Dominica, the beautiful: mountains, mist and rain forests…

The term “achingly beautiful” came to mind as we approached this lush, green, emerald-colored island of steep peaks eternally shrouded in clouds and mist. Home to 9 of the 16 active volcanoes in the Lesser Antilles and the youngest of the Caribbean islands, the landscape is still evolving geologically. As we leave today, a lot of other terms come to mind, including heartbreak, resilience, destruction, hand-to-mouth and salt of the earth. Visiting here brought on an onslaught of emotions, and I’ve been wondering how I would describe it.

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The Anchorage Hotel, pre-Maria

We anchored in Prince Rupert’s Bay the first night, then moved south to the bay of Roseau the next day. There are no marinas in Dominica, but according to our (very outdated yet exceedingly expensive) Imray guide book, we would find a nice place to moor in front of the Anchorage hotel, which provides nearly “full service” to all yachts using their bouys: showers, laundry, rental cars, guides, etc. Sounded great!

The once busy and beautiful Anchorage hotel, post-Maria

The book said to look for the distinct, long white roof of the hotel. Can’t miss it, they said! We looked and looked. We finally located what was left of the once lovely and much-loved Anchorage Hotel. It was completely destroyed by hurricane Maria in 2017. The island took a direct hit from the Category 5 monster, and the eye sat over the island for hours.

Ocean Edge (nice restaurant and small hotel) and Dive Dominica – this is how you can find the buoys today.

They say the Atlantic sea was calm, while the Caribbean Sea (this side) unleashed massive waves that pounded and crushed the seaboard, even reaching the mountains, were they felled trees and dragged them back down over buildings and homes. Meanwhile, the sustained winds of 150-200km/hour wreaked their own havoc. On the heals of successive hurricanes that repeatedly decimated this beautiful island, the country has not recovered economically, materially, and most likely, psychologically. I cannot begin to imagine how this community of 75,000 people finds the strength to pick itself up again. I suppose the answer is that there is no where to go but forward, even when you’re permanently under the threat of the next big storm.We rented a car the following day and went up to explore the mountains. Instead of heading to the most popular tourist sites, many of which were featured in The Pirates of the Caribbean, we went off the beaten track. We picked up our car, then headed up Imperial Road. We got to the crossroads at Pont Cassé, and headed in the direction of Castle Bruce.

It was nearly noon, and our early-rising stomachs were starting to complain, when we saw a cheerful sign saying Zeb Zeppis Bistro.

The building looked newly renovated, jazz music was playing in a very cool, European/Island décor, and a Frenchman (we’ll call him Zeb) was explaining the menu to another couple. We knew we’d be eating there! While Zeb worked the dining room, his wife and son were making fusion food magic in the kitchen. I had a wonderful tuna tartar with a sweet pepper sauce, cocoa, capers and mango, a riot of unexpected but balanced flavors, and Peter had creole black pudding “egg rolls”, spicy boudin noir fried in won ton wrappers, with salad and a lovely dipping sauce.

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Him Tarzan.
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Me Jane!

Then we drove towards Castle Bruce on St David’s Bay, on the windward side of the island, passing through Kalinago territory. The Kalinago are the remaining indigenous population of Caribs and their descendants. The area is quite poor, but if soupy attention, you can feel there’s a strong community in place.At Bataka, we turned back towards Pont Cassé, then stopped at Zeb’s personal favorite, the lesser known Spanny Falls. You have to find a little “lolo” (the name for local rum shops/café/mini mart/meeting places) and pay the owner a small fee, as it’s on private property. We walked down a long path, then down into the primal forest. It was far more beautiful than Emerald Pool, larger and deeper, with higher falls… and we had the place entirely to ourselves!!! Skinny dipping in our personal grotto in paradise lost? Positively transcendental! See for yourself!

The next morning, we still had the rental car, so we got up early to go to Scott’s head and Souffrière Bay. Destroyed homes and businesses were everywhere we looked, and what used to be a very modern seafront road was completely “washed out” in once place, proof of the force of Maria’s pounding surf.

We stopped in the small village of Souffriere and visited the cemetery and the church, whose intricate stained glass windows were mostly broken or hanging on by a thread. But it was gaily decorated for Christmas, and two parishioners were there sweeping up, washing floors, and carrying on. What else can you do? They were friendly and asked for a donation towards repairing the windows, which we gladly gave. A drop in the bucket, but you feel like you want to do something to help. We checked out “Bubble Beach”, then drove out to the point of Scotts head, where piles of rebar and ciment and building lumber lay. Peoples’ old homes and businesses.Then we went down to Bubble Beach and checked out the local dive club.I was feeling very blue. Wrecked graveyards and churches, the remnants of homes with kitchen cabinets and curtains still clinging to painted walls now open to the sky, fishermen pulling in nets of next to nothing, and unemployed, down at heel people who surely had good reason to despair…

It really took the wind out of my sails. I was ready to go back to the boat and wallow in the sad fate of my fellow man, but Peter wanted to make one last stop at Champagne Beach, and I’m glad he did. We parked above it and as we were getting out of the carat the same time a friendly couple arrived. It was Linton and his partner (wife?), who run the little snorkeling shack on the beach. The shop is made of little more than old timber and palm fronds, but they have all the gear there and a cooler full of drinks. Linton offered to take us out snorkeling, and it was perfect.

Don’t believe this post-dive photo, neither Linton nor I are quite that square-shaped! Optical illusion!

We could not have wished for a better, more relaxed snorkel around Champagne Reef. The place gets its name from the sulfur gas that emanates from the Souffrière volcano and bubbles up through the coral reef. Linton was incredibly knowledgeable about the aquatic fauna and flora, and would dive down in apnea while we watched through our masks, point things out, then come back up to explain and name them. I love to know the names of things, and now I have a much better handle on the fish down there: The blue, green and rainbow parrot fish, small goat-bearded groupers, the striped sergent majors (white variety), the yellow-tail snappers and lion fish, eels and worms…. and the fan coral, the fire coral, the sponges… Champagne reef is extraordinary! Like everything else, it was badly damaged by Maria. Yet it’s slowly coming back.Linton is passionate about what he does and his diving skills knocked both our socks off! He can free dive a good 20 meters, no problem. When we were done, we asked how much, and he said “It’s up to you”. We gave him 40 EC (Caribbean dollars), which he graciously accepted, with a gracious smile. But we’ve been confused by the EC, and we quickly realized that was only about 13€ or 15$, so we went back to give him twice that. If we weren’t feeling so broke, we would have given him more. It was truly an extraordinary experience, with a really nice guy and a stellar guide.

The old Anglican Church downtown was probably taken out by hurricanes before Maria…

We took the car back and got dropped off at the Ocean Edge hotel (red building in photo up top) and decided we’d have lunch there. We had some very tasty burgers made by the friendly chef, and then headed back to nap and take it easy for the rest of the day. This was the view as we prepared to go back on board. Opsimath is there on the right.

Dominica. I think we will come back. It’s a complicated place to visit: Everything is expensive and everything requires payment of a (small) fee. It’s bureaucratic. It’s often sad. But it’s also breathtaking, and there are so many things to see. Many Dominicans we met thanked us for coming to visit a few days, instead of just passing through. Dominica needs the support that tourism can offer and they welcome visitors. Polite, helpful and open. The men seem a bit stoic at first, perhaps that’s cultural, but you can get past that pretty easily and get them to smile! Coming back a second time, we’ll have a different perspective.

A word on the “Boat Boys”: We read that we would be greeted by boat boys who would offer assistance in return for looking after the boat. It’s a pretty organized system: There are boat guys from the PAYS in the North and from the NAYS in the south. They call themselves” Seacats”. Though they don’t have an official status, they work as part of an association and can be trusted. In fact, the thing to do is to reach out to them on VHF 16 as you approach. We did, and they got us settled on a buoy, took us to the customs office, took us into town to run errands, ran us back and forth in their speedboats (our dinghy is slow), took our trash and filled our water bottles. The charge for the buoys is 40EC (12€) a day, and for all their other “concierge” services, they asked us for a measly 30EC (10€!). We gave them an extra 100EC tip. They ensured the complete safety of the boat and dinghy, had a night security patrolman (Marcus), offered assistance with anything we needed, and quite reassuringly, these guys know literally everybody on the island. They also offer guided tours, which I’m sure are very good. They were worth every penny. Of course, you can go it alone, but why would you? Support the local economy, ensure your boat and your personal safety, feel reassured, and maybe make new friends! There is NO ANCHORAGE in the bay, you must use a buoy, to protect the fragile ecosystem and to avoid overcrowding. I’ve heard some cruisers grumble about the no anchor zone, but they respect these zones in other places, and they sure should here.

A word on the Diving Club/restaurant: You can request permission from the Diving Club to use their small, private dock. They have water hoses out back if you need to fill up jerricans. They kindly let us charge our handheld VHF on their mains power. The key is to go speak to them first, be friendly and courteous, pay the small dock fee, ask before using the water… I’ve read complaints about this anchorage site and about the Seacats, but I think some cruisers don’t put enough effort into the need to “network” here, and the need to respect private property – even when it seems derelict or run down to you. What looks like an abandoned dock is actually someone’s private property, and they will defend it. Make contact early and often with the locals, ask people their names, ask permission before using property, be prepared to pay the small fees asked of you ( by US or European standards) in order to help people and businesses get by. Basically, follow the Golden Rule, just as you would back home.

A word on provisioning: Dominica is outrageously expensive for food, stock up before you come in nearby Guadaloupe or Martinique!

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