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September 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Grenadines Dive and Cousteau Dive Center

a winner and a no-show in the Grenadines

from the September, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Last year, I received a flurry of press releases announcing the opening of the Jean-Michel Cousteau Dive Center at the very pricey Petit St. Vincent resort, which takes up an entire 115-acre island in the Grenadines, a cluster of islands in the southern Caribbean. Given the relatively unspoiled diving I have found there, I figured Jean-Michel's operation, though independent of the resort, would meet its standards, and might even visit unique diving spots that others didn't. One of our fine dive travel reviewers, who revels in new destinations -- and could afford the trip (yes, our writers pay their own way and don't let on to the purpose of their visit) -- jumped at the chance to visit. Here is his report.

-- Ben Davison

* * * * *

Catching the tips of four-foot waves, our 22-foot open fiberglass boat sent a cascade of water into my face. Glenroy Adams, the lean, middle-aged but highenergy owner of Grenadines Dive, was heading east, far past the Tobago Cays. Over the roar of twin 75HP Yamaha outboards, I yelled, "Where are we going? To Africa?" Pointing to a low white bump, he shouted back, "To that rock."

Grenadines Dive's 22-Foot Fiberglass BoatIt was the last dive day of my 10-day trip in May to Union Island and Petit St. Vincent (PSV), two of the more southerly islands in the St. Vincent and Grenadines chain. Sail Rock jutted upward like a jagged tooth whitened by guano, a lone pinnacle about 10 miles from Union Island. Seas on either side of its lee flanked us with roiling washing machines.

I descended 80 feet into cool 77-degree water, feeling the surge even at that depth. After some exploring, Glenroy handed the line to the float he towed to another diver and beckoned me to follow into a dark opening about six feet in diameter. A surge alternately pushed, then pulled me farther into the opening. Glenroy disappeared around a corner. I entered a narrow chimney, kicking hard against the surge to rise. Like a roller coaster ride, the adrenalin rush ended too quickly. Outside, the strong currents kept us from more exploring and swept us away. We surfaced a quarter mile from our dive boat, which was still next to the island. Waving his dive flag, Glenroy shouted at the four of us to stay together. When the boat finally reached us, I was happy to climb aboard.

The Caribbean MapPlanning this vacation was a crazy trip in itself. Grenadines Dive on Union Island was suggested by a fellow Undercurrent subscriber, and it was conveniently next to Kings Landing Hotel. But my emails to the hotel went unanswered, and phone calls were inconclusive. So I contacted Glenroy by email and phone, and he nicely put it all together.

My flight via Miami required overnighting in Barbados, so the next day, it was a 45-minute flight on a 19-seat Twin Otter to Union Island. An enterprising young man offered a ride for five bucks, so we crammed our suitcases into his sports car and away we went. At the hotel, Vilma, the friendly local at the front desk, walked us past the two-story hotel to a broad, covered veranda surrounding a coral stone duplex bungalow, and our 400-square-foot, air-conditioned mini-apartment, with a complete kitchen, dining area, satellite TV and a queensized bed. Next to the dive shop on bustling Clifton Bay harbor, we sat on our veranda, sipping sundowners, watching kiteboarders, fishing boats, ferries and water taxis hustle past.

Dive Grenadines Shop to the Right,
Kings Landing Hotel to the LeftAt Grenadines Dive's modest shop the next morning, I learned that our first dive, at 9 a.m., would be to Tobago Cays, a protected marine park, well regarded by Undercurrent readers. The trip to the Cays (every dive trip, in fact) provided a mini-tour of the nearby islands. This morning, we picked up a diver from a moored yacht and a pair of Canadians from neighboring Mayreau Island. They hunted lionfish on our first dive, a mild drift along a ridge loaded with schools of Creole wrasse. On the second dive, after backrolling into the water at Mayreau Gardens, I was swept along on a high-voltage drift, flying over reefs rivaling those of Bonaire, with colorful sponges (especially azure sponges), plenty of soft coral and even more reef fish. Unlike Bonaire, the current made photography tough. I often lost my group while finning in place to take shots. Fortunately, divemaster Tim Jacobs, a congenial local built like a linebacker, didn't nag. He let me linger behind in the 50- to 75-foot visibility (water temperatures ranged from 80 to 82 degrees).

Tim's laid-back approach matched the rest of the operation, where staff set everything up, switched tanks between dives and hauled everything at day's end. Tanks were filled to between 2800 and 3000 psi -- one day I checked mine to find only 2650 psi, so I got a replacement. Because they had only a small rinse tub and hose, I waded into the hotel pool after dives with my wetsuit on, holding my camera. The dive shop staff would hang my suit to dry.

I filled my dive days with easy drifts along similar ridges at sites like #9, Valley, Mayreau Garden and End's Reef. Most morning dives started at 70 to 80 feet. My "all-rounder" 60mm macro lens, coupled with ReefNet's swing-away 10X diopter, came in handy. I'd linger to photograph a southern stingray or a nurse shark, or pause to image a big eagle ray or a beefy black-tip shark that might swim past. Rock beauties retreated into holes, clouds of blue tangs foraged, while pairs of banded and four-eye butterflyfish went about their business. Occasionally a queen angelfish swam by, as well as green turtles or barracuda. Schools of blue-striped and French grunts hovered in the lee of coral heads, as schoolmasters and mahogany snapper patrolled just out of my camera's range. I didn't see grouper, but I saw graysbys, stoplight, princess and red-band parrotfish on almost every dive, as well as Spanish hogfish and usually glass eyes (locally known as "glare-eye"). Gliding by unspoiled reefs in a gentle current felt as if I had turned back the Caribbean reef clock 40 years.

Gliding by unspoiled reefs in a gentle current felt as if I had turned back the Caribbean reef clock 40 years.

Some dives were anchored or on fixed moorings, such as one shallow dive on the Puruni, a 100-foot-long British patrol vessel that sank in 1918. Its boiler was fairly intact, its propellers still visible. A huge school of tomtates, joined by a few striped grunts, reminded me of diving in Florida's Keys. At Horseshoe Reef in the Tobago Cays, young, sharp-eyed Keon Murray spotted a whitenosed pipefish, almost invisible on the sandy bottom. I put my 10X diopter to good use on a tiny secretary blenny as it peered from its hole in a massive stony coral.

Reboarding the boat via the wobbling portable ladder's narrow steps was tricky. I handed gear up to Antoine Lewis, our quiet, muscular young boat driver, but the ladder did not extend over the gunwale, so either I had to heave one leg over the gunwale or perch on it, then take a long step down. Neither would be a good option for some aging divers.

I was ponying up $1,100 a night for accommodations -- in low season -- and no notice that the dive boat was not operating?

While reboarding was not particularly easy, deciding where to dine each night was -- the variety of good restaurants in the little town of Clifton was an unexpected treat. Meals at the Anchorage Yacht Club and La Aquarium were decent, with a nice view of the harbor. Sophisticatedfeeling Big Citi Grill had a view overlooking the main drag. Splitting our main courses meant that most of the time our total bill ran about $50. Locally brewed Hairoun ran about $2.60 each. At Jennifer's, we had a table perched above street level. My spouse enjoyed a nice conch stew while I dined on a lightly encrusted whole red snapper, washing it down with a Kronenbourg 1664, a French lager. On Friday night, Joy's outdoor BBQ restaurant was packed with locals feasting on the $6 ribs, chicken or pork dinners. I walked up to the beer window and out popped Glenroy, holding out a beer for me and asking us to join his table. The ribs and chicken slathered with barbeque sauce were delicious. Glenroy described how he started up with the help of Bill Tewes of Dive St. Vincent, the difficulties of making ends meet and how he draws customers from neighboring islands, itinerant yachts and local fishermen (whom I saw repaying Glenroy for tank fills with some fresh catch).

Clifton's narrow main street, a minute's walk from the hotel, was dotted with plenty of restaurants, residents and mingling yachties; it made for an almost carnival-like atmosphere. The ferry wharf, tiny bakeries, water taxi stand, hardware stores, markets and shops squeezed into a few blocks gave it an intimate neighborly feeling. One night, the annual Maroon festival marked the start of the planting season and the return of the rainy season. Drummers beat powerful African rhythms as dancers swayed to the beat, transporting me to a different time and place, a fun place.

Mornings around 8 a.m., I wandered over to the hotel's small open-air building for juice, fruit, eggs, bacon or sausage, toast and jam for the only meal they serve. Bernadile and Paula, two friendly local women who handled the chores, told us of happenings in town and kept a watchful eye on my spouse's explorations of the three-mile-long island. One day, she joined us divers (for no charge) to snorkel at Tobago Cays, where she saw plentiful reef fish, stingrays and a fairsized shark (others saw turtles) right off the beach. One day, we hired a driver to show us the other town (Ashton), dramatic overlooks and a pond where locals scoop up salt for their tables.

A Cottage at Petit St. VincentOne day, I found myself on a boat full of young men and women enrolled in a Discovery Scuba class. Diving in no current, I got plenty of photos while poking around on my own. Picking up scattered divers for our two morning dives meant we returned around 2 p.m., sometimes even later. The 22-foot runabout, with a center console, had seating for about six; extra passengers often stood in its up-turned bow. Some divers might not like such a tight boat (although it's bigger than the "six pack" dive boats in Cozumel), but I enjoyed the novelty of picking up Italian, Canadian and French divers while seeing the neighboring islands.

After a week, it was time to move on to Petit St. Vincent, though it was hard to leave all the fun. When settling my bill, I told Glenroy I was heading for PSV to dive with Jean-Michel Cousteau's operation. He laughed. Guess what? I would still be diving with him. Cousteau's Intrepid 37 dive boat, L'Aventur, had been out of commission for several weeks, and all divers were being referred to Glenroy. What the . . . ? And that was the main reason for this trip! I was ponying up $1,100 a night for PSV accommodations -- in low season -- for the privilege of seeing what it was like to dive with them, and no notice that they were not operating? So, rather than paying $75 per tank to dive with Cousteau's team, I'd be diving with Glenroy at $60 a tank. Plus, Glenroy gave us a free ride to the private PSV, saving me the resort's $35-per-person transfer fee. Since I was already having a great time diving with Glenroy's operation, I couldn't see how I'd miss any "special" Cousteau experience, though my editor, Ben, would not be happy.

On PSV, we were given a quick golf-cart tour of the main facilities. Their relaxed, natural appearance was nicely set against well-manicured grounds. Our one-bedroom cottage, approximately 600 square feet, with clean lines and a light, airy layout, seemed out of the pages of Conde Nast Traveler; the interior colors mirrored the sandy beach and blue-green seas. Dark woodwork trim and furniture added a warmth to the pale, foot-thick coralstone walls. The bathroom had a pair of sinks, soft white towels, thick bathrobes -- and a contemporary "open-toilet nook." Sorry, but I'm not a fan of toilets without privacy. A 30-foot expanse of sliding glass doors from the bedroom (with a splendid king-sized bed) to the living room offered views of an offshore reef, then northeast across the Atlantic to Sail Rock. A table and chairs, couch and large coffee table in the living room provided plenty of staging area for my camera gear.

The Grenadines Dive RatingEach cottage has a flag system and message holder mounted on a short driftwood pole that was checked every half hour or so; hoist a yellow pennant for service (food, shuttle rides and maintenance requests), hoist a red flag for "complete privacy." Paying top dollar, I used the flags liberally, but for the big bucks, I wondered why we seemed to be missing a smoke detector, why most of their bicycles had frozen chains or worn brakes, and why our beach hammock was coated with stuff that rubbed off on my clothes. I typically disregard the small stuff when I'm lodging in inexpensive places like Kings Landing, but the tariff at PSV was about five times that rate.

Cousteau's small, brightly lit shop appeared neat and tidy, with newer-looking gear hung and shelved in an orderly fashion. A staff member there told me that the inboard prop shaft seals on their dive boat had sprung a sudden leak, flooding the engine. I made the reservations with the PSV reservation office six weeks prior, with plenty of discussion about how I wanted to dive its operation, but I guess that didn't register. (I wondered why the Cousteau dive operation didn't just lease one of PSV's boats or make arrangements for another island boat as a classy alternative, given the Cousteau reputation. But of course, Jean-Michel is not involved in the day-to-day operation, if involved at all.)

Regardless, PSV's service helped me forget my disappointment as I indulged my inner hedonist. At breakfast, coffee would be quietly placed outside our door at 6 a.m. (strong, as requested). At 7 a.m., our server would bring trays laden with fresh OJ, fruit, rich banana smoothies, thick French toast and eggs. Lunch, such as spring rolls, mixed satay with homemade peanut sauce and grilled fish, might be served in our room or at Goatie's Beach Bar & Restaurant, where we watched mariners sailing against the backdrop of Petit Martinique. At night, we relaxed in the sea breezes that kept us virtually bug-free, imbibing sundowners while watching the surf, then eating by candlelight at the Pavilion Restaurant, enjoying succulent entrees, like herb-encrusted rack of lamb with a rosemary jus.

With no room Wi-Fi or TV, combined with isolation from hustle and bustle on the rest of the planet, the island was a stress-reliever. One day, we bicycled and hiked around the island, and sat under thatched roofs in one of the many semi-secluded beachside nooks, each with its own flag and message system to summon treats off an epicurean lunch menu (seared Black Angus beef salad with artichokes, smoked salmon open sandwich, chocolate mousse with berry compote).

Before this trip, I only expected seven days of possibly sketchy lodging plus some "OK" diving, topped off by a stay at a world-class resort while diving with a storied Cousteau operation. The results were nearly the opposite. I was pleasantly surprised by Kings Landing Hotel's roomy bayside bungalow, enjoyed a cultural immersion on Union Island, and was impressed by the marine life while diving with Grenadines Dive; it was the proverbial throwback in time, to the days before all-inclusive dive resorts kept their guests in a bubble, isolated from the local culture. True, Petit St. Vincent and its lush setting was fantastic, which one would expect at that price, but for me, I was disappointed being unable to dive with Jean-Michel's dive operation. That said, other than offering a larger and far more comfortable boat, it's hard to imagine that Cousteau could have offered better diving than did Glenroy (which is very good for the Caribbean these days). And for sure, I savored evenings hanging out on Union Island, especially knowing that it cost me about $900 less per day than PSV. But then again, life is short, and now I know firsthand how the "one percent" lives, if only for a few days.

-- S.P.

Our undercover diver's bio: S.P. says, "Learning to scuba (35 years ago), my beavertail neoprene wetsuit got me through my YMCA silver-level certification, even if I did freeze my bippy during 100-foot descents onto Great Lakes freighters. I've gradually earned all the main certifications, including Master Scuba Diver, and I have a SDI/TDI/ ERDI solo diving certification that comes in handy when I am sometimes left on my own on dives while taking photos. In between frequent dive trips, from the Caribbean to the Asia Pacific, I am a public safety diver and try to dive once a week year-round when our local lakes are not frozen over, and when they, are I'm ice diving."

Arenui, Alor Archipelago, IndonesiaDivers Compass: SVG Air flights between Barbados and Union Island were about $400 round-trip per person -- expensive for such a short flight, but unlike LIAT, ultra-reliable, and they didn't charge for excess baggage . . . Kings Landing Hotel is $140 a night or $980 for seven nights, including breakfasts, taxes and a weak internet connection . . . Dive Grenadines charges $60 a tank, including BC, but it had an unexpected $40 "check fee" versus a four percent credit card surcharge; I tipped about 10 percent . . . I spent three nights at Petit St. Vincent for $1,100 per night (low season), including all meals, plus an automatic 10 percent for tips and another 10 percent for VAT; Presidente beers there were $9.30 each (we brought our own rum and wine) . . . Departure tax from Union Island was about $19 per person . . . We did two overnights in Barbados at the clean, roomy Monteray Apartment Hotel for $125 per night (I booked online via Expedia) . . . We took a worthwhile three-and-a-half-hour taxi tour of Barbados ($30 per hour); some beaches on the Atlantic side were covered with thick mats of Sargassum seaweed, which stinks when it rots, but there was beautiful countryside in St. Lucy Parish, and Barbados Green monkeys roaming wild in rural areas . . . Websites: Grenadines Dive - www.grenadinesdive.com; Kings Landing - www.kingslandinghotel.com; Petit St. Vincent Resort - www.petitstvincent.com; SVG Air - www.svgair.com

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