When we first started thinking about going to Carnival in Trinidad, I seriously considered joining one of the big masquerade bands. Even contemplated squeezing my middle-aged white bum into one of those sequinced and feathery bikini costumes. But then I did a little bit of research and learned that it costs around $1,000 usd to join a band. More if you want feathers. Yikes! So instead, we joined a few friends and bought tickets at a restaurant on “The Avenue” where we could watch the parades from comfort and it was perfect!
As opposed to the “Dutty Mas” of J’ouvert, Tuesday’s parades are “Pretty Mas or Bikini Mas” Folks choose a band to join and choose the simple “Backline” costume or more elaborate “Frontline” costume. It’s called “Playing Mas” (short for masquerade) In addition to the standard costume, many women buy colorful sneakers or boots, and wear elaborate sparkly makeup. Add a backpack of feathers and maybe a headpiece and it makes for a colorful joyous spectacle.
If you’re gonna play mas in Trinidad, you’d better have some stamina! Bands “chip” and “wine” their way through downtown Port of Spain all day long, dancing and bouncing to soca. The parades are fueled by local rum and local delicacies such as doubles and shark and bakes. I’m not sure how they manage to keep up the energy in the hot tropical sun!
Some bands avoid bikini mas, and instead wear elaborate costumes that tell a story or depict some of the history of Carnival. The larger, grander costumes are feats of engineering and take the entire year to design and create. It’s really pretty amazing to be there in person to see them “on da road”.
By the afternoon, some partyers get tired of their heavy costumes and leave them behind. Our gain! We had a lot of fun trying on the castoffs!
There’s a competition for the Road March – the most popular and most frequently played soca song in the parades. Our favorite “Come Home to Me” came in third place. We were robbed!
On our final Sunday in Martinique, we tagged along with Popeye and Lisa on SV Tumoltuous Uproar to watch the traditional Martinique Yole boats race in a regatta. We didn’t really know what to expect but Ooh la la! It turned out to be an exciting day.
What is a yole? Well basically, they are traditional wooden sail boats, originally used by fisherman and to transport goods around the island. Each 10.5 meter yole boat is hand carved out of solid wood, without a keel or any ballast. So they are light and fast, but extremely “tippy.” The masts are made of bamboo, and instead of a rudder, a long wooden oar is used to steer the boat and to help paddle it through each turn or tack. The sails are rectangular and un-battened and extremely hard to manage. To balance the boat, a team of strong, burly, coordinated men hike way out from the boat onto sets of wooden poles, using their body weight and hopefully perfect timing to keep the boat from tipping over. Did I say “hopefully”? Several times during the race, we saw a boat heel over a tad too far, scoop up a whole bunch of seawater, and slowly sink. A race boat then had to tow them back to shore in the “tow of shame” with the boat sinking lower and lower, arriving back to the beach before it completely sank. There are actually members of the racing team whose sole job is to bail out water with plastic bottles and buckets during the race. If you can’t quite picture that strangle jumble of boat parts in action, have no fear ‘cause I took tons of pictures!
The best part of the race is the start. Each boat gets dragged down the beach to the water’s edge and turned onto its side. On land, the two masts are maneuvered into place and the team rigs the two sails by tying a whole bunch on knots while the boat is still on its side. Once all the hiking out poles are slotted into place, three or four of the heaviest guys stand up on the high side, lean their weight onto the poles, and slowly (then all of a sudden, very quickly!) they tip the boat upright, with other team mates running in at the last minute to push it into the water. It’s a blast to watch! When it goes smoothly, it’s a work of art. When it doesn’t, watch your head ‘cause it’s all going to fall back to the ground again.
To start the race, crews wait for the final horn blast and then shove and push these heavy boats full of heavy guys into deep enough water for them to float and start sailing. With at least a dozen boats all starting from that same stretch of beach there’s always a lot of bumping, knocking, crashing, and shouting until they get far enough apart to settle down a bit. Mike and Popeye helped launch the McDonalds boat. Luckily, this maneuver went fairly smoothly and we did not have to experience the local health clinic.
The next best part of the race is watching the boats round a big floating race marker. We took the dingy out to watch the lead boats make the turn from up close. They come in HOT with the team captain shouting out commands. As the turn starts, everyone hikes way, way out on the poles trying to keep their legs out of the water. Not to stay dry (this is definitely not a dry sport) but to avoid slowing the boat down due to drag. The sail guy on the bow basically bear hugs the mast and the spar to force the sail to tack from one side to the other. The boat slows way down and three guys on the stern start rowing with all their might to complete the turn. If all goes well, the sails quickly grab the wind and the boat surges forward on the next leg of the race – with very little bailing required. If it doesn’t go well, the boat loses all speed, scoops up a bunch of water and starts that slow sinking process. It’s very exciting!
We all picked a team to root for and joined the rest of the crowd in cheering on our favorites. I understand just enough French to understand the announcer calling out the team in first position, followed by the second team, followed by the third. At one point, he announced that a team was “trés malade,” I asked, “Did he just say that boat is very sick?” I got my answer a few minutes later when the race boat towed in a bright red yole nearly submerged with its team members sitting in sea water up to their waists. Very sick, indeed!
When Capt. Mike and I heard rumors of a secret rum shack built in the forest high above Admiralty Bay and only accessible by foot path, we knew we had to find it!
On our first visit to the Treehouse Bush Bar we joined a tour and took a bus up the steep concrete road to the trail and then walked about a half a mile to the bar. Well that wasn’t so hard! So for our next visit, we called ahead to make sure the owner Ken would be available and we organized a big group of cruisers to walk there from the main dinghy dock in Port Elizabeth, Bequia.
What a fun afternoon! I’m glad I wore running shoes, not flip flops, because island roads climb straight up! With warm weather all year round, they clearly don’t build roads to accommodate snow and ice! It took our motley crew about a half hour to trek through town and up, up, up, huffing and puffing all the way. After a break to catch our breath and gather the stragglers we turned off road and onto a lovely, shaded path. As long as you keep right at every fork in the path you can’t get lost – left turns lead to local homes and small subsistence farms.
After crossing a small bamboo bridge and following cobblestones for the final 100 meters, we got our first glimpse of the Bush Bar. It’s so cool! Ken has spent at least three years, clearing the land, carrying building supplies in on his back, and building a small wooden and bamboo building all by hand and all by himself. Small trees grow through the boards on the porch, providing a bit of shade. The view from that porch is stunning – it really does feel like you are looking down on the yachts in the Bay from a tree house up in the clouds.
Ken has a solar panel rigged up to a set of golf cart batteries that power a small cooler of beers and a speaker for music. If you’re not a beer drinker, there’s a big thermos jug of rum punch. What else do you need? A few tree stumps provide somewhat rickety chairs, and there’s a table or two for playing dominoes. Ken really deserves to be proud of the little oasis he has built here!
The next time you find yourself in Bequia, I highly recommend a trek to the Bush Bar!
My goal for the winter of 2022 was to FINALLY sail to Martinique. It’s been very difficult for non-EU flagged boats to visit since the world shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year things have finally normalized enough that fully-vaccinated travelers are welcome again. And I can finally put my 675-day Duolingo French lesson streak to use.
In the last week of February, Sanitas had her first guests come to visit since 2020, before COVID. Micki and Nathan are her biggest fans – they even helped do some boat projects when we first bought her in St Pete, Florida. In fact, they are pretty much the only people other than our immediate family who we would invite to stay on board our teeny tiny boat. It’s tricky to plan to meet friends in the Carribean – weather is always an issue when planning if you can get to the right island in time to meet guests there. In fact, sailors usually say “You can plan when you want to visit, or where you want to visit, but you can’t plan both!”
Having guests aboard provides an excuse to live like we’re on vacation for a week too- we eat out more, we move the boat to new anchorages more often, and we do all the touristy stuff that y’all think we always do (when in reality, we’re usually just cooking on the boat and doing boat maintenance projects) 😜 In Martinique, one of the best tourist attractions is to visit the rhum agricole distilleries. Rhum agricole is a bit different than traditional rum you may be used to. It’s made directly from the juice of sugar cane, without first processing that cane juice into molasses. This means rhum can only be produced a few months each year when the sugar cane crop is mature. Martinique rhum has earned a French Appellation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) just like it’s more famous French wine cousins, such as Champagne and Burgundy. While of course it’s fun to taste the rhum, a visit to a distilleries is also fascinating because of the links between sugar cane farming and the island’s colonial and slave-owning history. Many distilleries have ruins of old stone plantation buildings on their property, or host memorials to the successful uprisings of enslaved workers, or feature artwork that attempts to process and understand that history. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that a visit to a distillerie isn’t just a “seen one, seen them all” activity, but that each site is unique and interesting. Of course, the tour always ends in the gift shop, and we purchased quite a few bottles of rhum, punch, and liquor to enjoy at our leisure on Sanitas with our guests at sunset. Distillerie Depaz is unique, because it boasts a small chateau modeled after Versailles on the grounds. And Distillerie Neissen is filled with vibrant and colorful art, as well as being famous for its award winning white rhum and it’s rare organically produced rhum.
We didn’t only subject our guests to rhum tours (although I doubt they’d have complained) We also toured the Memorial de la Catastrophe in St Pierre, a touching and personal museum that attempts to capture the loss of life and culture caused by the eruption of the Mount Pelée volcano in 1902. At the time, St Pierre was considered “the Paris of the Caribbean” for its cosmopolitan society. Warnings of the volcano’s threat had been observed for over a week prior to its catastrophic eruption, but the governor didn’t want to damage the economy in case of false alarms. Not only did he not evacuate the city, he actively communicated that there was no threat and citizens should not leave. Finally, on the morning of May 8th, a volcanic explossion of extreme force and heat destroyed the city, killing all but two of the 28,000 inhabitants, sinking all of the ships in the harbor, and destroying most of the buildings in the city. It’s sobering to consider this when your own boat in sitting calmly on anchor so near her shipwrecked kin. Today, the town is an atmospheric blend of old and new, and well worth a visit.
We also celebrated Carnival in St Pierre. It’s the Caribbean version of Mardi Gras and, like everything else that’s fun in this world, it had been canceled during COVID. 2022 was the first year Carnival was officially allowed to take place again, although it’s *possible* some unofficial parades and parties took place last year without government permission. Big, fancy parades take place in the Martinique capital of Fort-de-France, but we enjoyed joining in with the smaller local celebration in St Pierre. Each night of Carnival has a theme, and we marched on the night when men dress in women’s clothing and women dress in men’s clothing.
We had to burn off all that rhum and French food somehow, so we headed inland and took our guests on a hike of the Canal de Beauregard. This canal (actually more of an aqauduct) was built to carry water to the distilleries in St Pierre and it’s a gorgeous walk through the mountain rain forest. For much of the hike, you carefully balance on the narrow stone wall that creates the canal, so it’s not for those with balance and vertigo issues! It really is a nice change of pace though to get away from the coast, and up into the vibrant green mountains.
I said that we eat out a lot when folks visit (and we certainly do) but we cooked some delicious meals as well! We bought fresh tuna from the market in St Pierre and made amazing poke bowls. I tackled my first huge can of confit duck legs, and turned it into pretty darn amazing duck nachos for dinner, and duck and potato hash for breakfast the next day.
Micki and Nathan even got the chance to experience the not so glamorous side of sailing life, when we attempted to anchor four or five times at Anse d’Arlet before the hook finally caught on a tricky, rocky bottom. We earned our ti punches and fish dinners there! All in all, I hope our guests had a nice time visiting the beautiful island of Martinique. But I’m exhausted, and ready for a vacation from my vacation!
“I don’t want an icy Christmas, I’ve had enough. The only ice I wanna see must be in my cup.”
Shaggy: “No Icy Christmas” from the 2020 album Christmas in the Islands
Thank you Shaggy! My sentiments, exactly. While I sure miss my family desperately each festive holiday season, I don’t miss snow and ice one bit. I have fully embraced the sunny beach Christmas. And Bequia is a fabulous place to spend Christmas as a cruiser. The ARC (Atlantic Rally for Cruisers) finishes in St Lucia in December, so there are suddenly dozens of European boats that just crossed the Atlantic and over a hundred cruisers in a celebratory mood. And Bequia is so incredibly welcoming to boaters over the holidays, hosting potlucks and parties and events. This is our second year in a row celebrating Christmas and New Year’s here, and I can see why some cruisers return here year after year.
Of course, even this corner of paradise is not immune from Covid. This year, the Christmas light displays and fireworks were canceled. When I asked around to find out why, I received two answers: “The government wants to discourage large gatherings,” and “The community is really suffering economically due to the pandemic and the resulting loss of tourism. Electricity is the most expensive resource on the island and it feels wrong to light up the parks when so many families are struggling to pay their electric bills.” But the stores and restaurants are decorated, sometimes even in a nautical theme.
I tried to bring a bit of that Christmas spirit aboard Sanitas through baking festive treats. Now, I hate to bake. I get kind of tense and twitchy just looking at the ingredients and knowing I’ll have to measure accurately to get this thing to turn out properly. Plus, I’m a celiac and eat strictly gluten free and I try to stay healthy by limiting carbs. But it’s Christmas! So I whipped up a batch of gf chocolate chip cookies with red and green m&ms. (I had to buy two packets of m’s and dug through to pick out the red and green ones). I bought colorful dried fruit and peel in syrup from Knight’s Trading and baked it into a gf Irish soda bread. And I spread a thick layer of mince meat over an almond flour tart to approximate mince meat pies. I kind of think I nailed it. 😀
Now, every restaurant on the island was competing for our business for holiday dinners. But I accidentally wandered into the Porthole one afternoon and ordered a soda water and started chatting to the owner. The Porthole restaurant and mini mart is a Bequia institution, operated by Mr and Mrs T for 40 years and famous for its delicious rotis. The couple have gotten older and struggled to keep it up (not to mention Covid) so their son Gladwyn and his partner Linda moved back home from New York City to take over. They’ve put a ton of work into painting and modernizing and the place looks fantastic. Linda told me they were planning a grand opening party for Christmas Eve with lobster and Mrs T’s traditional recipes for salads and sides so I jumped at the chance! We shared a table with three other cruisers and had a lovely evening – Elvis played Christmas songs on the steel pan, the food was delicious and the wine flowed, and we finally experienced some Christmas cheer. Even if the dinner we were promised at 7:00 didn’t actually get served until 9:00. Island time, lol!
The main event of a Bequia Christmas is without a doubt the Cruisers’ pot luck at the Fig Tree. The owners, Cheryl and Lafayette open the restaurant to sailors free of charge and light of the grills. And folks from all countries and all languages gather to grill meats, share sides and desserts, and drink festive cocktails. All within feet of the lapping waves against the Belmont Boardwalk. It’s a total blast, and I’m so grateful for the Fig Tree’s hospitality.
Last year on New Year’s Eve we partied like it was 1999….and then four out of the eight people at our table came down with COVID and had to isolate on their boats for weeks. This year, since we’re vaxed and boosted, we planned to go to the Frangipani for steel pan music and a DJ – we even bought tickets. But on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, two of the most popular tourist restaurants on the island shut down suddenly because staff tested positive for Covid. We hemmed and hawed and decided not to risk it. Instead, a friend invited us over to his catamaran and we had a lovely little 5-person party on the deck with charcuterie and champagne. We could hear the music just fine from the anchorage – we didn’t miss a thing. And as midnight struck, the boaters made their own firework show, lighting off expired flares in the harbor (Cap. Mike did not like firey things raining down near Sanitas at all)
All in all, it was a lovely holiday, spent with good friends, and I enjoyed every minute of it! I hope you and yours had a wonderful holiday also – maybe even with a little snow, if that’s your thing.