Thursday 21 February 2013

Les Saintes

Les Saintes is a small group of islands just south of Guadeloupe, too hilly and dry for sugar plantations and no need for slaves. As a result the islanders can trace their roots to the early seafaring Norman and Breton colonists and this gives the islands a distinctive European flavour. There are eight islands grouped around a lagoon, each within a mile of each other and Terre de Haut is the largest, although only 5km long and 2km wide, with the village of Bourg Des Saintes home to most of the residents. The roofs are red, the houses whitewashed and from the dinghy dock a narrow street lined with stylish boutiques works its way up the hill to the church where mass is being said on this Sunday morning in February.

We are on a mooring buoy in the bay, one of seventy laid by the Mairie and each one is occupied by a yacht, straining at its lines in the brisk easterly wind that ruffles the trees on the shore and whips across the bay in dark shadows flitting over the water. We dinghy into the village and wander up the pedestrian alleyways where colourful shops jostle for attention, tee shirts and swimming costumes hanging on rails on the street, enticing us in to the shaded interiors. I clear customs at a small café where I enter our details on a pc and pay five euros to the smiling assistant who recommends a restaurant. A little air conditioned Carrefour occupies the corner of the street and a queue has formed outside the boulangerie. But the sun is hot today and the shops are starting to close for lunch; we could easily be in Brittany on a summer's day.


We return to Juno and snorkel on the rocks around the point, but the water is cloudy, churned up by the wind surfers and kite surfers who skid across the bay, revelling in the strong winds and the flat water. We have made a reservation for dinner at a restaurant in the little port with tables by the water's edge near a white brick tower that is the town lighthouse, its lens blinking, the leading light into the anchorage. We must have chosen well, for the restaurant fills quickly with elegantly dressed, sun tanned holiday makers who order wine and prop their elbows on the table, their hands clasped while they study the menu with concentration. Children race down the sea front, adding to the care free atmosphere and we decide that the best Caribbean islands are French. 

We would love to stay longer but we have to be in Antigua soon so we leave our mooring the following morning and sail on a lovely broad reach in 25 knots of wind across the Guadeloupe channel towards the hills of Basse-Terre, the western side of the butterfly that is Guadeloupe. We spend a night at anchor on the west coast at Deshaies and then 50 miles to Antigua in 25 knots of wind on the nose and a big sea with white crests tumbling as they slap the hull and burst over the rail, dousing us in spray. We attempt a land fall at Morris Bay because we have booked a table at Curtain Bluff, a favourite hotel of ours from 15 years ago, but the swell is in the bay and we press on to English Harbour and anchor in the delightful setting of Nelson's Dockyard. Our charming neighbour is on a French catamaran and he asks us if it was very windy. It shows how far we have come because our reply raises a Gallic eyebrow; 'no, not really' we say, '25 knots, gusting 30'. Now 30 knots true wind speed is force seven to you and me, one below a storm on the Beaufort scale, but with two reefs in the main, the genoa furled away and one reef in the jib, Juno feels very comfortable as she delivers us safely to Antigua.

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