2001: French West Indies
 
We've spent much of the past few weeks in the French West Indies, first Martinique, then Guadeloupe. These islands are "departements" of France, similar to U.S. states, so they're comparable to Hawaii in terms of their relationship to the French mainland or "metropole." (Guadeloupe also administers the islands of St. Martin and St. Barth). Compared to the other island nations, the FWI islands are much wealthier and, well, very French. We began most mornings with croissants and quiches at the nearest patisserie, and nearly bought out the local supplies of delicious cheeses and pates. The rum, on the other hand, is atrocious; it's called "rhum agricole", is made from the raw cane juice instead of molasses, and has a kind of grassy taste. While this is clearly vacation land for the French, there's a slightly faster pace and a much more cosmopolitan air here than in the English-speaking islands we had just been visiting.

During our stay, our French improved considerably -- even Rob got to the point where local folks preferred his French to their English, and of course Andi's long-ago skills came back quickly.

The sail from Rodney Harbor in St. Lucia to the south of Martinique was just 5 hours on a great beam reach. We peeked into the large lagoon at the town of Le Marin, which has a huge marina and is the center of yacht chartering in Martinique, but decided we preferred the lovely sand beach off the small, picturesque town of St. Anne. There, we could dive from the boat into crystal clear water whenever we wanted. We could also take the dinghy into St. Anne, where there was a great boulangerie/patisserie open at 7 am, with wonderful croissants, coffee and other pastries for breakfast and baguettes for lunch. And we could take a collective taxi into Le Marin to check out the stores and services. Along the way, we noted the extensive farming -- lots of Brahman cattle (with big horns!) and fields of every kind of fruit and vegetable.

Danny wanted to visit some friends who own a farm in the north part of Martinique, so off he went, with a rendezvous scheduled for the next evening back on Akka in Trois Ilets, a little village across the bay from the main port of Fort de France. We never ceased to be amazed at Danny's ability to make friends and his willingness as well as ability to get around on the various islands we visited. The next day, Andi and Rob sailed up to Trois Ilets, along the west coast of Martinique. We passed Roche du Diamond, which the English once commissioned and manned as HMS Diamond Rock. It's pretty impressive, less than a mile offshore of Martinique and about 150' high. Hard to imagine hauling cannons up to the top of it, but that's what the Brits did. This ticked off Napoleon who had a special fondness for Martinique, since Josephine came from there, and he eventually sent a fleet all the way from France to liberate the rock. Having done so, the fleet sailed back across the Atlantic to a place called Trafalgar, where they had a date with destiny.

Trois Ilets turned out to be a tiny backwater, with very few cruising boats in its harbor; most boats go to the marina a few miles away. Of course, Trois Islets had a boulangerie/patisserie where we again got our croissants for breakfast and baguettes for lunch. It also had a Robert Trent Jones-designed golf course, so Rob decided to try it out, with Andi "caddying." She took a photo of Rob teeing off on the 14th hole with Akka in the background. It's a wonderful, beautiful course, and the Brahma bulls grazing alongside the fairways added a certain je ne sais quoi.

We had seen an ad for a regatta at the community sailing center in Schoelcher, a suburb of Fort de France, so Rob took the ferry to Fort de France and then the bus to Schoelcher to check out the regatta, while Andi stayed in Trois Islets and toured Empress Josephine's childhood home. (The decidedly un-French name of Schoelcher comes from an 18th century man who fought long, hard, and successfully for rights for non-white islanders -- he's a Caribbean hero.) It turned out that the boat of choice for older guys is Sunfish. So, despite not having sailed one in more than 30 years, Rob borrowed a Sunfish for the regatta. We sailed over and anchored Akka right off of the club and had a grand visit. It is quite the operation, with kids in laser radials, optis and sailboards, and grownups in mutihulls, sailboards and sunfish. (For any of you interested in community sailing programs, check out their website: http://asso.ffv.fr/cn-schoelcher. We haven't actually looked at it ourselves, but they say it has photos.) Very hospitable folks -- a great blend of all ages and all colors, so nice to see. The post-race "picnic" (cost: about $7.00 US) featured your choice of paella or cous-cous, and of course, good French wine.

That weekend was Passover, so Danny decided to find a synagogue and get himself invited to a Seder -- though he's Israeli and Jewish, he's not religious, but likes good celebrations. As always, he succeeded, and even got an invitation to spend the night. So we decided to have a good dinner in town and check out the casino. To our surprise, restaurants stopped serving at about 9:30, which was when we tore ourselves away from some spirited conversations (and beers) at a corner bar. So we went to the casino, knowing they serve food at all hours. Indeed. This casino had a special "prix fixe" for both a very fine dinner and admission to a special game room. We splurged, and had a fabulous meal, followed by blackjack and craps. The casino was divided into two rooms: the first, which was open to the public, had only slot machines, and was loud with the sound of gambling; the second room was only accessible by a special pass. This required a small fee and review of our identity cards (apparently to screen out people on the persona non grata list). Andi had no ID with her, so (after some hassle) she received a pass allowing her to enter the room but not to "approach the tables." The second room was quiet and featured a nice bar and lounge area with comfortable sofas. We came out enough head to defray the cost of the lovely meal.

We had expected Danny to get his friends to join us for the sail up the coast from Schoelcher to St. Pierre, but instead he showed up with Gilles, a webmaster whom he happened to meet in the town where his friends had their farm. St. Pierre, close to the north end of Martinique, population 3,000, is a pretty town, with a Mediterranean look and, of course, several great patisseries and boulangeries where we could get croissants for breakfast and baguettes for lunch.

St. Pierre's history is interesting. It was once called the Paris of the Indies, with a population around 30,000. In 1902 Pelee, the volcano above the city, erupted. The volcano had been rumbling for days, and a lava flow had destroyed a big factory just 2 days earlier. But the town fathers didn't want to alarm the (white) population, because of an up-coming election which they feared would go to native candidates if the whites fled. So they did not pass on the warnings from scientists, with tragic results. Within a few minutes after the eruption, the entire population and almost all buildings were destroyed by a fireball borne on high winds that basically flattened the place. Only one person survived -- a prisoner locked in an underground cell --and he was terribly burned. Many old foundations survive, and present buildings are built on them, making an interesting contrast and blend.

Gilles lives about 10 kilometers up the mountain from St. Pierre, in a village named Fond St. Denis, where his uncle Felicien runs a restaurant. After a phone call from Gilles, "Tonton" Felicien said he'd make us fish for dinner. So Gilles hitchhiked up to Fond St. Denis, borrowed Felicien's car and returned for us. Felicien's is the town's corner cafe, and when we arrived we found Felicien and 4 or 5 buddies sitting at the sidewalk tables, chewing the fat and drinking brandy and beer. Felicien greeted us warmly and soon produced a full meal with "accras", a fish fritter, as an appetizer, then salads and wonderful grilled fish. His restaurant "Chez Felicien" was written up in the November 2000 issue of Islands magazine, by Poupette Smith, whom we met last spring in the Bahamas. Her article also reflects the casual, comfortable family flavor of the place.

Rob and Danny were determined to climb Pelee, and discussed the idea with Felicien. He approved, and he insisted that the next day Gilles should borrow his car for the day, pick up Rob and Danny at the dock in the morning, drive them to the base of the trail up Pelee, and accompany them for the hike. We're not sure how much of this Gilles really wanted to do, but he cheerfully did it all. Andi decided against the climb, still favoring the ankle she twisted during Carnival (don't even ask!). The climb turned out to be through lush green rainforest, then across moss covered rocks, finally ending at a ridgeline crest, in the clouds with a strong wind blowing. When it cleared, there were fabulous views. The crater itself is not the usual circular caldera, but more rugged and confused, as a result of several successive eruptions.

Volcano climb accomplished, we set off for Dominica. Danny had spent some time there in December, and raved about its beauty and the friendliness of its people. We have to agree, though we spent only a short day there. Everyone welcomed us to the island, especially Miss Tina, the 67 year old great grandmother who had shared her home with Danny earlier. She insisted on giving us some bananas, and on accompanying Andi to the market, to help find the best buys. What a sweet lady! Danny had been realizing that he really needed to get on with his life and to earn some money, so he decided to leave us in order to get to Antigua before the Classic yacht regatta and Sailing Week, where he could probably find good paying jobs. This decision was tough on all of us -- we'd grown very fond of Danny and vice versa -- but we sent him off with best wishes and a strong letter of recommendation.

We then sailed to Iles des Saintes, just south of Guadeloupe, spent a quiet night in an anchorage crowded with topless Easter vacationers, then on to Point a Pitre, where we had arranged to meet Ken Signorello, a friend from U.S. Sailing. We took Akka to the huge marina at Point a Pitre and spent the night in a slip, for the first time since Bermuda. Met Ken with no problems, had a great pizza dinner, and planned the week's sailing. In the morning, after croissants and quiche for breakfast, we washed down the boat with fresh water and took a short beat upwind to Petit Havre, a small bay inside a barrier reef. Next day, after an interesting snorkel on the reef, we reached across to the island of Marie Galante, about 15 miles southeast of Guadeloupe.

We found Marie Galante to be a charming little island, out of the main track of cruisers. We rented a Jeep for the day, and after a brief stop at a great patisserie/boulangerie for croissants, we toured the whole island in about 6 hours. Saw the sugar cane growing and harvesting, the ox-drawn carts taking cane to the mill, a wind-driven sugar mill, and a "farm" of some 30 modern wind generators, after which we lounged around and snorkeled at an Atlantic-facing beach and enjoyed a picnic lunch of baguettes and red wine.

From Marie Galante we returned to the Iles des Saintes, or Saintes as they're commonly called, anchoring right off the town of Bourg des Saintes. Bourg has a decidedly Riviera-like quality to it, with all red-roofed houses and of course, great patisseries and boulangeries where we could get croissants for breakfast and baguettes for lunch. Snorkeled on good reefs and rocks, and toured Fort Napoleon, high above the town. Ken treated us to a fabulous dinner at a charming restaurant owned by artist/chefs, where all the decor is for sale.

The next two days were serious sailing, first a long passage in rain squalls up to Pigeon Island on Guadeloupe's northwestern shore, where there is a national underwater park established by Jacques Cousteau (where hundreds of fish swam below the boat as we scrubbed the bottom, thinking guilty thoughts about the toxins we were releasing into the water) and then an 8-hour passage to Antigua. Both passages were fun and uneventful, and we were all happy to be back in familiar, English-speaking territory and looking forward to seeing the Classic Boat Regatta. Also, Rob and Andi were excited about sailing in Antigua Sailing Week -- but we did feel a pang at leaving behind those marvelous patisseries and the bustling, up-beat ambiance of the French Antilles.