Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pelican Bar Jamaica and other scenes to try

Bars. Love em or hate em, you’ll sure as eggs find yourself in one if you visit the Caribbean for even the shortest layover. You may not know you’re in one, it may look like a shop, a grocery store or a post office, and sell all manner of unwanted items until you spy those tell-tale bottles of dark stuff tucked away on a dusty shelf. Rum to you and I, often it’s clear, or “white” but don’t let that wholesome innocence fool you. Oh no, always treat the white one with the utmost respect in fact, otherwise you’ll wake up later, wondering why. Yes, the rum shop is ubiquitous, multi-facetted, more plentiful than churches some would opine, and there are lots of those to admire.

A bar on a beach people like the sound of too. Sort of double your money, two for the price of one. I once lived close to Mullins beach bar in St Peter, Barbados, the only 24 hour bar in its earliest incarnation and accessible from the south in the days before traffic, not that I was a regular, though it was nice to know it was there, a neighbourly comfort as it were. Bang on a great roadside beach a well, it’s changed over the years, things do, more restaurant than bar for a spell, but the essence of a great place to relax remains. Location is all.

The Owl Bar commands another timeless spot and is aptly named, in one of Grenada’s finest, the Flamboyant hotel, overlooking the southern end of Grande Anse beach and prides itself on convivial late night opening. I knew a chap once who moored a boat bar offshore at Mullins in a failed venture to add the maritime perspective to Bim’s bar scene, but perhaps only in Jamaica, to repeat a well worn phrase, would they ever consider going one step beyond. Let alone actually doing it.

Riding the swell down Jamaica south west, no surfboard just outboard, I was reminded not long back of that other Jamaican maxim “the Jamaica you find depends on the company you keep”. Someone had mentioned “a bar with a difference”, so I thought why not, seen a few already, what’s one more? Far offshore from Black River did seem a bit extreme, I mused, scanning a foam flecked horizon for signs of life, then suddenly a bizarre spindly edifice of driftwood, flotsam and bamboo loomed afore. More a rustic vision of a seaborne “wicker man”, it’s an extraordinary piece of construction, nailed and pieced together on stilts atop a narrow rock shoal in a matter of weeks--- the result of the fertile, some would say damaged, imagination of Floyd a local fisherman.

The Pelican Bar he’s called it, owing to its most regular customer so far out at sea. Colleagues advised him against, exhorting that “him lost him mind” but Sally Henzell at Jakes hotel actively encouraged him. Yep, this place was definitely different. No sign of a barman for a start, least of all a beer on a scorching morning, as we clambered up some rickety ladder. “Jussa small hinconvenience sah, no problem”, whispered the boatman., he’s right though, this is Jamaica, chill out capital, miles from land, blazing sun, no drinks, something will turn up. Incredibly they did, quite a while later.

It was hard to leave, not least because you couldn’t, the sort of place where you never know you may be gurgling your last, should a rogue wave come rolling in. Someone suggested we should stay overnight, and not entirely in jest. I glanced inland at a storm billowing in over the Santa Cruz Mountains and nay..........terra firma’s best.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Hiking in the Caribbean - Take a Local Guide!

AAAaaah..... wonderful. Stretched out on a comfy lounger, gentle waves lapping by your toes, cocktail bar not too far distant. Dreamy days, languid nights, palm trees whispering in the breeze--everyone’s idea of Caribbean bliss, the stereotype plugged in a traveller’s memory bank. And why not, it’s an image which has sold the region to countless millions of prospective visitors. But wait, look over at them thar hills, that hazy mountain range, what mysteries and delights therein to discover? Thankfully, over the last decade or so Tourism Authorities have come to realise this too and hiking has become a far more high profile diversion, an actively encouraged pastime that adds so much to the participant’s appreciation of a country, the land, its people and wildlife. Get that gear on then, stretch the sinews......... and feel the difference. Most of the islands lend themselves to hiking in some degree, even Barbados and Antigua, the flatter ones, have great coastal walking but it’s the mountainous interiors of the Windwards and Jamaica which are really rewarding, that set the heart and mind a pumping.

The flagship hikes around the Antilles are pretty self evident—if not easily achieved---- the trek to the Boiling Lake via the Valley of Desolation in the fastness of the Morne Trois Pitons National Park in Dominica has a singular allure that the adventurer finds irresistible, if only for the place names, the ascent of Gros Piton in south western St Lucia looks fairly straightforward from distance then is ever more daunting as the true scale of the pyramidal massif becomes evident at its scrub covered base. The twin apex peak of El Tucuche in Trinidad’s Northern Range is quite challenging, Mount St Catherine at 2756 feet in Grenada equally so while St Lucia’s Mount Gimie is no cakewalk either. And then there’s Jamaica, specifically the Blue Mountains. The Danish philosopher Kierkegarde said he’d often walked himself into his best thoughts, which was a nice way of putting it. If hiking nurtures peace and contemplation, even upliftment, there can be no greater theatre than this place, the midnight hike to Blue Mountain peak its apotheosis.

Theoretically you can hike in the Caribbean at any time of year of course, but it’s sensible to temper things on occasion and the rainy season causes all manner of complications. Mountain walking is hazardous if not downright lethal after heavy rainfall and the optimum period is always going to be the relatively dry period between November and April, outside the hurricane season. Daytime temperatures hover around 85 degrees tempered by cooling trade winds but at higher elevations it becomes significantly cooler; no specialist equipment is usually necessary, water being the sole essential requirement with lightweight cotton clothing, rainwear and a solid pair of trainers perfectly adequate for most terrain. Climate is changing around the islands like everywhere else though, and it’s wise to keep a weather eye open at all times. Many years ago I had cause to climb Mount Liamuiga, the volcano in St Kitts, and all seemed set fair as a wispy wreath of cloud encircled the summit on a bright sunny morning.

My guide advised against it however, shaking his head doubtfully, sensing something in the air I hadn’t but, fearing an editor’s wrath, an hour later after much discussion I decided to strike out alone. Ah the folly of youth, a gross error of judgment. I reached the top without too much trouble but commencing the descent the heavens opened without warning, water, water everywhere, in biblical proportions, the steep track quickly becoming a raging torrent, carrying with it mud and tree debris, and nearly myself. It was deafeningly noisy in the thick confines of the forest, disorientating, terrifying briefly till I gained a grip. Six hours later in pitch black I somehow staggered into a canefield miles below, cut to ribbons, safe, but definitely unsound. A rescue team was about to set forth. It was a salutary lesson, never to be forgotten---always, ALWAYS heed local advice.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Caribbean Facts About Sea Turtles - Protect Them!

Everyone should do it. Wander down a dark beach at midnight or later that is, preferably in the pitch black and definitely without flashlight or camera. A sliver of moonlight on a silvery sea can help but this is no romantic interlude, not for the voyeur at any rate. It is though a heartrending experience with something of the primeval about it, and not to be forgotten in a hurry, to be a privileged witness to the egg laying ritual of the giant leatherback turtle, the largest living marine reptile and known to have existed for 100 million years. Children in particular are wide eyed in amazement, most adults too in truth. It really is that extraordinary to see these great ocean wanderers, leviathans of the deep as big as coffee tables, hauling themselves from the surf on some remote shoreline at dead of night. The males are entirely pelagic with the females only coming ashore to lay eggs after six years of age.

Grande Riviere in North Trinidad is the second most important nesting ground in the world after the beaches of French Guyana, and it’s easy to see why in the period from March to August when 300 have been known to lumber up the beach on a single evening close to the Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel which is a prime observation post. Dozens of people are bussed in nightly from Port Of Spain three hours away now, it’s that much of a spectacle. It’s strenuous work over 1.5 hours for the poor beast, with a three feet deep hole excavated with its hind flippers initially, then 60-80 eggs deposited in a trance-like state when the inert beast can actually be stroked without distraction. It actually appears to be weeping when a viscous film develops over the eyes but it’s merely a protective measure against sand which is flung around violently in the covering over process, or the removal of excess salt.

The eggs, and the turtles themselves, are highly vulnerable of course - they’re persecuted by egg stealers like the “Cobo” vultures, packs of wild dogs, and not least, dumb humans who also slaughter turtles for meat despite widespread educational and awareness programmes. Green turtles and the Hawksbill suffer the same fate. Things have changed in recent years but it’s still a problem on the more inaccessible north coast beaches like Madamas further west and in other countries like Dominica and Grenadines outposts.

Sterling work is undertaken in St.Kitts by the sea Turtle Monitoring Network coordinated by Kimberley Clark who also arranges constant clean up campaigns on sensitive beaches like Cayon and Keys, favoured grounds of all three species. In Carriacou in the southern Grenadines the Kido Ecological Research Station run by Marina Fastigi and Dario Sandrini actually pays fishermen for turtles caught accidentally, or otherwise, in their nets before tagging and release. The Rosti project (Rosalie Sea Turtle Initiative) in eastern Dominica is another laudable effort to preserve these remarkable creatures and the soon to be opened Rosalie Bay Nature Resort, like Mt.Plaisir, has also set up hatchling nurseries to improve baby turtles’ chances of making it back to the sea. For turtles to survive and flourish in the Caribbean spreading the word is the key, so everyone - do your bit quickly before 100 million years of evolution disappears.
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