An Epic Trip to the Grenadines By Helen Trotman
It only took Rocky Chatwell a few hours to earn his Grenadine Islands nickname when two young boys pointed at his bright blonde hair and shouted, “Omelette!” So started our two-week adventure in these beautiful and unique islands where we kited different locations every day, snorkeled with turtles, drank way too much rum punch, and visited the island immortalized by the band Train with the lyric “so remote, only Johnny Depp has ever been to it.”
We decided on the Grenadines for a photo shoot because it looked perfect for clear blue water photos with both flat water and waves and because it’s off the beaten track. As we flew from Barbados to Union Island on our hopper flight, it became really obvious that we were in the middle of nowhere. For 45 minutes we flew over the endless blue ocean without anything else in sight until a string of beautifully lush mountainous islands could be seen in the distance. As we flew closer, we saw turquoise water, protective reefs, and whitecaps. From the air it almost looked like a smaller version of Tahiti. Then the plane made a steep turn and an unscheduled stop at Bequia, a nearby island. This was our first lesson in learning that it’s not really possible to stick to a fixed schedule here and that it’s best to simply go with the flow.
We did our best to appear casually relaxed during the exhilarating landing on Union Island while dodging the odd goat wandering around the runway. As we stepped out of the plane our first impression of Union Island was that it has what must be one of the best smelling air strips on earth as it is surrounded by fields of a local variety of cilantro. As small as the airport was we found the customs official took his job extremely seriously and there certainly weren’t any welcoming smiles from him. Anybody who has met Dimitri knows what a goofball he can be, and as he continued to joke around the customs agent sternly asked Dimitri, “Want one of these?” while making the universal sign for a knuckle sandwich fist. That’s the first time we’ve been asked that while clearing customs! For the rest of our trip, almost every other person we met was friendly and welcoming.
After we cleared the knuckle sandwich situation, we were transported up a steep hillside while clinging onto the back of a beefed-up golf cart. All of us were tired yet happy and were laughing about how wonderful travel is and the fact that you can change your outlook in just one day and be in a totally different and amazing place. As we arrived at our final destination our jaws dropped at the beautiful surroundings, warm tropical breeze, and views to many of the neighboring islands like Mayreau and Palm Island. As we settled in, Jean Pierre, a well-known local chef who had been arranged to cook us a welcome dinner, manned the kitchen with the largest forearms and hands we’ve seen, a result of kneading his own bread every morning. After Jean Pierre’s delicious home-cooked meal of local chicken, potatoes, and fried dumplings, we were ready to get some rest so we’d be ready to explore the island the next morning.
It’s been said that one day with Dimitri Maramenides is like a week with a normal person, and well, that could be true. He is up at 5:30 am every morning looking at the wind forecast, answering emails for his customers, and playing the odd practical joke on unsuspecting targets. Our photographers, Charles Ash and Gus Schmiege, along with Rocky were often woken up from a deep sleep with a variety of objects including water and bananas (don’t ask) and dragged onto a waiting car or boat to race off to the next kite destination.
The first morning we realized pretty quickly that we needed a vehicle other than a golf cart for all the gear, so the boys set out to inquire about a car rental. This is Union Island, so don’t expect a Hertz or Dollar Car anywhere, but after asking around someone’s brother did rent us their SUV for the week which worked out great. There is one main street in town that has a few tropical fresh fruit stands, a few restaurants, some food markets, one pharmacy, and a couple tourist shops. We met very few Americans as Union Island isn’t well-known as a tourist destination. It’s mainly used as a stopover for yachts to pick up provisions. Having secured a vehicle, the boys were anxious to go and kite. The first spot we rode was called Big Sand and it became one of the favorite kite spots of the trip due to its complete solitude, clear shallow water, small kickers you could take off from, and super flat water further upwind. You’ll need a ride to this spot, but it’s a short one, only about five minutes from town.
“Watch out for that dude,” I said to Dimitri as a motorcycle catapulted around a turn straight towards us. It turned out to be Jeremie Tronet, owner of JT Kiteboarding, just the person we had been looking for. Jeremie told us for years that we needed to check out Union. We were on our way to see him and his club when we almost ran him over. Jeremie and Linn Svendsen have worked hard on this place and it’s a great area to kite, stay, and grab lunch or dinner. The club is connected to the Anchorage Yacht Club, which has its own marina, bar, and restaurant. It also has a beachfront and very clean rooms in a great location. If you stay here you can walk everywhere. It’s only a few steps to the kite beach and the bar or a five-minute walk into town where there are a variety of options. One of the main spots to kite on Union is at Jeremie’s club, where you can get instruction or just kite by yourself. It’s right near the airport, so you can even kite while waiting for your plane. Plus, a bonus is Jeremie is usually there to help you with what you need. From here you can kite over to Happy Island to grab a drink and hear some tunes.
Another thing about traveling with Dimitri is you’ll notice he makes friends quickly and easily. In the course of just a few days, we had met many interesting and genuine people who were willing to help us in the search for the perfect photo locations. One of those people was Nico Bascunana Dulac, a kiteboarder himself and owner of Captain Gourmet. Nico runs the shop with his lovely wife Linda and they have the best food in town. It is a great place for breakfast, lunch, or an iced cappuccino, to catch up on emails, or pick up the perfect bottle of wine, imported cheese, and a baguette for dinner later. They even have a delicious breakfast called The Kiteboarder. Make sure you ask for it Jeremie style, it’s even better.
Nico is also a pilot and flies his own plane to Martinque every week or so to stock up on goods for his store. He agreed to help us for a photo shoot in the National Marine Park of the Tobago Cays. The Cays are a unique and perfect kite spot because it is a pristine site with beautiful blue water and a sandy bottom. You can kite over the reef with turtles swimming by and around the beautiful sailboats that anchor there for a night or a few days. In retrospect, getting a crazy French pilot to fly just feet above Dimitri, my crazy Greek husband, was probably not the best idea I’ve ever had.
Dimitri, Rocky, Charles Ash, and I were in the support boat. Nico was piloting the plane with Greg Hinsdale, another photographer, and they were flying to meet us at the Tobago Cays. Our boat was captained Richard, a charmingly debonair friend of Nico in white sunglasses. We saw the plane in the distance, so off Dimitri and Rocky went, pumping up their kites as quickly as possible. As we pulled away in the boat, a police boat came rushing after us with a blow horn. We ended up with a $50 fine, not for the dangerous stunt of kiteboarding next to a ridiculously low plane, but for launching off of the small island, which was not allowed. The police boat left after saying nothing about the scene happening behind us. Focused on getting some good photos we following the boys and watched Rocky kite looping over Dimitri and Nico’s nervously low passes with the plane. Several passes later and after multiple shots and video, Nico circled back to the airport and we picked up the guys as it was definitely time for a rum punch!
Union Island is a small community and if you stay for more than a week you’ll start to feel like a local. One night we went to the first ever Sushi night at Bouganvilla restaurant where we found a packed house with an eclectic and diverse crowd. Jeremie was there, as were Nico and Linda, some of their friends from France, Linn, Jade Sailley, Margot (our new friend from Palm Island), Richard, and Didier. We had only been here for a few days and it already felt like we knew everyone. The restaurant had a great local band, and when they sat down for a rest Rocky grabbed the guitar and whipped the crowd into a country frenzy. He’s really comfortable in front of the microphone, and he proudly introduced himself as “just a boy from Texas” before getting the whole restaurant dancing, clapping their hands, and stomping the floor.
Quite a few of the French locals that live on Union Island are kiteboarders. We met up with Jean Marc and his brother Bertrand who own various businesses on the island. Bertrand captained a boat for us one day to go to Morpion Island and for lunch at PSV, or Petit Saint Vincent. Morpion is literally a perfect round spit of sand in the middle of the ocean with a thatched hut on it. It was perfect for jumping over and cruising by and also perfect for the non-kiters to hang out with a cooler, swim, and enjoy the view. It would be the perfect spot for a Corona commercial. We stopped there for about two hours and then continued on to PSV for a ridiculously good lunch – the best food we had in a restaurant in the Grenadines. We had planned to shoot around PSV after lunch, but a fluky white wine glass accident caused us to rush back at high speed to Union for stitches to my foot. Once at the clinic on Union, I was asked, “Can you take it?” I assumed they would numb it first, so I said, “Um, what do you mean? The stitches?” It turned out that because there wasn’t a doctor there, they couldn’t give me a shot. After definitively declining the stitches, Dimitri carried me back to the house and did his kiter triage, fixing me up with something he assured me always works – superglue. It did work and stopped the bleeding, and now I have a nice scar to remind me forever of that great grilled lobster lunch at PSV.
We didn’t know until later that there is actually a doctor who lives on nearby Palm Island. Everyone simply calls him “The Doctor” and he’s lived there for more than 18 years with his wife and daughter. They are eccentric and unique, perhaps partly due to having lived in the topics for so long. While on Palm Island we were invited to join them for “the medicine.” It was one of the more ominous drinks invitations I’ve ever received. They live in the center of the island in a lovely open air house surrounded by a lush green garden and palm trees that also serves as the island’s art gallery. The medicine is some kind of secret recipe rum drink concoction that will knock you on your butt almost instantaneously. Dimitri, who doesn’t drink, politely declined while I sipped and nursed mine over a period of two hours still feeling quite dizzy. A second drink was placed in front of me and I was soon smiling with a glazed expression at the night sky.
We stayed on Palm Island for a few days and found a few nice kite spots, but only for the truly advanced. There were some great waves here, but getting out was a problem, as the wind was onshore. Most people access this area by boat. Dimitri was able to launch off a small beach, but it was hard for him to get out. Another beautiful area is nearby Mayreau Island, but a boat is needed to access it. Kiting at Salt Whistle Bay on Mayreau gives you different options. One side is choppy and very windy with kickers you can use for some big air jumps, and the other side is calm and flat where the sailboats are anchored. A word of warning though, some sailboat owners can get downright territorial about the water surrounding their boats. We were told in no uncertain terms to back off. Apparently there had been a few run ins with inexperienced kiters getting their lines caught on masts and causing damage. As you would expect this only goaded Dimitri on more, and soon there was a wanted poster in town (no joke) with Dimitri’s description on it.
Another day we had the use of Jean Marc’s catamaran and crew. We sailed to Petit Tabac, the island where Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed. This is the famous spot where Jack Sparrow finds and drinks a crazy amount of rum. It was a perfect cruising spot, so Gus went up the mast of the catamaran to shoot. After the shoot we went to the beach where there was rum punch waiting and a barbeque cooking. As we sat on the beach an army of hermit crabs came marching towards us, eating every bit of food they could find. It was bizarre and a little unsettling. The locals told us they normally live on the other side of the island, but they trek over when they can smell food. There were literally thousands of them, climbing over our feet and trying to get at the plates on our laps. One of the best things about kiting at Petite Tabac is that it’s all downwind back to Union Island. It’s a good long distance though, so make sure you don’t eat too much barbeque before kiting back!
Another spot for cruising and a generally good time is Happy Island. It’s a small island literally made of conch shells where two guys play reggae and serve rum punch and beer. Richard loaded us his dinghy and we puttered over there and enjoyed a few drinks while Dimitri and crew jumped and pirouetted around us. A few rum punches later we got to experience Richard’s shoulder dance which is outrageously funny and random. It consists of keeping your body extremely still and basically break dancing with just your shoulders. We have tried to replicate with no luck back in the States, so I supposed we’ll have to go back to the island for it.
The Grenadines offered a lush, different, and authentic experience, one that we find ourselves talking about often. For a combination vacation and photo shoot, it’s one of the best locations we’ve found in the Caribbean and we’ll definitely be heading back. The people are great and there’s no shortage of beautiful locations and clear turquoise water, plus wind every day. We know that the next time we’re there we’ll be welcomed back by the friends we made and it will be easy to slip back into the feeling of being a part of the small island community.