What are the Windward and the Leeward Islands?

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This post is also available in: French

The Windward Islands, in french îles au Vent, in Spanish, Islas de Barlovento, these Caribbean islands form the southern arc of the Lesser Antilles. Why are they called “windward”? What are the Windward Islands, the Leeward Islands? In Polynesia what are the Leeward Islands?

The islands of the Caribbean extend like a huge arc of islands, from Florida to Venezuela. And the set of islands is subdivided: to the north, the Leeward Islands, and to the south the Windward Islands. Why do we call them that? To the east, or to the wind, the Atlantic Ocean crashes the shores of the islands, while to the leeward, the Caribbean Sea is calm and bathed in sunshine.

The Caribbean Windward Islands

The Windward Islands are located at the southern end of the Caribbean arc. They are the last link before Trinidad and South America.

British sailors called these islands “Windward Islands” because they had to beat to windward to get there from their other possessions.

Exposed to the trade winds, coming from the East, navigation from north to south is facilitated there. Far enough apart from each other, they allow moments of navigation on the open sea before reaching the calm of the shore under the next wind.

The four main Windward Islands are :-

These islands are lush and tropical, with high mountains and rich vegetation. You will find beautiful rainforests, ideal for hiking enthusiasts.

Between St. Vincent and Grenada are the Grenadines, a swarm of small islands, 600 islands, and cays. They all have beautiful white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, and colorful reefs.

These islands were colonized by the Arawaks more than two millennia ago. This oriental-looking people was later replaced by a more warlike tribe called the Caribbean. It is the latter who resided in the Windward Islands when Christopher Columbus discovered this part of the world.

Martinique, the northernmost Windward island, has a long colonial past and has always been under the possession of the French. Still belonging to France, today it is a member of the European Union.


Emmanuel Pertuisot, President.

The Windward Islands are a sailor’s paradise. The steady winds and trade winds ensure exhilarating sailing. The anchorages are calm and offer extraordinary sunsets. The climate is mild all year round, the inhabitants are friendly and the food extraordinary.

Martinique history
Diamond Rock, Martinique.

If you dream is sailing and enjoying some of the most beautiful islands in the world, the Windward Islands are for you!

The Leeward Islands of the West Indies

The Leeward Islands are the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles:

The British Virgin Islands (BVI) and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI)
– Saint Kitts & Nevis
– Redonda
– Saint-Eustache
– Saba
– Antigua & Barbuda
– Montserrat
– Saint Martin & Saint Barthelemy
– Anguilla
– Guadeloupe

Further away from the trade winds, they then inherit the name of “leeward” islands.

Geological specificities of the Caribbean arc

The formation of the Lesser Antilles island arc is influenced by numerous events, particularly those related to plate tectonics. The Windward Islands enjoy a particular geological formation and follow the limit of the subduction zone between the oceanic crust and the Caribbean plate. The two plates converge at this precise level. The Atlantic plate is sinking, each year, 2 to 4 cm below the Caribbean plate by subduction.

These volcanic islands then consist of craters, hot springs and sulfuric releases.

Here are a few things not to be missed while visiting those islands:

  • The two peaks of Saint Lucia and the sulfuric water baths in the natural rivers.

  • Hiking around the Soufrière de Saint Vincent or the Soufrière de Guadeloupe.
  • Hiking around the Montagne Pelée in Martinique.

This volcanic arc is still active, so since December 27, 2020, the alert level in Saint Vincent has been raised to orange with access to the crater prohibited. It is an effusive eruption, the lava is viscous and does not flow, it accumulates and forms a dome in the crater. Its evolution is monitored by the Saint Vincent UWIseiscmic seismic research center.

Saint Vincent Soufriere
Credit photo: Desert Fox Photography, follow @capt_defreitas

In Martinique, the Pelée mountain which usually makes the joy of the hikers, is, passed under yellow vigilance. The scientific experts want to reinforce the monitoring of the volcano after an upsurge of earthquakes and gas rises. The observatory of volcanology and seismology issues a weekly report. The last eruption of Mount Pelée caused more than 30,000 deaths and dates from May 8, 1902, it is one of the most destructive episodes of modern times. The Pelee is characterized by explosive eruptions, rare but violent.

Montagne pelée Martinique
Credit photo: Stephanie Lacordelle photography

The Windward Islands of Polynesia and Cape Verde

As soon as there are islands and wind, there is a “windward” coast, so we also speak of the Windward Islands in Polynesia, Cape Verde or Hawaii.

In French Polynesia, the islands of the society are spread over 720 kilometers in the Pacific Ocean and 1680 km2 of land. They are divided into two, the Windward Islands (Windward) and the Leeward Islands (Leeward).

To the east, the Windward Islands protect the Leeward Islands from the trade winds coming from the southeast. The Windward Islands consist of 4 high islands and an atoll: Tahiti, the main island, Moorea, Maiao, Mehetia and Tetiaroa atoll.

The Leeward Islands consist of the mountainous volcanic islands of Raiatea, Tahaa, Huahine and Bora Bora, as well as the atolls of Maupiti, Maupihaa, Tupai, Manuae and Motu One.

Cape Verde, located off the African coast, consists of a group of 9 inhabited islands, one uninhabited island, and islets. These islands are divided into two groups: the “Islas de barlovento” (windward islands), in the North, and the “Islas de sotavento” (islands under the wind), in the South. These last ones are protected from the trade winds coming from the North-East thanks to the islands in the wind (Barlovento). The Windward Islands of Cape Verde consist of the islands of Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia (uninhabited), São Nicolau, Sal, and Boa Vista, and the islets Branco and Raso. The Leeward Islands or Sotavento include Maio, Santiago, Fogo, and Bravo, as well as the islets Grande, Luis Carneiro, and Cima, the Rombos.

Want more information about the Windward Islands?

You will have understood it, from the Bahamas to Venezuela we have traveled the Caribbean arc from north to south. We sailed in the Saint Lucia channel, from Dominica to Los Roques, crossed whales, turtles, and The pirate of the Caribbean. Do you want to discover these fantastic places? We recommend it! Contact us now to get the best advice.

The best yachts ready to take bookings in the Caribbean

Find out our stand-out selection of yachts available to charter in the Windward and the Leeward islands.


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