Insider’s Guide to the Mysteries of the Leeward Islands

The Leeward Islands are a group of small islands in the Caribbean Sea that make up part of the Lesser Antilles, the chain of islands separating the sea from the Atlantic Ocean. In nautical terms, “leeward” refers to the direction opposite that from which wind is coming. The Windward Islands lay to the south and east, facing trade winds.

Many of these islands have their distinct character and charm, whether they’re thriving capital cities or quixotic little beach towns. Several are independent countries; others are overseas territories belonging to other nations, including Britain’s Virgin Islands and France’s Saint Martin.

1. Geographical Context: Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean

Leeward islands intersection
Image: Lachlan from Pixabay

The Leewards lie between waters in three directions: to the north and west is the warm Caribbean Sea; to the northeast is cooler water moving generally eastward across which trade winds blow; and to the southeast begin those subtropical oceanic currents known as gyres. For this reason, many ships pause here on passage between continents.

2. Significance of the Leeward Islands in the West Indies

Inhabited by Native American peoples for millennia before European contact (and whose empire at its height extended over other islands as well), visited by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, and then settled by Europeans for three centuries before finally becoming tourist destinations since independence (or even before), these are not newcomers to history.

Long ago, they earned each of their thousands upon thousands of five-star ratings on TripAdvisor — for everything from food to music and dance — but they are also so welcoming today that it seems everybody wants everyone else there.

3. Contrasting Windward vs. Leeward

Why should two groups of hills lying so close together differ so radically? The answer lies in rainfall falling on them as carried by prevailing winds. Closest to the wind—and therefore rainfall—are Wakefield Island (the island group’s southernmost) and Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, Saint Lucia, Barbados, and Trinidad. In most cases, the wind blows from the east (hence “trade winds”), so these are the Windward Islands.

But to leeward—where mountains block wind and are drier—are Anegada and Virgin Gorda islands (British Virgin Islands); Saint Kitts-Nevis; Anguilla; Antigua; Montserrat; Redonda; Saint Eustatius and Saba (Netherlands); Saint Barthélemy (France); Sint Maarten (Netherlands/France); and Guadeloupe’s La Désirade, Marie-Galante, Les Saintes, and Petite Terre.

Leeward island shoreline
Image: Dinesen from Pixabay

Millions of years ago, volcanic activity shaped the Leeward Islands. They’ve got mountains and hills that still exist today. The group consists of both large islands and smaller cays in varying geographies. Barbuda is flat and made mostly of coral limestone; St. Kitts has towering peaks.

4. Political Systems in the Leeward Group

Politically, the Leeward Islands are all over the place. Some are their own country, like St. Kitts and Nevis; others are territories owned by other nations, like British Anguilla and French Saint Martin. Every island with its laws, languages, and governance structures means a unique experience for travelers.

5. The Trade Winds

The trade winds have been a big deal for hundreds of years in this part of the world. Not only do they cool things off, which would be impossible without them in a region so close to the equator, but they’ve also helped sailors navigate these seas since people started putting boats on water — thus establishing trade routes that brought commerce to these otherwise remote islands.

6. A Look into Specific Clusters of Leeward Islands

6.1. Saint Kitts and Nevis

The intersection of two islands
Image: Omar from Pixabay

It’s hard to find an island pair that’s more beautiful or historic than the two-island nation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. On Saint Kitts, you can walk around Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park or visit Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace on Nevis.

6.2. Lesser Antilles: Guadeloupe, Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda

Guadeloupe is a French overseas territory that marries Caribbean charm with Gallic refinement for a truly unique experience; Anguilla offers some luxury accommodations near excellent dive sites full of healthy coral reefs; Antigua boasts 365 beaches (one for every day!) where you can explore Nelson’s Dockyard (a national park and marina used by the British navy).

7. European Influence in the Leeward Islands

If you’re in Saint Martin or Guadeloupe and can’t figure out why the flags look French, the language everyone’s speaking is French, the food you’re eating is French, and the French built the buildings — well, then there’s not much that can be done for you. All these islands have a blend of English, Creole, and other languages that come together to make up some of the Caribbean’s most exciting cultural experiences.

Colonialism and its companion industry, sugar, had an overwhelmingly negative effect on most islands’ lives. So many modern societies here still grapple with what European powers did when they colonized this part of the world. Brimstone Hill Fortress in Saint Kitts and Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua are two historical sites that provide insight into how these places played a major role throughout history.

8. Climate Change

The climate change effects on Leeward Islands
Image: Simone from Pixabay

The threat climate change poses to small island nations is quite real. Rising seas will erode coastlines; stronger storms will destroy structures; current changes will kill coral reefs. For now, protected area designations have been put into place, as well as community-based conservation projects — all aiming for long-term preservation.

9. Sustainable Tourism

Although tourism can often degrade natural environments and disrupt traditional ways of life, it doesn’t have to be bad if executed properly. Educating tourists so that they understand how their actions impact local ecosystems while supporting businesses is one way to go about it.

Snorkeling lessons with an emphasis on reef health, eco-friendly hotels employing locals, art markets selling goods made by residents — there are plenty of ways to ensure these communities benefit from visitors without being driven over by them.

10. Support From Both Inside and Outside

Big groups get that biodiversity is important. They’re starting to see the full value of this place, even at its smallest, and they’ve proven that by working with the people here, which has made their partnership stronger in turn.

11. What Else?

Leeward island visit
Image: Katelyn from Pixabay

Support from both within these island communities and international bodies is crucial in addressing their multifaceted challenges. Local initiatives are often more sustainable when the community understands and embraces them. However, these initiatives frequently require external support to scale effectively or introduce technologies and expertise that may not be available locally.

For instance, partnerships between local governments, non-profits, and international environmental organizations have proven effective in combating climate change and promoting sustainable tourism. These collaborations can help secure funding, leverage global networks for awareness campaigns, and implement best practices in conservation and eco-tourism.

Moreover, involvement from the global community, through responsible tourism and international aid, can provide the financial resources necessary for these islands to invest in renewable energy, sustainable infrastructure, and education. Through this combined effort, small island nations can hope to mitigate the impacts of climate change, preserve their unique ecosystems and cultural heritage, and sustain their economies.

Last Updated on February 28, 2024 by Ipsita