Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dominica: Land of Water

Of all the non- (Caribbean) sailors I know, few, if any, people know about Dominica, let alone where it is located. Before we started sailing, I had seen the little island in my pocket atlas and kind of knew where it was, but, other than that, this tiny country didn’t mean anything to me. It wasn’t until I hitched a ride in the British Virgin Islands with Emily, that a picture of Dominica started to form in my head. Our friendly driver was a Dominican guy who talked about his island, “the Nature Island”, and its many rivers. Later, in St. Martin, I met another Dominican who got me interested in his country. We started asking other cruisers about this destination in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean and almost everybody loved the place and raved about the friendly people. But, you had to rent a car to really appreciate it…

On our way South to Grenada, Dominica was the one country where we really wanted to spend some time and apparently, some money. After laying low in Guadeloupe for a few days, we arrived in Prince Rupert Bay, where checking in was easy. We had obtained a permit for Darwin in advance via email and we were all allowed to stay for two weeks, before having to go to immigration. Our friends from Aeolus (Charlie, Nathalie and their five year old son Keenan) were anchored in the bay and catching up with them was great. We spent a few fun evenings and fresh fish dinners together (thank you, Charlie!) and met another nice couple through them.

We wanted to get to Dominica, before the weather turned on us. Three tropical waves (the first stage of a possible hurricane) were about to pass within a week. So, from the moment we were settled in Portsmouth, where Prince Rupert Bay is located, it rained. And it rained. Each time we made an attempt to shore, we got soaking wet. We went through sets of clothes like we owned whole wardrobes and nothing dried. We didn’t even realize the size of Dominica’s mountains, until it cleared up some, days later. But only for a few minutes at the time and we never saw the mountain tops.

On the third day of grayness, Darwin, Mark and I bit the bullet and went to shore for a walk in Cabrits National Park with its restored fort and rainforest. It felt great to finally explore the country a bit, do some exercise and get soaked once again, prepared this time. Free showers, every day! And, if, for some reason you managed to escape all the rain, there was a cold shower (read: tube coming out of the wall) on the beach. In Dominica, you can visit a different river every day of the year! I started to see why and I wouldn’t be surprised even more appear with every rain storm.

Portsmouth is a decent size town with buildings spread out over and along a few parallel streets. Once a week there is a fresh fruit and vegetable market, but other than that, you have to find your food in small “convenient” stores with barely any fresh produce. The bread was nothing compared to the French islands, so I started baking our own bread again. We basically ate whatever we could find in our cabinet, the little that was left in our fridge from St. Martin and what we found in the stalls in town. Mangoes were present in abundance across from the beach. Free water was also available from spigots along the main street. Everybody we met was very friendly and even Darwin got friendly looks and stares.

The whole island is covered with rainforest (what’s in a name?), bush, greenery and fruit trees, as we came to confirm the day we rented a car. We drove along lush hills and through banana plantations, followed a long rough road by car to end up on top of a mountain with no idea where to find the trail we were looking for. The main resource in Dominica is tourism and they did a hell of a job assuring tourists to hire guides. It is very hard to find trail heads or do a hike yourself, so we were not going to do too much effort figuring this one out ourselves.

Since we already got a delayed start (people show up on island time) and we planned to see and do a lot this one day, we decided to turn back to the main road. We drove along beaches, through many small villages, Carib territory (one of the few places were these aboriginal people still live) and basically half of the island, skipping many attractions and “Pirates of the Caribbean” film sites. Lunch was had during a rainstorm in a local shack selling fried chicken and buns.

In the afternoon, we tried to explore the other half of the island, skirting the capital since we would stop here on our way south, but glamorously failed. There is just too much to see and do in this country full of wilderness, rivers, pools, waterfalls and trails. It also appeared bigger than we thought and the roads are slow and winding.

We did manage to stop at two of the tourist highlights. The walk to Emerald Pools was an easy one and Darwin was allowed to come, but not to swim. The entrance fee for every National Park is $5 per person, but a week pass costs $12 and gives you more flexibility. Once we reached the beautiful pool with a nice waterfall, the rain started again. I’m sure the colors are even more spectacular when it’s sunny out, but hey, it’s the rainy season and we have to deal with it. Mark was brave enough to take a dip in the freezing waters, but I kept Darwin company on the “dry”.

Our other stop was at Trafalgar Falls, two pretty, fairly big waterfalls that plunge into a rough river. Well, when we were there, the river was rough, not surprising with all the recent downpours. Swimming was too dangerous, because all the little pools were rushing with water. Along the trail, we did dip our toes in a small stream, only to discover that the water was actually warm! Dominica does have a few hot springs and people have turned them into spas. We didn’t have time to investigate that further, this time... The good thing about the low season is that the crowds are absent and we had most places to ourselves. We also could convince the park officials to let us take Darwin on the trails.

The area in the mountains around Roseau, Dominica’s capital, has quite a few sights, but we had to turn back to Portsmouth before darkness set in. Also, Mark was very tired of the hours of driving. I couldn’t take over, because you need to purchase a temporary Dominican driver’s license which allows you to drive a (rental) car here and we were only willing to spend that extra $12 once. Renting the car cost us $70 and adding the half a tank of fuel we used, this day trip made us over $100 poorer, just for the car. But, it is truly the only way to get a good feel of the country, the interior, the sights, the undisturbed nature and the absence of tourism. It was money well spent.

The bad weather with all the tropical waves made us realize hurricanes are on their way and sooner or later one of these waves would turn into one. We had/have to keep moving. Before leaving Dominica we made one more stop in its capital. The anchorage off Roseau is very deep and scattered with reefs, so we picked up a mooring ball for the night. After another funky sail of a lot of wind/no wind, it was a treat not having to deal with setting the anchor. It was very hot, no rain in sight. After lunch, we took Darwin for a refreshing swim and took off into town without him. The walk along the few historical buildings and churches didn’t take very long, so we had to fill our time until happy hour at the Fort Young Hotel with something else.

During our exploration of the center, we had stumbled across the Ruins Bar and found it very suitable for a drink. An array of bush rums “decorated” the bar and the many different flavors all sounded tempting. Bush rum is island-made rum, locally enhanced with spices, fruit or anything else. I tried some fruit flavor I didn’t know and can’t remember, while Mark asked for the specialty and received the rastaman’s tri-color. It had to be called Irie! But, it wasn’t. We chatted some with the bar tender and really got a hang for this stuff. He let us try a few more flavors, so we had to order another drink. Since it still wasn’t 6 pm after this experience, we consulted the shade of the botanical garden to moderate our buzz.

A team of women had cricket practice and I am sorry to declare that I still have no idea how this game is played or what the rules are, even after watching for an hour, but it was a good break from the heat and the hustle and bustle of town. Even more: it was time for happy hour in the fancy hotel by now! On Fridays they have a special going of $2 drinks and $8 dinners and, did we enjoy that spoil! It had been a while since Mark and I went out for either drinks or dinner and the biggest treat of the day was an unused bucket of salt water (no dishes!) and enough food left on the boat to last us another day!

Friday, July 24, 2009

Guadeloupe: A Taste of the Butterfly

The shape of Guadeloupe looks like a butterfly. After our fast crossing from Antigua, we touched the left wing in a small town, called Deshaies. I still don’t know how to pronounce it, but we spent two nights there to get some rest.

The island is divided in two halves by a river, wide enough to take Irie across. This area contains a lot of mangroves and is therefore known as a decent hurricane hole. Upon arrival in Guadeloupe, we had big plans to run around to the north side, motor the short cut to the south side and do lots of exploring inland. That was before we actually realized that it was almost August, the height of hurricane season…

Deshaies is a small fishing village that reminded us of the towns in the Dominican Republic. Nothing special was happening, a variety of food was hard to find and the little community just did its thing. There was no good beach, but the hilly surroundings were very green and we discovered that the path along the river was very enjoyable. We walked Darwin there in the morning, while the jungle around us made the air moist and the mango trees dropped their fruits in massive quantities.

We altered our plans a bit and decided to follow the west coast. We would do the other things on our way back north. Our next stop was Pigeon Island, where we picked up a free mooring ball to go snorkeling. This area of actually two island is also called the Jacques Cousteau Underwater Park, because he declared it to be one of the top dive sites in the world. It was pretty rolly this far away from shore, so we didn’t waste much time and jumped in the water before I could get sea sick. Once in the company of coral and tropical fish, we executed our grand plan of circling the biggest island. Talking about a work out! It took us a little while, but at least we now know where the best snorkeling is to be found around these rocks.

Since the anchorage on the mainland, across from Pigeon Island, is more comfortable, we opted to spend the night there, near Malendure Beach. Now this place is very popular with locals and white people alike and we have no idea why… The sand is black and littered, a mucky river empties out on it, the seawater is grey and it is very busy. In the morning, we wanted to go for a sign posted hike, but ended up in a housing development and gave up.

It was Sunday and we needed some provisions. Our idea was to anchor off the marina in Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe’s capital, before noon to catch the store before closing. The sail down there was a bit tough, since the wind died down over and over again, just like on our trip to Pigeon Island. Only then, the wind shifted so much that we were actually sailing back north at one point! Now, at least we kept moving towards our destination, albeit very slowly.

We dropped anchor in a bumpy harbor just after 12 pm and realized it wouldn’t be comfortable enough to spend the night. Down went the dinghy and all of us fought the beating heat to make it to shore. I had a half hour left to “stock up”. I only needed five minutes, since the store didn’t have anything interesting or healthy. A stop by the bakery revealed that they were out of bread. So, we got back to Irie, hauled the dinghy and the anchor back up and left. At least Darwin had a little break and swim on shore.

The only other place we could go before dark was the Saintes, a group of islands south of Guadeloupe and an area well raved about. We looked forward to a short visit here. It was only 10 miles away and we could see them luring us over, but… the wind came exactly on the nose and under ten knots, while a few squalls passed nearby. Since we now are hardy sailors, we needed to prove a point and sailed all the way, avoiding a water spout in the distance. It “only” took us four hours and we did more than twice the distance to get to Bourg de Saintes, the main town on the islands.

Terre-de-Haut is the most populated, popular and interesting island of the bunch. The three of us spent a few days there and enjoyed the cute, clean, colorful town with its welcoming and friendly village atmosphere. We also walked to a couple of other bays and lost gallons of sweat. The Caribbean in the summer: it is hot and humid!

Our last evening in the Saintes was spent in a harbor on Terre-de-Bas. A walk on shore revealed a very neat, organized and friendly community with well-kept parks, lots of hiking opportunities and child friendly areas. When we get back… But now, the weather was quite favorable to make the crossing to Dominica.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Antigua: In and Out

It is early in the morning on the 9th of July. Mark and I are in a surprisingly good mood, despite the current circumstances. Together with hundreds of flying fish, we are flying south ourselves. It is blowing a perfect 15 knots and we are sailing quite a bit off the wind, which gives us speed and comfort. Finally. From now on, no more bashing into the wind. Supposedly. We made it to our last south eastern destination… and left. We are on our way to Guadeloupe. Who would have guessed?

Two days earlier, we were all ready for our crossing to Antigua. We were very excited about visiting this country and had looked forward to it for a long time. We knew we needed a current health certificate for Darwin and an extra rabies shot. We obtained a health certificate in St. Maarten on June 9th and thought “Good we got it today, so we can change the date into 19 or 29 if we need to.” In St. Barth, nobody cares about dogs and when we were thinking of leaving there, we tried our best to find a blue pen that matched the ink used on the certificate and gave it a go. We changed the date to 29 and immediately felt bad about it. It didn’t look that good either, and now we really had a problem. So, we decided to hitch hike to Gustavia with Darwin, for a new health certificate and the extra vaccination… There was one other -irrelevant- test request in our email from the Antigua agriculture department, but we knew Darwin didn’t have the disease, we never needed this test before and we figured we could deal with it at arrival. We also knew we needed a temporary import permit once we got to our destination. That couldn’t cost more than $10…

Sailing to Antigua is not a fun event, since it lies pretty much in the direction of the wind. We waited for a nice weather window with north east winds, but it was nevertheless a very bumpy and quite uncomfortable ride, that made sleeping during our “off shift” impossible. But, we got to sail the whole way! When we anchored in Jolly Harbour, we were spent and ready for a nap. First, we had to check in. Mark and I lowered the dinghy, put its engine in place and drove the mile or so to the customs and immigration office. There, the officials told us we had to move Irie to their dock for check-in. So, back we went, with the dinghy. Then, we lifted the anchor and motored to the customs dock with our big boat. So far, this wasn’t an easy process…

We talked to the immigration officer, who gave us a bunch of forms to fill out. We could not officially check in, until a vet came to inspect Darwin. Maybe we shouldn’t have mentioned him? A lot of people got away with this… But, we don’t feel comfortable with that, so, we waited. For four hours. Then, the fun began…

The vet wanted to test Darwin for lyme disease and give him an examination. Lyme disease mainly exists in the north east of the United States, and Darwin has not been there for two years. That didn’t matter. When a dog has this disease, he shows symptoms, which Darwin didn’t have. That didn’t matter. Also, Darwin was just examined in St. Barth by a vet and received a health certificate, meaning: he was healthy. That didn’t matter. So, why did we have to spend $50 there to get a current health certificate? “You only spent $50? What a bargain!” was the vet’s response. There were more discussions, proving that the test was totally unnecessary, but what really threw us off, was its price: for this little joke, we had to pay the equivalent of $50! And, after that, we would be issued a temporary import permit for… another $50! We wished we knew all this ahead of time, so we could have sailed straight away to Guadeloupe from St. Barth, a way nicer sail.

If we wanted to visit Antigua with Darwin, we had to give this vet (or the agriculture department) 100 USD. That was outrageous! They really wanted to make money on this. In all the other countries we have visited with our dogs, we never had to pay more than $15 a dog. Most of the time a permit is free, not required or about 10 dollars, including the vet visit. This vet, who already had an attitude, got annoyed with our objections and suggested we’d just leave the country instead. To his surprise, we actually agreed. He stormed to the immigration office to tell them we were not allowed to stay! Now what? We were so very tired from this last crossing, it was already 2 pm and we knew we couldn’t make it to Guadeloupe, mentally, physically or by nightfall…

After this incident, which took place outside the buildings and was witnessed by all people and officials present, we had a nice talk with the immigration officer. He had sympathy for our situation and allowed us to stay one night in the harbor to get some sleep. The other officials were also very friendly, so our impression of Antigua wasn’t “all bad”. After going through the stream of paperwork to check in and out of the country and getting the required cruising permit for $12, we moved Irie back to the anchorage for some well deserved rest.

Now, back on the ocean, we have all this behind us, but feel good about our decision. Too bad we don’t get to see and explore Antigua, but… we’ll spend our money elsewhere, in places where our dog is as welcome as we are. On this 9th of July, the elements agree with us. The sun sits bright in the sky, the wind keeps up, shooting us forward at an average of 6.5 knots. I think: “Look at us now, people, and be jealous. It doesn’t happen a lot, but now you are allowed to envy us. This trip is awesome!”

In a record time of about 7 hours, we would arrive in Deshaies, Guadeloupe. Checking in there is free and takes five minutes. One sheet to fill out, no stamps or permits required. No mention of Darwin

Monday, July 13, 2009

Our Visit to St. Barth

We did it! We left St. Martin, without having to turn back, like many others who leave the lagoon after months and have some kind of boat problem from the moment they get “outside”. It was a close call, nevertheless…

On the last day of June, about a month later than hoped for, we arrived at Irie after one last errand that kept us in St. Martin until then. A certain “flower” in a certain Business made it her “point” to mess up another order that we expected there two (!) weeks prior. When we finally retrieved that envelop (the Wirie logo stickers), we were finally ready to leave. So, from the moment we possessed the prized envelop, we hoisted the dinghy and pulled up our main sail, only to discover that its shackle was broken… Ooops! Sail down, anchor back down, dinghy down and Mark on a mission. It was after 12 pm, so the stores were closed on the French side (lunch break). Mark rushed to the Dutch side, to scout the marine stores and –luckily- found the right size shackle. Our lunch was postponed and we were on our way again before 2 pm.

The goal was Ile Fourchue in St. Barth, but it was getting late. The first stretch went all right along the north coast of St. Martin, actually veering away from the island, tacking off the wind. When a huge squall was visible from the corner of our eyes, we made a wider turn, away from our destination, towards Anguilla. Not good. To prevent sailing back from where we came on the opposite tack, we decided to motor. The wind was not very favorable and time was running out. Just when we settled on spending the night at Tintamarre, a nice island east of St. Martin, the wind shifted North East. Hmmmm… That was a chance not to be missed and we changed course a slight bit to sail at a steady pace to Ile Fourchue after all. The last 2 miles, the wind died completely and we motored into another rain storm into the deep bay with free mooring balls, just before dark. We made it to St. Barth!

Ile Fourchue was nothing special, but gave us a good night’s sleep. The following morning, we sailed on to Anse de Columbier, a beautiful bay on the northwest side of “mainland” St. Barth and our favorite stop so far. Mooring balls are free to use, the water is as clear as in the Bahamas and the beach is wide, pretty and quite remote. The only way to get to Columbier is by boat or by foot. A 20-minute hiking trail brings you to this beach from a small town called Flamands. Mark, Darwin and I followed this trail in reverse a few times, to buy fresh baguettes and try to get online to deal with the Wirie website.

One evening, we got company from our friends Ellie, Tom and Jens on Madonna. It was awesome, to have drinks and dinner together, away from the oh-so familiar lagoon and exchange the few stories we gathered so far. They just finished a little sailing vacation to Tintamarre, St. Barth and Statia. In the morning we had a wonderful breakfast on the beach. We all felt like vacationers!

Another day, Mark and I decided to check out the capital Gustavia by boat. This big harbor is full of mooring balls and anchored vessels and is pretty deep. It took us an hour to find a place to safely anchor, a mile away from town. For this spot, we had to pay more than 12 euros (16 dollars), because the fees are calculated by surface area, and –yes- we are a catamaran, a little bit wider than most other boats. A mooring in front of Gustavia, deep into the harbor and close to all the conveniences and services was cheaper, but … none were available. The town does offer free showers for everybody and the port authority provides a garbage disposal and free WiFi, included in the fee. The WiFi signal, however, is weak at best and never reached the area called Corossal where we were anchored. For water one does have to pay nowadays.

Needless to say, if you know Liesbet and Mark (and their tight budget), we only lasted in Gustavia Harbor one night. We did utilize our time well with internet business and grocery shopping the first afternoon and a historical walking tour and filling our water tank the next morning. The tourist office provides nice maps and a written walking tour of town and that is the best way to see what there is to see. Mark and I walked along the harbor, to a couple of fort sites with good views and read about an array of historical buildings dating back to the time of the Swedes. Gustavia is a pretty city, clean and with a French attitude that is more than tolerable. Lunch in Le Select was the reward for a hot morning of walking – and to Mark – for a genuine effort to drag behind me and listen to the information in the brochure.

The same morning, we also walked across the island to St. Jean. The statue of an Arawak Indian at the roundabout represents all the symbols of St. Barth. The airport here is interesting in regards to the little planes that land over a hill and then practically drop down to the landing strip. An impressive act of competence and an awe-inspiring sight!

Since we were so fond of Columbier, we took our Irie back there. The wind was howling down the mountainsides and picking up a mooring ball became a huge challenge. In the process, we bent two boat hooks and lost one of them together with my hat. Lots of yelling. Not a good scene. But, we were still happy to be back in a peaceful harbor with a long beach for Darwin to enjoy.

In St. Barth, you can check out 24 hours before leaving the country. This meant, we had to go back to Gustavia for this event. We had been communicating with the agriculture department of Antigua, our next destination, about temporarily importing Darwin and things seemed to become more painful than we thought. Darwin has been totally in sync with the UK regulations and requirements for four years, but yet, for some countries that is not enough. He has a micro chip, all his health records and all the needed vaccinations. The last thing we read in an email from Antigua was that he needed a current health certificate, a rabies vaccination that is less than 1 year old (the one he has is good for three years and he is approaching 2 and a half years) and a performed lyme disease test, something we have never heard of or needed!

Instead of taking Irie back to Gustavia again, we chose the more adventurous option. We hiked to Flamands and hitched rides to town, with Darwin. There, the vet inspected our dog, proclaimed very healthy, and gave him a pet passport, with a current health certificate and the proof of another rabies shot in it. Price: $50. Armed with all the right paperwork and the thought that, if a test for lyme disease is really necessary it could be performed at our destination, we were ready for Antigua. The only thing between us and this popular island was a night crossing to the south east…