Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dominica: Land of Water

Of all the non- (Caribbean) sailors I know, few, if any, people know about Dominica, let alone where it is located. Before we started sailing, I had seen the little island in my pocket atlas and kind of knew where it was, but, other than that, this tiny country didn’t mean anything to me. It wasn’t until I hitched a ride in the British Virgin Islands with Emily, that a picture of Dominica started to form in my head. Our friendly driver was a Dominican guy who talked about his island, “the Nature Island”, and its many rivers. Later, in St. Martin, I met another Dominican who got me interested in his country. We started asking other cruisers about this destination in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean and almost everybody loved the place and raved about the friendly people. But, you had to rent a car to really appreciate it…

On our way South to Grenada, Dominica was the one country where we really wanted to spend some time and apparently, some money. After laying low in Guadeloupe for a few days, we arrived in Prince Rupert Bay, where checking in was easy. We had obtained a permit for Darwin in advance via email and we were all allowed to stay for two weeks, before having to go to immigration. Our friends from Aeolus (Charlie, Nathalie and their five year old son Keenan) were anchored in the bay and catching up with them was great. We spent a few fun evenings and fresh fish dinners together (thank you, Charlie!) and met another nice couple through them.

We wanted to get to Dominica, before the weather turned on us. Three tropical waves (the first stage of a possible hurricane) were about to pass within a week. So, from the moment we were settled in Portsmouth, where Prince Rupert Bay is located, it rained. And it rained. Each time we made an attempt to shore, we got soaking wet. We went through sets of clothes like we owned whole wardrobes and nothing dried. We didn’t even realize the size of Dominica’s mountains, until it cleared up some, days later. But only for a few minutes at the time and we never saw the mountain tops.

On the third day of grayness, Darwin, Mark and I bit the bullet and went to shore for a walk in Cabrits National Park with its restored fort and rainforest. It felt great to finally explore the country a bit, do some exercise and get soaked once again, prepared this time. Free showers, every day! And, if, for some reason you managed to escape all the rain, there was a cold shower (read: tube coming out of the wall) on the beach. In Dominica, you can visit a different river every day of the year! I started to see why and I wouldn’t be surprised even more appear with every rain storm.

Portsmouth is a decent size town with buildings spread out over and along a few parallel streets. Once a week there is a fresh fruit and vegetable market, but other than that, you have to find your food in small “convenient” stores with barely any fresh produce. The bread was nothing compared to the French islands, so I started baking our own bread again. We basically ate whatever we could find in our cabinet, the little that was left in our fridge from St. Martin and what we found in the stalls in town. Mangoes were present in abundance across from the beach. Free water was also available from spigots along the main street. Everybody we met was very friendly and even Darwin got friendly looks and stares.

The whole island is covered with rainforest (what’s in a name?), bush, greenery and fruit trees, as we came to confirm the day we rented a car. We drove along lush hills and through banana plantations, followed a long rough road by car to end up on top of a mountain with no idea where to find the trail we were looking for. The main resource in Dominica is tourism and they did a hell of a job assuring tourists to hire guides. It is very hard to find trail heads or do a hike yourself, so we were not going to do too much effort figuring this one out ourselves.

Since we already got a delayed start (people show up on island time) and we planned to see and do a lot this one day, we decided to turn back to the main road. We drove along beaches, through many small villages, Carib territory (one of the few places were these aboriginal people still live) and basically half of the island, skipping many attractions and “Pirates of the Caribbean” film sites. Lunch was had during a rainstorm in a local shack selling fried chicken and buns.

In the afternoon, we tried to explore the other half of the island, skirting the capital since we would stop here on our way south, but glamorously failed. There is just too much to see and do in this country full of wilderness, rivers, pools, waterfalls and trails. It also appeared bigger than we thought and the roads are slow and winding.

We did manage to stop at two of the tourist highlights. The walk to Emerald Pools was an easy one and Darwin was allowed to come, but not to swim. The entrance fee for every National Park is $5 per person, but a week pass costs $12 and gives you more flexibility. Once we reached the beautiful pool with a nice waterfall, the rain started again. I’m sure the colors are even more spectacular when it’s sunny out, but hey, it’s the rainy season and we have to deal with it. Mark was brave enough to take a dip in the freezing waters, but I kept Darwin company on the “dry”.

Our other stop was at Trafalgar Falls, two pretty, fairly big waterfalls that plunge into a rough river. Well, when we were there, the river was rough, not surprising with all the recent downpours. Swimming was too dangerous, because all the little pools were rushing with water. Along the trail, we did dip our toes in a small stream, only to discover that the water was actually warm! Dominica does have a few hot springs and people have turned them into spas. We didn’t have time to investigate that further, this time... The good thing about the low season is that the crowds are absent and we had most places to ourselves. We also could convince the park officials to let us take Darwin on the trails.

The area in the mountains around Roseau, Dominica’s capital, has quite a few sights, but we had to turn back to Portsmouth before darkness set in. Also, Mark was very tired of the hours of driving. I couldn’t take over, because you need to purchase a temporary Dominican driver’s license which allows you to drive a (rental) car here and we were only willing to spend that extra $12 once. Renting the car cost us $70 and adding the half a tank of fuel we used, this day trip made us over $100 poorer, just for the car. But, it is truly the only way to get a good feel of the country, the interior, the sights, the undisturbed nature and the absence of tourism. It was money well spent.

The bad weather with all the tropical waves made us realize hurricanes are on their way and sooner or later one of these waves would turn into one. We had/have to keep moving. Before leaving Dominica we made one more stop in its capital. The anchorage off Roseau is very deep and scattered with reefs, so we picked up a mooring ball for the night. After another funky sail of a lot of wind/no wind, it was a treat not having to deal with setting the anchor. It was very hot, no rain in sight. After lunch, we took Darwin for a refreshing swim and took off into town without him. The walk along the few historical buildings and churches didn’t take very long, so we had to fill our time until happy hour at the Fort Young Hotel with something else.

During our exploration of the center, we had stumbled across the Ruins Bar and found it very suitable for a drink. An array of bush rums “decorated” the bar and the many different flavors all sounded tempting. Bush rum is island-made rum, locally enhanced with spices, fruit or anything else. I tried some fruit flavor I didn’t know and can’t remember, while Mark asked for the specialty and received the rastaman’s tri-color. It had to be called Irie! But, it wasn’t. We chatted some with the bar tender and really got a hang for this stuff. He let us try a few more flavors, so we had to order another drink. Since it still wasn’t 6 pm after this experience, we consulted the shade of the botanical garden to moderate our buzz.

A team of women had cricket practice and I am sorry to declare that I still have no idea how this game is played or what the rules are, even after watching for an hour, but it was a good break from the heat and the hustle and bustle of town. Even more: it was time for happy hour in the fancy hotel by now! On Fridays they have a special going of $2 drinks and $8 dinners and, did we enjoy that spoil! It had been a while since Mark and I went out for either drinks or dinner and the biggest treat of the day was an unused bucket of salt water (no dishes!) and enough food left on the boat to last us another day!

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Sounds like you enjoyed the nature of Dominica the best that you could, rain or shine.

It's good to keep up with my dear friends, the crew of Irie.