The Richmond Vale Academy

Melissa and I arrived in St. Vincent five days ago, hoppingĀ  in a cab in the late afternoon that would take us on a journey through narrow, winding mountain roads to the leeward side of the island. The first thing we saw as we drove up was a fat, happy looking pig walking beside the road, free from any confines with as much room to roam as he liked.

Isolated in a corner of the island just next to La Soufriere volcano, the Richmond Vale Hiking and Nature Center.. or more commonly known as The Academy… is an environmentally conscious gem away from everything. As our driver pulled the car into the property, we were greeted by a young man in breezy tie-dye clothing. The fresh mountain air is an instant mood-changer and the calm atmosphere of the academy instantly makes you breath a sigh of relief.

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An academy, Richmond Vale runs two programs, one regarding environmental sustainability, awareness and education, etc. and another regarding poverty. These programs are open for anyone local or international to apply but if you’re not wanting to commit to furthering your education, guests are also welcome to stay. As guests, the academy was the perfect retreat to unwind after nearly five months of non-stop exploration and travel. The entire place reminded me of a hippie commune filled with like-minded activists passionate about the environment and poverty.

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Our time at the academy introduced us to a special little place with a unique lifestyle. Everyone living at the compound (apart from guests) work together to keep the place running smoothly, with students having a set schedule of daily chores and classes. As guests, our stay there was easy, calm and peaceful. We spent our mornings waking up slowly on hammocks, waiting for the blessed sound of the bell ringing to indicate that breakfast was served, which we then ate overlooking the Caribbean Sea below. With plenty of vegetarian options to be had, meals at the academy were healthy and locally grown, with an emphasis on providing GMO-free, organic produce straight from their organic garden.

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Though we only stayed for three nights our time at the academy had a rejuvenating effect that only being surrounded by nature can achieve. I would highly recommend staying there if you find yourself in St. Vincent. There is easy access to attractions such as the Falls of Baleine, La Soufriere volcano, the palm tree trail, Richmond Beach, Dark View Falls, Vermont Nature Trail, and more. Surrounded by raw, unspoilt nature, there are endless opportunities for the nature lover.

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Maracas Falls and Bay

If you’re in Trinidad for any amount of time, spend a morning exploring Maracas Falls and then make your way to Maracas Bay. The falls are a nice little hike up a somewhat well-maintained nature trail that shouldn’t take you more than twenty-five minutes at a slow pace. At the start of the trail is a fountain of fresh spring water that you can safely fill up your water bottle with for the journey.

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As you wind your way up through the woods, be careful where you step as rocks may be loose and if it has recently rained or is raining, the path can be slippery. Bring out your inner nature child and continue on your way and you’ll come to be awarded with the beautiful views of the waterfall pouring down a 298 foot cliff. As we visited in the dry season, the falls weren’t as spectacular as they are known to be during the rainy season, but even so it was a nice trip for an afternoon.

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Once you’ve had your fill of the falls, you can spend the rest of your day baking in the sunshine at Maracas Beach. The drive to the beach alone is a beautiful one filled with winding, narrow roads that make their way up and down the mountainous landscape. Maracas Beach is a utopia of palm trees, turquoise sea water and soft, white sand all nestled in a bay surrounded by picturesque mountains. The beach has washroom facilities and a number of bake and shark stands, each one claiming to be the best. Locals and visitors flock to Maracas and are given options of rental equipment, sunbeds, umbrellas, etc. Or you can take one from the book of a backpacker and opt to settle onto your towel on the sand.

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Barbados on a Budget

Barbados is known for its white sandy beaches and being the birthplace of Rihanna. What it’s not known for is it’s affordability. The Caribbean isn’t a popular place for those on a backpacker budget, as many are drawn to the extreme budget prices seen in Southeast Asia or South America, but the Caribbean is home to some of the most beautiful islands in the world and shouldn’t be missed just because it seems a little pricy. Here are some traveler tips to make the most of your time in Barbados without breaking the bank:

1. Shop Local

Food prices in the supermarkets can be extremely expensive. It’s best to shop locally as much as possible. Cheapside Market in Bridgetown is where I have found the most affordable local produce. Be sure to ask around about prices, as they will vary vendor to vendor. You’ll soon learn who sells at the cheapest price. You can also pick up cartons of fresh coconut water for $12 BBD, roughly $6 US. Saturday morning is the best time to go, with all the vendors out and piles and piled of produce for you to choose from.

2. Rent a House

All-inclusive resort prices in Barbados can be nearly double what you would pay for a week vacation in Mexico. Get the most for your money (and stay a little longer!) by renting a private residence with a couple of friends for a month. This can easily be done for $400 per person, making your stay just over $12 a night. Your place might even have a pool, gazebo, and mango trees! If you don’t have a month to stay, there are some hostels and budget guesthouses on the island, mostly on the South Coast and starting from $18US per night.

3. Barbados National Trust Hikes
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There’s plenty of over priced tours in Barbados, but not everything costs money! Barbados National Trust takes locals and tourists alike out to different parts of the island every Sunday. The hike is free of charge, although small donations are accepted. They say that if you go on the hike every Sunday for a year, you will have hiked the whole island. Barbados National Trust holds three hikes every Sunday, one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. Hikes last about 3 hours with an average of 7 – 10 miles covered.

4. Hit the Beach!

Barbados is full of beautiful beaches that stretch around the island. The West and South coast beaches are most popular due to the calm, swim friendly waters of the Caribbean Sea. Head to the North and East coast for the rugged beauty of the crashing waves of the Atlantic. Every beach in Barbados is public, free of charge, even if it backs off of the fancy hotels. Brownes Beach, Pebbles Beach, Accra, Batts Rock, Paynes Bay, Sandy Lane, Dover, the options are endless. You can find everything from nearly empty beaches with nothing but sand to beaches filled with people, sunbeds, umbrellas, etc.
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5. Take the Public Transportation

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If you plan to take a taxi everywhere, good luck. You can get anywhere on the island for as little as $2 BBD. You have three options when it comes to public transportation: the big, blue, government-regulated buses, the privately owned yellow bus, or the ZR vans. Each one is $2 one way, no matter how far of a ride you have ahead of you, so don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. Each option is an extremely different experience, with my personal favorite being the ZR. In a van that sits about 12 comfortably, the drivers will often squish in at least 18, with the most I’ve seen being 22 people, crammed in for a speedy ride with loud music. If personal space is your thing, this might not be the option for you, but it’s definitely an experience that should be had. And here’s a fun game for you: can you find the #3 ZR with the handcuffs and condoms hanging from the rear view mirror?

6. Drink Local

Forget the fancy drinks, Barbados is all about the rum, with the local rum being Mount Gay. Rum shacks can be spotted all over the island, with many selling rum by the shot or the glass for cheap prices. If you’re out on St. Lawrence Gap, the Old Jamm Inn offers 2-for-1 rums for $8 BDD. If you’re looking for something else, the local Banks beer can often be found for 4 for $10 BDD.

7. Eat out at Oistins Fish Fry

A Friday night at Oistins is a must for travelers experiencing the island. You can get a huge meal with a meat or seafood and two sides of your choice (often macaroni pie, rice and beans, breadfruit, salad, etc.). Loud music, good company and Bajan food makes for a good evening out that won’t leave your wallet hurting in the morning… unless you get carried away with the rum punch.

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