Expert's Choice: Leeward Islands
Chris Doyle has been writing and updating the Cruising Guide to the Leeward Islands since 1989.
FOOD AND DRINK
If you decide to self-provision or just need to restock, it doesn't get better than in St. Martin, where the supermarkets are giant and waterside provisioning services ensure that superyacht guests (and you) are never short of fresh strawberries, truffles, and caviar, along with beer and excellent wines. It's not that provisioning is bad elsewhere; all the islands these days have fair to good supermarkets with at least some fresh produce. Guadeloupe and Dominica are the best islands for local fruits and vegetables.
LOCAL FLAVORS: Look on supermarket (or the local equivalent) shelves for boxed juices in tasty Caribbean flavors, including soursop, acerola cherry, tamarind, and mango.
WINE TIP: Most islands have wine and liquor specialists, like Crazy Banana in Dominica, suitable for sophisticated tastes.
» Eating Out
• Fine Dining
Gourmet restaurants abound. Iguana Caf in St. François, Guadeloupe, is French with a touch of Asia. A bevy of chefs spend all day creating new dishes for the evening, having fun while taking the job seriously. Grande Case, in St. Martin, is the street of fine restaurants; if you don't make it that far, La Vie en Rose in Marigot serves excellent food.
• Caribbean Delights
The wonderful buffet lunch served at Rawlins Plantation, St. Kitts—an old plantation house set in a lovely garden, surrounded by fields of sugar cane—is unbeatable. River Rush, at the confluence of two rivers in the heart of Dominica, is lower-key but equally special. The dining room is perched amid the trees, and chef Kevin cooks excellent local food.
• Food + Entertainment
No finer location for outdoor food exists than Shirley Heights Lookout, Antigua, which has Sunday- and Thursday- night parties. The sunset view, overlooking both English and Falmouth Harbours, is spectacular. A steel band starts at 1600; the fare is barbecued fish, chicken, and burgers. The walk up from Galleon Beach Club on a marked trail adds to the adventure (bring a flashlight for getting back).
• The Dawn Patrol
What better breakfast can there be than espresso accompanied by croissants or pain au chocolat, eaten outside as the world wakes up? St. Barts is an ideal place for this; try Cantina, Carambole, or La Petite Colombe. Or in Deshaies, Guadeloupe, try L'Amandine.
• On the Beach
Some of the best beach bars in the islands are on the truly incredible Pinney's Beach in Nevis. Sunshine's (home of the Killer Bee cocktail) is the most famous; among the others are the entertaining Chevy's Calypso Bar and Lyndeta's great little Double Deuce. If you're in Anguilla and make it out to Prickly Pear Cays, do visit Johnno's Prickly Pear Bar.
HIKES AND BIKES
The Leewards offer incredible variety in all things, including jogging opportunities. You could run endlessly on pinky-white sand, without seeing another soul, on Barbuda's 11-mile beach (few will make it to the end). Those who like more human scenery will find Orient Beach in St. Martin so popular they will have to weave their way among holidaymakers who may be in various states of undress.
In Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, the government has built a walkway from the city to Marina Riviere Sens and then south toward Pointe du Vieux Fort. The southern part is popular with runners and bikers.
As a biker (you can rent one), I was a bit hot and bothered by traffic as I cycled through Roseau, Dominica, and out on the main road to Trafalgar. But when I turned off on the road to the rural hot-springs village of Wotten Waven, it was like going to heaven. On one side of the road, steep rain-forested hills provide shade, and on the other a steep bank falls into a scenic valley. The roadside is decorated with pink and mauve impatiens. The new road that goes through to Trafalgar gives a loop route back.
Many people put many hours into maintaining trails in the Leewards, resulting in wonderful walks. One of the best is the trail with 1,064 steps up Mount Scenery in Saba. You hike up through a gardenlike cloud forest of giant philodendrons, clusia, and tree ferns. The views, when you get a break in the clouds, are spectacular. Other views: from Le Chameau (condition of the steps permitting) watchtower in The Saints, the Quill in Statia.
English Harbour has more-gentle walks among the dry hills. A good one goes over to Pigeon Beach in Falmouth.
The Nelson Museum in Nevis is among the best local museums, partly because it is dedicated to a single subject and does it well. Its subject is Lord Horatio Nelson (who married Fanny Nisbet at Montpellier Plantation on the island) and the times in which he lived. A huge collection of artifacts from that time brings the period to life.
The whole of Nelson's Dockyard in English Harbour, Antigua, is a living museum—a completely restored Georgian naval dockyard, where the docks now are used for yachts and the buildings for businesses. There are many daily guided tours and a small dedicated museum.
The Leewards have exceptionally well preserved forts. Brimstone Hill in St. Kitts is the biggest, with acres of battlements and buildings to explore and views to other islands. Fort Napoleon in The Saints is smaller but beautifully preserved, with a charming garden of succulents entwined with the outer walls. Fort Oranje in Statia is tiny, and very cute, with lots of battlements.
ANCHORAGES FOR SNORKELERS
• The Leewards have wonderful anchorages far from the crowd. The anchorage off Spanish Point, Barbuda, is close to heaven—a vast lake of luminescent turquoise water, interrupted with clumps of brown reef. Great exploring and long beaches are to be found ashore, and probably no one else will be around.
• The anchorage on the western end of Ilet à Fajou, Guadeloupe, has similarly wonderful water and lots of starfish.
• You can be all on your own, with good snorkeling amid strange-shaped rocks and tiny islands, anchored south of Bird Island in northeast Antigua.
SAIL YOUR PANTS OFF
Much of the sailing in the Caribbean involves reaching up and down the island chain. You can do this in the Leewards, too, but here there are also some fine runs, when the spinnaker can pull for hours. The passage from Guadeloupe to Nevis, 70-odd miles, passing to the north of Montserrat, is great for this.
• Dominica has really wonderful countryside. The most adventurous hike is to the boiling lake, the second-largest in the world. It goes through rain forest, cloud forest, and the Valley of Desolation. There are spectacular views and piping-hot bathing pools in a river, as well as a water-filled slot canyon with a waterfall.
• If weather permits a stop in Montserrat, a visit to watch the volcano in action is unforgettable.
• There are a couple of half-day trips ashore that will be well remembered. In Deshaies, Guadeloupe, the botanical garden is a superb creation: nature with a dash of theater. In addition to a thousand species of plants, there is a 50-foot waterfall and river, and a walk-in aviary with brightly colored parakeets. Rosy flamingoes hang out around a pool, and red and yellow macaws live in decorative Caribbean houses.
• Villagers will take you by boat to Barbuda's huge colony of frigate birds. It is an amazing spectacle. The air is alive with wheeling birds uttering strange cries and clicking their beaks. The mangroves are full of frigate chicks and adult males advertising for mates with ungainly inflated throat pouches that look like big red balloons.