Union Island is tricky to get to. It took us three days (mainly because of long stop overs). The options are to fly into Barbados and take a connecting flight through one of two airways: SVG (http://www.svgair.com) or Mustique (http://mustique.com). The rates are pretty steep – $531 round way per person with both companies. This is the solution we opted for. Another option is to fly from Barbados to the city of Kingstown in St.Vincent with Liat Airways (http://www.liat.com) and then take a ferry to Union Island with Jaden Inc (http://jadeninc.com/schedule-and-fares/fast-ferry-schedule). This is a bit cheaper. The flight will cost you around $421 and the ferry another $82, so all in all $503. The problem is that the ferry goes south from St.Vincent towards Union Island only on three days of the week and heads back north from Union Island once a week, so that you have to time it carefully with your flights. For the $30 it saves you I don’t think it is worth it in time and hassle, better to take a flight.
Getting Our Kitesurfing Gear On board:
We packed all our gear into two carry-on bags and two large bags – a backpack and a golf bag in which we put our boards. We were quite nervous about the baggage checks, so we packed the golf bag to the maximum limit of 20 kilograms and not a gram more. Because we had to distribute the weight evenly we carried half of the kite surfing gear inside the big backpack and half inside the golf bag, leaving us with quite a bit of unused space in it. Luckily our bags were never weighed and we were never asked to pay extra for “sporting equipment”. Whenever we were asked we said we had personal equipment in the golf bag. All the airport officials were willing to overlook a few extra kilograms over the limit. You can take look at our list of equipment at the end of this post.
Kitesurfing in Union Island:
First – a word of warning! WINDGURU LIES! Let me explain. Because the temperature in Union is much hotter, the air is much less dense and the wind less strong. The anemometers, which are small and turn easily, feel a stronger wind than your kite will. (Read more: http://www.seabreeze.com.au/forums/Kitesurfing/General/cold-wind-vs-warm-wind/, http://localkitespots.com/boost.htm). The bottom line is that you need to take 3 knots off what the forecast says. Of course the wind varies each year, but generally you will want a kite between size 11-15 meters.
There are two kite centers on the island. Jeremy Tronet runs JT Pro Center (http://www.kitesurfgrenadines.com). The second school is run out of Captain Gourmet, one of the cafe’s in the center of town and is called Happy Kite (http://happykitegrenadines.com/). Both teach kite surfing, offer down winds and can arrange kite trips to the other islands in the area. Happy Kite charge generally half of the price of JT Pro and I highly recommend them.
In Union Island there are two kite surfing spots. The first is the harbor in Clifton where JT PRO Kite surfing center is located. One of the highlights is Happy Island, a small island about 700 meters from the beach to which you can easily kite and where everyone gathers during sunset to drink Pina Colada’s with their kites in the air.
JT Pro Center will try and charge you 15 XCD (East Caribbean Dollars which is around $5.50) per day for using the launching area and their compressor. There is absolutely no reason to pay! Bring your own pump (which will definitely be better than the barely-functioning compressor) and save the money. The only reason to pay is if you are a beginner and want a rescue boat on stand-by if you get in trouble. I don’t think there is a real need for that since the water is shallow and you will be able to stand up in most places.
The Pro’s: It is close to the city where you will likely be staying, the wind is 0n-shore and they provide rescues if needed. The con’s: The spot is not very big and is bordered on one side by yachts. If there is not enough wind and/or you cannot go upwind you might easily end up hanging from one of the yachts’ masts. In addition, the water is very shallow with sharp reefs underneath – in some places in low tide the water is less than half a meter. That means that you have to plan your jumps carefully in order to jump above deeper water and that if you have to stand in the shallow water prepare to be scratched and bruised.
The second spot is Frigate Island. It is a very nice downwind trip from Clifton. You can pay for a boat to follow you in case anything happens. Happy Kite charge $25 for accompanying your downwind and then sailing you back to Clifton at the end of the day. The launching spot in Frigate is a narrow strip of land, on the eastern side you can kite on-shore in choppy waters. On the western side is a beautiful lagoon with off-shore wind and butter-flat water. If you get in trouble or are unable to kite upwind back to shore you will be able to drift to the shore on the other side. There are also many kind and helpful sailors with small dingy boats who will no doubt help you out.
If you want to get to Frigate from Clifton without paying $25 each time, you can take a taxi from the center of Clifton to Ashton (the next city over). Just stand in the middle of the street and flag down any vehicle that passes by. In a few minutes you will be on your way (Really! It is that easy). The ride is about 15 minutes and costs 5 XCD ($2) for you and your kite surfing gear. Get off at the Ashton dock and wait a few minutes. A local fishermen will probably come up to you in a matter of minutes and offer you a ride. We managed to haggle the price down to 10 XCD ($4)per person. Pretty simple and much cheaper.
Another nice place to kite surf is the neighboring island of Mayreau, about 4 kilometers to the northeast of Union. Mayreau is just at the edge of the Tobago Cays Marine Park, an archipelago comprising five small uninhabited islands and extensive coral reefs. At the northern tip of Mayreau is Salt Whistle Bay. A small strip of land with palm trees divides between the two beaches. On the eastern side you have an on-shore wind with fun “kickers” of medium-sized waves. On the other side the wind comes off-shore and you can kite on flat water. There are lots of yachts on this side but we were able to kite around them carefully. There is one resort on the spot (http://www.saltwhistlebay.com/) but the best option is to come with a boat. This is also an awesome spot to snorkel in. Swim away from the boats towards the northern tip of the Bay and you can see gigantic corals, numerous varieties of fish, crabs, sea urchins and starfish.
What To Do When You Are Not Kite Surfing:
On days when the wind isn’t working or you just want to see something different you can take a trip to see these beautiful spots:
- Chatham Bay: On the other side of Union Island from Clifton, Chatham Bay is beautiful and serene. I recommend renting bikes (there is a shop called Marine Tech Services located in the center of town. Ask around and you will be pointed in the right direction) and riding there. It is a steep climb which takes about an hour and I admit we had to walk our bikes part of the way, but it is not extremely difficult and it is worth every second. The road around the island leads to a dirt road which falls sharply. Tie your bikes behind a tree and walk down by foot. You will come up behind a string of shacks and snoozing chefs in hammocks which line the bay and serve fresh fish, fried plantain and cold beer (if you order an hour ahead of time). The lazy atmosphere and the complete silence are absolute magic. The bay is one of the most amazing spots to snorkel. Underneath the water are hundreds of fish swimming all around you – huge formations speeding along in opposite directions. Occasionally a bird will swoop down and try to catch one. Don’t hesitate and swim out all the way to where the bay begins curving northwards. The ride back with the bicycles takes you whizzing down through the colorful streets of Ashton. All in all the trip takes around 4 hours (unless you want to stay longer in the bay).
- Sparrow’s Beach: Located in Richmond Bay and a short walk from Clifton is Sparrow’s Beach and Restaurant (http://sparrowsbeachclub.com/). There is also a shuttle from the center of town which is free if you sit down for a meal. At the main square near the vegetable market is a large van with Sparrow’s written on the front. Just go up to them and ask for a ride. Once you arrive there isn’t any pressure to order, the mood is very relaxed and easy-going. The beach is beautiful and there are comfortable sun chairs to doze on. The food is not cheap but it is very good. In short, it is a nice place to go for a swim and lounge around for an afternoon with a beer in your hand.
- Tobago Cays: The biggest highlight of the Grenadines! A must-see! Seriously, you aren’t allowed to miss it! The Marine Park consists of 5 small, uninhabited islands, teeming with iguanas and land turtles, jutting out of the brightest, most awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping turquoise blue water. Stick your head under the water and you will see huge sea turtles, starfish dotting the sea floor and sting rays trying to hide under the sand. The water is so clear that it feels as though you are inside an aquarium. There are exquisite starfish and sea urchin skeletons littering the sea floor. To get there from Union Island is quite expensive – $80 per person. Try haggling with the local fishermen and not the water taxi’s. You cannot stay in the Marine Park overnight except with a boat, so the best option is to come here with a yacht.
4. Full Moon Party: Once a month JT Pro Center host a party on their beach. Lots of full-moon kite surfing (so you might want to bring your gear), good music and good vibes. Jeremy Tronet does some neat tricks over a burning raft that is set on the water. Order coke and rum – the most classic island drink.
The local currency is East Caribbean Dollars (XCD), referred to as EC. Most places accept US Dollars but will give you an exchange rate of 2.5 instead of 2.7. There is a bank located in the center of Clifton with a 24/7 ATM available. I recommend coming with US Dollars and then exchanging them to EC once you arrive.
There are endless options on the island – from fancy resorts and clubs, whole houses you can rent, to hostels with dorm rooms.Prices vary from Donald-Trump-affordable to Tramp-affordable. We had difficulty finding options over the internet so we took a chance and came to the island with a place to stay only for the first three nights. We went asking around the shops the next day and found several options. The advantage of closing a deal in person and not through the internet is that you can haggle and see the place before paying. For anyone traveling on a budget this is a huge advantage. We rented a room complete with a kitchen which allowed us to cook (saving lots of money) and feel very at home (think a cold beer at 10 in the morning without needing to get into any clothes. That’s the life!). I cannot recommend enough TJ Plaza Guesthouse which is owned by Roots Man (his Rastafarian name). He is extremely kind and helped us with everything we needed, the house is very clean and! there’s hot water in the shower. You can find him on AirBnB (https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/11377472?s=Wm2FxoHZ).
Food is very expensive. We eventually switched to cooking for ourselves, which saves money and is also a lot of fun. If you want to eat out I highly recommend Big Citi Grill right in the center of Clifton (https://www.facebook.com/BigCitiRestaurant/). They have the cheapest and best hamburgers and also great wraps (Cheese Steak, I’m tellin’ ya). There is also a really good pizza next to the Twilight Bar. Then you have either “local cuisine” – yuck! I’m sorry but except for fried plantain the food is pretty bland and dry. We’re talking flaky rice and gummy un-chew-able fish. Or you can go for the fancy Anchor Yacht Club and the like, which for us were just out of the price range.
If you opt for cooking be warned that groceries aren’t that inexpensive either. You can however get very cheap chicken from a shop at the farthest edge of Clifton towards Ashton. You will be able to find lots of cookies, pasta, tomato sauce, evaporated milk and only one brand of cheese. Here is a list to give you an example of how much you’ll pay:
In almost every restaurant in Clifton there is free, strong wifi available, as well as in most hotels. You can buy a local sim card at Digicel (http://www.digicelgroup.com/vc/en/store-locator.html) in the center of Clifton. A sim card for one month and 3G of data costs 90 EC and will work in all the islands of St.Vincent and the Grenadines. If you are planning on staying on the island there is no real need.
- Kite Equipment:
- Board(s) (These are the bulk of the weight. If you are traveling with just one board it will make a big difference)
- Straps/Boots which we disassembled from the boards
- Blades + all the screws
- Kite First-Aid Kit including extra strings, stickers for fixing tears on the kite, extra blades for your board, donkey dick and so on
- Kites (We took in all 4 kites size 8,9,10,11)
- Harness (You can disassemble them as well by taking apart the front locking flap. This makes it easier to flatten and save space)
- Leash for the harness
- Pump + tube
- Bars (I recommending taking one spare)
- Personal Equipment:
- Swiss Army Knife (Handy!)
- Waterproof bags
- Sunscreen (Essential! The sun is very fierce. I got sunburned badly the first day and spent the next two weeks in varying stages of agony from unable-to move until peeling-skin-everywhere and surfing in jeans to hide my skin from the sun)
- Aloe Vera/other skin creams to treat sunburns
- Toiletries (deodorant, brush+toothpaste, hairbrush, wet-wipes)
- If you are blind like me: Glasses, contact lenses case, solution and extra contacts)
- If you are a girl like me: Pads/tampons, pills
- First Aid Kit (painkillers, alcoholic pads, antibiotic cream)
- Laundry Gel (We did lots of laundry by hand. Saves the need to carry lots of clothes and pretty easy)
- Journal + pen
- Go-Pro/Camera + charger
- Water-proof MP3
- Cellphone + charger
- Adapter (In Barbados they use 110 volts/50 cycles. Standard plug types in Barbados are 2 flat blades. If you are traveling from North America you should be able to use your appliances without any problems, however if travelling from UK & Europe you may need adapters and transformers. In London and in Union Island they use 230 Volts/50 cycles. Standard plug types are three large pins.)
- Shirts (it is very hot all year round)
- Bathing suit (dryfit shirts/tights, shorts…)
- Driving License (just in case. there aren’t many cars on the island and the only mode of transportation for rent is a bicycle)
- Printed tickets (In Barbados we had the most trouble with immigration. Certain nationalities they take automatically for a security check which may result in an hour wait and desperate games of trying to understand why the hell you were detained)
- Credit Card + dollars (we carried 750$ each)
- Copy of all your documents on your phone (don’t trust the wifi. Have it on your phone, not just in your DropBox)