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 in the Lucayan Archipelago (the other part is the Bahamas) in the Northern West Indies. So strictly they lie in the North West Atlantic Ocean and not the Caribbean. Their value is in tourism (and wow what beaches) - and acting as an offshore financial centre. They're also handy for naval bases and missile tracking systems.
Every day is different when you’re travelling. I chance my arm on a Caribbean airline from Port au Prince today to avoid going back to Miami. Inter Caribbean do a hop direct to Providenciales in Caicos. I am a bit wary after LIAT (Leave Island Any Time) last year.
Check in isn’t reassuring, I have to wait an hour while they tape up a pile of cardboard boxes one group of passengers is carrying. Then I am, humiliatingly, weighed in full public view. And everything is written by hand on the back of some old A4 sheets.
No departure gate. We are rounded up by the check-in- clerk in her aertex pink shirt and have to follow her in a queue round all the airport buildings to the little prop plane. The PA system won’t work and my window keeps clattering shut. The pilot is completely silent - I assume there is one. But we take off early and here I am.
An hour on a plane from Haiti and the planet is completely different. Providenciales (known as Provo locally) in the Caicos Islands is pristine. Providenciales is the largest island in Turks and Caicos by population and the third largest in area.
Grace Bay here currently holds the position of World Travel Awards’ World’s Leading Beach Destination, and took second place in Trip Advisor’s World’s Best Beaches. The PR boasts that Grace Bay has taken first or second place in these two ratings 19 times and I'm not going to argue with that too fiercely. It's similar to the beaches in the Bahamas with the same deep turquoise sea and soft white sand, but much wider. No rocks, no seaweed. No pollution.
Its about three miles long, but segues into other beaches each side and is part of the Princess Alexandra National Park, Grace Bay Beach was named after Grace Jane Hutchings, the wife of a Commissioner of the Turks and Caicos in the 1930s. For me, it's less picturesque than the Bahamian beaches, as it is lined with four storey (and more) high-end hotels, sunbeds and bars. The compensation is that the food and service are great – though the prices are high-end to match.
I decide to venture out to explore, but in my excitement I walk into the plate glass door on my balcony. So the afternoon is spent lying on a sunbed with ice on my nose instead. Dazed I fall asleep completely forgetting the sun cream. So now I'm bruised and red. It’s hard to tell which is which.
Another day another island and journey’s end - Grand Turk is reached, the largest island in the Turks group. The name comes from a species of cactus on the island, the Turk's Cap Cactus, which has a distinctive cap, like a Turkish fez. Grand Turk contains the capital of Turks and Caicos, Cockburn Town (American pronunciation rules). It is seven miles long and has a population of almost 4,000.
More idyllic beaches, but here all is shabby chic colonial clapboard. The land is almost flat except for a lighthouse holding sway up a little hill. There are countless little salt lagoons joined by causeways. The odd pink flamingo stretches his neck to search for shrimp and donkeys wander the streets.
It cries out for a bike tour, so off I go. It’s the bike without brakes scenario again, though it probably wasn’t wise of me to tell a policeman that was the reason that I didn’t stop at the cross roads. A zip round town, past an old prison and a clocktower and alongside dunes running by the sea and down to the airport. It’s still relaxing pedalling as the sun goes down (until I get lost anyway). The beaches are quiet except for the occasional rum shack, cacti and more donkeys; it’s so laid back it’s horizontal.
Back at the ranch there's good snorkelling in the ultra clear water, when I can summon up the energy. Except for when the cruise ships hit town; today my quiet little beach is heaving with day trippers all swilling as much rum punch as they can hold in their plastic ship’s bottles. I retreat to my room but a hammer drill is being employed to repair the suite next door.
There’s always a fly in the ointment. Talking of our six legged friends, I eat breakfast everyday with a tiny grey lizard who creeps onto the toast basket and obligingly hoovers up all the flies that are threatening to settle there. When he’s feeling bold he also samples the scrambled egg.
Evenings are delightful, and could be romantic, the breeze is as balmy as they come. The sea is at is best for evening swims and I join a ray frolicking with a parrot fish. The sunsets are delightful. At night the braying of the donkeys is at least a change from the barking of dogs.
Haiti is very much what one is led to expect and more. It’s full of bustle and hassle, very vibrant and filthy. There are heaps of garbage lining the roads and the streams and culverts resemble plastic glaciers. And there's been an earthquake in 2010 which affected the country catastrophically, with many buildings damaged or destroyed. Haiti's government estimated the death toll to be 230,000. Much remains in a state of disrepair. Haiti carries the unenviable title of poorest country in the western hemisphere and illiteracy runs at 50%. Not many can afford school, which is ostensibly free but isn’t, as there are nowhere near enough government schools. Even foreign aid for education is taxed.
There are six of us on our Haiti tour. A very much retired married couple who have already been everywhere, two married (of course) Mancunian men and a lady from California who has also already been everywhere. They all seem relatively normal and good company. I've flown in from the Bahamas, via Miami.
The city of Port-au-Prince grew up on the Gulf of Gonâve which is a natural harbour, making it very inviting to the French colonists. The surrounding hills create an amphitheatre with the ever expanding city spilling down into the water. commercial districts are near the sea, while residential neighborhoods are located on the hills above, giving way to spreading slums. Nearly half of the country's population lives here. The roads are congested, none of the traffic lights work and everything is coated in dust. Every other building is still under construction or has been left crumbling in the aftermath of the earthquake. This includes the famous gingerbread houses with their pointy gables. ornate decoration and latticework
We have lunch at the famous Hotel Oloffson, built in the same latticed brown wood sprinkled with white style. It manifested as the fictional Hotel Trianon in Graham Greene's The Comedians. There’s a room with a plaque on it to commemorate where he stayed. (Along with an eclectic mix of others like Barry Goldwater and Jean Claude Van Damme.)
The international press yesterday was full of stories about violent street demonstrations in Port au Prince, over the impending elections, which are said to be rigged. We haven’t seen any violence, just beaucoup de traffique. And our tour leaders haven’t mentioned it either!
The slow traffic has its compensations as the streets are teeming with street stalls and locals going about their business. There are highly decorated buses called tap taps (as you tap to get them to stop). The vast and lively Iron Market sprawls over acres with huge amounts of space devoted to voodoo. Most of it is bottles of potions of every size and hue and heaps of herbs. But there are also aisles crammed with statues, dolls and other sculpted items ,mainly made out of real skulls, teeth and hair. Macabre is the best word for it. Most of the people believe in spirits and say that many were released during the earthquake. I just hope they don’t return to inhabit my dreams.
Down south to Jacmel, which would be a pretty town with painted French colonial houses, but it is still being restored. The architecture was so highly thought of that it inspired the French Quarter of New Orleans. it was hit first by a huge fire in 1896 and rebuilt. It was then hit particularly badly by the earthquake, leaving much of it in ruins. Like aphoenix it is risng 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 a rock pool, which is a much better option for swimming. though the drive involves fording a river (also used as a car wash) followed by a tortuous scramble over rocks
Back in Port au Prince our leader (a charismatic young man with cascading dreadlocks called Sean Rubens Jean Sacra, Serge for short) has now had to concede that something might be going on. The hotel guards won’t allow us out of the hotel on our own and there are lot of folk standing around with AK47s. There are either a lot of firework displays going on or there are gunshots in the back ground.
Saturday and a flight to Cap Haitian in the north - 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.
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. That's stupendous too.
Cap Haitien was once nicknamed the Paris of the Antilles, because of its wealth and sophistication, expressed through its architecture and artistic life. It was an important city during the colonial period, when it was the capital of the French Colony of Saint-Domingue from the city's formal foundation in 1711 until 1770, when the capital was moved to Port-au-Prince. After the Haitian Revolution, it became the capital of the Kingdom of Haiti under King Henri I until 1820.
Cap Haitian is purported to have a very good beach half an hour to the east and I'm aching to see white Caribbean sand in Haiti. There has been little evidence of it so far. However, they are having their first rain here since September and it’s barrelling down. It’s too wet to go out and in any case Serge has forbidden us to walk further than five blocks. The UN are out en bloc (tanks, road blocks, full riot gear) as the protests are persisting, even though they have postponed the election. The country is becoming increasingly unstable.
The hotel is picturesque; traditional with antique furniture and the former home of one of the rebel leaders. There are the usual older style hotel problems and the biggest mosquitoes you can imagine, lurking in every corner. The manager is pursuing them with some sort of electric tennis racket. That provides the entertainment. We can also see some rioters peeping through the window grating. There was a carnival planned for today and some of the Rara bands have infiltrated the protest, so it’s chanting accompanied by bamboo horns and drums. It’s certainly a different way to spend a holiday.
A final couple of days in Port au Prince. No more fireworks, but still beaucoup de traffique. A trip to the cemetery to see the du Valier tombs (Pap Doc’s body was pilfered after the earthquake opened it) and some Voodoo ceremonies. These involve much smoke and a man in a football shirt.
A drive through the colorful suburbs of Port au Prince sprawling up the hillsides. A meal in up the mountain, upmarket Petionville, is a pleasant way to wind up. Art galleries, chic cafes, twinkling lights and white table cloths. There is a good life in Haiti - for those who can afford it.
Next stop, Turks and Caicos
I've flown into this island from the British Virgin Islands. Most of the Caribbean islands round here (Leeward and Windward) were named by Columbus. This one was discovered on the feast of St Martin. It's actually a teeny island unusually divided into Saint Martin and Sint Maarten, a bit of the Netherlands and a bit of France. But don't let that fool you. Everyone speaks English with American accents and trades in dollars. Though here on the Dutch side they also use the pre-euro florins.
The contrast between here and the Virgin Islands couldn't be more marked. I've gone from quaint backwaters to full on 'civilisation'. One guide book refers to this as the Las Vegas of the Caribbean. The narrow road from the frighteningly efficient spanking new airport is lined with high end shops almost the whole way. Chopard, Tiffany, diamonds abound, as you would expect, interspersed with the odd casino. Philipsburg is Cruise Ship Central.
Today's beach is Great Bay. The hotel and sands are ultra-boutique, white canvas umbrellas, rattan chairs and piped saxophone - from seven in the morning. Hulking ships monopolise the horizon. I can see the sailing clipper I am booked to travel on for the next week bobbing around behind them. It looks really tiny in comparison. The quay where it is moored is called Dock Maarten - really.
And now perhaps I should go get a Martini?
One of the three tallest ships sailing the seven seas. It's all very - well, nautical. Brass and wood with navy and gilt upholstery, and lots of knots. They haul the sails up ceremonially every day to the Van Gelis 1492 theme tune. It's surprisingly moving, though there isn't much wind and we use the engines most of the time. I'm secretly quite glad. The sails are very picturesque, but I'm told the tall masts make for a lot of rolling if the sea is remotely rough.
The crew are very cosmopolitan - Filipino waiters, Goan sailors, Eastern European officers, Swedish Vikings on the sports team. It's their job to entertain us at night as well as look after us during the day. They deliver an amateur variety package, including comedy sketches and a fashion show, involving a surf board. The passengers are mostly retired Americans. Others are English, French, German, I'm the only single on board.
We've reached Nevis overnight so today it's Pinney's Beach. Columbus thought the central volcano looked as if it had snow on it (nieve). 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. More plantation houses, sugar mills and forts than spectacular coasts. The beach here is pretty, but narrow. There’s not a lot of shade unless I wander up to the one hotel, and the sports team forgot to bring the umbrellas. So I get the tender back to the ship and lounge on the deck by one of the two wedge shaped swimming pools. Most of the Americans are very friendly. I know everyone's life history already.
Dominica (named as it was discovered on a Sunday) is, reputedly, famed for its natural beauty and lush foliage. It is purported to have 365 rivers, one for each day of the year. Though no-one seems to have checked this convenient number. So, I only skirt Cabrits Beach – it’s black volcanic sand- on my way up into the mountains for a nature hike in the rainforest. There are very few buildings, certainly more vegetation than habitation.
Unfortunately, the guide puts in a no show and so do most of the birds. It’s damp and misty, more Jurassic Park than cheerful Caribbean. There is forest as stretching as far as the eye can see, with just glimpses of cobalt ocean. The canopy stretches above, there are tree roots like the flanges of giant wheels and lianas tangle around them. The odd hummingbird zigs in and out. Any chance of an additional sighting is thwarted by the shrill tones of Claire from Key West. I don't think she pauses for breath once, on the whole circuit. I go to avail myself of a relaxing massage on the upper deck when I got back. But I can still hear her squeaking away in the bar below.
Les Saintes are weeny islands that are part of Guadeloupe. They are very green and very hilly. Today's beach is Anse Crawen; there is a log to perch on, plenty of sand flies and some reasonable snorkelling round the headland. As on most cruise ships there's no shortage of food. There are always snacks available and you can order what you like from the dinner menu. Tonight I have three main courses.
First of all, I'm famous. There was a trivia quiz last night where you had to run up and beat a drum. As most of the questions were geographical I won fairly easily, seeing off the French and the Germans. So today everyone is congratulating me. That wouldn't have happened in the UK, where I would have been ostracised as a ‘know all.’
The ship has taken us to Guadeloupe proper. The little town of Deshaies is famous as being the location for the filming of Death In Paradise. The distinctive red steepled church dominates the skyline, but it’s a short acquaintance. We pile into a creaky bus and zip through the middle of the main butterfly shaped island to pick up a little motorboat. Thence, sputtering through a scattering of mangroves, eyed warily by pelicans and egrets perched on almost every available branch, to a proper little reef and some decent snorkelling. Then lunch on minuscule Caret Island, so swathed in palm trees we have to be seated on lashed wooden poles laid on the sand. Classic Robinson Crusoe.
Then dinner with the captain. This involves a lot of champagne (before he goes onto scotch) and conversation that refuses to veer from politics, ships and alcohol. He's from Ukraine and is clearly still mourning the demise of the Soviet Union.
I've been in Falmouth Bay before - it's just round the corner from English Harbour and is the Caribbean Mecca for yachts belonging to the rich and famous. The main pastime is trying to guess who owns what. And I'm feeling a little queasy as the ship is rolling something rotten, there's been a swell all night. Antigua is a country of beguiling bays and is reckoned to have 365 beaches, so there is nothing for it but to head to nearby Pigeon Beach, which is yellow and gorgeous, and laze on the sand.
St Barthelemy (named after Columbus' brother) is another piece of the French West Indies and this time it's a replica of the Côte d'Azur. The capital, Gustavia, is full of high end shops - and beautiful people. Gustavia - as it was a Swedish colony in Napoleonic times. La Plage de St Jean has sand floored beach bars, plush hotels and the whitest sand, with water for which the word aquamarine was invented. The beautiful people parade up and down in their designer gear. It is tres tres chic, with prices that are tres tres high to match.
Alongside the beach is possibly the world's smallest and scariest airport. The air taxis come in over the road that runs across the top of the island (the cars have to stop) and bump down the hill to the beach. When they take off they zip straight over our heads, accelerating madly in a bid to gain height before they hit the sea. It's a local pastime to sit in the water and watch them; it's a bit like playing Russian roulette.
Our last night on the boat. Much to everyone's amusement the captain asks for my email address. I think he just wants some photos.
Back on dry land in St Martin. This time nipping across to the French Side, as the border signs say. I'm getting a free ride with Bob and Sandra from Somerset, as they are booked into the same hotel. It's truly a schizophrenic island, it's much quieter over here, but still relatively built up and very clean, organised and prosperous. There is no official border, other than the sign, but you have to make an international phone call to talk to the other side and here the first language is definitely French.
My gorgeous little hotel is right on Grand Case Beach, a large turquoise bay, with views across to eel shaped Anguilla. Grand Case is renowned for its French restaurants - about 50 of them lining the waterfront. I have views across the bay from my balcony and a nonstop natural history documentary by my door. Two straggly little dove chicks are ensconced in an untidy nest that is balanced precariously on a palm tree branch. Mummy and Daddy Dove watch anxiously from the telegraph wires, cooing loudly when I walk past. Dad forages around the hotel balconies for food and Mum arrives at regular intervals to feed her offspring or to attempt to perch on top of them, even though there really isn't enough space and it seems that she will topple out at any moment.
Today takes the three of us to Maho Beach, on the Dutch side, which is pretty, but crowded, as it offers more airport entertainment (this seems to be a Caribbean pastime). This beach is right at the end of Princess Juliana International, so visitors get their kicks by hanging off the perimeter fence to experience the force of the slip stream as the jets take off. Some of the thrill seekers are blown right over. There are signs saying its dangerous (!) but access doesn't seem to have been restricted in any way. When planes come in over the sea to land the voyeurs leap about, waving at the poor pilots as they roar above us.
My trip to Anguilla is cancelled as it is raining. Not all bad news as it clears up quite quickly. It's exhausting lying on a beach bed all day and I can at least see Anguilla across the water. We eat Creole supper at a Lolo (local food restaurant) on Marigot Bay, lights twinkling on the marina.
Today it really is raining, with a vengeance. There isn't much to do on St Martin except go to the beach or shop and most of the shops are the expensive duty free kind. Orient Bay is one of the contenders for best beach on the island - there are several, but it isn't very welcoming. The damp Caribbean weather is encouraging the mosquitoes; this is slightly worrying as there are even PA announcements on arrival at the airport here warning about the dangers of being bitten. Dengue fever is more of an issue than malaria and we are told there is an increasing threat also from chikungunya fever. Neither has a cure. In addition to the usual mosquitoes there are pesky miniature versions called 'no see ums' that zip in the smallest crack the moment the door is opened.
Today I fly to Antigua so, perversely, the weather is gorgeous. A quick stop at Baie Longue on the way to the airport, just to say good-bye. The flight is a disaster though. The Caribbean carrier plane is badly delayed (LIAT = Leaves Island Any Time) with no announcements whatsoever. Eventually it is cancelled altogether and I am squeezed onto the earlier flight which is even more badly delayed. I arrive in Antigua minus my luggage and nobody seems very sure about where it is or how I will get it back. And it was only a 30 minute flight...I am exceedingly grumpy when I eventually arrive at my hotel sans toothbrush, well sans everything.
I’m in Jolly Harbour, where I’ve also been before, but still grumpy, despite the name. The hotel has definitely seen better days (it’s only two years old) and the service is decidedly indifferent. It's trying to rain again. However, there is some Caribbean cheer, as my bag arrives mid-morning and entertainment is provided by three kittens who have decided to adopt me and take it in turn to sit on my veranda.
I saunter down to the nearest stretch of sand. On the way, I pass a large supermarket and a motley collection of shops and cafes, gathered round a small yacht basin that’s part of a large lagoon. There’s a huge hotel formed of several large blocks surrounded by an unkempt garden and a lot of wall. It has a gigantic beach café that serves copious amounts of alcohol, so everyone is indeed making merry. It’s all a bit uninviting, nowhere near as pretty as it used to be. Maybe it’s the weather colouring my vision.
A last chance to enjoy the heat and colour. It's sunny again, well naturally, as I'm on my way home from the Caribbean. Life's a beach...
A relaxing week being pampered at a plantation hotel in the centre of St Kitts. (Or St Christopher to give it its full name.) Ottleys is a family-owned, former sugar plantation, magnificently situated at the foot of majestic Mount Liamuiga. It is surrounded by stunning vistas, mountain ranges and rolling hills and it has heaps of atmosphere.
The building is a restored eighteenth century mansion house with beautifully decorated in- keeping-with-period rooms and views across the manicured gardens. There are swaying palms to the ocean.. This accommodation is not cheap. But the really affluent get ' intimate' stone cottages with private plunge pools. There's a gorgeous main pool next to the breakfast cafe and gourmet (but expensive) restaurant for the also rans.
There's also a great (but expensive) spa, which overlooks a rainforest ravine, a well, a donkey and other delights to be discovered in the extensive grounds.
The service is excellent and there are much worse ways to spend a week.
An island tour doesn't take long. The tiny capital, Basseterre is mainly colourful concrete houses as the French and British architecture was damaged in a fire in 1867. The town is built around Independence Square, originally used for slave auctions in the 18th century. There's an imposing stone church behind. There's also a typically colonial green clock tower built in Glasgow.
The old fortress at Brimstone Hill is somewhat ambitiously nicknamed the Gibraltar of the West Indies but this is still a large fortress,. It is UNESCO listed and replete with guns. More fantastic views are the main reward for struggling up the hill and many stairs.
I got a ferry to sister island Nevis and wandered round colonial Charlestown. For a small place it's stuffed with Georgian architecture and has a very atmospheric high street ideal for sauntering along the cobbles. There's a church from the 1900s founded by freed slaves, the historic Bath Hotel (the first ever constructed in the Caribbean) and an atmospheric Jewish cemetery with graves as old as the 1600s.
After that a saunter (one and half miles) along the coast to Pinney's Beach. There's a long expanse of powdery white sand and a beach bar....The whole is frammed by the (usually) cloud shrouded mountain rising grandly behind.
This was a 10 day singles holiday in Antigua, in a hotel at Jolly Harbour. Antigua is known as Waladli (or ‘Our Own) by the native population, but was named Antigua (Spanish for ancient) by Christopher Columbus after an icon in Seville Cathedral, "Santa Maria de la Antigua" — St. Mary of the Old Cathedral. Apparently, he made a vow to name many islands after aspects of St Mary that year. Antigua's economy relies largely on tourism, and it’s trying to position itself as a luxury Caribbean escape. The island's single airport, VC Bird Airport, is named after the first prime minister after independence in 1981.
The hotel itself was ok - a three star with an outdoor restaurant that was reminiscent of a holiday camp - wooden communal bench tables.
Most days I walked down to the beach, at Jolly Harbour. The little port is one of several on Antigua that serve yachties and there is a web of small canals here where the boats ply back and forth. It's an interesting stroll. This is a view taken from the helicopter when I went to Montserrat. You can see the harbour, the hotel and the supermarket!
The beach was prettier then that it is now, and much quieter. There were still plenty of beach bars, but the sand is exceptionally beautiful, powdery white. Wandering down to the point, watching the seabirds on the rocks is rewarding. I'm also on the look out for snakes as I've read that the Antiguan racer is among the rarest snakes in the world. I'm not sure I really want to see one. And no doubt they're sensible enough to hide up in the hills.
It was a singles holiday. I spent most of the time on the beach. But I did get about a little. The capital city, St. John's. is home to 22000 people. It has a deep harbour which can accommodate large cruise ships, so sadly (or not depending on your point of view) it’s a thriving cruise ship port. It’s one of the larger Caribbean metropolises with plenty of shopping malls as well as boutiques throughout the city, selling designer jewellery and high end goods. Fortunately, there’s also still plenty of Caribbean colour, with bright wooden buildings, markets and locals wearing Rasta hats.
There are also several museums, the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, mostly for cricket matches, of course, a white baroque cathedral, a tiny Botanical Garden, a fort and the (slightly crumbling) Government House.
English Harbour on the south-eastern coast is perhaps the most famous of the harbours on Antigua. It's a good place to visit on a day cruise. This pretty and well protected bay provides protected shelter during violent storms and is the site of the restored British colonial naval station, "Nelson's Dockyard", named of course after Admiral Nelson. Antigua was eventually settled by the British, from St Kitts, and became Britain's "Gateway to the Caribbean".
Horatio Nelson, a major figure in Antigua history, arrived in the late 18th century with a brief to preserve this title. However, he got into rather too much trouble with the locals when he tried to enforce the Navigation Acts. These prohibited trade with the newly formed United States of America and most of the merchants in Antigua depended upon American trade. It put his career back a few years. The former Admiral’s House now contains the Dockyard Museum.
Round the corner is Falmouth Bay, yet another harbour. This one is where the rich and famous hang out.
As with much of the Caribbean Antigua rapidly developed as a profitable sugar colony. The only two surviving structures of the first large sugar plantation on Antigua are two restored and picturesque sugar mills. These have been incorporated into an open air museum at Betty’s Hope. The plantation was owned by the Codrington family who led the first British settlers.
Another must see on my tourist itinerary is Devil's Bridge, a natural rock arch near a village with the great name of Willikies. Here, as well as the arch, are natural blowholes shooting up water and spray powered by waves from the Atlantic Ocean.
I joined in with a boat trip to Stingray City. It seems compulsory now for tropical tourist areas to have these interactive ray sessions on the reef, where the fish are enticed with regular squid feedings. The rays burrow into the sand and then launch themselves against your body. They’re surprisingly velvety soft but it’s also a strange tickly sensation. There’s much squealing. I can’t help thinking of Steve Irwin getting killed by a ray. However, I’m told that the southern rays are so friendly that they’re known as the puppy dogs of the sea and love to be affectionate.
Later, I took the helicopter to the neighbouring island of Montserrat.
There were also a few bars. Maybe more than a few.
Another bus, another river border, more shuttle canoes. This time it’s the Caroni River and it’s a short trip from Suriname, across to St Laurent, to visit French Guiana. This was the French equivalent of Botany Bay, a receiving station for new inmates bound for the notoriously brutal penal colony. French Guiana is very different to the other Guianas. It’s immediately obvious that we are now in France proper. The sloping curvy gables give way to hipped roofs, verandas, pastel cladding and neutral shutters. There are even grand planation style mansions reflecting the affluence of Kourou which is home to many of France's top scientists and astrophysicists. This is the base for the Ariane space rocket programme. And the road to Kourou is paved and smooth. Kourou is also more exciting than I had anticipated. There are the penal colony and the space station itself to visit.
I’ve wanted to visit Devil’s Island since I left Dustin Hoffman staring out to sea and counting the waves after Steve McQueen escaped in the film Papillon. The more hard-line prisoners were sent from the mainland penal colony (maintained by France until the mid-20th century) to the Iles du Salut. This archipelago is about an hour out into the Caribbean and consists of the islands: Ile Royale, Ile St Joseph and notorious Devil's Island.
We are taken to Ile Royale. There's an excellent small museum that recounts the history of the place, and the privations that both the convicts and the guards had to endure. A small church, the remains of a hospital, and a very moving cemetery with brick lined graves and memorials. Devils’ Island lies tantalisingly off shore. It’s totally covered in swaying palms- just what you would expect from an authentic Caribbean island. You can just glimpse the ruined cells on Ile St Joseph. Escaping definitely wouldn't have been easy.
We’re lucky today- they are running tours of the space centre. It’s a huge area and we have to travel in and around on their special tour buses, naturally we are strictly monitored. It’s very high tech, there are a lot of computers and simulations and explanations about how the satellites are launched and how much money they cost. The best bit is the launch pads themselves, towering white rockets picture perfect against a clear blue sky. Thunderbirds are Go!
Cayenne (of pepper fame), is French Guiana's thriving main city. Busy shops and cafes surround the palm-filled main square, Place des Palmistes. The remains of an old fort overlook this hotchpotch of modern and shabby, colourful Creole houses and street markets and the Atlantic coast beaches. Some guide books say you could almost be on the Riviera. That’s stretching it, I think.
I’m still on crutches so I’m offered an upgrade to business class on Air France back to Paris. I’m not going to argue about that. This is the longest direct domestic flight in the world.
Next, we visit Suriname, the smallest country in South America. Perched just above the Equator it's mainly covered in rainforest, but much of its wealth depends on the extraction of minerals: bauxite, gold, and oil.
We depart Georgetown, this time by minibus, which wends eastwards along the coastal road towards the frontier between Suriname and Guyana, the Corentyne River. It’s fascinating to see how each former colony reflects its different European imperial masters. This is a region of low-lying sugarcane and rice plantations. And it's low lying, so is threaded by drainage canals – and yes the odd windmill.
Crossing the estuary by ferry, we can already see signs of the clapboard colonial architecture, with its distinctive shutters and curves.
We hug the coast to Paramaribo - a great name for a capital. Fifty percent of the population live here as, like Guyana, most of the country is covered in rainforest. The river valley is a much more attractive proposition.
All the guide books refer to Paramaribo as a melting pot of cultures. The largest ethnic group is Hindustani, but thousands of indentured labourers were also shipped in from the Dutch East Indies to work the plantations. So there is Indonesian cuisine and mosques are a common sight, even next to a synagogue. It’s certainly a mélange of colour and smells.
We take a water taxi across a river confluence to a sombre fort in a small park. There's not a lot to see, the signs are faded and the highlight is the gun magazine. The seagulls come to admire us. There are (also faded) fishing boats drawn up on the shores and there are views of a broad bridge spanning the river in the distance. It's all very sedate.
Inner Paramaribo is a UNESCO heritage site. The colonnaded brick and wooden architecture here is very rewarding. The imposing Presidential Palace faces a whole row of black and white structures on Independence Square. It's backed by another, pretty park, full of palms.
Sauntering around the docks and into the market is much less sedate. The stall holders clearly don’t feel they have any vested interest in encouraging tourists to visit Suriname. They are extremely surly. A raised camera, just to take a general panorama and carefully aimed away from any individual, generates a hurl of abuse. It looks as if worse might follow, so I make as rapid an exit as I can with a crutch. At least I have a weapon.
Wandering in Suriname is proving a little too exciting, so I return to our hotel. Early bed seems like a good idea.
French Guiana next.
Another local bus to visit Guyana - they’re not too uncomfortable - from Venezuela via Boa Vista in Brazil (which is on a super long road which continues south all the way to Rio). Over a nifty little river crossover bridge to change us over to driving on the left and then our own chartered bus. We’re supposed to be using local transport, but a bus out here is a bridge too far - to confusingly mix my metaphors.
Then it’s unpaved roads and even these disappear after a while as we arrive at the village of Annai, which lies on the edge of the transition zone between the savannah and the Iwokrama Forest Reserve. We just drive through any gaps in the grassland. The village is a mixture of brick and wattle-and-daub cottages, shops, school and church all thatched with palm fronds and scattered haphazardly around.
Our lodge is a handful of little rondavels up a hillside and a scramble through chickens and flowerbeds to a larger dining room rondavel. The dining room also acts as the stage for local native dancing in the evening – performed in our honour. The children accompanying the dancers are more entertaining, as they loll and romp on the floor, laughing at their costumed parents.
More muddy walks in the rainforest and a trip on the river. Most of the wildlife is in hiding and it’s hard going. My ankle isn’t getting any better.
When it's time to leave we loiter on the edge of the forest and our charter bus eventually emerges. The roads are red soil, still unpaved and after much bumping a ferry is involved. It’s another long wait while the bus is perilously edged onto the ‘boat’ – it’s a contraption of wood planks with an engine attached. No roads, no scheduled planes. More ignominious weighing as we embark on light aeroplanes to reach the capital, Georgetown.
Three nights to visit Georgetown, capital of Guyana. It's famous for its colonial architecture, especially the great white wooden cathedral. It’s friendly, relaxing and very Caribbean with a botanical garden to wander round. The latter has ponds, canals, kissing bridges and a bandstand. There’s huge variety of palms to enjoy, as well as a fine collection of tropical flowers: a pond full of lotus in bloom and the immense Victoria Regia Lily, Guyana’s national flower. Surprisingly, there are also manatees lurking below the waterweed in some overgrown lakes. I can just make out their bulging eyes disturbing the plants as they come up to breathe. It’s a bit creepy - the real life Guyanese version of the Loch Ness monster.
I’ve decided I should do probably something about my ankle which is now about twice the size of my other, so I take myself off to hospital. It’s the first medical facility we've been near since I fell on the waterfall in Venezuela over a week ago. I come back in plaster – the doctor says it’s broken, though the X-ray is inconclusive. He insists that the swelling is so bad that it must be ‘something of that nature’. It’s not a very reassuring diagnosis. I’ve got a crutch now, as well. That's not ideal on a pioneering, fairly basic journey.
Our last Georgetown visit is a trip to the vibrant market, complete with huge wooden red-brown clock.
More weighing, another small aircraft. I’m getting blasé about these now. This time we’re off to Kaieteur Falls. It takes about an hour, the first 10 minutes over cultivated land, and thereafter over the inevitable tropical forest (it covers four fifths of the country) to a small airstrip at the top of the falls. The pilot does a fly-past first, wobbling the plane over the canyon and right over the edge where the water plummets 226 metres to the boiling pot below. It’s five time higher than Niagara and couldn’t be more different. There's a tiny settlement of three huts, one of which serves as an airport lounge.
This is advertised as an ‘easy walk’, back to the waterfall and I hobble along to the three viewpoints. The first, from the cataracts, gives a face-on view of the falls, stained chestnut brown with tannins. The third viewpoint is right on the very edge of the falls, on a rock platform less than a metre away from the torrent. We are encouraged to inch forward on our bellies if we want to look. I’m opting out - again. There are copses of photogenic giant bromeliads all along the canyon top - minute frogs have set up home in the tiny rain ponds created in the centre of these.
Next stop Suriname
We cross the border from Nicaragua into Honduras and continue to the capital, Tegucigalpa (great name and our guide says ‘its ideal location must have made it a pleasant respite from the oppressive heat of the coastal regions’. Nevertheless it’s deemed too dangerous to visit). It’s a small airport and there’s some debate amongst the ground staff about which plane we will be taking. (Or whether there is actually a plane for us at all.) Eventually, we meander out onto the tarmac and I scramble onto the small prop aircraft that has been pointed out, just after the pilot. ‘Where are we going?’ he asks.
The beautiful Bay Islands are reputed to be home to some of the best diving and snorkelling in the Caribbean. There are three islands lying some 50 kilometres off the Honduran coast. The islands are covered with palm fringed lanes. Macaws, toucans and parrots lurk in the trees. It’s a little slice of Caribbean paradise.
For the next two nights we are based on the island of Roatan, the largest of the islands. It’s a perfect haven of colonial shabby chic, with little bars on overwater piers. The offshore reefs, are part of the chain that run up to Mexico, second only in size to the Great Barrier Reef itself. Whilst the snorkelling isn’t exactly ’second to none’ as advertised, it’s definitely worth the time. Guide Pierre is in his element. He can stay horizontal on the beach or in the bars.
After two idyllic days we head back to the mainland and the ‘magnificent’ Mayan ruins of Copan. I’m quoting from the guidebooks again. It’s not huge like Tikkal, but it’s impressive. The entire UNESCO World Heritage Site (pre UNESCO obviously) was bought from a local farmer, by American explorer, John Stephens for US $50. He had dreams of floating it down the river and into museums in the United States. It has, supposedly, the greatest collection of Mayan sculpture anywhere in Meso-America. The Hieroglyphic Stairway is composed of 2500 individual glyphs; its sides flanked by serpentine birds and snakes. And there are real birds and snakes peeping out from under the stones.
Copan Ruinas is a lovely village of adobe buildings adjacent to the ruins themselves and is well equipped for tourists, with some atmospheric pubs and restaurants - griddled steaks are good. The waitresses entertain the punters by balancing pots on their heads. And there’s a butterfly garden too.
Next stop, Guatemala
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