The Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory, three islands in the western Caribbean Sea: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. They are believed to have been uninhabited before the first Welsh settlers came, in the seventeenth century. The smaller islands had been sighted by Columbus, who called them Las Tortugas (turtles) and Sir Francis Drake landed on Grand Cayman. Early maps refer to them as Los Lagartos, meaning alligators or large lizards, But by 1530 this had become the Caymanes after the Carib word caimán for the marine crocodile. There must have been a lot of them. The turtles were quickly depleted, as they became the mainstay of the economy, for export and eating.
Alison and I have flown in to Georgetown, the capital of Grand Cayman (and the Cayman Islands), from Jamaica. As with Jamaica this is a revisit, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship snorkelling counts. Three hundred miles and it’s yet another world. Very flat. Pristine. A series of interlinked lagoons, especially in the west. Very American. Plaza after plaza. Lines of car rental shops. Huge neat car parks. Four lane highways. And signposts. Low rise apartment blocks pretending to be traditional Caribbean architecture. Incongruously, chickens run around squawking. They feature right across the island and are useful for hoovering up any scraps of food we drop, whilst we’re picnicking. I’m assuming no foxes here. The only predators are the many vehicles.
Cars stop at pedestrian crossings, if we show the slightest inclination to cross the road. They even stop to let you out at junctions. Best of all, a huge supermarket offering everything we couldn’t find in Jamaica. And just about anything you could want to buy to eat. Beautifully stocked meat and fish sections. Again, at a price. I fill two shopping bags with goodies - for 200 USD.
Georgetown is the largest town in the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) and a significant financial hub. There are almost 600 banks and financial institutions here. Twice as many companies as people. Plate glass office blocks are dotted around the edges of town (which spreads out a surprisingly long way across the island), spilling towards more traditional buildings in the downtown area. Some timber buildings could be correctly described as historical. More adopt the mock wooden Caribbean style, especially those around the cruise port (where every block is a mall). A few are actually made of concrete. This is where you find your Versace, Tiffany, and Gucci nestling alongside native vendors and craftsmen.
Restaurants line the wharf alongside the harbour. In between the boutiques, bars and cafes on the shore side are dainty churches, the parliament building, the site of an old fort (marked by a few cannons) and the island museum.
We pick up a rental car and navigate smoothly to our Cocoplum apartment at the bottom of Seven Mile Beach, just north of downtown Georgetown. We have a little heart shaped swimming pool in front of us, sunbeds (screwed down, so sadly, we can’t move them into the shade), and a view out to sea, across a wrecked boat. Glass patio doors lead onto this area. It’s hard to tell when they are closed, so I repeat my trick from Tunisia and walk headlong into the door. This time my glasses come off worse than I do. We also have a resident teeny tiny curly tailed lizard who is not remotely afraid of us. Even so, I have to check he’s not a scorpion, his tail is held so high.
The wreck, the Gamma, offers interesting snorkelling. It’s not the prettiest section of what doesn’t really qualify as a seven mile beach (in my humble opinion). To start with, it comes in at just under six miles in length. And the land fringing the long crescent disappears entirely at several points along this, the quieter end. We have to make use of the various alleys leading to and from the parallel West Bay Road, when trying to explore north. There’s a thin strip of sand and seawater channels, accessed by stairs cut into the exposed coral. I’ve read that storms have caused some erosion and there’s plenty of construction work along the shore here too.
Reefs more or less encircle Grand Cayman, which is why the islands are renewed for its snorkelling and diving. There are snorkelling spots all along seven mile beach right down to Georgetown, in the harbour and beyond. The one close to the Burger King is known as Cheeseburger Reef
Seven Mile Beach is yet another of those beaches that’s touted as best in the Caribbean, maybe twelfth in the world. It’s lovely, but not that amazing. As I’ve said several times before, these best beach in the world lists are way off . I don’t think the Bahamas counts as the Caribbean, but Anguilla and the BVI certainly do.
Another couple of miles further up Seven Mile Beach widens. Here, it is called Governor’s Beach, imaginatively named, as it’s right in front of the Governor’s House. There are signs in front of a low chain fence, requesting privacy. The Cayman Islands are more British than Great Britain. The governor presides over garden parties wearing one of those big cockaded hats. Even the Christmas decorations feature the flag of St George. It’s been created in wide banded satin ribbon along the wall of one tall block.
Here, the beach could rightfully be called beautiful. The sand is soft and inviting. The sea is a translucent swirl of contrasting blues, warm and shallow. There’s what seems to be the best snorkelling on Seven Mile, a few hundred yards off shore. It’s not fantastic, I hurry to add. More, mostly dead, coral, and there are a few shoals of vibrantly coloured fish. Some of them intrepid specimens, keen to eyeball us snorkellers.
Grand Cayman is an odd shape. The Georgetown area and Seven Mile Beach looks as if it sits on its tail. On the opposite side of the tail to the long stretch of beach are marinas with glitzy malls and restaurants. The most well known is Camana Bay.
At the top of the tail is the North End and West Bay. At West Bay. Cemetery Beach is, you guessed it, adjacent to an old cemetery (they’re all bedecked with artificial flowers here) with a narrowish strip of sand and a peaceful vibe. Shade is provided by casuarina trees . They’re gracefully atmospheric, but the needles make a patchwork on the sand and invade all your clothes and stick to your towels. Here, I meet up with Ron and Anne, who have just come from Negril in Jamaica, where I’m heading next. They live in Lindfield in West Sussex, where I used to have a house. It really is a small world.
Cemetery Beach has another reef, even further off shore. Ron is going to come in with me, but first his equipment all floats away on the swell, and then he discovers that his mask is too small. These are the sort of rolling waves that fill your swimsuit with sand, but you don’t realise until you go to the toilet and it all falls out. There’s a little purple fan coral and even fewer fish. Cayman might be one of the best snorkelling spots in the Caribbean but it’s not a patch on other parts of the world. If I remember correctly it’s better when you take a boat. Nevertheless, I mustn’t complain. It’s nice to able to snorkel off shore at all.
The North End is more quirky. Bestrewn with less pretentious homes, gentler, more rural and further away from the financial mecca. Though it hasn’t escaped hotels and apartments all together. There are quiet lagoons and a medley of limestone formations. One area named Hell is especially full of dark pinnacles. This is a very polarised population. and Hell is where the less well off tend to live, Unsurprisingly, the locals have capitalised on this with a gift shop and a post office, where you can get Hell postmarks - if you’re so inclined.
The formations meet the coast at Turtle Reef for scenic views, more snorkelling and some cafes. There are gorgeous wind swept beaches all along the North End coast to here and round the edge of Barker National Park, where horses wait patiently for clients to ride them along the sand. There’s a whole line of dune buggies next door. I'm unsure whcih is the safer option.
The key must-do in Grand Cayman is Stingray City and I went there on my last visit. Time to explore the island then. I’ve read that we should allow two hours to circumnavigate Grand Cayman. It takes us about three hours to work our way right round the coast to Rum Point and then Starfish Point, with frequent photo stops. The traffic in Georgetown, both ways, is incredibly heavy, despite the four lane highways and huge roundabouts. Nobody bothers to use the indicators on their expensive shiny land rovers And there are gargantuan American style trucks thundering by. Living with the rich and powerful isn’t always paradise, it seems.
Just south of Georgetown is Smith’s Cove, more exotically known as Smith’s Barcadere. Formed from the coral reef, it’s incredibly photogenic. And has really easy (straight off the sand ) fairly decent snorkelling alongside all the reef cliffs. There's even an exciting altercation with an octopus. I had no idea they could camouflage themselves so well against the coral. I would swear this one turned white and then brown depending on the light. I’ve read that they can change texture too, to match their surroundings.
Spotts Beach, on the south road, isn’t actually that easy to spot. We zoom past. Its accessed like all the beaches down public rights of way and its another gorgeous piece of palm backed sand. Though there’s a stiff breeze blowing off the reef in front.
Further along the south road, Pedro St James, is home to the oldest stone building on Grand Cayman. It’s actually called a castle, though it doesn’t look like one to me. William Eden, an Englishman, used slave labour to build it in 1780. You can buy tickets to go inside and visit and there’s a swanky gift shop and restaurant attached. We just peer at it from the road.
Bodden Town, the first island settlement, is the old capital of the Cayman Islands. (The first settlers were Welsh - the islands are thought to have been previously uninhabited.) The place is named after William Bodden, a government leader. It’s now the fasted growing district on Grand Cayman. Perhaps they’ve run out of space in Georgetown. Traditional buildings line the main road. The most notable is the Mission House, intended to depict life as it used to be in the islands, though its origins are murky.
The East End is where the real Caribbean begins. Mangrove forest, lakes, low subtropical forest and wild and windy beaches draped with sea weed and facing a vividly turquoise lagoon. There are blowholes in the raised coral. Gun Bay, as it’s name suggests, has cannons lining the road and Colliers Beach is gorgeously picturesque.
Turning the corner to the North Side of Grand Cayman, still more beaches running alongside the road. The sand almost disappears at Barefoot Beach, where the once lofty trees have succumbed to the winds, bending over at almost 90 degrees.
Rum Point, at the end of a straggling peninsula on a bay opposite Georgetown has still not reopened after Covid. There are major renovations underway and JCBs blocking the path. The area between here, a series of pools and lagoons lined with houses and apartment blocks is known as Cayman Kai.
Right at the tip is Starfish Point. It’s tranquil and exceptionally pretty – shallow waters, white sand and casuarina trees to bask under.
At least, it’s tranquil until all the tour boats turn up to admire the poor cushion starfish dotted, mainly solitary, under the dappled water. Loud music blares and the visitors munch lobster tails (it’s obviously an up market tour), as they splash around, asking if they can pick up the beleaguered echinoderms. Apparently, they want to make bikini tops out of them. The answer is no, they will suffocate out of the ocean. It doesn’t stop the intruders examining the creatures underwater. Some of the starfish beat a hasty retreat. The information boards say that their numbers have decreased rapidly over recent years. I wonder why.
The Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is advertised as having seven main attractions – the Visitor’s Centre, the Floral (Colour) Garden, an Orchid Boardwalk (the banana orchid is the national flower), a Xerophytic Garden (plants which need little water), a Heritage Garden (sand and a traditional house and yard), a Woodland Trail, and the Children’s Garden. We enjoy a leisurely wander along the mile long woodland trail - rainforest, jagged limestone pools.
Then, through all of the other areas, except the Children’s Garden. The floral garden is indeed bright and attractive, with huge versions of all those plants, marantas, crotons, philodendrons, that we try and grow in pots at home. The two-acre lake, on the edge of a buttonwood swamp is tranquil and a brilliant mirror for the palm trees jutting over it. It’s also home to small Central American turtles called hickatees who paddle over, in the hope of food, give us the once over and then drift off.
But all this is incidental. We’ve come to see the endangered Grand Cayman Blue Iguana. It only lives on this island and the Botanic Gardens run a conservation project. They tell us that 40 of the creatures wander the park and I’m determined to see one. After a quiet start, my wish is granted and several iguanas of various shapes and sizes make themselves known. as does a rare and shy agouti, for five quivering seconds.
It's been a great and contrasting week. Now we’re headed back to Jamaica.
Jamaica is synonymous with the Caribbean, the most African of these alluring island nations. It has a typical Caribbean tropical climate and topography of mountains, rainforests and reef-lined beaches. And it’s smack bang in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and so, was the centre of the slave trade. Runaways (called maroons) safeguarded the African traditions. Marcus Garvey founded the back to Africa movement here and Rastafarianism followed by reggae music (and Bob Marley), were born in Jamaica. (I’ve been to see the Bob Marley musical Get Up Stand Up to prepare. This is the home of jerk chicken, the world’s best coffee (apparently) and manatees, as well as the usual Caribbean white sand beaches and diving.
Jamaica’s main income is tourism, but it gets a mixed press. There is much poverty. And consequently, a more than average amount of hassle. Crafts, massage, jewellery and drugs. There’s ganja (and other unmentionable stuff) being hustled on every corner. (Despite the fact that possession is strictly illegal.) There are also warnings not to take photos of the marijuana fields.
More worryingly, Jamaica has the highest murder rate in the world for any country not at war. Most of the violence occurs in the ghettoes - I’m told. And a week before we leave, the news tells us that five parishes have been designated as state of emergency zones, due to escalating gang violence. I’m going to have to research where I venture very carefully.
Originally inhabited by the indigenous Taíno peoples, Jamaica came under Spanish rule following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494. Many of the indigenous people were killed or died of imported diseases, after which the Spanish brought large numbers of African slaves to Jamaica as labourers. The island remained a possession of Spain until 1655, when it was conquered by the English. The country had been named Xaymaca "Land of Wood and Water" by the Taino, but this was anglicized to Jamaica. Jamaicans, however, refer to their home island as "The Rock".
Under British colonial rule Jamaica became a leading sugar exporter, with a plantation economy dependent on the African slaves and later their descendants. The island achieved independence from the United Kingdom on 6 August 1962, but the monarch of the UK remains head of state - for the moment.
This is a revisit, to Jamaica, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship in Ocho Rios counts. I’m travelling with Alison and I’m using my Air Miles. I keep reminding myself that the flight is free, as I’m squashed into a tiny seat, alongside a very large lady, who can’t help but overspill into my space. The flight is crammed with Jamaicans, returning home for a long Christmas break, before seat prices rise to extortionate levels. No-one has checked the amount of cabin baggage they’re bringing on.
It takes an additional hour to get everyone on the plane and all the overhead bins are overflowing. A stewardess has insisted I try to squash my backpack under the seat in front. Thankfully, it was agreed to be impossible to get it in there, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to flex any of my limbs. And the flight is almost 10 hours. ‘’It’s free, it’s free’. I repeat to myself.
Driving is also reported to be more than a little daunting. The roads are full of potholes and there are very few signposts. People buy licences, rather than taking a test. And speed limits are there to be ignored. It’s encouraging that the Jamaicans drive on the left, like we do in the UK. ‘De left side is the right side; de right side is suicide’.
As our flight lands after dark, we’ve booked a taxi to take us to Ocho Rios (where my first landing was made, though I’m not sure it equates to that of Christopher Columbus in 1494). The driver’s WhatsApp greeting sets the mood. ‘Blessed Love,’ he declaims. Sadly, the warnings about dangerous driving turn out to be true. This observation, coupled with the traffic jams through Kingston (rush hour seems to last from 3 till 9 – and why is it called rush hour ?), is bad enough for me to abandon my original plan to drive a hire car for a couple of days. We strike a deal with (Blessed Love) Kenroy instead. Yeah Man. Aw man.
But first, a very welcome couple of days on the beach at Ocho Rios. Our apartment has sea views and is just five minutes walk from Mahogany Bay. This little sandy cove is worn round the edges - collapsing wooden sunbeds round the old swim up bar in a little creek. But it’s shabbily charming, with its channels and canary yellow humped bridge. A few shops. Bright clothing draped over bushes, in the hope of attracting custom from tourists on their way to the small jetty, for boat trips. Most of the souvenirs and beachwear are in Jamaican colours. If they're not draped with the Jamaican flag. The colours of the Jamaican flag represent the following: black stands for hardship, green stands for hope and agriculture and the yellow represents the wealth and beauty of the sun
There's a gigantic Royal Caribbean liner looming over the horizon and big excitement amongst the vendors at Mahogany Bay anticipating, a large number of clients. They even wheel in a limbo dancer, to entertain the crowds waiting for their catamaran cruises.
Other than the cruisers, it’s thankfully quiet at this time of year, so we can bag an umbrella and two sunbeds in a prime spot by the water. There’s a somnolent dog under almost every lounger. Waders stalk by and the sea here is crystal clear, shallow and balmy. The beach vendors are friendly and it’s a very soft sell, not too persistent. We can also get high, free. The air reeks of ganja.
When I say quiet, I mean not very busy. There’s reggae music blaring from the beach restaurant, which boast huge speakers and a resident DJ. Every so often, the moored catamarans enter into competition turning on their own sound systems. And the bay features on the local boat trip repertoire. We’re intermittently subjected to a loud commentary, as a group of tourists are encouraged to admire us and our environment from the water. It’s like being an exhibit at the zoo.
We’re having a splendid time until we set off down the coast road into downtown Ocho Rios. Ochi (as the locals call it) continues the Caribbean ramshackle vibe and is best described as having character, rather than being pretty. The bays either side of downtown are more upmarket. Mick Jagger has a house here, which he lets out at exorbitant prices. But then he has a house in many places, including Mustique.
Lines of yards, concealing paint and tyre shops. Tourist markets. Everything branded in Jamaican colours. Miles of overhead cables. It’s thronging. We’re marked out and accosted with varying degrees of civility as we bump up and down the ledges on the sidewalk. Everyone wants to know our business and issue offer an opinion. Whatever we say, it is safe to expect that we will be judged to be doing it wrong. 'Turtle Beach is not the same thing as Ocho Beach, even if the internet says it is.'
I finally make it through the centre of town, to the bay that is the main beach (and apparently not Turtle Beach), as I want to retrace the steps of my earlier visit. But we’re not allowed through the gate. ‘The beach closed at four’, snarls the hefty female attendant. (We’ve been told it closes at five). I beg Stern Faced Lady, for just 2 minutes. She eventually relents. 'But you can’t use a camera in there. Just a phone. Just one phone.' Alison is not permitted entry. I admire the powdery white sand and recall my trip down the cruise ship pier in solitary splendour. Surely, the guard has to be making all these rules up. Perhaps it’s the Jamaican version of the doctor’s secretary.
To the supermarket to buy something easy for dinner. But it’s the same story as in Anguilla. Deli doesn’t seem to exist. No coleslaw or salads, no cooked meats. So it’s frozen meat and fish or cans and packets. I’ve got crisps and a can of corned beef for dinner – again. And even that makes a huge dent in the wallet. Food is far more expensive than in England. On our return to our apartment I look up delis in Ocho Rios on the internet and am deluged with pictures of bakeries.
Our 'condo', in a quiet part of town 'with ocean view', seems perfect, despite the dozen assorted pots of artificial flowers displayed artfully on chests, tables and in every alcove. It seems to have every convenience, once I’ve reset all the controls on the three TVs. We retreat from an early night, still jet lagged, but I emerge from my bedroom to find we’ve now got an indoor swimming pool. A huge flood in the middle of the living room floor. Needless to say, no-one is available to deal with it and its origin is a mystery. Though the recently used washing machine seems to be the prime suspect.
Alison mops and I helpfully hum a hornpipe. There’s half a bucket of dirty water collected. A plumber calls next day and can’t find anything wrong, but I’m not sure how hard he looked. I refused to spend my holiday time waiting around for him to come. And he didn’t take up the sodden rug, which is now best described as stinky.
Kenroy turns up, as agreed, almost punctually to take us to Montego Bay, as agreed. Respect. 'One Love'. Fist bumps in fingerless gloves. There’s a huge whiff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. I had attributed it to a local drains problem, but at least part of the noxious smell seems to be coming from the engine of his car. The bonnet is propped open and the battery is steaming. It's definitely not the same vehicle he picked us up in, on Monday. ‘Licence expired’. he raps. ‘Dis my brother's’. I’m not convinced Kenroy’s brother’s car is going to make it to Dunn’s River Falls, a few kilometres up the road, let alone all the way to Montego Bay, at the western end of the island.
Kenroy is confident however and we set off. I’m even more alarmed when I notice that the fuel gauge arrow points to empty. Kenroy agrees that he will sort out the problems with the car, whilst we 'Enjoy da falls, man'.
Dunn’s River Falls are Jamaica’s number one tourist attraction. This is at least partly due to the fact that they are within easy driving distance of all the main cruise ship ports – Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios.
I should have heeded the advice I got last time I was here. The falls are not especially exciting. There are a couple of pretty cascades, which we are fortunate enough to see before the cruisers arrive. The main attraction here is to terrify yourself by clambering up the smooth water covered rock. The climb has to be done with falls guides (distinguished by their tee shirts), who insist that everyone link hands and shout 'Ra-ra-ra', before they start each part of the ascent. The falls are soon bestrewn with lines of would be mountaineers. We’re not convinced that some are fit enough to make it. We’re not even going to try.
The area has been cleverly turned into a park, to justify the 25 USD entrance fee. There’s a zip line, a pretty golden beach and several viewing platforms. But these are all closed due to pre Covid damage, not yet repaired. It seems that Jamaica has only just begun to emerge properly from the pandemic, though it opened up last year.
There’s also a tranquillity garden. Sadly this is not so quiet as I had hoped. The gardeners want to take you on tours to explain the purpose of the various plants - for tips of course. There are also lines of souvenir shops and stalls, with exit signs carefully placed to lead you past (it’s a bit like being in an outdoor Ikea), instead of directly to the car park. Small carved turtles are pressed on us ‘as presents’, as we search for the escape route.
Kenroy isn’t waiting when we emerge from the falls, so I call him – no answer. He eventually meanders across the car park, munching from a polystyrene take out box and announcing that he now needs to go back into Ocho Rios to buy a new battery and fill up with gas. What’s more we’re paying. We swiftly disabuse him of this notion and remove our gear from the vehicle. ‘What about money for my gas?’ he wails. ‘Respect’. I point out that turning up with a car that isn’t roadworthy isn’t exactly respectful and we walk away. Though more panic struck then we are admitting. What now? Our plans for the next two days are all in shreds.
We’re standing forlornly in the car park. I’m waving my fins around. Some waiting taxi drivers eventually act as the Fifth Cavalry. They summon friend Oliver, who arrives complete with minibus to take us to Montego Bay. Smiley Desmond then volunteers to do duty the following day.
So now we have enough space for 12, and can try out all the different seats. Oliver is a reassuringly careful driver and an informative guide, as we take the westerly highway. Running to the south, limestone escarpments and low peaks. before long the road is actually hugging the coast. It’s not the most attractive Caribbean shoreline I’ve seen. There are some lovely beaches and cerulean bays, with waving palm trees, juxtaposed with enormous container ships, moored on crane lined piers. They’re being loaded with bauxite from the trains (only cargo tracks still operate here) and conveyors that carry the red ore down to the harbours. It’s one of Jamaica’s most lucrative exports.
There’s Runaway Bay (from which all the slaves disappeared) and Discovery Bay, where Christopher Columbus first landed. There’s even supposedly, the ship that he sailed in, though it’s being renovated and we can only see a tip of mast. Rio Bueno (Good River), so named as it was the closest decent drinking water they could find. Oliver stops to show us the memorial plaque on the Queen Elizabeth Highway. The late queen opened the road in 1953. Falmouth Bay is prettier, lined with silvery sands. But there are huge cruise ships moored up there.
As is common with colonial destinations, there are a plethora of UK place names. Jamaica is divided into three counties (Middlesex, Surrey and Cornwall), which run in sections north to south dividing Jamaica like a vertically striped flag. Each of these are subdivided into parishes. We’ve just crossed from Middlesex into Cornwall.
Nearing Montego Bay, dilapidated gives way to designer. Very recent hotels have appropriated the prime coastal spots and there is new construction ongoing in any gaps. There are larger fancier supermarkets and plate glass fronted shops on pink plazas that wouldn’t look out of place in Florida. Signs even promise delis.
Up on the hill to our left, as we approach the city, Rose Hall, the most well known of the great Jamaican plantation houses, dating from the 1700s. It was owned by the Palmer family. One of their number, Annie (the wife of owner John) was famed as a witch. According to legend Annie came from Haiti, where she learned voodoo and magic. She murdered not only John, but two subsequent husbands, becoming rich in the process. Then she engaged in liaisons with her slaves and murdered them too, when she tired of what they had to offer. She came to a bad end, when she encountered a more powerful magician, a slave called Takoo. who disposed of her, in her turn. Rose Hall (named after the first Palmer wife) fell into disrepair in the 1960s, but has now been renovated and opened as a historic house museum.
Montego Bay is the second city in Jamaica, founded on sugar cane. It’s very much a place of two halves. There are ghettoes, poverty and gang violence. One area is included in the latest state of emergency declaration. And then there’s the ever expanding Hip Strip. A line of the most upmarket, boutiques, hotels and manicured beaches. Doctor's Cave Beach is a gorgeous stretch of sand - paid entry of course - with scarlet Baywatch emulating lifeguards, every 30 metres or so. It’s named after a doctor (who was followed by an osteopath, sometimes the two are conflated), who used to direct his patients to bathe in the springs that bubbled into the bay. In those days you had to enter through a small cave, which has now collapsed and disappeared.
There are reefs (mostly dead, but there are some live pockets) and a few fish wandering around in the warm turquoise water. The best snorkelling in the world, or even the Caribbean, it is not, but it’s an entertaining and relaxing way to pass the time. Unless you want to bounce up and down on the circular striped trampolines that dot the bay.
Sangster Airport, at the end of the Hip Strip is also being extended (more JCBs in action) to facilitate the transport of tourists to all those new hotels. It’s already the busiest airport on Jamaica.
If Oliver was good, then Desmond turns out to be an absolute treasure, totally atoning for all Kenroy’s misdemeanours (at a price). Even if he does include Yeah Man in (literally) every sentence. He has been tasked with taking us into the famous Blue Mountains, home of the world’s best coffee ( they boast) and then to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, before delivering us back to the airport at Kingston for our flight to Grand Cayman. He starts by avoiding the toll highway to Kingston (built by the Chinese) and taking to the delightful mountain roads. First, through rainforest proper in Fern Gulley. Magnificent dappled vegetation, tall, tall trees, lianas dangling and giant figs. The roots of one such are so huge there’s a murky cave underneath.
Colgate and other mountain communities give a real flavour of life in the Jamaican countryside, as we criss-cross the new main road. Roadside stalls, jerk centres, salted cod cooking on coals. Jamaica's main exports are coffee, bananas and sugar. Folk waiting at bus stops and taxis ferrying children to school. Education is not free in Jamaica and no transport is provided either. The route is much more interesting than the highway and good for Desmond, who doesn’t have to fork out for the 32 dollar toll. We are surrounded by manic drivers, determined to overtake, come what may. Unlicensed cars, freshly delivered are a particular hazard, they’re uninsured and totally uninhibited. Desmond says these drivers are known as CJs - Crazy Jamaicans.
Eventually, the road drops into Spanish Town, the Spanish (hence the name - it was originally Villa de la Vega) and British capital of Jamaica from 1534 until 1872. The town is home to sepia brick government buildings and white porticoes, falling into disrepair. The old governor's residence is just a façade. There are numerous memorials, the national archives, and one of the oldest Anglican churches outside England. Some what misleadingly it still bears a Spanish name, Cathedral of St. Jago de la Vega. Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world.
Through the edges of Kingston and then a very winding climb up to the ridges of the Blue Mountains. This is St Andrew, (now we're in Surrey), where the rich and famous, like Shaggy and Usain Bolt (though he went to school near Montego Bay) have their villas. There’s a gorgeous, if hazy, view back across Kingston. The valley walls plummet and the whole is covered in the lushest of emerald vegetation. Vines lace the mountainsides.
Right up top, Craighton Plantation (perhaps surprisingly founded by a Japanese) offers coffee tours and more stupendous outlooks. And there’s food and still more panoramas to be had at the Strawberry Hill Hotel or the Crystal Edge Café. We partake of jerk chicken and rice and ‘peas’ at the latter.
The Bob Marley Museum is the other tourist must see in Jamaica. There are two of them, in fact. Bob Marley’s mausoleum is at Nine Mile, at the house where he was born (to an English father and Jamaican mother). I’ve read that it’s mainly a place to hang out and smoke grass. My sources say that the museum is more interesting. This house, on Hope Road, in bustling Kingston, was gifted as part of his Island Records deal. It was previously owned by producer Chris Blackwell.
The museum is small. Downstairs is stuffed with memorabilia, record album covers and the recording studio. Upstairs, his bed (he had twelve children by nine different women, including his wife) and the kitchen where he mixed cocktails which were supposed to assist in his many sexual endeavours. Out back, the main kitchen area with the framed bullet holes that mark the assassination attempt that failed. The garden walls are covered in bright murals. It’s a worthwhile visit. Though I learned more about this complex icon from the stage musical, and from the Booker Prize winning novel - The Seven Killings of Bob Marley.
The traffic in Kingston is still moving very slowly. ‘Friday is market day’, says Desmond, winding up the windows and instructing us to hide our valuables. Past more colourful plazas. Millionaires’ Corner, where three very wealthy Jamaicans built mansions, in the late 1800s. The most notable is Devon House, constructed by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. It was declared a national monument in 1900 and is now a park with shops and a bakery. Next, the presidents’ residence (we’re not allowed anywhere near that).
It was dark when we arrived, so we didn’t get to see that the towering cement factories on the airport road are sitting on the water’s edge. Kingston lies on a huge bay, Much of the capital is very industrial. Warehouses, manufacturing plants, depots. The country has a thriving aviation industry, which both manufactures and repairs aircraft. Not to mention the areas where no one enters, unless they have a pre-arranged appointment with the men in charge. And we definitely don’t.
Next stop, Grand Cayman.
Our plane lands over an hour late, when we return from Grand Cayman. That’s given the traffic in Kingston plenty of time to build up, on another Friday afternoon. So, the last two hours of our journey on the south coast are dark and terrifying, as the CJs speed past us on the narrow country roads. But we do get a chance to admire the ridge of the central mountain chain that hovers above us, as we venture west. And we catch a glimpse of St Elizabeth Parish. The garden of Jamaica is found in the long valley here. The south provides the island with all of its vegetables and much of its fish.
Today, we have driver Maurice. He is not a CJ, but he informs us, somewhat worryingly, that he can be when he doesn’t have any passengers. We stop for spicy beef patties and fried chicken. The Jamaicans boast that the KFC is much better here. Spicier. I’m sure it is, but I’m opting for the local version. Juici. It’s delicious.
We’ve saved the best till last. Negril is stunning. We’re on another Seven Mile Beach and this one really is seven miles long and really could be a contender for best beach in the Caribbean. I still think Anguilla and BVI are better, but this stretch is truly lovely. A crescent of beautiful powdery white sand backed by sea grapes, palms (none of them bent though) and casuarina trees. True, it’s also backed by resorts, restaurants and bars. But these are all low rise, set back from the sand and generally add to the gentle beach vibe. The sapphire and azure bay is sprinkled with small boats touting for business, glass bottoms, para sailing, snorkelling, banana boats.
We have a timber ‘cottage’ at Nirvana Resort, just behind one of the widest stretches of sand on Seven Mile Beach. It’s charming (at a stretch), with shutters and ceiling fans. It’s marketed as private and secluded, which is relatively true during the day. This is carefully worded advertising. At night, we can hear the drinking bouts and games in the other cottages continuing until late. On Saturday evening there’s ‘a boogie night’ on the Wavz Beach lot, right next door. It starts at 7.30 and goes on until almost 3.30 a.m. The sound stage is right next to our cottage. The bass is so strong that the whole building vibrates. The windows rattle, the bed shifts and my chest pounds. Ear plugs are not going to cut it. Nirvana it is not.
Next morning, I complain to Errol, the security guard. He says he could hear the noise up on the top of the cliffs, right at the end of the bay. Errol has a mess of gold teeth that seems to move around in his mouth. He could audition to play Jaws in James Bond movies.
Hawkers march up and down the strand, but the beach is broad enough to maintain a distance and the selling is not overly oppressive, though I’ve had one too many an arm hoisted around me. A massage might relieve the stress of no sleep. I arrange with a beach vendor waving a price card that she will collect me in the afternoon. She arrives whilst I’m dozing under the sea grapes (beset by mosquitoes). Five minutes down the beach and she tells me we’re taking a taxi. I’m only wearing my bikini. No shoes. I inform her that we are not. She says she will use a friend’s facility instead - there are plenty of little massage tents under the trees - and shoots off into the distance. Friend’s place is, predictably, shut. Tomorrow? I don't think so.
I find another masseuse asleep on her couch. She’s happy to oblige, when she's woken up.
I’ve had little more luck with booking a boat ride. The first guy doesn’t return to follow up on the deal. The second agrees a 2 pm departure and doesn’t show up. Finally, the third, Captain Mike's Glass Bottomed Boat, takes us both in a glass bottomed vessel with space for 25 and we have a great trip, across the bay to the limestone cliffs. The hotels and apartments here have ramps and stairs down to rocky pools. There’s interesting, if not great, snorkelling in the many caves and a spotted ray accompanies me, to liven up proceedings.
Rick’s Café is the must-visit venue here, where all the boats pile in. The foolish fling themselves off the cliffs into the pool below - if the lifeguards judge them to be fit enough. They also buy drinks in the soulless, crowded bar and burger restaurant. The original owner has cashed in and moved on.
We’re still searching for really good food. Negril is not as expensive as Ochi, (though definitely not cheap), but the menus look identical. Jerk chicken, jerk pork, rice and ‘peas’, fish, shrimp curry, conch (pronounced conk) curry or fritters and fried plantain. So far, the patties are winning in the taste stakes. Jerk corn rolled in spices and coconut is also pretty good.
We wander up the beach trying the different restaurants. Then it’s a toss up, as to which route to take home in the dark. We’ve been warned not to walk on the beach at night. But does that mean later on or now? The coast road - Norman Manley Boulevard (Kingston's airport is also named after this prime minister) - is deemed to be safer. And there are pretty Christmas lights to admire on the way. But there are also some deserted patches where we need a torch. And there’s the constant horn honking of taxis determined to remind us of their presence.
Last night in Jamaica - barbecued lobster on the beach. It’s a shame it rains.
The Turks and Caicos Islands (or TCI) are the third largest British Overseas Territory by population and consist of the larger Caicos Islands and smaller Turks Islands. These are two groups of tropical islands (40 altogether) in the Lucayan Archipelago (the other part is the Bahamas) in the Northern West Indies. So strictly they lie in the North West Atlantic Ocean and not the Caribbean. Their value is in tourism (and wow what beaches, 230 miles of them) - and acting as an offshore financial centre. They're also handy for naval bases and missile tracking systems.
Every day is different when you’re travelling. I chance my arm on a Caribbean airline from Port au Prince today to avoid going back to Miami. Inter Caribbean do a hop direct to Providenciales in Caicos. I am a bit wary after LIAT (Leave Island Any Time) last year.
Check in isn’t reassuring, I have to wait an hour while they tape up a pile of cardboard boxes one group of passengers is carrying. Then I am, humiliatingly, weighed in full public view. And everything is written by hand on the back of some old A4 sheets.
No departure gate. We are rounded up by the check-in- clerk in her aertex pink shirt and have to follow her in a queue round all the airport buildings to the little prop plane. The PA system won’t work and my window keeps clattering shut. The pilot is completely silent - I assume there is one. But we take off early and here I am.
An hour on a plane from Haiti and the planet is completely different. Providenciales (known as Provo locally) in the Caicos Islands is pristine. Providenciales is the largest island in Turks and Caicos by population and the third largest in area.
Grace Bay here currently holds the position of World Travel Awards’ World’s Leading Beach Destination, and took second place in Trip Advisor’s World’s Best Beaches. The PR boasts that Grace Bay has taken first or second place in these two ratings 19 times and I'm not going to argue with that too fiercely. It's similar to the beaches in the Bahamas with the same deep turquoise sea and soft white sand, but much wider. No rocks, no seaweed. No pollution.
Its about three miles long, but segues into other beaches each side and is part of the Princess Alexandra National Park, Grace Bay Beach was named after Grace Jane Hutchings, the wife of a Commissioner of the Turks and Caicos in the 1930s. For me, it's less picturesque than the Bahamian beaches, as it is lined with four storey (and more) high-end hotels, sunbeds and bars. The compensation is that the food and service are great – though the prices are high-end to match.
I decide to venture out to explore, but in my excitement I walk into the plate glass door on my balcony. So the afternoon is spent lying on a sunbed with ice on my nose instead. Dazed I fall asleep completely forgetting the sun cream. So now I'm bruised and red. It’s hard to tell which is which.
Another day another island and journey’s end - Grand Turk is reached, the largest island in the Turks group. The name comes from a species of cactus on the island, the Turk's Cap Cactus, which has a distinctive cap, like a Turkish fez. Grand Turk contains the capital of Turks and Caicos, Cockburn Town (American pronunciation rules). It is seven miles long and has a population of almost 4,000.
More idyllic beaches, but here all is shabby chic colonial clapboard. The land is almost flat except for a lighthouse holding sway up a little hill. There are countless little salt lagoons joined by causeways. The odd pink flamingo stretches his neck to search for shrimp and donkeys wander the streets.
It cries out for a bike tour, so off I go. It’s the bike without brakes scenario again, though it probably wasn’t wise of me to tell a policeman that was the reason that I didn’t stop at the cross roads. A zip round town, past an old prison and a clocktower and alongside dunes running by the sea and down to the airport. It’s still relaxing pedalling as the sun goes down (until I get lost anyway). The beaches are quiet except for the occasional rum shack, cacti and more donkeys; it’s so laid back it’s horizontal.
Back at the ranch there's good snorkelling in the ultra clear water, when I can summon up the energy. Except for when the cruise ships hit town; today my quiet little beach is heaving with day trippers all swilling as much rum punch as they can hold in their plastic ship’s bottles. I retreat to my room but a hammer drill is being employed to repair the suite next door.
There’s always a fly in the ointment. Talking of our six legged friends, I eat breakfast everyday with a tiny grey lizard who creeps onto the toast basket and obligingly hoovers up all the flies that are threatening to settle there. When he’s feeling bold he also samples the scrambled egg.
Evenings are delightful, and could be romantic, the breeze is as balmy as they come. The sea is at is best for evening swims and I join a ray frolicking with a parrot fish. The sunsets are delightful. At night the braying of the donkeys is at least a change from the barking of dogs.
Haiti is very much what one is led to expect and more. It’s full of bustle and hassle, very vibrant and filthy. There are heaps of garbage lining the roads and the streams and culverts resemble plastic glaciers. And there's been an earthquake in 2010, which affected the country catastrophically, with many buildings damaged or destroyed. Haiti's government estimated the death toll to be 230,000. Much remains in a state of disrepair. Haiti carries the unenviable title of poorest country in the western hemisphere and illiteracy runs at 50%. Not many can afford school, which is ostensibly free, but isn’t, as there are nowhere near enough government schools. Even foreign aid for education is taxed.
Haiti is the western half of the island of Hispaniola (The Spanish Isle), which was 'discovered' by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
There are six of us on our Haiti tour. A very much retired married couple who have already been everywhere, two married (of course) Mancunian men and a lady from California who has also already been everywhere. They all seem relatively normal and good company. I've flown in from the Bahamas, via Miami.
The city of Port-au-Prince grew up on the Gulf of Gonâve which is a natural harbour, making it very inviting to the French colonists. The surrounding hills create an amphitheatre with the ever expanding city spilling down into the water. commercial districts are near the sea, while residential neighborhoods are located on the hills above, giving way to spreading slums. Nearly half of the country's population lives here. The roads are congested, none of the traffic lights work and everything is coated in dust. Every other building is still under construction or has been left crumbling in the aftermath of the earthquake. This includes the famous gingerbread houses with their pointy gables. ornate decoration and latticework
We have lunch at the famous Hotel Oloffson, built in the same latticed brown wood sprinkled with white style. It manifested as the fictional Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene's The Comedians. There’s a room with a plaque on it. to commemorate where he stayed. (Along with an eclectic mix of others like Barry Goldwater and Jean Claude Van Damme.)
The international press yesterday was full of stories about violent street demonstrations in Port au Prince, over the impending elections, which are said to be rigged. We haven’t seen any violence, just beaucoup de traffique. And our tour leaders haven’t mentioned it either!
The slow traffic has its compensations as the streets are teeming with street stalls and locals going about their business. There are highly decorated buses called tap taps (as you tap to get them to stop). The vast and lively Iron Market sprawls over acres with huge amounts of space devoted to voodoo. Most of it is bottles of potions of every size and hue and heaps of herbs. But there are also aisles crammed with statues, dolls and other sculpted items, mainly made out of real skulls, teeth and hair. Macabre is the best word for it. Most of the people believe in spirits and say that many were released during the earthquake. I just hope they don’t return to inhabit my dreams.
Down south to Jacmel, which would be a pretty town with painted French colonial houses, but it is still being restored. The architecture was so highly thought of that it inspired the French Quarter of New Orleans. it was hit first by a huge fire in 1896 and rebuilt. It was then hit particularly badly by the earthquake, leaving much of it in ruins. Like a phoenix, it is rising again and remains hopefully, on the tentative UNESCO list.
There is an esplanade of sorts and a sweep of sand. But the beach is heaped with debris, mainly plastic bottles and is not remotely inviting.
We're taken on an expedition to Bassin Bleu. Guarded by imposing rock formations, this series of four stunning cobalt pools linked by waterfalls. This is a much better option for swimming. though the drive involves fording a river (also used as a car wash) followed by a tortuous scramble over rocks
Back in Port au Prince our leader (a charismatic young man with cascading dreadlocks called Sean Rubens Jean Sacra, Serge for short) has now had to concede that something might be going on. The hotel guards won’t allow us out of the hotel on our own and there are lot of folk standing around with AK47s. There are either a lot of firework displays going on or there are gunshots in the back ground.
Saturday and a flight to Cap Haitian in the north, over the mountains. This is the most mountainous country in the Caribbean. All seems quiet, but the route to the airport is very carefully planned. The pilot of our 18 seater plane (I'm sure he’s wearing his gardening clothes) kindly flies us over our goal: The Citadelle. It was commissioned by Haitian revolutionary Henri Christophe, (King Henry I) and built by tens of thousands of former slaves, to keep the French out after they had won their independence. Prior to the conflict the colony of Haiti, settled by the French was extremely prosperous, with cotton and sugar grown by a third of the Atlantic slave trade.
It lives up to its billing. It’s the largest fortress in the western hemisphere and a great monument to courage and endurance. Including several smaller forts across the country, the stronghold remains the only African-derived military fortification in the New World. It is truly immense. The journey up the mountain to see it close up is overly exciting as we go on horseback and my mount is a little twitchy. The handler’s constant use of a makeshift crop doesn’t help. The mountain views are stupendous.
The fortress was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1982 - along with the Sans-Souci Palace (King Henry's home) at the bottom of the slope. It includes a pointy domed cathedral - the Milot and it's all stupendous too.
Cap Haitien was once nicknamed the Paris of the Antilles, because of its wealth and sophistication, expressed through its architecture and artistic life. It was an important city during the colonial period, when it was the capital of the French Colony of Saint-Domingue from the city's formal foundation in 1711 until 1770, when the capital was moved to Port-au-Prince. After the Haitian Revolution, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Haiti under King Henri I until 1820.
Cap Haitian is purported to have a very good beach half an hour to the east and I'm aching to see white Caribbean sand in Haiti. There has been little evidence of it so far. However, they are having their first rain here since September and it’s barrelling down. It’s too wet to go out and in any case Serge has forbidden us to walk further than five blocks. The UN are out en bloc (tanks, road blocks, full riot gear) as the protests are persisting, even though they have postponed the election. The country is becoming increasingly unstable.
The hotel is picturesque; traditional with antique furniture and the former home of one of the rebel leaders. There are the usual older style hotel problems and the biggest mosquitoes you can imagine, lurking in every corner. The manager is pursuing them with some sort of electric tennis racket. That provides the entertainment. We can also see some rioters peeping through the window grating. There was a carnival planned for today and some of the Rara bands have infiltrated the protest, so it’s chanting accompanied by bamboo horns and drums. It’s certainly a different way to spend a holiday.
A final couple of days in Port au Prince. No more fireworks, but still beaucoup de traffique. A trip to the cemetery to see the du Valier tombs (Pap Doc’s body was pilfered after the earthquake opened it) and some Voodoo ceremonies. These involve much smoke and a man in a football shirt.
A drive through the colourful suburbs of Port au Prince sprawling up the hillsides. This is Jalousie, the City in the Sky. Its been spruced up and painted rainbow colours by the government, in order to tempt the homeless to settle in less appealing neighbourhoods. Government after the revolution was fragmented. The nation was divided and united by short-lived emperors and generals. They even invaded neighbouring Dominican Republic at one point, to unify the whole island. A more workable constitution was introduced under Michel Domingue in 1874, leading to a long period of democratic peace and development for Haiti. Probably the most famous of the rulers was François Duvalier. His regime is regarded as one of the most repressive and corrupt of modern times. All of this explains the poverty.
A meal in up the mountain, upmarket Petionville, is a pleasant way to wind up. Art galleries, chic cafes, twinkling lights and white table cloths. There is a good life in Haiti - for those who can afford it.
Next stop, Turks and Caicos
I've flown into this island from the British Virgin Islands. Most of the Caribbean 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), so that's how it got its name. 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, They were 'The Mother of Colonies'.
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's nicknamed 'Nature Island of the Caribbean'. It is purported to have 365 rivers, one for each day of the year. Though no-one seems to have checked this convenient number. This is another island that passed from French colonists to the British. It became independent in 1978.
I 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, 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 get back. But I can still hear her squeaking away in the bar below.
Les Saintes are nine weeny islands (two are inhabited), which are part of Guadeloupe. They are very green and very hilly. Today's beach is Anse Crawen, on the quietest part of Terre-de-Haut Island, 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. Guadeloupe is not a country, but is an overseas département and region of France, so the currency is the euro and flights to France are 'domestique' . The archipelago contains many islets and four inhabited islands, other than Les Saintes. The original colonial name (bestowed by Columbus) was Santa María de Guadalupe. The two main islands, Basse-Terre (west) and Grande-Terre (east), form a butterfly shape.
We've docked at the little town of Deshaies, on the northwest tip of the butterfly. It's famous as being the location for the filming of Death In Paradise, which regularly features the gorgeous local beaches. The distinctive red steepled church dominates the skyline, but it’s a short acquaintance. We pile into a creaky bus and zip across the top of the butterfly wing, to Sainte Rose, 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 in Falmouth Bay before - it's just round the corner from English Harbour and is 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 (that convenient number again) , 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) and commonly called St Barths, is another piece of the French West Indies, an overseas collectivity. St Barthelemy was also part of Guadeloupe, which is an overseas département of France. For this reason, it is part of the European Union and the euro is used as currency. In 2003, the people voted in favour of becoming independent from Guadeloupe and the French Parliament passed a bill granting autonomous overseas collectivity status in 2007 (at the same time as St Martin).
This 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 the island 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 in over the road which 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.
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. Like St Barths, St Martin was part of Guadeloupe, an overseas département of France. and it is now an autonomous overseas collectivity. So, it is part of the European Union and the euro is used as currency
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 to Anguilla 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. Orient Bay is one of the contenders for best beach on the island - there are several, but it isn't very welcoming. The damp Caribbean 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. A quick stop at Baie Longue on the way to the airport, just to say good-bye. The flight is a disaster though. The Caribbean carrier 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 Caribbean 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. On the way, 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. It has 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, as I'm on my way home from the Caribbean. Life's a beach...
A relaxing week being pampered at a plantation hotel in the centre of St Kitts. (Or St Christopher to give it its full name.) Ottleys is a family-owned, former sugar plantation, magnificently situated at the foot of majestic Mount Liamuiga. It is surrounded by stunning vistas, mountain ranges and rolling hills and it has heaps of atmosphere.
The building is a restored eighteenth century mansion house with beautifully decorated in- keeping-with-period rooms and views across the manicured gardens. There are swaying palms to the ocean. This accommodation is not cheap. But the really affluent get ' intimate' stone cottages with private plunge pools. There's a gorgeous main pool next to the breakfast café and gourmet (but expensive) restaurant for the also rans.
There's also a great (but expensive) spa, which overlooks a rainforest ravine, a well, a donkey and other delights, to be discovered in the extensive grounds.
The service is excellent and there are much worse ways to spend a week.
Saint Kitts was subject to more than the usual colonial intervention. It was first claimed by Christopher Columbus in 1493, but it became the site of the first British and French colonies in the Caribbean, in the mid-1620s. This gave it the perhaps unenviable title of "The Mother Colony of the West Indies". Its position meant that it was easily reached on the currents and it soon became the first port of call for transatlantic expeditions. The English took up the middle with the French at the top and the bottom. The Spanish took over in 1629, but left again a year later.
The island alternated repeatedly between English (then British) and French control during the seventeenth and eighteenth, until 1783, when the British finally seized control. They already had control of Nevis, which had become a huge centre for the import and export of slaves. They were both part of the British West Indies (to begin with, just in union with Anguilla) until gaining independence on 19 September 1983 as a federation. Today, St Kitts and Nevis is the smallest sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere, in both area and population, as well as the world's smallest sovereign federation. The country is a Commonwealth realm, with the British monarch as head of state.
There's considerable confusion over names. It was thought that Columbus named the island, St Kitts, St Christopher (Cristobal in Spanish). 'after his patron saint'. But it transpires that he actually named it St James and the nearby island of Sabah, was supposed to be St Christopher. Similarly, Nevis was supposed to be St Martin. but the Dutch/French Caribbean island was mistakenly called that instead. So, Nevis was named after the cloud around its mountain - Nieves - Our Lady of the Snows in Spanish.
An island tour doesn't take long. The tiny capital, Basseterre, is mainly colourful concrete houses as the French and British architecture was damaged in a fire in 1867. The town is built around Independence Square, originally used for slave auctions in the 18th century. There's an imposing stone church behind. There's also a typically colonial green clock tower built in Glasgow.
The old fortress at Brimstone Hill, dating back to the French/British conflict, is somewhat ambitiously nicknamed the Gibraltar of the West Indies, but this is still a large fortress, It is UNESCO listed and replete with guns. More fantastic views are the main reward for struggling up the hill and many stairs.
A ferry across the channel known as The Narrows, to sister island Nevis, where I wander round colonial Charlestown. For a small place, it's stuffed with Georgian architecture and has a very atmospheric high street, ideal for sauntering along the cobbles. There's a church from the 1900s, founded by freed slaves, the historic Bath Hotel (the first ever constructed in the Caribbean) and an atmospheric Jewish cemetery, with graves as old as the 1600s.
After that a stroll (one and half miles) along the coast to Pinney's Beach. There's a long expanse of powdery white sand and a beach bar....The whole is framed by the (usually) cloud shrouded mountain rising grandly behind.
I've had a great time, a very relaxing holiday.
This was a 10 day singles holiday in Antigua, in a hotel at Jolly Harbour. Antigua is known as Waladli (or ‘Our Own) by the native population, but was named Antigua (Spanish for ancient) by Christopher Columbus, after an icon in Seville Cathedral, "Santa Maria de la Antigua" - St. Mary of the Old Cathedral. Apparently, he made a vow to name many islands after aspects of St Mary that year. Antigua and Barbuda consists of two major inhabited islands, Antigua and Barbuda, and a number of smaller islands. The smaller islands include Guiana Island, Bird Island, and Long Island. Mount Obama is the highest point. The name was changed from Boggy Peak on 4 August 2009, when it was renamed after Barack Obama who has his birthday on this day.
Antigua's economy relies largely on tourism, and it’s trying to position itself as a luxury Caribbean escape. The island's single airport, VC Bird Airport, is named after the first prime minister after independence in 1981.
The hotel itself was ok - a three star with an outdoor restaurant that was reminiscent of a holiday camp - wooden communal bench tables.
Most days, I walked down to the beach, at Jolly Harbour, to spend my time idling. The little port is one of several on Antigua which serve yachties. There is a web of small canals here, where the boats ply back and forth. It's an interesting stroll. This is a view taken from the helicopter when I went to Montserrat. You can see the harbour, the hotel and the supermarket!
The beach was prettier then that it is now, and much quieter. ( Antigua has 365 powdery soft white sand beaches - so they say.) There were still plenty of beach bars, but the sand is exceptionally beautiful, powdery white. Wandering down to the point, watching the seabirds on the rocks, is rewarding. I'm also on the look out for snakes, as I've read that the Antiguan racer is among the rarest snakes in the world. I'm not sure I really want to see one. And no doubt they're sensible enough to hide up in the hills.
It was a singles holiday. I spent most of the time on the beach. But I did get about a little. The capital city, St. John's. is home to 22000 people. It has a deep harbour, which can accommodate large cruise ships, so sadly (or not, depending on your point of view) it’s a thriving cruise ship port. It’s one of the larger Caribbean metropolises, with plenty of shopping malls, as well as boutiques throughout the city, selling designer jewellery and high end goods. Fortunately, there’s also still plenty of Caribbean colour, with bright wooden buildings, markets and locals wearing Rasta hats.
There are also several museums, the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, mostly for cricket matches, of course, a white baroque cathedral, a tiny Botanical Garden, a fort and the (slightly crumbling) Government House.
English Harbour, on the south-eastern coast, is perhaps the most famous of the harbours on Antigua. It's a good place to visit on a day cruise. This pretty and well protected bay provides protected shelter, during violent storms, and is the site of the restored British colonial naval station, "Nelson's Dockyard". It's named of course, after Admiral Nelson. Antigua was eventually settled by the British, from St Kitts, and became Britain's "Gateway to the Caribbean".
Horatio Nelson, a major figure in Antigua history, arrived in the late 18th century, with a brief to preserve this title. However, he got into rather too much trouble with the locals when he tried to enforce the Navigation Acts. These prohibited trade with the newly formed United States of America and most of the merchants in Antigua depended upon American trade. It put his career back a few years. The former Admiral’s House now contains the Dockyard Museum.
Round the corner is Falmouth Bay, yet another harbour. This one is where the rich and famous hang out.
As with much of the Caribbean, Antigua rapidly developed as a profitable sugar colony. The only two surviving structures of the first large sugar plantation on Antigua are two restored and picturesque sugar mills. These have been incorporated into an open air museum at Betty’s Hope. The plantation was owned by the Codrington family who led the first British settlers.
Another must see on my tourist itinerary is Devil's Bridge, a natural rock arch, near a village with the great name of Willikies. Here, as well as the arch, are natural blowholes, shooting up water and spray powered by waves from the Atlantic Ocean.
I joined in with a boat trip to Stingray City. It seems compulsory now for tropical tourist areas to have these interactive ray sessions on the reef, where the fish are enticed with regular squid feedings. The rays burrow into the sand and then launch themselves against your body. They’re surprisingly velvety soft, but it’s also a strange tickly sensation. There’s much squealing. I can’t help thinking of Steve Irwin getting killed by a ray. However, I’m told that the southern rays are so friendly that they’re known as the puppy dogs of the sea and love to be affectionate.
Later, I took the helicopter to the neighbouring island of Montserrat.
There were also a few bars. Maybe more than a few.
Another bus, another river border, more shuttle canoes. This time it’s the Caroni River and it’s a short trip from Suriname, across to St Laurent, to visit French Guiana. This was the French equivalent of England's Botany Bay, a receiving station for new inmates, bound for the notoriously brutal penal colony. French Guiana is very different to the other Guianas. This is a département of France. It sends deputies to parliament, the currency is the euro and the official language is French. The citizens are members of the EU and enjoy the full protection of the French labour law. It's also expensive, as lots of things are imported from France, but it is the richest area of South America measured by GDP per capita.
It’s immediately obvious that we are now in France proper. The sloping curvy gables give way to hipped roofs, verandas, pastel cladding and neutral shutters. There are even grand planation style mansions reflecting the affluence of Kourou, which is home to many of France's top scientists and astrophysicists. This is the base for the Ariane space rocket programme, the launchpad used by many European countries to launch rockets and satellites into space. And the road to Kourou is paved and smooth. Kourou is also more exciting than I had anticipated. There is the penal colony, as well as the space station to visit.
I’ve wanted to visit Devil’s Island since I left Dustin Hoffman staring out to sea and counting the waves after Steve McQueen escaped in the film Papillon. The more hard-line prisoners were sent from the mainland penal colony (maintained by France from 1852 to 1953) to the Iles du Salut. This archipelago is about an hour out into the Caribbean and consists of the islands: Ile Royale, Ile St Joseph and notorious Devil's Island.
We are taken to Ile Royale. There's an excellent small museum that recounts the history of the place, and the privations that both the convicts and the guards had to endure. A small church, the remains of a hospital, and a very moving cemetery with brick lined graves and memorials. Devils’ Island lies tantalisingly off shore. It’s totally covered in swaying palms- just what you would expect from an authentic Caribbean island. You can just glimpse the ruined cells on Ile St Joseph. Escaping definitely wouldn't have been easy.
We’re lucky today- they are running tours of the space centre. It’s a huge area and we have to travel in and around on their special tour buses, naturally we are strictly monitored. It’s very high tech, there are a lot of computers and simulations and explanations about how the satellites are launched and how much money they cost. The best bit is the launch pads themselves, towering white rockets picture perfect against a clear blue sky. Thunderbirds are Go!
Cayenne (of pepper fame), is French Guiana's thriving main city. Half of the population of French Guinea (300,000) live here, as 80% of French Guiana is covered in rain forest. Busy shops and cafes surround the palm-filled main square, Place des Palmistes. The remains of an old fort overlook this hotchpotch of modern and shabby, colourful Creole houses and street markets and the Atlantic coast beaches. Some guide books say you could almost be on the Riviera. That’s stretching it, I think.
I’m still on crutches, so I’m offered an upgrade to business class on Air France back to Paris. I’m not going to argue about that. This is the longest direct domestic flight in the world.
Next, we visit Suriname, the smallest country in South America. Perched just above the Equator, it's mainly covered in rainforest, but much of its wealth depends on the extraction of minerals: bauxite, gold, and oil.
We depart Georgetown, this time by minibus, which wends eastwards along the coastal road towards the frontier between Suriname and Guyana, the Corentyne River. It’s fascinating to see how each former colony reflects its different European imperial masters. Suriname was under Dutch control from the end of the seventeenth century and for a time part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Suriname became independent in 1975, but Ditch is still the official language.
This is a region of low-lying sugarcane and rice plantations. And it's low lying, so is threaded by drainage canals – and yes the odd windmill. Crossing the estuary by ferry, we can already see signs of the clapboard colonial architecture, with its distinctive shutters and curves.
We hug the coast to Paramaribo - a great name for a capital. Fifty percent of the population live here as, like Guyana, most of the country is covered in rainforest. The Suriname River valley is a much more attractive proposition.
All the guide books refer to Paramaribo as a melting pot of cultures. The largest ethnic group is Hindustani, but thousands of indentured labourers were also shipped in from the Dutch East Indies to work the plantations. So there is Indonesian cuisine and mosques are a common sight, even next to a synagogue. It’s certainly a mélange of colour and smells.
We take a water taxi across a river confluence to a sombre fort in a small park. There's not a lot to see, the signs are faded and the highlight is the gun magazine. The seagulls come to admire us. There are (also faded) fishing boats drawn up on the shores and there are views of a broad bridge spanning the river in the distance. It's all very sedate.
Inner Paramaribo is a UNESCO heritage site. The colonnaded brick and wooden architecture here is very rewarding. The imposing Presidential Palace faces a whole row of black and white structures on Independence Square. It's backed by another, pretty park, full of palms.
Sauntering around the docks and into the market is much less sedate. The stall holders clearly don’t feel they have any vested interest in encouraging tourists to visit Suriname. They are extremely surly. A raised camera, just to take a general panorama and carefully aimed away from any individual, generates a hurl of abuse. It looks as if worse might follow, so I make as rapid an exit as I can with a crutch. At least I have a weapon.
Wandering in Suriname is proving a little too exciting, so I return to our hotel. Early bed seems like a good idea.
French Guiana next.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.