We've arrived! St Vincent and the Grenadines
We’ve just landed for the first time on the paradise Caribbean islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines.
The Caribbean isn't just a welcoming and beautiful vacation paradise, although, in fairness, it does do that very well. It's also a vast and endlessly fascinating region, where each island has its own unique culture, scenery, and story. This is why we love flying there as much as you love visiting and exploring every island. So, we're super excited to be flying to St Vincent and the Grenadines. To learn more about this beautiful archipelago, we tracked down the only St Vincentian restaurant in the UK and went along to talk to some people who know the island inside out. We also did what all good travel researchers do; explored the local cuisine. It’s fair to say we came away captivated by these beautiful islands.
Mama Jacqs is a small but extremely popular eatery in London. Here we met the owner, and one of our frequent flyers, Mama Jacq, who runs the restaurant with her daughter Chantal and son Dom. Together they call themselves the 'three lions'. Also in town that day was uncle Bert, Mama Jacqs brother, visiting from St Vincent, where you can normally find him playing in resort bands or indulging in a spot of spearfishing. Joining Mama Jacq and her team were Desmond Ambris-Brade and Sian Kempster, two of our cabin crew. Desmond joined Virgin Atlantic 20 years ago partly because he saw the job as a gateway to the Caribbean. He grew up and went to school on St Vincent and makes sure to return regularly. Sian's mum hails from the island, but she's never visited St Vincent which she plans to put right as soon as possible. We were there to chat about all things St Vincent (or Vincy as those who hark from the islands call it), find out more about our latest alluring destination, oh, and eat some of Mama Jacqs’ gorgeous Caribbean food.
Sian, Chantal, Mama Jacq, Uncle Bert and Desmond.
Location, location, location
St Vincent and the Grenadines are nestled in the Windward Isles of the Lesser Antilles. If you're not up to speed with your Caribbean geography, the region is divided into two main island groups. The Greater Antilles are the big islands of Cuba, Jamaica, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and the Lesser Antilles, an arc of smaller islands that reach from the tip of Cuba all the way to Venezuela. These are split into two groups, the Leeward Islands (where you'll find Antigua) forms the top half of the arc, and the Windward Islands lays to the south. That's where you'll find St Vincent and the Grenadines, situated between St Lucia to the north and Grenada to the south.
The location of Mama Jacqs is much easier to explain. It's right next to Wembley Stadium in North London.
St Vincent, the Caribbean road less travelled
St Vincent is the biggest and most northern island of the group and it's where you'll find the capital Kingstown and the brand-new airport. This is the Caribbean done a little bit differently to the one you might be used to. Uncle Bert called it 'untouched'. A lesser developed island with a wilder landscape, where forests and cliffs reach down to the sea. A land dominated by the volcano (more about that later) with burnt sugar-coloured beaches and dramatic seascapes. There are nature trails, hikes up to the rim of La Soufrière and the old-world charm of the capital Kingstown, with its arches and cobbled streets. It's a place to explore and to find adventure. Discover mountains, cliffs, forests, rivers, and waterfalls. You may even catch a glimpse of the glorious St Vincent parrot – found nowhere else in the world. You won't find big resorts on St Vincent, instead, you'll stay in small hotels, guest houses and B&Bs. You can hire a car and enjoy the narrow winding roads and discover a different but rewarding and dramatically beautiful Caribbean destination. You’ll also discover their food, a glorious, delicious, and unique Caribbean cuisine. This was when everyone around the table became really animated.
Treking through the islands interior
The food lovers guide to St Vincent
There are two regular places for foodies to head to. Go down to one of the beaches, and you might find yourself at a beach 'cookout'. This is an informal gathering where food is cooked on an open fire. Then there is the Heritage Square Friday hang out. At both places you’ll discover the true flavours of the Caribbean in general and St Vincent in particular. Sample local drinks, Maui, five finger juice and Ju-c, and smoothies made from sea moss (the beer and rum go without saying). For food, you’ll find Caribbean favourites like jerk chicken with rice and peas. Like most Caribbean islands, there’ll be fantastic seafood straight from the fishermen's nets. And mac 'n' cheese pies, rotis and fritters. Then there’s the St Vincent national dish of fried fish and baked jackfruit or delicious dumplings made from arrowroot. But everyone at Mama Jacqs agreed that to really get the taste of St Vincent, you need to try the soups. There’s Callaloo, based on the green spinach-like leaves of the plant it's named after. Or boileen broths which can be made with goat, mutton or fresh fish.
Another iconic Vincy dish is Peleau, a local speciality made with chicken, rice and pigeon peas. The latter is a source of great debate and pride among Vincentians. Heaven forbid that word gets out that the colour of your rice was slightly the wrong shade!
Pure escapism - the Grenadines
A short ferry ride or very short plane hop from St Vincent and you'll find yourself in the Grenadines. This group of 32 small islands trail off to the south of St Vincent and comprise nine inhabited islands - Carriacou, Young Island, Bequia, Mustique, Canouan, Union Island, Mayreau, Petit St Vincent, Palm Island and 23 uninhabited ones.
This is the other, more familiar Caribbean. It's where you'll find the white powder beaches, resorts and hotels, It’s one of the most popular yachting destinations in the world. A gentle climate and natural beauty with palm-fringed beaches and secluded cays. Some of the islands - we're looking at you, Mustique - are the playground of the rich and famous. This is where A-listers and rock stars go for privacy, out of bounds to all but the wealthiest visitor. The other islands are just as beautiful, and much more accessible for us non-millionaires.
Carnival and a very special festival
No discussion about the Caribbean is complete without discussing Carnival. St Vincent, like many Caribbean nations have their own version of Carnival, but it also celebrates Christmas in the most extraordinary way. The main carnival is Vincy Mas and is considered one of the best in the Caribbean. It is a celebration of Vincentian heritage and a fabulous festival with street parties, steel drums and parades. It’s a two day celebration which is happening on the 11th and 12th of July next year.
The other big celebration takes place at Christmas and is called the Nine Morning Festival. This unique St Vincent celebration sees the whole island, including tourists, get up very early (we're talking 4am) on the nine days before Christmas to enjoy music, food and partying as well as torch-lit processions through streets adorned with countless lights. It truly is a magical and joyous festival for everyone.
The Vincy Volcano
For those thinking of travelling to St Vincent, one thing to mention is La Soufrière, the resident active volcano. You may have heard that it erupted last year, but is that something you should be worried about? We asked Hannah Swift, our Caribbean country manager, who also happens to have a degree in geology, about the current situation. "She's going back to sleep at the moment," said Hannah. "It's a beautiful volcano that adds to the charm of the island. Without it, the bananas wouldn't be as delicious, and so many farmers wouldn't survive. It's left some pretty impressive sights since it erupted in April, and whilst you may not be allowed up to the crater or in some zones, you can still get a sense of the power of the earth. The locals will have some amazing stories to tell from the last eruption and the one before, so sit back with a rum and listen!"
Back to Wembley, and Mama Jacqs
Owned and run by the Codougan family, this restaurant’s story began when Mama Jacq brought her home cooking and her mum’s recipes from St Vincent to the UK. Having built up a reputation for fantastic home cooking, she featured in and won an episode of Family Cooking Showdown. She was voted Black Chef of the year, started selling her food at festivals, and now runs the Mama Jacqs restaurant. She offers a selection of incredible, authentic Caribbean food highlighting her homemade cooking sauces. The food is spectacular, served with enormous joy and pride. Mama Jacq describes her cooking as having more flavour than spice, but the main ingredient, she says, is 'love' (the actual recipe is a closely guarded family secret). It's a winning combination that attracts a legion of regular customers, including quite a few celebrities.
Ready to take off
If all of this has given you a yearning to head to St Vincent and the Grenadines, we think you're making a great choice. Maybe you're a geology enthusiast looking to get up close to the volcano, or, like Sian and Desmond, keen to visit friends and relatives. Then again, you might just want to explore this magical group of islands or head to the Grenadines to be treated like royalty. Whatever your reasons, there are two things you can be sure of. We're ready and waiting to take you there, and you're going to enjoy some epic food.
So what was the verdict on Mama Jacqs cooking? Sian and Desmond are both very familiar with Caribbean cooking, from their family gatherings and a job that sees them visit the region regularly. With the first mouthful of Mama Jacqs food, their eyes lit up. Here, in north London, was real Caribbean food, transporting them back to the islands as only food can. As they left, both mentioned that the food at Mama Jacqs really reminded them of their grans cooking. To Mama Jacq, that was the greatest compliment of all.
Connecting friends and family is one of the things we do best here at Virgin Atlantic. As we leave Mama Jacq's after a beautiful evening making friends, learning about St Vincent, and eating exceptional Caribbean cuisine, we are moved by Mama Jacq and her family. Their story and their restaurant energised and inspired everyone. We all left even more excited about our newest destination. Sian headed off determined to finally make it to her mum's homeland and catch up with aunts and uncles she's never met. Meanwhile Desmond, was heading off the next day to the Caribbean and St Vincent, crewing our very first flight to his home island.
And here's Desmond on the ground in St Vincent with the rest of the crew comprising Captain David Townsend, Senior First Officer David Bailey, Flight Service Manager Lezah Cooper, Cabin Supervisor Helen Salmon and cabin crew Amy Nicholson, Charlotte Sawyers, Dariusz Kuster, Eduardo Pedraza Salazar, Melanie Lacaille Palmer and Vicky Zajda.
It was amazing to be on the first flight to St Vincent, it’s a great opportunity for tourism to flourish in the country and it’s a great new destination for Virgin to fly to.
Virgin Atlantic Holidays offer a selection of hotels on St Vincent and the Grenadines island of Bequia, which is an hour away by ferry. https://www.virginholidays.co.uk/destinations/caribbean/st-vincent-and-the-grenadines-holidays
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