And it seems I've done just that while meandering through the oldest botanical garden in the Western Hemisphere in Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent. It happened. He wanted to show me around his homeland while I waited for my dive buddies to show up the next morning. Said he knows all there is to know about St. Vincent. He calls himself Malcolm, wears a bright orange tie-dye T-shirt and has his dreadlocks piled up in what looks like a Technicolor Jiffy-pop hat. He's promised not to tell my buddies that he spotted me looking admiringly at one of Captain Bligh's famous breadfruit trees ... or the exotic lilies. And, other than being a garden design aficionado, Malcolm seems like quite a knowledgeable guide, so I let him ride shotgun and off we go.
The first thing he tells me as we make our way up the Leeward Highway to Chateaubelair is that his grandfather discovered La Soufriere, the massive dormant volcano that rises 4,048 feet in front of us and takes up fully one-third of the island. We can see the entire mountain at the moment. Though I find it hard to believe this edifice went undiscovered by the Ciboney (who first settled the island, it has been said, about 5000 B.C.), or the Arawaks, Carib Indians, British, French or Spanish. Perhaps, I think, no one thought to look up during the first 7,000-plus years of the island?s occupation. Who really knows for sure You mean the locals didn't know it was there when it erupted in 1812?? I inquired, with one of the few tidbits I'd picked up from the travel guides.
Just beyond the village of Layou, Malcolm takes me to see some pre-Columbian petroglyphs etched into the side of a large rock next to a river. It looks like a smiley-face stick man standing on a triangle. Malcolm, who it seems has seen an episode or two of The X-Files, tells me the carvings are of the pilots of UFOs, his anscestors.
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Well, I think, now we're getting somewhere.
The rest of the day, Malcolm fills my head with incredible morsels of information as we tour the lush valleys and vine- and waterfall-laden rain forests that carpet the island and give it a lost-world beauty. As we walk the well-maintained paths of the Vermont Nature Trails just north of Kingstown, it is not hard to imagine the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park feeling at home here. We even get lucky when Malcom spots one of St. Vincent's rare parrots just off the path.
We celebrate the end of the day at a local "restaurant" whose owner he knows, with some callaloo soup made from a local spinach-like green and rotis, which is a kind of Caribbean tortilla stuffed with meat and vegetables, in our case curried goat. We wash it down with Captain Bligh rum, which is locally distilled, and a glass or two leads me to believe that the locals may indeed have been unable to look up at the island's smoldering summit. So, my head buzzing with stories and anticipating that the diving would be colorful and interesting, I reluctantly head back to the upscale Young Island Resort.
Francis and Chuck Arrive
The next morning a friend of mine from England finally arrives. He's a big, burly ex-rugby player with massive arms, a five-dive-a-day scuba habit and the unfortunate name of Francis. His 6-foot-tall girlfriend has come along too. She's called Charlie, a nickname for Charlene. I call her Chuck, which she hates. So off we go, a happy threesome, to Dive St. Vincent, right at the dock of the Young Island Resort, and head up the western lee coast.
Although Francis displaces as much water as a frigate, he has a knack for finding the little things that elude most divers. If there's a frogfish, sea horse or juvenile anything, Francis will giant-stride and descend right on it as if he'd noticed its movement from the surface. And that?s exactly what happens at a site called Orca Point. I think Francis head is going to explode as he points out not one but two longlure frogfish hiding in their stealthy way just near the mooring. One is yellow with blotchy brown spots, the other kind of whitish. He'll never admit it, but Francis looks all tingly. Sponges and healthy corals cover the moderate slope, and hidden away in its cracks and crevices are more sea horses (red, orange, yellow and even black), a couple of chain moray eels and a REEF ID book-full of types of crabs and even pregnant Pederson shrimp. Soon Francis and the divemaster are on a crusade, each to find more macro creatures than the other. Two photographers on the trip start hovering over Francis and the divemaster like strobe-clad remora paparazzi, and their presence culminates in a feeding frenzy of flashes over a flying gurnard. Back on the boat, the battle of critter-finding titans leads to a debate on who's seen more, which for some reason I am asked to judge. I turn to Chuck.
"I think Fran is getting too cocky,"she says.
"Yep." I agree."Sorry, Francis, I think you were one juvenile filefish short. Silver medal effort, dude."
The divemaster gives Francis a conciliatory pat on the back, puts on his sunglasses and gloats.
Next we get a little freaky and head to a site called Bat Cave. As we make our way into the half-submerged cave through a shallow cut, an eerie light filters in from openings in the ceiling of the cave. Once inside, we pop up to the surface, and hundreds of bats swoop and flutter around, with their sonar cheeping and chirping as if our presence has disturbed a good sleep. We continue on to the exit, which opens to the reef. Near the opening we press through a wall of blackbar soldierfish and heaps of glassy sweepers that nearly choke the exit. Back in the open blue, we descend a slope covered in a forest of intensely reddish black coral. Finger corals, barrel, yellow tube and azure vase sponges, and other soft corals hide a rogues gallery of little guys in their hideouts, including chain and spotted morays, several octopi, a bright orange sea horse and even a bull's-eye lobster. This time Francis takes his slate and writes down every single thing he sees, like a gamehunter's trophy list. Again the photographers leave the water dizzy from the overwhelming number of subjects Francis finds.
The divemaster is not impressed.
Over the next three days, we hit a bunch of great sites that Dive St. Vincent's owner, Bill Tewes, has amassed, including Critter Corner (sailfin and blue-throated pike blennies seem to litter the sand on this incredible 12-foot muck dive), Alternative Bay (if you can?t find a frogfish here, you're blind) and New Guinea Reef (Pacific-like lushness, covered in wrasse, chromis and corals). All are incredibly profuse. Frogfish and sea horses rule the island. With the exception of a dive on a site called Pinnacle, we encounter very little current.
Bequia Beckons When we arrive at Admiralty Bay on the seven-square-mile island of Bequia, a 45-minute ferry ride south of St. Vincent, I think Chuck is going to cry. The harbor looks like a Polo ad with its cluster of sailboats afloat above sparkling blue water and rolling green hills and talcum beaches in the background. It's as if a group of renowned tropical island landscape artists converged here to define a dreamer's illusion of an island hideaway. Yachties have dropped anchor here since its early days as a whaling outpost. Divers, unfortunately, have flown past it on their way to more well-known destinations.
"I want to live here," Chuck purrs to Francis as she looks out over the horizon of sailboats in the harbor.
"It's nice, but I need some food," Francis replies in his pragmatic way, seemingly immune to the dizzyingly romantic beauty.
We check into the quaint Gingerbread Resort and make arrangements with another PADI shop, Bequia Dive Adventures, for our next two days of diving. Judging from the conversations I eavesdrop on, I believe we are the only English-speaking people around, and the only people on the island who can't discern the difference between a sloop and a ketch, a sheet and a line. Yachties are everywhere lots of Italians, Germans and even a fair number of Norwegians. We get to our room, order room service, and settle in with rum punches and a couple of Cuban cigars to salute the quickly brewing sunset.
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Chuck isn't in the mood for two guys telling stories over cigars, so she changes into a bikini with a sheer sarong for, I guess, discretion. Now if you've ever seen a 6-foot-tall, stunning, tanned blond woman in a bikini, you can guess what happens next. She strolls down to the Belmont Walkway to catch the sun's final rays, check out the boutiques and soak up the magical atmosphere. She'd said she might take a water taxi to one of the island's designer beaches at Lower Bay, about five minutes away, and lounge. Instead she strikes up a conversation along the harbor and comes back with a dinner invitation for a sundown cruise aboard the Sea Witch, a 127-foot ketch (or is it a sloop?) lolling in Admiralty Bay like a wind-driven castle. She grudgingly gets us invited too.
So Francis and I iron our best shorts, don polo shirts and soon meet with Hans and Marianne, the floating mansion's Swiss owners. Freshly grilled lobster, steamed asparagus tips and chilled French sauvignon blanc are waiting on a table under a canopy of stars. The Sea Witch's uniformed crew quickly seats us as if we've showed up at Nobu with Darryl Hannah. Turns out both Hans and Marianne are avid divers, will be on the dive boat with us in the morning and want to get to know their fellow "undersea enthusiasts." They are on a mission to dive the world, so we spend the next three hours in blissful scuba story reverie, cultivating our palates with two more bottles of wine. By the time their chef brings out cr'me brulee and port wine, they've persuaded us to travel with them to Tobago Cays after Bequia to dive a place called Sail Rock.
You only live once, right?
But in the meantime, Bequia's renowned thriller of a site, called Bullet, awaits in the morning. And after Francis personal boast of critter-finding prowess, the pressure is on.
Rising straight up from the bottom and shooting 140 feet above the surface, Bullet describes not only the shape of the underwater topography, but the speed at which you normally drift the site when the current is up. Because of this, the site is reserved for calmer days, and we think we've lucked into one. Until we get in the water. A few feet below the surface, a rush of water tries to launch us right past the rock. It looks like a lovely site as we pass with overgrown sea fans, formations of sponges and a tangle of several varieties of coral. A school of creole wrasse flows over its contours head to tail like a purple and yellow river, clouds of chromis appeared, and I wave as we passed a hawksbill turtle. The current pauses for an instant, allowing me to spy a couple of big snapper in the shadows of an overhang. I don't see much else, but Francis still comes up with a slate full of critters.
Dave Stone, Bequia Dive Adventures owner, had told us we were in for an adventure, and it turns out to be the understatement of the day. We all get back on the boat in water that could dismissively be described as merely turbulent and beg to do the dive again. Clearly, the Swiss yachties are in this for more than asparagus tips and vintage vino.
"Masochists," the divemaster accuses, and we head off to another drift dive. Unlike St. Vincent, where most of the diving is done in the island lee, off Bequia the water speeds through the Bequia Channel, which means most of this small island's diving is done as drifts on a moderate current. We'd found a fierce version and now are off to slow the pace.
We anchor up just south of West Cay, on the most southern point of the island, and descend on a site humbly called The Wall. Hans thinks he's up for a dive-slate reef-critter roundup challenge with Francis, so like two matadors both men whip out their slates at the drop and stick their noses deeply into the wall to meet the onslaught of marine munchkins hidden away among the sea fans and sponges. They eagerly point out each find for verification to the other as we drift down the wall, which seems sporting and boastful at the same time. Chuck, Marianne and I hang back and watch as two spotted eagle rays pass within inches of the two competitors, neither of whom notices. They also miss a sea turtle that alights on the wall about five feet above their heads and begins tearing into a tube sponge snack.
Big schools of brown and blue chromis litter this site as well and part as we drift past. An oversized blue parrotfish crunches along the reef and poses, for contrast, in front of a massive orange elephant-ear sponge.
For the sake of the next leg of our trip, I think Francis diplomatically declares the contest a draw after we ascend and states they should have the final round at Sail Rock.
That night we discuss what a shame it is that this island nation has been so overlooked by divers. So like selfish pigs, each of us, over a vintage Shiraz, makes a pact not to tell anyone about the pristine underwater worlds we've encountered so far. And, until now, I hadn?t leaked a word.
A Sailor's Life for We
After a somber farewell to the lush hills, roller-coaster diving and sugary beaches of Bequia, we weigh anchor as deck posers aboard the Sea Witch. We're in the galley hunched over eggs Benedict, fresh-baked croissants and French-pressed coffee as we motor out of Admiralty Bay, catch the trade winds and follow a southerly path that has seen a thousand keels.
I quickly discover that sailing is too much work, so I leave it to the uniformed crew to get us safely to Tobago Cays and head to the stern of the boat to plop myself in a hammock.
Along the way, Hans radios to Glenroy Adams long-established Grenadines Dive Shop on Union Island (VHF 68) to secure spots for the afternoon dive on Sail Rock.
In this part of the Caribbean, the words Sail Rock are spoken with true reverence among savvy divers. It's an undersea site exposed to the whims of the sea and wind, but no diver you speak with has ever surfaced from the site disappointed.
The dive boat picks us up almost as soon as we've dropped anchor and whisks us away. The conditions, the divemaster tells us, are ideal.
Sail Rock sits in a lonely spot of ocean just northeast of Tobago Cays. Like camera-clad gunslingers, we descend and ride the current to the big show, which begins almost immediately as a group of spotted eagle rays passes nonchalantly just below us. For the first time during our trip, all of our cameras are armed with wide-angle lenses. Hans and Francis begin gesticulating wildly as we discover sleeping blacktip reef sharks, while overhead a school of jacks begins to gather.
At 85 feet I find a spot with five different colors of black coral trees all packed together as if they are trying to out-pretty each other. I am so taken by them, I almost miss the dozing nurse shark in the boulders just below them. Its head has to be three feet across. I think better of disturbing its slumber. The walls and surfaces of Sail Rock are covered with colorful coral.
The divemaster leads us to the entrance of a cave, which the surge sends us soaring into. There are at least two exits that I see (packed with blackbar soldierfish), but I am told later there are three. We exit into a great exodus of creole wrasse, so many that their passing looks like a purple and yellow ribbon that extends as far as the eye can see.
Ascending to the shallows reveals masses of elkhorn and antler coral, and at their bases Chuck is giddy with finding several small hawksbills ("cute little guys") resting under ledges along with an alpha snapper. Even the divemaster hasnt seen one so huge.
That night Hans brings out several dusty bottles of Montpeyroux 1991 cabernet because he says the seriousness of the celebration needs a bold wine with enough prowess to match our jolly good adventures. Chuck wears a special bikini for the event; Hans, Francis and I light up our best Cubans to begin story time; and Hans declares Francis master of the domain.
Marianne tries to insist that we sail back to St. Vincent and begin again until we've dived every inch of this corner of the Windward Isles. We all take one last look at the thick blanket of stars reflected on the surface of the sea and imagine that we could do such a thing.