28 Dec 2017 - Do turtles vote for Christmas in the Grenadines?
Carriacou is pretty much the northern limit of Grenada, so we devoted a morning to the nice people at Immigration and Customs to leave the country legally and get on our way to Union Island in the Grenadines, just five miles to the north.
A couple of views of Clifton harbour, with ‘Roundabout Reef’ in the middle for the unwary
Clifton is the capital of Union Island. The harbour is protected by the Newlands Reef and there is some additional shelter from the nearby Palm Island – but it’s fairly open to the Easterly breeze and a mecca for kitesurfers as a result. At the outer end of the reef there is a small island with a bar on it and the groupies gather there around sunset whilst the most athletic surfies do tricks just in front of them. One bloke had perfected the art of doing a jump, landing on the pontoon, keeping his kite under control and downing a rum punch before setting off again. We sat onboard and waited for the anchor to drag (which it didn’t) whilst watching the action and opening/shutting the windows and hatches as a succession of rain squalls passed through. The Anchorage Yacht Club ashore is exactly how you might imagine a Caribbean yacht club: a smart dock to moor your tender, an immaculately dressed elderly ‘bosun’ who maintains security, finds fuel, sells banana bread and rum… a sprawling low collection of whitewashed buildings with blue corrugated tin roofs centred around the bar, tropical gardens tended by a couple of goats, some worn out Hobiecats and the remnants of a concrete jetty providing a saltwater swimming pool for the local children.
A fine Duty Watch Bar - the Anchorage Yacht Club, Union Island!
The town is quite touristy – it is well known for a colourful fruit and vegetable market, whilst the remainder of the shops are boutiques run by sun-shrunk Frenchmen selling fancy cheeses, eclectic jewellery or coffees to the yachtie tourists, rum shops with a very local clientele and an odd array of ‘supermarkets’ selling everything from old furniture to toilet rolls and tinned tomatoes but almost no fresh meat or dairy stuff. All brightly painted and shaded by a rich variety of tropical vegetation. We did some ‘last minute Christmas shopping’ and completed the immigration formalities at the tiny airport.
The harbour is a popular stopping off point for charter boats and anyone going to Tobago Cays. We had met a floating greenhouse full of Americans at Carriacou and it was no surprise to see them here. What was a surprise though, was when they weighed anchor a couple of hours after sunset in the middle of a heavy rain squall and put to sea. Al the cabin lights were on and I think perhaps the skipper was a little too adventurous: we watched spellbound as they piles on the speed, put the starboard hull hard onto Roundabout Reef, turned sharply right, wobbled a bit (lots of people running round the kitchen table), came hard astern and then roared back whence they had come. Could have been the Sunsail pontoon at Cowes Week!
Main street, Clifton – or an ad for a paint company?
The fruit and vegetable market, Clifton. No sprouts.
We liked Clifton very much, despite the fresh breeze and the regular downpours, but on Christmas Eve we set off for Tobago Cays, a few miles further north. We needed a couple of reefs in the sails and paid fairly close attention to the colour of the water which is a very good indication of depth in these parts. The Cays consist of a group of five small islands, one of which is inhabited (Mayreau) and an expanse of coral reef providing some shelter from the prevailing easterlies. We anchored amongst a group of yachts, some on buoys, some anchored, about half a mile downwind from Horseshoe Reef and east of Petit Bateau Island. The water and sand were exactly the colour that they are in the advertisements, the sky clear, the temperature in the high twenties, but with a hot dry wind blowing at around 20 knots. Interestingly, on our Transatlantic passage, the upper deck would get quite wet with condensation during the night watches, but everything stays dry here at night (even the rain showers only last a few minutes and everything is dry again half an hour later).
Escapade with Christmas tree aloft at Tobago Cays.
We had booked a beach barbecue for Christmas Eve lunch with Marlon, a boatboy in Clifton, but when he did not show up with 15 minutes to go we were starting to wonder… fortunately another boatboy, Teddy, appeared and after some discussion I managed to speak to Marlon on the phone. Lunch was not happening for various complicated reasons… we rebooked for Boxing Day with Teddy and went snorkelling instead in the lee of one of the islands. The area is a National Park well known for Hawksbill Turtles and we all got a thrill when we encountered four of them in the water. They seemed reluctant to allow us to come close, but relatively unconcerned if we stayed on the surface and watched them grazing on sea grass like any other herbivore at Christmas. They must be used to humans splashing about and squealing a lot.
Horseshoe Reef lies just beyond the floating greenhouses
Anna finds a friend!
Later that afternoon we set off in the rubber boat for the edge of the reef and really enjoyed exploring the expanse of underwater cityscape that thrives there. One of us would stay in the boat and keep it fairly close at hand whilst the others jumped in. The water is no more than 4 metres deep, but there are large areas of coral with sandy canyons running between them, like lanes and alleyways in a town. The whole area was teeming with really colourful reef fish and we particularly enjoyed drifting along the edges of the coral, watching the fish going about their daily lives. It looked just like a big market town, with fish, sea urchins, starfish and the odd lobster inhabiting a kaleidoscopic honeycomb of coral and rock - shopkeepers and families bustling about in the local high street. The highlight was a large stingray who cruised calmly through the sandy canyons and was happy for us to follow him around for a while. I imagined him in his blacked out Range Rover running some sort of protection racket for the slower, fatter fish (with apologies to those RM friends of mine with fancy 4WDs!).
Christmas dawn at Tobago Cays
Christmas Day was hot, sunny, quite windy with the odd tropical downpour. We had a Christmas tree at the top of the mast (not sure how many of the other yachts were aware of this old maritime tradition), some tinsel and decorations below decks and some solar-powered fairy lights in the cockpit. No big presents this year – nowhere to stow them in our ‘decluttered’ floating home or on the flights home – and Christmas Lunch was our take on a fine lobster rice dish that Julie and I had enjoyed in a Galician Parador a few months earlier. Marlon, the unreliable boatboy, had sold us the lobsters which are the ‘Spiny’ variety: red before cooking (unlike the blue chaps we see in the British Isles), no claws and some sharp little spines all over the shell which make dismantling the fish a slightly tricky affair. Jolly tasty though. Instead of Christmas pudding and cake, Anna made some memorable chocolate brownies. The oven on the boat is quite good, but we haven’t had much joy getting bread or cake to rise reliably and we were also watching the gas consumption – it’s more difficult to replenish here than in Europe and you never quite know if they have filled the bottle properly! It also turns the cabin into a bit of a furnace in this weather (especially during rain squalls) so food involving lengthy baking is avoided where possible.
The best Christmas present of all!
Instead, serious snorkelling is free and hugely enjoyable, so we spent much of Christmas Day in the water around the coral reef. We found some turtles on passage from the calm sea grass areas out to the Big Ocean, but the stingray was clearly away seeing his family for the day. Respect. We missed the Queen’s Speech, but caught the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines Christmas Message instead – it could have been written by the same person.
The highlight of Boxing Day was the lobster BBQ on the beach – our Christmas present from Julie’s mother, Anne. The appropriately named ‘Big Moma’ runs a shack on the beach with about twenty employees – some, like Teddy, getting business in, others dealing with the spiny chaps, others dispensing alcohol in various forms or cooking the fried rice, plantain, garlic spuds and vegetables that accompany the dish. We brought our own cutlery, glasses and wine; they provided the main meal which we really enjoyed. A small cruise ship landed a party of octogenarians for a similar event (no lobster): they were outnumbered by the Philipino crew who ran a very slick operation to get them onto the beach, set up the meal, shepherd the wanderers and then depart without leaving a trace. A superyacht called King Baby sent its 12m speedboat into the beach with a party of twentysomethings, but they took one look at us and declined to wade the couple of yards to get ashore, so the young English crewman got very wet holding the boat off the beach for nothing - I guess it was more fun than polishing the brightwork. I wondered what benefit either of those enterprises brought to the local population?
Lobster BBQ with Terry
After lunch we celebrated the lack of washing up and went snorkelling instead. Apparently Britain had a White Christmas? In Tobago Cays the sand is white every day!