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.)

St Eustatius - the Golden Rock

I'm coming from Saba, on my trip to visit islands in the Caribbean which I've missed on my previous travels. I stopped by Sint Eustatius on the outward journey to Saba and it didn't look exactly, how shall I put it, imposing. This island has more historical tales to tell than Saba though. Perhaps they'll pique the interest. Sint Eustatius is a bit of a mouthful and locally it's always known as Statia, so I'm sticking with that from now on.

Big Dipper to Statia

The ferry ride to Statia, is, if anything. even rougher than the journey out. The pitch dark of night doesn’t help, as we hang onto the railings, while the boat tosses up down and swings from side to side. I’m not keen on fairground rides anyway and this is like being on a continuous Big Dipper. I’ve never known time pass so slowly. Everyone sitting outside with me is vowing that they’re going to fly back.

Statia, Background

Statia, is a special municipality (officially "public body") of the Netherlands, along with Saba and Bonaire. Together, they are known as the BES Islands. The island's name, Sint Eustatius, is Dutch for Saint Eustace, but it was previously known as Nieuw Zeeland ('New Zeeland'), after the Zeelanders who settled there in the 1630s. (I’ve heard that name somewhere before.) The indigenous, Arawak name for the island is Aloi meaning ‘cashew island’. Sint Eustatius exported sugar and cotton, but most of its trade was in slaves. When it was first settled, Statia was the most prosperous island in the Dutch Caribbean (because it was a freeport, haven for pirates and contraband and because of its slave trade) and it was dubbed The Golden Rock accordingly.

Statia is very different to Saba. It doesn’t soar, but there’s still a formidably sheer cliff escarpment. Up-top is almost a plateau, sloping to the Atlantic coast. There are hills to the north, and to the south-east, the spiky outline of the Quill (Dutch for pit or hole) Volcano (about 600 metres). The island has an area of roughly eight square miles (six miles long and up to three miles wide). In cross section, it’s a saddle shape, depicted proudly on the nation’s flag. The flatter middle section is almost bisected by the runway of Franklin D Roosevelt Airport.

Quill Volcano

Quill is also known as Mount Mazinga. You can see it from almost everywhere on the island, dominating the skyline. It must have been an awesome explosion. Fortunately, it was about 1600 years ago. The Quill is a national park, with attendant (steep and often slippy) hiking trails.

Saba or Statia?

As I've already observed, Statia is nowhere near as pretty as Saba, even utilitarian at times, with government offices and rows of gas and oil tanks facing out to sea. There are still peaks and it’s picturesque in parts, with Prussian blue sea coves edged foaming white. But you can't shut out the cylindrical tanks, peeking at the corners. There’s no uniform plan for building houses here. No Toytown. Instead, there are an assortment of dwellings, mostly timber, some concrete, some stone, ranging from ramshackle to highly decorated. There are still elements of gingerbread, with jutting eaves. And some are decidedly historic; as I had hoped, the diversity and colour does makes Statia more engaging.

Quill Gardens - Almost the Lap of Luxury

My hotel is definitely an improvement, however. It nestles beneath the Quill Volcano. I have a room with a huge sleigh bed, an enormous bathroom and a view across to the Atlantic coast. There’s a gorgeous, tastefully decorated terrace, with deft touches like blue lanterns. And a breakfast that features about eight dishes. Ah luxury.

At least, until the weekend. I chose this place, even though it is out of town, as it looked like a good place to relax and it has a swimming pool. But no, building renovation is in full scale, every day, all weekend. Even Sunday. I’m the only guest, so the owner deals with it by hustling me out of the way. Go snorkelling. Go hiking. Have a nice day!

Oranjestad

I’ve walked in to the capital, coastal Oranjestad (Orange Town, after the Dutch royal family, the same as the capital of Aruba). This is where my ferry landed. It’s rural round the hotel and the road is bumpy and unmade, to start. There’s a historic large boulder, painted with the name Big Rock. Apparently, it was spewed from the volcanic crater, on my left.

Oranjestad sprawls gently onto the middle of the saddle. Most of the population live here, in the residential and commercial hub. I wander past banks, schools, various shops and supermarkets, wares piled higgledy piggledy and spilling onto the pavement. There’s Duggans, the largest supplier, with rows of well stocked refrigerated cabinets. But it’s so warm outside, that all the doors are covered in condensation and you can’t see what’s inside. It’s also hard to tell if the various restaurants and drinking establishments on the Fort Oranjestad Road are open - they’re dark and a little shabby.

At the cliff edge, things get interesting. Merchants' houses, restored Caribbean timber dwellings, churches (there's a ruined Dutch Reformed church built in 1755, with a tower that can still be climbed), government offices, museums, the ruins of one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere, a Jewish cemetery and a fort.

Fort Oranje

I think twice about entering Fort Oranje. This is the third fort in two weeks and I’m forted out. I’m going to change that phrase – it’s open to misinterpretation. I’m suitably fortified already. This seventeenth-century fort is as well built and maintained, as Brimstone, in nearby St Kitts, if smaller and lower down. It has cannons, intact bastions and a courtyard. the impressively steep slopes beneath have been reinforced and there are sweeping views along the coast. And some interesting history. A plaque proudly proclaims this to be the first nation to recognize the independence of the USA, when they returned a salute from an American ship.

Statia was a well known supplier of armaments and ammunition and was instrumental in supporting the Americans during the war of independence, when other sources refused to supply them. The relationship was cemented when, on November 16, 1776, Captain Isaiah Robinson sailed the American ship Andrew Doria, into the waters' below Fort Oranje. Robinson proceeded to fire a thirteen gun salute, (one gun for each of the original thirteen American colonies). The governor replied with an eleven gun salute. (international protocol required two guns fewer in reply). This event is commemorated annually on Statia Day.

The British were very upset and eventually declared war, the fourth Anglo-Dutch War. in 1781, Admiral Rodney turned up with a massive feet and forced Statia to surrender. Ten months later, the French arrived and took control. Then the Dutch won it back.

Oranjestad, Lower, Coast Road

Instead, I drop down to the coast road. I follow the steep Old Slave Path down the cliff, (there are signs abjuring me not to let the goats through, no matter what they tell me), to find it is being renovated at the bottom; I have to scramble over a heap of rubble to get out. But there’s gin and a meal waiting for me down here. This is where the best restaurants and most up market establishments are.

This road leads from the harbour, up to the north end of town and is lined with small beaches, which disappear and reappear over the years. Erosion is a big problem. The original wall defending the coast is several metres out, below water. The same fate, it seems, has befallen numerous colonial buildings along the path. Excavation and renovation has revealed an assortment of stone buildings, on both sides of the route. Existing plans are on hold, while they are all examined.

Maybe Not So Flat After All

Walking back to my hotel, I discover that the road from Quill to Oranjestad was a long, fairly gentle, descent. Returning is much harder work. I’m not encouraged to repeat the experience, especially as cars speed by giving little quarter. I’ve been told not to risk it at night. Which is fine, if you can track down taxi driver and don’t mind 10 USD a pop. I’ve also discovered that my hotel only serves dinner some nights and these are fairly random. So it’s town, or go hungry, or stock up at the supermarket, if you can find anything in the cabinets.

Exploring The Golden Rock

I’m back in Oranjestad again for a Round The Island Tour. Also along for the ride are a Dutch couple, normally based in Curacao, with the Dutch navy. Unlike my last guide, in Saba, taxi driver cum tour guide, Wade, knows his stuff and takes his time showing off the whole island, and trundling down most of the roads.

Round the Island is clearly a misnomer. There are roads on the flatter parts of Statia, but not into the hills at either end. and many are unmade. Where the streets are surfaced, the concrete is disintegrating badly. Wade says they were fine until building development expanded rapidly. Increasing numbers of parcels of land have been bought and built on over the years, with prices escalating accordingly.

Fort de Windt

South, to Fort Windt. (Yes, another one.) Fort de Windt at the extreme southern tip of Sint Eustatius about five kilometres south of Oranjestad, guarding the channel to St Kitts. It was one of 16 small forts built on Statia. It dates from 1756 and was named after its commander, Jan de Windt (not because it was windy there, though it is Dutch for wind). The fort never saw action and was abandoned in 1815. The two remaining cannons, on the restored fortifications, face across the choppy waters, to the loftier guns of Brimstone Fort on St Kitts.

South Statia

There’s little evidence of cultivation, other than market gardens. The sugar plantations, with their stone arched entrances and mills have long been abandoned and the ground is now a riot of flowering vines and creepers.

Hugging the bottom of Quill, to the east, and on to the not quite completed, but very upmarket, Golden Rock Resort. The gardens in the resort are glorious, replete with exotic blooms.

North, across the island centre and round the airport, to a viewpoint in the hills, in the north-west. These are the smaller summits of Signal Hill/Little Mountain (or Bergje) and Boven Mountain. From here, Quill consumes the whole of the horizon.

Then, we drop down to Zealandia Beach, where the turtles (three species) brave the Atlantic rollers and come to nest. But not today. It’s wild, windy and strewn with weed. Swimming not allowed.

Wade began the day by suggesting we could go to dinner at Golden Rock later. So, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about how old I am. He hasn’t mentioned it again.

Snorkelling, Oranje Bay

I’ve been more or less thrown out of my hotel, so time to go snorkelling. It was on my To Do List anyway. The lovely people at the dive shop, on the coast road, in Oranjestad, point out the reef, just off shore, in Oranje Bay and are very happy for me to leave my gear with them. They only run dive trips here.

The reef runs parallel to the shore, some of it inextricably mixed with the colonial, underwater ruins. It’s maybe a couple of metres at its tallest and perhaps two metres below the surface. It’s not the most thrilling of underwater experiences, but there’s bright yellow coral, some crimson strands and plenty of small fish, parrot fish, sergeant majors, weavers, puffer fish. The usual suspects. They’re congregating in twos or threes though, or hiding under ledges. No shoals. There’s also a cannon or two.

I’ve taken my underwater camera, but discover that I’ve brought it all the way from England with no SD card in it. So, after my swim, I toil up the Slave Path, to a Chinese supermarket, a glory hole containing every type of good that you can imagine in its depths and find a phone card I can adapt. It pours with rain. Back to the water and up and down the (murkier thanks to the downpour) reef again, taking pictures. When I emerge, (it’s one of those beaches where you scramble out trying to look dignified as the waves knock you over and your crotch fills with sand) I discover that I’ve had the camera on the wrong setting and most of the images are all out of focus.

It's raining again, so I wrap my towel round me and ask if The Barrel House Restaurant next door minds me coming in wet. The waiter says its fine, but it seems they thought I meant wet hair and are not so keen on me sitting there in my cossie. I’m not sure why - it is a terrace by the sea. But by now, all my clothes and towel are sodden and the rain buckets down again, blasting the terrace. So no-one objects any more.

Sayonara Statia

All good things come to an end. though not the renovations at my hotel, it seems. So it's time to return to St Kitts (on the evil ferry again) and on to Barbuda.

(Or read more about the BES Islands here.)

Who Do the BES Islands Belong To?

Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius (usually called Statia) are the Caribbean Netherlands, although the term 'Caribbean Netherlands' is sometimes used loosely to refer to all of the islands in the Dutch Caribbean. They're also known as the BES Islands, for obvious reasons. The islands are classified as 'public bodies' in the Netherlands, overseas countries and territories of the European Union; so, European Union law does not automatically apply.

Bonaire (including the islet of Klein Bonaire) is one of the Leeward Antilles and is located close to the coast of Venezuela, along with the other ABC Islands. So, Bonaire is geographically part of South America and part of another island group, as well. Sint Eustatius and Saba are in the main Lesser Antilles group, south of Sint Maarten ( a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands).

Saba and Sint Eustatius are (there is some debate about this) part of the Windward Islands and are volcanic and hilly, with little ground suitable for agriculture. The highest peak is Mount Scenery, on Saba. (At 887 metres this is the highest point in all the Kingdom of the Netherlands).

A Brief History of Saba and Sint Eustatius (See ABC Islands for Bonaire)

Saba is thought to have been inhabited by the Ciboney people as early as the 1100s BC and then, later, circa 800 AD, Arawak peoples from South America, whilst Statia was first inhabited by Caribs.

Christopher Columbus is said to have sighted Saba in 1493, but he didn't land. He didn't like the look of the impenetrable cliffs. That didn't stop him naming it St Cristobal, but his name didn't last very long. He possibly also saw Statia, but the first firm sighting was made by Francis Drake and John Hawkins. A tussle for both islands then developed between the Dutch, the English and English pirates, From the first European settlement in the seventeenth century, until the early nineteenth century, St. Eustatius changed hands twenty-one times between the Netherlands, Britain, and France.

Over this time, Saba became a key refuge for smugglers and pirates. Fishing was also a major source of revenue and the women learned to make lace ( introduced by a nun from Venezuela).This became the primary source of revenue and Saba became known as 'The Island of Women'.

When they were under Dutch control (as of 1678), the islands of St. Eustatius, Sint Maarten and Saba fell under the direct command of the Dutch West India Company, with a commander stationed on St. Eustatius to govern all three. The Dutch eventually gained full control in 1816, still generally ruling from Sint Eustatius, where the main plantation owners (sugar, tobacco, indigo and rum) were housed. But the main incentive and profit came from slavery. Statia was well positioned in the middle of the islands and it had a good harbour, which was a freeport. It also sold arms and ammunition to anyone willing to pay and used these to support the American War of Independence. (That led to one of the occasions when it was captured by the British).

The BES Islands were part of the Netherlands Antilles until the country's dissolution in 2010, when the islands became special municipalities, within the country of the Netherlands.

Facts and Factoids

  • English, Dutch and Spanish are spoken alongside the local tongue, Papiamento, in Bonaire.
  • Dutch and English are spoken in Saba and Sint Eustatius
  • The currency in all three islands is the US dollar.
  • In 2012, the islands of the Caribbean Netherlands voted for the first time, in the 2012 Dutch general election. due to now being special municipalities of the Kingdom of the Netherlands,

Which BES Island is the Best?

  • Bonaire is very small and dry, and is much further south, but has real character and is thought to have the best snorkelling and diving.
  • Saba is the smallest special municipality (officially "public body") of the Netherlands and consists mainly of Mount Scenery. It is the smallest territory by permanent population in the Americas. It's very pretty with steep roads, chocolate box houses and forested slopes
  • Sint Eustatius is less attractive, but still has picturesque areas. Some flatter walking, and plenty of history. Statia, as it is known locally, was dubbed The Golden Rock as it was, for some time, the most prosperous island in the Dutch Netherlands

Saba, Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean

On this trip, I'm visiting islands in the Caribbean that I've missed on my previous travels. Sometimes, because I hadn't even known that they existed. I've just fitted in Trinidad and realised that the Dutch islands of Saba and Sint Eustatius have historically, totally passed me by. I'm really unsure what to expect. But Saba dubs itself 'The Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean', so that's promising.

Ferry, the Safe Way to get to Saba?

I’m travelling to Saba on the ferry, from St Kitts. It’s a two and a half hour journey and the forecast says its gusting 30 mph so I’ve downed two travel sick pills and found a seat outside. It wasn’t easy. There was a scrimmage to get on board, even though the woman in charge just called for families with children. To be fair, she didn't say anything about the age of the children. Makana Ferries promise a modern experience and a bar. A man brings round bottles of water in a plastic bag and says that’s it. At least they’re free. There are no safety announcements.

The crews' tee shirts suggest a triangular arrangement of islands, but in fact mine is an almost linear journey north-west. St Kitts, Sint Eustatius (I’m coming back to this island), Saba. Great panoramic views of cloud nestling on the mountains of St Kitts and Brimstone Hill Fort, from the boat. Then, once past the leeward side of the island, we’re lurching alarmingly in the Atlantic swell, from the starboard side. It's a little too exhilarating and the passengers practise their 'I'm not scared' faces. I’ve made sure I’m sitting on the left. Even so, at times, the spray rolls right across the top of the catamaran, cascading onto the deck. It drizzles a little too, but it’s hard to tell when.

Suitably damp, I arrive at Port Bay Harbor, somehow squidged in, against the cliffs, below The Bottom. This is the name of the capital of Saba, even though it’s up top, in a high valley. The captain is warning the passengers that it’s going to get really wet from now on, as they dog leg north east up to Sint Maarten. I’m glad I’m departing.

Saba is Stunning

Saba juts incredibly from the sea, soars even, with slopes that are steep and sheer in places. Christopher Columbus came here, but didn’t land at all, deterred by the perilous crags. (It didn't stop him naming the island St Cristóbal, after himself). It’s not surprising that Saba was a key refuge for smugglers and pirates.

Saba consists mainly of aptly, if unusually named, Mount Scenery, the tallest mountain in The Netherlands (877 metres). The road here is a masterpiece of engineering, a concrete strip, lined with a wall, which zig zags across the peaks, like the Great Wall of China. Several engineers claimed that a road in Saba was impossible, but Saban, Josephus Lambert Hassell began building in 1938 (without machines). It took 20 years to complete The Road that Could Not be Built, linking port to airport, with spurs off. Today, it’s usually just called The Road.

Today, Saba (say it Sabre -say-bur- if you’re speaking English and Sah-bah if you’re speaking Dutch) is a municipality of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Together with the other two Caribbean municipalities, Bonaire and St Eustatius, it’s known as the BES Islands. No-one is quite sure how the name Saba evolved, but it was used by John Hawkins in the sixteenth century. This is the smallest territory by permanent population, in the Americas, with a land area of five square miles. The population was 1,911 in January 2022. That’s a population density of just 380 per square mile.

I take to The Road. It's a memorable and stunning drive. From diminutive The Bottom, (there’s a medical school here too, which accounts for 25% of the population of the island). I wind steadily (with taxi driver Cyril) to the smallest village St Johns (nevertheless home to both primary and secondary schools) and then across the island to Windwardside, the main tourist area. The last village, which I haven’t seen yet, is Hell’s Gate (there’s an old sulphur mine below), though the vicar likes people to call it Zion’s Hill. So, that’s what the signboard says, though the locals aren’t always very obedient.

Windwardside, the Tourist Centre of Saba

The hillsides are dotted with houses, nearly all white wood, with corrugated red roofs, gingerbread frilly eaves and shuttered windows, that have dark green frames. Though some rebellious types have gone for all white. The churches have shutters also and pointy witch hat spires. It’s all impossibly cute. Windwardside is a toy village, with plate glass, supermarkets cafes and restaurants. There’s a tourist information centre and signboards loaded with historical and geographical information. A bank with a covered ATM. It’s all USD here, English signage and American accents. Though the folk I’ve met tell me they were born here. Apparently, 30% are Dutch speaking.

And, my goodness, the roads are steep and winding. I’m staying in some eco-cottages, which are 70 ache inducing steps above the road. I think they should install an oxygen station half way up. The views are great, of course, out across the Caribbean, though obscured by the rain forest. And we really are in the cloud forest here. A feast of vegetation, palms waving, bushes laden with exotic blooms, creepers, royal palms, elephant ears, mangos, bananas and much more. The tag line Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean seems appropriate.

On Mount Booby

White (and black ) cloud puffs (carrying more drizzle) waft above my head, as I slumber by the little pool. The cottages are built on the side of Mount Booby, an apt name for me at the moment. There are trails up to the top, but The Seventy Steps is enough for me.

The damp accounts for the moss on the steps, but there’s a fine line between eco and not caring for something. I think it’s being crossed here. There are broken steps, leaves un-swept and a pile of rubbish in a plastic bag. All the furniture is ‘rustic’ as the paint has peeled off and the fencing round my cottage is algae covered and could definitely do with a lick of paint. But maybe that’s not eco friendly?

My cottage is as basic as it gets. Two single beds (the blurb says I can push them to make a double, but that looks like a Herculean task that would leave no room to get into them) and a table. The toilet and shower are outside. In separate cubicles. The shower is just a dribble. There’s no lock on the door, just a hook, that I haven’t got the strength (or knack) to engage. There’s one other guy staying here, but he’s clearly not up for conversation. He just manages to squeeze out, 'Hi', as he scuttles past.

It’s not entirely peaceful, however. I’ve also been adopted by the local cat, who commandeers the best spot on my sunbed. And there are numerous dogs around. Barking competitions fill the air, as dusk draws in. When the canine chorus pause for breath, the insect gamelan cuts in. A continuous chirrup from the trees, mainly harmonious, but intermittently a loud creaking and occasionally a more raucous buzzing, like an electrical device that’s gone wrong.

Wandering (or not) in Windwardside

Marooned by the steps, I’m spending my days lounging by the pool., the water in which is dotted with leaves. It may or may not get strained in the morning. The pump is on semi strike. Hot sun, cloud, drizzle, heavy but short showers, in rotation, are the order of the day. Tiny anole lizards skitter by, peeping round corners (they always skitter), hummingbirds hover in the undergrowth and butterflies skip around the bougainvillea.

Windwardside is 1850 feet away, as the crow flies, from the bottom of The Seventy Steps. Up a slope, then down again, a very steep hill, as are all the roads here, it transpires. It’s the reverse on the way back of course, which combined with aforesaid Seventy Steps is exhausting. Fortunately, there’s sometimes a kind soul who offers a lift, for some of the road section at least. It’s a small island, so I assume I’m safe and besides I can’t afford to worry about stranger danger, when my lungs are about to collapse.

The village rewards exploration, with its museum, numerous information boards (history and natural history) and chocolate box houses. Two well stocked, if expensive, supermarkets. A scuba centre, catering for the diving, for which the island is famous. Saba is surrounded by a Marine Park. Snorkelling is not so good, I’ve read, and besides it’s very windy. The locals say the Christmas winds have come early.

One of the information boards tells me about the scarlet flowered flamboyant tree. But that flowers in the summer and, I discover, is not to be confused with the gorgeously in flower, at the moment, African tulip tree. Another of the signboards focuses on lacemaking (and there's still a lace shop). The women here learned to make lace (introduced by a nun from Venezuela). For a while, this was the primary source of revenue and Saba for some time, became known as 'The Island of Women'.

The food is good, in the restaurants I’ve sampled. Divine coconut shrimp curry in the Tropic Café at Juliana’s Hotel. Behind Windwardside towers Mount Scenery, blanketed in greenery. A hiker’s paradise. So I’m told.

Round and About in Saba

After humping my bag up The Seventy Steps Cyril promised me an island tour, before my return to the ferry. ‘It’s easier to do it all in one trip’, he suggests. But, ringing him up in the morning to confirm, it transpires he’s now agreed to take someone else to the airport, so I’m getting two halves of a tour, one earlier in the day.

Cyril drives me a little way up Mount Scenery and then along the one main road, up to Zion’s Hill (Hells’ Gate), with stunning views beneath. Velvety folded slopes, running to a foam splashed cove, Spring Bay. Further on, the airport, beyond an even more picturesque crag ringed headland - Tide Pools. Juancho E Yrausquin Airport is tiny, with a short runway (ostensibly the shortest in the world), almost surrounded by ocean and blocked at the end, by the sheer mountainside. You can buy 'I survived landing at Saba' tee shirts'. Despite this, there's never been an accident at the airport. A peek up a couple more spur roads, creeping round one of the local’s gardens to admire yet another scenic drop to the sea. (‘He won’t mind’, says Cyril.)

Cyril's worried about his new car. He says it’s making strange noises and odd warning lights are appearing on the dashboard. I point out that it’s a hybrid and it’s going to go quiet at times. It turns out that the warning lights come on, when he inadvertently presses switches on the centre of his wheel. He thanks me for fixing his vehicle.

Cyril doesn’t turn up to collect me for the second half of my tour, until it’s almost dark. He’s still got his airport pick up in the car. We have words. He claims to be very sorry, as we scoot inside the Church of the Sacred Heart, at The Bottom. He’s even praying for forgiveness. I’m not sure God can help here. They’re big on Christmas lights on Saba, so there are illuminated houses to admire, at least. The beach at Wells Bay (famous Diamond Rock at the end of the point), on my list of Highlights To Tick Off, is just visible in the inky dusk.

Farewell to Saba - and Cyril

Then, we arrive at the ferry port. ‘You’re late’, says the check in clerk, even though Cyril has told me I have plenty of time. I’m now instructed that I should be there an hour before departure time. It would be helpful if they gave you that information when they issue the tickets. But we do depart early, as the boat is ahead of schedule and all are on board. None of this stops Cyril from demanding 40 USD and declaring he will make up for it all by sending me a ticket to come back. He also wants to call me on Christmas Day, to play a song on his guitar for me. Thankfully, he doesn’t have my phone number.

I'm still going Dutch. I'm now on my way to Sint Eustatius.

(Or read more about the BES Islands here.)

St Kitts and Nevis - A Brief History

Saint Kitts was subject to more than the usual colonial intervention. It was initially claimed by Christopher Columbus in 1493, but it became the site of the first British and French colonies in the Caribbean, in the mid-1620s. This gave it the perhaps unenviable title of  'The Mother Colony of the West Indies'. Its position meant that it was easily reached on the currents and it soon became the first port of call for transatlantic expeditions. The English took up the middle, with the French at the top and the bottom. The Spanish took over in 1629, but left again a year later.

The island alternated repeatedly between English (then British) and French control during the seventeenth and eighteenth, until 1783, when the British finally seized absolute power. They already had control of Nevis, which had become a huge centre for the import and export of slaves. St Kitts Nevis became the richest islands in the Caribbean, mainly because of the sugar plantations. They were both part of the British West Indies (to begin with, just in union with Anguilla) until gaining independence in 1983 as a federation.

A Glorious Confusion of Names

There's considerable confusion over names. It was thought that Columbus named the island of St Kitts, St Christopher (Cristobal in Spanish). 'after his patron saint'. But it transpires that he actually named it St James and the nearby island of Saba, was supposed to be St Christopher. Similarly, Nevis was supposed to be St Martin. but the Dutch/French Caribbean island was mistakenly called that instead. So, Nevis was named after the cloud around its mountain - Nieves - Our Lady of the Snows in Spanish.

Facts and Factoids

  • Today, St Kitts and Nevis is the smallest sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere, in both area and population, as well as the world's smallest sovereign federation. The country is a Commonwealth Realm, with the British monarch as head of state.
  • St. Kitts green vervet monkeys are some of the most photographed faces on the islands. Estimates suggest there are thousands of charismatic creatures living there today and they’ve had a huge impact on the island. From hikes up Monkey Hill to rum punch cocktails at The Monkey Bar, you’ll find them everywhere. They’re not actually native to the islands either. French settlers brought them to the islands in the 17th century and kept them as exotic pets
  • Nevis was the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton Founding father Alexander Hamilton and protagonist of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s hit Broadway show grew up in Nevis. Long before he authored the Federalist Papers, served as the country’s first Treasury secretary and achieved Revolutionary War glory, he was on the idyllic island of Nevis. As a teenager, his wealthy adoptive parents sent him to New York to pursue his education. Here, he met and married Frances ‘Fanny’ Nisbet.

What To See on St Kitts and Nevis?

The two islands are separated by a two-mile stretch of sea known as ‘the narrows’. To get between them, you can hop on a five-minute water taxi, to Charlestown, Nevis. Every year, thousands flock here for the Channel Swim, joined by kayaks and fishing boats to keep a lookout for sharks. Or:

  • Take a round the island tour of St Kitts and make sure to see the views from Brimstone Fort and Lookout Hill.
  • Wander in Basseterre
  • Enjoy the beaches (Cockleshell is the prettiest) and variety of water sports.
  • Stay in a plantation house.

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.

The Other Five Emirates

Everyone has heard of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But challenge a friend to name the other five emirates that comprise the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and they'll be lucky to come up with one name. Indeed, I struggled to do it myself. So I thought I'd better go and find out more. They're Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain, Fujairah and Ras Al Khaimah. They're relatively small and accessible from Dubai, as they all lie to the north of this area of the Persian Gulf.

That doesn't mean to say it's easy. It's a complicated map. The different emirates are not content  with strips of coast. They also (especially Sharjah) have enclaves and exclaves dotted around the other emirates. At times, I'm guessing which one I'm in. Driver-cum-guide Bilal tells me you can work it out from the street lamps. 

The Emirate of Sharjah

First up, just north of Dubai, is Sharjah. It covers 1,000 square miles and has a population of over two million. It has been ruled by Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi since 1972, (except for a six-day period during an attempted coup d'état by his brother).

All the emirates are named after, and revolve around their capital cities. Sharjah comprises the city of Sharjah and other minor towns and exclaves distributed throughout the UAE. (Like I said above.) In 2022, Sharjah made history when its public sector adopted a four-day working week and a three-day weekend.

Sharjah City

Sharjah city is the third-most populous city in the United Arab Emirates, and forms part of the ongoing urban strip. Similar to Abu Dhabi, in the sense that it is a mix of modern and older buildings. Quieter and less brash and futuristic than Dubai, it has a historic harbour/canal, lined with old dhows and services developing industries.

But it seems that Sharjah is also a tourist hub and the cultural capital of the UAE. The sale of alcohol is totally banned in Sharjah, making it an attractive proposition for Islamic tourists. This probably also explains why it's more peaceful here. There are plenty of hotels, attractive parks for strolling and fun, Kahlid Lagoon (home to a giant fountain and Al Noor Island) and a very pleasant corniche - Al Buheirah.

There are a plethora of museums: history/archaeology, natural history, science, arts, heritage, Islamic art and culture. At least two forts and numerous (over 600) elegant mosques.

I'm sure I've left something out. I haven't time to visit more - I wasn't, I confess, expecting such largesse. But I have to mention the shopping. There are several relatively modern covered souks, designed in Islamic style. There's the bustling fish and vegetable market and the more subdued (at least when I went, perhaps it was too early) gold souk. The gold souk sells other things too - there are a lot of clothes - and it's commonly known as The Blue Souk. There are also numerous malls - including the Mega Mall. It speaks for itself.

The Emirate of Ajman

The Emirate of Ajman, a chunk adjoining the coast, but completely otherwise, surrounded by Sharjah, is the smallest of the emirates in terms of area. It's relatively densely populated though; the fourth most populous emirate in the UAE. It mainly consists of the city of Ajman, but it also also controls two small inland agricultural exclaves: Manama and Masfout. (I said the map of the UAE was complicated.) Ajman is ruled by Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi III of the Na'im tribe

Ajman City

The city of Ajman is the northern most section of the Dubai-Sharjah metropolitan area. So, it's mainly urban, industrial and residential, with a port based along a natural creek. But tourism is developing. There's a burgeoning corniche with a strip of decent beach alongside and several large expensive hotels, from well known chains. There are a couple of museums, one inside a fort and City Centre Ajman, the Emirate’s biggest mall. I also spot the Al Murabbaa Watchtower. It looks old, but nothing here is very ancient and it dates from the 1040s. It's the remains of the coastal defences and today it's forlorn in the middle of a roundabout. Further on, the Diwan, the Sheikh's Palace, with its gold domed roof.

There are also a range of restaurants and fast food outlets. So it seems like a good moment to sample Arabic KFC. The spicy option isn't bad at all. I'm happy to agree it's finger lickin' good.

Emirate of Umm Al Quwain

The Emirate of Umm Al Quwain is mainly the city of Umm Al Quwain. It's built on the site of a fort built in 1768, by the founder of the modern Al Mualla dynasty, Sheikh Rashid bin Majid, of the Al Ali tribe. It's on a finger of land, pointing into the Persian Gulf and has 15 miles of coast, It was a key stop on the trade route between the Middle East and India. The other part of this, the least populated emirate, is the inland oasis town of Falaj Al Mualla, some 19 miles from the sea.

Sadly, there's no gas or oil in Umm Al Quwain and it depends on revenue from hotels, parks and tourism, fishing and general trading. (There's a Free Zone in the port.) And this is where, travelling further north, we suddenly hit desert proper, and camels. Even though we are shortly catapulted into the neighbouring emirate.

Umm al-Quwain City

Night is falling, when we get to Umm al-Quwain City. The fort, on which it was founded was the site of a coup in 1929. when the incumbent Sheikh. Hamad Bin Ibrahim Al Mualla was assassinated by one of his blind uncle’s servants. The townsfolk, unhappy at the imposition, rose and set fire to the fort, killing the usurpers and putting the Al Mualla family back in power. The fort has since been restored and now houses the Umm Al Quwain National Museum. Or so I'm told. Bilal can't find it in the dark. We have to settle for some other government buildings.

Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah

Ras Al Khaimah is the most northerly of the emirates, but it doesn’t reach right to the tip of the Persian Gulf peninsula. That’s occupied by Musandam, an exclave of Oman, so it can control the Straits of Hormuz.

Ras Al Khaimah was a latecomer to the UAE (1972), after a spat with Iran (they seized Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs). Its name means ‘headland of the tent’. And the scenery is changing. There are mountains (the Hajar), villages and stretches of rocky desert here, and a large southerly inland exclave (near the Dubai exclave of Hatta), and a few small islands in the Persian Gulf. Ras Al Khaimah has the most fertile soil in the country, due to a larger share of rainfall and underground water streams from these mountains. It also has attractive beaches and good diving.  

But, as with the other emirates, the majority of the population lives in the city, after which the emirate is named. The city of Ras Al Khaimah has two main areas - the Old Town and Nakheel - on either side of a creek. It has engulfed the medieval Islamic port of Julfar.

Today, Ras Al Khaimah is ruled by Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi. (The same dynasty that runs Sharjah). Their tribe were a frequent thorn in the flesh for British shipping in the early eighteenth century (both here and in Sharjah). There's some debate about the level of so called piracy on this coast, but the Qawasim, were eventually 'subdued'.

Queen of Sheba's Palace

Ras Al Khaimah has been the site of continuous human habitation for 7,000 years. The village of Shimal (and around) is an important archaeological site, containing numerous graves (at least 250)  and barrow tombs with fine bronze arrowheads, beads and pottery. dating back to the Umm Al Nar culture (2,500–2,000 BC).

​Then came a medieval palace, on the ridge above the village. It is the only ancient Islamic palace known in the UAE and dates back to the Julfar period (13th-16th century AD). It was most probably the residence of the ruler of Julfar, once the most famous and prosperous trading town in the whole lower Gulf, built for cooling breezes at altitude and its strategic defensive position.

After the sixteenth century, the palace became a fort or 'sur', a retreat for all the villagers operating the palmeries below. The town wall ran some seven kilometres from the port lagoon to the south of present-day Ras Al Khaimah and to  the mountains here. It was four to five metres wide, with watchtowers placed every 150 metres. There’s a restored watchtower behind a wire fence at the bottom.

The remains of the fort are reached via a long flight of stairs, that peter out, to deliver a steep scramble through shale. The fort (I’m told) was a long rectangular structure. It’s difficult to discern much other than a piece of pitched roof (it's surrounded by barbed wire) and some walls. The palace remains have been excavated by German archaeologists, who restored the water cistern under the pitched roof.

For some reason it’s  known locally as The Queen of Sheba's Palace, although no-one has any idea why. But there are lovely views,  overlooking the plain, to the sea, from our plateau. Even if it isn't very cool, after my climb.

The Mountains of the UAE

The Hajar Range is home to the highest mountains in the UAE. The tallest is Jebel Jais, at 1,934 metres, but there's some debate as to whether it counts. It's on the border with Musandam and the summit is located on the Omani side. A high point west of this peak is considered the highest point in the United Arab Emirates, at 1,892 metres. The highest peak in the UAE is Jabal ar Raḩraḩ (1,691 metres).

And now we're driving west, through the dramatic, starkly brown mountains, to Fujairah, the only emirate wholly on the east coast of the peninsula.

The Emirate of Fujairah

The Sharqiyin tribe, are in charge of the Emirate of Fujairah, controlling old trade routes via Wadi Ham and Wadi Abadilah. The modern roads we’re driving today follow these routes,  through the mountains.

The east coast of what is now the UAE used to be known as the Shamaliyah, and was part of Muscat until it was annexed by Al Qasimi of Sharjah, in 1850. (Apparently Oman agreed). In 1901, when the emirate consisted of some 150 houses, 3,000 date palms and some pearling businesses, Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Sharqi, chief of the Sharqiyin, declared independence from Sharjah. The declaration was recognised by most of the Trucial Sheikhs and also by Muscat, but not by the British, who found the new ruler 'antagonistic'.

The British gave in, in 1952, in order to facilitate the signing of oil treaties At the same time, Sharjah took control of the southerly city of Kalba, forming an exclave (and other areas too it transpires). But we're right in the north. Past Dibbah, another exclave belonging to Sharjah and south beside the sea, alongside the many popular beaches. Like most Arab states, Fujairah likes its roundabout decoration.

Khor Fakkan

Now we're in yet another enclave of Sharjah. I'm totally bemused and glad I'm not the cartographer - or the navigator. This one is called Khor Fakkan. It lays claim to golden beaches edged with walkways, an ugly concrete like waterfall and, a natural deep sea port, very handy to maintain Sharjah's access to the eastern seaboard. The Khorfakken Monument, on a roundabout, here depicts an incense burner (mabkhara) - as these are strongly embedded in Arab hospitality. This one even has fog machines, to produce the incense effect. Low level only - we don't want to cause accidents.

Nipping back into the Hajar Mountains, there's a fort or two and a restful park with a lake, created by a dam at Al Rafisa. It's a gorgeous spot, and no doubt the water is a necessity in such an arid country. But they sacrificed a village to create it. I'm told you can see the rooftops when the water recdes.

Al-Bidya Mosque

Back in Fujairah again (I think). The tiny Al-Bidya (or Ottoman) Mosque claims that it's the oldest known mosque in the country, perhaps dating back to 1446. It's quaintly built of mud and stone, with nipple like domes. It was thought to have had watchtowers, (there's a fort above), but no minaret.

However, I've read that, in 2018, the ruins of a 1000-year-old mosque (dating back to the Islamic Golden Age), were discovered, near the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Mosque in Al Ain, in Abu Dhabi.

Fujairah City

South, another 25 miles, to Fujairah City. This has a huge and important port and Free Zone. It provides direct access to the Indian Ocean for the United Arab Emirates, avoiding use of the Persian Gulf, which requires access via the Strait of Hormuz. The northern part of the waterfront is lined, endlessly (it seems), with cylindrical tanks for oil storage.

The main sight here is the restored Fujairah Fort and the nearby Fujairah Museum. (It boasts its home to an ostrich egg 2,500 years old.) The main mosque is the large white Sheikh Zayed Mosque, the second largest in the UAE, with the same name, as the largest, in Abu Dhabi, This one can hold around 28,000 worshippers. It's a landmark, visible from a very long way away.

Finally, the highway back to Dubai. Through still more bits of Sharjah, with some impressively huge educational and government buildings.

Facts and Factoids

  • Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ajman, Umm al-Quwain and Fujairah joined in an Act of Union to form the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on 2 December 1971. A seventh emirate, Ras Al Khaimah (RAK), joined the UAE on 10 February 1972, following Iran's annexation of the RAK-claimed Tunbs Islands.
  • Dubai and Abu Dhabi are the only two of the seven emirates to have veto power. Abu Dhabi City is the nation's capital, while Dubai (which is mostly, but not all city), is the most populated city, an international hub.
  • The United Arab Emirates is an elective monarchy, but each emirate is an absolute monarchy governed by a ruler. The rulers are sheikhs rather than emirs to indicate consultative leadership. Together, the rulers form the Federal Supreme Council. In theory, the members of this council elect a president, from among their members. In practice, the ruler of Abu Dhabi serves as president, while the ruler of Dubai is vice president and also prime minister.
  • The UAE is sometimes referred to as 'The Miracle of the Gulf', to reflect the rapid transformation of the country from a small desert nation to a modern and prosperous nation in just a few decades. It's also sometimes known, admiringly or disparagingly, as 'Little Sparta' - a power that punches above its weight.
  • The map of the UAE isn't a straightforward one. Most of the emirates control several enclaves, dotted around the country.
  • Roughly 80% of the 10 million population of the UAE are expatriates
  • Islam is the official religion and Arabic is the official language.
  • The United Arab Emirates' oil and natural gas reserves are the world's sixth and seventh-largest, respectively.
  • In the 21st century, the country has become less reliant on oil and gas and is economically focusing on tourism and business
  • Oil revenues have been invested into healthcare and education, and infrastructure. but only for the Arab and Emirati peoples. Expatriates fare far less well. There are also concerns about human rights and individual rights, such as freedoms of assembly and free speech.

A Brief History of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

  • In ancient times, the area today known as the UAE, on the Persian Gulf, is situated, was relatively isolated, surrounded by mountains and vast deserts. Nevertheless, stone tools recovered reveal a settlement of people from Africa some 127,000 years ago. And the Achaemenids still managed some settlement.
  • The Sassanids followed but were ousted by the rise of Islam. The UAE was subsumed into the Arabian Peninsula and the Rashidun Caliphate, in the seventh century.
  • But the desert environment was harsh and the area was mainly occupied y nomadic tribesmen who formed their own loyalty groupings. These eventually became the ruling families of today.
  • In the 1500s, the Portuguese arrived , conquering coastal communities, battling the Ottomans and building forts. naval forces.
  • The Dutch and the British followed. The help of the British Navy was enlisted by the Persian emperor of 1622. The Persian Gulf supplied trade routes to North Africa, India, and China, and was a valuable port for long voyages from Europe. The main trade of the gulf countries then was pearls. Reports suggest that piracy was rife along the coast, but this idea has more lately been refuted.
  • The East India Trading Company and Kuwait formed alliances to help the British capitalise on this trade route and In 1853 came the creation of the Trucial States, a group of Sheikdoms formed under the protectorate of the British, in return for piratical immunity. Trucial -as in truces. It was an expensive deal for the British. In the early 1900s, artificial pearls were invented and the main trade disappeared
  • Then oil was discovered in Iraq and beyond. The UAE area quickly became popular and the Trucial States decided to become independent. The British pulled out in 1968, even though offers were made to pay them for protection. They decided that they couldn’t afford it. And three years later, the UAE was formed. (Originally intended to be part of the proposed Federation of Arab Emirates, Bahrain became independent in August, and Qatar in September 1971).

What to See in the UAE

The UAE is a an arid and mountainous country. Tourism offers desert experiences and beach activities for the most part, But Dubai in particular, with its upmarket hotels and malls, is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Read about what I did here:

Afghanistan, Graveyard of Empires

Afghanistan - this country is possibly more evocative and emotive than any other. It's hardly out of the news. Portrayed by the media as war torn and dangerous. Afghanistan has long been described as 'the graveyard of empires'. It goes without saying that the FCO advise against all travel to the area. Kidnapping, they say, is rife. Add to this, the ethical implications. The Taliban regime is brutal. The human rights record is abysmal. Edicts are increasingly misogynist.

But this, the first country in the world alphabetically, is the only country in the world that I haven't visited. And informed travel sources report that, under the Taliban, Afghanistan is safer than it has been for many years.

A small group of intrepid (foolish?) friends have agreed to come with me. Alison and Alec from Australia (who I met on the Golden Eagle Train) and Andy and Andrea from England (who I met in Saudi Arabia). So, they're all As too and I'm the only aberration. Sue me?

A Treat on the Road to Peshawar

We assemble in Islamabad, Pakistan. Our guide here is Kausar, who is an old hand. We're advised that Peshawar, on the Afghan border, is the best place to get the required visa. The road out of Islamabad is a seven lane motorway: Islamabad-Srinagar- Peshawar. It's not a busy route, but that doesn’t stop the diminutive three wheel trucks, from dawdling all over the lanes and cutting up our spanking new minivan, for no apparent reason.

Kausar says he has a special treat for us. It turns out to be a signboard featuring the garrison town of Abbottabad, where Bin Laden was assassinated. (The Pakistanis had to pretend not to be offended at not being informed. The Americans pointed out that if they knew he was there they were complicit and if they didn't they were incompetent. ) I actually travelled through that city when I came down the Karakorum Highway, so perhaps I'm not as impressed as I should be. But it makes for a photo stop.

Peshawar

The traffic is an entirely different matter when we get to Peshawar; the city is rammed with cycle rickshaws (tuk tuks), insinuating their way in-between the cars, snaking slowly along, jamming up the streets entirely. Later, there’s an anti-price hike demonstration, which does nothing to ease the situation. If only we could go as fast as a crawl.

Peshawar, the City of Flowers, is the sixth most populous city of Pakistan, the capital of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in the region of Afghania. This is the home of the Pashtuns, the second-largest ethnic group in the country. East of the historic Khyber Pass, Peshawar's recorded history dates back to at least 539 BC, making it one of the oldest cities in South Asia. The Pashtuns have always done things their way, ignoring imposed borders (the so called Durand Line was imposed by the British in 1893) and relying on cultural ones. Most of the Taliban, Afghan and Pakistani are Pashtun. Tim Marshall describes Peshawar as 'a sort of urban Taliban military-industrial complex'. That's probably why it's coloured red on the FCO map of Pakistan. Pakistan has had a difficult time trying to appear to support the USA, whilst first allowing the Taliban to host Al Qaeda and then pretending that the Afghan Taliban have not laid low here, whilst the Americans were in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has a vested interest in keeping its north west border open for trade. But now the Taliban are in charge in Afghanistan relationships have been less cordial. Things on the Khyber Pass are a little tense at the moment. There have been reported skirmishes; shots have been fired.

Kausar has been out here a long time and knows which shops give him the best commission. He’s assisted by a tall thin elderly gentleman, with a skull cap and the most extraordinary rings. He hands me his card. His name, grandly, is Prince Mahir Ullah. He fusses, talks very fast and I don’t understand a word he says.

The bazaar in the Peshawar’s old walled city (there are pieces of gate remaining) is gloriously atmospheric, miles of tiny booths, winding alleys, fragrant spices in bright heaps and smiling bearded men, all desperate to have their photos taken. There are very few women on the streets – most of them heavily veiled, or in full burkhas. But no-one seems to mind that we are uncovered and welcomes abound.

Our tour also includes Story Tellers Street, with its city gate (Hashtnagri), and ancient tea shop. The main mosque (Mahabat Khan). More alleys, more hot beverage stalls. We have it down to a tee.