Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Day of Exploring in Dominica

After spending some time in the picturesque and friendly town Bourg des Saintes in Guadeloupe’s southern islands, the “Grenada Armada” moved on to the underdog of the Caribbean, Dominica. SV Imagine only stopped for the night, but the crew of SV Alianna (minus Ali the cat) joined Mark, Darwin and me on a land tour of the interior.

A previous attempt to see the country by car that resulted in a day of mostly driving, had taught us to focus on the important sights first. From Portsmouth in the north, Mark drove us to the area inland from the capital Roseau, already an hour and a half away. Over crumbled “roads” without any sign posts, but with the help of a friendly local, we managed to enter Morne Trois Pitons National Park. Our first stop was Fresh Water Lake, a very serene (yep) lake surrounded by rainforest and cool air. Darwin loved the temperature and so did we. After a short walk through the greenery and a glance at the pipeline, we continued on.

Titou Gorge was our next challenge. Once again with the directions of helpful people after we parked, we reached a rocky river and walked along and over a wooden pipeline to a small fresh water pool. The water was ice cold, but we were in for a treat if we could endure it long enough. Mark, Darwin and I swam through the gorge and followed the icy river to the end (or the beginning?) where a waterfall prevented us from going further. We were surrounded by enormous walls, carved out by millions of years of water flow. On a rocky outcrop and in a separate small pool we could take a break and enjoy the incredible environment. The sun was just high enough to warm our bodies a bit while we took in the sight and the thundering noise. A “splash” caught our attention. A small lizard fell out of the sky and jumped back up the slippery wall. We wondered how many attempts he tried to reach the top of the gorge. The current pushed us back to the pool, where a divided river up in the rocks was made into a shower with slightly warmer water. Then, it was Rosy and Sim’s turn to explore the gorge. After the initial shock of the icy water, this place is most enjoyable and our favorite attraction in Dominica.

On the way back to the car, we marveled over the engineering of the pipelines (made out of wood!) that transport water to all parts of the region. A lot of the country’s electricity is also created by water. Fresh water is extremely abundant in Dominica with its 365 rivers and almost constant rainfall in the mountains. It is about the wettest place to visit by boat, but the rewards are plentiful: colorful rainbows, free water and fertile grounds. Everywhere you walk, you are likely to find fruit on the trees, from mangoes to oranges and coconuts. And calabash to make bowls.

For lunch, we found an attractive, cute, local restaurant in Wotton Waven, called Petit Paradis. The price of the food and drinks was very reasonable and the service friendly, until the ordered food was prepared and handed to us. At that point, the waitress (instigated by the owner without doubt) told us she was mistaken with the price. She meant to say US dollars instead of EC dollars, which more than doubled the cost. A game they play when they think they can get more money out of the “unaware” tourist. We didn’t “bite” and didn’t want the food anymore, but worked out a compromise. An incident like this is very unfortunate and changes the mood of the moment, that’s for sure. Our appreciation for Dominica dropped and now, we didn’t want that second drink anymore and I was not temped to buy their locally made rum either. The owner could have made more money, if she would have treated us with respect and like locals…

Our next stop was Trafalgar falls, where Sim and Rosy went for a walk, photographed the waterfalls and took a dip in hot water springs. Mark, Darwin and I waited in the parking lot and enjoyed the scenery of the jungle there. We visited the falls last year and wanted to save some money. On the way back to Roseau, we stopped near a side road to “hunt” for fruit. The reward: three oranges, a coconut, almost cocoa beans and breadfruit and two calabashes later on. Some places are better than others, like the shore side of our anchorage in Portsmouth, where mangoes and coconuts”litter” the ground.

The day was running out of hours quickly and after a short stop in Roseau, we drove back to Portsmouth after a 30 minute delay waiting for the Chinese road crew to blast part of a mountain. Mark dropped the car back off and as the sky turned black, I picked him up with the dinghy while our friends watched Darwin. A drink at Big Papa’s (another spot where tourist dollars are wanted) sealed a wonderful day of exploring. Dominica is a very interesting and beautiful country, but everything costs a lot of money and tourists are highly encouraged to hire guides, do tours and buy entry tickets and souvenirs, making it hard for the independent traveler on a budget. Renting a car and splitting the cost with some friends is in this case the best solution. Signs for sights are hard to find, but luckily there’s always a friendly face around to show you the way…

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Challenging Start Going South

Two and a half years. That’s how long it took me to finally realize (and admit to) the fact that cruising totally depends on the weather. As a traveler, I always decided where I wanted to go and how long I stayed. On a sailboat, forget it! People have this “funny” perception that sailing on your own boat means freedom. Where did they get that fantasy? It is the wind that decides where you go (unless you don’t mind bashing into steep waves, barely moving and wasting loads of diesel) and it is the comfort of an anchorage that makes one stay or leave. No longer do you choose where to visit.

Most cruisers are smart and they take this very fact into consideration when they plot their trips and pick their anchorages. Most of the time, Mark and I calculate that fact in as well. Except when I really want to see something. In this case, I fancied a visit to the lesser known Caribbean islands of Statia, St. Kitts and Nevis and Montserrat. The fact that we never plan to be back in this area fueled our decision.

The day we left St. Martin, Irie pointed at Statia, under sail. Sure, the current would set us some, but we figured we could make it pretty close to where we needed to be. But, because the first bridge opening on the Dutch side didn’t take place until 9:30 am, we had a late start and wouldn’t make it before customs and immigration closed. The weekend with non-working officials followed, so what was the point of going if we weren’t able to check in? So, we changed direction and headed for St. Barth. We sure could use a few days of relaxation before being active explorers again.

After many hours of sailing on the opposite tack, we found ourselves not too far from our starting point in St. Maarten and ended up motoring to St. Barth. What a waste… Together with our friends from Alianna, Tatia and Imagine of Falmouth we did get some quiet time and fun evenings before the “final” departure. We called ourselves the “Grenada Armada” and all took a different path southwards.

It was very easy to sail to Statia, for some reason the only island around, being covered in clouds. From the moment we rounded the northern corner, a torrential downpour started, making it difficult to see the oil tankers and mooring boys off the coast. We managed to safely get to Oranjebaai, the only anchorage and a marine park, which is hard to believe, based on the oil industry and frequent tug movement. Other cruisers had warned us: Statia is very rolly! Well, what do you want me to say: They are right. The mooring balls are located as if in the middle of the ocean and the only place to anchor wasn’t much better. The whole time we were there, Irie pitched and rolled and pretended to be a washing machine. Too bad we had to be the clothes! Three foot waves made up the swell, walking around was impossible without hitting our heads or other body parts and stepping on the bottom step of the boat was dangerous. Getting Darwin in and out of the dinghy became the most challenging task of the day. But, we succeeded. The plan was to spend more time off than on the boat. Because of the non-stop rain, that didn’t happen the first day. We tried to venture in town once and came back totally drenched. Now we were wet clothes being put in the machine again.

The second morning of our stay, the three of us hiked through the forest to The Quill, the rim of Statia’s volcano. The lack of sun made it possible for Darwin to join us and everybody enjoyed the exercise. I climbed an extra steep trail for an OK view, before we headed back to town. Mark had an appointment, in person arranged at 7 am that morning, at the doctor’s office in the hospital to get his sore throat looked at. When he found out how much the cost for the consultation would be, he decided to be in pain for a few more days. The long quest for a doctor started…

A big attraction in Statia is its capital, and only town, Oranjestad. Old, historical buildings and ruins are scattered throughout and the history is explained on signs. Fort Oranje sits picturesque on a hill and wherever you look, a charming house calls for your attention. People are very friendly and greet one another constantly, with a wave, a nod or a short honk. The visitor is part of the happy small town mentality from the moment he sets foot ashore. Darwin never had a problem to join us.

St. Kitts and Nevis were our next destination. Very rare south-southwest winds were predicted, the anchorage of Basseterre was very uncomfortable and our plan was to spend a few days in the marina of the capital, something we hadn’t done in over two years. It would be a bit of a spoil (being able to walk to town, jump onshore with Darwin and enjoy a decent shower!), and we heard that the price was right: 50 cents USD a foot, which would be about $18 a night for us. We had one issue, though, would Darwin be allowed on shore? For months, I tried to communicate with the Department of Agriculture and once, back in January, they told me to send his documents by email as a start of the process. By now, after multiple emails to the same address, I hadn’t received any answers to my questions and all the health documents were in their possession. We would have to see what happened…

After a motor trip dead into the wind, over the choppy sees, after two sleepless nights in Statia, we managed to secure a spot in Port Zante Marina. Mark tried to obtain information about the dog policies before checking in, but that didn’t fly. Nobody knew anything and he had to proceed with the check-in process and pay all the fees, regardless. When somebody finally tried to call the two government vets, one was unable to come inspect Darwin that day and the other was unreachable. Another try later was as unsuccessful. What were we to do now? Darwin needed to go to the bathroom. Why is all this so hard? How could nobody give us a solution for bringing the dog ashore? Are we the only cruisers ever to visit countries like this with a dog? Or are we the only ones, trying to do it “right”? Finding out the fee for a night in the marina ($1.20 a foot for a catamaran, that’s more than twice as much as for a monohull!!!), discouraged us even further from staying in Basseterre, so… we left that area and anchored in Ballast Bay for two nights.

The dangerous onshore winds started the second day we were in St. Kitts. Big wind waves smashed against Irie’s bow and against better judgment, we stayed put, enduring the uncomfortableness and stress of dragging on the rocky beach. Not that we had a better option at the moment. I did hitch a ride to see town before and with these south winds, we were very ready to move. But, where to?

The bad weather would last for a bit and we didn’t want to sail to Antigua (and deal with the high fees for Darwin there), before heading to Guadeloupe. Guadeloupe itself was too far away and dead into the wind. On the chart, we had seen a potential anchorage on the north coast of Nevis, but nobody mentioned it. We decided to give that a try and, were we happy we did! All of a sudden, the choppy seas, made room for a piece of calm water in front of a deserted beach. We were the only boat there (we did start a bit of a trend, though, since everywhere else was uncomfortable) and stayed a couple of relaxing days until the wind changed back to the southeast, making this spot less desirable again. As an added bonus, Mark was picked up by a doctor while hitching a ride to the hospital; the start to a less painful throat!

The wind was light and the swell manageable when we arrived in Charlestown, the main town in Nevis. Tons of mooring balls dotted the water surface over a sandy bottom, but we anchored, not wanting more fees. Nobody chased us off, so we assumed this was OK. The view from the anchorage, a perfectly shaped volcano teased by white clouds, was enjoyable; the city itself had a few historical buildings, but didn’t do much for us. We didn’t feel very welcome and stuck to Pinney’s Beach for a few days. Towards the end of the light wind period, we motored –once again- passed The Kingdom of Redonda and to Montserrat for a quick stop.

The same afternoon as our arrival in Little Bay (where all formalities went smooth, professional and efficient, even for Darwin), I hitched rides around the countryside with very friendly and helpful locals. Since it was already pretty late, I only managed to make it to the Volcano Observatory with its decent view of the volcano and some of the destruction it caused in the nineties. The best view, however, came the next morning, when we took advantage of favorable winds to finally sail, all the way to Guadeloupe. There, the rest of the Grenada Armada spontaneously re-assembled in The Saintes for some strategic planning, swapping of smart and not so smart past itineraries and highly needed cocktails in the cockpit.