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. Sint Maarten is also dubbed The Friendly Island.
The contrast between here and the Virgin Islands couldn't be more marked. I've gone from quaint backwaters to full on 'civilisation'. One guide book refers to this as the Las Vegas of the Caribbean. The narrow road from the frighteningly efficient spanking new airport is lined with high end shops almost the whole way. Chopard, Tiffany, diamonds abound, as you would expect, interspersed with the odd casino. Philipsburg is Cruise Ship Central.
Today's beach is Great Bay. The hotel and sands are ultra-boutique, white canvas umbrellas, rattan chairs and piped saxophone - from seven in the morning. Hulking ships monopolise the horizon. I can see the sailing clipper I am booked to travel on for the next week bobbing around behind them. It looks really tiny in comparison. The quay where it is moored is called Dock Maarten - really.
And now perhaps I should go get a Martini?
One of the three tallest ships sailing the seven seas. It's all very - well, nautical. Brass and wood with navy and gilt upholstery, and lots of knots. They haul the sails up ceremonially every day to the Van Gelis 1492 theme tune. It's surprisingly moving, though there isn't much wind and we use the engines most of the time. I'm secretly quite glad. The sails are very picturesque, but I'm told the tall masts make for a lot of rolling if the sea is remotely rough.
The crew are very cosmopolitan - Filipino waiters, Goan sailors, Eastern European officers, Swedish Vikings on the sports team. It's their job to entertain us at night as well as look after us during the day. They deliver an amateur variety package, including comedy sketches and a fashion show, involving a surf board. The passengers are mostly retired Americans. Others are English, French, German, I'm the only single on board.
We've reached Nevis overnight, so today it's Pinney's Beach. Columbus thought the central volcano looked as if it had snow on it (nieve), so that's how it got its name. Last time I was here I got the ferry over from St Kitts and explored the tiny main settlement of Charlestown. It’s very colonial, but then so are both islands, They were 'The Mother of Colonies'.
More plantation houses, sugar mills and forts than spectacular coasts. The beach here is pretty, but narrow. There’s not a lot of shade, unless I wander up to the one hotel, and the sports team forgot to bring the umbrellas. So I get the tender back to the ship and lounge on the deck, by one of the two wedge shaped swimming pools. Most of the Americans are very friendly. I know everyone's life history already.
Dominica (named as it was discovered on a Sunday) is, reputedly, famed for its natural beauty and lush foliage. It's nicknamed 'Nature Island of the Caribbean'. It is purported to have 365 rivers, one for each day of the year. Though no-one seems to have checked this convenient number. This is another island that passed from French colonists to the British. It became independent in 1978.
I skirt Cabrits Beach – it’s black volcanic sand - on my way up into the mountains for a nature hike in the rainforest. There are very few buildings, certainly more vegetation than habitation.
Unfortunately, the guide puts in a no show and so do most of the birds. It’s damp and misty, more Jurassic Park than cheerful Caribbean. There is forest, stretching as far as the eye can see, with just glimpses of cobalt ocean. The canopy stretches above. There are tree roots like the flanges of giant wheels and lianas tangle around them. The odd hummingbird zigs in and out. Any chance of an additional sighting is thwarted by the shrill tones of Claire from Key West. I don't think she pauses for breath once, on the whole circuit.
I go to avail myself of a relaxing massage on the upper deck when I get back. But I can still hear her squeaking away in the bar below.
Les Saintes are nine weeny islands (two are inhabited), which are part of Guadeloupe. They are very green and very hilly. Today's beach is Anse Crawen, on the quietest part of Terre-de-Haut Island, There is a log to perch on, plenty of sand flies and some reasonable snorkelling round the headland. As on most cruise ships, there's no shortage of food. There are always snacks available and you can order what you like from the dinner menu. Tonight, I have three main courses.
First of all, I'm famous. There was a trivia quiz last night where you had to run up and beat a drum. As most of the questions were geographical I won fairly easily, seeing off the French and the Germans. So today everyone is congratulating me. That wouldn't have happened in the UK, where I would have been ostracised as a ‘know all.’
The ship has taken us to Guadeloupe proper. Guadeloupe is not a country, but is an overseas département and region of France, so the currency is the euro and flights to France are 'domestique' . The archipelago contains many islets and four inhabited islands, other than Les Saintes. The original colonial name (bestowed by Columbus) was Santa María de Guadalupe. The two main islands, Basse-Terre (west) and Grande-Terre (east), form a butterfly shape.
We've docked at the little town of Deshaies, on the northwest tip of the butterfly. It's famous as being the location for the filming of Death In Paradise, which regularly features the gorgeous local beaches. The distinctive red steepled church dominates the skyline, but it’s a short acquaintance. We pile into a creaky bus and zip across the top of the butterfly wing, to Sainte Rose, to pick up a little motorboat. Thence, sputtering through a scattering of mangroves, eyed warily by pelicans and egrets perched on almost every available branch, to a proper little reef and some decent snorkelling. Then lunch on minuscule Caret Island, so swathed in palm trees we have to be seated on lashed wooden poles laid on the sand. Classic Robinson Crusoe.
Then, dinner with the captain. This involves a lot of champagne (before he goes onto scotch) and conversation that refuses to veer from politics, ships and alcohol. He's from Ukraine and is clearly still mourning the demise of the Soviet Union.
I've been in Falmouth Bay before - it's just round the corner from English Harbour and is the Caribbean Mecca for yachts belonging to the rich and famous. The main pastime is trying to guess who owns what. And I'm feeling a little queasy, as the ship is rolling something rotten, there's been a swell all night. Antigua is a country of beguiling bays and is reckoned to have 365 beaches (that convenient number again) , so there is nothing for it but to head to nearby Pigeon Beach, which is yellow and gorgeous, and laze on the sand.
St Barthelemy (named after Columbus' brother) and commonly called St Barths, is another piece of the French West Indies, an overseas collectivity. St Barthelemy was also part of Guadeloupe, which is an overseas département of France. For this reason, it is part of the European Union and the euro is used as currency. In 2003, the people voted in favour of becoming independent from Guadeloupe and the French Parliament passed a bill granting autonomous overseas collectivity status in 2007 (at the same time as St Martin).
This this time it's a replica of the Côte d'Azur. The capital, Gustavia, is full of high end shops - and beautiful people. Gustavia - as the island was a Swedish colony in Napoleonic times. La Plage de St Jean has sand floored beach bars, plush hotels and the whitest sand, with water for which the word aquamarine was invented. The beautiful people parade up and down in their designer gear. It is tres tres chic, with prices that are tres tres high to match.
Alongside the beach, is possibly the world's smallest and scariest airport. The air taxis come in over the road which runs across the top of the island (the cars have to stop) and bump down the hill to the beach. When they take off, they zip straight over our heads, accelerating madly in a bid to gain height, before they hit the sea. It's a local pastime to sit in the water and watch them; it's a bit like playing Russian roulette.
Our last night on the boat. Much to everyone's amusement the captain asks for my email address. I think he just wants some photos.
Back on dry land in St Martin. This time nipping across to the French Side, as the border signs say. I'm getting a free ride with Bob and Sandra from Somerset, as they are booked into the same hotel. It's truly a schizophrenic island, it's much quieter over here, but still relatively built up and very clean, organised and prosperous. There is no official border, other than the sign, but you have to make an international phone call to talk to the other side and here the first language is definitely French. Like St Barths, St Martin was part of Guadeloupe, an overseas département of France. and it is now an autonomous overseas collectivity. So, it is part of the European Union and the euro is used as currency
My gorgeous little hotel is right on Grand Case Beach, a large turquoise bay, with views across to eel shaped Anguilla. Grand Case is renowned for its French restaurants - about 50 of them lining the waterfront. I have views across the bay from my balcony and a nonstop natural history documentary by my door. Two straggly little dove chicks are ensconced in an untidy nest that is balanced precariously on a palm tree branch. Mummy and Daddy Dove watch anxiously from the telegraph wires, cooing loudly when I walk past. Dad forages around the hotel balconies for food and Mum arrives at regular intervals to feed her offspring or to attempt to perch on top of them, even though there really isn't enough space and it seems that she will topple out at any moment.
Today takes the three of us to Maho Beach, on the Dutch side, which is pretty, but crowded, as it offers more airport entertainment (this seems to be a Caribbean pastime). This beach is right at the end of Princess Juliana International, so visitors get their kicks by hanging off the perimeter fence to experience the force of the slip stream as the jets take off. Some of the thrill seekers are blown right over. There are signs saying its dangerous (!) but access doesn't seem to have been restricted in any way. When planes come in over the sea to land, the voyeurs leap about, waving at the poor pilots, as they roar above us.
My trip to Anguilla is cancelled as it is raining. Not all bad news as it clears up quite quickly. It's exhausting lying on a beach bed all day and I can at least see Anguilla across the water. We eat Creole supper at a Lolo (local food restaurant) on Marigot Bay, lights twinkling on the marina.
Today, it really is raining, with a vengeance. There isn't much to do on St Martin except go to the beach or shop and most of the shops are the expensive duty free kind. Orient Bay is one of the contenders for best beach on the island - there are several, but it isn't very welcoming. The damp Caribbean weather is encouraging the mosquitoes; this is slightly worrying as there are even PA announcements on arrival at the airport here warning about the dangers of being bitten. Dengue fever is more of an issue than malaria and we are told there is an increasing threat also from chikungunya fever. Neither has a cure. In addition to the usual mosquitoes there are pesky miniature versions called 'no see ums' that zip in the smallest crack the moment the door is opened.
Today I fly to Antigua so, perversely, the weather is gorgeous. A quick stop at Baie Longue on the way to the airport, just to say good-bye. The flight is a disaster though. The Caribbean carrier plane is badly delayed (LIAT = Leaves Island Any Time) with no announcements whatsoever. Eventually it is cancelled altogether and I am squeezed onto the earlier flight which is even more badly delayed. I arrive in Antigua minus my luggage and nobody seems very sure about where it is or how I will get it back. And it was only a 30 minute flight...I am exceedingly grumpy when I eventually arrive at my hotel sans toothbrush, well sans everything.
I’m in Jolly Harbour, where I’ve also been before, but I'm still grumpy, despite the name. My 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...
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