Sunday, June 1, 2008

From Saba to Les Saintes, May 2008

Here’s a final look at St. Martin from Fort Louis overlooking Marigot Bay and the town of Marigot with Simpson Bay lagoon in the background.
Merengue and crew leaving Simpson Bay Lagoon. This photo was taken from the Sint Maarten Yacht Club by Kathy on the S/V Bellagio.
It’s been a busy couple of weeks! Since leaving St. Martin on May 10th we’ve sailed to Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat,Guadeloupe, Les Saintes and Dominica. Weather conditions didn’t permit staying to tour each island but here’s what we did get a chance to see.
Our sail to Saba (pronounced Say-ba) was a beautiful beam reach. Saba, part of the Dutch Netherlands Antilles, is 5 square miles and over 3,000 feet high at its peak. The island is truly breathtaking. There are no beaches but rather sheer rock cliffs rising abruptly from the sea. The Saba Marine Park provides moorings for boats and the moorings right off the shore are in 60 ft of water. That’s how quickly the ocean floor falls away from the island. We picked up a mooring in Ladder Baai and a little later our friends Pat and Carol on “Songbird” arrived. We planned to meet them the next day to tour the island and hike up into the rainforest.

The next morning we hauled the dinghies up on the rocky shore and began the climb up the “the Ladder.” Unlike most Caribbean islands where communities were built up along the shoreline, Sabas’ shoreline is 1000 ft up! The Ladder is a series of 800 steps that wind their way up the side of the mountain to a road that climbs still higher into the Bottom, one of four villages on the island. The communities on Saba are pristine and orderly. The government requires all homes to be painted the same shade of white. They have dark green trim and red roofs. The yards are filled with flowers. There’s a peaceful feeling there.
The climb up "the Ladder" starts at the shore and ends above the top house in this picture.

Switchback roads on Saba.

On our way to the customs office we met Billy, a taxi driver who drove us across the island and up about another 1000 ft to where we picked up a hiking trail to the rainforest of Mount Scenery. The climb takes you through flora and fauna that is really beautiful. After a while, you find yourself hiking through the cloud that is almost always present over the peak. Your clothing becomes damp from the mist and humidity. Flowers bloom in the woods and the canopy is full of the sounds of birds. It was an incredible climb!

Carol, Wendy & Jim.

Climbing through the clouds!
Back down the trail to the community of Windwardside where we met up with Billy again. Driving, or I should say riding around the island is not for the faint of heart. You could develop a good case of vertigo looking out the car window at a sheer drop-off just a few feet from the car. We were happy to leave the driving to the expert. Billy dropped us off at a bar in the Bottom where we ate barbequed chicken, curried conch chowder and roasted breadfruit, a much deserved reward after our day of climbing. The climb down the Ladder, just at sunset was almost harder than the climb up. Jim was just fine but my legs were protesting from the full day of hiking and climbing, but it was worth every ache and pain.
The next day we sailed to St. Eustatius, usually just called Statia (pronounced Stay-sha). Statia is also part of the Dutch Netherlands Antilles. It was a hard beat to windward, tacking all the way. We covered 40 NM just to go 15 miles. We arrived in Oranje Baii off the town of Oranjestad just before sunset. The anchorage is quite rolly and with big northwest swells predicted we decided to head out the next morning for St. Kitts. We’ll have to save a tour of Statia for another time.
Leaving Saba.

Pat & Carol on "Songbird", a Hunter 410 as they sail from Saba.

A Ring Around the Sun, formed by ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.

Merengue at sail between Saba and Statia.
Photo taken by Pat on Songbird.

Another push to windward to St. Kitts. We had a northwest swell that was supposed to build to 8 feet and a southeast wind that was blowing over 20 knots. This would make for uncomfortable conditions in any of the anchorages. Still in the company of Songbird, we decided to pull in to the Port Zante Marina in Basseterre, St. Kitts. This completely enclosed marina was a welcome escape from the conditions outside. We cleared customs, grabbed showers and went out for a nice dinner.

St. Kitts and Nevis are one nation having received their independence from England in 1983 forming a constitutional monarchy within the commonwealth, with Queen Elizabeth as the Head of State and represented by a Governor General. French names like the town of Basseterre still exist from the days when the island was divided between the French and English.

The first morning in St. Kitts we spent walking around Basseterre. We visited the museum which is housed in the old Treasury building built in 1894, walked through Independence Square which is now a park but was built in 1790 for slave auctions and we visited some shops.

Still with friends Pat & Carol, we arranged for a tour of the island by taxi. At our first stop Jim befriended this baby Vervet Monkey (look on his right shoulder).

One of our stops was at the ruins of a sugar plantation that is currently being restored.

We also visited the gardens that are part of the Romney estate, an estate that was once owned by Thomas Jefferson’s family. We could have spent hours wandering around the flowerbeds and enjoying the views. St. Kitts is a really beautiful island.

Our tour included the Brimstone Hill Fortress, a fort whose construction took nearly a century beginning in 1690. The British built it to repel the French and the fort comprises three levels that cover nearly 40 acres.

By Friday the seas had calmed down so we left that afternoon for the short trip to St. Kitts’ sister island, Nevis. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go ashore here. We picked up a mooring off of Pinney’s Beach, a beautiful 3 mile stretch of sand. The next morning we decided after much hemming and hawing (we didn’t want to leave) that we should probably take advantage of the good weather conditions to head south to Guadeloupe, a 2 day sail with an overnight stay at Montserrat.

This is a pelican that was fishing from Merengue's Bow pulpit.

Montserrat is the island whose volcano, Soufriere Hills erupted numerous times from 1995-1999 destroying the capital of Plymouth and devastating the southern half of the island. As we approached Montserrat in the late afternoon we could see the roofs of the buildings and homes buried under the lava flows. As recently as the week before our arrival, the volcano had been showing signs of “activity”. Seven miles offshore we noticed a smoky smell in the air and ash in the sky before we tacked up to the anchorage in the northwest corner of the island, upwind of the volcano. We arrived at sunset and left shortly after dawn for the trip to Guadeloupe.

Approaching Montserrat.
Lava and ash covers the city of Plymouth.

One tack to the northeast to round the corner of Montserrat and then one long tack to Guadeloupe. It doesn’t get any better then that! We’ve been to Dutch, British and French islands in the span of a week. Each has its own charm and appeal but you have to hand it to the French for being the most laid back and relaxed. The British islands want you to give a departure date which is understandable but not always easy when you are dependent on the weather. Stay an extra day and it’s a trip back to customs. When we cleared in to French St. Martin we were asked how long we would be staying to which we replied, we don’t know. Their answer was OK, enjoy your stay. The fee was only $8. In Guadeloupe we were asked the same thing but not required to give them a date and we weren’t charged a dime! This laid back atmosphere is part of the appeal of the Caribbean and a nice change from the structure and rules back home. The only crazy part of all these different countries is keeping the money straight. In Saba it was the Guilder, the EC (Eastern Caribbean Dollar) in St. Kitts and the Euro in Guadeloupe. Trying to keep the exchange rates straight in your head and figuring out the prices is good mental activity for lazy cruisers.

Guadeloupe is a beautiful island. Unlike the tiny islands we’ve been to recently, Guadeloupe is 700 square miles and its tallest peak, La Soufriere reaches to 4,800 ft. Guadeloupe is a French Region, governed by a Prefect and several elected officials. We made landfall in the town of Deshaies (pronounced Day-hey). This pretty little town has restaurants, a nice grocery, bakery and lots of souvenir shops. We spent several days here to relax, snorkel, change the oil in the diesel, re-fuel, etc. You think you’re spending a lot for gas in the states? We spent over $8.00/gallon for diesel in Guadeloupe! The exchange rate for dollars to euros is terrible right now! That will probably cause us to move faster through the French islands.

The anchorage at Deshaies.
Fishermen pulling in their nets.
It's a rough life but someone has to do it!

From Deshaies we took short hops down the coast anchoring for a night near Pigeon Island and two nights in Anse a la Barque. We decided to do a little land travel to see some of the island so one morning we headed for the highway hoping to flag down a bus to take us toward the town of Basse Terre and a tour of the Bologne Rum Distillery. We had only been waiting a few minutes when someone stopped and offered us a ride. Jim was able to tell him in French where we were going and he drove us right to the door of the distillery. First we got to ride along as he stopped at a little market to drop off some produce and then at the repair shop to drop off a television. A little bit of local color along the way!

A happy man at the Distillerie Rhum Bologne.

The tour at the Rhum Bologne Distillery was great! There are very few English speaking tourists here so we really lucked out when they had someone who spoke English available to give us a private tour. Our guide, Gee, is from Burgandy, France and has worked in France, Australia and Thailand making wine. But he also loves Rum and is living in Guadeloupe for about 6 months and working at the distillery. He gave us an in-depth tour and took us through the entire factory. Unlike in the states where you would never be allowed to take tourists up steps to peer into the boiling vats of sugar cane or have them ducking their heads under pipes or stepping over machinery, here you can see the process up close. It was great! And as we were touring, we were chewing on pieces of fresh-cut sugar cane! At one point in the tour we were standing under a small roofed area on the grounds while Gee talked about the process of making rum. We soon learned why the roof had been built. It was raining ripe mangos around us! When we went to leave, Gee handed us a whole bag of mangos to take with us.

Crushing the cane to get the juice. A process that is done 3 times to get all the sweeeeet nectar.
If you saw the picture of the keg O' Rum from the Doninican Republic.... Well, this beats it. A Vat O' Rum!
Not to worry there isn't any rum in this spill.
The testing station that comes from the column still. We tasted this product and it was 85% alcohol. Very warming.
Waiting for the hopper.
What a job! Hand bagging the sugar cane fiber.

After the tour, we planned to catch the bus in to Basse Terre to see the city and check out the anchorage to see if we wanted to move there for a day or so. Gee was getting off of work and volunteered to drive us. First he suggested that we stop at the marina so we could check it out. Then we offered to buy him a beer so we stopped at one of the cafes and later moved on to another restaurant for some lunch. We picked up fresh bread from a boulangerie and then went to Gee’s favorite shop for great French cheeses. He generously spent the afternoon with us showing us around the town and then delivered us to the bus station, where we could catch the bus back to Anse a la Barque, and gave us a bottle of wine as a gift. His time with us really made for a very special day, an opportunity that only occurs through travel.

The next day we left for the Iles des Saints, a small group of islands just 10 miles south of Guadeloupe. The Saints are really beautiful, laid back, pristine and totally French! The small town of Le Bourg is made up of shops, markets, restaurants and a wonderful patisserie. We went in daily for a fresh baguette and pastries. The water around the Saints is crystal clear, great for snorkeling.

Sailing to the Saints!
Merengue at anchor off of Le Bourg.

While we were in the Saints, about 30 boats arrived. They were taking part in a regatta from Guadeloupe. Do you think they were anchored a little close! This catamaran was no more then 10 feet off of our stern!!!

La Plage de Pointpierre.

We spent a lazy week in the Saints and found it difficult to tear ourselves away. But leave we must so on the last day of May we sailed to Dominica. That’s where we are today. We have lots of land excursions planned so stay tuned for more.