Cat Christmas in the Caribbean
Our hosts, John and Caroline Charnley, and my wife, Caroline, were already swimming in the cool, fresh water, but of course, I just had to jump in from the “cliff” (about 10 feet high) above the pool. I guess some things will never change. What made this refreshing little dip even better was knowing that we’d left the cold northern winter and the whole Christmas Industrial Complex back in the States. Instead, we’d be celebrating the holidays on a sunny, breezy, upwind romp through the Windward Islands from Grenada to St. Lucia aboard the Charnley’s 50-foot cruising cat Discovery Magic.
John and Caroline not only own the boat, they also own the company—Discovery Yachts—that builds it and several other offshore passagemakers, which meant our cruise had a dual purpose. In addition to stopping at all the cool spots in between Grenada and St. Lucia, the boat also had to be in Miami, 1,500 miles away, in time for the Miami Boat Show.
The only slightly-less-than-perfect element of our entire Christmas passage was the beating to windward part, but this entailed little hardship. Even when the trades got up to the low 20s in the channels between the islands, we stayed dry and comfortable, while the autopilot kept us on course. Even my intrepid and newly pregnant wife, who’d been wrestling with morning sickness on dry land, found herself loving the windward romp—as long as she stayed up on deck and kept looking forward toward the horizon.
Setting out on Christmas Day, we made the short passage to tiny “Petit” St. Vincent with plenty of time to drop the hook, go for a swim, loll about on the warm white sand and feast on a Christmas meal of steaks Caroline and I had…well…smuggled all the way from the States. Merry Christmas, everyone! Next stop, the ultra-photogenic Tobago Cays.
Before we could do that, though, we had to clear into the sovereign nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines—or at least try. A quick run ashore to the customs office on Union Island provided a great opportunity to see the sleepy little village there, but—no great surprise—the customs office was closed for Boxing Day. So it was with a clear bureaucratic conscience that we made our way over to the Tobago Cays where smiling local “businessmen” in brightly painted boats with powerful outboards descended upon us in the channel as if we were holding the keys to the kingdom.
After that came Mustique, an ultra-exclusive enclave for the likes of Mick Jagger and Princess Anne, which proved to be a bit more chill. By now we were already used to the rhythm of the trip: get up early, sail upwind for all of or a portion of the morning, drop the hook, swim, eat, visit shore (not necessarily in that order), repeat. Not a bad way to pass the time. The trades were a bit stiffer than they’d been for the passage from Grenada, but not too stiff. The seas were up a bit too, but we were only exposed to open-ocean rollers for a short while before we tucked into the lee of Mustique and grabbed a mooring in Britannia Bay.
Alas, we didn’t see Mick or any of the Stones, but we did grab lunch at Basil’s Bar (where Mick has been seen and photographed) before continuing on to sweet, sweet Bequia further north.
For me, there was something familiar about Bequia. Maybe it was the mellow vibe that comes from the cool mix of tourists and locals. Or maybe it was the way the houses ring the inner harbor. Whatever the reason, I couldn’t help being reminded of Camden, Maine. Camden in the Caribbean. Cool.
That night we had a great shoreside dinner, and the next morning John and his Caroline succeeded in wading through the crowd to get our papers stamped in the customs office, while Caroline and I knocked the last few provisions off the shopping list. It was amazing to feel so curiously “at home” in this place we’d never before visited. We had a schedule to keep, though, so it was off to St. Vincent as soon as we got back to the boat.
Up until then, the cruising guide and our collective experience had given us a pretty good idea of what was waiting for us at each of our destinations. But that didn’t apply to St. Vincent, where none of us had spent any time. All we had was a cruising guide that seemed to describe lots of deep anchorages on the western side of the island requiring long mooring lines tied to palm trees.
It was all a bit of a mystery, and remained so, even as the small bay that we’d been reading about in the cruising guide opened up before us and we saw several boats already backed into the beach and secured—as advertised—with long lines running ashore. Then Arthur appeared.
“Follow me,” he said with a gap-toothed smile, and since he’d obviously done this before, and we hadn’t, we accepted his help and happily paid the going rate of 10 Eastern Caribbean dollars for the service.
Soon we were snugged down in one of the most captivating anchorages I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t so much that the scenery was the “best” or that the water was “clearest,” but more of a vibe. Cows and goats traipsed about, while a colony of birds curiously, and almost silently, roosted in the nearby trees. Then Arthur picked and delivered some fresh limes for us from a tree on shore, and we all got a taste of the magic that happens when a surprise spot also turns out to be the most special.
The next morning it was off to St. Lucia. By now we were old hands. Up at 0630. Lines and fenders stowed. Toast buttered. Sails set. Autopilot engaged. After that we watched as St. Lucia’s most significant landmarks—The Pitons, Petit and Gros—peeked over the horizon and then grew until they towered over us as we pulled up a St. Lucia Marine Parks and Services mooring at the base of the nearly 3,000 foot tall Petit Piton.
Soon afterward, with the boat safely moored, we talked to one of the locals about possibly setting up an island tour and a trip to the hot springs. But honestly, we weren’t so sure he was the man for us, so we took a pass and went snorkeling instead. Then, a little while later, we met Jason from St. Lucia Marine Parks and Services, who pulled up alongside to collect our mooring fee.
“How we all doing this fine evening?” he asked with a smile.
Since I was the closest to his side of the boat I said, “We’re doing great! You have a very special island here. How you doing?”
“Oh, man, if you only knew. Been working since four this morning, and I won’t get off for another couple of hours yet.” He wasn’t complaining, just telling it like it was. Maybe it was the look in his eye, or his utterly sincere smile, or his simple friendliness, but whatever it was, something just clicked. Next thing we knew he was welcoming us to St. Lucia, and telling us all the secrets we needed to know, and all the things we needed to do, like we were part of his family.
At one point Caroline asked, “Now, Jason, what should we be asking you that we haven’t yet. What are the attractions here that we just can’t miss?”
“Well, I know what I like to do when I get a free moment. I love to go up to the hot springs. It rejuvenates me.”
“Ah, good,” said Caroline. “We were planning on setting up a trip to the hot springs for tomorrow.”
“You know, it’s been quite a day, and I could really use a dip in the hot springs tonight,” Jason suggested. “It’s really amazing to be up there at night when there’s no crowd. I get through in a few hours. I could pick you up at the restaurant and bring you guys up there if you want.”
Although we’d never have agreed to a mission like this with the fellow we’d met earlier, with Jason it was a different story entirely. After dinner we piled into his tiny Suzuki 4×4 and not only spent a fantastic and utterly unique evening under the stars in St. Lucia’s volcanic hot springs, but also got to spend time with a truly special person. He shared of himself and what it means to be a native St. Lucian in a way that was both educational and inspirational.
What a perfect way to end both our trip and the year: the next day we sailed over to Marigot Bay and flew back to the States on New Year’s Eve, not only refreshed and reinvigorated, but armed with a new set of sailing yarns to share with our unborn child. “Did we ever tell you about the night we spent in a St. Lucian hot spring when your mother was three months pregnant…”
Photos courtesy of St. Luca Tourism Board; by Bill Springer