Above: Basil’s Bar (All photos by CJ)
By Alexander Britell
KINGSTOWN — “THE ROTI came from above.”
No, it wasn’t a verse out of some apocryphal Old Testament chapter recently discovered in the West Indies.
The scene was Aggie’s, a bar and restaurant in the centre of downtown Kingstown in St Vincent, the largest island of St Vincent and the Grenadines and the beating heart of this 32-piece archipelago.
It was Friday, a few days before the island officially celebrated its 34th anniversary of independence from Great Britain, and the streets were, despite a patch of rain, starting to fill up.
Occupying Aggie’s were mostly regulars, ready to lime mostly on the merits of the country’s rum offerings, how they compare to those of Guyana and the best way to take the country’s “Very Strong Rum.” (This was an area of strong disagreement).
I ordered roti, having heard from those in the neighbourhood that this was the place for it. The problem, however, was that the kitchen had closed at 5.
Seeing a well-traveled roti pilgrim before them, the staff quickly made a decision: they would seek the roti from the other Aggie’s — the one nearby, up on Kingstown Hill.
Hence, the “above,” in the words of the barman.
Within minutes — although time was measured more accurately in Hairoun (the local lager), the roti appeared, hand delivered, from the heavens, hot, spicy and delightful.
I WAS in Kingstown to observe the beginning of independence celebrations; 34 years ago Sunday, St Vincent and the Grenadines formally broke away from the United Kingdom, and weeks of preparation were finally coming to a boil, with green, yellow and blue bunting all over the capital and flags flapping over the streets.
Above: the streets decked out in yellow, blue and green
Energized by the roti, I walked a few blocks over to Heritage Square, the city’s weekend hotspot, where portable rum bars, beer tents and food trucks regularly set up shop.
Above: Heritage Square by day
The most famous is Richie’s, known for its barbecue chicken wings, rich, sweet and smoky and served in a french-fry container. At the opposite end of the square, another standout, the aptly-named Grill to Perfection, specializes in all things fried, from shark to chicken.
Above: Richie’s barbecue wings
It was time for a bar, though, the appropriate place to discover the spirit of this largest city in a country of about 109,000 people. The choice was clear: Basil’s, perhaps the best known in the country.
Reminiscent of an old English pub, dark, with arched windows and walls right out of a castle, Basil’s is set inside an alley near the Cobblestone Hotel; it’s a popular meeting place for the city’s business community. And it’s actually one of two Basil’s Bars in the country.
Both the bar and the nearby hotel illustrate the Kingstown of today, the independent Kingstown celebrating its 34th birthday.
The first Basil’s was actually born on the tony tourist paradise of Mustique; owner Basil Charles later opened this second location, which now caters to the local movers and shakers of the capital’s downtown.
Steps away is the Cobblestone, a contemporary business hotel set in what once served as a sugar warehouse.
Above: the Cobblestone Hotel
I RETURN to Heritage Square, where the music is now thumping and the shark has already run out at Grill to Perfection. At nearly every corner are tents with large “Hairoun” signs.
In fact, the name for the country’s local lager, Hairoun, comes from the Ciboney, who called the island “Hairouna,” or “land of the blessed.”
Above: Kingstown is known as the “City of Arches”
For a country of many names and many islands, it’s another one that has stuck — St Vincent and the Grenadines, my guide told me, is indeed blessed — from its spectacularly verdant hills to its rich, volcanic soil, the combination of history and modernity.
And the roti that falls right out of the sky.