A Day off Dominica: Sailing to Marie-Galante, French West Indies

Over the years, visits to the northeastern villages and beaches of Dominica  included moments when I would gaze longingly offshore at a tiny  pancake-shaped French island of 158 square kilometres (61 square miles) called  Marie-Galante.   I’d previously spent time on her bigger sister called Guadeloupe, a  bustling overseas Department of France, so I was very curious about this  petite et tranquille ile.

On a beautiful  December Saturday, I embarked on a journey by chartered sailboat,  with the expectation that I might discover something about this intriguing island . I was in good company, as  a friend who is a member of the Dominica Welfare and Hospital Aid Scheme invited me to take part in their pre-Christmas outing.  She was well aware of my lasting fascination with this little French island.

As the sun peeked over the mountain-tops, we departed from the Roseau Ferry Terminal  aboard the Anchorage Hotel’s 75′ catamaran,  Passion.  Although it was only 7 a.m., we would be on the water for about five hours before dropping anchor at  Grand-Bourg, Marie-Galante.  We cruised up the west coast in calm seas, with brilliant sunshine heating up the decks.  The crew hoisted the sails and we sheltered in their shadows.  After we rounded the Cabrits National Park at Portsmouth, we faced a brisk breeze as we crossed the Guadeloupe Channel.

The northern coastline of Dominica as seen en route to Marie-Galante.

Despite the midday heat, the  latter part of the journey was cool and comfortable, as we headed directly into the waves at an even keel.   I admired Dominica’s spectacular topography above its northern shoreline from the stern of the boat.  Then I struck up a conversation with the boat’s captain, Andrew Amour.  He is known as Dominica’s “whale whisperer” so of course we discussed the possibility of spotting one or more of those gentle giants on the voyage. (There were no sightings that day).  Captain Andrew gave me a quick overview of what to see and do during our short time onshore.  He also told me about a popular blues festival that draws large crowds every May.  I made a mental note about attending that event sometime.

Approaching Grand-Bourg, the main town on Marie-Galante.

By high noon,  we docked along a sturdy wharf situated near the Express des Iles  ferry terminal in Grand-Bourg.  A French immigration officer welcomed us en francais and urged us to enjoy the day.  With the aid of the boat’s crew, we jumped onto the dock and walked right into the town’s centre.  Cars choked the narrow streets. Miniscule sidewalks required skillful manoeuvering as we got our bearings and made our plans for the afternoon.

My study of the French language at the Alliance Francaise de la Dominique was really put to the test when I made enquiries about restaurants and grocery stores.  Friendly shopkeepers pointed us in the right direction and one even escorted us to the location of the only grocery in that part of town. To our dismay,  we also discovered that all shops and sites would be closing at 1:00 p.m., as Saturdays are only half-days for business.  With that new-found knowledge,  the  whole boatload of us raced to enter  a small storefront that spread out on several levels.  We scrambled to pick up purchases with less than an hour to spare.

My shopping list was easy.  I knew what I wanted and found everything without too much difficulty.  I cruised the crammed aisles which overflowed with French goods.  I picked up  some dark chocolate, coffee, candies, handmade soap, biscuits, croissants and mini-baguettes, as well as a bottle of Marie-Galante’s finest 50 proof rum (for guests of course!).  This locally made liquor is a reminder of days gone-by when sugar and rum production were the island’s mainstay.  At one time, there were over 100 sugar  windmills scattered around the country-side. A fair number of them are still standing, one of which serves as a museum.  But it was closed on Saturday afternoon!

As the Passion was only a few minutes down the street, we left our purchases onboard with the crew.  Thankfully, the restaurants were still open and it was definitely time for lunch!  There were two in close proximity to the wharf.  The group split into two so that we all dined at one or the other.  Once seated in the café slightly to the left of the ferry terminal (facing town),  I selected and devoured a lightly seasoned, pan-seared local variety of tuna, with steamed  vegetables and fried plantains on the side .  It was divine!  Everyone remarked on their delectable meals.  Now we wanted to fill a couple of on- land hours  before our departure.

A beautiful, shady white-sand beach near Capesterre, Marie-Galante

After some discussion, a number of use decided on a mini-bus tour of the island, as it would only take an hour or so to circumnavigate it.  While I was seated beside the driver, I acted as interpreter, even though some others in my party spoke Creole.  I did not mind the practice, but  unfortunately  our tour driver was not forthcoming with much information.  While I asked him a number of questions that the group had posed, he repeatedly mumbled that Saturday afternoon is a holiday,  it is not his usual working time and everything is closed! (Needless to say, we still paid him at the end of the trip!).

The sugar mills were once powered by oxen. They are still a common sight. A 'Pappy Show' wedding was taking place, which is a cultural tradition that involves a spoof wedding where all the participants dress up (some in drag) and pretend to be someone in the wedding ceremony in a comical way. It is very funny. They are sometimes seen in Dominica, especially during Carnival parades.

Because of his sullen silence, we entertained ourselves by admiring the scenery, taking a little time to enjoy a beautiful beach and briefly observing some French Creole cultural traditions that resembled those in Dominica. Unfortunately, our driver would not stop and let us out to take pictures, so we took quick snaps with the windows rolled down!

As well as the 'Pappy Show' wedding another form of entertainment was about to begin. A 'Sewenal' is a celebration where carolers sing in the streets and expect an invitation into people's homes for fruitcake and drinks. Dominica shares this Creole tradition. This might also be referred to as a 'Village Feast'.

Sunset at sea on the Guadeloupe Channel

We returned to Grand-Bourg during a downpour and raced back to the café for some unforgettable French ice cream.  After that  quick treat, we scampered down the dock to await our 5:00 p.m. departure.   As we sailed away from the shore-line into the sunset, a luminous full moon lighted our way across the channel.  Once we rounded the Cabrits, a chilly breeze blew down from the mountains and kept us wakeful until we arrived back in Roseau late that evening.

While I was only there for a few hours, I remain intrigued with Marie-Galante.  You will have noticed that tourism is still an emerging industry there, but that’s perfectly fine with me.  Its quaint, tranquil setting, generally friendly people, great food, lovely beaches,  and French-Creole traditions definitely call for further study.  Au revoir!

One more thing – you don’t have to charter a  boat to get there.  Ferry service via Express Des Iles makes scheduled stops between Roseau and Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe. From there, another boat continues to Grand-Bourg, Marie-Galante.

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2 comments on “A Day off Dominica: Sailing to Marie-Galante, French West Indies

  1. Myan says:

    I have been there before, i absolutely love it!

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  2. gwendominica says:

    I can’t wait to go again. It appeals to me because it is not touristy and is still very traditional and is so different from the other more developed French islands.

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