Anticipating a ten to twelve hour sail from Martinique to Dominica, we opted for an early start and duly weighed anchor at 4.15am. As expected, whilst we remained in the lee of Mount Pelée, the wind was variable in both strength and direction and we therefore motor sailed for the first hour and a half. Once beyond Precheur, on the NW tip of Martinique, we were able to hoist the sails for an excellent “ride” to Portsmouth at the northern end of Dominica. In fact it was so excellent that it only took us 9 hours.
We had chosen Portsmouth rather than Roseau because the write up in the pilot suggested that for both ease of clearance and for the anchorage the more northerly option was the better bet – even though it meant an extra 30 miles. What the pilot had also raved about was PAYS – the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Security.
We weren’t quite sure exactly what to expect from this service and, when the bright yellow boat came speeding out to us as we approached the anchorage – and we could see other green, black and yellow boats going to meet other yachts – we initially thought “Here we go again, a fight to put us on moorings and take money for the privilege”. But how wrong we were. “Welcome to Paradise” said the guy in the yellow boat as he drew alongside. Do you need a mooring?” “No thanks” I said. So he just told us to anchor where we wanted and he would come to see us later – and speeded off. No hassle.
Having found our spot and dropped the hook we were in the process of tying off the sheets and tidying the usual mess that accumulates in the cockpit during a passage when he pulled alongside again. “Hi” he said. “Welcome, my name is Alexis” and he showed us his badge. Alexis was one of the names of the PAYS group to which the pilot had referred and he proceeded to tell us that he was there to help us in any way we wanted and outlined for us some of the trips which he organised. So, OK there was a bit of a sell going on here. But it wasn’t hard sell – and when we explained that although we might be interested in a trip we had some friends who were due to arrive later in the afternoon and we wanted to discuss the offered excursions with them he basically said that was fine and he would speak to us the following day. When “Matador” arrived, it so happened that they were met by Albert and, unsurprisingly, were offered similar trips by him. So, what happens now – who gets the business?
Well, to cut a long story short, there are about nine guys who have formed the PAYS group because they recognised that being in competition was not working as they were spending more and more time and money driving further and further out to be the first to greet a yacht. So, under the current leadership of Eddison, there are [Faustin] Alexis, Cobra [Andrew and Jerome], Albert, Providence [Martin], Sea Bird [Jeffrey], Lawrence of Arabia, Charlie and Spaghetti [Erik]. They will act as water taxis, take you on a trip, organise a tour, take laundry, help you find specialist services if you need assistance and generally try to answer any questions you have about Portsmouth and Dominica as a whole. What they also do is organise and run a brilliant Sunday evening BBQ with food, music and an extremely punchy punch and, they provide 24 hour security with a large dingy touring the anchorage every night. We have to agree with Chris Doyle, whose pilot we are using, that PAYS are, as he writes, “an exemplary group of young men”.
Oh – and just in case you were wondering, Albert took the four of us on the India River trip and Alexis organised an island tour for us – more about both of those later…..
Anyway – back to anchoring. As well as sorting out the boat on arrival I decided that a swim would be a good idea and, with it, the chance to check out whether or not the anchor was well dug in as the pilot suggested holding was variable, with excellent holding in sand but the possibility of drag where sand was mixed with old coral rubble. So, snorkel and mask donned, away I went following the chain and – there it was up to the hilt in sand. There were also a few weeds but that didn’t seem to have affected its performance. But, hang on a minute what is that wriggling thing. Still not sure whether it was an eel or a sea snake? Probably the former but Yuk – I was glad I hadn’t gone down for a closer look.
What we were glad about, though, was that I had at least been for a look and satisfied our secure anchorage because the weather took a turn for the worse with rain for a couple of hours and wind that decided to blow – and blow some more, through the night and well into the following day. As Sunday morning dawned various radio messages were being relayed advising people that their boats were trying to leave the anchorage. The occupants of one catamaran were actually on the early morning river trip so PAYS came to the rescue and managed to stop the boat beaching itself. A monohull suddenly swung close to us with the mooring buoy – to which they were attached – on board, the rope attaching it to the sea bed fixture having severed. So, they just went and picked up another mooring buoy. Probably wouldn’t have been our preferred course of action but, to be fair, they were still attached to it, and it to the seabed, 10 days later.
But, enough of this yachting stuff. Let’s get down to what you really need to know about Dominica – and that is that it really is Paradise. There is no airport [or at least not one which can take international flights] and “tourism” as we know it hasn’t taken off at all. There are visitors other than yachts people but they are fairly few and far between – except for the occasional Cruise ship into Roseau which happens about twice a week – and we only saw about three or four hotels/apartment blocks on the whole of the island.
It is possible to rent rooms or small apartments and, if anyone reading this wants a get away from it all holiday with excellent walking, delightful people, rainforests, a bit of history and some local cooking then Dominica is your place. It would probably mean you taking a two week holiday and landing in Martinique or Guadaloupe to either pick up a charter boat or catch a ferry – but it would be well worth your while.
First of all let me tell you about the “Waitukubuli” trail. This walking trail is fairly newly opened and runs the length of the island. It has been split into 15 manageable sections in three categories, “Easy Family Walk”, “Moderate” and “Difficult”. Some of the easy walks could quite reasonably be tacked together to make a longer hike, resulting in perhaps eight or ten walking days.
We decided to spend a full day hiking and, what kind of walk did we choose? Yes, you guessed it – Difficult! We managed to find a local taxi to take us to the Syndicate Forest Reserve. Here we found the visitor centre closed [because it wasn’t a cruise ship day] but, as we had already planned our walk this didn’t matter at all. The first part of the walk was quite easy along a track through the forest but then it went down…. and up…. and down…. and up…. and down and up and down again. All in all it took us six hours to cover what we think was about 9 kilometres. This photograph was taken when we had just completed the first downward section after two hours.
We didn’t look like that by the time we had finished and the fact that we don’t have any photos from the four hours which followed perhaps gives you some indication as to where our attention lay.
Please do not let this detract from what I said about it being paradise, and worth it. It was. The rainforest is spectacular, there are beautiful trees and plants everywhere and, very importantly, there is nothing on the island which can hurt you. Well, I suppose if you were run over by a minibus it might hurt a bit, but as these aren’t in the forest it doesn’t count. There are snakes, which we saw, but they are small and non poisonous. There are mosquitoes – but there is no yellow fever or dengue fever on the island so any bite is just an irritant and not a danger. We were told there may be wild pigs but that they would hear us and run away and, when we did come across some pigs one day, they didn’t look very wild or threatening at all!
Part of our aim in choosing this walk was that it touched on “Sisserou Parrot” country. There are two breeds of parrot on Dominica, both of them endemic and both of them endangered. The Sisserou is Dominica’s national bird, and appears on their flag. The Jaco, is smaller but more colourful. We did get a glimpse of the latter, but not sufficient for photographs. Unfortunately, we did not see the former – though we could hear them high in the treetops.
On three other days we also walked parts of the trail near to the anchorage. One of these took us alongside the swamp land between Prince Rupert Bay [where Portsmouth lies] and Douglas Bay and over to a beach for snorkelling. The other two of were to the Cabrits National Park where Fort Shirley, an old British Fort dating from the 18th century has been partially restored. The museum at the fort was informative and the short walks are well signposted. It is also here that the Waitukubuli trail ends [or starts I suppose!]. We wandered to the top for views of the bays and also took some interest in the canons we found. We think that, although in a fort on top of a hill, they are actually naval ship’s canon rather than artillery canon – but not being expert in these matters we could only speculate.
There is no charge to visit the Fort or the Cabrits other than purchasing a Cabrits Park permit which is US$5 per day [£4.00] or US$12 for a week. Our 12 dollar passes enabled us to complete the two Cabrits walks, visit the Syndicate Forest [had the visitor centre been open to check!] and also to do the India River trip. Now, do you know what the India River is famous for? Does this photo remind you of a film you may have seen? Think Captain Sparrow. Yes, Pirates of the Caribbean [or at least parts 2 + 3] were filmed here on Dominica. The river is where the witch lived and there are also other locations spread across the island. Funnily enough, Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly were nowhere to be seen but we really did get to feel the atmosphere.
Of course, the India River trip is much more than a “let’s see the pirates” excursion – and, indeed the trip is not in any way sold based on its links to the film but for its beauty and the nature found within it. I said it was a Paradise Island. Anywhere else our guide would have probably got dressed for the part rather than taking this laid back approach, Thanks Albert for showing us your river.
So, what did we see…
Well, there were herons,hummingbirds, bananacuits, lizards, iguanas [or so we were told but couldn’t spot the one which was seemingly being pointed out], mullet and an assortment of freshwater crab. This beasty scuttled off as Mike approached. If you look at the photo below the crab is in the long slit next to the leaf filled hollow next to where Mike is standing.
If you consider the size of the tree – you can guess at the size of the crab.
You may not have heard of Bananacuits – we hadn’t – but they are beautiful small birds with bright yellow breasts and, just like the hummingbirds they like this particular tree. Neither Mike nor I can remember its name. Throughout our walks and trips we have been told so many names of so many plants and trees and I am afraid my brain hasn’t retained all the information.
Our full day trip, organised by Alexis, was with a local taxi driver called Stan. Like the PAYS India River guides, many of the taxi drivers are also guides and they have all had to learn about the history, culture, flora and fauna of Dominica. This makes the trips even more fascinating. Our first stop was at an old mill. The mill and its water wheel were also in the aforementioned film but what interested us was the way that they extracted the coconut oil which is exported for skin products, shampoos etc. Obviously, the process leaves behind the empty husks and our friend Stuart liberated four of these from which he has made cockpit lights. I think I have mentioned in an earlier post that he is a Kiwi – and I am sure that somewhere there must be some Maori in him because he seems to be able to turn all sorts of natural products into something.
Anyway, back to the day trip. We next went to “Red Rocks”. These are supposed to feel as though they are shifting beneath your feet. I didn’t get that feeling at all – but they are quite impressive and the views down the east coast were fabulous. Amazingly, although they are almost barren small ferns do manage to cling to clefts in them and Stan showed us how to use them to make “tattoos.
We then moved on towards “Carib” territory – a 3700 acre stretch of Dominica which is home to most of the islands 2200 Caribs. I wasn’t sure that I liked the separation, but it’s not really for me to judge. Apparently it is the Carib choice and they have their own “ruler” and rules. We were told that if a Carib man marries “out”, his wife can come and live in the Carib territory but if a woman marries out then she has to leave.
As expected on such a trip we made a stop at a group of roadside stalls set up by the Caribs to sell their crafts. I don’t suppose they like yachties very much because as we have no spare space and we can’t really buy ornaments or anything that will roll, fly round the cabin or go mouldy they don’t make many sales. What we do like to buy though is fresh fruit and veg, so this “bushmans” stall was far more to our liking. On Dominica there are quite a lot of people who call themselves “bushmen”. Many are strict Rastafarian with a vegetarian diet and one guy, Christian, used to paddle out on a daily basis to the yachts at anchor in a leaking boat to sell whatever was in season. The grapefruit were absolutely fantastic. At this particular stall we bought yellow and red bananas and were treated [free] to oranges, plums and coconut and shown this rather unusual cashew plum.
Lunch was at a restaurant with a fabulous view before we were driven across to the other side of the island. Along the roadside lemon grass grows in profusion and Stan stopped for us to gather some so we now have both a bunch of lemongrass and a sprig of bay hanging in the galley – they smelt wonderful when we made a fish soup with them that night.
Our final stop was a walk through the forest to two waterfalls. Unfortunately Alexis hadn’t told us that we were going to be going somewhere where we needed to scramble up and down the side of a gorge holding on to a rope in order to get to the second waterfall. I was wearing flip flops and decided that it probably wasn’t the best footwear for the job so only went as far as the first fall. Mike says that I didn’t miss much as the second one looked just like the first – but maybe he was just making me feel OK about wimping out.
Talking of waterfalls, we also visited the Chaudiere pool and falls.
This was a day walk which we chose to do by bus and without a guide. We caught the bus to a small village called Bense and then walked up the mountain road before reaching a small track down to the falls. As I have said before, the flora is spectacular and, just at the junction of the track we came across trees with a magnificent flower.
It probably took us about 30 minutes walking through the forest to reach the pool and everyone, except Mike, stripped off for a swim. It was the coldest water I have been in since Spain but that’s hardly surprising for a mountain stream. As well as Stuart and Steph, we were joined on this walk by Pete and Courtney, two Americans travelling in an old wooden boat “Norna”.
Having swum and picnicked we made our way out and back to the main road and then headed east to Calibishie, an attractive fishing village on the east coast. On the way Mike found a coconut which he decided we were going to break open to drink the milk.
Well…. Mike tried
…and Pete tried….
And then….. along came a bus which stopped and the driver got out and he showed us how it should be done.
Well, don’t all bus drivers carry machetes?
And so, our day ended in Calibishi where we enjoyed a cool beer and sheltered from the short tropical shower.
One day, in order to try to find a larger supermarket than those in Portsmouth we decided to go by bus to Roseau – the capital. There doesn’t seem to be very much to see there, or not that we found anyway, except the small Botanical Gardens. Here, amongst the big Banyans and Baobabs, we came across Calabash trees. It’s amazing how the seed gourds remain attached to the tree because they are really heavy and the “stems” very thin.
Now something that one doesn’t expect to find in a botanical garden is a bus but, as a result of Hurricane David that hit Dominica in August 1979 packing winds of 150 miles per hour, one ended up embedded in a tree. Fortunately there weren’t any children on what was a school bus when it felt the full force.
I have said that the people are really friendly and accommodating and an example of that was a bar being quite happy for us to spend two weekends taking over their TV to watch Rugby. It’s not a game that the locals know but they seemed quite happy to wander in and out and watch bits of the game while we enjoyed the action. We also shared this experience with another Kiwi, Sid whose boat “Tonka” is so named because it is steel. His girlfriend is French so I am afraid she didn’t really appreciate the result of the France – England match quite as much as we did.
So, what more is there to say? At the risk of repeating myself – it’s wonderful, magnificent, a not to be missed experience. It is PARADISE.