buses, nobody had B.O. or Tourette’s or attempted to hack up a lung without covering their mouths. We got a nice little tour of the island, too, including Tyrell Bay, which we walked to the next morning.

Tyrell Bay, Carriacou, West Indies

Tyrell Bay, Carriacou, West Indies.

After another lovely dinner our last night on Carriacou (Sunday), I started going through my paperwork for our flight back to Grenada. Words cannot convey the sheer panic I felt upon discovering that the receipt that SVG Airlines had given me when we flew over had our return flight listed as 10:30am Sunday, not 8:15am Monday. I had made and changed the reservation over the phone, but they don’t do email confirmations or printed tickets or anything so high-tech as all that. So I just had to trust the agent, who had read back to me all the correct info and assured me we were all set. Their office was closed for the day, so we had no way to contact them to confirm. But Marie said it was probably just an old printout (which turned out to be the case) and I shouldn’t worry. Bob was taking us to the airport in the morning, anyway, so at least if they didn’t have us on that morning’s flight, we’d have a ride back to town. Or the nearest rum shop, whichever came first.

The next morning, we bid Marie goodbye and headed to the airport, heart palpitating and fingers, toes and eyes crossed. I watched with great dread as two other Suzuki Sidekicks pulled up, counting their passengers and worrying that they might all have seats on this 7-passenger flight. Turns out only 5 of us were Grenada-bound and SVG had us correctly booked after all. I guess, in a place that moves as slowly as Carriacou, you have a higher probability of things getting done right… if not exactly in a timely fashion.

Goodbye Sandy Island and Carriacou

Goodbye Sandy Island and Carriacou…

Soon enough, we were off to our final day in Grenada… and our organic cacao farm tour!

Meg (from Jenny’s Place) had arranged for a driver to pick us up at the airport on the southwestern end of the island and take us up the Atlantic coast to Belmont Estate, one of the largest suppliers of cacao to the Grenada Chocolate Company. Our tour guide, Kelly, a huge Lakers fan, gave us an intro, showed us the cacao bean fermentery and then took us out to actually harvest a cacao pod right from the tree and taste the fruit that surrounds the beans. Amazing! And delicious. Very mango-y, with a citrus tang. Then he took us to see the huge drying racks (as well as the greenhouse where they do a lot of the drying now), the mechanized dryers and other antique-looking machinery inside. And finally… SAMPLES! First, he brought out some cocoa tea, which is a delightful concoction of cocoa nibs, nutmeg, cinnamon and bay leaf (they don’t call Grenada the Spice Isle for nothin’)… sort of like a cross between Indian chai and Mexican hot chocolate. Then… samples of the chocolate itself, in 60% and 71% varieties.

The beautiful cacao pod... freshly harvested in front of our very eyes!

The beautiful cacao pod… freshly harvested before our very eyes.

Cacao beans in the raw... the fruit surrounding them is sweet, with a mango-citrus flavor.

Cacao beans in the raw… the fruit surrounding them is sweet, with a mango-citrus flavor.

After all that, of course, I had to take some home. So I bought 10 bars from the shop, in 60%, 71%, 82%, and even 100% varieties. No sugar in that 100%-er, obviously, but it’s not as bitter as the baking chocolate we all tried as kids (to our great chagrin and our moms’ great amusement). Maybe it’s the cocoa butter that smooths out the edges… who knows? What I do know is this is far and away the best chocolate I’ve ever had. And I’ve had a lot of great chocolate. A lot.

We reluctantly taxied back to our hotel by the airport—Groom’s Beach Villas—and settled in for our last night in the Caribbean. The hotel was one of the cheaper ones on this trip, yet somehow the most luxurious. I still dream about that shower pressure. And just 100 ft. down the hill was the eponymous Groom’s Beach and the highly regarded Beach House Restaurant. We couldn’t not get in one more swim in that warm, clear, Caribbean sea before the sun set—on the trip as well as the day—so we hit the beach immediately. The late afternoon light bounced off a couple hobie cats as I watched them zoom back and forth across the turquoise surf for what seemed like forever, unable to tear myself away.

Groom's Beach, St. George's, Grenada

Groom’s Beach – St. George’s, Grenada.

As the light faded, we headed back up the hill to get ready for dinner at the gorgeous Beach House. I started with one serious mojito and D, a beer. We ordered the curried conch (with another mojito) for me and the gnocchi for D, then capped it all off with a guava cheesecake and chocolate mousse gateaux, respectively. It was a suitably decadent ending to what has become a luxury in itself these days: a REAL (i.e., non-working, no computers, no watches) vacation.

Of course, planning such a vacation is no vacation… it took endless hours—weeks, even—of research and decision-making to get it right. But man, was it ever right. Huge thanks to all who helped make it so: Meg and Erik, the ladies of the Grand View Carriacou, Bob and Marie, Dave Goldhill and crew, and all the fine local folks we met along the way. And here’s to the one we didn’t get to meet but have been enormously inspired by nonetheless:


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