Sailing the Leeward Islands

 

Sailing the Leeward Islands

Getting there: American Airlines flies nonstop from Miami to Phillipsburg, St. Maarten; JetBlue makes the trip from Fort Lauderdale with one connecting flight.

Currency: The French-speaking islands prefer euros. The English-speaking islands will take U.S. dollars but will often give change in their own currency.

Sailboat Charters: Sunsail, Oyster Bay, St. Maarten; www.sunsail.com/yacht-charter/destinations/caribbean/st-martin/st-martin. A 36-foot Jeanneau 36i (smallest in the Sunsail fleet) has three private cabins that sleep two people each, a large salon with a full kitchen (propane stove, oven, sink, refrigerator) and two additional single bunks, one toilet, and one shower with hot water. Sunsail support is available throughout the Leewards. Cost is $2,500-$3,500 a week depending on the season. Smaller charter operations might offer smaller and less expensive boats.

Lodging St. Martin: Villa Canoua, www.st-martin-vacation.com/Villas/Villa-Canoua.html

Historic Attractions: Nelson’s Dockyard, Antigua, http://nationalparksantigua.com/visiting.php?cat=5; Brimstone Hill Fortress, St. Kitts, http://brimstonehillfortress.org/


Special to the Miami Herald

Relaxing on the shimmering white deck of a 44-foot Jeanneau anchored off a remote white-sand beach, I gazed through crystal waters and watched blue-green sea grass sway lazily in the current. At my side were a good novel, fresh baguettes, black olives and brie; in my hand, a glass of chilled white Bordeaux.

I love sailing vacations. Whether I’m cutting through two-foot swells, anchored peacefully in a beautiful cove, or moored in a quaint harbor town, I’m in the moment. It’s all about the journey and the experience — an ultimate be-here-now experience that’s pure carpe diem.

On this particular diem, we were anchored in Anse à Colombier on the northwest corner of St. Barts, a two-hour sail from the Sunsail sailboat charter base in St. Martin. We were on the first day of a two-week cruise my photographer and I took of the Leeward Islands.

Anse à Colombier is one of St. Bart’s best beaches, remote and wild. The only other way to get to this beach involves a 30-minute perilously steep hike down a treacherous cacti-laden path. Try that lugging towels, umbrellas, and coolers.

After a lazy afternoon snorkeling with friendly green sea turtles, we pulled anchor and sailed the short distance to Gustavia, the island’s main town and port. In peak season, this harbor is jammed with megayachts, glitz and glamour as the world’s rich and beautiful take their winter holidays. Off-season, it’s much more subdued.

Sailing provides a kind of dual holiday — the adventure of sailing the high seas and anchoring in remote wild bays, combined with the fun of exploring cities, towns, and villages along the way. Gustavia is a quaint French colonial town that reminds me of a mini Monaco. And like Monaco, it has no shortage of great restaurants. Cooking on the boat is fun, but it’s always nice to let someone else do the dishes.

After a tranquil night gently rocking in the protected harbor, we stocked up on croissants, prosciutto, wine, and gruyère, slipped off the mooring lines, and headed for St. Kitts.

Situated 45 nautical miles to the south of St. Barts, the sail to St. Kitts was going to be a long one. The wind was blowing a good 15-20 knots about 30 degrees off our port bow, so we knew we’d be heeled over for most of the journey. Translation: tipped on our side, drinks sliding across the deck, and the wind blowing our hats off.

When we first sighted St. Kitts, the volcanic islands St. Eustatius and Saba appeared off our starboard. We had wanted to visit Saba, but the island didn’t have any good anchorage. Nothing’s more troubling than a sketchy anchorage. Just imagine you’re fast asleep, your boat suddenly cuts loose, and you wake up either crashing against the rocks or drifting out to sea. Neither is a pleasant scenario.

The wind calmed as we dipped into the shadow of the western side of St. Kitts, so we switched on the engines. While I love to sail, after a day of riding the waves with the wind on your nose, it was nice to get a little break from the sound and the fury.

St. Kitts has a lot of history and it’s worth a walk-about. One of the best sites is Brimstone Hill Fortress, where a number of key battles between the French and English went down. Even if you’re not a history buff, the view from Brimstone is breathtaking.

I also recommend hiking the 3,792-foot dormant volcano Mount Liamuiga. This is the tallest mountain in this archipelago and the top third often sits in a deliciously cool and calming cloud, which is a nice break from the Caribbean’s torch-like sun.

Our second evening in St. Kitts, we sailed over to a popular strip of beach bars at South Friar’s Bay. There is something very special about dropping an anchor in front of a bustling night scene, hopping in a dinghy, and driving right into the fray. It’s a bit of a James Bond moment. We had to substitute cheap local beer and greasy burgers for caviar and dry martinis, but it was all good.

We were both excited and a bit nervous about our next destination, Montserrat, which is well off the standard cruising map. The Sunsail guides didn’t exactly encourage us to go there. This is understandable given that the island’s Soufrière Hills volcano is active and could theoretically rain hot ash and rocks down on the boat if we happened to be there when the volcano got angry.

We were facing another long sail, but were looking forward to it. There’s nothing better after a night of guzzling beer and pounding burgers than a day at sea. Something about the wind, the salt spray, and the gentle surging of a boat under sail that cleanses the mind and spirit.

In the early afternoon, we began to see Montserrat’s luscious green peaks rising out of the horizon. Just north of the island’s tiny port, we dropped anchor in a beautiful little cove called Rendezvous Bay.

Sailing is unlike land-based holidays, where arrival often throws you into the stress of finding a hotel, checking in, searching for a good place to eat, etc., etc. The minute we pulled into Rendezvous, we uncorked cold white wine, had a snack, and went snorkeling … no hurry, no stress, no worries.

After a refreshing shower on the boat, we were ready to face civilization. We took the dinghy into the harbor, checked through customs, and hit the only spot in town, a bar/restaurant and scuba operation called the Green Monkey. There we got the lowdown what to see and do in Montserrat. Top on the list was a tour of the volcano and its destructive path.

During its heyday, Montserrat was a bustling little country boasting one of the Caribbean’s best medical schools and one of the world’s most famous recording studios. AIR studio was owned and operated by Sir George Martin (who made music with the Beatles). Over the years, Martin brought some of the world’s most famous and glamorous talents to this island to record, including Dire Straits, The Police, Sir Paul McCartney, Sir Elton John, Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Ultravox, The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, Black Sabbath, and Eric Clapton.

In the 1990s a series of eruptions buried much of this island in hot ash and mud, destroying AIR Studios, the capital city of Plymouth, the airport, and the seaport. Luckily there were only a few casualties, but the island took a big hit and still hasn’t completely recovered.

On the Green Turtle’s recommendation, we signed up for a 4-wheel drive tour of areas devastated by the volcano. While much of the island is still off limits because of the threat of more volcanic activity, our driver got us pretty far in. We actually drove up a hardened mudflow that had buried a golf course, where we could still make out the remains of the old clubhouse.

From Garibaldi Hill we got a bird’s eye view of Plymouth. Once a vibrant capital city with busy city streets, residential neighborhoods, and bustling shops, Plymouth has been reduced to a ghostly moonscape of white-gray mud. Concrete skeletons of burnt buildings and collapsed church steeples poked through the hardened ash flows.

As we gazed at these ruins, our guide pointed to the general vicinity of where his house used to stand. In a quiet voice, he explained how he had lost everything he’d worked and saved for. It was hard to imagine. But, in spite of this immense tragedy, the people here are not bitter. And the ones who stayed on are working hard to rebuild this shattered community.

Our next stop, Antigua, has “a beach for every day of the year.” And we planned to visit as many as we could. First, however, we needed to stop at the Sunsail base at English Harbor and Nelson’s Dockyard, where we filled our water tanks and bought provisions. Nelson’s boatyard is the longest continually operating boatyard in the world, and the 18th century home to a British Navy fleet. Today it’s a kind of living museum and a great place to spend an afternoon exploring.

The next day we sailed along the southwestern shore and toured Antigua’s famous beaches. We had been told that the beaches on the northeastern coast were even more spectacular, but the reefs on that side were treacherous and strict Sunsail directives put it off limits.

At our final destination, Barbuda, we sailed into Low Bay on the western side of the island and had 11 miles of pink-sand beach all to ourselves. With no road access to this part of the island, sailing is pretty much the only way we could experience something like this.

Barbuda was a magical end to a magical voyage. On St. Martin, to soften the blow of reentry, we booked a couple extra days at beautiful Villa Canoua perched on a hill overlooking a gorgeous semi-private beach. The villa is a stone’s throw from Grand Case, which has a wonderful strip of beach bars, fine French restaurants, and nightclubs. If you make it to St. Martin, Grand Case is a must-do.

Sailing might not be for everyone, but I can’t think of a better way to vacation. Every day’s an adventure that leads to places that few get to see and experience. It puts me in a space where the future and the past blur as I focus on all that’s happening now. Whether I’m gliding through the waves beyond sight of land, snorkeling with parrotfish in a magical bay, or exploring a small seaside port or secluded beach, I feel alive at each and every moment.

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