The Lesser Antilles - part I:
THE LIMESTONE ARC
Part I covers our travels across St. Martin, Sint Maarten, Anguilla, St. Barths, Guadeloupe, and Antigua & Barbuda. One of the most expensive part of the Caribbean with classical post-card perfect islands and some of the best beaches in the Western Hemisphere.
The islands in the Limestone Arc are not fallout of volcanic activity but limestone coral islands that boast the classical Caribbean beaches known from the postcards: turquoise waters, palm trees and coconut-milk-colored beaches.
In a world of marketing and obsession with lists of superlatives, many of these islands were quick to exploit the potential to raise their profile as a paradise destination for the sun-lounging, go-slow type.
Obviously, we had to see this with our own eyes - especially after having visited +10 other Caribbean islands on other island hopping tours.
During Autumn, we therefore designed a 6-week itinerary across this part of the Lesser Antilles archipelago, and designed it to take place in January into February.
As we wanted to deeply explore these islands (as we always do), we decided to stay for several days on each island in houses through AirBnB and have our own vehicle on each island to be able to do maximum exploration
Location: The Caribbean islands of St. Martin, Sint Maarten, Anguilla, St. Barths, Guadelope, and Antigua & Barbuda, during 6 weeks
To this date, this was one of the most expensive tours that we’ve designed. It would have been much cheaper to visit via a cruise ship or to simply stay in only one or two locations, but then again: when we weighted costs against the desire to “go deep”, the desire to explore came out as the winner. Her is a break-down of our island hopping adventure:
St.-Martin / Sint Maarten was the starting point where we stayed for 10 days, exploring every corner of the island. As an island split between nationalities we’d might expect tension, but the island has none of the bitterness inherent in the dissection of islands such as Cyprus, for instance, or Ireland. The big difference between the two parts lies in the degree of development. The St.-Martin part is more rural, mountainous and colorful – and in our opinion therefore also more charming – while Sint Maarten is not much more than a strip of land with endless beaches and salt flats. The predominant mood of the island is sun, sea and snorkeling. The island is very touristy, but the soul of the island can be found in the many small villages in the interior. Two highlights worth mentioning: the extremely good street-food and hiking across the northern coast. Anguilla is just a hop away from St.-Martin, but few travelers bother doing this hop. That is sad, since Anguilla is very much worth exploring. Actually, Anguilla got lucky. Since the 1650s it has been more or less bypassed by major development of any kind. It was too arid for plantations, and early efforts to export cotton, salt and tobacco failed. The result today: thirty-three white sand beaches, a laid-back atmosphere and the sleepy charm of letting goats wander on the lonely roads. We stayed on the north coast on a stretch of sand offering crystal, transparent waters and got around the island in a small rental. The many small villages are very cozy. Without doubt the entire island is a purist’s paradise, where the wind brings the scent of sea, salt and coral sand of which the entire island is made.
From St-Martin, a very expensive ferry brought us to St-Barthélemy. Being from Scandinavia, this island was a special experience for us due to its Swedish past. For nearly a century Sweden ran the place and their influence remains very evident in the capital of Gustavia, where Swedish and French street names rub shoulders. The island is small and hilly with twenty to thirty picture-perfect beaches, and it has thee Swedish forts. Again, renting a car and zig-zagging its many roads was our formula for examining the island. We continued to the two almost-touching islands of Guadeloupe that looks like a Butterfly. Yet, the two parts are very different. This time we concentrated on exploring the flat, eastern Grande-Terre limestone island, whereas on another trip we visited Basse-Terre, the volcanic western part (see our other island pages). We found the beaches to be absolutely fabulous, and it was easy to jump off to nearby islands in the archipelago. Our trip ended in Antigua, a flat and almost treeless island, with no rivers or springs. It is however no secret that the twin islands of Antigua & Barbuda enjoy an international reputation as one of the most exotic and romantic islands on the planet. Antiguans like to boast that their island has 365 beaches, one for each day of the year. Well, we did not explore all of them, but during our two weeks here, where we stayed in three different locations in north, west and south, we managed to see quite a few. Other highlights were the spice market and fish market in St. Johns (where we went every morning to stock up for dinner), hiking in the hills across the island, and chartering a helicopter to circumnavigate the island and see it all from above.
Selected pics from our island hopping adventure in this region:
The islands of the Lesser Antilles form an arc along the eastern margin of the Caribbean sea. North of Dominica the arc is a double arc. On this trip we visited the islands of the eastern-most arc, which consist old rocks overlain by limestone and are often referred to as the ‘Limestone Caribbees’.
Philipsburg, Sint Maarten's only principal town, was the logistical starting point for this tour: the ultimate beach-hopping adventure during six weeks across the Limestone Islands of the Lesser Antilles. The town is very commercial and good for arranging rentals. We rented a car for 10 days and drove north to St. Martin, where we based ourselves in an AirBnB apartment in French Cul-de-Sac, a spread-out seaside community where local fishermen run boats back and forth all day.
We saw some old buildings mixed with new, but the town far more commercial than quaint.
Sint Maarten and St-Martin is a melting pot of ethnicities like no other place in the Caribbean. The island culture has its root largely in African, French and Dutch influences, Including many from Haiti and China. More than 80 different languages are spoken throughout.
We based ourselves in French Cul-de-Sac in northern St-Martin. It had a view over Baie Orientale, Grande Cayes and the small islands, Ilet Pinel & Petite Clef. We stayed here for 10 days and got a good bargain.
A 15 min. drive away from our house we found Anse Marcel, a beautiful beach in a half-moon-shaped bay with turquoise water. From the beach are excellent views to Anguilla.
From a beach trail to the north leads to more hidden beaches such as Petites Cayes.
We went often (every second day or so) to this beachside town that has been dubbed the 'Gourmet Capital of the Caribbean'. There are quite a few restaurants, but we prefer to each in the much more basic 'lolos' which are Creole barbecue shacks that sit clustered around wooden picnic tables. It's a steamy jungle of smoking grills such as ribs or chicken legs, perfect for the penny-picker.
The art piece seems about to crack, and so does the identity and soul of Sint Maarten and St-Martin. This island receives thousands of tourists, destroying its identity a bit by bit. Most places seem to have lost their original identity and adapted fully to tourism. We'd rarely meet someone who was actually born on the island. Two exemptions, thought, from this general observation is the interior of St-Martin and the northern French Cul-de-Sac region where we stayed.
Every morning the local farmers would bring in their homemade produce. Other vendors would also come, including artists.
One of the few original and charming villages on St-Martin, picture from La Savane. We loved to go inland to visit some of the small, authentic villages such as Rambaud, Colombier, Concordia, St Peter, Belle Plaine, Quarter d'Orléans and Petit Fond. Many of these village seemed to be totally unaffected by decades of mass-tourism.
View from Pinel Island towards St-Martin. We did two small trips to this small island off the northern coast of St-Martin, where tranquility is restored after 4:30pm every afternoon. The last ferry leaves at 4:30 but it is easy to arrange a later pickup with a local fisherman. This island is located in a marine park which means that the reefs and snorkeling is quite good.
From Baie Orientale a pack of fishermen are preparing to head out early the next morning for Tinatamare (an offshore island) and beyond.
Most days we went 'hunting' for beaches around St-Martin, and it was not difficult. We would choose any dirt track leading away from the small main track circling the island and bump into a new beach each day. At other times we would walk to the end of an beach and follow a small trail over the hills and cliffs and find other beaches. In the picture, we are at Friar's Bay, a typical post-card-perfect cove with golden sands. A creole kitchen beach bar served local cold beer and drinks.
From Friar's Bay beach we would keep on walking north and take the steep track following the coastline for 20 minutes. Hereafter, we would arrive at Happy Bay - a small, tranquil and as-close-to-remote as-possible-beach on St-Martin. At a later point a few days later we did the tour in sea kayak from Friar's Bay to Anse Guichard, Anse Hereuse, Baie Maria, Pointe Molly Smith and finally Grande Chase.
The island's interior is very hilly with the highest point, Pic Paradis, rising 424m from the center of St-Martin. The hike up here is very nice and can be done in a few hours.
...of St-Martin (the Terres Basse part) and Sint Maarten (the Lowlands part). This side of the island is more water than land, dominated by the expansive Simpson Bay Lagoon, which is one of the largest landlocked bodies of water in the Caribbean.
During one of the hikes that we would typically do in the morning when the weather was more cool.
Often we would drop by a road-side snack-house BBQ stand to pick up barbecued chicken legs and salad. Here made from scratch in Espérance, northern St-Martin.
In the nighttime we would perhaps drive down to Sint Maarten to watch the sunset and shop for groceries, vegetables, etc. Simpson Bay, for instance, has a great location. Maho Bay and Mullet Bay, too.
While the northern part is the most charming and authentic part, the best beaches on the entire island are without doubt found in southeast in Terres Basse (St-Martin) the Lowlands (Sint Maarten). We did a beach-hopping tour one day: Cupercoy beach, Baie Longue, Baie aux Prunes and Baie Rouge. Many of these beaches are private, but several small paths lead down to each one and nobody threw us away. By the way, Saba island is in the backdrop. Seach our islands pages for a coverage of this island.
The snorkeling is quite good, particularly off a number of Sint Maarten's beaches in the south and southeast. We bumped into a turtle off Maho Beach.
During our last day in St-Martin we did a coastal hike from Anse Marcel to Baie Orientale. It took us across the remote northern peninsula behind the Cul de Sac. This part is totally unpopulated and there is only a raw nature trail traversing the coast. The hike took around 4 hours.
Obviously, we had a go to Anguilla during our tour around the Limestone Arc of the Antilles. It is only a 30-minute run from Marigot Bay in St-Martin. We wanted to go to Anguilla for a few days to explore its solitude and world-class beaches. Blowing Point has a tiny pier, a small grocery and lots of rental cars, so it was a good place to kick-off our few days on Anguilla.
We based ourselves in Sandy Ground in an Airbnb appartment during our stay on Anguilla. It is a sleepy place with a few lazy bars and restaurants sitting between the impossibly clear waters of Road Bay and the salt pond out back. Sandy Gorund is very local and the kind of place where kids play on the pier, the fishermen are very active on the beach and BBQs are held in the streets in the evening. There are lots of turtles and sharks in the small bay.
What a beautiful name for a "capital" for this territory. Since Anguilla consists of almost 100% limestone, this was chosen as the colonial capital largely because of the abundance of soil and thus nearly the only tiny pocket of land on this limestone rock. The Valley also has the largest concentration of restaurants and BBQ-stands. We would often go here in the evening to have juicy ribs , conch soup or lobster quesadillas. The village seems to have unlimited amounts of sweet barbecue goodness.
The beach in front our our Airbnb apartment-bungalow.