Dominica has been on “the” list for quite some time now and when I actually get to do something on “the” list, my heart skips a beat!
Although Dominica still remains somewhat off-the-beaten track for boaters, it is located right in the middle of the chain of Caribbean islands and can be easily accessed from Antigua and Guadeloupe to the north or Martinique and St. Lucia to the south. Chartering boats from any of these islands is easy.
Dominica’s best anchorage is Prince Rupert Bay in the north, off the town of Portsmouth – a popular destination for yachts. And although the marine services are sketchy here, a quick ship-to-shore call to Andrew O’Brien (fondly known as Cobra) will provide you with whatever you need from custom and immigration clearance, provisioning, transportation and access to yacht services nearby.
The view from the bay is spectacular. No matter where you look, you cannot escape the lushness that permeates this island. That’s probably because two-thirds of the island is blanketed in natural vegetation.
To the north, you can see Cabrits National Park that is made up of the remains of a volcanic crater that protects Prince Rupert’s Bay and is also home to Fort Shirley – a large 18th-century British garrison that once housed 600 soldiers. A visit here provides a wonderful lookout point, is great for photos and the signage provides a lovely commentary on Dominica’s unique history.
Close by is Indian River, famous for providing the backdrop for some of the scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Sparrow, yes Sparrow, our tour guide, easily guided us through the narrowing river in our colourful wooden rowboat into what really felt like a surreal setting. The mesmerizing roots of the mammoth bloodwood trees rose out of the water and onto the surrounding soil creating the most curious wavy patterns. At every bend, a bird’s song or an animal’s call tested Sparrow’s knowledge but he scored a ten out of ten. Or so we think.
In the middle of nowhere, we docked the boat and headed directly into the Bush Bar where Joseph, the resident bartender, was mixing batches of Dynamite, the local rum-based welcome drink, while Sparrow (yes, Sparrow) was making us origami out of palm fronds.
For such a small island, I’m betting that Dominica offers more types of adventure per square mile than most others, but its hiking trails and dive sites probably tie for top prize.
The Waitukubuli National Trail spans the entire length of Dominica. Its 184 km of hiking delight has been divided into 14 segments (numbered south to north) and offers varying lengths and degrees of difficulty. Whether you are looking for an idle wander through a rainforest or a steep mountain climb, Dominica has it all for you. Since we were still hanging out in the north end of the island, we elected to tackle Segment 13…an 8-kilometre path traversing Bellevue Mountain from Capuchin to Penville. Armed with water, protein bars, bug spray, suntan lotion, a hat and our favourite pair of Merrell’s, we set off with our charming local guide, Gilles. Ranked as a Degree 3 (moderate) trail, we were ready for the hilly and sometimes rough terrain. The views of Marie Galante, The Saints and Guadeloupe were spectacular. Watching the boats, some enjoying a downwind leg with bold and beautiful chutes lured me into thoughts of my next Caribbean charter and with a little convincing by me, Guadeloupe was added to “the” list for next year! Back from daydreaming of French lessons, our hike delivered us to Penville, a community of less than 500. A short detour from here took us to Cold Soufriere – a cold volcanic spring in the crater of Morne Aux Diables…a great finish to our three-hour trek. Well, maybe it was four!
Most of the dive sites and operators are sprinkled along the west coast of the island from Cape Melville in the north to Soufrière Marine Reserve in the south. As diving neophytes, we opted for Champagne Reef, a very popular spot. Beware of the days the cruise ships come in or you may have to wait and deal with crowds. Not us! Not today!
Fitted with masks, snorkels and fins, we clomped our way down to the waiting shores where our excitement erased any fears of cold or rough water. Minutes into our swim in this sub-aquatic hot spring, I wanted to turn back and grab my underwater digital camera but that was just not an option. I don’t own one…yet!
This was not my first foray into Caribbean snorkeling but it certainly was my first-ever sighting of multiple species of colourful fish in every shape, size and temperament – from timid to tenacious – in one fell swoop. I was awestruck. The fish were performing just for me and I had a front row seat. But Champagne Reef is not just about the fish, the sponges, the lobster and the Hawksbill turtles. It’s also about bubbles…lots and lots of bubbles streaming up from the sand in thin, wavy lines and hitting my skin creating small, fizzy tickles. I wanted to giggle…not a good thing to do with a snorkel attached. The bubbles are a result of the geo-thermal activity caused by volcanic gasses rising from tiny cracks in the sea’s floor. Dominica is home to nine volcanoes although most nearby islands boast only one, including Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Montserrat, Saba, St. Eustacius, St. Kitts and Nevis. Grenada, however, has two.
But it’s not all about hiking and diving! For the not-so-active traveller, Dominica attracts bird lovers, whale watchers and protectors of sea turtles.
Today, Dominica has recorded 167 species of birds. The most famous birds of these are the parrots, the Sisserou and the Jaco. In fact, the Sisserou is the Dominica’s national bird and proudly adorns its flag. Other species include the broad-winged hawk, the purple-throated hummingbird and the frigatebird.
Claimed to be the “whale-watching destination of the Caribbean”, six different species can be seen on a regular basis. In fact, the sperm whale – the world’s largest toothed animal – resides there all year long. Because Dominica’s shoreline offers deep protected bays, the island also attracts many visiting species from other neighbouring islands.
For the sea turtle conservationist at heart, a stay at Rosalie Bay Resort is a must. This beautiful eco resort welcomes everyone from hikers to honeymooners and offers beautifully appointed oceanfront suites. Tucked into Rosalie Bay on the east coast of the island, this charming resort caters to those who enjoy excellent cuisine, yoga, and meditation along with relaxing nature-inspired spa treatments. Of course, its 22-acre property invites you to explore Dominica’s flora and fauna without even leaving the resort. Tempting!
In the spirit of protecting the environment further, Rosalie Bay Resort’s owner, Bev Deikel approached WIDECAST a while ago in an effort to establish a sea turtle conservation program on Dominica. Every year between March and October, three species of endangered sea turtles – the Leatherback, Green and Hawksbill – nest and hatch on Rosalie’s black sand beach. As part of this great initiative, guests are invited to sign up for wake-up calls to watch sea turtles up-close as they come ashore to lay their eggs or when the tiny turtles hatch and make their way out to the Atlantic Ocean.
We were there in early March – sadly, too early for the sea turtles and too late for Dominica’s Carnival “The Real Mas” held to commemorate the abolishment of slavery and celebrated by engaging in masquerade, dancing and singing. Apparently, even the tourists can actually join in the fun. Although we only saw the remains of the event, it struck us something to work into our next visit.
But The Real Mas is not the only event this lovely island has to offer. DOMFESTA, the annual festival of arts, showcases the talents of Dominican artists and other aspects of Dominica’s cultural heritage during the months of April, May and June. Although there is a new line-up every year, activities include dance programs, photographic exhibits, steel pan music performances and live theatre.
Although the weather may be a bit challenging for boaters getting there, the World Creole Music Festival takes place in late October. This three-night event of “pulsating rhythms” boasts a line-up of musical acts with artists from Guadeloupe, Martinique and even Haiti. Local bands featured include the bouyon rhythms of Triple Kay Global and the Cadence-lypso style of the Midnight Groovers – this year’s honoured Creole icon!
Dominica – definitely not for the faint of heart!
Captain Mark’s Way captainmarksway.com
Champagne Reef champagnereef.com
Cobra Tours and Yacht Services cobratours.dm
Discover Dominica Authority dominica.dm
Dive Fest dominicawatersports.com
Picard Beach Cottages picardbeachcottages.dm
Rosalie Bay Resort rosaliebay.com
Waitukubuli Nature Trail waitukubulitrail.com
World Creole Festival wcmfdominica.com