Barbuda - What To Expect?

Barbuda 's renowned for its beaches I know, but I'm not sure what to expect from this island, which often gets dropped from its country's name, Antigua and Barbuda. It wasn't easy to afford reasonably priced accommodation. I'm hoping for tranquil relaxation, to finish my island hopping trip from Trinidad, via Saba and Statia.

Ferry to Barbuda

Barbuda is about 30 miles north of Antigua and today, the December winds have dropped and it’s not too choppy, as the larger island recedes behind my ferry from Antigua’s capital, St John’s. And I’m not inclined to be sea sick though the stench of marijuana, rising from the deck below isn’t helping my resolve. They’ve put me on the cargo ship instead of the advertised Barbuda Express catamaran. And sent me reminders with the wrong departure port and time on. Fortunately, I’m able to check. Cases and sundry crates are hidden under a couple of orange tarpaulins on the flat wooden deck below. Its going to add two hours to the ninety minute journey.

Barbuda the Beautiful

Barbuda’s nothing like Antigua, however, more the Caribbean as it was before the tourists arrived (or so I imagine). It’s coral limestone and pancake flat – it’s hard to make it out, on the horizon, until we’re very close. This is one of the most sparsely populated islands in the Caribbean. The 1800 or so population nearly all live in Codrington, the one and only town. It looks like a lattice of spaced out dwellings, with wire fenced compounds. there are Caribbean gaily painted cottages, a church, a bank and a couple of supermarkets.

The airport forms the southern border of the town. You walk off the runway into one of the side streets. Two cafes that are closed all the time. And there are a couple of restaurants - I’m told, but its hard to tell, as very few buildings have signboards. And I discover that Codrington’s not really a grid either, as I get lost every time I go out. The lack of signposts doesn’t help.

Hurricane Irma destroyed more than 90 percent of Barbuda's buildings, in 2017, and the entire population was evacuated to Antigua. By February 2019, most of the residents had returned to the island. Reconstruction is ongoing. I’m told that signs are on their way. Meanwhile, I have to try to use Google to navigate. And she’s being as tricky as ever.

I’m staying in a dinky little purple cottage. It’s wooden, on stilts, like most of the traditional houses here and it serves its purpose, except I manage to lock myself out, by twiddling the wrong knobs on my first excursion. The supermarket and fisherman’s quay are four minutes walk.

Getting Around in Barbuda

I’ve rented a car. I don’t know how legal my transaction is. No-one has even asked to see my driving licence and only cash has changed hands. The windscreen has a huge crack running across it, there are warning lights on the dashboard (‘Don’t worry, it’s only the engine overheating’), the cover is coming off the control panel in the door and it rattles like crazy.

Mind you, anything would rattle on these roads. There’s one concrete stretch from the ferry half way to Codrington and the rest is unmade and very bumpy or very old broken pitch, with huge potholes. So, slow is the order of the day. (Though I can’t be certain how slow, as the speedometer doesn’t work). Especially, as I also have to avoid the cattle, goats, chickens and donkeys. It reminds me of Turks, with its roadside cacti and aloes, salt ponds, scrubland and wandering wild asses. And, every so often, another whiff of marijuana, even in the middle of nowhere.

I say roads. There’s really only one, Route 1, which runs from Two Foot Bay in the north east, across to Codrington in the middle, down to the ferry and past the beaches in the south. It’s about 12 miles long. And the island is almost totally fringed with stunning empty beaches. I’m stopping to sample them, as I bump along.

Princess Diana Beach is the Winner

So far, Princess Diana Beach (it was called Access Beach before she came here, with Wills and Harry) is winning. A fabulous swathe of soft white sand with swirling cobalt water. And Enoch’s bar. He only serves drinks and grilled lobster (to order). The lobster (Barbuda is famous for them) is delivered by boat, fresh from the sea, whilst I watch. Then it’s placed on the smoking barbecue. Enoch, smiling, serves up a huge plateful, beautifully succulent. with baked potato. I look at it, think, that’s not bad for 30 USD and I consume it very happily. He then says, ‘Would you like the other half now?’ And he follows it up with Haagen Daaz ice cream. What more could you want?

Tales of the Unexpected

Barbuda is not what I expected. It's a hard island to categorise. It’s definitely not cheap. Cottages like mine are the economic way to visit. There are some, way more expensive, on stilts, by the sea. Other than that, there are three resorts - said to be of the expensive exclusive variety. And they’re artfully hidden away. A helicopter flits in and out of the airport strip belonging to Coco Resort, behind the Princess Diana Beach. Water taxis whizz their VIPs across the lagoon, to the west of the island. It’s a recluse’s version of Anguilla. There are restaurants like Uncle Roddy’s at Coral Group Bay, with a kitchen full of earnest chefs and an upmarket menu. And 'Oh look darling, there's a Nobu', nestling serenely, by the sand, in the middle of nowhere. Tenders from the mega yachts moored at the little wooden landing stage.

But it definitely has tranquil relaxation in abundance.

Trying to Find Two Foot Bay

Well, it's relaxing some of the time. I'm searching for the caves at Two Foot Bay, at the top of Barbuda. Google is not happy with this instruction at all. She takes me to Two Foot Bay Beach which is to the north of my goal, gorgeous wild, windswept and littered with driftwood and flotsam and jetsam. And totally deserted, which is just as well, as I realise I’ve forgotten to lock the car, when I get back from my reconnaissance mission. And then the signal drops out.

Maps.me to the rescue, although the caves aren't marked on here at all. The road is, however. Up to the giddy heights of 125 feet, in the 'Barbuda Highlands '. First, a quarry. This is a little alarming and I beat a careful retreat and try another route. I'm glad I persevered. Limestone has been raised and eroded to form picturesque karst pinnacles and caves, along this rugged coast. I'm not so interested in clambering up the spiky slope, to explore the caves, but the views are spectacular. There's even the ruins of a house, built up against a rocky outcrop. It’s thought it was related to the phosphate mining which took place here once. At the far end, is a sparkling sapphire bay.

The Flying Frigates of Barbuda

My most rewarding excursion here is a boat trip, into the mangrove lined lagoons on the north west corner of Barbuda. Codrington Lagoon National Park is home to the largest frigate bird colony in the western hemisphere (some say the world). More than 2,500 of the birds roost in the mangroves every year (some say 5000). And I’m here in December, right in the middle of the mating season, (from September to April).

I’ve booked with Solomon, The Pink Sand Water Taxi Man, but when I turn up, at the agreed time, I have to wait ‘five minutes’, as he’s bagged another job and another four clients are on their way. Half an hour later, five Americans turn up. (This is the Caribbean.) But the trip, across the shallow lagoon is well worth it.

The frigate birds display their very best mating performance, red chest pouches ballooned to extraordinary sizes. In between, they take to the skies, wheeling and diving. It’s their only exercise. Frigate birds have such small legs and tiny feet they can’t walk. So they either sit on a solid enough branch or fly and they need a high branch to take off. The fluffy checks have to say in their fragile twiggy nests for eight to ten months, until they are sure of being able to launch themselves into the world.

Frigate birds can’t swim either, their little feet aren’t webbed and their feathers aren’t waterproof. So, they either have to scoop up squid or fish, which are floating or resort to mugging. They’ve become adept at jostling other birds, so that they drop, or even regurgitate their catch. Then they swoop in and grab it, with their beaks.

This is much more impressive than the colony I saw on the Galapagos, though I thought that was wonderful, at the time. They’re altogether astonishing. It’s not surprising that frigate birds are also known as Man O War birds.

The Elusive Pink Sand Beach

And beyond the mangroves, where the birds are ensconced, is Eleven Mile Beach. Along with Bermuda, and a pocketful of other islands, Barbuda lays claim to pink sand. But, so far it’s been elusive. There's a beach called Pink Sand, down south by a Martello Tower fort (it was built by the British in the early 1800s, and had three cannons, it looks just like a sugar mill and is now a popular wedding venue). But as far as I can see, that beach isn’t pink at all. I've read it depends on the wave action. I know that the pink is the effect of tiny shells in the sand. Maybe they only look pink when suitably wet.

But Eleven Mile Beach really is pink. Well, in patches, as the waves swirl in and out. It’s delightful.

Problems in Paradise

What problems does this paradise pose? More No See Ums (sand flies). I’ve acquired several itchy bites. There’s music from some of the hideaway restaurants. ( I tried one called Timbuk-1. It boasts a 'casino' - several slot machines). There are also some very noisy dogs. There’s a cacophony of yipping, as I try to drift off to sleep, and it’s back again at six in the morning, with some intermittent bouts during the night.

They’ve changed my boat back to Antigua to the cargo ship again. (And sent me more reminders with a departure time that’s half an hour later than it should be.) That’s not the only problem. I’m so sad to leave. This is an utterly gorgeous place. The beaches are probably as good as those in Anguilla, which I awarded Overall Best Beaches in the Caribbean. I’m considering putting Princess Diana Beach on my Top Beaches in the World List. You could see everything I’ve visited in a day tour from Antigua. on the elusive Barbuda Express. But you wouldn’t be able to savour it. Days spent on the beach here are bliss.

(Read more about Antigua and Barbuda here.)

Trinidad - Land of the Hummingbird

Driver, Lateka orientates me, as we navigate through Port of Spain, (the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, but not the largest city) to the Culture Crossroads Inn. I was umming and aaahing about coming to Trinidad. Smaller sister island  Tobago is lovely, very African and laid back. But Tobago? I'd been told of violence and houses surrounded by barbed wire. Instead, I'm faced with a lot of traffic yes, but neon lights, cute bars with thatched roofs, boutiques in gingerbread houses, malls, clean inviting buildings and smiles. It’s far more inviting than urban Jamaica, for example. The guest house, in St James, is clean, well organised and very friendly.

(I had set off with three pens in my bag, just make sure. But two of them have leaked on my flight to Trinidad. So I've managed to get ink smudges all over my nice blue hoodie, discovering this. I filled the immigration firms in with the third pen, but the officer rejected them, insisting it was green ink which is unacceptable. It doesn't look green to me, but he made me fill them all over again, with his blue biro. Apart from that, arrival at Port of Spain airport went without too much trauma.)

This trip, my mission is to explore Caribbean islands that have hitherto passed me by. I've been to Tobago some time ago, so now, I'm off to explore Trinidad, The Land of the Humming Bird, starting with Port of Spain.

Port of Spain

The Magnificent Seven

St James is a very upmarket area. Mansions, manicured lawns and embassies of course. There are always embassies in the wealthy suburbs of capital cities. And yes, there is barbed wire running along the tops of some of the walls, but it's discreet and they don't look like prison compounds. Maraval Road runs along the western edge of green swathe of parkland know as (Queen's Park) The Savannah. It was once a sugar estate, but the land was bought by then Governor Woodford and a no building ban was applied.. Today, its two and half mile circumference makes The Savannah the world’s largest roundabout. Maraval Road is home to a fascinatingly Disneyesque museum of colonial mansions, in every style from Victorian to French Colonial. They’re known as The Magnificent Seven and date from 1903/4 for the most part.

Killarney (Stollmeyer’s Castle)

First up, Stollmeyer’s Castle, first known as Killarney, bedecked with crenelations, turrets and towers of limestone and Italian marble. Apparently, it’s modelled on a wing of Balmoral Castle in Scotland. It was the first of the Magnificent Seven (the Yul Brynner), built by the planter Charles Fourier Stollmeyer and designed by the Scottish architect Robert Gillies. It was dubbed a castle by American troops billeted there during the war. So, it's been Stollmeyer's Castle, ever since. It was used as government offices earlier this century and is now being refurbished.

Whitehall (Rosenweg)

Whitehall, built from sparkling coral stone, is the largest and grandest of the six private residences here and has served several times as the Prime Minister’s Office (of course). This one is mock Palladian, with nods to classic Greek, Roman and Moorish architecture all incorporated.

Archbishop’s Palace

The Roman Catholic Archbishop’s Palace is Indian Empire meets medieval style, with towers and arched Moghul style windows. Its Irish designer used red granite and marble brought over from the Emerald Isle.

Ambard’s House / Roomor

Ambard’s House was designed by a French architect in ‘ French Second Empire’ style. Ambard lost the house after being unable to make his mortgage payments to Gordon Grant and Company, in 1919. Then, a Pointz Mackenzie bought it and met the same fate, to the same company, in 1923. The house was eventually sold to Mr Timothy Roodal, in 1940, with a happier ending. His family still live there. It’s advertised as the least modified of the houses, but it’s also the one in the worst state of repair. There are patches of rust.

Mille Fleurs

Mille Fleurs is a charmingly delicate blue and white French Provincial mansion, built for Dr Enrique Prada, who was the Mayor of Port of Spain from 1914 to 1917. It’s now owned by the National Trust and you can wander in and have a look, though there isn’t much to see inside.

Hayes Court

Hayes Court is the simplest of these fascinating buildings. Here Scottish cast iron meets French Colonial. It was the home of Trinidad and Tobago’s Anglican bishops.

Queen’s Royal College

Last up, a boy’s school, Queen’s Royal College. It’s possibly the most extraordinary building of the seven. A brilliant orange red and blue-grey façade, with German Renaissance architectural features and a 93-feet tall clock tower. I’m about as awestruck as when I walked down the Strip in Las Vegas, goggling at all the astonishing installations outside the hotels. I'll include images of all the Seven. See if you can work out which is which?

Beyond the Savannah, the Royal Botanic Garden, a riot of exotic blooms. Across the other side, the conference centre and the metallic space-age and total contrast of the Performing Arts Centre. It's more than a little controversial. The building was designed to look like the chaconia, Trinidad & Tobago’s national flower, but you can only see that from the air. It cost a phenomenal amount. It's really badly designed, using out of date technology; it leaks and the acoustics are terrible. So I read.

Lapeyrouse Cemetery

Now I'm wandering past a huge cemetery. Founded in 1813, Lapeyrouse is open to people of all faiths and heritages and the eclectic mix of elaborate and intricately decorated tombstones reflects this. Cemeteries are often surprisingly fascinating and this one doesn't disappoint.

Woodford Square

Woodford Square is the historical centre of Port of Spain - it's almost down town. It has a bandstand in the centre and it's home to The Old Fire station (Victorian), The National Library (new-ish), the Old Public Library (1901), The Hall of Justice (Brutalist meets modern Tropical) The Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral (Gothic Revival style 1818), The Red House - the huge and sprawling Beaux Arts Parliament building and, just round the corner, the ornate grey brick (with tower) police and CID building. It's a real celebration (or hotch potch) of old meeting new.

Trinidad’s brick red Parliament dominates. It's had an interesting history. The original Parliament building burned to the ground in 1903. This one featured on the world wide news, in 1990, when Islamic fundamentalist, Yasin Abu Bakr, and 114 of his followers stormed the the Red House taking 45 members of Parliament hostage, including Prime Minister Robinson.

Down Town Port of Spain

Then on, to downtown Port of Spain with narrower streets and inviting bustling shops, many of them selling textiles - Syrian owned. A couple of ‘hello beautifuls’, but otherwise all is calm and friendly. Brian Lara Promenade and Independence Square, home to gardens and The Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. It’s one of the oldest buildings, completed in 1851. It’s also a welcome place to cool off. They’ve turned all the portable fans on. My phone has over heated as well as me. And I’ve walked in the shade when I can. I summon a TT Cab - the local Uber.

Fort George

Fort George was built around a signal station in 1804, a Napoleonic defence, on the edge of St James. When war threatened, the merchants of Port of Spain used it to store their records, cash and valuables. But it never saw action, despite the cannons and dungeons on display today. It was eventually abandoned by the troops in 1846. During one of the British-Ashanti in what is now Ghana, the West African Prince, Kofi Nti was captured and brought to Port of Spain. In 1883 He was given the privilege of designing the pretty gingerbread style signal house that was to become his home. Today, it's a small - his stamp collection is inside.

The views across the city and the suburb of St James and out to sea, definitely reward the slog up the steep hill. You can just make out Venezuela to the west. The ferries don’t run there any more. Any traffic is strictly immigrants in this direction.

Bonne Chance!

Lateka was going to ferry me to the beach at Maracas Bay, but two French guys (cable layers) staying at the inn are going that way and invite me along. It seems like a good idea, as we can split the cost three ways. But nothing is ever straightforward and driver Moses takes an hour to materialise; he’s a lovely guy with long rasta locks.

Paramina

First, up to Paramina village, at over 600 metres in Trinidad's northern mountains. They rise almost straight from the sea. These are the steepest bends you ever saw, the ultimate test for a small automatic. If they’re hairpins, they are very bent ones. But the view is spectacular and continues to be, as we veer in and out along a coastal ridge. Dots of islands on a shimmering sea to the north and mountains draped in a thick cloak of greenery, with cloud splodges on the other three sides. Iridescent hummingbirds hover in the forest. This is The Land of the Hummingbird, after all and it is the national bird.

Maracas Bay

Maracas is the perfect beach. It’s the most well known in Trinidad and I’m surprised it hasn’t made it onto those Best in the World lists. Golden sand edged with sea grape and dotted with palm trees. There’s a picturesque fishing village at the west end, boats bobbing. And a line of cabins selling the renowned local dish, bake'n'shark. Fried buns with battered shark and an assortment of sauces and salads to go with it.

My new French friends, Jaques (he says he’s Jack Sparrow) and Olivier (he says he’s Oliver Twist, which isn’t quite as Caribbean) swim (even though there are red flags because of the crashing surf and the life guards are chatting in their little red and yellow huts or sleeping on the jetty) and tell me which cabin to order from. They say they are French and know about food. I do as I’m told, but opt for shrimp instead of shark. It’s divine.

Sadly, there is little time to sunbathe as the French duo say they are worried about traffic and we need to get back. Olivier and Jaques are flying back to Paris tonight to spend Christmas in France. They say they are not looking forward to the cold. Back at the guest house, Moses waits an hour or so for them to change and finish packing. I pay him my share and then discover my third of the bill also includes the waiting and airport drive fee. Perhaps the French men didn’t get paid much for their cable laying.

Seven a.m. the next morning and Oliver Twist is on the phone, living up to his name and asking for more. Somehow they have managed to miss their flight. He explains that they waited at the gate for ages, looking at the KLM plane, parked up outside. Nothing happened. No-one was around. And then they were told it was too late to board. So they’re back and its two days before the next flight. Do I want to share a car to explore further?

Well, I tell them, at least you can stay in the warm, after all. Fortunately, (I think) I’ve already got my own car booked, to visit the northern beaches, so I won’t be subsidising their voyages today. I’m carrying another legacy of our trip. There’s aways a problem with Paradise. This one is No See Ums. Tiny biting insects that cause a very nasty itch.

The Northern Beaches

Jeffrey is driving me to a parade of beaches along the north coast. We’re starting with Maracas, and it’s fortunate that I’ve been before, as today its raining heavily, the sea is dull grey and the mountains are obliterated. We stop to buy another bake'n'shark/shrimp for my lunch, but Jeffrey points out that it will be nicer hot, so I eat it straightaway. It’s still delicious.

Tyrico Bay

Next is Tyrico Bay, which is probably still part of Maracas Bay. Jeffrey says the rip tides here are bad and there are a lot of drownings. It can’t help that the lifeguard station has been burnt down. It’s pretty, but neglected, and there’s litter strewn around. There are a patch of colourful Hindu prayer flags flying against a cloudy sky. And, at least it's stopped raining.

Las Cuevas Beach

Las Cuevas is longer than Maracas, (a 22 kilometre horseshoe of sand) and more peaceful, with smaller waves. As the name suggests there are caves, but right at the tip of the headland. There’s a fishing village here too. There’s some debate amongst the locals as to which beach is best. This one is probably more relaxing, but I don’t think it’s as attractive. It’s not as vibrant either, but some would view that as an advantage. And it's a moot point, as it's raining again.

Fort Abercromby

Through the village of La Filette, on a headland above Las Cuevas, and a couple of deep pools, water cascading over the rocks, are the remains of Fort Abercromby. It's named after Sir Ralph Abercromby, Commander of the British forces that captured Trinidad and Tobago and decorated with some ships’ cannon. The fort was built in 1797 and destroyed in 1804, by the officer in charge, who had spotted a large fleet on their way. It turned out to be Nelson, having engaged with the French and Spanish, and on his way to Trafalgar.

Yarra Beach

Yarra Beach is wild and has a river emptying prettily into it. We’re pursued by four romping, but friendly, dogs as we explore, but the rain is back with a vengeance and it’s a short excursion.

Blanchisseuse

The last stop is Blanchisseuse. The village was named by Captain Frederick Mallet, who was charting and surveying the island of Trinidad following its capitulation to the British in 1797. He saw the women washing clothes in the river and blanchisseuse is French for "washerwoman".

It’s another wild and popular strip of sand which edges the mouth of the Marianne River. Jeffrey had planned lunch at a stone table here, perched above the beach, but sadly it's still bleak and uninviting and the tide is in. The river is flat calm and the mangroves reflect nicely. There’s a suspension bridge that was replaced, as it was dangerous and then reinstalled, next to the new one, as the replacement wasn’t a suspension bridge. Some of the planks have been jemmied and stolen. Yet again there won’t be any swimming or sunbathing. Home Jeffrey.

Through the mountains again. El Tucuche (936 m), the second highest peak in Trinidad's Northern Range has a pyramid shape and is visible from all sides, though the clouds do their best to prevent us. Through the amazing Bamboo Cathedral, forming arches across the road. And we have to stop to take pictures of eye catching fungi. It seems that Jeffrey is known as the Mushroom Man of Trinidad and has a dedicated Facebook page. He’s also on a You-tube documentary. Serious stuff.

Trinidad South and Centre

The Sri Dattatreya Yoga Centre

We’re trying to elude the rain again, as we head south, hugging the west coast of Trinidad. Indian heritage is especially evident in this central area area, with scatterings of Hindu prayer flags and several temples and shrines.

The Sri Dattatreya Yoga Centre is a complex of temples (as part of an ashram) founded in 1986 by an Indian holy man, Sri Swamiji. Apparently, he declared the area the site of the lost Sacred Aripo River, for which he had been searching and declared that this area was once part of the Himalayas and he was then its king. That aside, it’s become an important centre for the Hindu population and has been renovated several times. In 2003 ,all the temples were rebuilt and reconsecrated. Intricate carvings were laboriously made in the concrete. And a new temple dedicated to Hanuman, the monkey god was added, with the tallest Hanuman symbolic statue (murti) outside India (85 feet).

The opening ceremony was elaborate. It involved Sri Swamiji dropping holy Ganges and Aripo water and showering flowers on the statue, from a helicopter, and releasing white pigeons and multitudes of colourful balloons. Twenty thousand attended.

The temples have recently had another coat of paint. In Europe, they would look decidedly garish. Here, under a blue and white sky, the bright colours work wonderfully.

The Temple in the Sea

Just down the road, is the Temple in the Sea. Here, in contrast, a simple white domed edifice at the end of a tiled path, edged prettily with tangerine flags and flower beds. This was constructed in 1995. Half way up the path, is an even more diminutive white building, roofed with the original temple dome. This temple, a sewalla, was erected by an indentured Indian labourer Sewdass Sadhu, in the 1930s. But he built it on land owned by the Tate and Lyle Sugar Company, who ordered him to take it down. He refused and was sent to prison for 14 days and fined 100 pounds. Then they destroyed the temple.

Undeterred, in 1947, Sadhu began to transport stones, cement, and sand on his bike, eventually creating a rocky pathway into the gulf, which no one owned. He built another temple there, in 1952, although that gradually fell into disrepair (other than aforesaid dome). It’s a lovely story of persistence, in the face of colonial bureaucracy, and it’s a delightful spot too. Mudskippers frolic and the fishing boats are covered in pelicans and sand pipers. In the distance, Venezuela.

San Fernando

Further south, past a nitrogen processing plant (LNG), with incongruously a preserved Word War II watch tower peeking out behind the barricades and back onto the three lane highway. The road has immaculately manicured verges and shopping centres, which look as if they have been lifted straight from the USA. Here is Trinidad’s second city, San Fernando. It’s more populated than Port of Spain, with apartment blocks and shanty houses rammed between the more affluent chalets bungalows and assorted mansions. It’s a colourful view from the top of San Fernando Hill. This looms above with a sheer cliff face. The town grandees quarried half of it away, before deciding it might be wise not to lose the whole sugar loaf peak.

Below and beyond, the harbour, docks and the oil terminal. Trinidad has relied on oil and other industries to support its economy. It hasn’t been thought necessary to encourage tourism, as in Tobago. So far. The refinery is closed now.

La Brea Pitch Lake

Right to the south west corner of oddly shaped Trinidad. (It’s a rectangle with some corners pinched out more than others. And no main road all the way round. Parts of the east are difficult to access.) Here is La Brea, (Pitch Lake), the largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world. and a major supplier to the international market. I’m told there are only two other large pitch lakes. This one is 109 acres and holds approximately 10 million tonnes of asphalt. Enough to last for another 400 years. It was brought to the world’s attention by Sir Walter Raleigh, who used the pitch to caulk his ships.

Trinidadians advocate it as the eight wonder of the world. I’m not sure I would go that far, but it’s a unique visit. A giant squishy car park. We have to employ a guide, Amina, as the hot bitumen lurks just beneath the deceptively dry surface, which cracks and solidifies and throws up bubbles of methane. It’s covered with pools of water, elegantly reflecting the sky and concealing fissures, which can trap and maul feet. There are horrific stories of people who have been swallowed up and burnt to a crisp. I stay diligently behind Amina, as we splash up to our shins, along channels lined with grasses. Jacana bob between the stalks behind us and water lilies provide splashes of colour.

I’m finally able to make use of my swimsuit, as I’m told the water has restorative properties. As long as I’m careful where I bathe of course. Properly supervised, I manage five minutes in my allotted pool, before we have to finish. The rain has returned.

Food in Trinidad

I’ve already taken much too readily to the Trinidadian bake'n'shark (I'm so glad they don't put calories on the menus here). Jeffrey is determined to introduce me to other cultural delights. And there are plenty. Food in Trinidad is a glorious melange of the exotic. Flavours from India (many of the population have roots in the subcontinent) have married with those from West Africa, China and Syria and of the indigenous people.

Barbecue is good, with smokeries on the roadside. Pork is ubiquitous, as on many islands. Chow are fruits, or other goodies, soaked in garlic, herbs and spices and sold from jars on stalls along the road side. The mango and pineapple are very tasty. ‘Hot sauce ma’am?’ There are all manner of cakes and pastries and sweet delights, again on roadside stalls (alongside an assortment of drinks- spiked with alcohol or otherwise) and in the many bakeries. Batter balls (ackee and other assortments) with tamarind dips, cheese pies, potato pies (more garlic than potato), sticky and sweet coconut bread, cassava pone (with pumpkin and coconut - it’s delicious) and so it goes on. I’m less keen on the national dish, callaloo. It’s a thick soup made from dasheen leaves (greens) and cooked with an assortment of herbs and spices. I’ve tried it once in St Lucia. That was enough.

And, on the way home, at different times, we visit the roti (hotte) shop and a doubles stand in a food court, opposite the Queens Oval cricket ground, in POS. Doubles were invented in Trinidad and are the perfect example of Indian meets Caribbean:
two fried flat breads with a curried chickpea filling stuffed in between. Roti is a similar fusion, more widespread in the Caribbean and very popular here. I’m sampling shrimp curry in a roti wrap. That’s also wonderful. I daren’t weigh myself. Or wear anything other than my sarong.

Trinidad -Tales of the Unexpected

So, Trinidad has been nothing like I expected. I've felt totally safe all the time. (Although, I was told to be careful where I walked at night.) The beaches are gorgeous (Trinidad's main and more or less only similarity with Tobago). The mountains are stunning. The pitch lake, totally unexpected. The diversity is intriguing and makes for a vibrant cultural experience. The temples are exhilarating, the people warm, welcoming and helpful and the food glorious. I'm so glad I came.

St Kitts next (for Saba and Statia).

Or read more about Trinidad and Tobago here.

A Singles Holiday in Antigua

My first trip to Antigua was a 10 day singles holiday, in a hotel at Jolly Harbour. Arrival was at the island's single airport, VC Bird Airport, named after the first prime minister, following independence, in 1981.

Jolly Harbour

The hotel itself came in at acceptable - 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 (it used to be a swamp), 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, for the day. (It wasn't all idling.) You can see the harbour, the hotel, the golf course and the supermarket!

The beach was prettier then that it is now, and much quieter. ( Antigua, with Barbuda. has 365 beautiful beaches - so they say.) There were still plenty of beach bars, but the sand is exceptionally gorgeous, 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.

St John's, the Capital of Antigua

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 also where the ferry departs for Barbuda, so I'm back here for a later trip. It's not the prettiest town from the sea, the the white baroque cathedral dominates. The church is in its third incarnation (fire and earthquake put paid to its predecessors) and its dedicated to St John, of course. There's also a little fortress, Fort James, at the entrance to the harbour, dwarfed by a mountain of container boxes.

St John's is 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, a tiny Botanical Garden and the (slightly crumbling) Government House. V.C Bird has cropped up again too. There's a bust of him in the middle of town.

English Harbour and Falmouth Bay

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 became a naval base not long after England acquired colonial British Antigua and Barbuda in 1632. It was a good place from which to keep an eye on the French navy and 'chase ye pirates'.

It is also the only harbour in the region large enough to repair big ships. It's the site of the restored 'Nelson's Dockyard'. It's named of course, (but not till the 1950s) after Admiral Nelson. Horatio Nelson, a major figure in Antigua history, arrived in the late eighteenth century, as the captain of the H.M.S Boreas, sent to Antigua to enforce British laws in the colonies. However, he got into rather too much trouble with the locals, when he tried to implement 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.

Betty’s Hope

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.

Devil's Bridge

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.

Hug a Sting Ray

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 about naturalist Steve Irwin, who was 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.

There were also a few bars. Maybe more than a few.

Antigua again

Flying visits again, to Antigua, when I'm Tall Ship Cruising. Then back again, from Saba and Statia, via St Kitts, so I can visit Barbuda. The ferry leaves from St John's and Antigua fills the skyline for much of the journey. Just time to visit Ocean Point and Hodges Bay - more glorious soft white, (if small), beaches, before another wistful departure.

(Read more about Antigua and Barbuda here.)

What a Difference a Day Makes

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. At a price. I fill two shopping bags with goodies - for 200 USD.

The Cayman Islands - in a Nutshell

  • 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 then 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.
  • Due to their location, the Cayman Islands are more likely than any other islands in the Caribbean to be hit by hurricanes.
  • There has been vast amounts of immigration over the last few decades - the majority of the population was not born here
  • At one point, the majority of the government revenue came from the sale of postage stamps, primarily to stamp collectors around the world

Georgetown, the Capital of the Cayman Islands

Georgetown (named after George III) 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. Though the first bank (Barclays) did not arrive until 1953. 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.

Cocoplum Apartments

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.

Seven Mile Beach

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.

Governor's Beach

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.

Cemetery Beach

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 are dots of 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.

North End, Grand Cayman

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.

Circumnavigating Grand Cayman

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.

Smith’s Barcadere

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

Spotts Beach, on the south road, isn’t actually that easy to spot. We zoom past. It's accessed, like all the beaches, down public right of way footpaths and it's another gorgeous piece of palm backed sand. Though there’s a stiff breeze blowing off the reef in front.

Pedro St James

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

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.

East End, Grand Cayman

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.

Barefoot Beach

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.

North Side, Grand Cayman – Rum Point and Starfish Point

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.

Queen Elizabeth II Royal Botanic Park, Grand Cayman

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.

Getting to Jamaica

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.

Facts and Factoids

  • 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.

Driving in Jamaica

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.

Mahogany Bay

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.

Ocho Rios

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.

Where's the Deli?

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 Own Indoor Swimming Pool

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.

History of Jamaica - Very Briefly

  • 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.

Montego Maybe Part I

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

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.

Montego Maybe Part 2

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.

The North Coast of Jamaica

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.

Rose Hall

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

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.

Around Ocho Rios and South to Kingston

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.

Spanish Town

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.

The Blue Mountains of Jamaica

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.

Bob Marley

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.

Kingston, the Capital of Jamaica

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.

South Coast Jamaica

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.

Negril

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.

Nirvana

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.

Flaker Jamaica

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

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.

Food in Jamaica

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.

Getting to Turks and Caicos

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 pink aertex 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.

Turks and Caicos, Beautiful by Nature - in a Nutshell

  • 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.
  • The main value of the islands is in tourism (and wow what beaches, 230 miles of them) - and acting as an offshore financial centre.
  • Turks and Caicos is also handy for naval bases and missile tracking systems.

Grace Bay, Caicos Islands

An hour on a plane from Haiti and the planet is completely different. Providenciales (known as Provo locally), in the Caicos Islands, is pristine. 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.

Caicos Islands - Facts and Factoids

  • Providenciales is the largest island in Turks and Caicos by population and the third largest in area.
  • The name Caico[s] is from the Lucayan caya hico, meaning 'string of islands'.

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.

Grand Turk

Being a Tourist on Grand Turk

Another day, another island and journey’s end - Grand Turk is reached, 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.

Turks Islands - Facts and Factoids

  • Grand Turk is the largest island in the Turks group. The name possibly comes from a species of cactus on the island, the Turk's Cap Cactus, which has a distinctive cap, like a Turkish fez. but apparently it's more likely to refer to the bands of pirates who used to maraud around here.
  • 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.

Grand Turk 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

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.

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.

Facts and Factoids

  • In French, Haiti's nickname is La Perle des Antilles (Pearl of the Antilles) because of both its natural beauty and the amount of wealth it accumulated for the Kingdom of France. But Cuba also bears the same nickname. Take your pick.
  • Haiti is the western 'half' (it's actually three-eighths) of the island of Hispaniola (The Spanish Isle). It's in the Antilles chain, which is bordered by the Caribbean Sea to the south and west, the Gulf of Mexico to the northwest, and the Atlantic Ocean to the north and east.
  • 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.
  • This is also the most populous country in the Caribbean - with an estimated population of 11.4 million.
  • Most Haitians practise a religion that is a blend of Voodoo and Roman Catholicism - covering all bases as it were.

Port au Prince, the Capital of Haiti

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

Hotel Oloffson

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.)

Street Demonstrations Imminent - According to the Media

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 Iron Market and Voodoo

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

Haitian Voodoo

  • Voodoo, or Vodou, developed among Afro-Haitian slave communities during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries.
  • In essence, it is a blend of the traditional religions brought from West and Central Africa, with the Roman Catholicism ( and to a lesser extent Freemasonry) of their French colonial masters. Spirits, or Iwa, which were worshipped have been associated with Roman Catholic saints and their saint days.
  • Services and rituals involve song, drumming, dance, prayer, possession, and animal sacrifice and are designed to bring about change.
  • After the Revolution, with the French thrown out, Vodou become Haiti's dominant religion.
  • In the twentieth century, increased emigration spread Vodou abroad.
  • Read more about African Voodoo here.

Jacmel - A Town in Haiti With Potential

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

Street Demonstrations In Reality

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.

A Brief History of Haiti

  • The island of Hispaniola was originally inhabited by the Taíno people and Europeans arrived in 1492, with Christopher Columbus' first voyage. Columbus founded the first European settlement in the Americas, La Navidad, on what is now the north-eastern coast of Haiti. Spain ceded the west of Hispaniola to France in 1697, when it was named Saint-Domingue. The colonists established sugarcane plantations, brought slaves for Africa to work them and made the colony one of the world's richest.
  • In 1791, a former slave and general of the French Army, Toussaint Louverture took advantage of the French Revolution, to launched the Haitian Revolution. Napoleon's forces were defeated by Louverture's successor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines (later Emperor Jacques I), who declared Haiti's sovereignty on 1 January 1804. The French were massacred and Haiti became the first independent nation of Latin America and the Caribbean, the second republic in the Americas, the first country in the Americas to eliminate slavery, and only country established by a slave revolt
  • Government after the revolution was fragmented. The nation was divided and united by short-lived emperors and generals. They even invaded the neighbouring Dominican Republic at one point, to try to unify the whole island. A more workable constitution was introduced under Michel Domingue in 1874, but disruption continued. The USA occupied the country between 1915 and 1934.
  • Probably the most famous of the rulers was François Duvalier (Papa Doc), followed by his son (Baby Doc.). This regime (1957-1986) is regarded as one of the most repressive and corrupt of modern times. He is perhaps most famous for his secret police force. They were after the Haitian mythological bogeyman, Tonton Macoute (Uncle Gunnysack), who kidnaps and punishes unruly children by snaring them in a gunny sack (macoute) before carrying them off to be consumed for breakfast. The Macoute were known for their brutality, state terrorism, and assassinations. Papa Doc was notoriously unstable (even mad) and paranoid. He once made a ruling that all black dogs were to be butchered as he believed that one of his rivals had been reincarnated as a black dog.
  • All of this explains the poverty. Since 1986, Haiti has established a relatively more democratic political system.

The Citadelle Laferrière

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

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.

Incarceration

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.

Port au Prince Cemetery

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.

Pétion-Ville

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.

A meal in, east and up the northern hills of the Massif de la Selle, upmarket Pétion-Ville, is a pleasant way to wind up. This commune was founded in 1831, by president Jean-Pierre Boyer and named after Alexandre Sabès Pétion), a Haitian general who was one of the country's founding fathers. This is the area where diplomats, foreign merchants and wealthy people reside. (There are still shantytowns on the outer edges, even here, as poor locals migrate upwards, in search of job opportunities.

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

Saturday - Great Bay and a Plethora of Caribbean Martins

I've flown into Sint Maarten from the British Virgin Islands. 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. And even though this part of the island is Dutch everyone speaks English with American accents and trades in dollars. Though, here on the Dutch side, they also use the pre-euro florins.

Sint Maarten, The Friendly Island - in a Nutshell

  • Most of the Caribbean islands round here (Leeward and Windward) were named by Columbus. (Actually he named Nevis St martin but the name was accidentally transferred.) Sint Maarten was discovered on the feast of St Martin. It's a teeny island, unusually divided into Saint Martin and Sint Maarten, a bit of the Netherlands and a bit of France.
  • The island was nominally a Spanish colony, but the Dutch found it a convenient halfway point between their colonies , settled there and began mining salt. After ongoing tussles the Spanish repossessed the island and then abandoned it again. Now it was the turn of the French and Dutch to fight over the land. The Dutch colonists came from St. Eustatius, while the French came from St. Kitts. Eventually, but nota ta all amicably despite the document's name, they signed the Treaty of Concordia in 1648, which divided the island in two.
  • Both French and Dutch imported large numbers of African slaves to work the plantations, but as their numbers grew, the slaves staged rebellions, and in 1848, the French abolished slavery in all their colonies including the French side of St. Martin. Slaves on the Dutch side of the island protested and threatened to flee to the French side to seek asylum. The local Dutch authorities then had to follow suit or slaves just escaped to the other side of the island.
  • The Dutch section of the island takes up just under half of the land area.
  • Sint Maarten is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, along with the Netherlands, Aruba and Curaçao. countries
  • Sint Maarten is dubbed The Friendly Island.

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?

Caribbean Cruising On Board the Star Clipper

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.

Sunday - Nevis - Pinney's Beach

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.

Monday - Dominica - Cabrits Beach

Dominica (named as it was discovered on a Sunday) is famed for its natural beauty and lush foliage.

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.

Dominica, Nature Island of the Caribbean -in a Nutshell

  • Dominica is 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.