28 February, 2014

Luxury on the Isla de Vieques...

Getting from Tortola to the Isla de Vieques (Puerto Rico) required flying to San Juan (on Seaborne Airlines) and then connecting to Vieques (on Cape Air). Both these Caribbean airlines did everything required of them, but the transit through San Juan was so inefficient that despite a 2 hour allowance, we went within 10 minutes of missing the connection. We were over 60 minutes in the US immigration queue, and another 30 minutes in the security queue to access the departure gates. The flights were interesting: Seaborne's aircraft was a brand new Saab turbo-prop, and Cape Air's was a 10 seater Cessna. Mike got to be co-pilot, and sat in the front seat! The pilot's name was Jim Beams so Mike bored him with a joke about whiskey that he has no doubt heard a million times.

In all our planning for this trip, we have been pronouncing Vieques as if it were French, but now we have heard the Spanish say it, we know it to be pronounced "Vee-eck-ess", the syllables very close together but distinct. Vieques is 20km east of the "big island" of Puerto Rico - there's not much water between them, and each island is easily seen from the other.

We didn't have a rental car planned or booked on Vieques, but we then decided to explore the pretty small island, so we rented a brand new fire-engine red Jeep for two days. In that time, we covered just about every road on the island, and swam at every beach. The hardest thing with this particular rental was topping up the gas at the end of it. It took three times queued up at the only service station before getting lucky. The first time the gas station closed after we had queued for 30 minutes, to allow a tanker in. The second time, we joined the queue only to discover the station was actually closed. The arrival of the tanker was in fact a cause for jubilation in Vieques - shortages and runouts are apparently common. It looks like the tanker comes over by ferry from the big island. Just to confuse the tourists, it's not purely USA here. Speeds are in km/hr and petrol is $/litre.

Our rented Jeep Wranger parked at a southern beach on Vieques. How much are these cars in Australia?

Vieques' roads were twisty and narrow like those on all other Caribbean islands, but they were in much better condition, and well painted with kerb strips. The main roads were identified with route numbers which appeared on the the map, and main road intersections were clearly signposted - what a change from St. Lucia and Antigua!

Horses roam free on Vieques. (So do cows, apparently, although we didn't see any.) They eat the grass on the side of the road, so you have to be careful of them when driving. The horses pay absolutely no attention to cars. We had to stop in one location while a couple of cowboys (gauchos?) attempted to muster a herd of horses who weren't being very cooperative.

Vieques' resident team of lawn-mowers are smarter than the tourists and stay out of the sun.

Our hotel was the luxurious W Retreat and Spa, about 5 minutes from the airport. This is a stunning (but expensive) hotel. The design and interior decor of the "great house" is just stunning. Our room was much the same, being described as a "neo-bohemian retreat" whatever that means. Regardless, it was a fantastic hotel room, complete with a galvanised steel bath tub. Like many resorts, most of the rooms form a horseshoe around a central pool and beach area. Throughout the day and evening, this area vibrates with lively music emanating from speakers hidden in the gardens, and a busy trade in bar sales, pool-side snacks as well as an activities tent managing kayaks and snorkelling equipment. No hobie cats though. We were intrigued with the wet cabanas which, for $200, entitles you to a day in a shaded cabana equipped with poolside mattresses, cushions, a flat screen TV, lots of alcohol and a little fruit. Some groups indulged in this decadent luxury, and spent all day there.

The lounge area of the Great House at the W Retreat and Spa, Isla de Vieques. The mural is actually painted onto a wall of expanded metal.

Sunbaking appears to be the main objective of many residents at W. Some never leave the hotel "compound" during their stay. The couple on the right reserved their lounges early in the morning, and spent the entire day there, every day.

The main beach at W Hotel on Vieques. Another beach was reserved for adults - it was called "Whisper Beach" so we think the restriction was for peace and quiet, rather than any mature entertainment.

Vieques has two small towns, Isabel Segunda and Esperanza. The former is the business centre (and the ferry runs to here) and the latter seems there to cater for tourists. We had several meals in Esperanza to escape the high cost of eating at W. All the cafes and bars at Esperanza face the Caribbean Sea and have fabulous views. In Isabel II, we found a laundromat, the first such in the whole Caribbean sector of this trip, so we invested an hour and a few dollars there to give our clothing a well deserved freshening up.

The ferry to Puerto Rico's "big island" departing the tiny harbour at Isabel II on Vieques.

We were intrigued to observe that almost all the businesses on Vieques that we interacted with were being run by American ladies "of a certain age" rather than "real" Peurto Ricand of any age or gender. Their staff were in the same demographic. This applied to cafes, dress shops, a delicatessen, craft stores etc (notably, not the laundry, nor the service station). We pondered what this meant, but in case we have it wrong, we don't include our conclusions in this blog.

Vieques is famous for its bioluminescent bays where world class displays of phosphorescent dinoflaggelates are available, except at the full moon. Sadly, the dinoflaggelates have headed for the bottom after heavy rain and cooler weather. It seems the polar vortex has gotten this far south! So, we didn't take the evening kayak tour we planned.

The beach at W looks great, but it's a bit rocky underfoot. Some of the beaches we found in our Jeep are much better, in fact, maybe the best we've seen in the Caribbean. There's a whole string of them on the south side, but our favourite was Caracas, a beach similar in size and shape to Cane Garden in Tortola, but totally without the commercialisation. If you want a chair, bring it yourself. If you want a drink, put it in your Esky. Nevertheless, these southern beaches are pretty popular with tourists and locals alike. Apart from the fine white sand and clear blue water, Caracas Beach also offers a swell and a tiny surf, making it a very nice place to have a swim. We took to visiting Caracas before breakfast at Belly Buttons in Esperanza.

Caracas was our favourite beach on Vieques. The beach was well equipped with shade and facilities, but was devoid of commercial vendors common on other Caribbean islands.

Having dinner at Tradewinds, a popular restaurant and boutique hotel in Esperanza. The view is of Cayo Afuera and the Caribbean Sea.

The whole western quarter of Vieques is a restricted area and a national wildlife refuge. We think the main reason for this is not conservation but because of the danger from lots of unexploded ordinance left over after the US Navy controversially used the island for target practice in the past. Signs on the beaches warn you not to stray too far!

Our flight out of Vieques back to San Juan was in another puddle-jumping Cape Air Cessna, but was interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the only security at the tiny airport was a lady guarding the door to the airstrip. We also noted that waiting passengers had live chickens clucking away in cloth bags as hand luggage, another had a dog. Luckily, this cargo was not intended for our flight. What did accompany us was a blonde bombshell, deeply tanned, wearing nothing but green thongs and a string bikini with a transparent mesh coverall which covered nothing. Such a passenger was apparently unusual enough for staff at both airports to be distracted, and she was personally selected to sit with the pilot, so Mike missed out this time!

Our Cape Air Cessna just before we boarded it at Vieques Airport. For some reason, the bikini clad passenger got offered the seat beside the pilot.

24 February, 2014

Brushing with fame in the BVIs...

Our arrival at Tortola airport made us feel very unwelcome in the British Virgin Islands, and it's a disgrace that the government permits this to happen. No immigration documents were distributed to passengers on the aircraft, and the crew told us we would receive them on landing. Off the plane, we were shepherded into a gloomy arrivals area and given the forms to complete. The room was too dark to read the fine print on the forms and there was little area to place the forms to write on them. Some passengers sat on the floor. We don't know whether the LIAT staff were complicit in this or not, but we suspect they were justifiably embarrassed about it. Having completed the forms, there was one immigration official to process us, but mercifully he was quick, and the customs people didn't bother us either. This experience will forever poison our otherwise good memories of the BVIs.

It was dark by the time we found our hotel organised driver to take us to the Sugar Mill Hotel, about 45 minutes drive, and about as far from the airport as it's possible to get on Tortola (the biggest of the BVIs). Here we discovered the most amazing thing about the BVIs - they drive on the left as would be expected of a British Commonwealth country, but all the cars are imported from the USA unmodified and are left hand drive. Thus drivers have the weird experience of being near the gutter rather than the centre of the road. When we picked up our rental car, this proved to be an unusual feeling, but an easy one to cope with.

Spectacular sailed cruise ships are not an uncommon sight in Caribbean waters. This one anchored overnight in a harbour on Jost Van Dyke, an island just opposite the Sugar Mill.

Our hotel was the Sugar Mill, an old establishment on the north side of Tortola. There are no prizes for guessing what used to happen here. Ths Sugar Mill's history dates back to 1640, and the restaurant is a building made from cobblestones from the streets of Liverpool stolen, apparently, for ballast on the empty returning sugar and rum ships. Various old artifacts decorate the site. The hotel is located directly on its own tiny beach which looks as though it has been sculpted for the purpose. It's only 40m long, and a light surf rolls in across a shallow reef. It's a pleasant place for a quick swim, but for more serious beach entertainment, you go elsewhere. Our hotel room, a deluxe suite, could be described as quaint, but it was spacious and everything was in good order and condition. The balcony was disappointingly small. The shower only dribbled, but it was the hottest we had encountered in the Caribbean so far. There was no TV in the room, but our clock radio got National Public Radio from Washington DC, which is a very interesting station.

The circular pool at Sugar Mill has been constructed in the pit where oxen powered the treadmill in the old sugar refinery here.

The restaurant building at the Sugar Mill dates back to the 1600's and was constructed from cobblestones stolen from English streets, together with local materials.

Morning view from the shady gazebo at Sugar Mill looking towards Long Bay. We had a cuppa here every morning after breakfast.

Sopers Hole is a major marina on the west end of Tortola. It must be one of the most beautiful marinas in the world. The water is crystal clear and an incredible blue colour. The buildings and shops surrounding the marina were mostly tidy and attractive. Sopers is a major yacht chartering base, and was busy with yachts mooring and provisioning. Day sail operators work from here, or call in during the day to allow their sunburnt customers to refuel and shop, so it was a great place to relax over lunch and do extensive people-watching.

Sopers Hole Marina from high on the Belmont Pond approach road. Reportedly, this cove used to be a pirate's haunt.

Is this the most beautiful water colour ever seen inside a marina? Sopers Hole at Tortola's western end.

Watching the fish in the crystal waters of Sopers Hole marina.

Tourists on Mystique, one of Tortola's day sailing operations.

Road Town is the capital of the BVIs, and the only substantial town, as far as we know. It's where the cruise ships pull in. It's a bustling little place even when there are no cruisers in, but we didn't spend any time here othen than to buy some provisions.

On a brilliant day, these three cruise ships in Road Town Harbour have spewed their contents all over Tortola, providing, hopefully, a significant boost to the nation's economy.

The most pleasant surprise about the Sugar Mill was the quality of its restaurant. We have had some mediocre food in the Caribbean, but the fare here was exceptional, and the menu changed every day. Only one one night did we eat outside the hotel, unusual for us. The food at Sugar Ridge in Antigua was good too, but Sugar Mill set a higher standard. We note that the Conde Nast list of the top 10 Caribbean hotels from November 2011 includes Sugar Mill, and we feel that it was the restaurant which earned it that accolade. At the restaurant one night we met a gentleman who said he was a Professor of Law in Michigan. He was interesting to talk to. He owns a house overlooking Brewers Bay and spends a lot of time here, but usually without his wife, who prefers Hawaii.

Large houses like this one cling to steep hillsides and command spectacular views over Tortola's coast and bays.

But the biggest excitement at the Sugar Mill was a brush with fame. The restaurant had a Friday night special of fresh Anegada lobster and it not only attracted us, but Richard Branson showed up too! Mike recognised him immediately and got to exchange hellos. Branson owns Necker Island in the BVIs, and, consistent with his reputation, he was in the company of glamorous young blondes. His presence at this restaurant confirmed its reputation as one of the best. The grilled whole lobster with crab stuffing and drawn butter was fantastic!

Tortola seemed to have two distinct characters, one when cruise ships have pulled in to Road Town Harbour, and the other when there are none. We were lucky enough to witness both characters several times. When the ships were in, the streets, roads, shops, beaches, restaurants and bars were crowded with thousands of passengers getting around the island in hundreds of taxi trucks looking like Philippino buses, each holding 10-15 passengers. Cane Garden Bay, made famous in Jimmy Buffet's song Manana, seemed to bear the brunt of the cruise ship traffic. This beach, much to Jimmy Buffet's pleasure, is lined with bars and restaurants, all fronting the sand, and became quite overcrowded. Hundreds of beach chairs were rented at $5 a pop. When the cruise ships pulled out, the beach, and indeed all of Tortola, seemed to settle into a kind of languid slumber. Some of the businesses closed, the umbrellas and beach chairs didn't get put out, and everything was much more relaxed, Caribbean style. Life still goes on - the bays were still full of yachts pulled up for the night, and yachties do enjoy a rum or a beer, and a meal, onshore.

Hundreds of packed taxis like this one ferry cruise ship passengers to the sights and beaches of Tortola.

After breakfast each day, we swam and jogged on Cane Garden Bay beach, enjoying the solitude when the cruise ships were absent, being thoroughly entertained when they were in town. The beach is maybe 0.5km long, has fine sand and clear water, and was a very nice place to relax. So were the other northside beaches on Tortola, such as Brewers Bay and Long Bay.

Dusk is approaching and the crowds at Cane Garden Bay have mostly retreated to their cruise ships.

Two sailors use stand up boards to get back to their moored yacht at sunset.

Many yachts moored and anchored at Cane Garden Bay in the late afternoon.

One morning driving to Cane Garden, we gave a lift to a hitch-hiking American family. Later, we recogised them at a restaurant, and chatted. We mentioned that our next stop was Puerto Rico, and the man said he had been there a lot when there was a flourishing garment industry. Now that industry has moved to Central America. We asked how they make their money now? He said, simply, "crime"! We'd better be watchful in Old San Juan.

The Bamba Bar is within walking distance of our hotel and provides a very rustic setting for a sunset drink. How this jury-rigged construction survives a storm, we don't know.

Sooty coloured pelicans abound on these beaches, including the one at Sugar Mill, and it was great and endless entertainment to watch them swooping into the water to catch one of the myriads of tiny fish. They rarely missed - then they seem to rest for a minute or two before getting airborne again for another fishing expedition. Sometimes, they swooped into the water right where you are swimming, but they did seem to avoid large crowds of people. Boobies fished in much the same way, but they were less common than the pelicans.

Pelican skimming the waters over Brewers Bay. When fishing, they fly at a much greater height and dive into the water with a great splash.

Tortola is mountain goat country when it comes to roads. The island is steeply mountainous, and the roads are narrow, twisty and potholed. The hairpin bends are even steeper and more treacherous than on St. Lucia. It's common to toot your horn when approaching a blind hairpin - the first to toot assumes the right to use the entire road around the bend, or so it seems. The views of the bays from the high roads were breathtaking, and each mountainside facing water seemed to have a dense scattering of small and large houses taking advantage of the views and, no doubt, the breezes. The steepness of the driveways up or down to these houses was staggering. The island is small, and distances are short, but each journey seemed to take a long time. As elsewhere on these islands, we found the drivers to be couteous and patient. Our car on Tortola was a little Suzuki Grande Vitara SUV, eminently suitable for these dodgy roads.

Our Suzuki parked at Stoutts Lookout. The owner invited us in for rum and wings at 4pm!

This pickup truck is supposedly part of a handyman business but doesn't seem to have been used for a while!

The departure experience from the BVIs was no better than our arrival. Airline staff were efficient and helpful at checkin, but then, firstly, you have to pay a $20 departure tax. Departure taxes themselves are common, but they are almostly always now included in the cost of the ticket. Here you have to queue up to pay an amount which is unspecified in any signage - it turns out to be $20. Secondly, our queue for the Osama Bin Laden security check was 45 minutes. Despite staff wandering about everywhere, there was only one machine going, and one operator. The terminal is modern and spacious and has every opportunity to do this much better. In the departure lounge, we decided that we would never visit the BVIs again, and never recommend it to anyone, solely for the bureaucracy and inefficiency at the airport at both ends of our otherwise pleasant stay here.

View of Long Bay, Tortola, with glimpse of Great Thatch, from a high point in the North Coast Road.

19 February, 2014

Stand and Wait with LIAT...

So far, all of our internal Caribbean flights have been with LIAT, but we have now completed our itinerary with that airline..

We have observed LIAT's particular strategy for quickly unloading and reloading flights with passengers. In the departure lounge, they announce boarding even before the aeroplane has landed, and make all the passengers stand in line where they are checked. If they do not have a full compliment of checked-in passengers, they make repeated announcements about "immediate boarding" to get those missing persons into the queue.

When everyone is standing in line (this can take 10-20 minutes), they march everyone out onto the tarmac en masse, still before the plane is in sight. The crowd waits patiently for the aircraft to arrive, and when it does, you wait for it to be unloaded. The second the last passenger is off, the new passengers get boarded. It's sure a quick process, although tiring for the paying customers!

The process is varied somewhat at LIAT hubs like Barbados and Antigua, where they may be loading multiple planes in a quick sequence, about 5 minutes apart. In this case, they form a number of queues of the complete passenger manifest, and march them onto the tarmac in groups, out of one gate. We were impressed by the efficiency of this process, but it's not that convenient for the punters.

We had a three hour layover at Barbados Airport whilst travelling from Martinique to Antigua. This is a big and spacious airport, and handles full-sized jets from USA and Europe. We saw none of these, obviously the timing was wrong, but the tiny LIAT lounge processed maybe a dozen incoming and outgoing flights while we were there. When leaving Antigua for Tortola, we saw United and American send large aircraft to the US, and then LIAT took over the airport with their unique hub loading strategy.

LIAT's fleet consists of old and new turbo-prop aircraft, probably ideal for the short hops and relatively small numbers of inter-island passengers travelling. The old aircraft are Dash-8's (like Qantas fly to Lord Howe Island) but they stink of fish and rice. We were amused by this, because there is no suggestion of any in-flight service, not even a drop of water, so the food must have been brought on board by passengers. The new aircraft are ATR42-600 & ATR72-600 (French-Italian made) and these are being introduced in 2014 and we were lucky to fly on one. They are much sweeter smelling!

LIAT's newest aircraft, the ATR72-600.

Maybe the highlight of our LIAT flights was the landing in Dominica whist enroute from Barbados to Antigua. The plane flys eastwards down a narrow steep-sided valley of lush tropical vegetation. You get the feeling the wing-tips on either side could touch the trees! Then it pulls up at the end of a runway which ends abrubtly in the ocean. It is notable that one of the rescue vehicles parked at this one-strip airport was a boat! And, enroute from Antigua to Tortola we had a stopover in St. Martin, the island shared by the Dutch and French. The airstrip here is famous for the spectacular views it provides people in apartments, bars and beaches nearby. A large sign beside the runway celebrates "70 years of spectacular landings"!

St. Martin's landing strip taken through a dirty and crazed LIAT Dash-8 window.

We have found the airports which service these LIAT flights to have quite reasonable facilities for waiting passengers, even the tiniest ones (like Castries, St Lucia), and even very early in the morning. We've been able to get a decent coffee/tea and a snack at pretty well all of them. Some Australian rural airports could learn from this.

17 February, 2014

Awesome Antigua...


Antigua has proven to be the beauty that meets our long-held expectations for the Caribbean, but which Martinique and St. Lucia have not lived up to, in that the beaches have fine golden sands and water so blue it hurts the eyes.

Glorious water at Turner's Beach, Antigua.

The superb beaches here have attracted countless resorts which seem to be mostly scattered around the coast on the calmer west side of the island. We stayed at Sugar Ridge which is not actually on a beach at all, but has a free shuttle (driven by a lovable character Vorn) to three fantastic beaches all within 5 minutes. These are Nest (the closest, but Von steers you away from this beach when the cruise ships are in), Darkwood and Turners. Only Darkwood seems to be an "official" name, the other two are named after the bar/restaurant/beach-hire business which has set up shop on each of them.

Each of these beaches are much the same, smooth clean sand leading into crystal clear blue water. There is no surf. On the sand, for anything from $US1 up, you can rent a sun lounge, an umbrella, a hobie-cat or kayak. You can buy trinckets and souvenirs from sellers who are not too persistent. And of course you can get a drink, or many of them, and a meal. Sugar Ridge appears to have an arrangement at these beaches, because the sun-lounges are complimentary, although, of course, you still can tip Vorn.

One on of our visits to Turners Beach we encountered what we decided to call "cruise ship trash", ignorant people sporting "Carnival" beach towels, who made use of our umbrella and sun lounges without a word of request or thanks, lying so close they put their hands on our towel. Cruise ship people join tours off their boats which crowd these beaches for a few hours. On days when there are no cruise ships, everything is quiet in Antigua.

Our Toyota Yaris parked at the deserted but idyllic Fort James Beach.

From our taxi as we drove to Sugar Ridge from the airport, you have to go through the capital, St. Johns, and we saw three huge cruise ships crammed into the tiny harbour. A few days later when we visited St. Johns in our rental car, the harbour was empty! We have no idea of the schedule of cruise ship visits to Antigua, but 3 one day and none on another seems a little irregular, and a volatile strain on this little country's tourism resources.

We rented a car for several days in our week here. It came from Sunny Rentals, a little operation based in Sugar Ridge resort. By observation, most of the resorts seem to support little rental car businesses, and they must be nice little earners from guests who like to be more independent than taxis or guided tours allow. Like St. Lucia, in Antigua you drive on the left, and our car was a Toyota Yaris, a must more practical rental than that useless sporty thing we got in St. Lucia. One little lurk is that Antigua does not accept either your "real" drivers' license, nor the International Driving Permits we carried, but insist on selling you a termporary permit for 50XCD each (yes, like St. Lucia, Antigua uses the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, but when we leave here, we'd better get rid of our stock at the airport!).

We have discovered that "Ziplining" is a popular non-aquatic recreation in the Caribbean.

With our little Yaris, we were able to skip down to Nest Beach for pre-breakfast swims. At that time of the day, there is no-one else in sight, so you don't have to get your cossies wet. The beach is no less spectacular at near-dawn than at any other part of the day - it's such a pleasure to swim in this water!

St. Barnabas Anglican Church became the oldest church in Antigua after the earthquake of 1843 destroyed St. Pauls. It's unique appearance is partly due to use of local "greenstone" in construction.

The weather in Antigua is much like the other Caribbean islands. Warm all the time to very hot when the sun is out, punctuated by sudden downpours of tropical rain which ususally don't last very long, and no-one worries about. Sometimes the sky is clear and blue, but just as often it is grey and threatening - many of our photos are taken with leaden skies.

This island, off the coast of Antigua can be reached by just hiring a water taxi, but when you get there, there is nothing but sun, sand, perfect water, but no shade or cappucinos!

Our room at Sugar Ridge is comfortable but a little compact, especially when you consider the amount of luggage we are carrying. But it has a great patio with table, chairs and a lounge, and a little private plunge pool. Ours never catches the sun, so it's a little chilly, but very refreshing when you are hot and sweaty. The resort is set on the side of a steep hill, and you can work up a sweat walking around (golf buggies are available). It's "Sugar Club" has a gym, two great pools, including a lap pool about 25m long, and a restaurant. We were very pleased with the food here, maybe the best we have had in the Caribbean so far. A minor point, but this resort is very generous with beach towels, which you can replace as often as you like - in Martinique, we were allocated one baech towel each which we had to keep for 3 days before we could replace them, and we were specifically instructed not to take them to the beach ("only the pool"), and there was also some smart card system Carte Serviette to manage them! We prefer the relaxed, generous approach of Sugar Ridge, and it compares very favourably with the strict bueaucratic (dare we say Gallic?) approach generally at La Pagerie.

And for Valentine's Day, we splurged out at the resort's fine dining option, "Carmichaels", which is located on top of the ridge and enjoys a spectacular view over the coast and Jolly Harbour, nearby. The food here was really excellent, but expensive. During the day, Carmichaels has an infinity pool and a bar for high altitude indulgence and sunset watching.

The view from the infinity pool at Carmichaels Restaurant, high on the ridge at Sugar Ridge and overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

Jolly Harbour is within easy walking distance of Sugar Ridge, but the walk is made more difficult by the typical Caribbean characteristic of "no footpaths" - you have to dodge the speeding cars on narrow streets. There is a fine beach there (with the usual accoutrements), and a largish marina, casino and at least two or three resorts plus numerous restaurants. We tried to find an advertised laundromat here, but had no success. The sign said it was here, the people said it was not! Being a marina, there must be a laundry for the yachties somewhere.

We had fish and chips one night at the London Bus themed Shells Restaurant in Bolans. Children's entertainment looks to be well catered for. Next door is a pizza restaurant which we also patronised.

Antigua is pretty small, and it only took us a few days to explore it in our Yaris. The roads are narrow and in poor shape (but not as bad as St. Lucia's). They are twisty and hilly. Traffic is light, but even a few vehicles close together makes an impact on these road conditions. That said, divers are generally patient and courteous. If someone parks somewhere even just to chat to someone else, it means one direction has to give way to the other to get round it. But there is no agro, and everyone waits patiently for their turn whenever there is a holdup.

The biggest issue on Antiguan roads is that there is no directional signage! You actually navigate around by dead reckoning with your map, counting intersections and saying "this must be it". We took the wrong turn many times, but people are friendly and will always give directions. There is a small number of signs, but they have long ago faded to illegibility - we would stop at the sign and try to position it in the best light to try to pick out what it might have said. Drivers behind us waited patiently while we did this. Mostly we just had to guess!

The view from our rental car as we try to decipher the faded directions on this typical road sign in Antigua.

Getting through St. Johns is the biggest problem, even though it is a tiny city. It is shabby town with very narrow streets and no parking. At least most of the streets are one way, but figuring them out was difficult. We were lucky enough to drive down Market Street on Market Day - it was busy and slow going, but very colourful and lively. Houses around the city in the "inner suburbs" were pretty poor and dilapidated. We hope the huge tourism industry here is helping the general population. Finding the correct route out of St. Johns in any direction was pure guesswork. After a few goes, you learn the landmarks, at least on the road back to Sugar Ridge!

This opulent house near Five Islands Village is telling everyone that the owner is the richest person in the neighbourhood.

The north-west corner of Antigua is called St. Georges or Dickensen Bay. It's coastline is packed with resorts which tend to dominate the magnificent beaches they lie on. Sandals, a large chain of Caribbean mega-resorts which advertised heavily in the USA while we were there, had the biggest place, but there were dozens more. You've just got to find your way down an unmarked road in the general direction of the beach. We only tried one or two, but they seem quite happy for guests to drive in and have a swim at their beach. The inevitable security guard just waves you through. We were told that all beaches are public in Antigua, but finding ready access to them can be a challenge.

Just another perfect resort beach, this one overlooked by a "fort" construction we saw (in ruins) all over Antigua, and is, we believe, part of the 18th Century British signals network on the island.

Hawks Bill Resort is in a perfect location with a series of just beautiful beaches, one of which is officially designated for nudists.

Half Moon Bay, described as one of Antigua's finest beaches receives surf rolling in from the Atlantic Ocean, but has protected areas for calm water swimming. THis beach is out of the way, and hard to find, but still had many people enjoying it, plus coconut sellers and a bar/restaurant.

The absolute highlight of Antiguan tourism (apart from the beaches, sailing etc) is Nelson's Dockyard (named after Horatio Nelson, one of several British Admirals to be based here), located in a little harbour adjacent to the much bigger English Harbour next door. This relic from Britain's naval wars with Spain, Portugal and France is, according to the sign, the only working Georgian dockyard left in the world, and was the key to her 18th Century supremacy. It is now administered by the Antiguan Government, with the old buildings preserved and restored as much as possible - a great place to visit! The buildings are kept alive by being used for chandleries etc. servicing the mega-buck yachts calling into this historic port as well as apartments, restaurants, bars and the like. A Caribbean Sunsail yacht-charter base is here, and Antiguan yacht racing is centred here.

Columns which used to support the 1797 boathouse at Nelson's Dockyard.

Dormer windows like this one characterised the upper level of the orginal boathouse structure at Nelson's Dockyard.

Modest sailing vessels like these two line the walls at Nelson's Dockyard.

We also visited the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, one of cricket's famous test arenas. We only planned to take a photo from outside the site, but a gardener got off his lawn-mower to insist we go inside, and then the security guard waved us further onto the premises. They are getting ready for a match between England and the West Indies in a week or two's time, and we heard a rumour that the English team is going to stay at Sugar Ridge. If they do, they'll certainly get some helpful advice from the many English tourists staying here!

The Sir Vivian Richards Stadium is soon to host the West Indies vs England.

15 February, 2014

Magical Martinique...

Our next Caribbean island was Martinique, only a short hop from Castries in St. Lucia on a LIAT Airways Dash-8. It's a short hop to a different world!

Martinique is sooo French! It is legally a department of France (since 1946). Every day we see big jets bringing French people in from Paris - the flight time is about 10hr - and they obviously feel very at home here. The currency is the Euro. The main difference is the weather - Martinique is a Caribbean island, and so far we have found them to be hot, humid and prone to brief tropical showers. We're not sure if that is typical for February, but that's what we are getting every day! Whereas St. Lucia's tourists were predominantly Americans, we haven't seen a single American here. The tourists are 95% French with a smattering of Brits, Germans and Spanish. We did bump into an English sailor, cruising the Caribbean on his 30ft cat, in a bar while his wife had her hair done.

Arrival here could not have been more different either. Immigration, baggage collection and customs were slow and bureaucratic at St. Lucia, but from landing at La Lementin airport to getting into the taxi our hotel had organised for us took less than 10 minutes, no kidding! One quick look at our passports, and the customs guy asked us where we were coming from and waved us through.

We are staying at Hotel de la Pagerie in Pointe du Bout which is in les Trois Ilets part of the island. This was a great choice, including the location, by our Caribbean advisor, Laura. It's well out of Fort-De-France, the capital, but is at the centre of an area very popular with tourists, so we have lots of shops to look at and dining choices to make. The hotel is pretty large and is ultra-modern. Like many, it is built around a central swimming pool, and has its own restaurant, bar and poolside cafe.

The entrance to the little harbour at Pointe du Bout.

One of the most pleasant surprises about La Pagerie is the live music we have been able to enjoy in the lobby area on Friday & Saturday evenings. This is very popular amongst the guests and certainly adds to their bar takings! The lobby is quite open to the street, and many people also watched and listened to the acts from outside. Clearly popular across town! One of the acts was a fascinating and very enjoyable cultural Creole dance and music performance by a large company of about a dozen or more.

Accordian player and MC of the great Creole performance at the Hotel de la Pagerie.

In the lobby of the Hotel de la Pagerie, this Creole performer participated in a stunning cultural exhbition. The entire population of the hotel, and more, enjoyed a wonderful performance.

Pointe du Bout has a spectacular view of the nation's capital Fort-De-France across the Baie, and you can make the journey by ferry in only about 10 minutes. We knew from our taxi ride in from the airport that this would be a lot faster and more convenient than driving. The ferry ride should not make you think of Sydney Harbour. We went over on the "Mona" and it was rough and wet! Our ride back was on a larger ferry and was much more comfortable and dry, although we were worried - we realised that we didn't know where we had come from, and there were three destinations to choose from. Hurried, fractured language conversations with people on the wharf made us feel a bit better, and in the end, we did arrive at the right place. We also noted that the ferries did not run to their signposted timetables, and for some reason they run a reduced schedule on Saturday and not at all on Sunday!

The ferry between Pointe du Bout and Fort-De-France lets a lot of water in on the paying customers.

In the capital, we tried to visit Fort St.Louis, easily the most dominant feature on the harbour skyline. It turned out to be a working naval base, and doesn't open for tours. This fort dates back to 1640, when the French were using the local Carib population as slave labour in sugar plantations. The British occupied Martinique for 20 years around 1800, conveniently saving the island from the horrors of the French Revolution. The French took power again, and there is no sign of any Britishness here. The capital used to be St. Pierre on the north-west coast but it was entirely destroyed and everyone killed by a volcanic eruption of Montagne Pelee in 1902.

A remnant of Fort St. Louis at Fort-De-France.

The colourful historical centre of Fort-De-Paris as seen from the harbour. The steeple of Cathedrale St-Louis is the tallest building.

We spent a couple of hours in the narrow CBD streets of Fort-De-France, found a nice deli for lunch, and looked at the shops, before we retreated to Pointe du Bout. The large Cathedrale St.Louis which dominates the CBD skyline seems surprisingly run down, and we wondered why.

Getting a rental car was a drama in itself. Our earely advice was that there were numerous agencies near our hotel, but a day or so before we arrived in Martinique our agent told us that they had no availability. Accordingly, she reserved one for us at the airport. We really didn't want to catch a taxi back to the airport, so from Pointe du Bout, we confirmed what the agent said - we tried Budget, Hertz, Europcar and Jumbo and got the same response, "nothing for a week or more". So, on the third day, we went back to the airport to pick up a Budget car - the agent there asked us didn't we know there was a Budget office opposite our hotel. Obviously, they don't communicate with each other, and they certainly don't deliver cars to each others' locations.

Our car was a tiny Opel Corsa. They don't waste cute little Renaults or Peugeots on tourists in Martinique! It was a two door manual, but it did the trick, and handled Martinique's roads with aplomb. Our first outing in it was to head north and follow the Route de la Trace desrcibed by Lonely Planet as the country's 'must-do' drive. The road was originally cut by the Jesuits in the 17thC and is a particularly scenic inland mountainous road, now the N3. The hardest part was finding it, even after taking the N3 exit of Martinique's only freeway in the middle of Fort-De-France. Massive roadworks destroyed all signage, but we eventually found the right way, in the midst of very heavy traffic.

Our bright white rental Opel Corsa.

The N3 climbs steeply out of the capital, and passes a wonderful small-sized replica of Paris' Sacre-Coeur. We parked here to take a photo, and were lucky enough to stumble across a wedding taking place. We watched it for a moment, but scarpered quickly to beat everyone's cars back onto the road.

Sacre-Coeur de Balata, where we discovered a wedding in progress.

Continuing north, from here on the city retreats and the road twists its way through mountains and lush countryside. We passed the cloud-shrouded twin peaks of the Pitons du Carbet and made it to Le Morne Rouge, apparently Martinique's highest town (450m). Also, apparently, this town was partly destroyed by a separated volcanic eruption to the one mentioned above. We negotiated a baguette sandwich in this town and enjoyed a pleasant lunch. There is a lookout in Le Morne Rouge with a fine view of the Caribbean Sea to the west, and only a few km further along the N3, there are spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

Clouds clinging to the tops of les Pitons du Carbet, as seen from the Botanic Garden near Balata.

At the Site de l'Alma, a river passes under a bridge on the N3.

Restaurant, sculpture and church at the high town of Le Morne-Rouge.

From up there, we finished the N3 and returned to sea level and headed back south down the N1 through a number of coastal towns, like Le Lorrain, Marigot, Sainte Marie and Le Robert. These all have black-sanded beaches, and being exposed to the Atlantic, have rough surfs making them unsuitable for the calm water loving French tourists and their resorts. These towns were pretty but seemed to be more associated with fishing than tourism. The traffic on the N1 was also much heavier than we found it on the mountainous N3.

Real surf pounds black beaches on the North Atlantic coast of Martinique, this scene near the town of Le Lorrain.

On this trip, we bypassed the town of La Trinite from which there is a narrow peninsula poking into the Atlantic. It looks interesting, but would have taken us hours to go into and retreat from. Returning to Pointe du Bout, we picked up another hitch-hiker, but this time we actually knew him! He was the barman from Le Bistro d'en Face on the way to work, and we recognised him from a night or two previously when we had a few rum cocktails there. This young fellow, about 20, surprisingly spoke no English, and what's worse, he missed calling us to take the hardest to find intersection on the way back. We cheerily told him that navigation was why we picked him up, but he didn't understand a word of either our English or our French.

Our local bar at Le Bistrot d'En Face as seen at sunset from our hotel room.

Speaking of rum, we went out of our way to sample the signature cocktails of Martinique, including at the d'en Face bar. A ti punch is pretty simple - it's straight rum with some palm sugar thrown in, but not dissolved, and a slice of lime. It comes with a spoon so you can squeeze the lime and stir the sugar. It is a revolting drink of fire-water! Clare only had one during the week here, Mike managed two, but has sworn off rum forever! A more pallatable cocktail is the Planteur which has fruit juice added to disguise the rum.

Two ti-punches, now consumed, are absolute fire-water, maybe lighter fluid?

The "best" beaches and hence the most tourist resorts are on the southern half of Martinique, which includes our part, les Trois Ilets. There we tried Anse Mitan as well as coming across private beach restrictions again. The best part of the beach at Point du Bout is owned by the plush Hotel Bakoua, and they charge E10 to use it. Next door though, is a highly developed couple of bays and groynes that look as though they were sculpted by a huge, now defunct, hotel (we called it the Club Med). Because it's defunct (and populated by squatters) the beach is now "public" and there's also some parking to be had. These beaches were quite pleasant and popular. If that site gets redeveloped, we image the beach there will be privatised.

This public beach at Pointe du Bout looks as though it was originally landscaped by a now defunct resort.

Relaxing on the beach at Anse Mitan.

Crowded beach near the end of the day and Anse Mitan at Pointe du Bout.

We did a day trip in our little Opel to see the rest of the south. We called in at l'Anse a l'Ane and Grand Anse. By then we surmised that Martinique beaches are mediocre at best - they are pretty clean (but the water tastes of things other than salt) but the water is not the colour we expect of the Caribbean. What's more, parking is nigh impossible - we spent way too much time looking for a spot at several Anses, only to find the beach fairly unappealing. There is no surf, we understand that the French seem to like standing around in calm waters, but the sand is grey and coarse (lots of broken coral), and the water is barely blue. There is also the attraction that at many beaches you can easily rent a bed and an umbrella, as well as a kayak and a jet ski. Most importantly, you can get a meal and a drink right on the beach. The French give up a lot to be amongst there own, and to be in a familiar environment.

Scene on many of the beaches at Les Anses-d'Arlet on Martinique's south western peninsula.

As we wound further round the coast, we passed Le Diamant but there were real waves here, and thus the beach was not so popular, and parking was easier. Then through Ste-Luce (but we had given up on the beaches by now), and through the big and crowded town of Marin with a huge marina, on the way to a very cute and touristy town of Ste-Anne. This is where we decided to call it quits and head for home after having a delicious fresh fruit cocktail from a roadside stand.

The town and marina at Le Marin, and unfortunately crowded town that you have to drive through to get to Ste-Anne.

Martinique does not seem to be a destination for the young and beautiful of France, or at least not the parts of it we saw. Most tourists are quite "senior" to say the least - the youngsters are locals. There's a lot of wrinkly flesh exposed on the beaches, and we're not talking about ours! While having a coffee one morning at a Baguette Shop, we met an old lady who told us her son was a teacher in Melbourne. She wanted to chat, although our combined language skills were poor, and she managed to hurry up croissant production inside for us, when we told her they had none!

Of course, this is the biggest advanatge to living in a part of France, the availability of good bread, baguettes and croissants! It seems to us that the French are very ritualised in many ways, so that different food and drinks are able to be bought and consumed at particular times of day, and then not at all available at others. When we felt like something, it was a disappointment to find that particular shop closed. But when you fall into sync with the French habits, the rewards are very nice!

Fresh-squeezed juice stall at Ste-Anne. A delicious and healthy reviver on a hot day.

We had to return our car to the airport to fly out to Antigua. We already knew that Martinique traffic was abominable near Fort-De-France and this early morning (weekday) trip proved it. It took us about 90 minutes to drive the last 10km into Le Lamentin on a four lane highway, so heavy was the traffic, aggravated by entering traffic at every roundabout. Luckily we had anticipated this schemozzle, and left in plenty of time.