Well, we eventually returned to Europe, spending Euros in real supermarkets buying real food - good cheese, meat and sausages, croissants and baguettes - Mike even found a bottle of HP sauce! Mind, we did see something called ‘porc groins’ in buckets. They were squishy, pink things floating in brine. They looked worse than any of the pig tails and chicken feet we have been seeing here in the Caribbean. We didn’t like to ask what they were!
Of course we weren’t really in Europe, but Martinique is not an independent island state, it is an Overseas Department of France. It is one of the 26 regions of the Republic and is equal in every way to any other part of France. The people are still mainly African, descended from slaves, but there are numbers of Indian, Amerindians, French. Libyan and descendants of European ethnic groups of the first English and French settlers. French is the official language, although Creole, a blend of African, Old French and English is widely spoken.
The island enjoys a substantially better standard of living than most Caribbean states and is a holiday destination for many upper class French as well as more budget conscious travellers. It was colonised by France in 1635 and has remained so ever since, apart from three brief periods of foreign occupation. The island has an area of 425 square miles. At its greatest length it measures 50 miles and its greatest width is 24 miles. It is mountainous in the north, with it’s highest peak, Mount Pelée, at 4,500 feet. There are dense forests, rivers and waterfalls in the north while the central plains transfer to the rolling hills of the south.
We sailed the 25 miles from Saint Lucia to Martinique in 6 hours on 5th March, dropping anchor in Le Marin, a very sheltered bay on the south coast. The first people we bumped into when we went ashore were Jack and Laurie from Horizons, who had been there for some days. They showed us where everything was, including the recycling bins, something else we haven’t seen since leaving Europe.
We only stayed in Le Marin for a couple of days, sailing up the coast passing the capital, Fort-de-France, to anchor again at Saint-Pierre on the north west corner. Saint-Pierre was the economic centre of the island until 1902, when it was destroyed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Pelée. It was known as ‘the Paris of the Caribbean’ for it’s vibrant culture and. There are some interesting remnants of the eruption and we will go ashore and explore the town on our way back south later.
The reason our visit to Martinique was so brief is that we had arranged to meet our German friends on Narwal, Arnd and Bente, with their two children, Siri and Lars, in Dominica that week, so we set sail again on 8th March. We anchored outside the aptly named Anchorage Hotel just south of the capital, Roseau. Pat had managed to top up the Digicel phone card we bought in Grenada so were able to exchange text messages with Narwal. The roaming charges throughout the Caribbean are a little expensive but still nowhere near as dear as our English phone charges would be. We find we can manage as long as we just text. Two days later we sailed up to Salisbury, a small fishing village half way up the west coast and at last we met up with Narwal after 15 months. The last time we saw them was in Tenerife and Lars wasn’t even born. He is now 14 months old and running about like Siri was at his age.
Narwal have been to Dominica already and they knew of this anchorage at Salisbury from previous visits. It is a (partly) sheltered bay on the west coast and there are free moorings laid by East Carib Dive, a beach-side diving centre owned by Harald Zahn and Béatrice Contréra. The business has been in operation now for twenty years and Harald has built up the property from one small hut when they first bought it 10 years ago. There is now a snack bar, Chez La Doudou (a Caribbean word of endearment), seats and tables on the beach and hammocks strung between palm trees. It is a perfect Caribbean setting and we were pleased Arnd and Bente told us about it as not many cruisers even know it exists! Most of Harald and Beatrice’s clients are French and German, although they do get English diving customers now and again. They provide all diving courses and daily/weekly dives too They can arrange accommodation nearby and also hiking tours.
Dominica is smaller than Martinique to the south and it’s northern neighbour, Guadeloupe. In addition it is English speaking and part of the British Commonwealth. In the past it has changed hands on a number of occasions due to it’s strategic position between the two French islands. It is 29 miles long and 16 miles wide and covers an area of 290 square miles. It is very mountainous and claims to have as many rivers as there are days in the year. The highest mountains are over 4,500 feet high. It is quite ’untouristy’ even though cruise ships do visit in season. The ‘whale watching’ trips off Dominica are reputed to be among the best in the world but up to now we haven’t seen any whales n our travels through this region. The people are relatively poor but seem happy and are very friendly. Even the taxi drivers touting for business in the main town, Roseau, (pronounced rozo) are polite and leave you alone when you explain that you are not on a cruise liner and haven’t the money to spend on expensive tours!
After a couple of days just ‘chillin’ on the beach we decided to hire a car for three days between us and we visited a number of the islands attractions, including the Syndicate Nature Trail at the Morne Diabotin National Park in the north. We could hear parrots high above us in the trees but weren’t able to spot any. We spent the rest of that day looking for the Chaudiere Pool in the mountains. It is a lovely spot off the beaten track and although we had good directions, we now know that we passed the last sign for it (which had fallen to the ground). It was serendipitous though, as a short way past the fallen sign, we came across a man who had a patch of land where he grew various vegetables and fruit and raised a small flock of sheep. This spot was right on the top of a ridge and he told us his parents had worked the land before him but they were both now in their eighties so it was only him who walked up from the village to tend to the animals and crops. He had 14 acres on one side of the ridge and 9 on the other. He was very friendly and told us about the fallen sign and as we left we felt that we had really experienced a piece of Dominican life. By the time we got back to the fallen sign, it was too late to take the trail down to the pool anyway, but we felt we hadn’t really missed anything.
We did find a pool, two actually, the next day at the Spanny Waterfalls, again in the north. After handing over 5 EC$ (£1.25) each to the owner of the falls we took the 15 minute walk up to first of two pools in the forest. There were quite a few people there so we took the rope assisted route up and over to the adjacent pool above. There were no people here so we all enjoyed a swim in the cool water. We had just got dressed and started the return trip when we were descended upon by a horde of Dominican teenagers on a school trip. There was quite a traffic jam on the trail for a few minutes! When we got back to the first pool there were even more tourists around and in the pool so we decided we had been very lucky to arrive at the time we did and to have the second pool all to ourselves.
That afternoon we headed towards the north east coast and visited the Kalinago Cultural Centre on the Crayfish River. This is the centrepiece of the only Carib Reserve in the whole of the Caribbean. The Caribs, like the Arawaks before them, had colonised the Caribbean from South America many centuries ago. The Caribs were mostly wiped out by the Europeans on every other island apart from Dominica, and it is here that the last remaining tribe of Caribs (who call themselves Kalinago) now live, in a reserve granted to them by the English, who had finally wrested the island from the French in 1763. They were initially given 232 acres of land for only about 400 people. This was all that remained after warfare and disease had almost wiped them out. Amazingly, those Caribs prospered and today there are 3,400 people living in eight villages on an increased reserve of 3,700 acres. Sadly, over the years the Carib culture has been eroded. Today the Caribs worship at mainly Roman Catholic churches and speak English and French Creole the same as the rest of Dominica. Although the Carib language has long since disappeared it still exists in many of the place names. Only a relatively small number of Caribs today are 100% pure bred, but even those with only a small amount of Carib blood are fiercely proud of their unique heritage. These gentle and often shy people are characterised by their long straight hair and quiet demeanour. They reminded us of the Indians we had seen in Venezuela. They have their own chief and send representatives to conferences for indigenous peoples all over the world.
On the way home we visited the Emerald Pool, another attraction often visited by tourists. This is a truly beautiful spot with a tall waterfall falling into a perfect green coloured pool, but it was a little late in the day for us to have another swim, even though nearly all the tourists had left for their ships or hotels. We have found that it is best to visit such places either on days when there are no cruise ships in port, or later in the afternoon.
The last day we had the car we treated ourselves to the Sunday Brunch at the River Rush Eco Retreat, a wonderfully laid back place in the rain forest in the north of the island. The brunch is billed as ‘Jazz in the Jungle’ and we were treated to a great meal accompanied by a jazz combo - really cool. You could take a dip in one of the two rivers or in a ‘hot tub’. A very nice place to visit or even stay at for a few days.
After lunch we had a long drive to the south of the island. Pat has driven on some steep and winding roads on our trip so far but the journey down the east coast of Dominica must rate as the steepest and windiest yet. It was made worse by the fact that our hire car, a Suzuki 4 wheel drive, was an automatic. On roads like that Pat likes to be in charge of the car, not the other way round! Never mind, she safely negotiated every twist and turn and we finally arrived at the village of Soufriere on the south east coast to visit the Sulphur Pools there. There are many Soufriere’s in these islands, we have found. It is French for ‘volcano’ and these islands are all volcanic. It was again a little late when we reached the pools. The tourists had all gone home and there were only a few locals taking advantage of the therapeutic waters. We walked up the trail to see the sulphur deposits left by the volcano but didn’t have time to take a dip.
We returned the car the following day and did some much needed provisioning in Roseau. We spent the next few days at Chez La Doudou, snorkelling and enjoying the peace and quiet. On the Saturday night we also climbed up to the village of Salisbury and enjoyed a meal in the Hot Pot on the main street. Very atmospheric with the local populace on a ‘jump up’ out in the street. Pat also managed to get this page up to date during the day so there should be less pressure at the end of the month. (You don’t know what she goes through every month!!!)
By the 21st March we left Narwal at Salisbury and moved up to the main anchorage in Dominica, Prince Rupert Bay. The second largest town on the island, Portsmouth, lies along this bay, and we had visited it by bus a few days before. Portsmouth is a busy little place but still small and friendly. There used to be incidents of theft from yachts here but for the last few years the boat boys have organised themselves into a co-operative and are now very efficient in patrolling the bay and generally looking after the cruisers. We went on a great snorkelling trip with Martin and visited the Indian River with Andrew. We did a deal with Andrew. He took us up the river for free and we gave him one of our bikes. Both bikes had not been ridden since we left Trinidad and 2 months of sitting on deck doesn’t help the rusting situation. We couldn’t see ourselves riding them much in the islands so it was as well to sell them. We can always get some more in Trinidad again. They are cheap enough! We sold the other bike to another boat boy.
Indian River is very atmospheric. One of the scenes in the second film of Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed here. It is forbidden to use the boats’ engines on the river so we were treated to a silent oar-driven half hour through mangrove trees. Where the river becomes un-navigable there is a bar/restaurant where we enjoyed a rum punch and a walk along the trails in the forest. Andrew had made Pat a cute little bird from a leaf when we got back to the boat. The return down river was just as nice. We saw a boa constrictor sleeping in a tree above us, also an iguana. There were many herons and crabs along the banks.
Our last day in Dominica was spent exploring the Cabrits National Park just alongside the anchorage. The small entry charge was well worth it as we spent the day wandering the two small hills which make up the park. This used to be a large military complex, the Prince Rupert Battery, the construction of which started in 1774. The main area is the wonderfully restored Fort Shirley, which housed the main buildings, but all around the heights are the remains of batteries, barracks, powder stores, etc. The commandants house is still a ruin in the forest. Maybe the Dominicans will one day be able to restore everything. The fort was abandoned in 1854 and restoration began in 1982.
We left the next day for our next port of call, Les Saintes, a small group of islands belonging to the other large French island in the Antilles, Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe, like Martinique, is a full Overseas Department of France, with all the benefits. This was only a twenty mile journey and we dropped anchor off the (very) small town of Le Bourg on the island of Terre-De-Haut, one of the two largest islands in the group. There are a number of small islands in the group of Les Saintes, and Terre-de-Haut is very popular with day trippers from Guadeloupe. It is only 6 km long and 2 km wide at its widest point. The population of around 1500 is mainly descended from French settlers, many from the north and Brittany. Many of them are light skinned with blue eyes. As sugar cane was never planted on this hilly island, African slaves were never imported. Fishing used to be the main industry but now tourism has taken over. There are many boutiques and restaurants. The other main island is Terre-de-Bas, similar in size and population, but less visited and much quieter. We hope to visit there on the way back south.
We spent an enjoyable five days exploring Terre-de-Haut, visiting yet another fort, Fort Napoleon, high above the town, where there was an interesting museum. There was an exhibition describing the historic Battle of Les Saintes in 1782 which was fought midway between Dominica and the islands. The French fleet, commanded by the Compte de Grasse was sailing to attack Jamaica when it was intercepted and scattered by the British under the command of Admiral Rodney. It was a decisive battle as it stopped the French from taking over more of the islands. We were imagining the cheers ringing out from the heights above Fort Shirley as the British forces watched the battle across the water. The rest of the time we spent snorkelling and walking.
We finally left for Guadeloupe proper on the morning of 30th March and reached our present anchorage in the Carenage at Pointe-a-Pitre early in the afternoon. We have a load of boat things to catch up with so will be busy housekeeping for the next few days.
See you next month
Movies and photos below.