May 10th, 1997
Fort de France, Martinique
We are once again anchored across the bay from Fort de France, off the beach at Anse Mitan, after a month long sojourn further north to Guadaloupe. The anchorage is quite full now as the migration south has begun in earnest. Each morning, conversation on the various radio nets increasingly turns to boat yard reservations, prices and facilities as cruisers, ourselves included, head to Trinidad and Venezuela to avoid the hurricanes and enjoy the lower prices for annual maintenance. Across the bay the lights of Fort de France sparkle on the hillside giving the moonless night sky above it a pinkish, yellow hue. The warm, constant breeze and the quiet whir of the wind generator provide the only sounds.
After emailing my last letter from Fort de France last month we spent a very enjoyable evening with some newfound friends aboard 'Windward Lady'. Bill, a Scot with a great sense of humour and Julie, his British wife, crossed the Atlantic last February and are just beginning their Caribbean cruise. Already Bill says he can not imagine ever returning to the UK for more than a visit. Our late night good-bye's thwarted our early morning departure. We left the fuel dock, diesel and water tanks brimming, well after noon. We motored north in the lee of the island to the town of St. Pierre.
St. Pierre lies on the west coast of Martinique about 15 miles north of Fort de France. The very open bay is quite deep right up to the shore. We anchored about 30 meters off the black sand beach in front of an old stone wall near the centre of the town and settled in for the night. With a clear view to the west and a cloudless sky, we drank our rum punch while watching the sunset looking for the much talked of 'green flash'. If you watch carefully, and in my opinion have a good imagination, you can see a slightly green tinge in the last millisecond before the sun disappears below the horizon. The open bay with north east winds proved to be rather rolly and we were relieved that the winds died shortly after sunset and the boat sat quietly at anchor for the rest of the night.
Early the next morning we took the dinghy into shore to explore this interesting old town. Once known as 'little Paris', St. Pierre was one of the first centres of European trade and culture in the Caribbean. This once beautiful city boasted all the accouterments of the larger cities of the coast of France including a large theatre, parks, fountains and statuary. The city became a very important port, not only as the capital and major city of Martinique but as a comfortable enclave of European civilization in this very different 'New World'. All this came to an abrupt end on the morning of May 8th, 1902 when Mount Pelee, some say in response to an age old curse of the Carib Indians, erupted, destroying the town and killing it's 30,000 inhabitants in a massive cloud of burning gases and a rain of rocks and ash. Of the visiting ships anchored in the harbour only one escaped, the other twelve burnt and sank where they still remain today as dive sites.
Anchorage and town of St. Pierre, Martinique
Remanents of the past, in the shadow of the Volcano
Foundation of the once grand theatre in St. Pierre, Martinique
The town has an old and somewhat decayed look about it. Many of the buildings standing today share a wall or foundation with the past. In contrast with the more modern look of the rest of the island St. Pierre clings to the remnants of her past as she keeps a watchful eye toward the sleeping volcano above.
We had intended to sail to Dominica the next day but that evening, after a good dinner we sat with our coffee watching the full moon rise over the slopes of Mount Pelee to join the cloudless sky filled with stars. There was only a gentle breeze to ruffle an otherwise calm sea. It was just too beautiful a night to sleep so we lifted our anchor and headed north. We sailed slowly over the placid seas the 20 miles to the southern tip of Dominica, then motored in the lee of the island. By daybreak we were again under sail covering the last few miles to the French islands of Isles Des Saintes.
Isles Des Saintes are a small group of rocky islands 5 miles to the south of Guadeloupe. We anchored in the lee of a large lump of rock called Pain de Sucre. Twelve hours later, we once again sat with our coffee anchored in a peaceful bay and watched as the day began 80 some miles further north. Shortly after we anchored, the local 'Garcon de bateau' (there is no way I can call him a 'boat boy') arrived. As he entered the anchorage he rang a bell and then proceeded only to those boats who beckoned to him with his selection of baguettes, croissants and other fresh French pastries. He also had ice available and would accept orders for any other items one may want for the following morning.
Anchorage at Pain Du Sucre, Iles Des Saintes
Small beach and guest house at Pain Du Sucre
We spent several days lazing about, enjoying the clear, turquoise waters in the small, well protected bay. The islands in the group overlap to provide a good size area of calm water where sailing in fresh breezes and flat seas attracts numerous dinghy sailors and wind surfers. The two popular anchorage's in the group are within bays off this sheltered area. The only rolling motion from the several daily ferries that transport vacationers, at very high speed, to and from Guadeloupe and Martinique. Though most visitors arrive by ferry during our stay we discovered one who clearly had a bit of 'cruiser' in his veins I had gone ashore early one morning to climb the pain du sucre rock to take some pictures of the anchorage and beach. Shortly after my return Evelyn glanced over the side at the dinghy and found herself face to face with a three foot iguana standing on the side tube of the dinghy peering curiously back at her. He had somehow managed to conceal himself around the fuel tank in the dinghy and was munching away on last night's leftovers from the garbage bag. As he had neglected to bring his passport, I could not invite him to join the crew and returned him to shore.
Over the net few we explored the islands by dinghy. We visited the village of Bourg Des Saintes. This is the focal point of the islands. The ferries delivers their passengers to the village dock where they can then further explore by renting a small scooter or by a day trip on one of the local catamarans. The village has a few small grocery stores, several restaurants and an abundance of tourist shops. It is a very clean and pretty spot to enjoy a walk and some window shopping.
Village of Bourg Des Saintes
After a week of relaxing in Les Saintes we chose a day with pleasant easterly wind and small seas to sail the 25 miles north east into the Rivere Salee to the capital of Guadeloupe, Pointe A Pitre. Rivere Salee cuts through the center of the butterfly shaped Island of Guadeloupe in effect creating two islands, The rugged, mountainous, Basse Terre to the west and the flat agricultural lands of Grande Terre to the east. Pointe A Pitre lies on the river in the south centre part of Guadeloupe. We anchored in the river close to a large, new marina complex, Port de Plaisance de Bas du Fort. A five minute dinghy ride would bring us either into the Marina complex with its numerous chandlers, grocery and souvenir shops or to the main harbour dock in Pointe A Pitre.
We spent several days exploring the town. Pointe A Pitre is an interesting mix of old and new. It does not have quite the same hustle and bustle of the more modern Fort de France but rather a more relaxed European flavour. Streets lined with sidewalk cafés, and many old buildings with balconies of wrought iron dating back hundreds of years. In his book 'Caribbean', Mitchener talks of these works of art and they truly are unique to this grand, French outpost. Also unique is the very large town square on the harbour front. It covers several blocks with towering palms and impressive fountains. In our search for the local Internet café, we walked through every street in the town centre. We were rewarded with the hidden charm of the variety of centuries old building still clinging to their ground through the onslaught of modern times.
Harbour central square, Pointe A Pitre, Guadeloupe
Market in Pointe A Pitre, Guadeloupe
Still roughly following our two year plan, Guadeloupe was our turn around point for this year. I guess we both felt we had had enough island tours for this season so we will look forward to spending some more time on Guadeloupe next November on our way north. We left the Rivere Salee and motored the short distance to Ilet A Gosier. This small island is only a short distance along the south coast of Grande Terre. As the summer winds had begun blowing fairly steadily from the south east we wanted to ease our passage back to Dominica by gaining a bit of easting. The island is surrounded by a very large sandy shoal with water only 8 to 10 feet for hundreds of yards off the island. The island has a very nice beach on two sides, a small restaurant and a large and important light house. Each day a small open boat ferries vacationers from the hotel lined main island to the quieter beaches of Ilet A Gosier. Being a French island, the norm on the beach is topless, a cultural difference I have found fairly easy to accept. We spent a relaxing day on the island visiting the lighthouse and enjoying the beaches.
I told you I was only looking at the boats....Something a little different?
We left the next morning in very pleasant conditions to sail the 40 miles with a waypoint off Prince Rupert Bay on the northern end of Dominica. A strong afternoon squall pushed us west and in the true spirit of cruising we changed our plans and spend another pleasant day in the anchorage at Pain du Sucre in Isle Des Saintes. Again in pleasant conditions and with a more easterly wind we left the next morning to continue to Dominica.
One hears little about Dominica. It has few beaches and as such is not a typical tourist destination. This alone should be a big attraction to cruisers but the island also has next to no services for boats, no marina, no fuel dock, not even a place to take on water without ferrying jerry jugs back and forth. We had no strong feelings about stopping at the island and could well have passed it by to continue to Martinique. However, the island beckoned. We had on our way north passed it at night and our only comment was how dark it was. Most islands are spotted by the lights of homes scattered along the coast and up along the mountainsides. Other than the lights of the capital of Rouseau, Dominica was almost completely dark. In daylight the island is a thick carpet of green forest that falls sharply to a rugged coastline. A thin ribbon of road clinging tenaciously to the edge of the mountains.
On our way south another afternoon squall put an end to our indecision. We quickly furled headsails and reefed the main as a deluge of rain and winds obscured everything beyond our foredeck. I started the engine and we motored cautiously into Prince Rupert Bay. Once anchored the squall subsided, assured that we had accepted it's invitation to visit this rather mysterious island. I gathered boat papers and headed into customs while Evelyn dug out the guide books to see just what Dominica had to offer. In Doyle's Cruising Guide the tiny island of Antigua is covered on over 60 pages; Dominica, largest of the windward islands commands only 20. We knew of a few waterfalls and a river trip that was reported to be very interesting. With a rough plan for the next few days, we spent a quiet evening on the boat amongst the relatively few other cruising boats in what is really the only anchorage on the island.
The next morning we dinghied into the town of Portsmouth and tied to one of several large freighters that were washed ashore during the last hurricane and have now become oversize breakwaters for the town. We caught the bus to Roseau. As the crow flies, the distance from Portsmouth to Roseau is about 20 miles. It took almost and hour and a half along the windy, dusty, poor condition coastal road. On the east side of the island the land is fairly dry and the hills are covered in scrub brushes and cactus. It was a long drive. The town of Roseau is small, quite old and in rather poor repair. We spent a short while walking through the town and then decided to take the bus up to Trafalgar falls.
The falls are only a short distance up the valley from Roseau but the transformation of the land around us was nothing less than stunning. Within only a mile or two of the hot dry coast we were enveloped by the lush, vibrant, green of the rain forest. Birds and plant life abound in every direction. The clean, mountain air is heavily scented with the sweet fragrance of wild flowers and fruit trees. We walked along a good trail from the road further up the river valley. Steep green mountains towering all around us. At the head of the valley two waterfalls pour clean, cold water from hundreds of feet above into crystal clear rock pools at their base. In this day one gets to expect such beauty to be surrounded by fences with ticket takers at the head of lines of camera toting tourists. In Dominica we shared this awe inspiring sight with only the birds and each other. We swam in the refreshing pool and enjoyed a sense of timelessness in surroundings seemingly untouched since creation.
A cool dip in Trafalar Falls, Dominica
A canopy of nature
On our return to Portsmouth I carried with me a new appreciation for what this island had to offer. We both looked forward to a tour along the north east coast planned for the next day.
We had arranged with a local taxis driver to take us from Portsmouth along the only road around the island to the Carib Territories. Dominica has the largest Carib Indian population left in the Caribbean after their once great tribe was slaughtered by frightened, early European settlers. The government of Dominica has set aside a large tract of land on the north of the island where the descendants of the Carib peoples have carved a home from the forests, rivers and rugged coastal cliffs. These proud people have carried forward much of their culture in their arts and crafts. We traveled through the territory along the winding coastal road past small but well tended homes. The smiling faces of children and adults alike clearly showing the distinctive Carib features.
Eastern coast of Dominica in the Carib Territory
The Carib heritage as a sea going nation has recently been celebrated with the building of an ocean sailing canoe and the planning of a voyage to retrace that of their ancestors by returning in a this canoe to the ancient home of the Carib people in the Orinoco delta of Venezuela and Guiana. The canoe is named Gli Gli after a small, aggressive hawk revered by ancient Carib warriors as a symbol of bravery. The project has a home page on the net at 'www.caribsurf.net/gligli' for those who would like to hear more of the project. We were very fortunate to see the canoe under sail on it's maiden voyage along the rocky east coast of the island.
On our return through the high central mountains we stopped at a nature walk known as the Emerald Pool. The walk is only a few kilometers through the rain forest. It is a beautiful walk surrounded by the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. The highlight is a pool of glistening clear water fed from a small waterfall some 50 feet above and surrounded with a garden of ferns and broad leafed tropical plants. The pool is about 6 feet deep in the center and perhaps 30 feet round. Again we swam in the pool feeling perhaps a little like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Surely, even Eden could not have been more beautiful. They say a picture is worth a thousand words and if you only look at one of these photos, be sure to look at this one and realize that as beautiful as it looks in the photo, no photograph could ever do justice to this little piece of heaven.
The Emerald Pool, Dominica
Reluctantly we took our leave of Dominica the following day knowing full well that we will return here on our way back north and will plan to spend much more time exploring this beautiful, natural island. There is far more to see here, from the boiling lake in the Valley of Desolation, where bubbling mud pots spew sulfurous steam onto a barren plateau to the deep lush vegetation of the rain forests, to the healthy colourful reefs of Soufriere Bay. There are only a very few hotels on the island and these tend to be small and cater to those who love the island's natural setting. There are very few beaches and none that would make a real sun worshipper happy so, for now this islands is truly a treasure. Remember now, this is our little secret, for goodness sake don't tell anyone .If someone asks, change the subject!
We motored to the southern tip of the island and there with a filling breeze hoisted our sails for a lively reach south, 25 miles and 100 years away to Martinique.
As I complete this letter I have been driven away from my usual workplace at the table in the cockpit by another heavy rain squall. This morning the weather fax surface analysis showed three tropical waves on their way to the Caribbean. You may remember from a previous letter that tropical waves are weather fronts that when conditions are right become hurricanes. It is still early to expect a hurricane but .. From here on until the beginning of November we will watch the weather very carefully. Tomorrow we will travel one last time into Fort de France to send this letter and check out. We will then head to St. Anne to give us a better angle of sail back to St. Lucia. From there it will be a sprint to Trinidad constantly looking over our shoulder at the weather.
Best wishes and warm summer breezes to all,
Bart and Evelyn