"We mustn't become overdependent on tourism. We want balanced tourism. This means serving homegrown vegetables and lobster caught the same day instead of imported caviar and steak. This will preserve our agriculture and keep tourist revenues from going out for imported food. It's what visitors want, too. They want to see things indigenous to the islands, like cultivated fields and the fishing boats leaving."
The unregimented, unpackaged tourism that Mitchell envisions would be pretty much an expanded version of what St. Vincent already has. There is a casual, nicely unpolished quality about a St. Vincent vacation today. The feeling begins even on the flight from Barbados aboard a groaning LIAT propjet staffed by stewardesses in clinging, early Supremes mini-dresses. Soon St. Vincent rises from the sea, its peaks lost in cloud.
Curiously, the runway below is intersected by a road carrying British-made autos and crowded buses with such puckish names as "Come to Me, Baby" or "Ride On." Another bus is called "Never Late," but this vow will surely be broken: the plane is landing and vehicular traffic must wait.
The propjet deposits its passengers at the airport, where a sign says that the local Rotary Club meets Thursdays it 12:15 p.m. at Kingstown's Blue Caribbean Hotel. The customs inspection consists of no more than a gold-toothed smile, and the scene soon shifts to the inside of a taxicab winding through high greenery affording glimpses of the Caribbean below. Hugh Tyrrell, the driver, turns to the back seat.
"Welcome to St. Vincent," he says. "What we offer is nature's blessings and the love of the people." Tyrrell's words, though practiced, soothe. Most strangers to St. Vincent, after all, hail from distant cities like New York or Toronto, where nature's blessings have long since been obliterated by foul air and concrete. The latest word from these places is that one cannot always count on the love of the people, either.
Tyrrell's island delivers much of what he promises. He or any of Kingstown's other eager taxi drivers will gladly show the visitor St. Vincent's own Mesopotamia Valley, whose steep crayon-green slopes are planted mostly in bananas, a crop accounting for 80% of the island's exports. Or they will drive along bumpy roads to the small fishing settlement of Barrouallie, where youths drowse under banyan trees and others play cricket on the dusty village square. Or take you to Sandy Bay, whose trusting inhabitants thought it an act of God when drums containing what appeared to be Jack Iron rum, a potent native drink, washed ashore three years ago. The drums actually contained industrial alcohol from a shipwrecked schooner, and the two dozen people who died in the ensuing binge included a 6-year-old girl. A bitter joke has it that the survivors would gladly drink the stuff again.
Another of St. Vincent's attractions is Mount Soufriere, a 4,048-foot volcano on the island's north end. One reaches Soufriere by Land Rover, then hikes along a trail that twists upward through creaking bamboo to a crater sheltering a still, green lake. The 90-minute climb is less than Himalayan but derives an extra element of sport from the fact that the volcano is semiactive; it erupted in 1902 at a loss of 2,000 lives and belched up an island of ash in the lake just 18 months ago.
There is something unobtrusive even about St. Vincent's hotels, small, come-as-you-are places where the absence of such amenities as phones or TV in guest rooms is seldom mourned. The best are three American-run resorts, each offering two dozen guest cottages on its own island. They are (with wintertime rates for two, meals included):
1) Young Island ($68 a day), which lies 200 yards off St. Vincent, its thatched roofs camouflaged by hibiscus, oleander and palms. Owner John Houser, an ex-Hilton executive, is partial to bananas, which turn up in bread, fritters, cream pie, salads and, of course, daiquiris. The staff aims to please, with the result, paradoxically, that if a trade wind snuffs out the candle on your dinner table, you may have to relight it yourself; the waiters could be too busy serenading you with Island in the Sun.
2) Palm Island ($60), a cabana-style beach resort in the Grenadines with daily LIAT service on its own airstrip. The owner is John Caldwell, a feisty Texan who was shipwrecked while singlehandedly sailing the Pacific, an adventure described in his book Desperate Voyage. Later, as a charter captain in the Grenadines, Caldwell made like a tropical Johnny Appleseed, planting coconut palms on scrubby Prune Island, which he renamed Palm Island after leasing it for $1 a year in local currency—or 53¢ U.S. Mitchell now wants to renegotiate the lease, and he pointedly calls the resort Prune Island. Caldwell says defiantly, "The word prune stands for something ugly and wrinkled."