27 May 2016

Serendipity in Martinique

I love coming across the unexpected on our travels.  I certainly don’t mean storms - don’t like those and thankfully haven’t had many. Most important, if we are doing our homework, they shouldn’t be unexpected.  The unexpected I love usually has to do with people or events.

There were three in Martinique.  The first was what I can only describe as a singalong at the church in St Pierre.  Lee, Paula, Peter and I were doing our usual exploring of the town after arrival.  The church doors were open so, of course, we walked in to find the church two thirds full with adults swinging their hips and dancing, hands in the air, to a piano.  The atmosphere was pure joy and made me smile, big time.  It was all in French so I have no idea what the singing was about but the exuberance was clear.  We swayed our hips along to the music - a bit shy to put our hands in the air.

The second occurred after we said good-bye to Paula and Lee in Fort de France.  It happened to be Ascension Day - unexpected but not of the fun type of unexpected since holidays, especially religious ones, tend to shut down towns.  We seem to come across a lot of this on our travels.  I guess it demonstrates our complete ignorance of the Christian calendar - we never have any idea when these special days occur or what they are.  In any case, Ascension Day is an important one and we again came across a packed cathedral.  This time the mood was much more serious in a cathedral with a beautiful, hand painted, patterned ceiling.
The picturesque harbour of Les Trois-Ilets

The not so picturesque suburb off our beam.  

The hospital was in quaint, old buildings...and still being used.

At a new anchorage, Les Trois-Ilets, the birthplace of Napoleon’s Empress Josephine, we were a bit disappointed.  On first glance, the town was a bit shabby, especially along the waterfront, and, worse, the boats anchored beside us were abandoned for varying periods, looking very sad with bird guano caked on the decks.  We were the only visitors.  Ashore the village redeemed itself a bit - very French, friendly people, good views, lovely old stone buildings.  But we determined to leave early the next day.
The start line.  The boats started from the beach. 
A little bit of jostling and lots of yelling off the start.

Just a bit of chaos, with rowers finishing as the sailboats started...more yelling.

Note the poles over the gunnel.  One end is placed under the gunnel of the lee side of the boat and the guys - there was one boat of all women - but they dumped and were eliminated off the start line, sadly - hang off the poles to keep the boat level.  

The rower was clearly unable to continue his race

The movement of the crew was a bit like a dance with various numbers and degrees of hanging off the poles.  Sometimes, in moments of real desperation, they hung off the poles with feet dragging in the water.

Milly was very close to being in the way.  But not a pole struck her.

These guys didn't make it.  One of the crew seemed to be designated bailer and madly bailed the boat after each tack, gybe or simply when the boat heeled too much.

Pretty close to Milly.  The crew are intent.  Those poles dragging in the water can't be good for speed.  This was the hometown boat.  They lost.

We woke up to coach boats setting up marks just behind Milly and then about 400 meters ahead.  We had course side seats for whatever was going to happen.  Double rowing skiffs came out to practice and then race, fans cheering from the shore.  And then, the best Milly pleaser, a traditional sailing boat was rigged on shore just off our bow and others were towed into the harbour.  We took to the dinghy in time to see the start of a colourful regatta of traditional boats.  It was fantastic!  We were obviously in the boating capital of Martinique.  A perfect serendipitous end to our Martinique visit.

24 May 2016

Magnificent Martinique

Our sunset view rarely has a mountain in it on the leeward shores of the Lesser Antilles but these framed the sun perfectly.
There is something about the French islands that make them unique.  Perhaps it is the $3 wine or French cheeses or the jarred pate that actually tastes wonderful or the people wandering the streets with baguettes under their arms.  Or maybe it’s the substantial infrastructure - solid pavement with shoulders.  Or maybe the adventure of speaking French while praying you will understand the quick response.  Or maybe the dwellings which definitely have a European flavour.  Whatever it is we enjoyed our time in Martinique.  It is one of the islands we hope to return to.  We’d like to spend a month exploring the less visited Atlantic coast.

Hiking was just not enough.  We had to give aquafit a try.
We picked up our/my dear friends, Lee and Paula - between them I have enjoyed almost one hundred years of friendship, lucky me - at St Anne, a sleep, touristy but pleasant town in the southern part of the island.  A huge bay is packed with boats.  There we introduced Paula to Milly.  This was Lee’s third visit - she is a frequent sailor and always welcome.  We love hosting and sharing our adventures.  Our pace picks up and we feel like we are on holiday.  I always have to remind myself that for our guests, a stay on Milly and a sample of our daily life is an adventure.  By this time for us, our daily adventures are our lives - always wonderful and stimulating but our daily lifestyle.  Exploring, keeping the boat shipshape and our cupboards stocked and sailing from port to port is what we do every day.  Never mundane but becoming far more “usual” than it was a year ago.

Gorgeous Saline Beach after a coastal hike.

The much more wild Atlantic coast...

with the petrified savannah on it's shore. 

One-clawed - at least, one enormous claw with perhaps a teeny weeny second and defunct claw - crabs in the mangroves.
In St Anne we hiked along the coast on a path, at first hard to find, that took us to secluded beautiful beaches lined with coconut palms, mangrove swamps where locals were fishing for single-clawed crabs and a petrified savannah in the scorching and energy-withering heat.  We also climbed yet another hill topped by a shrine that is a pilgrimage for thousands once a year.  The twelve stations of the cross marked each hairpin turn.
One of the stations of the cross.  Had to decipher the message in French.

A relic from days gone by.

We enjoyed a few days in the less touristy St Pierre, a once thriving “Paris of the Caribbean” that was obliterated by an eruption of Mt Pelee in 1902.  A museum includes stunning before and after shots.  I am hoping that Montserrat will be able to recover to the extend that St Pierre, which seems to now have a decent economy, has managed.
St Pierre shop on the waterfront.  Many of the buildings were built on the foundations remaining after the Mt Pelee eruption.

Canal de Beauregarde is an aquaduct of several km built by slaves in 1760's.  A masterpiece of engineering.
Lovely green moss and ferns often obscured our path.
The 18 inch wall demanded single file marching.  Precipitous drops on one side combined with the rocking sensation remaining from Milly (called mal de debarquement) made the balance necessary for safety particularly challenging for Lee and Paula.

Peter has a sentimental interest in crabs from his childhood in Norway.  They peak out from everywhere even many feet above sea level.  Who knew?

An extraordinary hike.  The incline was gradual and downhill so easy compared to our usual.  Just balance required and vertigo a hazard.
The water was required for the rum distilleries in the valley.

The leader.  
We hiked down the Canal de Beauregarde - a beautiful and unique hike - and climbed Mt Pelee in the rain - Peter and I almost had a mutiny on our hands. 
The beginning of our Mt Pelee climb started after an ascent by car which was a challenge for our rental car.  The stairs made for a very civilized start which quickly turned into a steep boulder path.

Oops!  At the top we learned that the path we had just ascended was closed!  Oh well, we had to get down so we ignored the red lettering saying to ourselves that we didn't understand French.  Note the cloud which contained rain.  We were wet and cold - hard to believe!

So much against my will - I hate leaving a trail half finished and we had a crater loop we opted not to take - we descended.  This was the easy part.

Gradually views appeared of magnificent ravines and steep drops.  Greenery all around but, unlike other climbs when views are often obscured by tall trees, vines etc., the views were unobstructed, long and spectacular.

The mist and cloud gradually broke up.  St Pierre was in the distance and showed us just how far this mountain had thrown it's rock and ash.

Looking up, the peak was clear!  I could've gone back up to do the loop but we'd come to far down for my legs to give permission...and I would've gone by myself.
Mt Pelee covered in cloud with St Pierre
The plantation house of a rum distillery

St Pierre from Milly
And then back to Fort de France to drop off Lee and Paula.  Unfortunately, this coincided with Ascension Day - the city was shut down.  Taxis, buses, all modes of transport were nonexistent.  Luckily, the bartender who was working at 8:00 a.m. at a fancy hotel was able to call a cab so that Lee and Paula could make their plane.
A little spice shopping in St Pierre.  Such a nice thing to enjoy with my friends.

Pumpkin, a favourite ingredient in stews.

Fort de France anchorage.  The fort is now a French navy base.

The library.  As grand inside as outside.  Built by Eiffel.  He sure liked his curly cues.  Peter and I have found that town libraries are often in beautiful historical buildings and often worth a visit.

Another hike.  We couldn't get to the Atlantic coast as buses were unreliable the day after Ascension Day so we headed up into the hills behind Fort de France in a city bus - they have to run by law even on holidays.  

Fort de France.  A busy place.  The cathedral steeple is lacey, not solid.  Very cool.
Peter and I stayed on for a few days to hike and check out another anchorage.  See Serendipity in Martinique....coming soon.  Thanks for joining us, Paula and Lee!

14 May 2016

Touring Dominica

Our first anchorage in Dominica (pronounced domineeka to distinguish it from the DR) was in Portsmouth, located in the huge Prince Rupert Bay.  "Boat Boys" - actually entrepreneurial men - run the cruising show there, greeting boats, arranging tours/taxis, providing a weekly cruisers barbecue and whatever else you will pay them for.  Extremely helpful and friendly.  One of the boys takes you under his wing.  Alexis was ours - a kind, gentle, soft spoken man - just our style. 
A 'palace' being built in suburban Portsmouth.  Many buildings with ornate cement sculptures.  The owner proudly posed to show this beauty off.

And then there was this gem, just off the main drag, with every conceivable space adorned, conch shells being the main decorative item used.
Toilet seats of assorted colours lined up on top of a container - decor or just overflow?

Poverty was clearly visible...and sad.

Portsmouth harbour and town from Cabrits National Park.

Fort Shirley has been restored to hold meetings/conventions/tours.
There aren’t a lot of anchorages so cruising is limited but inland hiking, the beauty of the nature and the friendly people - albeit, a little too much hustling - make Dominica one of our favourite islands.  Usually we avoid tours, preferring to manage our own sight-seeing and hikes but Dominica is most thoroughly introduced with the stories of the characterful guides.  It is also a way of supporting the economy of this struggling island, especially after the devastating tropical storm and mudslides of August 2015 which wiped out roads, businesses and homes and killed many.  We found three anchorages - Portsmouth and Roseau being the usual for cruisers, and the less used and, hence for us, more beautiful Sunset Bay Club at Batalie Beach.

So off we went with dear friends, Don and Maxine, to the Indian River, an island taxi tour, the Boiling Lake, snorkelling Champagne Beach and the Scots Head Drop Off.  Days between were spent sailing and exploring Portsmouth, Cabrits, and Rosseau.

Indian River Tour 
Nice!  The Indian River is a protected area.  No motors are allowed.  Dinghies are not allowed either which means that the Boat Boys get all cruiser business.
Our "boy", Alexis, rowed us the river which is lined with mangroves.  Eerily special.

The river was the set for Pirates of the Caribbean and Calypso's hut was especially built and now maintained by the boys.  The tour ends at a bar in the middle of the swamp.  

Island Taxi Tour 

A sugar mill where slaves were also held for auction. 

A "sensitive plant", a ground cover.  The leaves close together along the stem if crushed or if shaded.  Jeffrey, taxi tour guide, told us that these plants were grown around the place where slaves were held.  If a slave escaped, they could be easily tracked because the sensitive plants' leaves would be closed, leaving footprints.  The slave history on these islands is brutal and, unfortunately, not a lot of attention is given to it.  More time is spent in museums on the battles between French, English and sometimes Spanish - the European history - also, brutal.
The wilder Atlantic coast

Some of the flotsam washed ashore after the August tropical storm.  Whole roads were washed out.  The Chinese government, seemingly a major investor in all the islands, immediately helped and continue to rebuild the roads and bridges.  Interesting.  Houses, cars, trucks and boats were also washed away and are still visible and badly damaged wrecks in some villages.  Several businesses were so filled with mud that they remain closed and abandoned.  The storm is reported to have put the island a decade behind.

The taxi tour took us to the Pointe Baptisite Chocolate Factory on an piece of property purchased in the 1930's by two "bohemian" Scottish aristocrats.  Their grandson has developed a boutique chocolate factory with local flavours like coffee, mango, ginger, nutmeg and hot pepper.  We sampled and purchased.

Alan, the man is shorts, is the chocolateir.  He toured us around in leather shorts and belt that didn't quite fit, and that's about it.  Barefoot, bare chested and, needless to say, eccentric.

Alan, the chocolate man.

The garden in the estate.

Coco pods on the tree.

Cassava being roasted to make cassava flour in the Kalinargo territory.  The Kalinargo, called Caribs by Columbus, were fierce warriors who were all but eliminated in constant wars and fighting with the Europeans.  A confusing and violent history, eventually granted a small group of surviving Kalinargo a reservation on the Atlantic coast. 

A delicious stop for warm cassava bread - natural and coconut flavoured.
Impossible to believe as I write this in the scorching heat, but we were chilled from a rainy walk through beautiful forest to  Emerald Falls

The Highlight: The Boiling Lake
Sea Cat, our characterful guide, had us swinging on vines .  Not quite Jane but fun anyway.

The hike was four hours each way.  Up and down, across rivers and along ridges.

Up very steep slopes that were stepped with logs.  An incredible task worthy of the national park fee.
Spectacular views make it impossible to choose just a few photos.  So bear with me...

Descending into Desolation Valley, aptly named.  This is where the volcano is venting.  Little grows in the valley because of the high mineral content and extremely high temperatures.  


Sea Cat looking like a warlock above his cauldron - or so my imagination says.  The steam is coming from one of the vents.
Sea Cat putting some eggs in his plastic bag pot to boil for our second snack of the day.  Our first was freshly picked grapefruit.

The white chicken egg shell turned black in the high sulphur and mineral content of the stream.  Strangest and best boiled egg I've every had.

Sea Cat adorned us with mud masks.  The mineral content is apparently good for the skin.  We had these on for the remainder of the hike.
Desolation Valley.  Truly a strange place.  The rock was different pastel shades with steam belching in patches all over the place.

The Boiling Lake, a crater full of water.  The second largest in the world, about 60 meters wide, it is at a rolling boil in the centre.  Steam rising from the surface can be seen from miles away.

The viewing point of the Boiling Lake is on a natural ledge about 50 meters above the lake.  We ate our lunch catered by Sea Cat - fish, chicken, salad and a baguette.  He carried all this food - there were six of us - the entire way. 
And back again.  
Still smiling.  This ascent was long and arduous.  All stairs.

At the top of one of the ascents, Sea Cat suddenly started to dance and chant.  We thought it was some kind of victory dance for getting back to the highest place or that Sea Cat had suddenly lost it in an exuberant way.  Maxine and I just had to join in, feeling a little light headed from all the exertion.  We found out after several minutes that he had checked the score on his cell phone - in the middle of nowhere - and found out that West Indies had narrowly beaten England in the world cricket finals.  The dance was a victory dance but not for our efforts.  Good on West Indies!  
The hike ended after eight hot hours at the Titou Gorge.  A fresh water swim about 200 meters up a very narrow, deep water gorge topped off the day perfectly.  It wasn't quite over...Sea Cat drove us back to the boat, around tight corners, up and down hills, very fast!

Champagne Pool and Scots Head
Sea Cat's man, a younger, chattier version.  He and Sea Cat had visited and had a beer aboard the night of our arrival at Roseau.  Being a smooth, quick talker, he persuaded us to go on a snorkelling tour to Scots Head with him.  And we were very glad he had.  We never would have found the best spots on our own.

There is a cannon down there somewhere covered with coral.

Champagne Pool.  This is an area where hot air venting bubbles up through about 10 feet of water.  Apparently, you can cook an egg here, too, but I forgot to bring the eggs.  It was really like swimming in a glass of champagne surrounded by narrow streams of bubbles.  The fish liked it too.

Scots Head.  A lovely rocky promontory at the south end of the island.  About 250 feet, of course, we had to hike up!

View north from the top.

Snorkelling at Scot's Head.  An underwater shelf and then a fall down a 100 ft wall where we couldn't see the bottom.  Kind of intimidating.

Yellow tube sponge and long-spined urchin in incredibly clear water.

A trumpet fish.  A goofy looking fish that is long and skinny.  Often hangs around vertically waiting for prey to come by.

Finished with a home-made rum concoction at Bubble Beach Bar.

The owner at Bubble Beach Bar has created a hot and a very hot pool of the beach.  The hot sand on the bottom heats the water.  A bit much on a hot day but we were into the very hot one.

Luckily, we did not have to change.

And we opted not to have a massage.
But we did take photos.
On our own
We only had two sails with Don and Maxine.  Don looking like he belongs on Milly.

A bamboo house in the Roseau botanical gardens.  The inside was like a green cathedral.

This tree fell on a bus during a tropical storm years ago.  The tree survived and still grows, the bus doesn't.  Happily, no one was in the bus at the time.  A good reminder of the power of nature.

It was a great introduction but deserves much more time.  Hikes are limitless.  There is even a fourteen stage hike from one end of the island to the other.  Now that would be a great two week adventure.  An injury to Peter’s foot made hiking impossible so we left prematurely but we will be back…when we have the time and lots of energy.