Thursday, January 21, 2010

Northbound: Guadeloupe

Point à Pitre is Guadeloupe’s biggest city. It is located on the southern edge of the thinnest part of the country and has a big harbor with a few anchorages. There is a marina area that is very convenient, clean and self-contained. You find marine shops, car rental places, a supermarket, expensive restaurants, and a chiropractor all in walking distance from the dinghy dock. The day after our arrival, “sore backed” Mark visited the chiropractor, who “cracked” him five times. The whole ordeal took less than five minutes and cost 60 euros. In the afternoon, we paid a brief visit to the city.

The following two weeks, we basically stayed put in the harbor, to examine the developments of Mark’s back, work online and “wait for weather”. Mark spent hours on end improving the Wirie website, updating the manuals and preparing for our big launch of The “improved” Wirie. We were mainly anchored off a quiet island, Islet à Cochons, inhabited by little biting bugs. It was a good place to take Darwin to shore, except early in the morning or late in the afternoon. While the captain’s back was resting, the crew carried 70 gallons of water back on deck, filled the water tank, hauled the dinghy up the beach each time we took Darwin to shore and pulled it up our davits every night (a security matter). As good practice, the captain is steering the boat and the crew is lifting the anchor and the sails these days… Sometimes life on shore sounds appealing!

But, it wasn’t all work and bug bites. One day, we rented a car to explore the mainland a bit. Guadeloupe, shaped like a massive butterfly, consists of two islands cut apart by the Riviѐre Saleé. Grande Terre is flat with nice beaches, resorts and agriculture, while Basse Terre is mountainous and lush. Most of this side of the island is a National Park with many hikes, view points, a volcano and water falls. I’ve wanted to check it out for a while and Wednesday, January 13th was the selected day to do so.

Mark, Darwin and I loaded up the dinghy and went to the marina area to see whether Cap Caraibes had a cheap car that day. Sometimes, they don’t have any cars at all and you can’t reserve. They don’t care. This is French land. Everything is laid-back and unorganized… We waited for about an hour and got lucky and on our way by 8:30 am in a tiny, crappy Renault Twingo. Well, what do you want for “only” 30 euros ($ 45)? After a few wrong turns because of my awful co-piloting skills, we stopped at a super duper, bigger than American-sized shopping mall to check their closing hours. To get most of our car and day, we would do some shopping here once it got dark.

The trip went on, over the Route de la Traverse to the National Park. Our first stop was a pretty, but busy waterfall, worth the picture. When we saw the National Park sign, however, it became clear to us that dogs were not allowed! We left Darwin in the shady car for a quick glimpse of sights in the busy areas and took him for a long walk up a mountain where no tourists were present. This trail was very challenging and muddy. We need better shoes than flip flops! Darwin loved it and everybody got their exercise and mud bath for the day.

We followed the west coast of Guadeloupe down and passed a few places we had anchored on our way to Grenada. Near the capital, Basseterre, we turned inland to approach the volcano La Soufriѐre. The top was in the clouds and rain was approaching while we drove through the lush environment. The Twingo had a very hard time climbing the steep roads, only allowing Mark to keep moving in first gear. If the car stopped, we were screwed. When that happened, we all got out and pushed. Just kidding! We did roll backwards while Mark floored the pedal in order to go the right way (=up) again. Near the volcano are a lot of interesting looking hiking trails to waterfalls and view points, but we couldn’t leave Darwin for that long. Plus, what’s the fun of going on a big walk without having a happy dog with you? We dipped out toes in a natural hot pool and drove the Twingo down again.

The roads in Guadeloupe are surprisingly good with stretches of highway and passing lanes. Along the southeast side of Basse Terre, we drove inward again to see the most visited and highest waterfalls of the country, the Chutes du Carbet. Because of rock slides, however, the closest falls were closed. The higher falls were accessible, but the day was running out of hours, so we opted for a walk around the serene Grand Etang with Darwin instead. The trail around this lake went up and down over tree roots and rocks with views of a calm pond in between the branches and leaves. It was a nice, but tiring way to end our sightseeing trip.

Back in Point à Pitre, I was excited about checking out the Decathlon outdoor store and the huge supermarket. Mark and I did find some new and affordable swimwear, but the Carrefour supermarket was, just like everywhere else in Guadeloupe, very expensive. When we tried to fuel up our car, the gauge didn’t want to get to the fifth bar, which was how we left the rental place. After a few tries and spending a lot of money, we gave up.

When we searched out a third gas station the next morning, we kept pumping without results. We figured worst case was to fill the tank and ask some money back, since there obviously was a problem with the gauge. By that time, we had spent 43 euros ($ 63) on fuel for this little Twingo! The owner of Cap Caraibes didn’t want to have anything to do with refunding money, blaming us for trying so many times instead of just bringing the car back. Are we too responsible? Or too dumb? The experience made this car rental the most expensive of our lives, costing over $ 100 for a day! Mark hated the fact he didn’t speak French, but I assured him that even knowing French would not have helped in this case as I was the proof of it! No, Mark is still not fond of the French islands…

One day, we moved over to cute and pretty Ilêt du Gosier, an uninhabited little island with a lighthouse, palm trees and a nice beach. Lots of people swim over from the mainland, since it is only 600 yards off shore. The place got quite busy during the day, but was all right in the mornings and the evenings, when we shared the island with the biting bugs. Dogs were not allowed, so we had to sneak Darwin on shore before and after “busy hours”. Not that rules are followed or enforced, based on the many camp fires!

Our last adventure in Guadeloupe took place a couple of days ago. We moved Irie to the south side of the Riviѐre Saleé, the slim body of the butterfly, to pick up a mooring ball that wasn’t there. We anchored for the night and got up at 4 am the next morning, to utilize the 5 am bridge openings. In the dark, we lifted anchor and made our way to the first bridge. Easy enough. The second one was close to the first one, but off set and very narrow. Once in the opening, with a foot on each side to spare, the current pushed us against one of the walls with a small crack as a result. Then, a 30 minute pitch dark slide through the mangroves followed, with some lit and unlit markers “showing” us the way and many no-see-ums. The last bridge was wide enough and we hoped to pick up a mooring ball on the north side until daylight was present. None were to be found, so we had to keep going until we reached the big bay up north. There, we dropped anchor for a few hours before continuing on when the sun was high enough to see the many reefs.

Later that day, we dropped anchor west of Ilêt à Fajou, far away from shore in shallow water. We were the only boat, surrounded by turquoise waters and expansive views. The exercise of the day was wading along some of the beaches and mangroves in clear water avoiding sea cucumbers and star fish and providing the local biting bugs with food for weeks to come. We returned to Irie red dotted, but ready for a day of relaxation. No internet here! Not even with The Wirie. Unfortunately, that meant we couldn’t check the weather again and found ourselves in a dead calm ocean the following day, heading north…

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