French and English Islands
21 January 2019 | Nelson's Dockyard, English Harbour, Antigua
Barbara/Hot with plenty of showers
We have just finished a delightful 10 days with our friends, Dan & Barb, who joined us in Guadeloupe (where we stayed in several different harbors), and then made the passage to Antigua, where they caught a flight home. We saw many interesting things with them, some expected, and some completely new (and in some cases baffling).
Case in point: we rented a car, to do some sightseeing the first day of the rental and to take Dan & Barb to the airport on the second. The roads in Antigua are astonishingly awful. The Berlitz guidebook warned us of that, and the car rental agent warned us again. There are deep potholes everywhere. There are extra high speed bumps everywhere. Some of the speed bumps are so high it is impossible to cross them without bottoming out on the muffler (next time I think we’d rent a jeep or a truck!). Moreover, like many tropical countries, the lower elevations have deep, deep ditches to catch the tropical deluges, and if your tire leaves the pavement, you’re in the ditch. At intersections of the narrow streets you have to make a very wide turn or you’re in the ditch. And we did that once. The bumper damage cost us $120, which fortunately our credit card company is paying for.
Another problem we ran into was the inability of Google to navigate intelligently. The intersection of the Google incompetence and the awful roads was our trip to the airport to see Dan & Barb off into the teeth of a big snowstorm in New York where they’d change planes for Seattle. (They did make it OK…) Google seemed to be directing us toward the airport, but the roads were getting worse and there was no traffic on them. We began to have a bad feeling about that, but we were pretty much committed. The roads got worse and worse, and then Google said we were there. Indeed, we were at one end of a runway, looking at a high chain link fence with a no-trespassing sign between us and the runway. Definitely not at the terminal. We hauled out our sketchy tourist paper maps and made our way several more miles around the end of the runway, along the coast, through some airport maintenance areas and finally to the terminal. It’s a very fancy airport with facilities that will serve Antigua well for years into the future. The airport road circles around a cricket pitch. The parking lots were nearly vacant and there were only a handful of travelers inside.
After saying goodbye to Dan & Barb, we made our way back to English Harbour assisted only by the tourist map. We had learned our lesson.
As we have made our way north through these Caribbean islands, we notice that they are alternating between French and English. The English islands are typically independent countries, whereas the French islands are departements of France. The infrastructure in the French islands is much better (most noticeably, better roads and sidewalks) and the people seem to have a bit more money and be generally better off. Amazingly the French islands have vastly simplified the bureaucracy (at least as we see it from the customs and immigration standpoint). Checking into a French Island involves 20 minutes at a computer, and a fee of 2 Euros (less than $3). Even the 20 minutes at a computer is only caused by unfamiliarity with a French keyboard. The English speaking islands, by contrast, involve stops at several offices, an hour or more of your time and about $50 in various fees. (We’ve seen a news story about a 71 year old French guy now crossing the Atlantic in a high-tech barrel, driven only by the wind and waves, and not by any effort of his own. He was quoted as saying he’d like to arrive at a French island because the paperwork is easier. He’s certainly right about that!)
Speaking of people crossing the Atlantic in different ways, we are now in English Harbour, Antigua, where the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge participants are arriving. This is a race of four-person high tech rowboats. Two of them row at a time and two sleep. The first night we were here, the third-place finishers arrived at 2 am with lots of cheering, fireworks, air horns and general hullaballoo that went on for at least an hour. Sequoia is tied up next to one of the bars, which promises to be open for every arrival. Yesterday the fourth place finisher arrived in the afternoon and 5th place late in the evening. Lots of noise for each of them, although we were so tired last night (after the airport adventure) that we were oblivious. The 6th place finishers are scheduled to arrive at 6 am tomorrow, which will be shortly before we depart for St. Kitts. So far all the finishers are guys, and in apparent celebration of their arrival they have a tendency to take off all their clothes (except for perhaps their very skimpy Speedos). Several days from now we are told that the Antigua girls team will arrive. The Antiguans we have talked to say that there will be tremendous crowds for those “girls” (in their twenties) and that there will be noise unlike any we’ve heard so far. We’ll be sad to miss that very local event.
We are tied up at Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour in Antigua. It’s unlike anyplace we’ve ever taken our boat before. Historically, this was THE English dockyard in the Caribbean; lots of repair and provisioning facilities, and a center for naval operations. They’ve made the dockyard into a historic park – it’s a UNESCO site, for whatever that’s worth. All of the old buildings have been restored, although most put to new different uses. The “Admiral’s House” is a museum; the “paymaster’s office” is the little bar 20 feet away from the stern of our boat; but the old sail loft is still a sail loft – just that the sails are for pleasure boats, not for naval ships. Instead of English naval ships being tied to the sea walls, it’s sailboats and motor boats. We might be the smallest boat here; most of the boats are mega-yachts, both sailboats and motor boats. They have lots of paid crew who are constantly polishing the boats, procuring supplies, cooking, cleaning, etc. etc. Some of them are charter boats. One boat (perhaps 150 feet long) took a just-turning-50 French Canadian woman out with 11 of her friends for a week-long birthday cruise. Eating at the fine French restaurant tonight we learned that the mega-yacht across the way rents for $800,000 per week!
Of course all of these luxurious boats have every convenience and comfort aboard. Our shower is a little bit cramped, so we have been taking showers in the shore facilities. I don’t know whether it’s historical authenticity or punishment for us "tiny" boats, but the water is stone cold, even though they charge $2.
I’ll back up a little bit and tell you about other islands we’ve seen recently. When I last wrote, we were in Dominica, a quite poor English-speaking island that was devastated by Hurricane Maria a year and a half ago. The next islands to the north are Les Isles Saintes – French and part of the departement of Guadeloupe. Approaching the anchorage there we had to run the gauntlet of a group of kite-surfers and wind-surfers. They love to pass right in front of us in what is obviously a game of “chicken”. They don’t realize (or don’t care) that if they fell while passing right in front of us, we would be unable to turn quickly enough to avoid them. The best we can do is continue on a predictable path while they play with us. I’m happy to report we haven’t hit one yet.
Les Saintes is a beautiful group of islands, full of day-trip tourists who come over by ferry from Guadeloupe. Two cruise ships stopped in the rather small harbor while we were there. The very picturesque streets are full of souvenir shops and expensive sea-view restaurants. The contrast with Dominica could not be greater. We stayed on a mooring buoy for three nights, going ashore for customs, groceries, laundry and one dinner in a restaurant.
From Les Saintes we went to Pointe a Pitre, the biggest city in Guadeloupe. Dan & Barb found us there the day after we arrived. We went to the big Slavery Museum the first day, which was astonishing and horrifying. Although the focus is on the Caribbean, there were also portions devoted to slavery in the United States, and modern slavery which takes the form of human trafficking. We learned that although the Guadeloupe slaves were freed at the time of the French Revolution (1789), Napoleon decreed 13 years later that they be re-enslaved. Not surprisingly there was a slave rebellion.
As we left the museum, we were accosted by “Edy” (“one d only”) a gentleman of 75, who told us that he was a descendant of the Carib Indians. He wanted us to know about St. Georges, the 18th century son of a French planter and a slave woman, who went to France and became known as a swordsman, musician and composer, and who rubbed elbows with Mozart. Edy was ready to talk to us for hours, but we finally made our escape. (I did check on Wikipedia, and there really was such a person, who left a substantial body of musical compositions, some of which are being performed today.)
The next day we made a road trip to Deshaies, a town along the northwest coast of Guadeloupe, where we met up with George and Sue Stonecliffe. They had just arrived on their boat, and we made plans to meet up in the next day or so. We ate lunch together in a restaurant which was the set for the bar in early episodes of Death in Paradise, a British semi-humorous cop show we’ve enjoyed in the past. It was really quite something for us to see the sets and the scenery from one of our favorite shows. The restaurant had lots of photos from the first or second season of the series. We also saw the beach where Detective Inspector Poole had his beach house (although apparently they remove the house when not actively filming.) It’s amazing how different it actually looks – most notably, it rains a lot, but in the TV series the sun is always shining.
From Pointe a Pitre we sailed to Basse-Terre, where we met George & Sue, then Pigeon Islet (a Cousteau diving and snorkeling refuge) and finally Deshaies again (but this time by sea). While in Deshaies we visited a fantastic botanical garden, and had a nice restaurant meal with the six of us (C&B, Dan & Barb, George and Sue). The botanical garden is extremely well maintained, and it has a vast array of tropical plants. Many were in bloom, but this is obviously not the primary flowering season. Another visual treat was the view from the restaurant we chose. The deck hangs out over the beach, and just beyond is the quite-full harbor. Each boat (or nearly every boat) has an anchor light at the top of the mast, and they wave gently back and forth in the dark night as the slight waves move the boats.
The passage from Deshaies to English Harbour (where we are now) involved another crossing between Caribbean Islands. There tends to be an enhanced wind between the islands, where waves can pile up and things can get pretty exciting. Fortunately this was not one of those times, and we had an easy passage. When we arrived at English Harbour, we did a stern-to med-moor maneuver, with our anchor out in front of us, and then backing up to the wall, adjusting lines so that we’re close enough to step off the boat, but not so close that we bump. It was the first time for us using that method, and we were mostly successful (just a few bumps in the night).
So I think that brings us up to date. Tomorrow we leave for St. Kitts and more new adventures.
Best wishes to all our friends and family,
Craig & Barbara Johnston