Storm clouds bunched ahead like an unmade bed as our captain gunned his single outboard motor straight into the oncoming swells. Thwack! Every 10 seconds, we bounced high then slammed down hard, drenched in salt spray, on the wooden bench. Even more thrilling — or maybe terrifying — we could see no life jackets aboard. It was just another island crossing in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
To see more than one or two of this Caribbean nation’s 32 mostly uninhabited islands, which stretch in a roughly 56-mile-long crescent closer to Venezuela than to North America, you’ll need a boat. Flights between islands are hard to come by, and if you do find one, takeoffs are unpredictable.
During our nine-day tour of the archipelago, my husband and I visited eight islands — including one barely larger than a sandbar — by ferry, water taxi, small yacht and the occasional swim to shore.
It was a far cry from my previous Caribbean forays. Those land-based trips culminated in daily hot showers and hair dryers back at the hotel or Airbnb. Here, we lived in our swimsuits and bathed in the sea, immersed in the consonance of land, ocean and culture that is island life.
Rum punch with the ‘yachties’
Our journey began on St. Vincent, the island “mainland” of the Grenadines. We rented a car, loaded up on water and an addictive regional snack of molasses, coconut and spices called toolum, and hit the winding roads, dodging stray dogs, goats and roosters. The northernmost island in the chain, just 18 miles long, St. Vincent is a tangle of hibiscus, bougainvillea, pastel cottages and corrugated-metal-roofed bars with names like Joe’s Bla Bla and Chillspot.
We found a muddy hiking adventure at the Vermont Nature Trail, a two-mile path winding around a pair of towering pitons (pointed volcanic peaks), dense with Caribbean pines, palms, epiphytes and tall trees with thick buttresses. The guide we hired at the entrance was worth the $20: The slippery trails might have persuaded us to turn around before reaching the preserve at the top, where we glimpsed a pair of the endangered St. Vincent parrots soaring over the green valley.
The next morning, we boarded a ferry loaded with pallets of potatoes, concrete, diapers and other necessities, bound for the island of Canouan, where a floating Airbnb awaited us. When we disembarked two hours later, we met Johan Kotze and Nelia Lindeque,a South African couple who left their aerospace jobs a decade ago and sailed across the Atlantic on their 34-foot catamaran, the Wind Kat,where they now welcome visitors to join their island hopping.
On the aft deck of the Wind Kat, the pair inducted us into “yachtie” life with a toast of rum punch. The yachties form a sort of floating, nomadic expatriate community in the Caribbean. They are laid-back (some boast of spending weeks naked on their boats); meet up when the wind blows them into the same bays; exchange news about swells, weather and which islands are short on supplies like butter and lettuce; and gather to lash their boats to the roots of coastal mangroves when hurricanes are coming.
Some of the Grenadines are private — Mustique and Petit St. Vincent, for example. Canouan is open to the public, but increasingly colonized by the 1 percent. Travel sites have called it “the next billionaires’ playground,” on a course to become a superyacht destination like St. Barts. Rooms at the Mandarin Oriental start at $1,800 a night. Not far away, the new Soho House Canouan, a members-only resort, offers an elegant outdoor bar and restaurant that is open to the public, but the yachties scoffed at paying $6 for a Carib beer, when local bars sell them for less than half that.
That night, we slept under an open hatch. The glup-glup of waves on the hull woke me just before sunrise, and I opened my eyes to see a square of starry sky turn from violet to pink.
After a breakfast of coffee and eggs, followed by an obligatory rum punch toast (yachties day-drink without shame), we set sail. Fish splashed and glittered along the hull. Above, the mast tilted back and forth like a compass needle aimed at the sky. An hour later, we were anchored at Salt Whistle Bay on the island of Mayreau.
From above, Mayreau, which is less than two square miles,looks a bit like a manta ray, one of the creatures that live in the nearby waters. It is roughly seven miles from Canouan, but economically, another world. It has no gas stations or A.T.M.s. It had no electricity until the early 2000s, after the national government persuaded the family that had owned the island since colonial times to sell 24 acres to its approximately 250 residents.
Mayreau is the only inhabited island within the Tobago Cays Marine Park, a protected area that also includes three islets and five cays (including one, Petit Tabac, that served as a setting in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”). The surrounding reefs teem with sea turtles, rays, sharks and other marine life. The park attracts yachties, private charters and some medium-size cruise ships. But its fishing restrictions also pose hardships for the local population.
Some are trying to turn conservation into opportunity. Once a week, Marion Isaacs dons scuba gear to replant coral in the park, earning $50 for an afternoon. She and her group, We Are Mayreau, are working to improve living conditions and access to education for islanders.
“Making conservation a viable employment option, something that is full time as opposed to once a week, would help,” Ms. Isaacs said.
Owen Day, a scientist with Clear Caribbean, a group working to protect and restore marine ecosystems, agreed: “Our aim is to make coral restoration a new livelihood opportunity for coastal communities in the Caribbean, especially vulnerable fisherfolk who often have few options for work.”
And with sea levels rising, the islanders face another challenge: protecting Salt Whistle Bay’s pristine beach from erosion as the strong surf on the other side of a narrow isthmus threatens to break through.
After three days exploring and snorkeling on Mayreau, we sailed an hour west aboard the Wind Kat to Tobago Cays. According to locals, commerce is allowed on only one of the Cays, Petit Bateau, where Big Mama Beach B.B.Q. sells beers and snacks on the beach and an entrepreneur named Captain Neil sets out a daily lobster feast on picnic tables. But visitors and merchants alike must remove all their gear after dinner and leave the island for the night, though sleeping on boats offshore is allowed.
The Tahiti of the Caribbean
After a day and night in the Cays, we set a course toward a shadow that resembled a reclining dragon on the horizon. Union Island, spiky with pitons, is sometimes called the Tahiti of the Caribbean, and after the quiet isolation of the marine park, it felt like a return to civilization. With a population of about 3,000, it has an A.T.M., a bustling produce market and at least two coffee shops with espresso machines.
Union Island charmed us with its ingenuity and efforts to increase sustainability. Its power grid has been fully solar since 2019. And after developers bulldozed a lagoon, then abandoned the project in bankruptcy, a local organization stepped in and replanted mangroves, which filter water, provide nurseries for fish and protect the coastline from storm surges. The restored lagoon is now home to turtles, rays and the occasional snorkeler.
“The idea is for us to create a green destination, minimize damage to the natural environment, try to prevent overcrowding, while using what the community is already engaged in, and leverage them as things travelers would be interested in,” said Stanton Gomes, the chairman of the Union Island Tourism Board.
We left the yachties and the Wind Kat behind and checked into a hotel, where we savored our first hot shower in six days. “Sailing the islands” has a luxurious tang, but unless you’re aboard a superyacht, you’re essentially camping on the water.
Reward for a rough passage
The Grenadines may all be part of one volcanic string of islands, but they belong to two separate nations. Crossing the border from Union Island to Carriacou, Grenada, was a relatively short boat ride — and a longer bureaucratic voyage.
We spent the morning hanging around the dock looking for a boat to take us over. The weather was taking a turn for the worse when we finally found a captain. Among his various gigs, he navigated his single-motor craft several times a week over to Carriacou and loaded plastic tanks of fuel to sell on Union Island, which lost its only gas station in a deadly 2020 explosion.
After a drenching ride across the swells, we docked with some relief and joined the line at a dark customs warehouse, where we spent about an hour with fidgeting yachties and local merchants, sharing the vibe of a rare moment when the line between tourist and resident blurred.
After clearing customs, we checked into the waterfront Green Roof Inn, furnished with old leather chairs and mosquito-net-shrouded beds, and ventured out at dusk as the tree frogs whistled. We considered renting a scooter from the wonderfully diversified Wayne’s Car Rental and Bar, but the videos of Caribbean hip-hop artists like Koffee and Popcaan playing on a big screen there drew us in, and we lingered late into the night nursing Carib beers instead.
The next morning, we hiked a steep trail to a jungle redoubt called the KIDO Foundation, founded decades ago as an animal sanctuary and an environmental school. Tiny boas lay coiled in hollowed-out coconut-shell bird feeders, a colony of fruit bats hung from a ceiling in one meeting room, and a rescued one-winged hawk perched inside a room-size cage.
KIDO offers a variety of voluntourism opportunities, including patrols to protect turtle nesting sites. The group has planted tens of thousands of mangroves and offers a Green College after-school program that, among other projects, teaches island students how to nurture and plant indigenous trees nearly wiped out by colonial cravings for exotic wood.
In the dark before dawn the next day, we boarded our last ferry, to Grenada, called the Spice Island for its nutmeg, clove and cinnamon production. To get there, the ship barreled over Kick ’Em Jenny, an active underwater volcano that occasionally belches gases so dangerous that boats must change course. Jenny wasn’t kicking that day.
In the warm breeze, facing backward, we watched the Grenadines dwindle into the pink horizon. Frigate birds and boobies drifted above the deck, sometimes resting on the radar array before plunging toward a meal. On all sides, the sea undulated, the color of mercury. For two hours, sleepy passengers dozed and rocked. On this last crossing of our voyage from speck to speck of land, everything — water, flora, fauna and human — seemed to be living in sync.
Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation. Dreaming up a future getaway or just armchair traveling? Check out our 52 Places for a Changed World for 2022.