Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Favourite Islands Part 3: Saba to Montserrat

Moving on to the inner arc of the Leeward Islands:   these are rugged, more sparsely populated islands that are primarily of Dutch and British history.

Here's the first instalment and second instalment of this series if you missed them.

We first fell in love with Saba (The Unspoiled Queen) when we visited by plane on our initial sailing trip to the Caribbean in 2008.  Since then we have sailed there once in 2012 and visited by plane again in 2014.  Saba has a well-earned reputation for being a difficult place to visit with your own boat:  the island is steep-to which means that anchoring is pretty much out of the question unless you carry about a kilometre of chain.  There are lots of mooring balls but unless you get to visit in a dead calm with no northern swell, you will not want to spend much time on the boat.  But, that's the reason we visit Saba.  We want to get off the boat and explore this pristine and quaint little island that appears to have stepped right out of Gulliver's Travels.  You can hike to the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands at the top of Mt. Scenery, or you can dare the near-vertical descent of the The Ladder to relive history and the path of absolutely everything that came to Saba prior to construction of the port.  We adore hiking on this island and for a long time called Saba our favourite.  Now there are rivals but it will always hold a special place in our hearts.
     Love:  a tiny encapsulated island where you're certain everyone knows one another
     Hate:  the reputation of the anchorage puts people off

Saba rarely reveals it's crown

The little village of Windwardside perched on the saddle

The Ladder - with the Customs House perched above.
St. Eustatius
We only visited Statia for the first time this year and really enjoyed it.  This is another island with a rolly anchorage if there is any north swell.  Our first impression of this island is that it is much like Saba with it's Dutch history only rougher round the edges - there's a certain 'outback' kind of feel to Statia.  This was once a huge busy port but is now a sleepy backwater that sits under the presence of Quill, it's dormant volcano.  The main town is lined by weathered clapboard houses along cobblestone streets with small signs of improvement in places.  We have climbed Quill and explored it's micro-climate crater but have yet to branch out to other areas of the island.  We will definitely return for more of this friendly laid-back isle.
     Love:  this history of this place
     Hate:  another rolly anchorage makes long stays in the winter months difficult

Oranjestad overlooked by Quill

Many choices for hiking in the park

Quiet streets of Oranjestad.

St. Kitts
We visited St. Kitts in 2015 on our way south and have to say that this island did not leave a really good taste in our mouths.  There are some great sights to see and Brimstone Hill Fortress should be visited at least once - it is the only UNESCO World Heritage site in the Eastern Caribbean.  However, after driving around the entire island and spending a couple of days on the streets of grubby Basseterre we never really felt welcomed to the island.  This is the only place where I have been acutely aware that I was the only white person in sight.  I will give St. Kitts it's due that this was the first 'new' island we visited as we started our travels south and perhaps now that we have experienced more of the British heritage islands (Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Grenada) perhaps we would have a different opinion of St. Kitt's.  There is also no really good anchorage with easy access to town so you have a choice of either a rocky, rolly anchorage at Basseterre or being miles from town but more protected down at Whitehouse Bay
     Love:  Brimstone Fortress (too bad it's not on another island)
     Hate:  the feeling of being an outsider

The Circus in bustling downtown Basseterre

Beautiful batiks at Caribelle.

Brimstone Hill with Telca Marina below.

Brimstone Fortress - a formidable defence structure.

Nevis is paired with St. Kitts as a dual-island nation and yet couldn't be more different than her neighbour.  It helps too that we have friends with a cottage on Nevis and so we've been treated to a 'local' view.  However, the island has a great mooring field within easy reach of the main town of Charlestown, the population is laid-back and friendly and the island has some great history and geology to explore.  As with all these islands, it can get rolly here with a north swell.  Nevis was once the largest sugar-producing island in the Caribbean for the Brits so there are umpteen old ruins to explore, there's some good hiking and Nevis Peak is said to be one of the most difficult Caribbean volcanos to ascend (we have yet to do it.)  This is also one of the few islands where you will find monkeys (the locals consider them a pest) but for those of us who don't have to live with them, it is quite exciting to see them in the wild bounding through the trees or stopping to screech at you from the branches above.
     Love:  this island is just the right size
                - small enough to be accessible but large enough to still offer a challenge
     Hate:  there's no real dinghy dock at the town dock

Welcome to Nevis!

The town square - a great place to lime under the Flamboyant tree.

Church ruins - some of many on the island.

Love em or hate em, there are monkeys on Nevis.

Montserrat is a unique experience in that it is the only island with a currently (and sometimes violently) active volcano.  The volcano has been erupting since 1995 and has now completely destroyed the original capital city of Plymouth and rendered about two thirds of the island uninhabitable.  People come to Montserrat to view the awesome power and destructive capability of Mother Nature but there is much more to discover on this island.  From the northern anchorage at Little Bay you have little indication of what you will see south of the Central Hills but this really gives you a sense of the resiliency of those islanders who have remained on Montserrat - rebuilding and carrying on with their lives.  The northern part of the island encapsulates a wide variety of landscapes from rugged cliffs, dry scrubby savannahs to lush rainforest in the mountains.  Hike around, take the bus or lime at a local watering hole to get a real feel for this island before gawking at what we've all come to see - the eruption of Souffriere Hills volcano.  If you manage to get to Montserrat in March, you will have a unique experience with St. Paddy's day celebrated among the most Irish influenced, Guinness drinking islanders.
     Love:  incredible contrast and the power of nature
     Hate:  when people miss the rest of the island, and when the tour guides encourage them to do so!

The anchorage at Little Bay with a small surf rolling in.

We were lucky enough to catch a local cricket game - boy was it dry that year!

The north end of the island from atop the lush Central Hills rainforest.

Looking south - to the destruction at Plymouth.

One thing all these islands have in common is that most of them have small anchorages that are prone to roll when there is a northern swell.  If possible, visit them as late in the season as you can to reduce the risk - perhaps on the way south in the April-May timeframe if you have heading south for hurricane season.  The rewards are worth it though as these islands are quite distinct from the other more populous islands and a world apart from the French islands.

One more instalment to come - the Windward islands down to Grenada.