Tuesday, June 28, 2016

A Frequently Asked Question: What's Our Favourite Island?

This is a question that gets asked not just by non-cruisers but by cruisers alike so we've been chatting about it recently and wracking our brains to try to pick one.  The conclusion we came to is that often the island we are currently on is our "favourite" but really it comes down to what we love about each island that makes them so unique.

We're talking about our travels in the Eastern Caribbean so far so we're really looking at the islands from The Dominican Republic to Grenada.  We haven't been to Trinidad & Tobago yet so won't include them.  These are of course only our impressions and opinions - your mileage may vary.

I'm going to break this answer into four parts just to make it more manageable:

By no means do I intend to recreate a cruising guide, I'll leave that to the talents of Chris Doyle and others, this is just a brief compendium of our observations about the islands and what we like or dislike about each one.  Who knows, perhaps at the end we'll even figure out if we have a favourite.

So here goes with installment #1:

Dominican Republic
The DR is a huge island and is a total enigma to me.  We visited the south shore - limited to the La Romana to Bayahibe coast, had a spell of bad weather (worst at anchor we've ever experienced), a fabulous visit with friends on a resort and a great side-trip to the capital, Santo Domingo.  At the end of it we decided that we had no big desire to revisit this island due to the constant hustle / coercion, hassle / corruption with officials, and what we found to be very unfriendly locals.  We don't speak Spanish so that was a definite barrier and we've heard mixed reviews from other cruisers who have visited the north shore.  Some absolutely love  A lasting little reminder of our time on the island was the bottom paint job we had done in what we thought was a reputable marina there.  We don't feel that the job was at all well done and after six months we had very little bottom paint left in certain areas.  It is pretty obvious to us that they didn't put on a primer and possibly less paint than was reported.  Shame on us for not doing the job ourselves - we won't make that mistake again.

In just a few words words - Love/Hate:
     Love:  Santo Domingo old city
     Hate:  Constant hustle

Insane driving with motoconchos zipping in and out.

Quaint street scenes in the old city portion of Santo Domingo.

Enthusiasm and energy of young guys is the same everywhere.

Chess and dominos - on the pedestrian street in between rain showers.

Puerto Rico
Another big island - this one is American.  We traveled westward and eastward along the south shore to get to/from the DR.  We loved our time on Puerto Rico, the landscape is dramatic and the little fishing towns are quaint and charming.  The people are friendly and welcoming and although many don't speak English and we don't speak Spanish, it didn't seem to stop us from communicating (unlike the DR).  Heading eastward is difficult as you are heading straight into wind, wave and current which means that you'll try anything to make the miles, including sailing close to reef-strewn, fish-pot laden shores in the dark of night.  Not a fun endeavour.  We haven't ventured much inland on PR and will definitely spend more time there in the future.
     Love:  People
     Hate:  East-bound passage making

Stunning mountain range behind Salinas on the south shore of PR.

The Spanish Virgin Islands:  Culebra & Culebrita, Vieques
We've spent quite a bit of time on Culebra and Culebrita off the east end of Puerto Rico but only had one visit many years ago to Vieques.  These islands used to be the back-water cruising grounds, many saying they were like the British Virgins were 20 years ago.  I think that has changed a lot and Culebra/Culebrita are soundly into the 21st century now.  The island is a weekend getaway for Puerto Ricans coming over on the ferry and their own boats, little cantinas are scattered around the beaches and in the little town making eating/drinking a fun adventure.  Golf cart rentals are the way to see the tiny little island and Culebrita can only be reached by boat.  The inside anchorage at Ensenada Honda is chock-full of boats with sheltered waters and easy access to the shops and restaurants, the outside anchorage on the west side is quieter if you discount the regular ferry that goes in and out.  The best thing about Culebra is that it is a resting and gathering spot for cruisers from all over the place after completing the difficult easting along the shores of Puerto Rico - there's an audible sigh of relief heard with each arriving vessel.
     Love:  Laid back
     Hate:  Too far west from the Eastern Caribbean

Flamenco - the most beautiful beach on Culebra and a top beach of the Caribbean.

Feeding time at the Dinghy Dock bar - patrons, birds and fish all partake.

The morning market is open in Culebra - best chance to pick up some fresh veggies.

The U.S. Virgin Islands:  St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John
St. Thomas (the island of the Big Hurry), St. Croix (once an industrial island, now in decline) and St. John (the island of nature), along with a few smaller islands make up the U.S. Virgin Islands.  The three islands are quite distinctly different and we have spent most of our time on STT and STJ with a couple of short visits to STX.  We have friends on STT which makes it a special place for us after having Mowzer based there for five years of charter.  This is the island where people can easily fly in/out and from there disperse to the other islands.  Cruise ships disgorge thousands (sometimes 10s of thousands) of passengers here on a daily basis in high season so you have to keep your patience and your wits about you.  Keep your wits about you too if/when you drive here:  American cars (driver on the left) but drive on the left as in Britain.  Our favourite of the islands is St. John.  You are immediately transported to the white sand beaches and clear turquoise waters of your Caribbean dreams.  Nature trails abound with a good dose of plantation history.  In some bays on the south shore you cannot see a single light at night other than moon and stars, if you are lucky enough to be there by yourself.  On a short visit to the Virgins, we have been happy to spend our time on STJ and not bother crossing over to the BVIs.
     Love:  Entry to "the Caribbean"
     Hate:  Americanization of the Caribbean

Leinster Bay on the north shore of St. John.

Looking west to St. Thomas.

St. Thomas on a busy day.

The British Virgin Islands:  Jost van Dyke, Tortola, Norman Island, Peter Island, Salt Island, Cooper Island, Ginger Island, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and many other islets
Each island in the BVI does have a unique element or attraction but they are all similar topographically other than Anegada which is a low-lying limestone island.  The others are all old volcanic islands and all of the islands in this region tend to be quite dry and scrubby.  The BVI have become home to one of the largest charter fleets in the world.  There are probably thousands of bareboat and crewed charter boats plying these waters and with good reason.  The waters are protected, the islands are close together, there is entertainment provided in every major bay / anchorage.  The place has been filled up with expensive mooring balls ($35US / night), loud beach bars and plenty of people that probably shouldn't be trying to sail a boat.  However, these are all reasons (other than that last one) why we actually love the Virgins - the sailing is easy, the waters are lovely and clear and there's always something to do, even if it just means sitting back and watching the antics in the mooring field each afternoon.  This is really where we learned to sail and fell in love with the idea of living on the boat so these islands are rather like coming home to us.  Those who complain that it is too busy and the anchorages are too full, just have to spend a little more time with their charts and look for the quiet little bays where the charter boats won't go (no beach bar or mooring balls.)
     Love:  Easy sailing
     Hate:  Expensive

Overlooking Eustatia Sound on Virgin Gorda.

Hazy, relaxed afternoon overlooking Tortola.

Anegada - a world apart from her sister islands.

There we have it - what's your favourite of these islands?  Stay tuned for the next instalment as we move east and south through the islands.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Conquering Mt. Pelee

Mt. Pelee:  At a height of 4,583' sits at the top of Martinique and as we've sailed by on the western side of the island appears charming with it's lovely sloping green approaches, much of it farmed on the rich volcanic soil, gently sweeping down from the heights.  Little fishing villages with black sand beaches nestle along the shoreline at inlets created by rivers that tumble down from above, and gravel quarries create a micro industry like little ants labouring away on the lower plains where ash and mud run down to the sea.

What we don't see from this approach is the rugged uninhabited northern side of the ruptured landscape.  Deep canyons and craggy spires charting, and charted by, the course of rushing torrents of water.  Flooding from massive rainfalls at the peak makes this an inhospitable landscape that has wisely been left to nature.

We have watched Pelee and it's moods over our last few visits to Martinique, always tempted to tackle the peak but knowing that conditions must be right or we would be miserable.  Winds at the top are constantly howling, added to cold and wet and it would be unpleasant to say the least.  So, patiently we have watched and our patience has paid off as we were treated to two days of light cloud shrouding the top, quite often breaking to provide a peek at the peak.  This was it, we were reaching for the top!

Given the height of this mountain, we were definitely not hiking up all the way from the bottom.  There is a wonderful trail system across the peak and the best place to start was at the car rental agency in St. Pierre!  It's low season in the islands now, so why not?

We drove up the southern slope of Mt. Pelee, through the town of Morne-Rouge and up to the 1st Refuge which lies at about 2,600' where we then carried on up the mountain on foot.  Here began the real adventure.

The northern tip of Martinique is dominated by Mt. Pelee.  We took the eastern approach.  The western is currently closed and the northern from Grand Riviere requires a guide and two days!

The hike took us up the slope, over the dome and around the old caldera.
After reading of the explosion of Pelee in 1902 which completely wiped out St. Pierre and approximately 30,000 inhabitants, I can't help but be reminded of Pompeii.  I'm putting my complete trust in the volcanologists who say that there will be months of warning before Pelee blows again, so putting thoughts of instantaneous destruction to the back of my mind we headed off.

The first steps of many - and look, you can see the peak above!

The lower part of the trail is well set up with many steps to help prevent erosion.
We passed quite a few groups descending from their hikes to the top and after a number of  bonjours, we heard people ahead of us chatting in English.  Turns out that just about the whole anchorage of St. Pierre was on the mountain that day and we met a number of fellow cruisers:  Planet Waves, Jewel of the Sea, Neko and 'Mud Fog Cove' - sorry that's not their real name but their hailing port is on the side of the boat so that's what we call them.

We joined the group and trundled higher and higher sometimes in the cloud and sometimes sunshine.

Group photo of everyone on the mountain at this point, including this charming dad who had pulled his kids out of school for the day for a bit of exploration.  The little girl climbed the mountain barefoot so she wouldn't mess up her shoes!

That's where we're heading - one of the domes at the top of the mountain, momentarily clear of cloud.

Looking back down the spine of the slope and the trail we had climbed.

All very atmospheric and we're seeing lots of beautiful alpine growth at this level.

The growth is delicate and multi-coloured with tiny little flowers and fronds.

It's also lush and wet with moss growing on the tree ferns and completely soaked from the clouds that keep drifting by.
At the point on the trail where the upper loop begins is the 2nd Refuge.  These refuges are places that would provide shelter in a pinch and one can imagine that the weather could turn very nasty up here very quickly.  The refuges however, are damp, mouldy, concrete huts with leaky tin roofs and muddy stinky floors - not a place I would want to have to hang around for very long!  At the 2nd Refuge we split from our newly formed party and climbed down an incredibly steep track into the caldera and then back up to the top of the 1902 dome.

Before climbing down we checked out the track on the opposing slope.  This turned out to be hand and foot work all the way up.

3rd Refuge (hut) just below the summit.  Here we're on the dome formed after the massive 1902 eruption.  There is another dome from the 1929 eruption and one higher peak called Le Chinois.  We didn't hike to the top of Le Chinois since we still had quite a distance around the caldera and didn't know how tough it would be.

Le Chinois behind us - still smiling :-)

The rugged northern view - hard to tell from this picture just how rugged it is.  No habitation out there.

The variety of alpine growth is stunning.

There is a trail to the west that leads down to the village of Le Precheur.

However, due to washouts it is currently closed.  Glad we didn't plan our day to come up that way.

More surprising and beautiful alpine vegetation.

As we walked back down the section of the path below the 2nd Refuge, this little  Green Throated Carib hummingbird led the way, stopping every little bit to make sure we were following.  He was so bold he let me move right in close to get his picture on my phone - no zoom lens here!

Click on the picture to see more detail.

One final view - this one to the south west and if we had binoculars we could pick out Mowzer at anchor on the coast at St. Pierre.
We returned back to the parking lot to find the group we had met on the mountainside enjoying a cold beer and debating the best way to get back to St. Pierre.  They had taken the bus to Morne Rouge and walked up from there.  Apparently buses were no longer running (it was now 4pm) but I'm getting lots of practice with my French now and we were able to arrange a taxi for the group of six (they just couldn't all fit in our tiny little car.)

The hike took us over five hours and while we could have done it faster, we thoroughly enjoyed stopping and watching the view or the tiny flora while up on top of the mountain.  Remember too that we didn't climb Le Chinois and if we'd done that it would have probably added another hour to our time up there.  The hike is tougher than La Souffriere on Guadeloupe but perhaps not quite so dramatic as there are no vents on Pelee.  Two days after doing the hike, my calves were quite tender from the descent.

We finished up our day's adventure with a drive further through the rain forest around Fonds-St-Denis and Henry happily even found a road-side waterfall to show me.  He had promised one at the beginning of the day but I was super happy this one didn't involve too much of a walk since my legs were pretty tired after Pelee.

Henry proudly shows off The Gendarme Falls.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Martinique - A Revisit to the Slave Canal

Patiently waiting for the right weather certainly paid off and we had a great sail south from Dominica down to St. Pierre at the north end of Martinique.  We averaged just over six knots for the nine hour trip and arrived in time to find a great spot to anchor on the narrow strip of sand that makes up the St. Pierre anchorage.  It was a regular parade of boats that made their way south with us and since we arrived on Friday, the parade has repeated itself each afternoon since.

With nothing else on the schedule - isn't life like this wonderful? - we decided to revisit our hike to the Beauregard Canal.  We hiked here with Brita and Jason back in January, so pics and details are available here.

What I missed on that posting was a map of the hike - I think I forgot to take the GPS on that day.  So here is the route that we used to get up there and back.

We took the southern route up which is a little farther than the northern road but a whole lot less steep on the way up.  The walk up to the canal is about 3 miles, the canal is another 3 miles each way but is almost completely flat - only a minimal rise on that distance.  Make sure to take lots of water and sunscreen since you are on open roads for the most part.

What was a great hike in January, was made even better with all the flowers and fruit along the way now that it is June - we had to have something to make up for missing Brita and Jason.  Hiking past the banana plantations and cultivated fields provides great views across the county-side and I have a confession to make:  we picked two plump, ripe, red tomatoes and munched on them as we walked along.  I was in heaven - I haven't had a sun ripened red tomato that tasted so good since I left Canada.  They certainly don't sell them like that in the markets down here.  We also found THE BEST mango tree ever just 200 meters below the start of the canal on the side of the road.  The mangos were tiny and sweet and had absolutely no fibre in them.  Needless to say we filled a bag and went home with a dozen and a half delectable little fruits!

Now what would a blog post be without pictures, so here are some of the pretty sights we saw along the way.

Entrance to the huge Beauregard banana plantation.

Fields of bananas stretched out below us.

I loved the archway entrance to this field.

Bananas are bagged on the tree ready for shipment.

Isn't this just the way - put up a sign against dumping garbage and just like that, it's the only place we saw roadside dumping.  Martinique is remarkably clean.

Heliconia - these flowers normally tower over us but we had the ground advantage here.

Another tropical beauty - this one was in a pot at the restaurant and I don't know what it is.

We had a wonderful creole lunch at the restaurant at the top of the canal.  Colombo curry coconut chicken, tomato bisque crawfish, rice, plantain, sweet potato and lentils.  Now we just need a hammock for a nap.  Henry is checking out a pack of hiking routes for Martinique - this pack had 62 cards!

The commonplace red ginger - never thought I would think such a beautiful flower was commonplace.

More Heliconia - this one of the downward hanging variety.

A quick glimpse of the canal and the narrow ledge we walked.

Most hibiscus are red - this pretty yellow variety with it's bright red centre is so delicate and exotic.