Carriacou: The Caribbean Island that Belongs to Itself
Off the island of Grenada, it’s nearly deserted and the perfect escape
By Ann Banks
It is already mid-afternoon by the time my husband and I set out to find the beach at Petit Caranage on the small Caribbean island of Carriacou.
Following directions from Hugh and Philomena, our neighbors at Bayaleau Cottages, we’re looking for a sign nailed to a tree just past the graveyard on a road leading out of the village of Windward. No luck.
Finally, we ask someone, always the best recourse on this friendly island. We learn there is more than one graveyard along this stretch of road, which should not be a surprise since the dead are much honored on Carriacou and little family graveyards dot the island.
The sign, when we find it, is a weather-beaten wooden arrow with the barely legible words “Petit Caranage Mangrove.”
Down a Sloping Path
It points down a sloping path edged with conch shells bleached bright white by the sun. We trek through scrub brush and a patch of mangrove until we emerge onto a crescent of beach so picture-perfect that it could serve as a stock photo: clear turquoise water lapping sand the shade of pale latte, frothed at the shoreline with lacy foam. The old wreck of a fishing boat at the far end of the beach adds a vibrant splash of red.
On another island, one with vacation packages and direct flights, a beach this ideal would likely be lined with tiki bars and holiday condos. On Carriacou, we can barely find our way there. The only footprints in the sand that afternoon are ours and the iguanas’.
Southernmost of the Grenadines, the chain of volcanic islands which connects St. Vincent and Grenada, Carriacou is officially a dependency of Grenada. As an off-the-beaten-track Caribbean destination, it is, of course, fairly hard to get to.
After jetting to Grenada you connect to Carriacou via a 15-minute trip in 9-seat puddle-jumper. Or if you aren’t lucky enough to score a ticket on that once-a-day flight, you overnight in Grenada and resume your journey the next morning on a 90-minute fast and often bumpy power catamaran. After all this, you deserve to arrive someplace special. And you do.
An Enchanting Destination
Carriacou is one of those enchanted destinations defined by what’s absent: visiting cruise ships, all-inclusive resorts with corporate owners, buildings taller than two stories, traffic lights. If this makes it sound like the Caribbean as it was 40 years ago, that would be misleading. While there’s no mass tourism here, there is considerable added prosperity, thanks to a sizable contingent of the population known as the JCBs, for Just Come Backs.
The Grenadian government doesn’t much care for this term, preferring “Grenadians of the Diaspora.” But on Carriacou, those who grew up on the island and have retired to the island after spending decades of their working lives abroad embrace the nickname enthusiastically. The largest band and marching club at Carnival, for example, is the JCBs.
Once we understand that people are Carriacou’s biggest export, we are no longer surprised when every second individual we meet mentions having lived in Brooklyn.
Those who had the good sense or good luck to buy property while there have been the beneficiaries of some serious real estate appreciation.
The Mermaid Hotel
Our first stopping place on the island, the elegant Mermaid Hotel, is a testimony to this imported prosperity. Directly on the water on the main drag of Hillsborough, it was recently bought and refurbished by Leo Joseph, a returnee who made his fortune buying apartment buildings in Brooklyn in the 1970s.
He’s president of the Carriacou regatta and proud owner of the “Passion,” a traditional wooden racing sloop with a winning record.
The Mermaid is very comfortable, with all mod cons (a/c, wifi, cable, rain forest showers) plus the sound of gently lapping waves. Hillsborough itself is lively, with its small, brightly painted rum shops.
There are said to be 100 of these ramshackle bars on the island, where you are likely to find homespun philosophers fueled by the local and extremely potent Jack Iron rum competing in noisy games of dominos.
On to Windward
But after a few days, we leave behind the relative hubbub of Hillsborough and relocate to Windward, a laid-back boat building and fishing village on the far northeastern corner of the island.
Our new home is on the rustic side, with unheated gravity-fed showers and mosquito nets instead of window screens, but it makes up in charm what it may want in amenities.
Bayaleau Cottages look like they were drawn by artistic children with access to every color in the crayon box. Quirky wooden dwellings with gingerbread fretwork, the four cottages are named after their predominant (but far from only) color: red, blue, green, yellow.
Views of the Grenadines
When Peter and I step into the green cottage, we are delighted with its breezy terrace and sweeping views of the Grenadines. We haven’t been here long when Dave Goldhill, the owner, and manager of the cottages, stops by to welcome us and invite us for drinks on the communal deck. We join Hugh and Philomena, the British couple who soon tip us off about Petit Caranage.
They are tireless and plucky travelers. This is their third time on Carriacou and they appear to have traversed every inch of the place either on foot or by local bus. They’re generous with suggestions and stories, leading me to reflect that one of the benefits of staying someplace like Bayaleau is that your fellow guests will be people you’re happy to meet.
By the time we are on our second rum punches, we’ve learned a little of Dave’s back story: transplanted New Yorker, one-time lumber trader, former tennis pro. He fetched up on Carriacou some 37 years ago and has stayed, working on fishing sloops and cargo boats for several years before building Bayaleau Cottages in 1991.
Windward is a boatbuilding community, first settled by Scots in the 1700s, and since Dave has lived there, he’s built two boats with help from his shipwright neighbors. A few days later we step aboard one of them, the New Moon, for a sail.
New Moon is a classic brightly painted wooden sloop designed to ply the local reefs. Fish are key to Carriacou’s food supply, and islanders treat their boats with reverence.
The launch of a new one is the occasion of great fanfare and celebration. Dave tells us that some 5,000 people – nearly equal to the entire population of the island — showed up for the launching of New Moon.
There was a traditional naming ceremony in which a priest climbed aboard the boat, while it was still high and dry, to bless two godchildren (each boat has them) and say a prayer; then a goat was sacrificed and its blood allowed to drain off the deck.
By custom, only after the hull touched the water was Dave allowed to reveal the name (inspired in this case by the night on which the keel was laid).
“Never Change Anything”
Adhering to traditions has served him well on his adopted island, Dave says. “The secret to my success is that I never try to change anything.” For us, his remark chimes with an impression that has been growing on us since we set foot here.
While other Caribbean islands have reshaped their cultural traditions to make them more suitable for tourist consumption, Carriacou has succeeded in resisting that trend. It is an island that belongs to itself.
Carriacou was populated first by Indians, then handed back and forth between the French and British until 1763, when it became part of the British West Indies. It gained independence in 1974 and is now a part of the British Commonwealth. Its inhabitants are almost entirely by descendants of slaves, and many Carriacouans can tell you exactly which tribe in Africa their ancestors were abducted from.
Out of this mélange of influences has emerged a folklorist’s dream. Carriacou’s calendar is crowded with traditional events, from the Maroon String Band Festival in April to the Big Drum Nation and Quadrille dances held on special occasions to the Parang Festival in December, a roving celebration of the island’s Christmas music and culture.
Carriacou’s most unusual festival is the Shakespeare Mas (short for masquerade), an island-wide Shakespeare competition that takes place every year on Shrove Tuesday. (See Ann Banks’ report on the Shakespeare Mas.)
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