Caribbean

Virgin Gorda

Have you ever seen photos of a beach with large boulders and rock formations looming out of the clear blue water and the surrounding beach? Well this beach with the fascinating geological rock formations is located on the Caribbean island of Virgin Gorda.

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If you aren’t familiar with Virgin Gorda, the island is part of the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Virgin Gorda is the third largest island following Tortola and Anegada; plus, it is the second most populated island in BVI. The island hasn’t been overrun with megaresorts, though it is extremely popular with the yachting and sailing crowd.

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We were in Virgin Gorda on New Year’s Eve and this was also our final port of the cruise. The Pacific Princess anchored just outside the harbor, which required the use of tenders to get ashore. The tenders dropped all passengers off in the marina. From the marina, you could grab a taxi to take you on an island tour.

Since it was a holiday our only goal for the day was to visit The Baths.  The Baths are the major tourist destination on the island and incredibly popular. From the marina, you can take a short taxi ride to the entrance of The Baths.

At the top of The Baths there is a few shops and a restaurant. To enter The Baths though you must pay an entrance fee of $3. Once you pay at the entrance, you can walk down to The Baths through a forested trail area. I highly recommend some decent water shoes with traction. You will be walking on slipper rocks at times.

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There are two sides to The Baths. We decided to just stick with the easy side and not crawl around rocks to the other. Now the other side is supposed to be much nicer with less crowds and more beach, but we just weren’t in the mood to head over (probably a good thing since it did pour at one point for a good 30-minutes).

Now I do have to provide a heads up. The Baths are absolutely crazy packed at times! There really wasn’t a moment to relax because of the numerous amounts of people coming from boats anchored right in the bay. There are a lot of day trips from the nearby islands to The Baths. I found earlier in the morning to be better for visiting The Baths.

The Baths Beach

Before the crowds

Next I want to mention again, I highly recommend a decent pair of water shoes for two specific reasons. The first reason is traction for walking the trail. The second reason is a bit unfortunate, the beach may look clean but there is quite a bit of broken glass in some areas.

After we were done at the beach we headed back to the top of The Baths. Here we stopped and had a couple drinks at the restaurant. The drinks were a bit pricey but fantastic. We had Passion Fruit and Guava Daiquiris. From the restaurant, we had a gorgeous view overlooking The Baths. If you don’t want to hike down to the water but still want to see the rock formations, I highly suggest at least stopping at the restaurant.

Once our drinks were finished, we found a taxi to take us back to the marina. The Baths are interesting to view and this is really the must see for Virgin Gorda.

Martinique

fullsizeoutput_d60Martinique is a fascinating island. Even though the island is part of the Caribbean, in some ways it doesn’t have that typical Caribbean vibe. Martinique is very much French. If you didn’t already know, Martinique is actually part of the overseas region of France. The island even uses the Euro as its official currency.

Besides the French feeling, Martinique is famous for the tragic eruption of Mont Pelée in 1902. The eruption sadly wiped out the entire city of Saint-Pierre. Saint-Pierre was covered with superheated steam and volcanic gases in less than five minute. The city was almost completely destroyed with anything flammable igniting under the heat. An estimated 30,000 people died from the first eruption. Legend states only one person survived the eruption, but it is believed some survivors lived outside of the blast zone and on some of the nearby boats.

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Later in May 1902, a second fatal eruption hit Saint-Pierre. This eruption killed an estimated 2,000 individuals helping with the rescue and repair of the city. Martinique was struck again by another and final fatal eruption on August 1902. Since 1902, the island has not seen a fatal eruption and is now under continuous watch by scientists.

This was my second time visiting Martinique. My first visit to the island was in 1999 and since then the island has certainly grown! Our previous time on the island took us to a butterfly garden. From there we went on a taxi tour, which ended up being very memorable! During the tour the driver pulled over to the side of a road by a completely abandoned field. He exited the vehicle and ended up opening the trunk of the car. Next, he pulls out a machete! Now this sounds like a potential horror story, but the complete opposite happened. The driver walks over to a tree and removes some of the bark for us to smell. The tree ended up being cinnamon. This tale could have gone very differently, but is a unique memory from my first time in Martinique.

Alas, this time on Martinique was not a positive experience. I wish I could write a post talking about a wonderful time, but unfortunately our experience was tarnished by an unprofessional tour guide (Elisabeth).

Before arriving in Martinique, I didn’t find many options for private tours that interested us. After much debate, we ended up going with a tour offered by Princess Cruises. The tour we took was St. Pierre and Rum Distillery. This tour itself is interesting since it takes you to the more popular sites on the island.

One of the first stops of the tour took us to the Sacré-Coeur de la Balata. The church was built in 1925 and is modeled after the Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre in Paris. The view from the church overlooks the tropical rainforest and is situated on Fort-de-France’s highest point.

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From the church the tour us through the Route de la Trace to Mont Pelée. Mont Pelée is of course the historic volcano on the island that devastated nearby Saint-Pierre in 1902. The drive takes you through the interior rainforest of the island to the mountain. Now I do have to mention a warning with the drive. The drive is incredibly twisty and full of switchbacks. For those who get carsick (like I do), I highly advise staying away from any tour that takes you through this region. The drive is pretty, but I could have easily skipped this entire experience!

After the drive through the rainforest, we were supposed to first stop at the Depaz Distillery. For some reason the tour guide decided to have us visit the distillery last and instead visit the Saint-Pierre museum first. At one point, she even made a comment we would skip the distillery. This of course irritated me since this was my main reason for taking the tour! We did end up saying something to her and she backtracked on her comment about skipping the distillery. At one point, she even asked us if we were British (no, we are from Seattle!). The tour just got stranger as we went along. Her decision to move the distillery to last was not a smart move because we then had to go through traffic to the museum, traffic back to the distillery, and traffic through Saint-Pierre.

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Once we made it to Saint-Pierre we visited the Museum of Volcanology. The museum provides images of Saint- Pierre before and after the eruption. There are actually numerous artifacts on display, including a church bell that was broken during the eruption. After the museum, we had some time to walk around outside. Somehow, we did miss visiting the jail cell of Ludger Sylbaris. For some unknown reason the tour guide only invited a few members of the tour to visit the cell. Ludger Sylbaris was one of only a few people who survived the eruption in 1902 since he was placed in solitary confinement. His cell was half underground and had no windows, which ultimately saved his life.

After the museum, we next headed to Depaz Distillery. I know the basics of distilling (I’ve even distilled a few times) and was really looking forward to this part of the tour. I can say I’m thankful I know how distilling works because I ended up explaining the process to a few people! The guide had absolutely no clue about the history of the distillery or how distillation works! At one point, she complained about the distillery not providing a guide. At the end of the tour, we did have a chance to try the products.

fullsizeoutput_d65.jpegOnce the distillery tour was completed, the tour then drove through Saint-Pierre again on the way back to Fort-de-France. The ride back took around 45 minutes and went along the coastline. This ride was also full of switchbacks, but luckily not as bad as the drive through the rainforest.

Now I decided to wait until the end to address some of the further issues with the tour guide. Throughout the tour, she made disparaging comments about certain groups of individuals. For some reason, she felt the need to attack millennials constantly. As someone who is technically a millennial, this was frustrating! She described millennials as uneducated and basically a waste of space. At one point, she went on and on about youth using social media (slightly ironic when she started talking about her own Facebook account).

Not only were millennials the target of her negative comments, she next started in on the local Muslim population. At one point, she even stated how she believes the local Muslim population should not be allowed to have a building to worship at. We certainly could feel the Islamophobia during her speech! Throughout the tour, she made numerous negative comments towards various groups of people. This isn’t a great way to promote your island by bad mouthing your own residents and potential tourists. Her comments were unfortunate and will always stick with me about Martinique.

I have to admit this time in Martinique was a true disappointment. A tour guide can ultimately make or break an experience, and unfortunately this tour was a poor experience. The purpose of this post is to not bad mouth Martinique, but to share my experience. The island really is fascinating and I hope to visit again one day. Hopefully if you have a chance to visit the island, you will have a much different experience than I did this time.

 

Note: We did end up talking to the Tour Desk onboard Princess Cruises about the comments the tour guide made. From previous experiences, I feel it is best to provide feedback to the cruise line about great and poor tours. Ultimately the tour companies are contractors for the cruise line and represent the cruise industry.

Bequia

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There is a good chance you probably aren’t familiar with the Caribbean island of Bequia (pronounced bek-way). Before we booked this trip, I’ll admit I knew next to nothing about the island. Bequia is typically not a destination on a lot of people’s radars, especially since this is not a typical cruise port. Before our visit, I had a hard time finding a lot of information about the island. Now looking back, I think it is amazing that Bequia is still under the radar; Bequia truly is an authentic Caribbean destination that has escaped from major overdevelopment.DCIM102GOPROG0642260.

Before talking about our time in Bequia, I just want to dive into some of the background about the island. Bequia is actually part of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG). SVG is also home to the famous island of Mustique. Mustique though has the reputation of being exclusive due to the islands popularity with celebrities and members of the British Royal Family. Bequia on the other hand is laid-back, with tourists and expats visiting on small yachts or sailboats.

Interestingly, Bequia has a rich maritime history of boat building, fishing, and whaling. Bequia actually still allows whaling today and is one of a few spots around the globe where limited whaling is still allowed to exist from the International Whaling Commission. There is debate though on the history of whaling in Bequia. Some individuals believe whaling was started on Bequia after 1875 by settlers and was not original to the island’s indigenous population.

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Our time in Bequia was spent during the Boxing Day holiday. Unfortunately, we experienced on and off rain during the day, but we didn’t let the rain dampen our experience. There is no major docking facility on Bequia for cruise ships, so all ships tender to shore. The tender ride was probably around 10-minutes long and passed many of the yachts in the harbor. We disembarked the tender at Port Elizabeth on a small dock that was well used during the day! Many of the yachts also used the small dock to tender over as well.

2015-01-10-14-48-39-1.jpgOutside the tender area there were taxi drivers offering island tours. We decided to pass on a tour and head out on our own. One thing we appreciated was the drivers not pressuring and badgering people. Compared to other places in the Caribbean, Bequia definitely has a laid-back vibe. Even though we passed on the tour at the time, I do wish we had taken one now and seen more of the island.

We ending up venturing down the Belmont Walkway towards Princess Margaret Beach. The walkway is literally on the water’s edge. The Belmont Walkway runs all the way along Port Elizabeth on the southern side of Admiralty Bay. Along the way we passed restaurants, cafes, bars, dive shops, small hotels, and a few little shops. Many restaurants and bars along the Belmont Walkway were open for Boxing Day, though we did encounter a few shops closed because of the holiday.

DCIM102GOPROG0662315.The Belmont Walkway is an easy and fantastic walk along the waterfront of Port Elizabeth. The walkway was actually restored a few years before 2016 to create safer pedestrian thoroughfare on the island. The walkway was extremely well used by locals and visitors!

At the end of the Belmont Walkway you arrive to Princess Margaret Trail (also referred to as the Belmont Coastal Trail). The trail is now an extension of the Belmont Walkway and provides locals and visitors an easier way to reach Princess Margaret Beach. The trail is a bit of a walk with stairs and hills but easily doable for most people. I would recommend a sturdier sandal, I unfortunately was wearing flip flops and this didn’t make the easiest walk.

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Once you are down the trail you arrive at the Princess Point Headland and Boardwalk (or causeway depending on where you read). This will actually take you to Princess Margaret Beach. I can truly see the Boardwalk being an easy way to reach the beach. Unfortunately, the Boardwalk sustained serious damage from Hurricane Matthew in late 2016 and only part of it was open. From the damaged point, signs noted use at your own risk. We could have reached the beach through the water and rocks, but we really weren’t wearing appropriate footwear to climb over rocks. Hopefully this cool Boardwalk will be rebuilt and opened again.

As we made our way back to the beginning of the Belmont Walkway we decided to stop for lunch at one of the many restaurants. We ended up at the Bequia Plantation Hotel, which is actually right near the start of the Princess Margaret Trail. Luckily, we stopped when we did since it started to rain. All 3 of us ordered the same special, fish and chips plus a rum punch. The rum punch was surprisingly delicious! The rum didn’t overpower the punch, plus the punch wasn’t watered down (not always the case!). The fish and chips were good, but the tartar sauce was some of the best we’ve had. May sound silly to some people but the tartar sauce literally made the meal. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a photo of the fish and chips since I was using my GoPro at the time.

After lunch, we headed towards the tender and made a few side stops. I ended up in a Batik shop and purchased a unique Batik pillowcase. The store is called The Garden Boutique and is located by the waterfront (next to St. Mary’s Church). All the Batik in the shop is hand painted and made in SVG by local artisans. Besides the pillowcase, the shop also sold clothes, Batik fabrics, and accessories. A lot of the items ranged in price from $30 to $70 USD. I feel this is reasonable for the amount of work that goes into Batik, especially a higher quality item that is handmade. I personally really enjoyed the shop and finding a locally made item (plus I feel it is important to support local businesses when traveling).

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Batik Pillowcase from Bequia

I can see why Bequia has been described by some as a perfect island. To me Bequia feels like the old Caribbean, before islands became overdeveloped with resorts and tourists. This is not an island filled with big chain jewelry stores or color changing souvenirs. Truly I think this is why Bequia struck me so much and I hope to one day return!