Travel

The Caribbean's Real-Life Pirate Island You Can Actually Visit

Published On 11/15/2016 Published On 11/15/2016

It's not that the people of Petite Martinique are outlaws. They've just never much cared for the laws of whichever government happened to be in control.

Whether under the flag of the British, French, or the government of Grenada, the residents of this itsy-bitsy (smaller than Central Park) Caribbean volcanic island have always done their own thing. Today, that includes being a storage and transfer point for all sorts of international contraband.
 
Petite Martinique is one-third of the tri-island state of Grenada, a country most famous for the brief 1983 US occupation, and for its annual celebration of Thanksgiving. The island is a dependency, meaning it's a territory under the jurisdiction of that country. Theoretically. It's an outpost of gray- and black-market trade, and, weirdly, it's a place you can actually go visit, if you're so inclined. 

Flickr/Isla Bat

No customs means easy access

Petite Martinique, or PM, has no customs or immigration office: Whatever comes ashore is neither taxed, searched, nor accounted for. Discerning contraband transporters -- you might know them as "smugglers" or "pirates" -- know it as an ideal place to store and distribute their wares. Which has effectively created an entire economy based on the movement of said contraband. And because the island is tiny, remote, and relatively peaceful, nobody really seems to bother them.
 
"The whole community has been built on trade in the black market," said Chris Rundlett, who owns LTD Sailing in Grenada and runs frequent trips to the island. "It's interesting in that it's got one of the highest per-capita incomes of any Caribbean island. And it's not that anyone's super wealthy. It's just nobody is bad off."
 
Historically the island was a huge stopping point for alcohol and tobacco. As other illegal goods became popular in the region, PM became a hotspot for moving those as well. Keeping cargo there is simply a matter of getting it out of the country of origin, cruising up to the docks at PM, unloading it, then coming back when it's time to move further. "It could be anything now," said Rundlett. "Use your imagination." To help you: St. Vincent and the Grenadines -- the island nation just north of PM -- is a large producer of marijuana.
 
One might ask: "If Grenada knows this island is the Caribbean's great smuggling loophole, why doesn't it just shut them down?" And the answer is, it tried. Once. In the mid-1980s, after the US invasion, Grenada sent an envoy of six customs officers to set up an office on the island. When they arrived at the dock, a funeral procession was marching through the streets with six coffins. When an officer asked one of the locals who had died, he responded by saying, "Nobody. Yet."

Grenada decided to keep it that way. And thus the island remains free of a customs office.

Flickr/Ilsa Bat

A copacetic smugglers paradise

But the island isn't some tropical hellhole dominated by international drug lords. It began as a cotton and sugar plantation island, owned by a Frenchman known only as Mr. Pierre. He later split the island among a series of families, including some freed slaves. Through generations of property handed down, land ownership and transfer on PM is an unpleasantly complicated process, and as such the influx of cash hasn't turned it into Monaco West.
 
Nor is it an island run by outlaws. The 900 or so inhabitants come mostly from families that have been here for generations, and the community remains closely knit and peaceful, regardless of its income sources. "It's just a copacetic, safe, normal Caribbean island," said Rundlett.

A couple of restaurants and a handful of guest houses are about the only businesses catering to tourists -- but it's not tough to get to, at least by the standards of remote smugglers paradises. There are nonstop flights to Grenada from Miami, New York, and Atlanta every day, and from there it's just a couple hours' ferry ride on the Osprey ferry to Petite Martinique. If you want to check out the neighboring island of Carriacou, short flights are available from Grenada, and the Osprey ferry stops there too.

Grenada's official line, of course, is that fishing and shipbuilding drive PM's economy. But even the legitimate businesses know their clientele. For example, locals still practice the shipbuilding craft handed down by Scottish and Irish shipwrights who moved here in the 1700s. But today instead of big wooden sloops, the island is best known for production of speedboats -- the sort you see in Miami Vice. Many locals also work as housekeepers, landscapers, and service staff on the posh resort island of Petite St. Vincent, a few minutes’ dinghy ride away. But no place develops one of the highest per-capita incomes in the Caribbean without a side hustle. PM's just happens to be contraband.
 
In the few grocery stores on Petite Martinique, you'll find rum, cigarettes, and other alcohol considerably cheaper than you will on Grenada. Think of it as a big, tropical, volcanic duty-free shop, with a few shipbuilding operations dotting the shoreline. And while it's not exactly the pirates haven of out-and-out lawlessness one might expect on a Caribbean island funded by movement of contraband, it's a fascinating little dot of self-rule in a region typically beholden to bigger countries. 

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