Saturday, January 31, 2009

St Martin - Not so bad after all

[Maryanne]After a little passport scare, we got Kyle off to work safely during the week. That left me in St Maarten to explore and start the long list of chores. St Maarten is a bit of a boaters' Mecca. Duty free, and LOTS of boaters' services to hand - so people deliberately detour here to get work done on their boats. Hence it is full of cruisers and mega Yachts. Many cruisers tend to stay a while and find work, so all the boating places are full of cruisers and service is good and friendly. There is an excellent "cruisers net" in the mornings on the VHF radio, where cruisers can ask the group anything from where can I do laundry? Where can I purchase a soda stream?, buy sell and swap items etc. It "feels" like a community here.

I have yet to do anything touristy (except try out a few bars :-) ), and I've walked a lot from place to place doing my chores (because we don't have a motor on our dinghy, I row as short a distance as possible and then walk the rest - but since nearly everything I need is on the lagoon, most cruisers simply dinghy directly to where they need to go.

All that worry about safety, and I certainly haven't felt in any risk so far (thankfully, but obviously I'm being sensible). It really put things into perspective for me the other day when at the 9:30 bridge opening (into the lagoon) ALL the mega-yachts started honking their horns like crazy... I was not sure what was going on at first, and thought we were about to be ploughed into.. After the noise died down (and the honking is still going on a little 20 minutes later) someone on the radio asked what all the horns were for.. A reply said for the vessel (just arriving) whose captain was killed in Antigua. The yacht was Perseus. I hadn't heard about any incident so did a quick bit of research - I read "The victim was shot in the chest at close range Thursday night (22nd Jan) as he walked through a dockyard area near English Harbour with his girlfriend, Police Commissioner Thomas Bennett said. The motive was unclear and no arrests have been made, Bennett said." Another reports says the assault occurred by the Galley Bar in English Harbour. His Girlfriend was also shot (in the foot, in a some struggle) and his kid was there too.. I was so shocked I just cried. See full report. Now all that happened in Antigua, in sleepy English Harbour - right by a tiny open air bar than Kyle and I spent some time at sampling rum punches - Antigua is the 2nd lowest crime rate in the Caribbean, and all the time we were there, there was not so much as a minor theft. That news, and the earlier plane landing in the Hudson (all plane crashes make me reflect on Kyle's safety too) had me thankful how lucky we are! I can't imagine how the crew of the Perseus must be feeling, and of course the family of the captain - such a terrible and tragic loss.

I guess you are never truly safe anywhere, and you'll sooner or later die of something - I may as well enjoy myself and be reasonably careful along the way. Still, I'll skip the Gentleman's clubs here in St Maarten :-)

Monday, January 26, 2009

Statia to St Martin

[Maryanne]Since our last leg to Sint Maarten from Statia was a longer one (40 miles) compared to what we’d been used to, we needed to get up early to ensure we could check in at customs before they closed at 3:00pm. I set an alarm on my cell phone for 4am which went off promptly at 8:40!!! Fortunately, by then I’d already been up since I noticed daylight – we got ready in short order and departed the mooring under sail (always feels good – 2nd in satisfaction only to anchoring under sail). We ghosted in the lee of the island towards the oil terminal. Along the way we noticed (and heard) Ivan and Gulliver having their breakfast at Kings Well – we honked a farewell to Kings Well on the hailer. Within a minute or so Linda called us on the radio and said goodbye, and it was nice to meet. Linda and Will promised to visit us in Sant Maartin and to bring Maryanne some of her secret salad dressing (Maryanne had pestered unsuccessfully for the recipe, so a good supply would be the next best thing!).

We weaved our way through the tankers and outside of the restricted zones. Out of the lee of the island, we ran smack into heavy chop and head winds – Auggh! How I hate head winds. We had to quickly reef the sails (well - Maryanne did anyway), but were able to maintain pretty good speed anyway. Once we were further away from the island the wind veered and we had a nice fast beam reach to Sint Maarten in bright sunshine. On route we passed both the island of Saba and St Bart's, but unfortunately we'd already decided we would not stop (Save them for another time). We actually had enough speed that by the time we approached the island it looked like we would make it to customs about 10 minutes before they closed.

We started the engine, & put down the sails as we entered Sint Maarten, and motored up to the customs dock just outside the Simpson Bay drawbridge – it’s a very shallow dock (basically a dinghy dock) and not good for anyone drawing more than a couple of feet – we had to raise one of our rudders to be on the safe side (but hey, we were in a hurry). I rushed into the customs office, breathless, while Maryanne finished tying up Footprint, and began filling out the paperwork. Maryanne soon joined me and turned in the first few forms I’d completed while I continued. She discovered they were not closing at 3, so the pressure was off (but we still didn’t find out what time they would close).

Once done with customs clearance we had about an hour and a half before the drawbridge opening time for inbound boats. We were a little cheeky and lingered as long as we could at the customs dock, thus avoiding having to lower and raise the anchor for such a short period. I’m not entirely sure it was a good idea after all, as most of the power boats (and jet skis) left a good wake and bounced and jerked us around. The bridge opened for outbound boats at 4:30pm and we noticed that watching the exiting boats seemed to be a bit of a tourist attraction. About 15 minutes to go, we untied an left the dock for the inbound procession (and there were plenty of us) – again anther tourist attraction for the local bars and yacht clubs.

Bridge opening from Dutch side of Island into Simpson Bay

Once we entered the bay, our goal was to anchor as close as possible to the airport. We swung north and then west to get as close as possible to the airport terminal; this part of the bay was practically deserted (only one other boat anchored nearby). This was not surprising as it was a LONG way from anything useful (laundromat, stores, etc), and was also probably the least attractive part of the bay. It was getting dark so we anchored anyway. – We were safe at least for the evening. It took us 3 tries to get the anchor to hold fast (poor Maryanne was at the bow doing most of the work with our manual windlass). By the time we were done, it was too late to care about much other than eating dinner and going to bed. The one plus we found was it was really exposed, and with all the wind, the batteries were fully charged by morning. Later, Maryanne found a free internet connection with an antenna hoisted up the mast!

The following morning (Monday), all we really intended to do for the day was to make sure my flight to work was OK (space available); if not I’d have had to rapidly make alternative commute plans, and also to move the boat to prettier part of the bay with more facilities for Maryanne. We were both pretty tired from our week and found ourselves taking our time over things (I read a book, we worked on the blog). Eventually we moved the boat just outside the no anchoring zone off the departure end of the runway, much closer to the facilities, although the walk to the airport will be longer! While checking for the nearby dinghy dock and possible airport shuttle (before anchoring), we asked directions of a passing dingy – and found it was Fergus, a fellow Gemini owner (same boat as ours) – small world!

[Maryanne]It’s hard to say what our first impressions of St. Martin are since we just arrived. Our guidebooks have pages and pages of information, however it’s mostly listings for bars, night clubs etc. There are lots of casinos and “gentleman’s clubs”. All beaches are topless, and quite a few are nudist. Without really seeing the place, I’m thinking Spring Break in Cancun – not really my cup of tea. Once Kyle heads to work, I’ll explore more and hope to find the gentler side of the island. The only time we’ve set ashore was to clear into customs, where the notice board informed us that it is DANGEROUS to sight-see and hitchhike anywhere on the island (Hitchhiking I can understand, but the lady collecting our port fees, assured us that sightseeing too was dangerous). Indeed, it suggested whenever you visit a new town to check in with the local police as a courtesy visit and to be alerted to any particular areas to avoid. The guidebooks stress that rental cars are routinely stolen from (or thieves even deliberately bump into so they can hijack you! – the books advise NOT to stop at the scene of such an accident)… Yeah, not sure really how worried to be, but not too happy so far.

Statia - Day 3

Footprint in Statia

[Maryanne]We were both feeling pretty rested, and relaxed. Knowing there really was not that much to do on Statia, and having set aside the day to explore Oranjestad, we decided on a lazy morning aboard Footprint before leaving around 11 to hit the town.

Sights of Lower Oranjestad - Gin Hotel and Harbour

Big mistake. It was the weekend. The tourist office was closed (so we could not pick up the self guided town walking map). We made our way to the fort for more photos and stunning views, and then on to the Museum - just as it had closed (only opens on the mornings over the weekend) - Doh! The museum seemed one of the better of the Caribbean, too! So our short itinerary for the Saturday just got a lot shorter.

Sights in Upper town - Church, Fort, and government offices

Still, it really is a pleasant place to stroll and we enjoyed the views. IN the upper town there is the fort, the government buildings, the ruins of the old Jewish synagogue, and the outside of the museum. In the lower town there is the old Gin building (now a posh hotel) and of course the harbour itself. Statia is famous for its diving and we found at least 3 dive shops all in the lower town (Kyle actually splashed out on new swim shorts!).

Once finished in town, we went off to relax further in the Kings Well pool, taking up the kind offer of Laura and Win from the night before. We came armed with books too, just to be sure of the ultimate relaxing pool experience. We found we had the place to ourselves, and after a few races, and much messing about in the water, we retired to our lounge chairs to dry off in the sun.

Relaxing Sights of Kings Well

After our swim we returned to the bar to enjoy feeding time for the Macaws (and a beer or two). Win offered to make us something "special" if we wanted to eat, and we quickly agreed. Laura insisted that WE make the "Footprint" cocktail after dinner, this way we could always say we were once a Caribbean bar tender, and even invented the "Footprint" cocktail (If we ever wanted a job).

Statia - Day 2 - Enter the Volcano

[Maryanne]Lying in bed trying to decide if we really wanted to get up this early or not, we heard a knock on the hull and someone calling "Footprint". I called out a "just a minute" and hastily dressed and rushed out to the cockpit, where I found the Marine Park attendant collecting his mooring fees. He was very nice and explained he starts early as so many people try to leave without paying, he also directed us to a closer mooring which would reduce our rowing effort. Oh well, now we were up we decided to get started with our day of sightseeing.

My main goal for the day was to climb the Quill, which to be honest I'd thought of before I'd seen how big and steep it looked. Nevertheless, I'd already decided, so off we went. We rowed ashore, cleared customs (very little paperwork or interest), and then on to the Park Authority store (excellent book swap, information, internet connection, maps, and friendly help) to collect our hiking permit tags and a great trail map. The volcano has not erupted for 1700 years (around 400 AD), officially its name is Mount Mazinga, but everyone knows it as the Quill (after the Dutch kuil, meaning 'pit').

The very very first part of the journey took us on a steep trail with switchbacks from the lower level (old town) up to the main town atop a cliff a few hundred feet above sea level. Once at the top of the cliff, we followed the well marked route to the foot of the Quill; a steep shadeless trek through the outskirts of town, which we trudged up, still a little sore from our Nevis adventures. I was beginning to doubt this was a good idea, and the mountain didn't seem to be getting any closer, but really, what else did we have to do?

Once we got onto the trail proper we started to find shade, and spotted various animals along the way - notably more soldier crabs and the local red-bellied racer snake (although we were really looking out for the rare Antillean Iguana). Maryanne tried to gently move a branch out of the way so as to make for a better photo of one snake in particular I was trying to photograph. It startled and headed straight at her. She tried jumping out of the way, which started one of those hilarious scenes where you try and pass someone in a hallway and keep getting in each others path. Eventually they were both able to escape without harm to each other (although my sides hurt from laughing). After reading this my mother, who says there is no such thing as a harmless snake if it can cause a heart attack, can be pretty much assured of never visiting Statia.

There were several (well marked) trails on the mountain, but the rangers had suggested to us the Quill trail to get to the rim, and then the crater trail that went down into the crater and the panorama point trail for the rim view (to do any more we should have started earlier or would have to go back another day).

As we neared the rim of the crater, the trail steepened The park service had done an great job with the trails; excellent signage, good markings and borders along the well graded trail - so you knew how difficult it might be, and even included ropes in the steeper areas - and boy we needed them in places. We had a brief rest at the crater rim and then went into the volcano on the crater trail. The bottom of the crater being almost half the distance back to sea level from the rim. The trail down into the volcano started out very steep; first with actual stairs, then transitioning into steep, hard-going rocky areas where we made use of the fixed ropes to descend safely. Already fairly tired, we were wondering about the effort to get back out, but we wanted to see the bottom and so we carried on. Since the trail was so steep it didn't take that much distance to start leveling off near the bottom.
Kyle Hikes, Maryanne Rests!

The ecosystem inside was rich and vibrant, having been untouched we assume since the volcano began its dormancy. There were huge old growth trees everywhere, most notably the Giant Cotton Silk Tree (Kapok tree - Ceiba pentandra), but also gum trees and wild bananas, and many we could not name. At the crater floor, the trail turns into a loop, passing some interesting rock formations as well as lots of lush jungle style vegetation. We knew we were the first to hike the trail for at least a few days as the trail was crisscrossed with substantial cobwebs.

Once done with the crater loop, we found ourselves staring up from the base of the rope trail leading out of the crater. It was a long slog back up, and we quickly forgot to look for wildlife while we were busy watching the placement our hands and feet and avoiding snakes. After another rest at the rim (complete with more drinks and a snack), we headed up the almost equally steep Panorama Point Trail. Where there were no ropes. We pulled ourselves up with tree roots and trunks. Eventually, we made it to the top, which had great views of the rim and descending cliffs surrounding the crater as well as the island of Saba in the distance. The viewpoint was also shared by a red aeronautical beacon and its associated footprint.

On the way back down we laughed about how all the lower parts of the trail, which had seemed so steep on the way up, now seemed so gentle compared to the steeper slopes we found later.

Once back in town we took a quick look around, stopping especially to take pictures of Fort Baai, the old church, and the cliff walls. We were mostly stalling for time before visiting the Kings Well Resort restaurant for dinner. Kings Well was reported in our cruising guide to contain two things I really liked: food and parrots! When we got there, the sign outside said they would not be open for an hour more. We sat outside the gate dejectedly for about 15 minutes before remembering our guide said the bar was always open on an honor system basis - help yourselves and don't forget to pay! When we entered the bar, and the balcony overlooking the bay, we found Laura feeding the parrots (they have at least 6 macaws). Laura treated us like family (at least she seemed not to know were weren't related); she welcomed us, sat us down at her table, offered us a drink, and told us of course we were more than welcome to stay for dinner (even though the sign outside said reservations only).

Ivan the Macaw hangs out by the Kings Well restaurant balcony

We sat watching the parrots eat and play, enjoying our drinks as Win and Laura (the owners) told us stories about how they'd met in their pre-island lives, eventually moved to Statia, and built their resort themselves. The two parrots we were sat at the table with were free flighted outdoor birds and would alternate between digging through their dish for food and flying back and forth along the beach in formation. Once the sun set the parrots went "to bed" and the food arrived. Win is an excellent chef, with German dishes and seafood options on the menu (although he gave the impression he'd make anything we wanted). Other guests had canceled, so the 4 of us sat together enjoying stories for the evening, listening to the surf and enjoying the animals. Laura and Win had also at one time owned a catamaran, but had lost it to a bad mooring, and it smashed into the Statia cliffs. After dinner we could not decide on a cocktail, so Laura asked what kind of things we like and went on to invent a new one for us - and named it Footprint: Kahlua, Brandy, Chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, and ice - all in the blender - delicious. Oh and there is no measuring in the Caribbean just a good slug of alcohol!

Overall we had a wonderful evening spent with warm and wonderful people (and their pets). This small and personal resort offers hotel rooms for any cruiser looking for a change of scenery, and also long term studio and small apartments - perfectly geared for a retirement life, or even a writer's get-away.

As we finally left for the evening, Laura invited us to use their pool the next day if we were interested - a nice fresh water swim! We were positive we'd be back.

On to Statia

[Kyle]For our next leg, we got up at a reasonable hour (not dark) for the 30 mile trip along the west coast of St Kitts and on to Statia just beyond. Never heard of Statia? Its full name is Saint Eustatius, but everyone calls it Statia; beween St Kitts and St Barts, it was once the busiest port in the Caribbean, but is now a sleepy island with a population of 3100 (that seems to be growing), and famed for (geologically speaking) the world’s most perfect volcanic crater.

We had been interested in Statia because it was reputed to be “off the beaten path” - no cruise ships, no ferries, just a small aircraft shuttle between the local islands. It is steeped in shipping history, and was the first nation to return the salute of an American Naval ship in 1776 (never mind it was an accident, the governor had thought he was saluting a merchant vessel).

Our sail to Statia had been uneventful - nothing much to speak about (which generally is good news). It was a fast downwind sail along the St Kitts’ coast with a few gusts off the mountains of Nevis, but for the most part, a fast and steady sail.

Visibility was about 20 miles, so rather than receding over the horizon to our stern, Nevis gradually lost contrast in the haze until it vanished altogether. The opposite was true of the slowly approaching Statia which took on more detail and color as we neared.

First Views of Statia and its volcano the Quill

The Quill, the Statia volcano (long since extinct), was impressive, rising steeply out of the water to the rim of its crater on the East side of the island.

We sailed around the South side of the island, passed the White Wall (a huge slab of limestone on the south side of the volcano) and on to the "harbour" at Oranje Baai. The harbour is really less of harbour than just a spot on the leeward side of the Island next to the city Oranjestad. There is very little protection from the swell. Several of our guides report it to be the most rolly anchorage in the Caribbean (and this is certainly what we experienced). The other thing that made the anchorage notable is that further North on the island were several oil tankers. Statia has long made its living acting as a middle man between countries otherwise not talking to each other. Today it achieves this with a huge oil storage terminal.

We picked up a mooring ball (as required by the local park service) and since we were too late to check in I took a quick swim to check on the mooring (very sturdy) and we spent the rest of the afternoon/evening on Footprint, where we enjoyed dinner with a bottle of "Faraway Bay" wine given to us in the States before we left, by our sailing friend Ron - thanks Ron!

Exploring Nevis - Day 3

[Kyle]Since the previous day had not been quite strenuous enough, we decided to circumnavigate the entire island by bicycle. Both the guy at the bike shop and the Tourist Information office assured us that the shore road circling the island is mostly flat and not too hilly at all. Even though we were more than at touch saddle sore from the previous day's ride we figured we'd stop a lot on route and we'd be fine.

After a brief stop in Charlestown to clear customs, and to add to our stock of drinks at a supermarket, we headed anticlockwise along the ring road to our first planned stop <<>> reputed to have a crucifix with a Black Jesus. As soon as we got out of Charlestown, however, the road began to climb in the manner of the lines at Disneyland; just when you think you are almost to the top/front, you come around a corner and there is more hill/line! This went on for miles, all the while huge dump trucks were barreling down the road going both ways, leaving us little room for the weaving back and forth that is characteristic of climbing a hill at half a mile an hour on a bicycle!

We made it to the church and found it locked, and although we attempted to peep through all available windows, we could not tell in the dim light what the guy on the crucifix looked like (apart from miserable). We used the excuse to have a drink and a snack and rest before returning to THE HILL. It turned out by then, that we had barely even started. We kept assuming we were almost done (remember everyone told us it was flat) but people hanging out on the road sides, or passing in their trucks, kept laughing at us. During one particularly steep part, Maryanne had a nice conversation with an old man who was taking his daily walk. He warned her that it was dangerous to cycle on the hill with the big trucks, Maryanne told him not to worry, she wasn't cycling, mostly just pushing her bike up hill.

Gentle Hike through the "rain forest" at Golden Rock Plantation

Eventually, we finally did reach the top of the hill, and enjoyed a screaming coast down the other side. Occasionally stopping to take a picture or inspect something of interest. One of the first things we came across was our next planned stop - Golden Rock Plantation, itself up another impossibly steep and long hill. The appeal of Golden Rock was it was reputed to have a large resident population of Green Vervet monkeys (elsewhere on the island you can see them, but they are unpredictable in location). We obtained a trail map from the office and went into the forest, which of course started off with a steep hill! We didn't see any monkeys on the hike, although the forest was beautiful. At the end of the trail we were feeling pretty tired and hungry and found the restaurant too tempting to pass up. The plantation is just gorgeous, the restaurant offered views of the Caribbean from about 2/3rds of the way to the top of Mount Nevis. The food was also excellent.

Relaxing around Golden Rock Plantation

Just as we were finishing our meal, the woman from the office came looking for us to tell us that there were monkeys down the hill, and once we'd done eating we should stop by her office and she would make sure we'd not miss them. On the way down the hill you could not miss them. There were monkeys everywhere, however, they were still very skittish and hard to get close enough to get a good photograph.

Green Vervet Monkeys - At Golden Rock Plantation

[Maryanne]The Vervet monkeys were brought to the island as pets, centuries ago, and have since happily multiplied and are now fully wild. They exist only On Nevis and St Kitts, and I was especially keen to see them while we were there. I was so excited and happy to finally see them. The story is that the French brought them to the islands, however another guide book suggested that "French" was just a derogatory term used for the English that brought them over - who knows!

[Kyle]Next stop on the tour was the Nevisian Heritage Museum, which was reported to to do an excellent job of the pre-columbian life. However as we arrived, they were closing the gate (too early for closing time, but I guess it was soap opera night!).

So then we just continued on our anti-clockwise circuit via the shore road, nearly all coasting down hill which was a great relief. One extra thing on our "to do" list was to sample the "killer bee" cocktail at the Sunshine beach club. We could barely stand the extra two mile ride past Oualie beach to get there, we were so stiff and saddle sore, but we did it. When we got there, we found it was closed, totally locked and shuttered up, we were so disappointed. We returned to Oualie beach and asked the barman to give us a special (after they confirmed they could NOT make us a Killer Bee). Maryanne had a mango margarita, and I had a strong rum punch, even though we didn't need any help to sleep that night.

Again, we found ourselves having a lively conversation with the other folks at the bar, this time with an English diver/marine biologist (sound like anybody you know?). Afterwards,  we rowed back to the boat and collapsed in a heap - leaving preparations for our next sail to the following day.

Exploring Nevis - Day 2

[Kyle]Starting from Oualie beach, we decided the next day to rent a bicycle for me (Maryanne would use our on-board folding bicycle) for us to explore further around the island.

Cycle trail passing saddle Hill, and local wildlife

We took the road back to, and through Charlestown to a dirt track / trail that followed the coast on the south-west side of the island (there are numerous bicycle trails marked on the "Journey map" provided by Tourist Information). The trail took us through back gardens (on right of ways) and within a few minutes, all signs of civilization had disappeared [Maryanne]the landscape quickly became almost African. [Kyle]We found ourselves alone on a dirt trail that varied in quality between smooth road and rutted mountain biking track. Maryanne did surprisingly well with her folding bike that was certainly NOT built for rough trails. I even broke a spoke on my fancy mountain bike, and put it in the backpack to return to the store with it.

Eventually, towards the South side of the island, the vegetation became dry scrub with the rocky coast on one side and saddle mountain in the distance on the other. The track began to get very rough and I decided to ride the last 100 yards or so to the lighthouse (pole!) much to the irritation of the many wild donkeys and goats along the way that felt obliged to leave the road as I approached. We also found a very tiny beach, which I managed to scramble down to in order to fill my shoes with sand and pebbles!

On the way back we decided to take a short cut, the town by-pass, in effect, which ended up being just one big up hill followed by a down hill to the main coast road. Going very slowly up the hill, about half way up, we noticed TVs and a marked decrease in the number of people and moving cars in the streets. We were tired and dehydrated, so decided to stop at a local shack/store for a soda (and a rest from climbing that hill). Inside the store were a few locals watching the inauguration speeches on a TV mounted in the corner. The woman from the counter waved to allow us to take a drink from the fridge, and we sat at the counter drinking our sodas and watching the rest of the speeches with the locals. Once ended, we had no more excuse to linger, and feeling rested, we returned to the hill.

A couple of miles out of town, my chain broke, leaving the bike unusable for anything except coasting down hill. The problem was we had previously arranged to meet a guide at 3pm for a hike, and we were running out of time - now we had an extra delay. Maryanne stayed with me as I pushed/coasted for a while, but eventually, we agreed she would have to go ahead to meet with the guide, leaving me to rush to swap the bike and then catch up. Despite the fact that Maryanne had telephoned ahead for me, upon returning to Oualie beach, rather than swap the bike, the shop wanted to fix it, so I sat there checking my watch every 20 seconds until he'd finished. I tore out of the parking lot and onto the road at about 5 minutes to 3pm, worried that they would either start without me, or that Maryanne would miss the hike because I'd not shown up.

I rode as hard and fast as I could, speeding along the coast road for a mile or so, before I turned the road for the climb to the mount Lilly estate (where we were to meet the guide). This road appeared to be a 15% grade that went on for as far as I could see (and then some). I was quickly in low gear and pushing harder than I should have been, trying to make it to the top of the hill. Just as I was thinking I was almost there, a small 4 wheel drive came down the road with Maryanne waving at me from the passenger seat; one of the other hikers had graciously offered to come and collect me, and delay their hike so we could all go. We quickly loaded the bike into the car and headed back for the rendezvous point - it turned out that I was no where near the top (maybe a 1/3rd of the way), I would never have made it in time (and I'd probably have got lost on the way anyway!).

Everyone was very understanding about my late arrival, and rather than being frustrated at the late start, all seemed happy to help rescue me - a little extra adventure. The hike we had arranged was with Jim Johnson, a biologist/pathologist/agriculturist with a wonderfully encyclopedic knowledge of the flora and fauna of Nevis. During the slow pace hike we would often stop at some plant and he'd break off a piece for us to smell or inspect while he cited numerous factoids of its uses or island history. There seemed to be nothing of the forest that we could question that Jim didn't understand in great detail. He was enthusiastic, a little eccentric, and really entertaining as a guide. Our hike quickly transitioned from meadow into thicker forest/jungle where we started spotting soldier crabs (Caribbean Hermit Crab) which hatch in the sea but seem live their day to day lives atop high mountains. The reputedly got their name when an invading army heard rustling all around them at night and assumed that the enemy had found them, so they quickly retreated! We entered a couple of caves to see local bats and the blind whip-tail scorpion (no stinger) and passed numerous ruins from what appear to have been a secret subterranean enclave from a couple of hundred years ago. Towards the end of the hike, we sat down in one of the ruins and Jim opened his backpack and pulled out sample after sample of local edible plants - plenty enough for each of us to enjoy.

Forest Hike, and sunset from Nevis

We hurried back to the starting point on the hike as the sun was setting. Maryanne and I enjoyed a FAST downhill return to Oualie beach. We were very thirsty, having not drunk anything since the inauguration, so we stopped by the Oualie beach bar for sodas and found ourselves engaged in lively bar debate, starting with the inauguration and drifting around social issue to social issue.

Exhausted from our day and no longer willing to spend more time on a hard wooden bar stool (that bike they rented me had a saddle made of granite) we went home and collapsed into a very restful sleep.

[Maryanne]This day's exploring was exhausting, my little bike with small wheels, and after only a few minutes a very uncomfortable saddle was not the easiest way to see the island; but it was great exercise, and BOY did I need it. I really felt the pressure though when I had to rush to the top of Mount Lilly to meet with the hike and explain why Kyle would be late - that hill was steep, and for much of it I pushed the bike while running. The guided hike was fantastic and I would have loved to have joined Jim Johnson on some of his many other offered hikes, he was a great character. Going back down hill was much quicker, but very scary, I had my brakes on the whole time (but even without them I could not keep up with Kyle).

Charlestown - Captial of Nevis

[Kyle]We first had to clear into Nevis (pronounced Nee-vis), so we rowed ashore to the dinghy dock by the ferry terminal and immediately were given a good impression of the place. Maryanne asked directions for a dumpster (for our trash) and the official was very nice, directed Maryanne as to where to find the dumpster, and then asked if we had just arrived? "Yes? Then once you've dumped that, come back and I'll give you directions to Customs, etc.".

Charlestown Port

At customs (2 desks, 4 chairs and a printer), the officers were very nice; joking with us and each other. Having just computerized their system - we were amazed that having given them the name of the boat, they knew where we'd come from and all our details - our arrival paperwork was quickly checked, printed, paid for, and handed over! Creepy on the one hand, but convenient in its efficiency on the other. The next stop was immigration (the local police station, several blocks away). Maryanne was keen to start on her tourist hit list (with a visit to the tourism office we were passing), but I had to remind her that we were not yet legally in the country.

At the police station the highlights were:
  • A bulletin board showing all 4 of the people WANTED on the island - I only had a chance to read one - a Haitian who had overstayed his visa, I imagine the others were for similarly minor offenses.
  • On the opposite wall, a chalkboard with a tally of all traffic accidents for previous years/months, etc (280 for 2008) - below that, a list of people who were (currently) banned from driving, or should I say person; just one guy, publicly humiliated and known to all. Nevis has some very peculiar laws: swearing in public is illegal, but drinking and driving is not, which might explain why an island of only 11,500 people has so many car accidents.

The officer at the counter cleared us in quickly and welcomed us to the island with a smile.

From there we went to the more stereotypically surly Port Authority office in order to pay a week's mooring fees for mooring balls that didn't exist in our planned anchorage, along with other harbour fees.

Charlestown Views - and Kyle gets to relax too

Since we still had most of the day remaining, Maryanne pulled out her list of "must see" sights in town.

  • Museum of Alexander Hamilton - one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, on the USA $10 bill, etc - a big deal in the States; he was actually born on the Island of Nevis. A reconstruction of his house is here (in the original setting), with the ground floor dedicated to his life story. The museum was disappointingly small (the entire thing can be seen from the cash register where we purchased our inexpensive ticket). It was informative, and prepared and laid out much more professionally than the Antigua museum.
  • Horatio Nelson Museum - Nelson exhibits are all over the Caribbean, but he married Fanny Nesbit who was born on the island of Nevis, married in Nevis, and visited several times before and after his marriage. However, his marriage was unhappy and didn't last too long, but this does not stop the Nevisians housing a museum about him. This museum was also (technically) the Nevis museum, so they had a few artifacts (maybe 25% of the displays) of the pre-colonial occupations and some exhibits on government structure, political history, and slave culture.
  • The Bath Hotel, reputedly the first hotel in the Caribbean; our guidebook said it was now empty and abandoned, but it appeared that various ministry offices are now housed in it. There were some great balcony views and the hotel itself was in good condition and undergoing renovation where not.
  • Another Hot Bath! Nevis has an area of natural volcanic hot springs. The Bath hotel was built beside the springs, and an older bath house has long fallen into dis-repair. However, the hot springs are still popular with the locals and a number of "baths" have been built to make the most of the hot spring waters. Maryanne was the first to go in. Now Maryanne likes HOT water to bathe in, so it was a surprise to see her gently and tentatively lowering herself into the water and obviously struggling to adapt to the temperature. I had a good laugh at her expense until it was my turn to go in, at which point I understood - this water was scalding hot! Once we were both in, eventually we managed to submerge to our necks, there was no way we were putting our head in that water - my face would come off. The sign outside the bath said time limit was 15 minutes and we both wondered how anyone would (or could) stay in the water that long. We managed a photo opportunity and climbed out. The searing hot water did, however, make the hot, muggy, Caribbean air feel positively refreshing once we'd climbed out. As we were drying off and preparing to leave, a local, arriving for her daily bath, insisted that the water was usually much hotter, but recent rains had cooled things down. Jeez!

View from Balcony of Bath Hotel

Kyle takes a hot bath

Alexander Hamilton House

All these things were within a 15 minute walk from the center of Charlestown. We were pleased to do so much (including visiting with the Tourist office to pick up a good Island map).

Once we were done with our tour, we returned to the boat and moved it north up the shore to Oualie Beach (NW side of the island) just in time to enjoy the sunset and plan our next few days of exploring.

[Maryanne]Nevis has been fun so far, and has a character of its own. Everyone has been really friendly. If we even look slightly lost then we get several offers of help. The kids all wear school uniform. We checked out the town library where there was a week long special Obama presentation.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Leaving Antigua

[Kyle]The time had finally come to move on from Antigua for our next destination, Sint Maarten; but first I had to get to Antigua! I was stuck at work in the NE USA, and a cold front was approaching fast. All week the flight I'd been intending to take home had plenty of open seats However, with the approaching holiday weekend (Monday 19th was Martin Luther King day in the USA - a federal holiday) about 18 hours before the flight was to leave, it suddenly filled up with both paying passengers AND more senior non-revs (boarding order is based on seniority) it became apparent that there was NO WAY I'd get on that flight - the only one of the day.

I ended up rising super early and catching a flight to Atlanta and on to Antigua via Delta airlines, getting me home about an hour later than the original Continental flight. My intent had been to land in Antigua, clear customs at the airport, take a cab to English Harbour, clear out of customs for the boat and crew, then depart at 3am the following morning aboard Footprint. Since the Delta flight was scheduled to arrive at 3:20 and customs at English Harbour was supposed to close at 4 - this original plan was looking less and less probable. In Atlanta we had several gate changes, and the flight was delayed by 25 minutes - Doh!

This particular aircraft had Delta's new personal video system that allows you to pull up (among other things) a screen showing estimated time of arrival. Once we got off the ground, the display varied between 3:30 and 3:40 as an arrival time, resulting in me staring at the screen and stressing out about the arrival time for the entire 4 hour flight. We eventually managed to touch down just before 3:30, I called Maryanne immediately to see if she could clear herself and the boat out, leaving me to attempt to clear in and out at the airport (I could ask!); Maryanne said that she was at immigration in English Harbour and they needed to see my passport to clear me out - HOWEVER, since I was already on the ground they would stay open late for me if I could rush to English Harbour (my plan anyway). I managed to get off the plane nearly first and worked my way to the front of the customs line, only to find myself behind at least 200 people of a just landed Virgin Atlantic 747. Fortunately, since I'd traveled in uniform, I was pulled out of the standard passenger line and directed to the empty crew line; although they were terribly confused that I was not working the flight, they let me pass through the crew line and I was NOT going to argue.

So after 2 minutes I was through customs and within 5 minutes I was climbing into a cab for English Harbour. I managed to get there about 20 past 4 o'clock, and was relieved to find the Immigration and Customs people still smiling - they cleared us out and wished us a good and safe journey.

Once I got home and had dinner I was so exhausted I pretty much collapsed; I even left the dishes for the next day which I almost never do.

Next morning I got up at 1:30 (Maryanne, a bit later) and found because of my laziness the prior night that getting the boat ready to go took longer and delayed our leaving until 4:30am; we still managed a traditional Footprint early start.


Once we made it to open sea with the sails raised, we had a nice fast uneventful downwind sail to Nevis, passing the rugged and uninhabited Redonda complete with absent Kings. Redonda (a big chunk of rock, ringed by vertical cliffs) appears to have nowhere inhabitable, but we know from our history and guide books that there was once an active phosphate industry and many workers there.

We arrived on the South side of Nevis, rounded to the South West and made it to the capital of Charlestown mid afternoon (a perfect time to spot any anchoring hazards on the bottom) - we found a spot to anchor (quite near the dinghy dock) and even had enough room to perform one of my favorite maneuvers: anchoring and backing down under sail. We were surrounded by local (small wooden) fishing boats, and in the near distance was a grounded and rusted out freighter - a reminder of the dangers of shore. As it was a Sunday, customs was closed, so we remained on the boat for the rest of the afternoon/evening; we swam (to check the anchor), enjoyed the views, and had a big dinner before retiring early to catch up with sleep.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Fig Tree Drive is Bananas

[Kyle]Our next day (and only full day to explore), we got up early for a drive around the south and west coasts via Fig Tree Road. Immediately, we discovered the other problem with Antigua’s road system (besides the holes) – no good signage. Our mileage suffered terribly because we had to drive every stretch of road three times.

We’d be looking for some particular place, realize that we’d somehow passed it, then turn around and pass it again before finally finding the place through the process of elimination. In most places there were no signs whatsoever.

Our first order of business was to top up the fuel tank. I navigated as Maryanne spent half an hour doubling back on ourselves looking for a gas station that was marked on our map. Once we were sure that we had to be in the right place but saw no gas station, Maryanne had a look at the map and it turns out that the Texaco symbol I was having her chase down was actually the symbol for a police station. Gas stations were marked by little gas pumps! Well, that’s just weird.

[Maryanne]I had to give Kyle a quick lesson in understanding that the key to the map just might be useful!!! Kyle was directing us to the little star with a P in it, rather than the fuel pump graphic, an easy mistake (he insists).

[Kyle]That solved, we got to a gas station just in time (a Texaco, ironically) and started our trip down Fig Tree Drive.

Fig Tree Drive itself is billed as a beautiful drive through the heart of Antigua’s rain forest. To be honest, to us it actually looked pretty much like any other road, ruts and all. There were a few banana trees (Antiguans call them figs), but otherwise nothing that stood out. [Maryanne] We stopped at a street vendor stall to purchase a Black Pineapple for Kyle to sample (and to ask directions). Fig tree drive is also the home to the Rain Forest Canopy tour - a series of zip lines over various "rain forest" gorges; we chose not to stop due to both time and cost, but it looked fun.

Wallings Dam has a host of trees, including this thorny species! but the trails and buildings are pretty overgrown - including the old well here

[Kyle]Along the way, trough trial and error we were able to locate the tiny road to Wallings Reservoir for a stop. The Reservoir is small but deep and on the dam side has a few park benches, a swing and a gazebo amidst some impressive trees, including a few that don’t want to be climbed. The place seemed to be used only by locals. Neither our map nor any of our guidebooks mention it. Maryanne found it on line. We had a hike up one of the more promising looking trails but turned around after a while when we realized it looked like it would require the whole day to complete.

Or next stop was the Summit of Obama Peak (the controversial new name for the old Boggy peak - the highest point in Antigua). We got about a third of the way up on a very bad and narrow road. After about 20 minutes of hitting our heads on the ceiling because of the bumps, we came upon a sign that said the road was the private property of Cable and Wireless. Why couldn’t they have put that at the beginning of the road where it would be useful?

Antigua - West Coast Beaches

Alrighty, then. Next stop: The Beach. We followed the coast road past too many gorgeous beaches to count. Antigua is amoeba shaped. There are two or three coves per mile with lovely white sand, palm trees and turquoise water. We eventually stopped at Darkwood Beach, which several sources assured us was the prettiest one. I’m not so sure about that, but it was very pretty. We stopped and swam/snorkeled in the surf for a while before continuing on. One hilarious thing that we saw was a woman going down the beach on a Segway with big beach tires. She was the guide for a company that offered guided Segway tours. Why you need a guide to see a beach you can walk the entire length of on foot in five minutes, I have no idea. That’s not the funny part. The funny part was that just like in a car, she was texting the whole time and wasn’t paying any attention at all to where she was going.

Our next stop was Jolly Harbour, where we hoped to have a look around and buy some stuff for the boat at Budget Marine. As soon as we got there, we got a bad vibe. Jolly Harbour is less of a town than a gated tourist compound. There was a sign near the guard gate at the entrance saying that condos were available for between $900,000 and $3.5 Million – US! Maryanne’s first comment once inside was that it looked like Florida – no Caribbean feel whatsoever. I was surprised not to see a guy in a mouse outfit. We had intended to have a drink at the famous Dog Watch Tavern but as soon as we realized that it reminded us of a bar at an Applebee’s, we kept walkin’.

We went to Budget Marine and found not only some items we wanted but also one of the least friendly sales people I’ve ever seen. When I went to hand one of them our cruising permit (so we wouldn’t be charged the tax since we were a yacht in transit), she wouldn’t even lean forward in her chair to take it from me. I had to stretch WAY over the counter to get it too her. When everything was totaled, the sum seemed wrong. It turned out the price on one item was different from what the sticker said. She said that the price had gone up and then just stared at us, apparently expecting us to just pay up. Maryanne just stared back and then kept staring until finally, with undisguised disgust, she voided out the sale and redid it with the lower price. HA!

From there we had intended to find a recommended hilltop viewpoint to watch the sunset, but we could not find the road. We kept asking locals, who were very friendly, but always gave us directions to a different road that passed behind the mountain we were trying to summit. Eventually, we gave up and decided to see what the behind the mountain road looked like. Our map indicated that it would be a shortcut back to English Harbour.

Shortcut home - was only short in distance, in places the road was a LOT worse than this

Shorter it may have been but it was not faster. The road kept getting narrower and narrower and boggier and boggier until eventually we ended up in low range four wheel drive, just trying not to get stuck. Most parts of the road were so bad that 3mph would have been a suicidal speed, if not for us then at least for the suspension and drive train. We were very glad we had rented a 4WD. Eventually, we did get spat out on the main road and made it back home. We were a little disappointed that the Jeep was not encased in mud after all that. All we had was muddy tires and some splatter behind the fenders.

The next day, I had to go to work. We got up early and went into St. Johns to see Heritage Quay and the Marketplace. There were two big cruise ships docked, though and the whole place was a little busy for us, so after buying a couple of nice fresh smoothies, we headed for the beach at Fort James.

On the way, Maryanne kept saying she knew the way because she had walked that way last time she came. I was amazed! Her description in an earlier post does not do justice to it. It was something like 8 or 10 miles to the beach from town and there isn’t any shade anywhere, just hot concrete ([Maryanne]Maybe 3 miles!!) Wow, she is a tough woman!

Anyway, we had a nice swim on the beach and used the “showers” (really just a pipe with a valve) to get cleaned up before changing into my uniform and taking the long way to the airport via the coast road. We stopped at this beach and that, keeping an eye on the time, stalling as much as we could before parting ways and sending me back to the freezing Northeast U.S. to work.

Russell's Restaurant from Fort James, and the beautiful Fort James Beach

[Maryanne]I was really keen to return and hopefully partake in the offerings of Russell's the restaurant just beside the fort that I didn't get to spend time in when I visited alone previously. Kyle was all keen and agreed it was a great setting, however, just our luck, they were closed (we were too early). We were able to take a peak and a walk inside and enjoy the views and imagine enjoying a great meal there!

On Fort James Beach however, we found a great food/bar shack, and enjoyed some delicious gray snapper fish cakes, while being thoroughly looked after by the owner. It was a perfect place to hang out and enjoy the sound of the surf, before we had to start Kyle on his commute to work. Ahh, Antigua. I'm glad we made the effort to enjoy the full range of sights - it really is a pretty cool place.

North Coast Beaches on route to the airport