Union Island: Clifton & Chatham Bay
Every now and then I get to an island that’s kind of like a black hole. Sure, it may not appear much in size, but it has this force where I really need a good escape velocity to break free. Happened again at three-square-mile Union Island and its silhouette that made me feel as if I was in the South Pacific.
I was initially put off when I arrived in Clifton from Carriacou to clear in through Customs & Immigration. It’s a beautiful anchorage protected by a barrier reef and very clear water, but man is it crowded and busy. Anchoring space is very limited, and thus moorings fetch a pretty penny. ‘Skipper’ charged me $30USD my first night there; upon my return I was able to haggle ‘Loki’ down to $18USD per night – but that’s still higher than most moorings in the Grenadines.
Sometimes as a single-hander I just have to take a mooring when quarters are tight. Retrieving an anchor by hand gets sporty when other boats are this close; strong winds will blow me down on them as soon as my anchor breaks free but before I can get back to the helm.
The broken rib
Maneuvering room is so sparse that once I grabbed the mooring pennant, I wouldn’t let go no matter what as the winds tried to pry my hands free of it. I fumbled trying to get my mooring line through, so it took longer than usual. I braced myself against my bow pulpit holding on for life and cracked a rib in the process. The pain has subsided but I’m glad I found an old stash of Percocet for the first few days. Expiration dates are bogus.
I actually came to love Clifton over the next few times I’d visit there. It’s a very colorful little village made up of nothing but bright vegetable stands and cheap but delicious restaurants overlooking the harbor. At the Big Citi Grill, you can get a great turkey sandwich with fries for less than $3USD! Like with fresh bread and vegetables! You sit upstairs overlooking the market square in one direction and the green water of the protected anchorage in the other direction. Many other restaurants are the same and they all have the character that you’d only find on a small Caribbean island.
From Clifton you can walk up to Fort Hill, with great views in all directions, and up the main road towards Ashton which also has some great views south.
I spent most of my time in Union Island anchored in Chatham Bay. My aunt had repeatedly told me that this was her favorite place in all of the West Indies. Sure, I’ll believe it when I see it. Well, I saw it and I believe it.
I mentioned in my first Instagram from Union Island that the first thing I noticed about this bay was the calm water.
Since making landfall in Grenada the first week of December, I haven’t had a night where my little sailboat felt some kind of ocean swell wrapping into an anchorage, or choppy water whipped up by winter trades. All of Grenada feels something like that; Tyrrel Bay in Carriacou is subjected to constant winds and has a steady chop in the anchorage; the Tobago Cays and Clifton are exposed to ocean winds and have a good chop also; and anchorages in Mayreau and Canouan feel some sort of swell.
Chatham Bay does have some brief, intense gusts rolling down from the hills, but it’s not enough to get the water in the bay moving very much. The gusts will grab your bow and yank it in one direction or the other when they show up, but then they’re gone as fast as they appeared.
I think I also sent a text to my parents upon arrival that Chatham Bay was a turtle minefield. Sea turtles are abundant here and there’s some great snorkeling on the north and south sides of the bay. There are plenty of sand patches to anchor in, this offers the best holding for the wind gusts and leaves the weeds for the turtles.
The best barbecue
Chatham Bay is mostly undeveloped except for five barbecue huts on the north end, a few fishermen’s huts in the middle, and primitive Chatham Bay Resort on the south end. There is no electricity except for a few watts provided by small generators and solar panels. Fishermen drift around the bay, and new arrivals are greeted by either Bushman, Seckie, or Tim, managers of some of the barbecue huts.
Bushman will show new boats where the best spots to anchor are, and then casually mention his Palm Leaf restaurant on the north end. Tim and Seckie will let you know about their dinner specials and invite you to their picturesque restaurants without trying to push you.
I had dinner with Bushman at the Palm Leaf one night and was blown away! It’s not cheap – dinner, two beers, and a tip ran me $37USD, a lot for one person in these parts. But it’s just one of those things that you have to do while you’re here. They all do chicken, lobster, ribs, or some other choice of seafood. Being surrounded by a bounty of fish in all directions, I obviously opted for the chicken, and it was amazing. It came with homemade slaw, rice, baked potatoes with some kind of heavenly garlic butter topping, plantains, and banana fritters for dessert. Banana fritters! Oh man I gotta learn how to make those.
I stopped by all the other places for drinks when the dinner money ran dry. They’re all very personable and just happy to be there for you.
Chatham Bay is unique in that it’s one of the few places where you can leave your boat unlocked and the dinghy left unattended on the beach, and you know no one will touch anything.
Hiking Union Island
A small trail leads into Ashton. It’s about 30 minutes, hot, and completely uphill both ways. But then you can catch a bus into Clifton.
You can also reach a number of hiking trails from Chatham Bay. I hiked a small trail that wraps around the bay from high up in the hills, accessed by a fork in the road leading to Ashton. I only made it about halfway around the bay, to a scenic viewpoint that I had to find on my own. I didn’t continue all the way around the bay because the unused trail was steadily closing in and vanishing into the forest, replaced by thorny bushes and massive spiderwebs. I understand that the trail to Mt. Tabooi, the highest point on the island, is even less used and you need at least a machete, or preferably a guide with a machete. Not many of the locals know how to get there.
There’s not a whole lot else to do in Union Island but that’s perfectly fine with me. Clifton caters to the charter industry and so there’s a good bit of money put into the little village and its boutiques & restaurants, while Chatham Bay is where you go to ditch the crowds.
This is just one of those cool little places to stop and catch your breath. Head over to Chatham and escape the world for a few days, then go back to Clifton and sample some of the restaurants. Make some daysails to nearby Mayreau, Palm Island, and the Tobago Cays. Return to Clifton to try the restaurants you missed last time.
To view all images from Union Island, visit my Union Island photo gallery (opens in new window).