And now for something completely different. From Baños we took a bus through mountainous regions of Ecuador to Guayaquil. From there we took a flight to Fort Lauderdale and then another to Barbados. Rural South America to quintessential Caribbean in one bus and two lost cost flights.
So here we are, beneath swaying palms looking at warm seas melting into talcum sand. Our first two nights are spent in an AirBnB as I didn’t want to book anywhere expensive only to find our flights didn’t work out. The luxury begins when we move into a lovely inland resort. Air conditioning! Large pool! Even larger breakfast buffet! Six months of backpacking quickly melt away like those waves.
What to do here? With snorkel gear purchased in Lima we explore the underwater world where we regularly meet turtles as well as large schools of garishly coloured tropical fish. In places the reef is dead, but it still thrives in others. We’ve unwittingly timed our visit with the English cricket team tour and so suddenly find ourselves surrounded by a familiar language, although when play is on we pretty much have the beach to ourselves.
Flying fish and rice and peas with gravy is a typical, delicious dish here. I enjoy the fresh catch of the day on a few occasions and couldn’t be happier, especially when combined with good quality, good value rum.
We borrow the hotel’s bikes for our one inland foray, to St Nicholas Abbey. This isn’t an abbey, nor has it ever been, but rather a 450 year-old mansion built by plantation owners. Their portraits peer at you as you look around the opulent building (constructed on a hill at an aspect to take advantage of trade winds), in another room is an old list of slaves names and their value. In some outbuildings is a distillery where overpriced, fairly average rum is made.
Barbados is a fairly flat island, the highest point being just 300 meters. Gullies run all over the island, pretty deep in places. Of much more geological interest is our next destination, just a short propeller plane ride away.
St Lucia’s forest-covered land is crumpled up by volcanic activity, particularly at one end – as if it has been driven into an invisible wall. Here the highest point is 950 meters and the island’s most famous view is of two dramatic pinnacles – the Pitons – jutting straight up from the opalescent sea.
Our accommodation here was a large villa with an outdoor shower and infinity pool overlooking the smallest (‘Petit’ – St Lucia once belonged to France) piton. With such a stupendous view we spent many hours enjoying it, although on a couple of occasions we dragged ourselves away to nearby Sugar Beach which is idyllically located between both pitons, has an imported powdery sand beach and, at one end, a remarkable reef.
All beaches on St Lucia are public access. Armed with this knowledge we set ourselves up in a lovely shady spot. Moments later a security guard from the hugely expensive hotel surrounding Sugar Beach – which is covered in the hotel’s US$50/day sun loungers – told us we weren’t allowed on this part as it was too close to the hotel. We sent him away with our knowledge of local law and silently thanked the fishermen who had fought to retain access.
A short distance steeply up from paradise is a sulphurous place where Earth’s geological activity super-heats water and minerals and spews out hot steam and bubbling muddy pools. You can bathe in a cooled-down mud bath or, like us, simply marvel at the furious power of our planet.
I’m something of a connoisseur of rum, if ‘connoisseur’ means I really enjoy drinking the stuff. St Lucia is home to the distillery which produces Chairman’s Reserve rum, one of my favourites. We spent a very happy hour being shown around the distillery where I got to stick my finger into a waterfall of molasses (it was a bit like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for us rum connoisseurs). The molasses come by ship from Guyana, the ship anchoring close to the distillery and a diver plucking a pipe from the sea bed and plugging it into the vessel to extract the sticky goods.
After a stop in Castries – the uninteresting capital where leviathan cruise ships unload passengers miles away from the best parts of the island – we boarded the ferry to Dominica. It was a rough crossing, not helped by one of the most disorganised immigration and customs checks I’ve ever experienced when we arrived. Soon, though, all of that was forgotten.
On the bus ride to our hotel we soon realised how special this island is. The road climbed high enough to significantly cool the air down and to provide long views of the forested and mountainous interior. Our hotel here – the Wanderlust Caribbean – is perfectly situated on top of a cliff overlooking Atlantic waves crashing into the gorgeous coastline. It’s also dangerously close to a tiny chocolate factory which uses local cacao beans and flavourings.
The hotel owners match the incredibly friendly and welcoming people of this island. They helped us arrange a full day tour with a jovial guide called Nigel, who drove us to the Middleham trail. Here we hiked 45 minutes through lush and hilly rainforest to a spectacular waterfall which plunged into a cool pool – perfect for a refreshing dip.
Next we were taken to Trafalgar Falls, an extremely picturesque spot where two waterfalls tumble either side of a rocky promontory. Just along from here is the Titou Gorge, along the blue waters of which we swam to the end where yet another waterfall crashes. Here, as well as many other locations in Dominica, is where two of the Pirates of the Caribbean films were shot. The location scout did an excellent job!
Our action-packed day wasn’t yet over. For our penultimate stop we went to Scott’s Head where a causeway leads to a hill rising from the sea. Views back across the bay are breathtaking. Just below this we went snorkelling in water so clear I could peer down dozens of metres below. On the other side of the bay hydrothermal activity causes tiny bubbles to rise up from the sea floor.
In just one day we’d seen so much of this naturally amazing island. We’d also seen how devastating Hurricane Maria had been; tarpaulins from numerous aid agencies were being used as temporary roofs or walls, so many buildings were still missing parts of their infrastructure, roads and bridges had been swiped away and a significant number of trees had been decapitated. At Scott’s Head the small town of Soufriere had been hit hardest with abandoned houses that had their walls punched through by the storm.
We’ve unknowingly coincided our visit with Carnival. The island is infused with loud music, mostly coming from stacks of speakers being driven on flat-bed trucks behind which people dance. No costumes, no live music, not really something for spectators. We did, however, manage to find some fishermen who’d just landed their haul of large mahi-mahi and who chopped a couple of fillets off for us with a machete – it doesn’t get much fresher!
Sadly many people in Dominica see foreign tourists as bottomless money dispensers. On more than a few occasions we were conned into paying much more than the fair share. For the average tourist that’s probably OK, at the end of a six-month trip where every $ counts that can get frustrating.
Not in any way as frustrating as leaving the island – as chaotic as when we entered with added pushing, shoving and lack of crowd control. Arriving into Guadeloupe on a ferry that’s two hours late we discover that none of the telephone numbers for our car rental place are working. We’re therefore forced to walk an hour through a pretty grim part of the capital, at speed so that we aren’t walking along unlit highways after the sun goes down. Fortunately the car hire place is still open. That was the absolute worst day of travel on this entire trip.
We were now on an island where the first language is French, where the vast majority of tourists are French and, therefore, where few people speak English. Although I have a basic understanding of French, my more recent days of conversing in Spanish seems to have knocked most other foreign language words out of my head. However, our days on Guadeloupe mainly consisted of heading to the beach for some sun and snorkelling in the morning, hiding from the harsh sun between 11-3, then returning to the beach later in the afternoon.
In an attempt to make the most of having a car we did once venture up into the hills where we strolled through rainforest, admired a waterfall and hiked up to one of the island’s high points. This latter activity would have been more fulfilling had it not been cloudy. In fact, it rained every day in Guadeloupe. It’s rained pretty much every day of the three weeks we’ve had in the Caribbean. It turns out that this is actually a very rainy part of the world, even in dry season.
OK, I’m sounding a bit jaded after so many months of seeing new places. Here’s some good things about Guadeloupe; it’s French, therefore in the EU, therefore standards are more reliable and I can use my mobile data as if I were in the UK. It also means that it isn’t as abhorrently anti-LGBTQ as the other islands we’ve seen. The deliciousness of the food has also increased exponentially. The mountainous interior is easily accessible with good quality trails. The beaches are idyllic, apart from the bitey flies.
It’s time now, however, to start heading home. We’re returning via New York City – one of my most favourite cities – where we’ll enjoy a few days readjusting to cold temperatures and Western life.