The !#%^* roosters begin crowing every day at 4:30 AM in English Harbor. There is never a need for an alarm clock here in Antigua. Before sunrise, the anchor is up and Cutter Loose is underway. Our destination today is the village of Deshaies, located on the northwest coast of the French island of Guadeloupe.
Antigua is an important milestone inasmuch as it signals the completion of our easting in this journey. Guadeloupe and the Windward Islands lie due south of Antigua. Sailing south eliminates the need to motor into the prevailing easterlies. With some exceptions, it will be a reach for the next 300 miles to Grenada. In fact, sailing with the trade winds on the beam is so addictive that many cruising sailors remain in the Eastern Caribbean for successive seasons. This is not to say that the sailing conditions will always be benign. But with any amount of luck, we will not need to rely heavily on the engine during the final seven weeks of this winter cruise.
Take today, for example. It is a Chamber of Commerce sailing day. Our new masthead wind indicator informs us that winds today are in the 10 to 15 knot range, squarely on the beam. Seas are a benign 3 to 4 feet. Visibility is superb. In fact, a faint outline of Guadeloupe is already visible 40 miles away on the southern horizon. Under full sail, Cutter Loose heels politely and romps along comfortably at 6 knots over ground. She is surrounded this morning by flocks of flying fish, fins flapping furiously to remain airborne from one wave crest to another. Twenty miles to the west of our course is the smoking island of Montserrat, its active volcano still spewing steam and ash into the air.
There is something magical about sailing to a new country. The excitement of discovery begins anew each time the yellow Q flag is hoisted on the spreader. As humans, we are at our best when we strive to resolve our curiosity. Our minds become fully engaged, navigating our way into unfamiliar harbors and absorbing the local culture and geography. Arriving in new places is one of the most pleasurable aspects of cruising under sail.
The harbor at Deshaies (pronounced DAY-yey) is full of anchored cruising boats upon our arrival at 3 PM. This is a popular customs port and stepping stone between Antigua and Dominica. Since the shallower area of the harbor closer to shore is already cluttered with local boats and transient cruisers, Cutter Loose is relegated to a spot in the outer reaches of the harbor where the water depth is forty feet. A depth of forty feet requires us to utilize a minimum of 200 feet of anchor chain. A gusty 15 knot late afternoon wind is already spilling down into the harbor from the surrounding mountains, shifting from northeast to southeast every few minutes. Under these conditions, it is especially important to maintain a comfortable distance from other boats in the harbor.
Deshaies is a small village with one and two story buildings punctuated by colorful red roofs and a church bell tower that tolls on the hour. There is one narrow street that runs parallel with the waterfront where most of the businesses are clustered. While there are a few chambres and t shirt shops on Main Street, the town is not particularly oriented to tourism. Cruising sailors ply the streets in search of necessities. A few land-based tourists arrive by car to visit the beach just north of town, stopping in the village for a stroll, a meal or a beverage.
Clearing customs is accomplished at Le Pelican, an Internet café and art gallery in a tiny storefront that is difficult to find. The owner is helpful…one of the few people in Deshaies that speaks Anglais. The French clearance process is quite easy and efficient. One clears in and clears out by completing and printing an online form. Customs and Immigration have subcontracted this service to local retailers that earn a small fee for each completed clearance transaction. Typically, the merchant sets up a computer and printer in a remote corner of the store for customs clearance purposes. The shopkeeper reviews the printed clearance form, affixes the requisite stamp of approval and collects a $4 EU fee for the service.
Friends Cary and Tom from Dragon’s Toy join us for dinner ashore tonight at a pizza restaurant with a deck overlooking the harbor. In typical French style, the pizza and salad are excellent. After a long day on the water and the excitement of being in a new place, we prolong this experience, soaking in the beauty and foreignness of this setting well into the evening.
Following the requisite Saturday morning croissants and espresso at the patisserie, a mile-long uphill hike south of town takes us to Jardin Botanique de Deshaies. Here, there are thousands of species of tropical plants in a highly manicured setting, including a restaurant that overlooks a 50 foot waterfall. A paved pedestrian path meanders through koi ponds, a bamboo forest and orchid displays. At the walk-in aviary, macaw parrots, pink flamingoes and colorful blue, red and green parakeets compete for the attention of visitors.
Deshaies is an excellent location from which to initiate a tour of the island. Following 8 AM mass on Sunday morning (not a word of which we understood), it is off in our rental car to explore the island. Guadeloupe consists of two islands in the shape of a butterfly. The west wing (Basse Terre) is the volcanic mountainous area of the island while the east wing (Grand Terre) is flatter and dominated by agriculture.
The outstanding beauty of Guadeloupe lies in its pristine mountainous interior. Following the Route de la Traversee, our tour takes us up into the lush mountains and through the Parc National de la Guadeloupe. Today there is a bicycle road race, complete with team support vehicles. Incredible fitness is required on the part of the riders to climb these steep, twisty mountain roads. At the pass, we pause at an overlook area to watch the riders regroup before beginning their downhill descent to the south coast town of Pointe-a-Pitre.
Pointe-a-Pitre is Guadeloupe’s largest city. It is quite shocking to be driving along a network of expressways on a Caribbean island. The quality of the roads here is outstanding. Guadeloupe is home to 330,000 residents. The suburban areas appear to be quite prosperous, but the inner city is shabby and run-down. There is a commercial harbor here, but visiting by car on a Sunday morning convinces us that there is no real reason for Cutter Loose to call at Point-a-Pitre.
From here, it is on to the city of Basse Terre, the capital of Guadeloupe, located on the southwestern coast of the west wing of the butterfly. The dominant feature of the waterfront is a pedestrian promenade with fancy light fixtures, presumably financed by the French government. But the inner city is not well maintained. The buildings are shabby and the municipal marina has fallen into disrepair. Fellow cruisers have told us that there is no place to land a dinghy in the marina. Few tourists visit here. Like Pointe-a-Pitre, we will avoid Basse Terre on our way south.
From the city of Basse Terre, it is a short drive north to La Soufriere, an active volcano that erupted most recently in 1976. At 4,813 feet, it is the highest point in Gradeloupe. A narrow roadway leads to a parking lot at the trailhead. On a clear Sunday afternoon, the trail is a popular destination for families and couples. Everyone descending the trail offers a friendly bon jour and a merci as we step aside and allow space to pass. It is a 1.5 hour hike along a stone trail leading from the parking lot to an upper staging area which offers a panoramic view of the island’s southwest coast. From here it is another 1.5 hours to the summit.
Thirty minutes into our ascent to the rim, the clouds move in and stronger downdrafts of wind begin to cool the air with moisture. Now mid-afternoon, we reluctantly abandon the ascent and return to the trailhead. Perhaps on another visit, we will attempt this climb with an early morning start.
The 20 mile return to Deshaies takes us north along the west coast through small towns and villages. The road is narrow and twisty but in good condition. The sun is setting as we enter Deshaies. It has been a long day, packed with new insights and a better appreciation for the island of Guadeloupe. Tired but fulfilled, sleep will come easily tonight. Tomorrow, we set sail for Ile des Saintes.