Two days ago, all the snow melted, the ice finally left the bay and I saw my first robin. To celebrate these portents of spring, I planned to post a story on the Canadian spring ritual known as visiting a sugar shack.
Then I woke up to this:
So instead, here’s story about how winter blows and the Caribbean is better.
Canadian winters suck*. Here in central Ontario, by the time Christmas comes and goes the thrill of winter has worn off but we still face at least three, sometimes three and half, more months of cold, snow, and dull, grey skies. So, to stave off complete Vitamin D depletion, Gilles and I try to get to the Caribbean a couple of times from January to March. Usually we stay at resorts, but each year the resorts we choose are getting smaller and smaller. We hate fighting for beach chairs or sitting next to other guests who smoke or talk loudly or get embarrassingly drunk on cheap rum. Apparently the older we get, the more crotchety we are becoming. Last year we fell in love with the beauty, climate and seclusion of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We stayed at a small resort on the island of Canouan which was outstanding. This year we decide to go even more private by renting a beach house on nearby Palm Island.
Part of the lure of St. Vincent and the Grenadines is that fact that there are no direct flights available from Canada. That means less tourists. You fly to Barbados, St. Lucia or Grenada, then hop a small aircraft for the Grenadine milk run that stops at several islands along the way. Thanks to a huge stroke of luck, a flight delay this year means we miss our connection and are “forced” to take the only remaining aircraft – a private jet. Twenty luxurious minutes later we land in Canouan, where a twin otter picks us up for the five-minute flight to Union Island. From Union, it’s another few minutes, by boat this time, to Palm Island. Crossing at dusk, the fading light silhouettes the masts of anchored tall ships and yachts, giving us a dramatic introduction to this stunning private island.
Located in the southernmost part of the Grenadines archipelago, Palm Island was once an uninhabited speck of swampy land with the decidedly unsexy moniker of Prune Island. That changed in 1966 when it was leased to an American couple on the condition they build a hotel and provide local employment. They reclaimed the swampy areas by planting coconut palms, built a small hotel and rechristened the place Palm Island. In 1999, they sold the hotel to the current owners who redeveloped the property creating the Palm Island Resort and Spa. The resort takes of up much of this private island’s 135 acres with 41 rooms, two restaurants, tennis courts, pool and a spa. We rent a one of the few private homes that also dot the island.
Our two-bedroom, two-bath house rental reminds me of my childhood cottage – rustic and spare with the focus on outdoor living rather than indoor comfort. The living room is all window and sliding glass doors featuring wraparound views of the beach. The first bedroom is adjacent with an ensuite bath tucked in behind. At the front of the house are a second bedroom and bath, and the kitchen. A covered concrete patio on the west side, blocks the wind but allows full views of the beach. The kitchen opens on to patio and the beach.
Other than the glass windows and doors on the back of the house, none of the remaining windows have glass or screens. Instead they each have wide, horizontal, louvered wood slats that don’t completely close. Without air conditioning, these slats allow the tropical breezes to blow through the house, keeping the indoor temperature pleasant. There is hot water but it is intermittent at best. The utilitarian furniture seems to have been chosen not for comfort but for durability. It must withstand the constant onslaught of sun, wind, humidity and salt air that permeate the house. The kitchen, too, is basic but includes everything one could need on vacation including a microwave. You just have to remember to keep the window slats closed or else the birds come in and chow down on whatever they can find. Mid-week they peck through the plastic bag containing our buckwheat flour, clearly enjoying their gluten-free treat.
With the place open to the elements, you share your space with little critters like the aforementioned birds; tiny geckoes that scurry across the floor and up the walls, disappearing into little crevices; and lots and lots of tiny ants.
It’s like Robinson Crusoe, only with a housekeeper and wifi.
My comfort-loving husband is a little put off by the homey facilities, but in my mind, the insane views more than make up for the house’s quirks. Every so often someone from the resort passes by, but for the most part, the beach is ours alone. And what a beach! White sand lined with endless palm trees. From my lounge chair, I can see the Grenadine islands spread out before me. Union Island to the far left. Then a tiny hilltop community on Mayreau, the peaks of luxurious Canouan and the uninhabited paradise of the five-island Tobago Cays where dozens of yachts anchor to enjoy the crystal clear Caribbean waters and swim with green and hawkbill turtles.
This is my version of paradise. Others may prefer a wintry mountain chalet or a cabin in the woods by a lake. But for me, a tropical island fits the bill. I love the warm breezes that cool my skin and the ombre blues that stretch from sky to sea to beach. This place makes my winter-battered soul sing.
Our routine is established quickly. Gilles wakes up early to work or read. He gets in a few hours by the time I arise. We make ourselves our favorite buckwheat galettes (well, that is until the birds desecrate the flour) with fruit and enjoy them on the patio with our coffee. Later for lunch, one of us rallies to prepare a tomato-cucumber salad or a grilled cheese sandwich.
There are no grocery stores on Palm, save for a small tuck shop at the resort. But Viviette, the house’s manager, housekeeper and chef extraordinaire, shops on Union daily keeping us stocked with fresh St. Vincent-grown produce like mangoes, pineapple, watermelon, bananas, tomatoes, cucumber, onions and christophine, a tropical veggie from the gourd family. She also wrangles us fresh fish and lobsters from local fisherman who deliver them to our shore. Some evenings we dine at the resort, others nights we enjoy a meal prepared in advance by Viviette. Our favourite homemade dinner: lobster with side of potatoes, carrots, onions and christophine roasted in coconut milk.
Occasionally, we do venture off our lounge chairs for some exercise. Three walking trails let you explore the entire beautiful island which features 2,000 coconut palms, fan palms, croton, red axora, pink oleander and assorted colours of hibiscus trees. Winds blow off the blooms which cover the ground. It’s like walking down the aisle after the flower girl has strewn your path with fresh blossoms.
Palm is also home to a variety of iguanas, chameleons, turtles and crabs. I admit, it’s somewhat disconcerting to see a four-foot long iguana climbing a tree or scurrying past on the trail. They may be scary looking creatures, but are completely harmless and more afraid of you, than you are of them. This is an important fact I forgot one night while walking over to the resort. Out of the darkness I sensed something charging at us. I’m thinking to myself, holy moly, I’m about to be attacked by a giant iguana! Abject fear took over and instead of running, I froze, hugging myself for protection and bracing for the attack. Turns out the terrifying marauder was a white Labrador puppy belonging to one of the private homeowners. Thankfully we survived.
As if lounging by the sea is not relaxing enough we decide to up the zen ante by booking treatments at the spa. I settle on the Ayurvedic-based Indian Head Massage and the Palm Island Massage which combines deep tissue, shiatsu, reflexology and hot stone methods. Gilles opts for the man facial. The spa is in a little house just two doors down from our rental. Treatment rooms face the beach. The interior is spare and calming: white walls and reclaimed wood permeated with the scent of hibiscus. Massage therapists Dorije, who is from Bhutan, and Wate, who hails from Bali, are professional, talented and kind. Gilles and I agree – all our treatments are exquisite.
Clearly, if you love the nightlife and got to boogie, Palm Island is not the place for you. It is where you come to slow down: to relax, to write, to read, to daydream, to meditate, to snooze and to spend unencumbered time with your beloved. It’s fitting that we spend out first week of the new year here. There is no better place to reflect and recharge and think about the year to come.
Most of our holiday is dreamy, but like those idyllic cottage vacations of my youth, perfection is weather dependent. When the sun is shining and the air hot and humid, a cold shower is not a big deal. Glassless windows with louvered slats are romantic as the trade winds cool you at night. When the ocean is shimmering with infinite shades of blue, who cares if the furniture is uncomfortable, or the bed rock hard? Even ants crawling all over your toiletries is manageable.
But when the rain comes, it’s a whole different scenario. Suddenly, the crappy shower is torture, the wafer-thin mattress is killing your hip and the ants picnicking on your toothbrush freak you out. The pelting rain not only soaks your bed but invites the “no-see-um” biting bugs in to play. You wake up in a puddle with your mosquito-massacred legs resembling a pox outbreak and the sheets looking like blood spatter evidence. Nope, at this moment, we are no longer having fun.
By the end of our eight days we are ready to leave for comfier digs. Our beach rental experience has been mixed. Without a doubt, the location is phenomenal. Other than our Maldives overwater villa, I don’t think we have ever stayed at a more gorgeous oceanfront setting. We love the privacy the rental offers and the ability to make our own breakfast and lunch at whatever time we choose. But it turns out we actually ARE crotchety old people. We need more comfort – nice beds and great showers. There are certainly nicer villas to rent on Palm but they come with an extraordinary price tag. With lodging, food and Viviette’s services we were already paying about $750 Canadian per night. The upgrade would double that.
So our search continues for the perfect tropical vacation set-up. Bravely, we venture on.
*I do not claim to speak for all Canadians. Many of my fellow countrypeople do, in fact, love winter. I am not one of them.