Cruising Stories

There’s Nothing “Lesser” about the Antilles

John holding up fresh catch for the barbecue

Cruising the Caribbean is a unique and distinct destination with steel drums and polka sticks, rum punch and coconuts, lobster barbecues and beach bonfires, and ready-made friends at every anchorage. Having already spent 10 years cruising the Pacific, Indian and Southern Atlantic Oceans, our diverse experiences brought us to the Lesser Antilles.

Sailing into the Caribbean was entirely different for us, as it felt like entering a cruiser’s candy land, where everything was as stimulating and enticing as candy tossed out at a Christmas parade. For us, the Lesser Antilles was like a prettily packaged, sugarcoated apple, dipped in strong local rum.

We focused the season on the Lesser Antilles, having learned that a longer time in a designated area was preferable to a quicker run through twice the destinations. Our entry point into the Caribbean from the eastern Atlantic was Antigua. As the epicenter of the super yacht industry, the island was as juxtaposed as you could get to our past cruising grounds. Super yachts were lined-up by the dozens, sparkling and shiny and locked-up tight. You could hop across the decks of tightly packed boats to join an endless stream of dusk-to-dawn parties, should you choose.

We passed on the parties and engaged in Antiqua’s other side and discovered a beautiful, relaxed island that ran on long-gone days of the slowly churning cogs of island life. We dove in the morning, relaxed in the afternoon and socialized on the beach in the evening. The highlight of Antiqua was to see the richness and variety of the marine ecosystem. Soft corals were vibrant and plentiful, hard corals young but healthy, and the marine life diverse and abundant. For all the talk of bleached reefs, diving in Antigua was an exciting example that reefs can revive themselves, given time and care.

Arrival at the Lesser Antilles

From Antigua we entered Barbuda and spent a few weeks in the relative isolation of Antiqua’s sister island. Rather than the lush mountainous landscape of Antigua, Barbuda is a large low-lying atoll with fine white sand and miniature pink shell beaches with strong winds that blow across her shores and provide perfect wind-sport conditions. Isolated from the local population, our days were filled in the company of other cruisers. Kitesurfing, windsurfing and waterskiing afternoons flowed into early evening potluck meals that flowed into late night beach bonfires.

Barbuda was exactly the Caribbean scene I’d envisioned. Several other boats were travelling with children, and it was our first time in 10 years in which we — a cruising family — were the norm. Rather than dragging our kids around, they were dragging us around to their numerous social engagements. They had playdates and sleepovers, snorkeling excursions and fishing trips, and numerous activities that involved being towed behind dinghies at high speed.

Barbuda was a kid’s all-inclusive free-for-all holiday with an edge of the semi-feral where homemade forts contained rusty machetes, discarded lighters and all sort of cast-off debris. No kids camp could ever complete with the freedom of play and exploration of nature offered here. Barbuda could have been home for the season. I haven’t seen my kids happier, busier, more manic and more exhausted in a long time. I haven’t felt less hassled, less in demand and more relaxed either. But it was time to up-anchor and get moving before our chain turned to rust.

Our route would take us from Antigua to Barbuda back to Antigua before sailing north to St. Maarten to get south to St. Vincent. Our track has never been a linear one, and well-laid plans are often tossed out at a whim. This time, our schedule was abandoned for the social extravaganza awaiting us in St. Maarten, where all the businesses were fully operational, and the pubs were drawing in crowds with silly happy hour prices. We were pulled into the fray by fellow cruisers who lie in wait for new victims to arrive, having already been pulled in themselves.

Kids getting a windsurfing lesson at Coco Point Barbuda

We filled our time outside the bars in excursions to the French side for carafes of chilled wine and window-shopping, trips to the airstrip to experience jumbo jets landing inches above our head, and rum cocktail in hand playing on beautiful white sand beaches with a pack of wild kids running amok for the afternoon. All of this to end up at a pub each evening sipping cold bottles of $1 beer. If Barbuda was the kid-version, St. Maarten was the adult-version of the Caribbean, where easy friendships were made and solidified over flowing amber liquid and the clock ticked toward each new happy hour.

From St. Maarten we headed south to the Grenadines, choosing it for the larger cruising area it offered. We spent the next three months in the pearl of the southern Caribbean, enjoying easy sailing between the 32 islands that lay within a 30-mile radius. The islands vary from the high- prized aquamarine blues of the Tobago Cays to the dramatic volcanic black hues of St. Vincent.

We indulged in upmarket luxuries, ate at centuries-old plantation houses and sipped high-end cocktails from swings on a floating bar in Bequia, enjoyed the quiet isolation and beach bonfires on Mayreau, and explored the geographic and cultural richness of St. Vincent, where we trekked through dense forests to see magnificent waterfalls, hunted down Amerindian artifacts and watched pilot whales hunted down and dragged in from the sea.

By the end of June, it was time to settle down for hurricane season. We entered Carriacou and spent the next month enjoying the quaint anchorages of Grenada’s sister island. While the number of boats in Tyrell Bay was a shock after the relative isolation of SVG, we were also excited to re-enter a cruising hub.

Evening bonfire in Spanish Point Barbuda

Carriacou and Grenada are considered far enough south to be safe from hurricanes, and it is the main destination for cruisers staying in the southern Caribbean during the summer months.

As a well-established area for cruisers, many activities are organized to keep all ages entertained, ranging from exercise groups, kids camps, music venues, weekly markets, and happy hour at a rotation of bars around the southern bays. It takes about a week to adjust to the continuous activity, two weeks before you fall into a set routine, and three weeks before you recognize it is time to slow down. Love it or hate it, Grenada is a cruiser’s home away from home.

When it comes to the Lesser Antilles, there’s nothing “lesser” about this collection of smaller, more remote southern Caribbean islands. Reflecting on our past year, I now consider the region a place of endless entertainment for kids and adults alike. The islands are beautiful, the locals are welcoming, the wind constant and the water warm. It is fun, easy and entertaining in the worst and best of times. Most of all, I got to share with my kids the same waters that I grew up on and gave them a sample of the Caribbean I knew — complete with playful days in the sun and the slow pace of the island lifestyle.


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