With little cruise traffic and few all-inclusive resorts, St. Vincent is one of the Caribbean's least traveled islands -- and that makes visiting this small volcanic island simultaneously exciting and challenging. On the plus side, the lack of development means that its landscape is still breathtakingly unspoiled; in fact, parts of St. Vincent are so densely forested that you can't circumnavigate the island by car. But it also means that if you're seeking boutique shopping, large-scale cultural attractions or haute cuisine, you may have to wait for your next port call.
St. Vincent is an ecotourist's dream, filled with plunging waterfalls, abundant rainforests and colorful coral reefs. The adventurous can climb to the rim of La Soufriere, the volcano that looms over the northern end of the island, or go swimming in the Falls of Baleine, a waterfall so remote it can only be reached by boat. Travelers looking for a more laid-back eco-experience can stroll the peaceful paths of the Montreal Gardens or take a drive among the lush banana groves and rainforests of the hilly Mesopotamia region. Mingled in with all the natural beauty are traces of St. Vincent's diverse cultural heritage, from 19th-century European forts to ancient petroglyphs etched into rock by some of the island's earliest inhabitants.
St. Vincent was initially settled by the Ciboney, a hunting/gathering society, and later overtaken by the Arawaks and then the Caribs. European ships arrived in the late 15th century and met fierce resistance from the Caribs, who fended off multiple attempts by the British and the French to colonize the island. But after two wars and several centuries of defiance, the Caribs were finally exiled in 1797 by the British, who then ruled the island until St. Vincent achieved independence in 1979. Want to learn more? Fort Charlotte, on a promontory overlooking the capital city of Kingstown, has a small museum where visitors can delve deeper into the island's history.
Shops in the Kingston Cruise Terminal offer souvenirs, local crafts, duty-free goods and other odds and ends. It's a clean, attractive space with shops arranged around a terra-cotta-tiled courtyard. A mural depicts a scene at St. Vincent's annual Carnival celebration; dubbed Vincy Mas, it's held for 10 days starting the last weekend in June. The retail area presents the best shopping opportunity for those on a quick port stop. There's also a helpful tourist office in the complex.
The bustling streets and markets of downtown Kingstown are within easy walking distance of the cruise terminal. If you need Internet access, visit E@gles Internet Cafe (Beachmont Street, Kingstown; 784-457-2020; one hour of access costs about EC$5). A longer walk from the port (30 to 40 minutes, some of it uphill) or a quick cab ride will bring you to the Botanical Garden.
Downtown Kingstown: This colorful and chaotic area offers an intriguing glimpse of local culture, but relatively few attractions for tourists. There are a handful of souvenir shops on Bay Street, the main drag, but livelier shopping can be found in the outdoor market on the waterfront, where locals hawk everything from fruit and vegetables to Colgate toothpaste. The three-story Kingstown Produce Market is another hub of shopping activity. At the west end of Kingstown are a few pretty churches.
Botanical Garden: Just a short cab ride (or 30-minute walk uphill) from downtown Kingstown is the Botanical Garden, the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Founded in the 1760s, this 20-acre garden is a serene retreat for visitors and locals alike. You can catch a glimpse of the island's rare St. Vincent parrots in the small aviary, and wander among vibrant blooms and towering trees -- some over 200 years old. Admission is free, though guides are available for a small charge. Note that some of the guides are quite eager, so be firm if you'd rather tour the gardens on your own.
Fort Charlotte: For dramatic views of Kingstown and the sea beyond, take a cab to Fort Charlotte. This 19th-century fortress, named after the wife of King George III, now houses a museum dedicated to the island's history, with a focus on the Black Caribs.
Mesopotamia Valley: Take a scenic drive through the lush Mesopotamia Valley, also known as "Mespo" or the Marriaqua Valley. Narrow roads wind up and down steep, verdant hills blanketed by acres of banana and coconut trees. Nestled deep in the valley are the Montreal Gardens (748-458-1198; open December to August), home to nearly eight acres of bougainvillea, anthurium, frangipani and other tropical flora.
The Falls of Baleine: Located at the far northwest corner of the island, the falls are some of St. Vincent's remote treasures. You can only reach them by boat, so book your ship's shore excursion or hire a local to take you up along St. Vincent's scenic leeward coast. Once you land in Baleine Bay, you'll make a quick hike to the 60-foot falls, where you can go for a refreshing swim.
Scuba Diving: The lack of development on St. Vincent means that its underwater world is as untouched as its hills and forests. Indigo Dive and Dive St. Vincent offer diving and snorkeling trips to see the coral reefs that fringe the island. The best diving is generally found between Layou and Kingstown on St. Vincent's leeward coast, where the water is calm and there are lovely coral formations only a short distance off the shore.
Wallilabou Bay: Loved the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean: Cruise of the Black Pearl"? Part of it was filmed on the leeward coast of St. Vincent at Wallilabou Bay. Movie sets were damaged by Hurricane Tomas in 2010, but some props remain. You can swim or sun yourself on the beach there, or go inland for a quick dip in the Wallilabou Falls. Along the drive from Kingstown, it's worth a stop to see the Carib petroglyphs (rock carvings) in Buccament or Barrouallie; ask a local for exact directions if you're driving, or have your cab driver take you there.
Vermont Nature Trails: To get up close and personal with St. Vincent's lush landscape and unique wildlife, head north of Kingstown to the Vermont Nature Trails. These paths will lead you on a two-hour hike through tropical rainforests and evergreen groves, where there are ample opportunities for bird watching. Keep your eyes peeled for the national bird, the St. Vincent parrot.
Visit Bequia: Hop a ferry to the island of Bequia. Admiralty Transport (784-458-3348) and Bequia Express (784-458-3472) offer frequent service between Kingstown and this largest island in the Grenadines, where you'll find golden beaches and lively waterfront shops and cafes in the tiny capital city of Port Elizabeth. The ferry takes about an hour each way.
On Foot: Walking to Kingstown from the cruise terminal takes only about five minutes, and the whole city is easily navigable on foot.
By Taxi: Taxi drivers line up outside the cruise terminal. Cabs aren't metered, so be sure to agree on the price beforehand (and be aware of which currency is being quoted). The fare to Villa Beach is about $10; a quick ride to the Botanical Garden is even less. Cab drivers can also take you on guided tours of the island; expect to pay about $25 to $30 per hour.
By Car: You'll need to purchase a temporary driver's license (about $28) at either the police station on Bay Street or the Licensing Authority on Halifax Street, both in Kingstown. Car rentals start at about $55 a day. One local operator is Star Garage (Grenville Street, Kingstown, 784-456-1743). Note that St. Vincentians drive on the left, and many rural roads are winding and poorly maintained. Be sure your rental car has a spare tire before you leave.
By Bus: St. Vincent's bus system is an informal network of privately owned vans that do ongoing loops around various parts of the island. You'll recognize them by their bright colors and personalized decals -- gems like "Hot Wax," "Burps," "Ooh-La-La" and "Jesus the Finisher." The vans are a much cheaper alternative to cabs (we paid about $0.40 each to ride from the Botanical Garden down into town), and are a good option if you're willing to deal with the informality of the system and the fearlessness of the van's drivers.
Best for a Half-Day Visit: The black sand beach at Buccament Bay is just 20 minutes from Kingstown, and its calm waters make it a good spot for swimming.
Best for Active Types: Villa Beach may not have much sand, but it does have a number of waterfront restaurants and shops, as well as folks coming and going by sailboat and ferry. You can go snorkeling, swimming, shopping or people watching, or just join the locals for a spot of "liming" (a Caribbean term for relaxing or hanging out).
Best for Dramatic Scenery: The beaches on the windward coast of St. Vincent aren't safe for swimming -- the surf is too strong -- but they provide some of the island's most spectacular views. The pounding waves at Argyle Beach make this long, black sand beach a particular favorite for picnicking and sunbathing.
St. Vincent is a great place to experience local Caribbean cuisine at its best. You won't find chain restaurants there. Fresh-caught seafood and native-grown vegetables are the basis of most of the cuisine; specialties include callaloo soup (callaloo is a bit like spinach) or roti (curried beef, chicken or seafood wrapped in a very thin flour pancake).
Young Island Resort Restaurant: One of St. Vincent's only all-inclusive resorts is on a private island, but you don't have to be a guest to enjoy the fine beachfront dining at the Young Island Resort Restaurant -- just take the two-minute ferry ride from Villa Beach. Typical lunch offerings include kiwi green-lip mussels in a white wine, onion and roasted garlic herb broth, and a slow-braised pork cutlet with barbecue sauce. Don't miss the fresh-baked bread, which comes in six different varieties. Reservations are recommended. (Young Island; 784-458-4826)
High Tide Bar and Grill: Located on Villa Beach across from Young Island, the High Tide Bar and Grill is a great spot to relax and hang out by the bar. It's open all day, serving up casual West Indian fare including grilled fish sandwiches, pizza and Caribbean specialties. (Villa Beach; 784-456-6777; open Tuesday to Friday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday, 12 p.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 8 p.m., closed Monday)
Bay Beach Club: The casual Bay Beach Club at Buccament Bay Resort serves Caribbean dishes for lunch dinner. Save room for an island-inspired dessert, like the pineapple skillet cake. (784-457-4100; open daily, 12:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch, and 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. for dinner)
Chill'n: This casual spot in downtown Kingstown attracts local businesspeople in search of a quick, tasty lunch of burgers, pizza and roti. For cruisers in search of a connection, there's free WiFi and charging stations. (Egmont Street, Kingstown; 784-456-1776; open Monday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Friday to Saturday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., closed Sunday)
Basil's: An offshoot of the well-known bar/restaurant on Mustique, Basil's serves island staples such as coconut shrimp and stuffed crab. It's in a 200-year-old sugar warehouse whose brick walls are adorned with paintings by local artists. In the same building, the rooftop restaurant of the Cobblestone Inn serves light fare. It's a good place to cool off with a drink with a front-row seat of Kingstown's busy street life. (Bay Street, Kingstown; 784-457-2713; open daily, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.)
Wallilabou Bay Hotel: Cheap eats and scenic sea views are on tap at the Wallilabou Bay Hotel, which overlooks the bay where part of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl" was filmed. The food isn't fancy -- just sandwiches, West Indian fare and the occasional lobster dish -- but it's tasty and served in a fun, casual atmosphere. (Wallilabou Bay; 784-458-7270)
The cruise ship terminal is just a few minutes' walk from downtown Kingstown, the island's largest city.
If you choose to rent a car, look out for the privately owned vans that make up St. Vincent's public bus system. The locals who drive the vans are used to the island's narrow roads and often go careening around curves at a speed much higher than yours. If possible, let them pass you when it's safe to do so.
The local currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar. For current exchange rates, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. The nearest ATM to the cruise terminal is at Heritage Square, a 10-minute walk. A number of banks are a 5-10 minute walk from the terminal. All stores accept U.S. dollars, though you'll receive change in local currency.
English is spoken in St. Vincent.
Handmade coconut shell bracelets painted in bright island colors make fun, inexpensive gifts.
Try a rum punch made with Sunset, a local rum.