By B Ang
Christopher Columbus, as we all know, got here first, landing in the Bahamas in 1492 looking for trade routes and treasure to take back to his Spanish employers. He was quickly followed by treasure-seekers, or rather takers, of another sort – the buccaneers, marauders and pirates of high seas legends who found the islands perfect hide-outs with their sheltered coves and beaches.
Their legacy is evident in place names like Dead Chest Island scattered throughout what has evolved into the English-speaking Caribbean. Commonwealth Nations Antigua, Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, St Kitts-Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad and Tobago, and British Overseas Territories Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and Turks and Caicos, keep British traditions alive – with a Caribbean twist of course.
On the following pages we take a look at two island nations: the British Virgin Islands and St Vincent and the Grenadines and their particularly colourful history and attractions – pirates included. Read on.
Pirates certainly left their mark on the British Virgin Islands (BVI). In bygone days, BVI was visited by several infamous marauders. Today, each island has a name that reflects its colourful past and unique landscape. For instance, Dead Chest Island reputedly got its name when Blackbeard (the notorious pirate) set 15 men ashore with only a bottle of rum after a mutiny.
Another island, Jost Van Dyke, was named after a Dutch pirate who set up base there in the 17th century. For more than 400 years, this island was a refuge for seafarers and adventurers. In the 18th century, Quakers escaping religious tyranny in England fled here.
The British Virgin Islands has the largest number of islands throughout the Caribbean. Among the 60 under its umbrella, only 15 are inhabited while 21 have been designated national parks. Its capital, Tortola (meaning turtledove in Spanish; these were plentiful when Christopher Colombus landed) is the largest and busiest island. The highest point on Tortola is Sage Mountain National Park at 523 metres. The park contains traces of a primeval rainforest which can be seen at higher elevations. Plants found here include six-metre-tall fern trees, White Cedar (native to BVI and its national tree) coco-plum shrubs and a large rosette Bromeliad called the Guzmania, a natural container that collects rainwater into pools for tree frogs.
Besides the lush flora here, high on the mountain, the resident hermit crab descends yearly to the sea to mate, lay eggs and find a new home (marine shell). Then there’s the Bo-Peep Tree Frog. Found only in the BVI, it is named after its “amplified” call.
Water, Water, Everywhere
Virgin Gorda is a favourite destination for movie stars, millionaires and yachting enthusiasts. Christopher Colombus coined the name for this island as its dramatic shape reminded him of a “fat virgin”. At the Copper Mine, stone ruins of a chimney, cistern and mine-shaft house remain from the time Cornish miners worked there between 1838 and 1867.
The Baths, with its imposing granite rock formations sculpted by time and weather, features mysterious grottos and saltwater pools. A connecting trail via scaling boulders, wading tide pools and climbing ladders lands you at Devil's Bay, a small, beautiful beach flanked by huge rock formations.
BVI has more than 60 charted dive sites with loads of shipwrecks and pristine reefs. A popular spot is at Anegada (Spanish for drowned land), literally named after this atoll brought 300-odd ships to their watery graves within this coral maze. This is the only coral island amid the BVI’s volcanic chain and its beaches are said to be the loveliest in the Caribbean. Resident wildlife includes flamingos, native giant rock iguanas and wild orchids.
The territory has garnered the reputation as the “sailing capital of the world” and has the region’s largest base of yacht charters. One of the Caribbean’s premier sailing events, the BVI Spring Regatta continues to attract yachts worldwide.
Industry News• New flights: Air Canada has started a new direct service between Toronto and St Thomas, (USVI). This weekly service will operate through April 14. From here, BVI is a 50-minute ferry ride away.
• BVI VIP Club: Designed for repeat guests to BVI. Benefits include access to the VIP Airport Lounge, quick Immigration and Customs clearance, discounts from tourism partners and retailers including hotels, airlines and restaurants.
• Return N’ Stay Program: Targeting cruise passengers. Visitors can browse through details on the territory’s history and events, and receive a weblink to exclusive deals.
Islands In The Sun
Lying in Southern Caribbean are 32 islands that make up the island nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). The largest, St Vincent, is made up of lush tropical rainforest, while the Grenadines is a tropical water paradise filled with idyllic beaches, turquoise lagoons and coral reefs. Its secluded and idyllic location made it the perfect choice for the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Attractions here include the 1,234-metre-tall La Soufriere volcano and the Botanical Gardens, the oldest such gardens in the Western Hemisphere. The native St Vincent Parrot can be seen in its natural habitat along the Vermont Nature Trail.
Among the many inland waterfalls found here, Dark View Falls is easily accessible and comes with its own bamboo bridge and swimming hole. Surrounded by mountains and the pounding surf of the Atlantic Ocean, Owia Salt Pond is a huge bathing pool bordered by a lava peak and ridges.
St Vincent also has some reputable diving sites including Anchor Reef, voted one of the top 100 diving sites in the world. At the Bat Cave, a darkened cave starts in a metre of water. After a long tunnel, divers swim through a deep fissure in rocks, and then downwards to huge boulders. Sea life here includes hard and soft corals, sea fans, colourful reef fish, passing eagle rays and the occasional shark.
Only eight islands of the Grenadines are inhabited – Bequia, Canouan, Mayreau, Mustique, Palm Island, Petit St Vincent, Young Island and Union Island. On Bequia, young endangered hawksbill turtles are being monitored at the Old Hegg Turtle Sanctuary by Brother King, a former skin-diving fisherman who runs a program caring for turtles from birth to about 18 months before tagging and returning them to the ocean. A wildlife reserve, Tobago Cays is a horseshoe-shaped reef that shields five deserted islets. It is known as one of the best snorkelling and diving sites worldwide. On the sailing front, visitors can anchor at secluded bays and lagoons with white powder sand beaches. Charter companies offer bareboat charters, skippered yachts or day trips.
Accommodations in SVG range from intimate-sized, family-owned hotels and boutique properties to private island resorts. Its intimate settings make it an ideal destination for weddings and honeymoons.
A mobile app features in-depth details on the 32 islands including information on accommodation, dining and other activities. The app also contains photos, videos and maps, and will be updated quarterly.
Construction has commenced on the Argyle International Airport. Scheduled to open in late 2013, it will offer direct flights from the US, Canada and Europe. The new airport will accommodate B747-400s and handle about 1.4 million passengers annually, over five times the number at the existing airport. The three-storey terminal building will feature a waving gallery, conference centre, rooftop restaurant and a rooftop garden. Argyle will replace the existing ET Joshua Airport.
HOTEL NEWS• Buccament Bay Resort: The first luxury resort on St Vincent, this 95-villa property features one- to four-bedroom villas and offers an all-inclusive Caribbean experience. It is the first hotel under the new Harlequin Hotels & Resorts brand. Amenities include the Pat Cash Tennis Academy; Liverpool Football Club Soccer School; and The Harlequin Performing Arts Academy where participants will be coached in the performing arts by Broadway and West End professionals.
• Petit St. Vincent: Underwent major renovations including refurbishment of all 22 cottages to include air-conditioning, remodelled bathrooms and custom-made furniture. New additions: a hillside spa that allows for open-air treatments and a casual beach bar cum restaurant.