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.