The Leeward Islands
Our overnight sail from the Virgin Islands led us down towards Saba, a remote volcanic island of famously precipitous towns and livelihoods. As dawn rose, we could see it to the west off to our starboard side.
The island is also famous for its unprotected anchorages, especially in strong northerly swells. Well, unfortunately it was a brisk northerly wind that had allowed us to sail this angle to get here at all! As as we looked at the masts of the boats moored to the island’s north-west - rocking back and forwards like pendulums - we decided these weren’t the conditions to call in. But next time!
Instead we made the most of the continued stiff breeze during the morning to race down, past another Dutch island, Sint Eustatius, and towards St Kitts.
We anchored in the main harbor of the capital city, Basseterre, and easily checked in at the local marina. During a quick walk around the typically Caribbean town, we stumbled on a gospel music performance being televised in the main street.
The docks in Basseterre are dominated by cruise-ship infrastructure - every day a different, huge, vessel arrives - but by the time we settled in in the afternoon, it was calm and quiet. And an amazing experience as a friendly local swam by to spend some time with us:
Though now independent, St Kitts was one of the first countries to be colonized by Europeans in the early 1600s - and was variously in Spanish, French, and British hands. The island is covered in the remnants of industrial-scale sugar plantations and colonial militarization.
We took a bus up to Brimstone Hill, a vast British fortresses (and now UNESCO site) built on an imposing volcanic ridge.
The sheer amount of military and (sadly) indentured effort that obviously went into these huge ramparts really brings home how these now-sleepy islands were once at the heart of European geopolitics and rivalries - all because of sugar.
And, in the other direction, the deep blue of the Caribbean Sea, as far as the eye can see:
After a few days, we headed south towards St Kitts’ sibling island, Nevis - which, we discovered, is pronounced by its residents to rhyme with ‘Beavis’. We found a wide and calm bay just north of the main town, Charlestown. Birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, this was the perfect place to spend a few days to explore both beaches…
…and some of the abandoned sugar mills around the islands. Because of the volcanic soils, Nevis was actually one of the largest sources of offshore wealth for Great Britain during the less pleasant parts of its history.
While many sailors take the easterly route down through Antigua and St Martin, we decided to continue our journey down a slightly less popular western route. Next stop Montserrat.
Montserrat is also an island with a tragic history, but one which comes up much nearer the modern day: it was hit with a series of devastating volcanic eruptions between 1995 and 2010. The capital city Plymouth was destroyed, and much of the island’s population left - leaving a small administrative port, by Little Bay, which was where we checked in.
The next day, we sailed down the coastline, and caught our first glimpse of the ominous (and still smoking) Soufrière Hills volcano that had done all that damage, before anchoring just north of the emergency exclusion zone.
Known as a “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean”, Montserrat traditionally had a beautiful green rolling tropical landscape. As we walked up to the top of a hill above our bay, we saw the remains of many beautiful villas from its heyday (and when it was once a famous hideaway for recording artists!)
From the top though, the view south was another matter. The bottom half of Montserrat is literally a ‘ghost island’, and the lava flows from the mountain run all the way down to the sea, devastating the area where the city of Plymouth once was.
It was sobering, as we headed back to the boat, thinking about how the island - and the life of all its residents - had changed so suddenly and violently.
As you can imagine, we’ve met lots of other sailors on this trip. But until now, none from Ireland. Perhaps true to its ‘emerald isle’ reputation, though, Montserrat introduced us to Rhys and Niamh, all the way from Cork. We had fun looking around their self-built boat, Zora - impressive.
Our time in Montserrat coming to an end, it was time to head to Europe.
No, not across the Atlantic! But just a short hop down to the next island in the chain, Guadeloupe - which is literally still part of France. It felt very strange raising the tricolor in such tropical weather, as we entered Deshaies.
This beautiful little town is a popular anchorage for boats, but also does a sideline in TV shows. It serves as the backdrop for the BBC detective show Death In Paradise, and we couldn’t resist visiting the Honoré Police Station on our first walk around the town.
The culture shock didn’t stop there. After several weeks of limited shopping, and the low expectations of far-flung island supply chains, it was eye-opening to discover that even the smallest food stores in Deshaies were as well-provisioned as a typical Parisien supermarket.
Guadeloupe wasn’t all about cheese and croissants though. We rented a car for a few days and drove up into the heart of the western part of the island - a rain-forest reserve full of hiking opportunities.
The park is crammed full of beautiful mountain peaks, rivers, and waterfalls, with a jungle ecosystem and canopies to admire.
A few days later, and back on the boat, it was my birthday! As per tradition, a celebratory breakfast on the boat, but this conveniently being France, one with an appropriate caliber of patisserie skills and champagne options.
Jayne also made the most of the gastronomic opportunities to make a new Salty Scout video for the local delicacy ‘accras de morue’ - an awesome fish fritter dish.
Much as we loved Deshaies, we also wanted to see a few other parts of Guadeloupe, so headed down the coast. We stopped a night by the Cousteau Reserve on Pigeon Island and snorkeled (dodging the thick sargasso that’s been all too prevalent this year), but then headed south.
After a brisk sail involving the trade wind compression zone around the south-west corner of the main island, we arrived at a little cluster of islands called Les Saintes. We settled in to a very sheltered bay behind a prominent basalt outcrop called Pain-de-Sucre.
This little corner of the world had nice beaches, a nearby hotel with good food (and dance music!), and a coral garden with some great snorkeling. A good chance to catch and de-sting a few Lionfish that shouldn’t have been there.
We loved our week in and around Terre-de-Haut.
We found it a laid back little town, but very welcoming to its (understandably) many visitors.
After climbing to the top of the hill, we spent an informative morning in Fort Napoléon, learning about the islands, their natural history, and a particularly famous naval battle that took place just off the coast in 1782.
And that brought us to the end of our enjoyable stay in Guadeloupe and the Leeward Islands as a whole - a region of the world full of colors and contrasts, but also one with a deep, sad history that is somewhat masked by its modern reputation as a holiday destination.
And with that, our eyes were on the wind forecasts, ready to head south again - onto our final stage of this year’s journey, and to explore the secrets of Dominica…
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