Treasure Islands: St. Vincent and the Grenadines

“Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate,” says Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to young Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) in the Walt Disney...

“Not all treasure is silver and gold, mate,” says Capt. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) to young Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) in the Walt Disney movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” Certainly he was referring to the natural riches found in St. Vincent and the Grenadines where the movie and upcoming two sequels were partially filmed. Nicknamed the underwater “critter capitol” of the Caribbean, St. Vincent’s marine life is not only gold and silver, but also a rainbow of colors. Plentiful frogfish, sea horses and other small creatures decorate the reefs, walls and pillars beneath the waves.

Real pirates have also played a part in the island’s history. Blackbeard, perhaps the most famous pirate, captured the French slave ship La Concorde off St. Vincent in 1718.

Known then as James Teach or “Thatch,” Blackbeard outfitted the ship with 32 cannons and a crew of 250. He renamed the ship Queen Anne’s Revenge after serving as an English privateer in the Caribbean during the Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713).

Today’s visitors to these Lesser Antilles islands can find scenic treasures above the waves with lush landscapes, waterfalls, both white and black sand beaches, colonial architecture and an active volcano. Below the waves exists a collection of colorful corals and small creatures that would well fulfill a diver’s “must see” list.

The Rise and Fall of the Antilles

St. Vincent and the Grenadines are in the southeastern arc of Caribbean islands known as the Lesser Antilles. The main island of St. Vincent is positioned 100 miles (161 km) west of Barbados, 24 miles (39 km) south of St. Lucia and 60 miles (96 km) north of Grenada. Except for Barbados, these islands are the exposed tops of a volcanic mountain range that may have created a land bridge between North and South America. These exposed tops are now called the Antilles or Caribbean Islands.

The island of St. Vincent is 18 miles (29 km) long and 11 miles (18 km) wide with an active volcano, Mount Soufriere, as its highest point at 4,048 feet (1,234 m). The volcano erupted in 1902, claiming more than 2,000 lives and again in 1979, but with no deaths. The rest of the Grenadines consists of 32 smaller islands with a total landmass of only 17 square miles (44 sq km).

The closest to St. Vincent and largest of these islands is Bequia (bec-way), whose name is derived from the Carib word meaning “island of the clouds.” Next down the island chain is Mustique (mus-teek), a private island hosting resort homes of many famous celebrities. Other popular inhabited islands include Canouan (can-nu-wan), Mayreau (mi-roe), Union Island, Palm Island and Petit St. Vincent.

Changing of Hands

The first people to settle the islands were the Ciboney who were mainly hunter-gatherers and lived in rock shelters and small villages. The Arawak tribe moved up the chain of islands from Venezuela and eventually displaced or absorbed the Ciboney. The Arawak people were farmers and fishermen who established more permanent settlements.

Perhaps a century before Christopher Columbus discovered the islands he called the West Indies, a warlike tribe called the Caribs conquered St. Vincent and some of the surrounding islands. European settlers at first bypassed St. Vincent as a colony due to its heavily forested landscape and the unfriendly Caribs.

In 1635, African survivors of a Dutch slave ship arrived on St. Vincent, merged with the Caribs as refugees and adopted their language. Known as the Black Caribs or Garifuna, they lived separately from the original Caribs.

England, France and Spain all claimed St. Vincent, known to the Caribs as Hairoun — “land of the blessed,” but the British eventually won the rights to the island from France as part of the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. The Caribs didn’t acknowledge any European claims to their island and revolted against the British on many occasions. The final revolt in 1796 ended with more than 5,000 Black Caribs being resettled to the Honduran island of Roatan.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines is part of what is known as the Windward Islands. This name came from when sailing ships bound for major ports, like Jamaica, followed the tradewind passage along the Lesser Antilles. Spanish ships, filled with gold, jewels and other riches from South and Central America, would follow this “treasure highway.”

Waiting along the way were privateers and buccaneers. Privateers were sanctioned by governments to raid ships of other countries as long as they returned a percentage of the “booty” back to their country’s coffers. Pirates just kept all of the treasure for themselves. As military protection grew in the area, piracy faded away.

The islands were ruled by Britain until the middle of the 20th century. During a short span, St. Vincent was governed through federations with other former colonies in the area until full independence came in 1979.

Treasures of the Deep

The cave full of booty near the dive site of Orca Point in the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie was Hollywood magic, but the real thing may still be waiting to be found. Nearly a decade ago, Bill Tewes of Dive St. Vincent was leading a dive in the Kingstown harbor on a pair of sunken freighters when he came upon an old jug. Just past the jug were visible cannons and other relics of an 18th-century shipwreck. Tewes said one cannon had the French fleur-de-lis emblem and a date of 1776 stamped on the barrel. The site was then closed to diving by the government to preserve the area for archaeological research. The initial survey report suggested the ship could have been a privateer or a French military ship. No treasure has been reportedly found on this wreck.

While gold and jewels may be elusive, divers can discover the true treasures of St. Vincent every day.

When Capt. Jack Sparrow steps off the sinking boat onto the dock of Port Royal in the movie, he missed out on the treasures of Wallilabou Bay behind him. Anchor Reef, named after an ancient ship’s anchor stuck in the reef, is a popular site for spotting many of the island’s colorful frogfish and sea horses.

On another side of the bay is Coral Castle where hard corals and bright sponges create the look of a submerged fortification. A number of swim-through tunnels offer divers a chance to spot colorful bassletts, scorpionfish, more sea horses and lettuce sea slugs.

Back toward Kingstown, Bottle Reef sits below the cliffs near Fort Charlotte. Besides hosting schools of blackbar soldierfish and a variety of small creatures, the site contains a collection of old, encrusted gin and rum bottles that were tossed by the fort’s soldiers from the top of the cliffs. A rainbow of colorful black corals overshadows the abundant fish life on New Guinea Reef.

While lacking in turtles, Turtle Bay does entertain divers with a band of spotted drums, pipefish, trumpetfish and coronetfish. Garden eels and an assortment of their cousins inhabit the sandy slopes of Callie’s Secret along with flounders, large starfish, flying gurnards, batfish, blennies and crabs.

Many Treasures Located Topside

Lush landscapes and historical landmarks help fill up your surface intervals while visiting St. Vincent. The capitol of Kingstown, nicknamed the “city of arches,” has an active shopping area in Market Square where you can find fresh local spices, produce, jewelry and souvenirs. Built in 1820, St. George’s Cathedral is the oldest of a tour of colonial churches that also includes St. Mary’s Cathedral (1823), Kingstown Methodist (1841) and Scots Kirk (1880).

Even earlier than the churches are the Botanical Gardens, which are the oldest in the Americas. Started in 1762, the 20 acres of tropical plants and trees includes a descendant of the original breadfruit tree brought to the islands by Captain Bligh on his ship HMS Bounty.

Overlooking Kingstown from 600 feet (183 m) is Fort Charlotte on Berkshire Hill. Construction started in 1796 to protect the city from the French and Caribs. It eventually housed about 600 troops and 34 cannons.

A trip around the island includes visits to the many plantations that grow coconuts, bananas, nutmeg, and other tropical produce. The Vermont Nature Trails are where eco-tourists can hike through a rain forest and spot the endangered St. Vincent parrot and other rare bird species. Another long trek through the rain forest can take you to the top of Mt. Soufriere’s volcanic crater for a great view of the island.

Two of the top photographic sites on the island are waterfalls, which are not easy to reach. The Falls of Baleine are on the northwest coast and can only be reached by boat and a short hike. The 60-foot (18-m) waterfall cascades into a rock-enclosed pool that is great for a cool dip. Trinity Falls is positioned in a deep canyon and takes a long drive over rough terrain with an additional 20-minute hike before reaching it. The effort to reach it is rewarded with what some consider the most beautiful waterfall on the island.

The old fishing village on Wallilabou Bay is now a tourist attraction where most of the movie props were left standing after it represented Port Royal in the “Revenge of the Black Pearl.” The windward side of the island has several black sand beaches near the volcano while the rest of the island has white sand beaches. Owia Salt Pond is a tidewater pool, good for swimming, on the northern tip of the island where you can see St. Lucia on a clear day.

Chartered boat trips or ferry service to the other Grenadine islands are also available as a day excursion or with overnight options. Several islands have accommodations and dive centers.

Whether finding it above the waves or below, travelers to St. Vincent and the Grenadines can come away with a treasure chest full of fun memories and entertaining photos.

Story and photos by David Prichard and Lily Mak