Friday, 29 March 2013

Martinique

French Caribbean!
We’d been hoping to make Saint Anne our first port of call in Martinique, following recommendations from a couple of people.  It’s just round the corner from the big yachting centre of Marin, in the south east of the island, and promised a pleasant beach anchorage with an attractive village ashore.  Sadly the weather had other ideas: as we came out of the lee of Pigeon Island at the beginning of the 25 mile passage, we quickly decided it would be too much of a slog against the wind and the waves. We could have done it, but it just didn’t seem worth the discomfort.  Contrary to the popular image of Caribbean sailing, it can be really quite rough and windy between the islands. Fortunately most of the passages are day sails, and it’s great to be able to see your destination when you set off (on a clear day, at least).  We were only a few miles out from Saint Lucia when the genoa suddenly unrolled, pulling open the snap shackle holding the tack.  The furling line is a bit stiff and came off the cleat somehow.  Rather than messing around on the foredeck, the best option seemed to be to furl it in and continue under main and engine towards our Plan B destination, Grande Anse, a little way up the west coast.  So much for what Don Street describes as one of the finest sails in the Caribbean!

Motorsailing our way to Martinique
We were anchored in Grande Anse by 1600, about 6 hours after setting off.  It’s a deep, protected bay with wooded hills on either side and a narrow strip of white beach.  It’s also completely full of boats.  There must have been over fifty in there.  There are free-of-charge mooring buoys, but they were all taken, so we found a space to anchor between them before moving when one became free. We summoned the energy to inflate the dinghy and found a drink ashore.  We were officially in France (Martinique is actually a departement) which explains why a beer cost about three times as much as on Saint Lucia! 

Grand Anse
We cleared customs the next morning.  We love the French system: instead of finding the right office then filling in the same information on two or three forms while a bored and usually disgruntled official looks on, you find one of the customs computer terminals (often installed in a bar, as here) and type in your details, print it off and get a stamp.  Brilliant!  We had a good walk across the headland to the bay just to the south, Anse d’Arlet.  By the time we’ve decided what to do and got our things ready, we always seem to end up doing our walks during  the hottest part of the day, so it was a bit sweaty.  It’s only about an hour there, and we wandered around the town, bought some pastries, had a swim and read our books on the beach for a bit (it’s surprising how little time we spend actually sitting around on beaches – no, really).  We couldn’t help noticing that the bay was nicer than the one we were in, mostly because it had about a tenth of the boats, so after lunch back on board we motored round. 

Anse D'Arlet


The next day we had a morning snorkel on the big rock just off the beach (after waiting for a big tourist catamaran to depart..they’re annoying, but they don’t stay long) and moved on in the afternoon.  We had a quiet sail until we reached the bay of Fort de France, at which point the wind came round and became quite gusty, so we motored the rest of the way.  Our guide suggested that Anse a l’Ane was the most interesting anchorage on the south side of the bay, but we went and had a look and it didn’t appeal: the south side looked too exposed to the wind, and the north side was cluttered with boats on moorings, so we carried on to Anse Mitan.  Just as we arrived we got some really heavy rain, and got soaked (an opportunity for a wash).  We anchored near an old dock, after taking a while to find a spot with enough space and not too much depth.  The sky cleared, leaving a washed-out blue.  

Rain in Anse Mitan

Anse Mitan is a slightly odd place as there’s a prominent abandoned hotel on the peninsula.  It used to be a Meridien, and the huge ugly concrete shell sits there forlornly in the undergrowth.  Exploring the next day, we found a graffiti-covered and equally abandoned open-air cinema at the end of the point – it looked as if it might have been a great place, once – along with some old forthouse remains and an anti-aircraft gun.  The town offered a stagnant, crowded marina and several identikit ‘boutiques’ (mostly just tourist souvenir shops), and felt most un-Caribbean.  We walked along to the beach, which was okay, and stocked up at a small supermarket.  There were a couple of other small beaches near the old hotel with man-made breakwaters, which were actually quite nice if you looked in the right direction.

The abandoned cinema
There didn’t seem to be much point in staying at Anse Mitan, so we continued on to Fort de France, the capital. It’s visible just a couple of miles away across the bay.  We had a pleasant if slow sail, because we couldn’t be bothered to get the main up for that distance.  Avoiding the reef off the fort, we found a good spot among several other visiting boats.  It was a surprisingly attractive spot for a town anchorage, under the old fort (still a military base), with a small beach in the corner of the bay, and the spire of a church prominent among the waterfront buildings.

Fort de France waterfront
We spent a few days in Fort de France.  One of our main reasons for going was to stock up with food, and we found a good LeaderPrice supermarket not far from the dinghy dock.  We bought some French cheese, pate, and a couple of boxes of wine (very expensive elsewhere in the Caribbean, here about 10 Euro for a 3 litre box!). There was also a good chandlery, where I found the missing part for the new shrouds, and we bought an expensive stainless padlock for the dinghy (the normal ones rust so don’t last very long.  Neither did this one. We’ve since dropped it in 15 metres of water, where it sits glistening on the bottom, unmagnetic and unreachable).  There’s a very interesting library building in a kind of Victorian baroque style, and a park area near the dinghy dock (La Savane) with a beheaded statue of Empress Josephine (she’s not very popular with the locals after opposing slavery reform to protect her family’s plantation interests).  

Shamefully, we spent some time in McDonalds to use their wifi.  The town was much less western than we expected – people say it’s like France, but really it’s just slightly cleaner and smarter than other places in the Caribbean, still with plenty of character.  There wasn’t really that much to see, but it was a good place to be anchored and fine for swimming.  For once, we weren’t the smallest boat in the anchorage: there was a little 23-foot Westerly from Shoreham near us, with an elderly Englishman on board. It didn't look as if it had moved for a while.

The library, Fort de France
Looking out over the Fort de France anchorage
After four days or so we set off for Saint Pierre. Our trip had a frustrating start, as – following our guide book - we wasted an hour or so going all the way round to the big ship harbour to fill up with water but found no obvious space to go alongside anywhere (and we don’t need much space).  After that we had a fantastic trip.  The wind had a bit of south in it, so we just put the genoa up and enjoyed a gusty reach all the way up the island, staying close in to the coast and enjoying the view.  We spotted Amorosa’s red hull heading in the opposite direction, coming down from the Saintes, and chatted on the VHF.  They were on their way down to Fort de France, and it was frustrating to have missed them by so little time, as they’d been in Saint Pierre the night before.  It’s only ten miles or so and we were there by early afternoon.  The anchorage isn’t great; it’s a big, open bay with very deep water unless you go close in, making for a narrow strip of viable space.  It took us three or four attempts to find a spot where the anchor would hold without us drifting too close to other boats, which is good exercise when it’s hot and you don’t have a windlass!  (We have a great anchor watch feature on our Vesper AIS Watchmate which displays exactly how you’re swinging and how far from the anchor you are, very reassuring in the dark particularly, although occasionally it loses the GPS signal and causes a false alarm.)  We found Spirit of Argo anchored there, and it was good to catch up after last seeing them in the Canaries.

Saint Pierre beach
Saint Pierre is an interesting place, overshadowed by Mount Pelee, green and craggy, which erupted in 1902 and killed 30,000 people. The town wasn’t buried, more swept away, and there are traces of ruined buildings throughout the new town.  It used to be the most cosmopolitan place in the Caribbean, the French colony of choice, but now has a fraction of the population - 5,000 or so.  There’s a little museum and we wandered around the remains of the old theatre, which must have been very impressive, and the jail, where a cell housed one of the few survivors.  Even the ships in the bay were sunk (good diving apparently).  

Saint Pierre Street, Mont Pelee in the distance
Jail ruins
I’d had ideas of hiking up Mount Pelee, but it was just too hot.  There wasn’t much wind in the anchorage itself, and it seemed to come from all directions. We did enjoy a very much milder late afternoon walk up the hill to a statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the bay.  There were great views across the town and out to sea, and we saw some enormous colourful caterpillars. Back in town we went to a small Breton-style restaurant called Le Tamaya which did a three-course set menu for 15 euros and was very good.

Anchorage view
Saint Pierre feels much more Caribbean than the other parts of Martinique we saw. There don’t seem to be any real hotels (perhaps because the beach is dark sand?) and it had a very laid-back feel. Overall, it was our favourite stop on the island. We spent four days there; but Dominica was beckoning strongly.      

Enormous caterpillar!

  

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