travel

Fitness expert Matt Lister takes a dive into the beautiful, blue Caribbean sea

Attitude fitness expert Matt Lister discovers a whole new world on a free-diving holiday to the tiny Caribbean retreat of Petit St Vincent

2019-01-30

This article first appeared in Attitude's October issue 301. Words: Matt Lister

I remember the first time I learned about the Caribbean: I was in high school and my form tutor had just come back from a week in St Lucia with his wife.

He showed us the photos he’d taken and I couldn’t work out if he’d taken them himself or just snatched them from postcards. I’m now in my twenties and I have travelled the world over.

But gazing at the abundant greenery, golden sand and turquoise sea as we approach the coast of the luxury private Caribbean island resort of Petit St Vincent by boat, it dawns on me how all the more enchanting it is to see it with my own eyes.

It’s a sight more enthralling than anything I could have imagined. We’re welcomed by general manager Matt Semark and a fleet of staff carrying trays of piña coladas. It’s all nearly too clichéd to believe.

Matt tells me how the island is popular with gay couples who return year after year, and also a fair few celebrities, the names of whom I can’t get him to reveal. The experience is far removed from the island’s antiquated anti-gay laws.

It seems positive examples of LGBT+ people, experienced through tourism, really can do wonders to change the hearts and minds of local communities. After the welcome drinks are downed, I’m dropped off by mini-moke — the island’s little cars — at my chalet and my jaw hits the floor.

It’s one of just 22 on the island, which caters to a maximum of only 58 guests at any one time.

If you’re looking for an isolated retreat away from crowds of tourists, this definitely makes its way near the top of my list. My room is in fact my very own selfcontained two-bedroom beach-front villa, complete with two enormous bathrooms.

One room is furnished with two king-size beds, and the other boasts the largest bed I’ve ever pounced on. The outdoor private dining/lounge area, with its mammoth sunbeds, leads to a lawn stretching down to the seafront, dotted with ornate bushes.

A hammock suspended between palm trees sways in the breeze: it’s my own section of beach and just a short stroll to a pier from which to dive into the clear blue water.

PSV, as it’s sometimes known, is an escape in the truest sense of the word, geared towards avoiding the world’s stresses. The chalet’s phone can only make calls out so you aren’t disturbed.

Replacing those pesky front desk calls is a personalised note left on your pillow during cleaning or turndown service — so cute. The only place on the island with Wi-Fi is by reception or the pavilion restaurant and bar, but the signal is angled in such a way that you can’t connect to it from the bar.

Little tricks like this keep everyone away from their screens, meaning the only time I picked my phone up was to take holiday snaps. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take me very long to disconnect from the world.

Little flag stations dotted around the island are how you request items from the menu, indicating what you’d like, what time and where you want it delivered. You roll up your request, stick it in the bamboo shoot and raise the flag.

Thanks to the jet lag, I wake at 5am each day, something that in most places would be a nightmare but not here. It offers me the opportunity to get up and explore the island, making the most of my time in paradise.

Each morning, I start my day by throwing on my runners and going for a jog around the island’s loop trail, which offers various fitness stations, from parallel bars to a fullsize set of gymnastic rings that the athlete in me can’t ignore.

Breakfast is waiting on my return. Options include an egg white omelette with spinach and broccoli, oatmeal with a berry compote, and a fruit platter. All very healthy and lovely, but I did indulge in French toast with maple syrup and bacon later in the week.

Don’t judge me, it is a holiday after all. The highlight of one breakfast experience is a row of tiny tropical birds balanced on the table edge next to me, clearly not shy about wanting an invite to join in.

The island prides itself on its ecosustainability by growing a large proportion of the fruit and vegetables they serve, with more than 170 free-roaming chickens delivering hundreds of eggs daily.

PSV is also aiming to eradicate plastic where possible, which is music to my ears. I could watch the fishing boats come in from the bay every morning for hours, dreaming about what fresh haul they are bringing and which could be on my plate later that day.

I’m not the biggest fan of fish, but when plonked in the middle of paradise, and the catch of the day is more like catch of the past 10 minutes, I can’t say no.

The mahimahi fish is just incredible. While I’m more than happy to make my way through the extensive cocktail menu, I also get a peek at one of PSV’s prized treasures: the wine cellar.

Built into what was formerly one of the island’s stone water tanks, it’s filled with wines from vineyards across the globe, many of which send representatives to the island to run tasting courses with the resort’s guests.

Bicycles can be delivered to your chalet door within minutes of calling reception, which allows me to cycle around the island to access numerous secluded beaches.

I also cycle to the yoga pavilion that looks out across the island’s north side and offers views of both Union and Palm islands on the horizon.

Meanwhile, the north bay is teeming with wildlife. You won’t be short of activities with numerous options at your disposal.

The dive centre offers excursions with their experienced divers, there are power boats to charter, paddle boards, lasers (mini sail boats), and one morning I took a kayak out around the island at 6am.

The island itself is only one half of the experience. Equally as beautiful is the surrounding sea, of which I enjoy first-hand encounters that blow my mind, courtesy of I Am Water co-founders Hanli Prinsloo and Peter Marshall. Both are free-diving experts who not only give the best crash-course but are also a source of information on ocean conservation.

Each day I explore different locations to hone my new-found skills, and to see what the island’s extensive wildlife has to offer. Diving down to around 20m (65ft) with no scuba equipment is something I never even knew was possible.

Hanli and Peter guide me through the techniques for optimising breathing to maximise the amount of time that is safe to spend underwater.

By the end of the trip I manage breath holds of two minutes and 45 seconds, which is plenty of time to spend playing Ariel, the Little Mermaid. Of all the reefs and areas we are able to explore, the highlight by far is the Tobago Cays.

We journey across on Beauty, the island’s privately owned sailing sloop, which takes roughly 60 minutes each way. It’s an hour that flies by trying not to stare at the boat’s skipper, Simba, who is so hot, I nearly introduce myself as Nala.

We eventually arrive in the centre of an azure archipelago, slap on our “reef safe” sunscreen, snorkles, fins and rash guards, and slip into the water.

Diving down to the reefs on the outskirts of the Tobago Cays marine conservation area is almost indescribable. I feel like an extra on the set of a real-life re-enactment of Finding Nemo.

Schools of fish stretch as far as the eye can see, and with it being a crystal-clear sunny day in the Caribbean, visibility is pretty much as good as it gets anywhere in the world.

Being in vast open seas usually freaks me out, but I am so distracted by the beauty and the calming effect Hanli and Peter have that I couldn’t care less.

We swim down to see nurse sharks sleeping among the rocks, angular box fish and sand-coloured flounders skimming the seabed. We spot eagle rays, but it’s the countless sea turtles grazing on the sea grass in the shallows that will stick in my memory for ever.

I lie on the sand inches from them then swim alongside them. Describing it as magical doesn’t do it justice. The whole way back to the resort, I’m beaming from ear to ear, already planning to visit South Africa and Mozambique with Hanli and Peter for more adventures.

Back at the resort there’s a chance to check out the island spa. Set on the hillside in treetop cottages made from teak and driftwood, it’s connected by suspended walkways in a quiet nook at the island’s highest peak.

Draped in beaded curtains made from tiny seashells, catching the breeze, it felt as if I’d only walked a few feet but somehow ended up in Ubud, Bali. 

I am welcomed by the staff, handed an ice-cold glass of cucumber water, a chilled towel, scented with ginger and lemongrass — heavenly in the humid climate — and shown to the changing rooms where I’m handed a robe and a pair of disposable pants, which I wave off.

Then I’m escorted to a private cabin, where the only sounds are the birds chirping outside the window, the waves crashing on the beach below and the breeze whistling through the tree branches.

I slip off my robe, lie on the massage table and stick my head into the face cradle to stare into a bowl of water filled with hibiscus and frangipani flowers.

I remember the bowl because the massage is so good I drooled into it! After an hour of heated essential oils, whole body Balinese massage, a soft breeze and calming music, I’m already scheming how the hell I am going to not go home but hide on the island without being caught.

On the last day of my trip while soaking up the final few rays of sun, I see shadows darting about in the bay and along the beachfront.

I run to get my snorkel and shove my face in the water to get a last few glimpses of what on closer inspection turn out to be baby black tip reef sharks, hunting.

It’s something I only ever expected to see in a tank during feeding time at an aquarium. I’ll never forget my first visit to Petit St Vincent. I say first because I will return.

Seven-night I am Water Ocean Travel trip to Petit St Vincent costs $6,560 (£5,050) per person. petitstvincent.com