Saturday 7th January 2012 - Magnifique Martinique, Delightful Dominica

Jon & Carol Dutton
Sat 7 Jan 2012 14:23

15:34.60N 61:27.63W


Saturday 7th January 2012


Well, we definitely saw some hills on our day out on 21st December and some pretty interesting hairpin bends.  However, since Martinique is a department of metropolitan France, it has naturally attracted a lot of EU money.  Unlike St Lucia, here we find dual carriageways and European road signs and all that stuff.  Generous ol’ EU I say.  If only Wiltshire could afford to maintain its roads like that.  Apparently there are one or two people who wish for independence but they are largely regarded as being round the bend.  Everyone else knows on which side their bread is buttered.


We decided to journey northwards up through the interior and circle back to Le Marin at the SW tip of the island via the eastern (hence, Atlantic Ocean rather than Caribbean Sea) coast.  The logic was that we were not daft enough to plan to make our way northwards under sail along the windward (Atlantic) coast with Martinique as a lee shore to the easterly trade winds.  No, siree!  So, we’d see the western coast from seaward on our way north.  We visited a spectacular garden, called Balata which had been imaginatively and immaculately laid out – think the precision of Versailles but with curves.  Moreover, the obligatory tree top canopy walk, on a series of rope bridges, felt much like home, with a familiar Atlantic swell roll to it.


                                                Balata Gardens

The Atlantic Ocean (west and windward) coast is, as is to be expected, far more severe than the Caribbean Sea (east and leeward) coast.  The beaches are mostly untenable with large rollers breaking ashore and on the cliffs.  It is of little interest to tourists, is relatively sparsely populated and it is clear from the general air of dilapidation that the sort of investments made on the west coast have not been duplicated here.  Martinique had been the first land we had sighted on our crossing so it was a poignant moment to reflect that we’d been out there as far as the eye could see and a great deal further.


We sailed for the charming bay of Grande Anse d’Arlet – around 15NM up the coast – the next day.  En passage we passed Rocher du Diamant, which, during the Napoleonic Wars, was commissioned into service as the rock frigate HMS Diamond Rock with several guns and a complement of 120 men.  It can’t have been an entirely trivial task getting that lot here, looking at the topography.  But, it gave the French navy a bit of a shock as they came round the south of the island and impeded their reaching the capital, Fort De France, for nearly 18 months.  Unfortunately, those damned Frenchies caught the guys napping after one or two too many rom ponches or whatever and seized it thereafter.  It was not, one gathers, a career-enhancing moment for the luckless RN lieutenant in charge at the time.  Look chaps; this was a job for the gunners.  That was the mistake.   




The erstwhile HMS Diamond Rock. – tempting to row ashore and re-instate the Ensign   

We spent Christmas Day at anchor in Grande Anse d’Arlet.   Just to show that the UK wasn’t the only place to suffer grey, cloudy weather, see photo below.  But, the downpours here are different.  No drizzle – just get on with it, get it over and keep it warm.  No Barbours required – no long faces either.  It’s all liquid sunshine, as they say in these parts.  Christmas fare consisted of roast turkey and Christmas pudding - not.  But, a rom ponch or two.  And the jar of Brussel sprouts, bought in Las Palmas, is still in the bilges.  The mince pies, brought out by Sally Dumas, were however, scrumptious!  Whilst in Anse d’Arlet we met up again with another ARC boat, Ganga, which is being sailed to Queensland by two young engaged Australians, Ben and Bridget.  We’ll see more of them, no doubt, at Panama and beyond.




                          Christmas Morning, Grande Anse d’Arlet


On the 27th we left Grande Anse d’Arlet and did a short 7 or 8 NM hop up the coast to another bay – Anse Mitan.  It used to be a very chi chi little tourist trap but suffered badly from hurricane damage some years ago.  That knocked out the principal hotel.  What you are left with is a lovely bay and a still very pretty creole village as part of the small town (twee boutiques selling expensive tat – you know the score) whilst the rest of the place just looks as though somebody needs to love it a bit more.  Nonetheless, it’s a lovely setting in which to be.


The next plan was to move an even shorter distance – about 5 NM – to a reputedly lovely setting at Les Trois Islets on the south side of the Baie de Fort de France.  Fort de France is the capital of Martinique and located in a massive (by Caribbean standards) bay that screams out that it has to be the site of the capital city.  It took a bit of time for that message to sink into anyone, but more of that later.  The only snag Jon could see with the advice, that Les Trois Islets was such a great place to be, was that the wind was blowing from the east (as ever) and was a lusty Force 6.  All of that seemed, on the face of it not to favour an anchorage open to winds from anywhere between NE and SE and enclosed on all other sides.  It just felt as though there would be an awful lot of lee shore about the place.  But, hey; we’d give it a try.  So, on the morning of the 29th we did just that.  And, that really didn’t work at all.  The boat rolled like a pig and the anchor dragged like Danny La Rue.  So, off we went, 4 NM or so across the bay, to anchor off Fort St Louis within a couple of hundred yards, by dinghy, of the capital’s waterfront.




                                                Fort de France Waterfront


A great fireworks display heralded the start of the New Year, albeit a day early, on the evening of 30th December.  We had ring-side seats, anchored where were.  Since we know that Cowes Week sets the standard here, we’re glad to be able to report that the Martiniquois did pretty OK.  Hundreds of local boats came to join those cruising yachts already anchored.  In our case this almost led to a re-opening of hostilities with the French as the boat hook had to be flourished on a couple of occasions when boats, full of over-exuberant, over-lubricated and under-skilled party-goers, threatened our topsides.  But, in the end it all worked, nobody got killed and we had a lot of fun.





The next morning (New Year’s Eve) we headed north again about 11NM, to St Pierre.  This was originally the capital (really can’t see why given the communications advantages of F de F, but there we are).  It stopped being so when the local volcano erupted in 1902, destroyed most of the town buildings and wiped out the entire population of 30,000.  They’d been warned, but you know how it is.  Well, actually, only 29,999 of 30,000 were wiped out so it’s not quite as bad as I painted it.  The one survivor was a prisoner in the jail whose dungeon is the only bit of the prison that is still intact.  And they say that crime doesn’t pay!  St Pierre is interesting not least because it has tremendous colonial history - the 19th century theatre (now in ruins) even had different entrances (and different building materials – marble vs tiles) for the various classes of theatre-goers.  And, different floors – toffs a little above stage height, middle class on the first floor and the lower classes in the ‘chicken coop’ at the top.  It wasn’t a question of whether you were prepared to pay more for better treatment.  Your class apparently determined what your experience was to be.  The current town is a mix of typical Caribbean wooden buildings, new brick grafted onto old stone and so on.  Some buildings are part old; part starkly newer.  The anchorage off St Pierre is also pretty interesting.  There is a narrow shelf very close inshore on which you can anchor in a reasonable depth – between 5 and 10 metres.  But, the 20 metre depth contour is about 200 metres off the beach and by the time you are 400 metres offshore the depth is around 50 metres.  That’s not anchorable for a yacht.    Further out, the seabed drops almost vertically to a zillion metres.  So, best get in really close to the beach and then ensure that your hook is properly buried.  Out with the snorkel and mask – again. 


St Pierre was our jumping off point for the 40 mile or so passage to Dominica on New Year’s Day.  The trade winds have now set in pretty firmly at about 20 – 25 knots; conditions we hadn’t experienced for several weeks.  The wind was forward of the beam so it called for a reef and a revision of how to cope with life below at an angle.  However, it was a cracking sail and in almost no time we were heading into the bay off Roseau, Dominica’s capital, on the west coast of the island. 


We’d had conflicting advice about Dominica.  We’d attended a very self-proclaiming lecture by Don Street (a well known US Caribbean sailing guru) in Las Palmas.  He had advised that Dominica had nothing for the sailor and that we should pass it by.  Chris Doyle (who writes competing sailing guides for the area) had said quite the opposite at a lecture in St Lucia – whilst acknowledging that there were few specific yachting facilities here and technical support was in short supply.  John Whyte of the OCC said that he and Lyn had been utterly charmed by the island.  Now, guys, here’s the real message.  It seems to us that Street was talking through his (white Tilley) hat.  Dominica is absolutely beautiful.  It’s stunning to look at from the sea and just as stunning inland.





      Roseau Waterfront                                              Another Salisbury


It is one of the poorest islands in the Caribbean, but strenuous efforts are being made to exploit its natural beauty by developing tourism in a low key and environmentally sympathetic way.  A large number of cruise ships now put into Roseau (a memorial plaque at the cruise ship dock opened by Baroness Chalker of Wallasey in 1990 is inscribed with the epithet “The British were here, thank God”)!  Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, a scheme of professional yacht service registration has been introduced and half a dozen or more small enterprises now collaborate in providing moorings and organising shore excursions at reasonable rates.  No need to search these guys out – as you approach the harbour, one or other of them (and they have some sort of roster to ensure that it is only one or other of them) will approach you in a fast skiff and offer to sort out whatever you want. Anchoring in Roseau can be something of a challenge – no problem; he’ll have access to a mooring (but worthwhile diving on it to check it out).  You want to see a rain forest, a waterfall or two, hot springs, wildlife etc and want to see all that with a competent guide at a standard, agreed price?  No problem; let’s go.


The people are massively friendly.  Not sure quite why the next point should have struck home so hard but it did.  It is difficult to recall seeing policemen and policewomen quite so immaculately turned out, going about their business on the beat.  Starch everywhere and shoes gleaming.  Not a firearm or a truncheon to be seen.  Relaxed and chatting to people.  Real Dixon of Dock Green stuff.   If that means nothing to you, best ask your parents – or possibly grandparents – they may be ancient enough to know. 


Roseau is quite remarkable.  Arriving as we did, on New Year’s Day, it was practically deserted.  First impressions were that we’d wandered onto a Hollywood set for a Western B movie (maybe Pinewood – Hollywood might have tried to smarten things up a bit).  Apart, that is, from the vibrant colours everywhere displayed on the many wooden buildings in this capital city.  A couple of days later, populated by a noisy, laughing, singing citizenry it screamed authentic post-colonial Caribbean as no other place we have visited has.  It all t’rown togedda and it all work jus’ fine.  The country still has challenges to face – there is clearly a lack of employment for many.  But there is, relatively speaking, very little crime and society seems pretty ordered and at peace with itself.



         Roseau street scenes – cruise ship parked at the end of the High Street



Ruins Rock Café                                                       Subtle pastel shades inside!


Pancho, a well established guide, set us off on a tour through the rain forest to the remote Middleham waterfalls.  The lushness and variety of vegetation is quite staggering, as were we after some of the long steep inclines we had to climb in the humidity and heat of the forest.




Middleton Falls                         Trafalgar Falls


We lunched in a creole restaurant overlooking a delightfully verdant ravine.  The menu was simple – chicken, shrimp, goat or fish – all with the same vegetables and sauce.  It was all delicious.  This set us up for a short walk to the Trafalgar Falls which is a stop on the cruise ship excursion so, unlike Middleham, not “Far From the Madding Crowd”.  Our final stop was at a hot sulphur spring pool at Tikwen Glocho (Creole derived from the French – P’tit Coin L’eau Chaud).  At first sight the pool did not look inviting since the sulphur turns the water into what appears to be caramel sludge.  But, hey, once in and lounging around, it was a quite different story.  The big difference between these and similar springs one might have experienced is that these are set in completely untamed and unmessed-about-with rain forest. Whoa!  


                         Tikwen Glocho Hot Tub


Then, back to the boat to get to grips with the auxiliary generator (pretty important bit of kit for charging the boat’s batteries).  Jon spent several hours talking to various experts in the UK, Holland and the US before sorting out a solution that seems to be working by bypassing one of two electronic temperature sensors.  Sounds scarier than it probably is, particularly given that these sensors are well known for malfunctioning.  And, when they do, they fail safe – so the generator doesn’t work.  Which is fine unless you’d really rather it stopped being such a hypochondriac or listening to Mr ‘elf ‘n’ safety and just got on with a day’s work.  Anyway, it got fixed.  Nobody was more surprised by this than Jon.  When it comes to matters electronic he’s generally better at seeing the high level problem (it’s broken) and the high level solution (it needs fixing) than the finer detail of either.  However, with Andy Bristow’s words (“You’ll find you can fix anything because you haven’t got a choice”) in mind, he persevered and now has all fingers and toes crossed.  We’ll get it looked at properly in St Martin next week.


On Wednesday 4th Jan we departed Roseau for Portsmouth – about 20 miles up the coast and anchored off the shore in the magnificent Prince Rupert’s Bay that afternoon.  Portsmouth is a tiny place (but, then, the entire population of Dominica is only around 70,000).  Again it has that somewhat ramshackle look about it – aided in its case by the fact that the shore is fairly liberally scattered with shipwrecks from various hurricanes – some going back to the 1990s - that nobody has quite got round to sorting out yet.




We spent a very pleasant couple of hours early on Thursday morning being rowed up the Indian River (so called because the Carib Indians used to live and operate there) into the swamp forest.  One of the backwaters was used as a witch’s coven in one of the many Pirates of the Caribbean films.  You can see why.





            Indian River                                       Now, who’s going to bring me my morning coffee?


That was followed on Friday by an excursion to the fort that guarded Prince Rupert’s Bay from the late 18th century until it was abandoned by the British in  the 1850s - after we’d stopped quarrelling with the French for a bit.  In its time the garrison would have been very impressive indeed.  Sadly, once it was abandoned the forest took it all back in a trice.  There is a project to reconstitute it but that has been going since the 1980s and is proceeding at best Caribbean speed.  But, it is expensive and money is scarce hereabouts.  But, I reckon one could have done worse in the early 19th century, as a lieutenant colonel to be posted there in command of the 600 strong garrison with a pretty magnificent Commandant’s residence and all that.  And, as it happens you wouldn’t have been involved in any fighting – well, aside from quelling a mutiny in 1802 (but, timing is all in selection of postings).   


Today we leave Dominica en route for Antigua.  The plan is to pause overnight at anchor in Guadeloupe and to press on first thing tomorrow for Nelson’s Dockyard.