Experienced Caribbean Island hoppers answer an unexpected question (published September 2013)
Get a group of cruisers together and the word “best” will be mentioned frequently: the best type of anchor, the best chartplotter, the best weather and routing advice, the best storm tactics. But when we recently mentioned that we had spent the last few years in the Caribbean, we weren’t expecting the question, “Which island is the best?”
Dave and I stared at each other, unsure where to start. It’s hard to answer a question like that when there are so many excellent choices and so many answers. After all, there’s no such thing as a bad island. They are all unique and special in some way and it depends on what you are looking for.
St. Croix has become our adopted home and was our first answer. As a US Virgin Island, it’s the best island for Americans to work and hang out on for a while since you can stay as long as you’d like. There are no hassles about visa and work permits and English is prevalent, though a dialect of English—Crucian—is spoken as well. US currency is used, the US Postal Service is available and most toll free numbers to the US work. We call it, States Light.
After a few months on St. Croix, when you get itchy feet, St. John is a beam reach day sail away. St. John’s National Parks, pristine beaches and excellent camping opportunities make it a popular vacation spot for many nearby islanders. It also has the best cross-island bus ride complete with hairpin turns and breathtaking views. And it’s a good place to go for a walk with a donkey.
When you want to be a true tourist, Virgin Gorda in the B.V.I. offers the best chance to mark something off your “must see” list and is a great photo opportunity. Anchor in Spanish Town and walk to The Baths. There you’ll find the famous rock structures along the waterfront among which millions of visitors have had their picture taken. If you’re adventurous, you’ll also find unusual formations like a giant hollow rock, big enough for us to congregate in for a unique family photo. Back in the anchorage, you can snorkel among columns of boulders that make you feel as though you’re flying between skyscrapers. Whatever you discover on Virgin Gorda, it’s a good island to always have a camera with you.
For a quick trip to Europe, the French islands are in the middle of the chain. Fort de France, Martinique feels like a mini-Paris. Everything is imported from the motherland: language, money, culture, advertisements, music, food, cars, clothes, street signs and even buildings. The Schoelcher Library was built in Paris in 1889 and then disassembled, shipped across the ocean, and reassembled in downtown Fort de France. Martinique is the best island to make you feel like you’re in a tropical France. Stock up on baguettes and cheese, but save dessert for another island.
Terre de Haut in the Saintes is a tourist destination for islanders who want to escape the hustle and bustle of life on Guadeloupe. A ferry brings visitors to the group of islands several times a day and the stores along the waterfront are well stocked to fulfill their trinket needs. But those of us who have the privilege of “living” in the Saintes for a few weeks at a time benefit from the tourist shops even once they all go home. Terre de Haut has more than just knickknacks; it also has the best ice cream in the Caribbean. Dinghy to the ferry dock, turn right, and within two blocks, on the waterside, you’ll find Italian-style homemade ice cream in creative flavors that will have you skipping dinner several nights a week. On a few occasions, we had ice cream twice a day. We consider ourselves the official judges of Caribbean ice cream and take our responsibilities seriously, sampling every variety available, and though there are islands that are better at a lot of other things, Terre de Haut is the best island for ice cream.
When it comes time to walk off the food of the French islands, there is no more dramatic island to explore than Saba. From the mooring field, 1,000 stairs lead up the cliff to the nearest road. Halfway up is the old custom’s house, where, until the 1970’s, every item was cleared into the country while being hauled up the steps. “The road that could not be built” winds through the 4-square-mile island with several hiking trails along the way. In an afternoon you can climb to the nearly 3,000-foot summit of Mt. Scenery, passing through a cloud forest with enormous plants with leaves the size of Volkswagens, making you feel like you’re in a Jurassic Park movie. The cliffs rising out of the ocean, winding stairs, quaint towns and a unique summit make Saba the best island for dramatic scenery.
While hiking Dutch islands, Statia is a short sail way. Though the harbor is often uncomfortable, the volcano crater hiking is outstanding. From the anchorage, a walk through town leads to the trailhead for The Quill. A trail circles around the rim of the crater and another takes you into the crater itself. At the bottom of this ancient volcano are boulders the size of houses, and trees with bathtub-shaped roots. An eerie darkness pervades the crater, which, except near noon, is always in the shadow of its rim; like being in a giant soup bowl. If you’re looking to explore the crater of an extinct volcano, Statia is the best island.
But the Caribbean has so much more to offer than food, dramatic views and awe-inspiring hikes. It’s the people that make the Caribbean a treat to live in. Bequia offered us interaction with the locals on many levels. The Rasta market is a cultural experience that may leave conservative Americans feeling uneasy, but we enjoyed the banter, the interaction, and the educational opportunity that a trip to the market offered. We learned about foods we’d never seen before, the local words for foods and even recipes, all while practicing our understanding of the West Indian lilt. Even our children enjoyed the local culture during our stop. In addition to the annual coconut boat races that are held during the Easter Regatta, this particular year they held coconut boat races during Christmas. Our youngest son built a boat to race against the other children on island. He was awarded the most original design, since he had no preconceived notions about what these boats made of coconut husks should look like. The awards ceremony, complete with a steel drum band concert, was the highlight of our month-long stay on this enchanting island. Bequia would have to be our answer to the best island for a local experience.
The problem with all of these islands, however, is their location in the hurricane zone. For a (usually) year-round safe island, Grenada has the most to offer. Hikes into the mountains lead you along trails where waterfalls magically appear around many corners. Along the coast there are miles of softly sloping beaches and dozens of safe anchorages. Grenada is the best island to use as a year-round base, with much to offer on its own, and exploring little Carriacou is only a day sail away.
For a truly hurricane-safe island though, you have to travel across the Caribbean to the archipelago off Panama’s Caribbean coast: Bocas del Toro. Hundreds of islands in the archipelago offer not only freedom from severe weather, but entertainment options of every kind. There are beaches to walk, waves to surf and reefs to snorkel. You can day sail among the islands and every stop is like a different world. Indian villages on one island, West Indian towns on another, expatriated American communities on others, and a hundred deserted islands in between. Sloths, monkeys, poison dart frogs, oro pendula and more varieties of snakes and arachnids than I prefer to know about reside among the rainforests, palm trees, breadfruit and mangoes. Whether you prefer to hike, dive, swim, or just lay on the beach, one of these islands will be the best one for you.
So which island is the best? Like so much of the cruising lifestyle, islands are what you make of them. So make each new island the best one for you—until you get to the next one.
Connie McBride, her husband and their three sons sailed away on their 34-foot Creekmore in 2002. Since then they have explored much of the Caribbean. You can read about their adventures in Panama in her book, Eurisko Sails West: A Year in Panama, available at Amazon and on www.simplysailingonline.com.