Blue sky thinking

The Caribbean is a favourite spot for escaping northern European winters. So why go there in the middle of August? Graham Duffill sees the attraction on a family sailing trip to Guadeloupe
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The Independent Travel

It's 3am and I'm trying to peg my underpants to the wire railing that runs around our yacht. It's raining very hard and the storm has produced a swell which is rocking the boat badly. It began as a soft awakening, a light spray descending through the hatches, necessarily open to provide a breath of air to stir the warm soup below deck. This is the Caribbean in August. The high humidity will go on to produce the famous hurricanes later in September. But in August we meet only its little cousins, the squalls.

The spray quickly turned into an intense needle pricking and, within seconds, a deluge. In a yacht all senses sharpen when the elements stir: you can smell the impending change born on the new air; the wind plucks musically at the multitude of ropes and wires on this floating mandolin. The mainsail, strung tight to the aluminium mast, starts a rhythmic bass booming that reverberates through the hull. We slither around the plastic deck, slamming hatches, gathering up clothes and towels that had been pegged ready to dry in the sun, re-pegging the smaller ones that wouldn't blow away. Through the sheeting rain it's hard to distinguish the yachts that are our close neighbours in this channel outside Guadeloupe's main town of Pointe-à-Pitre. Collectively we cling to the seabed, dangling on our single anchor lines like spiders hanging from the ceiling.

The children settle down again despite the dousing and we each retreat to the luxury of our own cabins. A family of four in a 45ft yacht is bliss. If you are going somewhere hot and sticky, it's best to have space to sweat. Now it helps avoid the rain-sodden patches. I fall asleep, but am awoken minutes later. "Graham, do you want to know the bad news?" delivered in a sing-song "guess what I know that you don't" tone. "What?" I reply angry and grumpy. "We're drifting."

Anchors have never been our strong point. We learnt about them in our crash Sunsail course in Turkey and haven't used them much since. In the Mediterranean, on flotilla, you get help mooring at night from the professional lead crew. But far too often you are tied up tight, side-by-side with all the other boats forming a giant raft.

I don't much like the confinement of the raft, of looking out of my tiny window to see my neighbour through his tiny window brushing his teeth 3ft away. So this was our first real taste of true sailing freedom - properly alone, just us, en famille, on a big boat with the islands and coastline of Guadeloupe to explore. The miniature Robinson Crusoe island that we had unsuccessfully sheltered behind, the Ile du Gozier, had a palm-tree-sandy-shore fringed beauty in the morning sunshine. We motored ashore to find it covered with trees whose berries are not only poisonous, but, its signs warned, also corrosive. If you were to sit under such a tree in the rain it would drop its equivalent of sulphuric acid on your skin. Desirade, one of Guadeloupe's three major off-shore islands had been a leper colony. On another beach, it is said, young men of the island offer themselves to female tourists. Do all of Guadeloupe's islands have dark secrets? We pull up the anchor that had so stubbornly refused to attach at night, throwing off its sandy shroud no fewer than three times. It now seems snugly and deeply asleep wrapped in its sandy duvet and turn south on to a course of 210 degrees for the Iles des Saintes.

Guadeloupe's mainland is sizeable by Caribbean standards - the two wings of its butterfly body are home to 500,000 people. It's as much a part of France as the 8th arrondissement; everything from street signs to supermarkets transported unchanged. This offers several bonuses for nautical caravanners and explorers.

The restaurants have proper food at mainland French prices. At the supermarket the cheese counter alone is 100ft long and the trolley is suddenly full, including lots of big-named French wines at a just few Euros a bottle. Even getting here was a relative bargain. The population relies heavily on the mainland for education and work, with families commuting on daily direct flights to Paris. We found flights for a little over £400 each return - not bad for the Caribbean in the school holidays.

After two hours sailing in strong winds, the volcanic domes of the seven little islands of the Iles des Saintes begin to distinguish themselves, lushly green and mostly uninhabited. We head through the passage used by migrating whales in October, the Passe de la Baleine, to the main island of Terre de Haut, where the French General de Grasse saw his entire fleet wiped out by the British on 4 April 1792. The British and French fought frequently for control of Guadeloupe for 200 years, at one time the French surrendering their rights to Canada in exchange for these islands.

We anchor in a deserted bay behind the islands' own Sugarloaf mountain, swim, snorkel and explore by dinghy for food. We love Les Iles, its Napoleonic fort inhabited by 3ft iguanas which stare you down rather than move, the superb diving offered by Luc Desplats from La Dive Bouteille, and the restaurant of Auberges les Petits Saintes, like a real-life set from La Cage aux Folles. And the narrow roads where everybody travels by scooter. We tame the anchor to accommodate our sleeping patterns, although it still rains three times a night and the wake from the mainland ferry shakes us awake at 5.30am each morning. Our last dive with Luc is beside a rock hewn by the waves to resemble the Virgin Mary. We swim alongside rock walls covered in coral, an Impressionist's landscape of colours against which swim hundreds of thousands of small fish, as well as barracuda and puffer fish. It is a brilliant tableau. Luc says Les Saintes is rarely dived and its underwater life is pure and full. At lunchtime we set off for the Jacques Cousteau Marine Park on Pigeon Island, our yacht riding the large waves with confidence at a steady 8 knots. Until that is the wind dies on the lee side of the island where the active volcano of La Soufrière still overshadows the mainland, its crest permanently shrouded in cloud. You can trek to its bubbling peak and the interior is apparently as dark green as a jungle. The marine park, which the French pioneer hailed as one of the great diving areas of the world, attracts divers and glass-bottomed boats. After Les Saintes the dives seem busy and unspectacular. Even Pointe Barracuda failed to produce any barracuda.

The only seclusion can be found diving at night, when the sky turns from orange to black and the water becomes uninvitingly inky. Trumpet fish sleep like railings, their heads pointing to the seabed. Hawksbill turtles sleep with their heads buried under rocks and ferns, the green turtles on the top of rocks. We become used to our privacy and, after three days, set sail for Marie Galante, a flat, dry island off the west coast of Guadeloupe. Along our sailing passages we rarely see another yacht. We tie up at a sparebuoy in the harbour helped by apassing local who says the owner is away. With nowhere seemingly to hurry to he stops to have a beer and a chat with us.

To have the freedom of Guadaloupe speaking French is essential. Although the main hotels, dive shops and other tourist places will speak English, the locals speak only French through an acceptable Caribbean patois. The little port town was typical of the islands: a jumble of wooden houses, doors and windows open to the dark streets with underpowered lighting; scooters everywhere, faces looming out of the dark shadows; teenagers and adults chatting on the streets. "It's like Guadaloupe was 30 years ago," Luc had said. "Smile at them and they smile back at you." I tried and it was true.

The next morning the fishermen return with their still-live catch, fish €10 a kilo, lobster €20 - and we sail away with lobster cooking in the pot. That evening we anchor again behind the Ile du Gozier. A swimming race passes our yacht, obviously chosen as a turning point on the course. The swimmers duck under the rope attaching the dinghy to the stern. The slower ones hang on for a breather, eyes gleaming - "Bonsoir" they call up and we return their greeting.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The main European point of departure for Guadeloupe is France. Air France (0845 359 1000; www.airfrance.co.uk) flies from numerous UK airports to Fort de France, via Paris. Or you can fly to St Lucia or Barbados from Gatwick on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) or Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com) and connect from there.

GETTING AROUND

Sunsail (0870 777 0318; www.sunsail.com) offers two weeks' bareboat charter of a four-cabin Sun Odyssey 43 yacht in Guadeloupe from £2,510 in August. One way sails from Guadeloupe to St Martin and Antigua are popular. The St Martin route is possible year-round, Antigua November to May.

DIVING THERE

La Dive Bouteille, Terre de Haute, Les Saintes (00 590 6 90 49 80 91).

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Auberges les Petits Saintes, Terre de Haute, Les Saintes (00 590 5 90 99 50 99; www.petitssaintes.com).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Guadeloupe Tourism (00 590 5 90 83 89 22; www.lesilesdeguadeloupe.com).

French Government Tourist Office (09068 244123, calls 60p/min; www.franceguide.com).

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