Isles des Saintes
Position: 15:52.005N 61:35.198W
Date: Thursday 18th April 2013
The weather forecast was promising a period of rainy weather, and the choice was either to stay in Prince Rupert Bay for a few more days, or carry on to the next island. Good as Dominica was, trips through the rainforest in torrential rain did not appeal so we took the choice to move on. Yet again we had another good strong sail between the islands and as we approached Les Saintes we were met by black skies and heavy rain. We made our way around to the main anchorage on Isle de Terre Haut just outside the small town of Bourg des Saintes which is the only community in the islands that numbers more than a dozen or so houses.
Les Saintes are a quite magical group of small islands lying between Dominica and Guadaloupe. Their small size and the way they were clustered together reminded me a little of The Scilly Islands off the SW coast of Britain. They are French (no boat boys and great food, hurray!). In proportion they are comparable to their taller neighbours, but they are too low to attract any significant rainfall and so have never been able to produce much in the way of agriculture.
Because there was never any sugar cane cultivation, no African slaves were taken there and the population has a very European look. Anybody of African origin who lives there does so by choice rather than having been forced to go there. The original settlers were Bretons, or from Normandy or Pitou and at least until relatively recently they were mostly quite poor, indeed they had earned the sobriquet ‘poor whites of the Saintes’.
One of the books I have been re-reading whilst in this part of the world is Patrick Leigh Fermor’s ‘The Traveller’s Tree’. He spent some time here in 1950 and he writes about the poverty of the inhabitants and the diseases that afflicted them, in particular leprosy, elephantiasis and insanity. He writes that they were less literate and lived a poorer lifestyle than many of those of African descent on nearby islands. Fortunately things have changed greatly during the last 60 years and we saw no signs of this. In fact the islands have the prosperous appearance of a delightful French seaside village that has given itself over to small scale tourism.
We spent four nights in the islands, and it rained for most of the time we were there. The wind was fairly strong but the most unfortunate thing was the north easterly swell which worked its way into the anchorage and caused the boat to roll around on its mooring sometimes as much as if we had been at sea. It really is not a very protected anchorage. We had a fairly long trip to shore in the dinghy and the rain and waves meant that it was not a good idea to try to take the camera with us, so no pictures I’m afraid.
That said we enjoyed our stay there. Every day we went ashore and sampled the coffee and patisserie, and had several splendid lunches. In our waterproof clothing and rain sodden footwear we splashed our way around a few of the small roads over steep but low lying hills to secluded bays. As we walked a veritable menagerie of farm animals would come to greet us through the broken fences, including chickens, geese, guinea fowl, goats and long horn cattle. Several of the goats were tiny new-borns in the most splendid patchwork of earthy colours.
Back in the town, Leigh-Fermor writes of a strange house he saw ‘… which made us rub our eyes and look again; for a large white liner seemed to be sailing straight out of the rock face. She glittered with paint and reflected the brilliant sunlight from her hull, her anchor and all her portholes, and her rigging was gay with flags. But only the bows were visible. The stern and all of her aft of amidships was seemingly embedded in the leaf-clad matrix of the island. It turned out to be a large villa, built by the owner in a moment of furious and wonderful marine enthusiasm’. Well 63 years later it is still there, just a hundred yards or so from the centre of town, but it is now a doctor’s house. It may be a little more dilapidated than Leigh Fermor describes, and there are no flags, but the surreal joke is just as amusing.