Thursday, April 1, 2010

Isles des Saintes, Guadeloupe

"Les Saintes" is a chain of 6 - 8 islands, mostly uninhabited, just 12 miles off the southwestern end of Guadeloupe. If you speak a little French, or can tolerate the language barrier for a few days, this is an awesome vacation spot. It's a superfast ferry ride from Guadeloupe and a favorite vacation spot among the French. Their harbors are the clearest we've seen since New England, the people are warm to guests (even English speaking guests) and their villages are beautiful and clean. Attitude aside, the French have the nicest developments so far. The main settlement here is, "Le Bourg" a fishing community on the the largest island, "Terre d'en Haut."
They wake up really early around here. Fishermen are buzzing about the anchorage in their skiffs by 4:00 am. The town is awake and busy by 6:00 am, when the boulangeries (bakeries) and patisseries (pastery shops) are filling the air with their scents of fresh baguettes and melted chocolate found in the pepitos and croissants. For the best pick of the batches, it's best to make it to shore by 7:00 am, as they may actually run out by 8:30 am. As soon as the patisserie sells out, it closes its doors, but the bakeries continue to make bread and sandwiches into the afternoon.

In town, dogs follow their owners down the street without a leash and stop to play with their neighbors or chase chickens around with their pals. Everyone seems to know all of the local dogs, which shopkeeper they belong too when they are roaming free and making their way porch to porch. The houses are beige and white with red tiled roofs and almost every one has a garden with beautiful flowers or shrubery - often cactus. Like so many other islands, many people own goats, cows and chickens - and lots of them. For some reason, the animals seemed especially social here and would walk right up to the fence to greet you. Unlike their cousins on the other islands, these goats are opportunistic and know how to schmooze the tourists for food through the fence. I love when all of these animals are grazing and hanging out together, especially when there is an iguana in the mix. There's usually just one or two at a time and they seem to be staring at the other animals in disbelief, as if they are thinking, "Where in the hell am I?"

The center of town is built around a small park with palms, fruit trees and benches. It's a great place for hanging out in the morning, eating your pasteries, drinking your American coffees out of your own personal mugs and watching the Frenchies mingle. Sometimes you can pass the time eavesdropping on conversation and making up your own dialogue. Our favorite scene was a mother who stopped her scooter in the middle of a crowded street to start screaming at her son for misbehaving. It drew quite a few more observers and this dialogue was not open for interpretation. Scooters and bicycles are the main mode of transportation, so if you plan on visiting this island, you can rent one or take a taxi. There are no car rentals.

But the island is so small, that it is usually about a 15 minute walk to any of the beaches or trails if you're into hiking. We hiked the closed off road to the top of "Mt. Chameau," a little over a 30 minute trek to the top. This walk has the most amazing views the entire way up, with one exception...The Saintes version of a "recycling plant." We spotted many recycling bins in town, color-coded to sort aluminum, bottles and cans. We thought this was fantastic and thought the Saintes to be very environmentally conscious compared to everywhere else we've visited where recycling seems to be non-existent. Stephen says he was suspect of this but "wanted to believe." Well, I don't know why they bother to sort it when it all gets dumped over the side of the mountain. Stephen and I noticed the smoke from the anchorage and decided to walk out to the end of this paved road and peer over the edge to see what was burning...all of the plastic bottles and aluminum cans, covering the mountainside until they slid into the sea below. "I knew this place was too good to be true," Stephen expressed in disappointment.

At the top of Chameau, the highest point on the island at 1,000 ft., was a historic Napoleonic lookout tower where we scaled three very exposed and questionable ladders to get to the roof. From up here, you have a panoramic view of the entire island chain, Guadeloupe to the North (photo above) and Dominica to the South. This one tested my phobia of heights, and another woman trying to ascend was making the mistake of looking down on her climb up. She froze half way up the ladder, her husband waiting at the top. Since he seemed a little impatient, I wish I knew French to yell down, "Just look at the rung in front of you!" I would have thought twice about this climb too, if I didn't see really small children and then adults twice my size already on the roof.

We met another American couple, Bobby and Leslie, on a boat hailing from Rock Hall, MD. The place of Stephen's infamous tale about trying to sail the Tartan (our first boat) back to Baltimore in a Nor'Easter. We were so happy to speak English, we lamented together about the French and exchanged information about the islands. They had told us, "Be sure to hike the donkey trail down the other side of the mountain, you can't miss it...just look for the yellow painted rocks." I was feeling a little leary about this, and as we stood at the top of Mt. Chameau, I looked back at the lovely road, so easy to follow with incredible views. Surely we would be back into town in no time to head for the beach. Then I looked ahead down a rock-lined path covered in dense forest and Stephen's face beaming ear to ear at the prospect of following the trail to discover views that only donkeys get to appreciate. "What the hell?" I muttered to myself.

I came to regret this pretty quickly as the very steep "yellow-marked" trail began to disappear under piles of dried leaves. The views were great for about 5 minutes until we were enveloped by trees and then practically crawling on our hands and knees as the overgrowth got thicker. Suddenly we didn't hear traffic or any signs of civilization anymore, just the sounds of a distant sea crashing on the shores down below. I imagined us descending out onto a cliff with huge crashing waves. "I don't think we're on the trail anymore," Stephen said before climbing a tree to see out over the forest. I praised his agility when he discovered the way out. So 45 minutes later, we had traversed the side of the mountain, spotting the occasional goat that "baaa-ed," to us up through the bush. Apparently, they don't even really venture here. "We're on an adventure!" Stephen said with some excitement in his voice. He is always great about putting a positive slant on an adverse situation. "Is that what this is?" I asked, still undecided.

After crabwalking and sliding down mounds of leaves through a gully that looked like it could have been a trail, we finally heard cars passing close by. Suddenly, I spotted a road sign, leading the way up over a possible drainage ditch. The best part of getting lost was emerging from the mountain to discover we were right at the beach we wanted to check out yesterday. Dirty and sweaty from the mountain, we jumped in, in our hiking clothes. We also discovered a large pipe leading into the cloudy water - "Hmmm...what are we swimming in? Well, that was refreshing." At least we didn't waste time walking over with all our beach gear. Back at the boat, I chose to stay down below while our neighbor who suggested the "donkey trail," stopped over to visit. Stephen very politely described our adventure, to which Bobby replied, "Oh...we haven't been that way in 'a few years'."

This advice was redeemed later by their ability to help us out in a state of panic. Stephen and I had come back from town with armfuls of groceries and in the process of loading everything onto the boat, failed to secure our dinghy. Twenty-five minutes later, we emerged ready for the beach, to discover our "car" was missing. I can't adequately describe the sickening feeling of losing your dinghy and staring back at a wide expanse of water to know that it could be already drifting out to sea. We were so fortunate to meet Bobby & Leslie the night before, the only other two people we knew who spoke English. I dove off the boat and swam over to them, luckily they were on board. As I climbed up their swim ladder out of breath, I told Bobby, "I need your help, our dinghy is missing." After a 30+ year career with the DOD, Bobby sprung into action immediately. "Hop in our dinghy," we'll go look for it." We had motored less than a minute when I saw the "Sea Eagle," with our orange gas jug tied along side a catamaran anchored behind us. The woman was from Sweden and spoke enough French and English to receive the dinghy from a local fisherman and return it to us. This act of kindness restored my faith in humanity and in the least for the time being. I was so relieved, I stood up in the dinghy to hug this woman. Stephen and I wish we could have communicated well enough to try to find the man who saved it. This experience confirms why "The Saintes" is a truly special place among islands that are growing more desperate.

When we finally made it to the beaches, our favorite was "Pompierre." This beach was stacked with very tall palms and other low lying trees that gave you plenty of shade, to the point where it was harder to find a spot in the sun then away from it. For me, this is a good thing. This is the most popular and the prettiest. The two don't always go hand it hand, but the French really seem to know how to vacation with very little enviromental impact. This bay was clear with a soft sand and weed bottom. The bay was extremely protected with a small island blocking the entrance. It was a fantastic view and great for snorkeling along the outer edges. There was a trail to the other side of the bay where there was another beach along a bluff, exposed to the sun. From here, people were swimming to the larger island or atoll in the middle and walking up the grassy side of it to the top. Stephen swam and snorkeled the whole distance from the main beach to the other island, where he discovered squid and huge blowholes into the sea.

We've been eating on board most of the time, usually only treating ourselves to dinner out once on each island. The Saintes was definitely a place we wanted to try French creole cuisine and had the best atmosphere for it. There were lots of really small, quaint places with stone courtyards or waterfront views. Stephen was extremely happy to find "Coleurs de Monde" where the menu was in both French and English and the waitstaff spoke English as well. It was an easy choice. It was upstairs with tables on the balcony that overlooked the anchorage. There were antique, stained-glass lamps at each table and the food was so rich and amazing. We shared a seafood penne in a cream sauce and tiger prawns in a red creole sauce. Now I know why the French eat so much and stay so skinny, the food just goes right through you. All the creamy cheeses, sauces and pasteries - I don't know how they do it on a regular basis, but once in a while is definitely worth it.