Windward Islands offer overlooked treasures if you'll only leave the beaches

November 14, 1993|By Brad Wetzler | Brad Wetzler,Contributing Writer Universal Press Syndicate

White sands. Waters of turquoise and teal. Pitchers full of rum punch. The happy bounce of a steel-drum band.

Ah, those pulse-lowering cliches of the Caribbean.

But rocky mountains? Rugged hiking trails? Jagged climbing crags?

In the Windward Islands, which make up the southernmost islands in the Lesser Antilles and tend to be less developed and slightly more rough-hewn than the rest of the Caribbean, these too are a part of paradise.

But to find this wilder side of the Caribbean, you do have to get up from your chaise longue and trade your sandals for sturdier footwear. You have to venture away from the beaches and go hiking.

A good place to start is the island of Grenada. Better known to most Americans as the site of a 1983 U.S. military intervention (or invasion, depending on your political bent), Grenada is politically stable today, and hungry for your tourist dollars. But since it's just catching up in the tourism business, there are fewer monster resorts and casinos and more wild natural spaces, which is perfect for someone looking for a little adventure. There's a blanket of vegetation draped over waterfalls and soothing swimming holes, miles of snorkeling reefs, welcoming people, tasty West Indian food, and, oh yes, white beaches, too.

A classic trip is to hike to Seven Sisters Falls on the slippery-when-wet Seven Sisters Trail. Catch a taxi in St. George's and head inland to the Grand Etang Reserve, a mountainous national park whose centerpiece is an almost perfectly round volcanic crater. (Legend had it that the crater lake was bottomless; a recent scientific expedition carried out by a local school, however, has found the depth to be about 12 feet.)

At Grand Etang, poke your head into the park office -- it doubles as a natural history museum -- and arrange for a guide. At least for your first trip into the rain forest, a guide's a must; the trail is tricky and not well-marked. Plus, included in the fee -- usually between $50 and $100 for a group of four -- you're bound to get an earful of stories and a detailed history/geology/biology lesson from a knowledgeable local. Don't sweat it if he's wielding a machete.

Almost immediately you enter a rain forest of giant mahogany, telephone pole-sized ferns and sweet-smelling Caribbean pines. Hiking through muddy ravines and across cold mountain streams, you can steady yourself with a walking stick or the macrame of roots that line the sides of the trail.

It's not a terribly strenuous hike, but there are a few steep-and-slippery trudges and spots where the trail drops off to thin air on one side. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you'll catch the clucking caw-caw of the mona monkey -- or even see one attending to the business of monkeys high in the canopy. At last, after an hour and a half of sweaty work, you'll carefully descend a 300-foot muddy face and find yourself face-to-face with a stair step of waterfalls. Don't skimp on time here; there couldn't possibly be anything better going on back at the beachside cabana. The entire trip takes about four hours -- including an hour of frolicking in the multilevel swimming pools under the falls.

St. Vincent, the northernmost island of the Grenadines, offers some trails for the more advanced (or at least more motivated). Explore Soufriere, the island's 3,000-foot volcano, which last erupted in 1979. The hike is longer and more strenuous than the Seven Sisters Trail, so you'll want to set aside a full day for this adventure. The reward for your A-plus effort is the still-steaming crater at the top. The view of the Caribbean from this point is pretty good, too. A guide is a must; you should be able to arrange for one with most taxi drivers in Kingstown.

If you have a yen for mountains with turbulent pasts, Mount Pelee on the rather cosmopolitan French isle of Martinique is another ache-inspiring trek up a volcano. This one hasn't erupted since 1902; but when it did blow, in three quick minutes it wiped out all but one of the 30,000 residents of St. Pierre, which at the time was the capital. The sole survivor, by the way, was Auguste Siparis, a prisoner in the town dungeon who later found fame and fortune as a circus curiosity.

The way to the summit isn't easy -- first through soggy banana fields and then through a rain forest -- so pack plenty of water and a snack. On the way back (or on the way up, if you like scaring yourself), stop at the Musee Volcanologique in St. Pierre. On display are such objects as petrified spaghetti, melted clocks and twisted metal musical instruments. This trip is a good way to get local history with your exercise.

By all means spend your Caribbean vacation working on the tan, maintaining a low heart rate and calming your worries with an occasional rum punch. But remember to leave the beach. After all, if you were heading to a stateside vacation spot with mountains, a rain forest, an extinct volcano crater and cascading falls, would the only pair of shoes you bring be rubber flip-flops?

IF YOU GO . . .

For more information:

* Grenada Board of Tourism, 820 Second Ave., Suite 900D, New York, N.Y. 10017; (800) 927-9554.

* St. Vincent and the Grenadines Board of Tourism, 801 Second Ave., 21st Floor, New York, N.Y. 10017; (212) 687-4981.

* Office Departmental du Tourisme de la Martinique (French West Indies Tourist Board), 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020; (900) 990-0040.

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