Caribbean Time

My Island Vacation Exploring the Blissfully Quirky Grenadines

With roosters for alarm clocks, oddball characters, and rum punch so potent the ice won't float, the Grenadines are blessedly untouched by time. Gully Wells revels in these tiny specks in a sea of blue.

09.06.13 12:03 AM ET

by Gully Wells

The very first time I went to the West Indies, which must have been more than forty years ago, I flew in a small private plane that shook, rattled, and rolled its leisurely way on the seventy-five miles between Grenada and St. Vincent. Perhaps to amuse himself or to terrify me or quite possibly both, the pilot swooped down low—so low that people waved cheerily up at us from the decks of their yachts, giving me a closer view than I might have wished for of the tiny islands that lay carelessly scattered across the ocean below. "What," I shouted above the roar of the engine, "are they called?" "The Grenadines," he shouted back. Which was the entire extent of our conversation.

Some of the smaller uninhabited islands resembled oddly misshapen loaves of bread, others protruded from the sea like a giant's rotting molars; some reminded me of the elegant spires of submerged cathedrals, while others lay low like lurking crocodiles. Dotted about were sandy crescents covered in palm trees—cliché cartoon desert islands surrounded by reefs and limpid aquamarine water. Even the larger islands, most of which were no more than a couple of miles across—volcanic cones draped in dark-green velvet cloaks—looked scarcely big enough to be inhabited, but I could clearly see toy villages set high in the hills and toy boats bobbing in the harbors. I remember wondering what it could possibly be like to live your life on an isolated dot of land not much bigger than New York City's Central Park.

Over time, I found myself returning to Carriacou, the biggest of the Grenadines (an entirely relative concept in that it is no more than eight miles long by three miles wide), simply because my peripatetic father had acquired a plot of land beside a graveyard on the highest point of the island and had taken it into his head to build a tiny three-room house there. Whether through laziness or filial piety—I had, after all, traveled thousands of miles to see him—I was content to spend my precious vacation time there, but still in the back of my mind I always knew that one day I would find a boat to take me to those other islands which I'd first seen from the air so many years before.

And that day came late last year when some friends on Carriacou put me in touch with a man named Dave Goldhill, who lives in Windward, a windswept village on the east coast that has been known for its boatbuilders for longer than anybody can recall. All the boat people I knew in Windward—and I had known some of them for more than twenty years—had names like Maclawrence, Macfarlane, and Macdonald, descendants of adventurous or maybe just unfortunate shipwrecked Scotsmen whom fate had delivered to this desolate outpost two, three centuries before. Not only had they inherited their names and their by now somewhat diluted Celtic features, but most important of all, they had sustained themselves ever since by keeping alive their forebearers' supreme boatbuilding skills. Now, though, this ancient, close-knit seafaring community had apparently been joined by a New Yorker, for God's sake, who had settled in Windward, built two boats with just a little help from his new friends and neighbors, and now seemed willing and more than able to take me sailing in the Grenadines. (And it's worth noting, for those inclined to follow in my foot/sea steps, that Dave has also constructed four enchanting gingerbread cottages on his land which for reasons known only to himself he rents out for a ludicrously low price.)

"Now here's the thing: There's no way you're going to have time to visit every single island, so let's look at the map and figure out the most interesting mix of places for you." It was dusk, and Dave and I were sitting on the terrace under a canopy of shocking-pink bougainvillea in front of his house at Bayaleau Point, with a huge crumpled map spread across the table, anchored at strategic points by hurricane lamps and tumblers of rum punch. (Not, I might add, the syrupy, adolescent, grenadine-infested toy drinks you get at every bar in the Caribbean but a lethal concoction composed of a Carriacou moonshine called Jack Iron—so evil that ice actually sinks instead of floating in it—diluted with fresh mango and soursop juice, plus a squeeze of lime and a dusting of nutmeg on top.) As I discovered talking to Dave, the most fascinating thing about the Grenadines—apart from their preternatural beauty—is that, small as they may be and close as they are to one another, each island has succeeded in holding on tight to its own distinct character. It's as if you are watching—and participating in—a completely different play each time you set foot on a new island.

As night fell and the frog and cricket symphony geared up for a stellar performance, we mapped out a plausible plan. Starting from our home base of Carriacou, we'd head out to Bequia (verdant and mountainous, with its restored eighteenth-century Old Fort guesthouse, where I'd stay), about forty miles to the north, then slowly meander back down south, stopping at Mustique (more a snobby gated community than a real place, full of English aristocratic vestiges of the late, not-so-great Princess Margaret, who'd once had a house there), skipping Petit St. Vincent (where if you have to ask the price for lodgings—$1,700 a night—it's probably best just to wave and sail on). Then we'd drop by Mayreau (population three hundred, with a single approximation of a village that nobody has ever bothered to name and one rather sketchy five-room hotel).