A Caribbean Heaven — Les Saintes, Guadeloupe

A Caribbean Heaven — Les Saintes, Guadeloupe

Day… ? It is the surest sign of an outstanding cruise that after a few days of exquisite pampering aboard the Silver Whisper, I have blissfully lost track of time. The ship is slowly entering the tranquil bay that will be today’s anchorage. In the clear morning light, an ethereal rainbow arches from the verdant hilltop of a pristine islet. We have reached Les Saintes, the best kept secret of the Guadeloupe Archipelago.

Europe in the Caribbean

A perfect rainbow welcomes us to Les Saintes.

Guadeloupe is the southernmost of the Leeward Islands. As an Overseas Department of France, it is also the largest European Union territory in North America. Its archipelago consists of six small inhabited islands and a number of islets and outcroppings. Even by Caribbean standards, it is blessed with more than its fair share of stunning beaches, soaring mountains and spectacular snorkeling spots. Yet, while popular with French sun seekers, Guadeloupe has virtually escaped the attention of international tourists.

Le Bourg retains the atmosphere of a French seaside village.

Thanks to this oversight, the twin islands of Les Saintes (Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas, separated by a narrow channel), although a mere 20-minute high-speed ferry ride from the main islands of the archipelago, have retained an unspoiled, off-the-beaten tracks atmosphere. This is immediately obvious as our ship’s tender eases toward the small dock in the center of what looks like the quintessential French seashore village. Aptly named Le Bourg (The Village), it centers around a pedestrian main street lined with sun-washed, red-roofed houses and cafés along a sparkling turquoise harbor.

The Best of Les Saintes

Brown pelicans nest along the rocky coastline.

The coast of Terre-de-Bas features dramatic rock formations.

With a handful of fellow passengers, I transfer aboard a local motorboat for a morning on the water. Soon, we are zipping by hidden coves with perfect white sand beaches and secluded beach-front bungalows. Then the coastline becomes rocky, humans disappear and pelicans take pride of place. 

We head toward Terre-de-Bas. The island is dominated by a mountainous massif that shelters a protected forest as well as a couple of hamlets and hilltop villas. The coast of the nine square kilometer (three and a half square mile) island is lined with cliffs and rocky points that seem to be favorite anchorages for a few adventurous yatchies. We exchange polite waves and continue on, back toward Terre-de-Haut. After giving a passing look at a notable blowhole spraying out of a jagged rock face, we continue on to the high point of our morning: The Pain de Sucre.

Underwater Magic

Le Pain de Sucre is renowned for its exceptional snorkeling.

Named for the 50 meter (165 foot) high Sugar Loaf volcanic hill that rises just off the beach, the area is renowned for its calm, crystal clear waters and exceptional seabed. Although rocky, it has been colonized into a remarkable water garden by fine coral formations and a variety of sponges. Multicolor sea fans and sabella sway in the current, while bright butterfly fish, angel fish, groupers, blue sturgeonfish and many other wander by. This is one of the best snorkeling experiences I’ve had in years.

Lunch With Goats

A palm grove surrounds Pompierre Bay.

The horseshoe-shaped Baie de Pompierre is held in high esteem among discriminating beach-goers. Since it is located just one and a half kilometer (about one mile) northeast of Le Bourg, I decide to check it out. Along the way I stop by a food truck for a bokit, a local specialty that consists of a piece of fried dough about the size of a pita, stuffed full of meat or fish and fresh vegetable, and sprinkled with a peppery sauce. I opt for Poulet-Crudités (chicken and chopped veggies) and continue on to the unruly palm grove that shields the beach from the sea. Pompierre is indeed worth its hype: a golden strand of fine sand bordering a shimmering cove protected from the harsher wave by Les Roches Percées, a lacy reef forming a narrow inlet. There is even a tiny island to swim to in the middle of it.

The rocky coastline conceals sandy coves.

I resist the temptation and sit at the edge of the trees to turn my attention to my bokit, which immediately catches the interest of one of the friendly little goats who seem to inhabit the grove. I lose the battle of wills and agree to share the remains of my sandwich with the determined nanny goat.  She makes short work of it, brown paper wrapper included. An efficient way to deal with litter. She moves on after that as I regretfully leaves this small corner of Eden. I am have one more destination in mind before returning to the ship.

Napoleon Didn’t Sleep Here

The Fort Napoleon terrace offers panoramic view of the island.

It’s another 10-minute uphill walk to Fort Napoléon. Built on a high bluff in 1867 to replace an earlier fortified lookout, the fort was named in honor of the then ruler of France, Napoleon III (nephew of the famous Emperor). The monarch never visited there, nor did the fort ever served in battle. It was was instead used as a penitentiary in the late 19th century and again during World War II. It is now a museum dedicated to Les Saintes’ history, culture, and environment. It is surrounded by a botanical garden of local succulent plants, and home to a colony of iguanas. While the fort may have been of strategic importance during colonial times, today it is mainly its spectacular panoramic view that makes it worth the climb.

An idyllic morning on Terre-de-Haut.

By the time I return the ship, the tiny island has made my list of places to revisit for a proper stay. Now, this being written in a time of Coronavirus, I have make a pact with my best snorkeling buddy: when we can finally escape the twilight zone of confinement, and as soon as it is prudent to once again fly off to far flung places, Les Saintes will be our first destination.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Located on the main island of Guadeloupe, Pointe-à-Pitre International Airport has daily non-stop flights from Paris, France, as well as regular flights from a few European Union countries and U.S. East Coast cities (most notably Miami). From Pointe-à-Pitre, there is regular ferry service throughout the day to Le Bourg.
  • Getting around — There are very few four-wheeled vehicles operating on this small, hilly island. Most visitors do their exploring on foot, or opt to rent a scooter.
  • Silversea Cruises is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the on-going Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all their current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in June 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Katavi

Iles des Saintes

A Caribbean Escape – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

A Caribbean Escape – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

After a serene day of cruising the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Silver Whisper glides into San Juan, Puerto Rico, just as the setting sun is sprinkling coppery hues onto the medieval El Morro (the Promontory) fortress.

A Photographer’s Treat

The vivid La Perla neighborhood stretches along the northern shore of the city.

As the ship makes its graceful way toward the entrance channel to the inner harbor, we are treated to a unique panoramic view of La Perla, the colorful historical shanty town wedged between the ancient city wall and the sea. Established in the late nineteenth century, when the development of Old San Juan pushed its most disadvantaged population outside the fortifications, it stretches for almost half a mile (750 meters) like a vivid puzzle along the rocky coast, from the edge of El Morro to the massive Castillo San Cristobal.

Sailing past the mighty El Morro.

After an exciting, slow motion photoshoot of the iconic El Morro showcased from every imaginable angle, we berth at the cruise terminal of the Old San Juan Piers, an easy walk away from all the major attractions of the historic city. We’ll be here for the next 24 hours, and I am looking forward to a day of roaming around the ancient Spanish colonial town.

 

The crew of a Brazilian Navy ship stands at attention.

The next morning, we get an unexpected wakeup call courtesy of the Brazilian Navy. One of their ships is easing toward the far side of our pier, before coming to a stop right alongside the Silver Whisper. From our private veranda, I have an eye-level view of the entire crew in their gleaming white uniforms, standing at perfect attention on the deck. Meanwhile, at the stern, the ship’s band is enthusiastically belting out a medley of the spirited tunes for which their country is famous. This is one of these serendipitous moments that reinforces my passion for far-flung travels.

A Spanish Heritage

The streets remain steeped in Old World charm.

Shoehorned onto an islet that guards the entrance to its harbor, San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas*. Established by Spanish explorers in 1521, a whole century before the Mayflower laid anchor in present day Massachusetts, Old San Juan, as the colonial town is known today, remains an historical jewel steeped in Old World charm.  Although Puerto Rico came under control of the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1898, and the modern city that radiates from the waterfront is firmly planted into the present, the centuries of Spanish rule have left their indelible imprint on Old San Juan. 

The Raices fountain honors the various ethnicities Puerto Rico’s heritage.

Within minutes of stepping off the ship, I start my journey back in time with a stroll along the broad Paseo de la Princesa. The shaded nineteenth century, sea-level esplanade stretches just below the city wall, to end at the waterfront with the magnificent Raices (or roots) fountain. Designed by architect Miguel Carlo, the fountain was completed in 1992 to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Spain’s “discovery” of the New World. It consists of a collection of statues honoring Puerto Rico’s mixed African, Spanish and Taino/Amerindian heritage.

The Oldest Cathedral in the New World

The Cathedral and Basilica of St.John the Baptist.

Soon, I come upon the elegant Neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana Basilica de San Juan Bautista (or Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St.John the Baptist). Completed in 1540 as the seat of the first catholic bishop in the New World, it is the first cathedral church in the Americas. It is also home to the tomb of the Spanish explorer and founder of the original settlement, Juan Ponce de León. From here, every winding lane seems to lead to El Morro.

 

An Impregnable Medieval Fortress

The colossal walls of El Morro are dotted with domed garitas.

Perched atop of the 140-foot (43-meter) promontory at the northwestern tip of the islet of Old San Juan, the sprawling Castillo San Felipe del Morro, named in honor of King Philip II of Spain (1527 – 1598), was started in 1539 to guard the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the port city from seaborne invasions. Its expansion continued in stages until 1790, growing from a bastion mounted with a cannon to a mighty six-level fortress. Vast barracks, storerooms, and dungeons are enclosed within its colossal outer walls dotted with garitas, the domed sentry boxes that have become the iconic symbol of Puerto Rico.

Land access to El Morro was protected by a a vast field-of-fire.

In its over 400 years as a military site, El Morro withstood countless attacks and was never defeated by sea. It was only taken once, in 1598, in a land assault led by the British forces of the Earl of Cumberland. It was this attack that prompted the construction of the Castillo de San Cristóbal at the opposite end of the bluff. No longer in use as a military site, the fortress is now a National Park and Museum. Its vast, open grassy lawn, once a “field-of-fire” for its redoubtable cannons is now a favorite destination for family outings and kite flying

The Castillo de San Cristóbal

The shanty town of La Perla rises from the ocean.

Leaving El Morro behind, I take Norzagaray Street, the boulevard that now follows the top of the city wall to the Castillo de San Cristóbal. It offers a spectacular view of the colonial era Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery and the colorful neighborhood of La Perla.

The multi-tiered Castillo is the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere.

The Castillo is the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere. Completed in 1785, it covers 27 acres (11 hectares) and soars to almost 150 feet (46 meters) above the water. Designed to guard agains land assault from the east, it is a tiered network of fortifications that would force invaders to face several defensive barriers before the fort could be breached. It is from here that the first shot of the Spanish-American War was fired in 1898. Access is much more peaceful today, and the ramparts offer glorious views of city, the piers and the ubiquitous El Morro.

Wandering the backstreets reveals ancient cloistered courtyards.

From the Castillo, it’s a leisurely stroll back down to the pier, through the narrow back streets of the colonial town. I drift in and out of artisan shops and stumble into my most memorably experience of the day: I strike a conversation with a charming craftswoman who creates original jewelry from local beach glass. I step in, intent on picking up one of her delicate pieces to commemorate the day, and end up sitting on her stoop with the artist, Idalia Velazquez, sharing life experiences and thoughts on random subjects over a cup of coffee, as though we were long-lost friends.

 

It’s back to the ship after that. Tonight we set sails for the Leeward Islands.

One last glance at El Morro.

 Good to Know

  • *In case you are wondering: The first permanent settlement in the New World was Isabella on the island of Hispaniola (in present-day Dominican Republic). Built in 1493 by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, it was promptly decimated by disease and hunger. Columbus and his remaining men then built another town, which became Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic capital.
  • Silversea Cruises (Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Executive Chairman) is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the on-going Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all their current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in May 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Old San Juan

A Late Fall Caribbean Escape

A Late Fall Caribbean Escape

It begins on a June morning, when I wake up to the unwelcome news that my long anticipated cruise around Cuba has vanished from my fall travel calendar. Overnight, the United States government has imposed new restrictions on travel to the island, including a ban of all cruise ship travel between the two countries. The three ports-of-call circumnavigation of Cuba and multiple related on shore experiences had been the deciding factor for a close friend and I to book this late-fall, two-weeks Caribbean itinerary. What to do?

Silversea Saves the Day

Passed this first moment of consternation, my friend wisely suggests that we table any further thought – let alone decision – on the matter until “we hear from Silversea.” While this would  be my first sailing experience with the Monaco-based luxury cruise line, she is a long-time fan. She has grown to trust the unfailing attention they commit delighting their guests. She is convinced that they will soon propose a satisfactory alternative solution.

Silversea does no disappoint. Within a couple of weeks, along with the courteous option to cancel our cruise for a full refund, a new much altered but intriguing new itinerary is proposed: a mosaic of islands stretched along the Caribbean Sea. They are a varied lot, shaped by their historic British, French, and US influence respectively. And most enticingly for me, they represent many of the prized snorkeling destinations of the region. Count me in!

All Aboard

The Observation Lounge

We board the Silver Whisper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a sunny November afternoon. Check-in is seamless, and in no time we are greeted by Satish, our very own white-gloved butler who assures us that he will be taking excellent care of us throughout our stay. He begins by offering to unpack our luggage, which is being delivered as we speak. We decline the unpacking, but we do allow him to uncork for us the welcome bottle of French Champagne chilling in its silver ice bucket.

Sleeping area of our Veranda Suite.

It’s time to engage in what my friend calls “attitude adjustment.” We have a couple hours to settle at leisure into our elegant, 26 square-meter (285 square-foot) Veranda Suite before we are required to show up at the lounge designated for the safety drill that marks the start of every cruise. Our sitting area, with its love seat and barrel arm chair arranged around an oval marble-top coffee table, and facing the built-in writing desk and 40-inch flat panel television, opens through floor-to ceiling glass sliding doors onto a 6 square-meter (60 square-foot) teak veranda with its own sitting arrangement. At the rear of the stateroom, the sleeping area, which can be isolated by a thick opaque draw-drape, features two well spaced twin beds and bedside tables and reading lamps.

View from our private deck.

With unpacking our first order of business, we take turns moving into the walk-in closet. It is thoughtfully appointed, and spacious enough to easily accommodate the two-week wardrobe of two women. At the rear, the granite-tiled bathroom with its separate tub and walk-in shower, double-sink vanity topped by a wall-to-wall mirror, its lush terry robes and generous supply of Bvlgari toiletries suggests exquisite indulgence down to the smallest detail.

The Hedonistic Pleasures of a Day at Sea

The Bar retains an intimate atmosphere.

Our itinerary begins with a day at sea, the perfect opportunity to check out the many pleasures of the Silver Whisper. Built at the prestigious high-end cruise vessel and mega yatch Mariotti Shipyard in Genoa, Italy, the ship entered service in 2000. It then went through an extensive refit in 2018 to ensure that it remains technically up to the minute, and continues to offer its guests the latest amenities and comforts. Yet it also retains the timeless grace of the legendary cruise ships of old. And with a total passenger capacity of 382 and a crew of 295, it offers one of the highest crew-to-passenger ratio in the luxury cruise industry. In addition to its 194 guest suites distributed along six decks, the ship features four restaurants ranging from casual dining to haute cuisine, a designer boutique that would be right at home on Rome’s Via Condotti and a state-of-the-art amphitheater. Add an intimate bar, a panoramic glassed-in observation lounge, a superb spa, a fully equipped gym and vast pool deck to give the Silver Whisper all the glamour of a European multi-starred resort.

Breakfast on the deck of La Terrazza

With a blank slate for the day ahead, I indulge in a leisurely breakfast on the deck of La Terrazza. When we dined here last night, from a menu of succulent farm-to-table-inspired Italian specialties, the softly lit restaurant felt cozily serene. This morning, with the Caribbean sun streaming through the curved outer glass wall, and open air deck as well as dinning room seating options, it is a cheerful, lively place and an invitation to linger over the generous cornucopia of its breakfast buffet offerings. I opt for a deck table and order a-la-carte instead, to better focus my attention on the infinite shades of blue of the undulating sea all around.

Caribbean sunset at sea.

The day gently glides by after that. I lull away hours by the pool with a book, while my friend is off to the spa. We reconnect at tea-time in the observation lounge over a decadent spread of dainty finger sandwiches, pastries and freshly baked scones against a discrete background of live classical piano music. Back in our suite, I revel in one of my favorite moments of the day: watching from the privacy the veranda the blood-orange sun dip into the darkening sea. Then it’s time to dress for dinner at the gourmet Le Restaurant.

We pass the Mega One Triton shipwreck on the way to our snorketing destination.

The Call of the Deep

In the early hours of the following day, we dock on Grand Turk Island, a sleepy, sun-drenched sliver of land 11 kilometer (7 mile) long by 1,5 kilometer (1 mile) wide, all shimmering white sand and swaying palm trees. And it is a favorite destination for divers drawn to its famous 2200 meter (7000 foot) deep coral walls that drops down a mere 300 meters out to sea. But it is equally appealing to snorkelers for its abundant marine life. A catamaran awaits right next to the self-contained cruise center to take me on a sail around the island, ending at the Boaby Rock Point with a colorful snorkeling experience.

The sun is getting low on the horizon by the time I return to the ship, salt-encrusted and exhilarated. Tonight we are sailing toward Puerto Rico.

 

Good to Know

  •  Silversea Cruises (Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Executive Chairman) is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all its current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in May 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

Location, location, location!

Grand Turk