Sunday, December 4, 2016 - USA / Martinique
We touched down at Fort-de-France, a sleepy capital city set against a backdrop of saw-tooth volcanic peaks. We checked in to the Cap Est Lagoon Hotel & Spa Resort where we gathered with our fellow travelers and met Expedition Leader Jeff Gneiser and Cruise Director Cynthia Gneiser.
As an astounding background chorus of resident frogs cranked into high gear, it was time for the welcome reception and buffet dinner, including introductions of staff and a run-down of the next day’s activities.
Monday, December 5 - Martinique / Embark Le Ponant
This morning, the early bird walkers headed to scrubby, low-lying mangroves at the Presquile Caravelle National Park, while the rest of us traced our way back by the airport area and from there onto a steep, leafy street winding up past pedestrians, grazing goats, and homes both modest and substantial before reaching our first stop, Sacre Coeur de Balata, a miniaturized version of Paris’s Montmartre Basilica. Though the exterior is shabby, Balata’s interior is quite beautiful, light and airy, with windows and walls decorated in delicate art nouveau motifs.
As we continued on our tour deep tropical forest enveloped us as our buses climbed up through drifting clouds, dense, dripping greenery, and across narrow bridges above rushing rivers where the trunks of towering hardwoods could just be seen on steep hillsides. Our destination was Le Domaine d’Émeraude or “Emerald Estate.” A drenching downpour accompanied us as we pulled into a large parking lot, but luckily abated as we divided into two groups to explore the steep property’s terrain.
Our guides were exceptional, both personable and well-informed. One, Muriel, was the dedicated director of this educational center, a highly trained and sophisticated woman possessed of a fervent mission to preserve and pass on to Martinique’s coming generations, knowledge of the island’s many medicinal plants and their traditional uses. After walks and a museum visit, we were offered an array of local delicacies such as codfish balls and fresh fruit juices.
On the way to lunch we caught glimpses of the semi-active Mt. Pelée, Martinique’s tallest volcano at 4,600 feet, notorious for its 1902 pyroclastic eruption, which wiped out the entire population of St. Pierre. Three months later, Pelée claimed more lives in the village of Morne Rouge, the very place where we enjoyed a jolly and revivifying Creole lunch at La Chaudière. We sampled rum, fruit juice, and hors d’oeuvres in a garden pavilion before we tucked into lunch in an open-air dining area, a pleasure increased by what could only be called a bird’s-eye view of lively birdlife in the adjacent garden, including crested Antillean hummingbirds.
The next stop was Fort-de-France’s pre-Columbian Museum next to a large park famous for its headless statue of Napoleon’s Josephine, a native of the island whose views on slavery cause controversy even today.
We boarded Le Ponant and settled in for a welcome briefing and a chance to stand on the ship’s spacious Sun Deck for a look forward to the beckoning sea.
Tuesday, December 6 - St. Vincent & the Grenadines
Our hardy walkers headed out from Kingstown to a nature trail where they hoped to see the day’s only endemic bird species, the St. Vincent parrot.
Shortly after, the cultural group learned that the proper name of this country is “St. Vincent and the Grenadines” (the latter of which are home to 32 islands). We drove past the gleaming buildings of banks and Ministries of Tourism and Commerce, and continued past street sellers and Catholic, Methodist, and Anglican churches, schools, and small shops on the way up a steep hill to Fort Charlotte, named for the wife of George III and once bustling with English soldiers.
After enjoying the fort’s expansive views and unusual display of reproductions of colonial era paintings by a single amateur artist, we headed for the oldest Botanical Garden in the West Indies. The garden’s development is a collaboration of two individuals prominent in the island’s colonial history, one English and one French. The garden is bordered by well-kept houses, including the Governor General’s residence. We meandered up a steep central path, before we had the fun of exchanging repeated raucous back-and-forth “Hellos” with a whole gang of St. Vincent parrots, birds belonging to a successful captive breeding program for that critically endangered species.
We headed back down the hill and climbed out of the buses for a quick aperitif at a seaside spot which looked directly out at a luxurious private island resort. Our hurried waterside drink was greatly enjoyed as a prelude to a shipboard lunch, followed by a lively afternoon of watersports.
Unfortunately, there proved to be too much surge at the local snorkel boat’s regular spot, but Jack Grove, our on-board marine biologist and Zegrahm cofounder, directed the boat’s captain to find us a more protected spot. Visibility wasn’t perfect, but the many people who took to the water with Jack, naturalist Rich Pagen, and historian Richard Fagen saw a good number of species, including a school of ever-exciting squid.
Wednesday, December 7 - Grenada
After a night of vigorous rocking and rolling, there was bright sunshine as our ship entered the bay at St. George’s. Many of those out on deck did an incredulous double take—Are we in Italy?—at the charming sight of a waterfront.
Those on the cultural tour stopped for photo ops at the remains of the unfinished international airport, now a flat area, which offers a bizarre scene of scrawny cattle and goats grazing on broken-down tarmac around the wreckage of two burned-out Cuban MIG fighter planes. Our next stop took us back in time as we visited a distillery, which still uses ancient original equipment to produce rum in the traditional way. After the tour, a pair of fetching young women in traditional dress offered us samples of the factory’s rum. We got to try any two of the four types on display, a bottled rum punch, a rum-coffee liqueur, a 169 proof rum, and a 172—or was it 173?—proof rum.
On we went through bewitchingly attractive countryside to Helvellyn House at the north end of the island. Atop high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic’s crashing surf, we nibbled on tapas-like snacks and drank the Windward Islands’ typical Christmas drink, a refreshing cold tea steeped from the petals of a hibiscus plant known there as sorrel.
Our last stop was the Dougaldston Estate, a producer of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, allspice, bay leaves, and cocoa beans. We saw the tricky drying process for cocoa beans and walked through a long, narrow shed which smelled sweetly of the spices displayed there both as plants and as finished products.
Those on the nature walk set out for a waterfall, but ended up not only with nary a waterfall in sight, but having to slop and squish their way along a sketchy trail mired from recent heavy rainfall.
But the day was not yet over… several of us boarded a local catamaran for a visit to an underwater sculpture park. A highlight of the day was the Captain’s gala cocktail party on the beautiful Sun Deck, with Veuve Clicquot for toasting, and a rousing steel-drum band there specially for our dancing pleasure.
Thursday, December 8 - Tobago Cays
We anchored near the five uninhabited islands that comprise the Tobago Cays Marine Park on a morning with a fair amount of wind and a threat of showers. We found ourselves at a truly isolated wild place with an intimate feel to it.
Jack led off early with Caribbean Reef Fishes, a “what you see is what you get” talk before the “turtle experience” group departed to the beach to transfer to local boats.
In the later afternoon Rich presented Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Life on the Reef. Rich’s examples from the reef were entertaining, as well as educational.
This was a group that has collectively enjoyed many a ship’s aft deck or beach BBQ, from Antarctica to Melanesia. However, today’s BBQ stood apart, from its succulent grilled lobster, to its inviting array of sides and salads, to its gorgeous tarts, fruit, and cheeses for dessert—not to mention the hot coffee, which came after the red, white, and rosé wines and the plain or sparkling water, all out of real cups and glasses no less. No matter that there was a hulking iguana in a tree right above one of the tables—that just added to the fun—all could agree that the midday meal we enjoyed exemplified a singularly French love of food and drink, properly presented and served with flair.
And, despite a brief downpour, people did go in the water, did see the waves break over a fringing reef, and observed turtles and fish, all adding up to a delightful day.
Friday, December 9 - St. Lucia
We docked at Soufrière, a pretty town squeezed in at the base of a jumble of sharp, volcanic peaks, their silhouettes softened by dense vegetation. The tallest and most famous, the side-by-side Pitons, one grand and one petit, jut up to one side angled straight from the depths of the water below. This is the island where the young guide said, without even a try at irony, “In St. Lucia it is forbidden to fall, but photos are free.” And it’s true: there were photo ops in abundance, beginning with the line-up of guides arrayed along the sidewalk like a flock of brightly-colored tropical birds as we stepped off the dock.
Venturesome hikers went off to the Edmund Forest Trail, while the rest piled into buses to climb up, stopping first at the impressive Torialle Waterfall just footsteps away from the edge of the road. Those who plunged in shrieked with glee at the invigorating massage, while the non-bathers stood by as appreciative spectators.
We traveled further up through the rainforest to the Morne Coubaril Estate for a ramble past a re-creation of Carib huts, scattered artifacts such as try pots now used as planters, the handsomely refurbished manor house, a water well run on mule/donkey power, drying cacao beans, and a furnace-like oven where coconut was being turned into copra.
We sampled fresh coconut meat, proffered by a man who held a coconut in one hand and then cleaved it in two with one swift stroke of a machete held in the other. We gasped with relief at each bloodless blow, while the man himself maintained a look of bemused serenity.
Then, on the way back to our buses, we were beckoned along a row of brightly colored one-room houses where such goodies as freshly made spiced candied coconut and whole nutmegs were offered for sale.
As always, the clock was ticking faster and faster as we crossed back through Soufrière to start up the twisting road to Castries, St. Lucia’s capital, some 16 miles away on the other side of the mountain. We stopped before the summit, first at the Maranantha Gardens and, a few steps further along across the road, at the Beacon Restaurant, terraced to make the most of a dramatic overview back down to Soufrière and its surrounding peaks. Both garden structures and the restaurant, which offered us an enticing spread of local specialties including Christmas cake, were constructed of wood painted in a riot of cheerful color, as if the owners had determined to use samples of every shade produced by the island paint factory.
Back at the bottom of the hill, there was time for a quick look around near the tourist dock before lunch aboard. Then it was off for watersports until sunset, with water warm, excellent sightings of sea life, and, best of all, a site in the very shadow of the Pitons. Magnifique!
Saturday, December 10 - Dominica
We docked early on Dominica’s northwest coast at Portsmouth, which Jeff had informed us the night before is pronounced Ports mouth. Our ship came alongside at Cabrits National Park below historic Fort Shirley; and we set off early for an excursion to Kalinago Barana Aute, a territorial reserve which is home to around 3,500 indigenous people.
These people refer to themselves as the Kalinago, and they are the descendants of the Caribs, aggressive Amerindians who conquered and absorbed older native groups as they moved northward up the Windward chain before the arrival of the European explorers who eventually defeated them.
Our route to the Atlantic Coast took us inland through Portsmouth and on through wild forest lands interspersed with villages and gardens for the cultivation of crops such as taro. At the coast, we stopped at a viewpoint outside Calabashie for a breathtaking look down to rocky islets and pounding surf. We then continued on to the Kalinago territory where our buses turned down a vertiginous grade to park at right angles to the road on an extreme slope.
A young Kalinago guide led us down and up and over a loop through open forest to stop at a large and handsome open-air pavilion for a show. A dignified older man, his wife behind him, spoke to us of hopes and dreams of cultural revitalization as he introduced a small group of musicians and dancers who, dressed in costumes of their own making, performed for us. To end the show, and at the director’s urging, a handful of our group stepped up on the modest stage, and then, quite unexpectedly, the music began and all foot-dragging ended. Before our eyes a simple dance became a genuine means of connection; the fragility of the moment rendered it deeply touching in spite of (or perhaps because of) its inevitable artificiality.
It was a long ride back to the dock and yet lunch aboard worked its reviving magic, as some people voiced a desire both to snorkel and to take a walking tour up to Fort Shirley at the top of the cliff.
Our guide to Fort Shirley was Lennox Honeychurch, the director of the ongoing work at this remarkable fort. Born-and-bred in Dominica and an Oxford-educated anthropologist, as well as a de-facto archaeologist because of his dedication to historical preservation in the Lesser Antilles, this special guide offered a unique perspective, uniting breadth of factual knowledge to depth of emotional connection to that place.
Later that afternoon, back on board, Richard gave a short presentation on slavery, the consequences of which reverberate throughout these islands to this day. Richard passed out an abbreviated statistical reference sheet, and the numbers for profitability of the slave trade and of the products of slave labor were striking, perhaps especially to those who earlier heard Lennox declare that “no one wanted Dominica,” but for the fact that the price of sugar in Europe had risen ever higher, thus creating huge political pressure for European settlement on the land.
Sunday, December 11 - Iles des Saintes, Guadeloupe
This Sunday was a glorious morning for breakfast on the aft deck looking out over blue waters surrounding the archipelago. Our destination was Terre-de-Haut, where we stepped onto a dock which led either to the back patios of a row of waterside bars and restaurants or a block inland into a village that, against all odds, retains a calm and peaceful aura even after ferry boats filled with day-trippers from Guadeloupe begin to arrive.
Only when we climbed or rode up to Fort Napoleon and its museum did we realize that brisk and gusty winds were raking the hilltop. Little of the interior of the handsome walled fort is open, but the small museum it houses revealed just how cleverly designed the 18th-century building was to allow for maximum circulation of fresh air into its furthest interior.
The sun was higher and hotter by the time we walked around town in Terre-de-Haut, taking advantage of a regular afternoon shuttle from the ship. Many saw such landmarks as a pretty little Catholic church, the City Hall decorated across its lemon-yellow and white façade with a scroll reading Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité, or the somewhat crowded graveyard on the road leading to a popular beach, its pathways marked, according to the guide, to honor the fishermen buried there by long rows of conch shells.
Some of us used our free time to wander through shops while others had a coffee or sipped an aperitif as they watched a seemingly untroubled world pass by.
Monday, December 12 - Montserrat
Those who weren’t going on a forest walk up Runaway Ghaut started out laughing that we were going on the “Our New Stuff” tour, as we set out in new vans to drive by new playing fields in a new sports complex, new housing, new schools, a new hospital, new government buildings, and so forth. However our first stop, a short walk up a pathway through scrubby vegetation to an overlook at Jack Boy Hill, proved sobering. Much of the land view to the south was obscured by clouds of volcanic steam while at the edge of the sea below us there was a huge gray swath of volcanic ash of such depth and breadth that the previous coastline had literally been erased.
In other words, this was clearly not “just another day in paradise” but a day that gave us a powerful firsthand look at a place which, 20-odd years later, still struggles to exist in the aftermath of the cataclysmic natural disaster of the 1995 eruption of the still-active Soufrière Hills volcano. Its residents largely escaped, but Montserrat’s capital, Plymouth, a once-vital city with a past reaching back to Georgian times, was obliterated, buried by almost 40 feet of ash. In that sense, Plymouth can be seen as a sort of modern Pompeii, but with the difference that this is not ancient history: we were visiting a place where events continue to unfold in real time.
Our unique afternoon tour took us to the southern part of the island, which remains off-limits to habitation. We walked along a lush and winding coastal road rising from Little Bay, a scenic highway skirting a still viable, indeed obviously desirable, neighborhood of older houses, gardens, and a couple of resort hotels, all of which escaped the eruption and remain outside the restricted area. We turned up a steep hill in an area of abandoned houses and stopped at the open area around the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, which is complete with its own helicopter pad for emergency evacuation.
Further along, on a road that was increasingly barren and dusty, we passed what is left of AIR Studios Montserrat, the Beatles producer George Martin’s famous studio, which opened in 1979 and never re-opened after 1989’s ferocious Hurricane Hugo, which damaged 90% of the structures on the island. (After the eruption, Martin raised millions of funds for Montserrat, including the new Cultural Center we visited.)
The guides passed out protective masks with which to cover our noses and mouths before we were stopped at a virtual checkpoint, where we were counted off against official lists and our 30 minute countdown, the maximum time people are allowed inside the inner perimeter closest to the volcano, began. One of the guides, a person of evident resilient force of character, was able to articulate to those she guided something of the painful emotional burden shouldered by those who have chosen to stay on in their beleaguered homeland. This woman, Edris, as we entered what had been Plymouth, began almost to chant, pointing first to one side and then to the other, at broken buildings only half-visible beneath shrubby vegetation, “Look! See that? That was Barclay’s Bank! There was the grocery store! That’s my library where I worked! The middle school was there …”
The day held more, however, as some of us paused at the roadside spring at Runway Ghaut, where legend says that a sip of the water will insure one’s return to Montserrat, and others stopped to visit Duberry’s Art Gallery, an indoor-outdoor affair featuring work by a graduate of art school in England who is now the assistant high school art teacher.
Tuesday, December 13 - Barbuda / Antigua
Barbuda, a small, flat island with postcard-pretty white sand beaches administered by its larger neighbor Antigua, turned out to be the wildest spot on our Wild Caribbean voyage in terms of wildlife, thanks to its large and active magnificent frigatebird colony. The drivers of our local boats doubled as knowledgeable guides as they escorted us through low mangroves to an amazing scene of these iconic tropical birds displaying every possible aspect of their behavioral life-cycle, beginning and ending with their graceful and soaring flight.
We saw the posturing of courtship, mating, and pair-bonding; birds sitting on eggs; fledgling birds demanding to be fed; yearling birds trying to figure out what exactly was going on even as they got pushed off balance by older males only to land in a tangle of branches; and, most incredible of all, mature males barely visible behind their inflated red gular pouches, which look for all the world like big balloons that are about to burst.
Barbuda is an island formed from limestone and its other natural wonder is a series of shallow caves carved into low cliffs by the action of wind and waves. The caves are reached via a pathway through low bush along the coastline, a pathway made of limestone rubble with fossils of shells and sea creatures visible in it just as such fossils are up in the cliffs.
We were on the “forgotten” end of Barbuda, away from its exclusive high-end resorts, in an area of scattered settlements connected by washboard roads, with scrubby fields where goats, cattle, and horses forage.
Over lunch and with winds markedly freshening, the ship transferred to Antigua’s Jolly’s Harbor, a deep harbor where the captain went ashore to complete the ship’s paperwork. We disembarked for a tour of such historical sites as the Block House and Shirley Heights before ending at English Harbor and Nelson’s Dockyard.
We arrived at the Dockyard as dusk was falling, just as lights began to shine down on dozens and dozens of gleaming mega-yachts, many with either Georgetown (in the Cayman Islands) or Hamilton (in Bermuda), as hailing ports (both are tax havens). English Bay, as the British Navy’s regional center of command after its discovery by Lord Nelson, lives on today as a magnet for big-time yachting, encouraged by Antiguan government sponsorship of regattas and competitions during the winter season.
We toured the Dockyard, with its weathered stone Georgian-era buildings, before returning to our own deluxe dockside reception, complete with a well-stocked bar, sumptuous hors d’oeuvres, and a live band. The biggest treat of the evening, however, was the romantic sight of an enormous full moon rising over the peaceful and sheltered docks.
Wednesday, December 14 - Sint Eustatius
We learned as we set foot at this little-visited, but historically important, Dutch dependency that the island is known to all as Statia because, according to one guide, Walter, who, among his many hats, is the island’s Director of Monuments, “it’s too small for such a long name.”
As we drove along the narrow coastal strip, which was the site of the historic Lower Town, he described how, in its 18th-century hey-day, Statia was known as The Golden Island, because it was a hub of commerce, including the lucrative slave trade, for a huge area. Ships bound from/for North America or Europe stopped there for “one-stop shopping” according to Walter, who added, “Statia was the amazon.com of its day.”
Statia still has a single town, the capital, Oranjestad, but in the 18th century it was known as “Little Amsterdam” and boasted a population of 10,000 people. Then, as the Dutch lost power in the region, that seat of commerce was abandoned and left to ruin, its waterfront warehouses reclaimed by the sea and brick buildings at the base of the cliff buried under mud slides. Today, Statia’s population today is 3,600, a number bolstered in recent years by immigration from such places as Santo Domingo and Venezuela.
We parked in the Upper Town beside a large and charmless Methodist church and set out on a walking tour through the nearby complex of buildings, parade ground, and fortifications of Fort Oranje. We entered at the back of an old graveyard next to the remains of what was originally built as a Dutch Reform church—its steeple was specifically designed to be taller than the height of the imposing Sephardic Synagogue we saw later a few streets inland—but in its later history the church was home to other Christian denominations. Today, however, church and synagogue share the same fate—they are ruins.
The quiet, pleasant streets of the Upper Town are a mix of the old and the new. This not only applies to residences but also with more substantial private homes which have been converted into such things as the Historical Museum where we saw prehistoric and colonial artifacts and an exhibit on slaves and slavery in St. Eustatius. We saw the remains of cleverly designed stone cisterns which, from the earliest days of settlement in the 1630s, allowed the Dutch to grow tobacco on an island so dry that the French who preceded them gave up and left because of the lack of fresh water.
We were ready to meet up with our morning hikers, who went off first thing to wild trails around The Quill, as Statia’s quiescent volcano is called. In fact, we managed to end up in the same isolated spot, as the hikers appeared in the back of a small pickup shortly after our arrival, and all was well. A parade of women was busily unloading covered pans and bowls and setting them out to make a buffet on the porch, so we could see we were about to receive an authentic home-cooked, local meal.
Once more we moved beyond a special morning to afternoon watersports. The divers explored the submerged 18th-century underpinnings of “The Golden Island’s” warehouses, which are now home to thriving marine life, while snorkelers went by boat further along the coast past a large oil transfer and storage depot to a remarkable spot.
At recap we learned that our next day’s visit to Saba Marine Park was cancelled when the agent there reported that, even if the winds were to subside, landing would be impossible due to continuing swells. The new itinerary would see us at St. Barthélemy, while Anguilla, our replacement stop, would be the final tour day before disembarkation in St. Martin.
Thursday, December 15 - St. Barthélemy
Just as Sint Eustatius goes by a nickname, so too does St. Barth’s, but that is more or less where the resemblance between the two places ends. One look at the town of Gustavia, with its wall-to-wall designer boutiques and its docks filled with gleaming yachts, confirms that St. Barth’s is a place to go to see and be seen, all against a pretty island backdrop.
Today offered a hike to Colombier Beach, or a short ride to the beach at St. Jean Bay, an area of more recent development on the island’s Atlantic side.
The lure of the city must have beckoned, however, as neither hikers nor beach-goers lingered long, making their way back quite soon, either to wander in Gustavia, or to return to the ship, where lunch began early to accommodate the two successive groups who signed on for early afternoon tours of the harbor in a semi-submersible sub painted in an unmistakable shade of bright yellow.
Friday, December 16 - Anguilla
Our last full day was spent at the self-described green island of Anguilla. It’s true that little Anguilla, where we landed at a jetty over a sweep of white sand and gin-clear water in the protected harbor of Road Bay, was a bit sleepy, but that was all the better to afford us a ready-made chance to relax and reflect before we were dropped the next day into the hurly-burly of holiday season air travel.
Morning walkers had only to cross Road Bay to find well-worn paths around abandoned salt ponds in a large area behind a shuttered industrial salt mill, which was once key to the island’s economy but has been closed since 1986.
Fresh water is scarce on Anguilla, even at this point in the season, although we saw greenhouses where resort hotels grow their own hydroponic vegetables. We drove through dusty hamlets; passed through the fishing village, which is also the site of the bakery; saw many goats foraging in dry scrub and quite a few moribund cars; and then wound past modestly-sized gated communities strung above a panoramic coastline. We stopped at a beachside bar where some of us took a refreshing swim or beachcombed while others investigated a tiny boutique next to the bar.
We went on our way on a route that circled back to the island’s central heights to an area where we passed building supply and grocery stores, a Chinese restaurant, and auto rentals. Our afternoon option was a trip to Sandy Island, a private tropical island with white sands surrounding a few palm trees and an open-air bar-restaurant with an adjacent gazebo. Beach lounge chairs and umbrellas lined the water’s edge where those who chose to forgo bag-packing could snorkel, swim, or enjoy an unhurried look at the view out to sea or back to the harbor.
Saturday, December 17 - Sint Maarten / St. Martin / Disembark / USA
Le Ponant docked at the port of Galisbay on this single island, which for more than three centuries has been jointly administered by France and the Netherlands. It is thus called by names that refer to the same saint, but in two different languages, and has two different capitals, but nonetheless has free passage for all between the two sides.
Many houses and small businesses sported holiday decorations as we climbed beyond them through unproductive scrublands. We came to a roadside spot where a man is known to feed iguanas; our driver slowed and then stopped, as the creatures were even there in the absence of their benefactor. Protective coloration made them, even some that were quite large, difficult to spot amidst a tangle of muddy fallen branches, but our intrepid photographers jumped out for what turned out to be an excellent close-up photo op.
The Dutch side is more congested than the French and the airport is squeezed between a public beach at one end of the runway and a plethora of marinas, elevated roads and bridges, and streets filled with small houses and low-rise apartments, as well as a strip of bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops. Jeff was waiting as promised with the luggage we’d left on the dockside earlier in the morning. Luggage was claimed and we plunged into the familiar maelstrom of mass air travel.