Country number: 1 (UK)
Territory number: 131
When? December 2015 – first leg. Side trip – U.S. Virgin Islands. Next stop Sint Maarten.
How? Local flights, hire car, taxis, ferries.
Note: This particular trip involved a large number of stops in different countries and islands and several returns to the same place, so for ease I have included the account of the whole trip under each place visited. Parts of the blog that relate to this specific country are in bold print.
‘The chief character in this narrative is the Caribbean Sea, one of the world’s most alluring bodies of water, a rare gem among the oceans, defined by the islands that form a chain of lovely jewels to the north and east’
James A. Michener
I can see a scattering of gorgeous islands floating on blue, blue sea out of my window. Pelicans with huge scoop bills are diving above the palm trees, the broad avian equivalent of the A380. Villages are crammed with pastel coloured houses and criss-cross boarded drinking shacks. The island is mountainous so the roads are steep; the driving is crazy. The politest way to describe the service is diffident. Attitude abounds. The currency is the American dollar, the tourists are mainly American and the cars are left hand drive. But they drive on the left hand side of the road and the rest of the tourists are British – off yachts or cruise ships in the main. So where am I? Tortola in The British Virgin Islands (BVI), naturally.
It looks like a beach a day for the next three weeks:
Sunday – Apple Bay, a minuscule stretch of white sand just across the road from my hotel. The surf breaks just off shore, mini pitons jut out of the bay and Bomba’s beach shack churns out a heady rhythm. The hotel dining room is pretty – set in a renovated sixteenth century sugar mill.
The party island – no shoes necessary. Great Harbour lined with the most colourful, kitchest beach bars ever. And, a taxi ride over the hill, White Bay Beach. This one features on most of those lists of ten best beaches in the world. Pristine white sand and the requisite bendy palm trees. It’s also home to the Soggy Dollar beach bar, so called because the sailors swim in from their boats with their money. This is where the Painkiller cocktail was invented. I will leave the recipe (and the scenes on the beach) to your imagination. Today, I am entertained by Jesse and Elias, two twenty something brothers from Canada. Their mission, it seems, is to consume as many Coronas as they can. When I abandon them their deck chairs are barricaded by a sea of glass bottles. Painkillers not necessary.
This beach is also world famous because of the huge granite boulders picturesquely strewn along the sand. There’s a perilous trail through the rocks to Devils Bay, a lagoon even more picturesquely encircled by still more boulders. The track is a bit like a twenty minute assault course involving much clambering through caves with low roofs, wading through pools, traversing rocks, with rope handrails and assailing vertiginous wooden ladders. A line of wounded emerge at the bay end, streaming blood from scraped limbs. I am fortunate to escape with a banged head.
It’s clearly a day for the intrepid. There are signs up forbidding swimming because of the swell round the rocks but this does not deter the dinghies from the many yachts moored offshore. I could fill a whole episode of You’ve Been Framed with videos of their ingenious and undignified attempts to land. Today’s companions are Jeff and Kathy, a semi-retired couple from Cincinnati. She used to work for American Airlines so they get free flights everywhere. Grrrr…
Today I am doubly intrepid as I venture up the coast in my rental car. It came as part of a package with the room, so it feels churlish to waste it on trips to ferries and back. I discover why there are two extra gears on the automatics here. The hairpin bends are almost vertical. The views over the mountain drops are good too – I think. I’m trembling too much to take them in. the island is arid and much of the vegetation is cactus. The one time I find a spot to park and scramble out I am impaled by a vicious aloe. One road is so steep that the locals call it The Escalator – and refuse to use it. I decide to avoid that one, though there aren’t any sign posts, so I can’t be sure that I won’t happen on it accidentally. When I do get up speed I find myself swerving round a group of goats gambolling on the bits of concrete. Tarmac is too polite a description. It’s a relief to end up in the crystal turquoise water of Smugglers Cove. Here I share beach beds with Jan and Brad from California. They are still recovering from the cavernous potholes which are the unmade road down to the Cove – they have no inkling what bad roads are really like here. I decide I’m finally going snorkelling- it’s been too rough to try so far this week. However, a posse of locals originally from the UK tell me that there’s a bad rip tide over the coral when it’s rough. And there’s still a nasty swell. So, decision reversed, discretion is the better part of valour. The waves in the shallows though are perfect, balmy and soothing. The locals also tell me that the service is a lot better than it used to be.
Back at the ranch, well, Sugar Mill, I decide to avail myself of the other complimentary part of my package – a bottle of local rum.
.A scenic, if early, hop on the ferry from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. It’s all very pirates of the Caribbean, Road Town to Cruz Bay across the narrow diving channel and hugging the palm lined coast of the Virgin Islands National Park. By far the shortest queue I’ve ever stood in for USA immigration -it’s only me. Cruz Bay is dinky, neat and hilly. The streets are lined with niche restaurants, boutique shops and chi chi guest houses. The little Wharfside Village mall caters to the cruise trade. Fortunately, the town is quiet today, almost too quiet.
The American Virgin Islands were bought from Denmark in 1917, and virtually the whole of St. John is a national park endowed by Rockefeller. It’s nearly all rainforest and white beaches, so today I take a trail through the park to Honeymoon Beach. And I finally get to snorkel; it’s exceptionally clear. There are small rays darting and two turtles nestling in the rippling mini dunes of the depths. One of the turtles lazily rises to the surface right in front of me posing, huge and gorgeous against the blue of the sea. Naturally, my camera battery gives out as I press the shutter.
The brochures say that missing Trunk Bay is like going to get Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower-it’s another beach on the ‘best of’ lists. I hop on one of the local taxis to get there. They are gaily painted converted trucks with half a dozen rows of seats out back. I’m the only passenger, so the trip feels very decadent, even if we do roll around a bit and the bay is certainly very pretty from the viewpoints above. It has a small palm tree bedecked island and a slightly beaten up snorkelling trail with plaques in the water.
Then a rush to get my ferry back to Tortola to catch the plane down to St Martin. It’s a longer route this time, via the northern Caribbean cruise capital, St Thomas. I spend my waiting time on the beach at Trellis Bay. It’s at the bottom of the runway.
Most of the islands round here (Leeward and Windward) were named by Columbus. This one was discovered on the feast of St Martin. It’s actually a teeny island unusually divided into Saint Martin and Sint Maarten, a bit of the Netherlands and a bit of France. But don’t let that fool you. Everyone speaks English with American accents and trades in dollars. Though here on the Dutch side they also use the pre- euro florins. The contrast between here and the Virgin Islands couldn’t be more marked. I’ve gone from quaint backwaters to full on ‘civilisation’. One guide book refers to this as the Las Vegas of the Caribbean. The narrow road from the frighteningly efficient spanking new airport is lined with high end shops almost the whole way. Chopard, Tiffany, diamonds abound, as you would expect, interspersed with the odd casino. Philipsburg is Cruise Ship Central. Today’s beach is Great Bay. The hotel and sands are ultra-boutique, white canvas umbrellas, rattan chairs and piped saxophone – from seven in the morning. Hulking ships monopolise the horizon. I can see the sailing clipper I am booked to travel on for the next week bobbing around behind them. It looks really tiny in comparison. The quay where it is moored is called Dock Maarten- really.
And now perhaps I should go get a Martini?
One of the three tallest ships sailing the seven seas. It’s all very – well nautical. Brass and wood with navy and gilt upholstery, and lots of knots. They haul the sails up ceremonially every day to the Van Gelis 1492 theme tune. It’s surprisingly moving, though there isn’t much wind and we use the engines most of the time. I’m secretly quite glad. The sails are very picturesque, but I’m told the tall masts make for a lot of rolling if the sea is remotely rough. The crew are very cosmopolitan- Filipino waiters, Goan sailors, Eastern European officers, Swedish Vikings on the sports team. It’s their job to entertain us at night as well as look after us during the day. They deliver an amateur variety package, including comedy sketches and a fashion show, involving a surf board. The passengers are mostly retired Americans. Others are English, French, German, I’m the only single on board.
We’ve reached Nevis overnight so today it’s Pinney’s Beach. Columbus thought the central volcano looked as if it had snow on it (nieve). Last time I was here I got the ferry over from St Kitts and explored the tiny main settlement of Charlestown. It’s very colonial, but then so are both islands. More plantation houses, sugar mills and forts than spectacular coasts. The beach here is pretty, but narrow. There’s not a lot of shade unless I wander up to the one hotel, and the sports team forgot to bring the umbrellas. So I get the tender back to the ship and lounge on the deck by one of the two wedge shaped swimming pools. Most of the Americans are very friendly. I know everyone’s life history already.
Dominica (named as it was discovered on a Sunday) is, reputedly, famed for its natural beauty and lush foliage. It is purported to have 365 rivers, one for each day of the year. Though no-one seems to have checked this convenient number. So, I only skirt Cabrits Beach – it’s black volcanic sand- on my way up into the mountains for a nature hike in the rainforest. There are very few buildings, certainly more vegetation than habitation.
Unfortunately, the guide puts in a no show and so do most of the birds. It’s damp and misty, more Jurassic Park than cheerful Caribbean. There is forest as stretching as far as the eye can see, with just glimpses of cobalt ocean. The canopy stretches above, there are tree roots like the flanges of giant wheels and lianas tangle around them. The odd hummingbird zigs in and out. Any chance of an additional sighting is thwarted by the shrill tones of Claire from Key West. I don’t think she pauses for breath once, on the whole circuit. I go to avail myself of a relaxing massage on the upper deck when I got back. But I can still hear her squeaking away in the bar below.
(Weeny islands that are part of Guadeloupe). They are very green and very hilly. Today’s beach is Anse Crawen; there is a log to perch on, plenty of sand flies and some reasonable snorkelling round the headland. As on most cruise ships there’s no shortage of food. There are always snacks available and you can order what you like from the dinner menu. Tonight I have three main courses.
First of all, I’m famous. There was a trivia quiz last night where you had to run up and beat a drum. As most of the questions were geographical I won fairly easily, seeing off the French and the Germans. So today everyone is congratulating me. That wouldn’t have happened in the UK, where I would have been ostracised as a ‘know all.’
The ship has taken us to Guadeloupe proper. The little town of Deshaies is famous as being the location for the filming of Death In Paradise. The distinctive red steepled church dominates the skyline, but it’s a short acquaintance. We pile into a creaky bus and zip through the middle of the main butterfly shaped island to pick up a little motorboat. Thence, sputtering through a scattering of mangroves, eyed warily by pelicans and egrets perched on almost every available branch, to a proper little reef and some decent snorkelling. Then lunch on minuscule Caret Island, so swathed in palm trees we have to be seated on lashed wooden poles laid on the sand. Classic Robinson Crusoe.
Then dinner with the captain. This involves a lot of champagne (before he goes onto scotch) and conversation that refuses to veer from politics, ships and alcohol. He’s from Ukraine and is clearly still mourning the demise of the Soviet Union.
I’ve been here before – it’s the Caribbean Mecca for yachts belonging to the rich and famous. The main pastime is trying to guess who owns what. And I’m feeling a little queasy as the ship is rolling something rotten, there’s been a swell all night. Antigua is a country of beguiling bays and is reckoned to have 365 beaches- we’ve been here before- so there is nothing for it but to head to nearby Pigeon Beach, which is yellow and gorgeous, and laze on the sand.
St Barthelemy (named after Columbus’ brother) is another piece of the French West Indies and this time it’s a replica of the Côte d’Azur. The capital, Gustavia, is full of high end shops- and beautiful people. Gustavia- as it was a Swedish colony in Napoleonic times. La Plage de St Jean has sand floored beach bars, plush hotels and the whitest sand, with water for which the word aquamarine was invented. The beautiful people parade up and down in their designer gear. It is tres tres chic, with prices that are tres tres high to match. Alongside the beach is possibly the world’s smallest and scariest airport. The air taxis come on over the road that runs across the top of the island (the cars have to stop) and bump down the hill to the beach. When they take off they zip straight over our heads, accelerating madly in a bid to gain height before they hit the sea. It’s a local pastime to sit in the water and watch them; it’s a bit like playing Russian roulette.
It’s our last night on the boat. Much to everyone’s amusement the captain asks for my email address. I think he just wants some photos.
Back on dry land in St Martin. This time nipping across to the French Side, as the border signs say. I’m getting a free ride with Bob and Sandra from Somerset as they are booked into the same hotel. It’s truly a schizophrenic island, it’s much quieter over here, but still relatively built up and very clean, organised and prosperous. There is no official border, other than the sign, but you have to make an international phone call to talk to the other side and here the first language is definitely French. My gorgeous little hotel is right on Grand Case Beach, a large turquoise bay, with views across to eel shaped Anguilla. Grand Case is renowned for its French restaurants- about 50 of them lining the waterfront. I have views across the bay from my balcony and a nonstop natural history documentary by my door. Two straggly little dove chicks are ensconced in an untidy nest that is balanced precariously on a palm tree branch. Mummy and Daddy Dove watch anxiously from the telegraph wires, cooing loudly when I walk past. Dad forages around the hotel balconies for food and Mum arrives at regular intervals to feed her offspring or to attempt to perch on top of them, even though there really isn’t enough space and it seems that she will topple out at any moment.
Today takes the three of us to Maho Beach, on the Dutch side, which is pretty, but crowded, as it offers more airport entertainment (this seems to be a Caribbean pastime). This beach is right at the end of Princess Juliana International, so visitors get their kicks by hanging off the perimeter fence to experience the force of the slip stream as the jets take off. Some of the thrill seekers are blown right over. There are signs saying its dangerous (!) but access doesn’t seem to have been restricted in any way. When planes come in over the sea to land the voyeurs leap about waving at the poor pilots as they roar above us.
My trip is cancelled as it is raining. Not all bad news as it clears up quite quickly. It’s exhausting lying on a beach bed all day and I can at least see Anguilla across the water. We eat Creole supper at a Lolo (local food restaurant) on Marigot Bay, lights twinkling on the marina.
Today it really is raining, with a vengeance. There isn’t much to do on St Martin except go to the beach or shop and most of the shops are the expensive duty free kind. The damp weather is encouraging the mosquitoes; this is slightly worrying as there are even PA announcements on arrival at the airport here warning about the dangers of being bitten. Dengue fever is more of an issue than malaria and we are told there is an increasing threat also from chikungunya fever. Neither has a cure. In addition to the usual mosquitoes there are pesky miniature versions called ‘no see ums’ that zip in the smallest crack the moment the door is opened.
Today I fly to Antigua so, perversely, the weather is gorgeous. The flight is a disaster though. The plane is badly delayed (LIAT = Leaves Island Any Time) with no announcements whatsoever. Eventually it is cancelled altogether and I am squeezed onto the earlier flight which is even more badly delayed. I arrive in Antigua minus my luggage and nobody seems very sure about where it is or how I will get it back. And it was only a 30 minute flight…I am exceedingly grumpy when I eventually arrive at my hotel sans toothbrush, well sans everything.
I’m in Jolly Harbour, where I’ve also been before, but still grumpy, despite the name. The hotel has definitely seen better days (it’s only two years old) and the service is decidedly indifferent. It’s trying to rain again. However there is some cheer as my bag arrives mid-morning and entertainment is provided by three kittens who have decided to adopt me and take it in turn to sit on my veranda. I saunter down to the nearest stretch of sand. I pass a large supermarket and a motley collection of shops and cafes, gathered round a small yacht basin that’s part of a large lagoon. There’s a huge hotel formed of several large blocks surrounded by an unkempt garden and a lot of wall. There’s a gigantic beach café that serves copious amounts of alcohol, so everyone is indeed making merry. It’s all a bit uninviting, nowhere near as pretty as it used to be. Maybe it’s the weather colouring my vision
A last chance to enjoy the heat and colour. It’s sunny again, well naturally, I’m on my way home. Life’s a beach…