Friday, May 31, 2013

Falling in Love with Dominica: Part I

Tuesday, May 21 - Saturday, May 25, 2013

Welcome to the beautiful island of Dominica! Before you get it confused with the Dominican Republic (and trust me, you wouldn't be the first), this one is pronounced "dom-i-NEE-ca", and it's an unspoiled island that lies between Guadaloupe and Martinique. Our cruising guide says that if Christopher Columbus were to come back today, Dominica is the only island he'd recognize. You won't find a major airport, fancy hotels, duty free shops, or casinos here, and this isn't a regular stop for cruise ships. What Dominica does offer is some of the most spectacular scenery you will see anywhere in the Caribbean.

But first...a note about the crossing: "HELLACIOUS!!!" We had strong winds and moderate seas for the first hour, and even got to do some "real" motor! Unfortunately, a massive band of black clouds had formed directly ahead of us. First rule of thumb when you're about to get nailed by a squall? Make sure you don't have more sail out than you can handle...especially if you anticipate 30+ knot gusts. We decided to bring in our jib and keep the main sail out. Wouldn't you know, at that precise moment the wind jumped up to 25-30 knots and the waves started bouncing us around. The jib sheets (a.k.a. "ropes"...yes, everything has a different name on a boat!) caught in the rigging, and we couldn't furl the sail. One of our jib sheet blocks (the pulley-like thing that leads the ropes from the sail back to the winch in the cockpit) was pulled off the track, so now we had a sheet flapping around and throwing a potential weapon in its wake.

There's an old saying about sailing...something like, "sailing is 95% boredom interspersed with 5% sheer terror". Yep, this was definitely our 5% moment. We finally got the jib rolled in (albeit WAY too tight). We motor-sailed for awhile to take a few much-needed breaths, and put the jib back out once the winds settled a bit. We had another beautiful sail...until we found ourselves socked in by sheets of rain. Add to that 30 knots of sustained winds, and Pipe was soon doing 8 knots. Visibility was pretty much zero, and we were two miles from Dominica before we finally saw the island's 4,000-foot peaks. Did I mention this all happened in the space of 18 miles, or less than four hours? What a relief it was to make it to the entrance of Prince Rupert Bay and be greeted by a local named Martin who met us in his skiff: "Welcome to Dominica! How was your trip down?"

One of the best things about Dominica - other than the insane lushness and beauty of this place - are the "boat boys" in the harbor. These are local men who have created a security and tourism team for cruisers. Known as "PAYS" (Portsmouth Association of Yacht Security), they patrol the harbor, offer services like laundry and fruit/veggie delivery, and organize tours up the Indian River and into the National Park's rain forests. Each PAYS member has been highly educated in the history and botanicals of Dominica (not to mention first aid), so they really are fantastic tour guides for anything you want to do around the island. Part of their funding also comes from a weekly BBQ offering grilled chicken and salads, plus unlimited rum punch, which is always a perfect lure for cruisers!

After we finally got our anchor down near the beach, we joined Anne Bonny for a dinghy trip to the customs dock. From there, Chris and Denise showed us how to find the IGA grocery store, as well as an outdoor food court known as "the shacks" which catered to the American medical school next door. Attention cruisers: the food was cheap and tasty, and you could get anything from Mexican to Indian to jerk chicken...sometimes at the same shack!

The next day, we tried to find the "Indian River Source" trail as described in our cruising guide. Let's just say it didn't' turn out quite as we'd planned! Chris Doyle's guide said to start at the town dock, but three locals disagreed about which dock this was. We tried three different docks before ending at the one near the Indian River. (Makes sense if we're looking for its source, right?!) The guide said to walk past the gas station... Check. Continue east...east?...and turn right. Well, east was behind us and there was only water to our right. Something wasn't working!
We headed back towards the river and looked for our next checkpoint: an "aerial". Hmmm...well, there was some sort of tower on the hillside, so we took the next "road" (read "grass and tire ruts") that led in that direction... and dead-ended in front of three houses. Okay, time for a new tactic. We began walking towards town, and spotted a now-defunct gas station on a road to the right. Bingo! Our cruising guide was a 2010-2011 edition, so maybe this gas station was still operational when the guide was written in 2009. After a few minutes, we passed a tower - hey, an aerial! - to our left, and found a muddy trail off to the right. Now we're cookin'! The trail took us through thick vegetation, along side a pasture (complete with a staring bull), and through a small forest.
Our shoes kept getting stuck in the ooze, and we were filthy from head to toe with spattered mud. At some point, the trail dead-ended. Failure! We decided to give it one more shot, especially since we were in serious need of a swim in the river to clean ourselves up. We went back to the main road, found yet another aerial, and saw another wide trail to the right. Could this really be it? We asked a local coming towards us if this trail led to the river. "Nope, but it's a good nature walk. A lot of people use it." Grrrr... Okay, fine. Maybe we wouldn't find the river, but at least we'd get a walk in.
We wandered past a gated horse farm, and petted a few horses that were actually tied on the outside of the gate on our trail. After making friends with the horses thanks to handfuls of lemongrass (it grows like a weed all over the island), we came upon a segment of the Waitukubuli trail.  The Waitukubuli trail is maintained through the national park, and criss-crosses Dominica through the Morne Trois Pitons National Park and the Morne Diablotins National Park.
This segment took us through a lovely old forest, and - SURPRISE! - we eventually ended up at the river. We had to climb down a steep and slippery embankment to get to the water, but it was worth it to get the mud off our legs. After rejoining the main trail, Denise found an easier access point to the river - one that was deep enough to swim in. This was the life!

Thursday we took an all-day island tour with guide Martin (skiff name: Providence) and fellow cruisers from Moonshine, Saralane, and Mahalo. After driving through the quaint villages of Dublanc, Salisbury, and Mero, our first stop was a private plantation that housed Spanny Falls. We walked along a short trail flanked by orchids, heliconia, red ginger, and anthurium, and came to a lush rainforest where Martin pointed out various species of trees and plants and explained the difference between epiphytes and parasites. (Who knew there were 90 species of orchids and 180 species of ferns in Dominica??)
Before we knew it, we arrived at the most beautiful grotto we'd ever seen. To our left was a volcanic rock wall, covered in ferns and moss and dripping water onto our heads. Beyond it was a half-moon wall of fern-drenched stone, complete with a 60' waterfall cascading into a pool beneath. Words don't adequately describe the beauty of this place, and we could hardly believe it was real.
We all jumped into the chilly pool, playing around and behind the waterfall. Martin led the braver members of our party up the wall of the grotto, using a rope to pull themselves to the top. On the other side were three more waterfalls that ended in another swimming pool. (Thanks to Rene for taking pictures - Stacy wasn't climbing up that rope!)

We finally tore ourselves away and got back into the van for the rest of the tour. After lunch at a lovely open-air spot that specialized in fresh fish, creole chicken, and homemade flavored rums, we continued on to a Carib Indian village on the east side of Dominica. The bakery specializing in cassava bread was closed, but we were able to stop at a woman's home to admire (and buy) her hand-woven straw baskets. We then drove around the north coast, through Wesley, Calibishie, and finally back to Portsmouth.
Martin was an incredible tour guide, sharing his knowledge and giving us local fruits to try. From two kinds of bananas to fresh coconut to the sweet local pineapple that rivals anything we've had from Hawaii...not to mention the "apricots" that looked like cantelope but tasted like a cross between a mango and a peach. He also pointed out cinnamon, papaya, vanilla, breadfruit, and mango trees, showed us the fruit/nut combination of the cashew tree, and gave us samples of lemongrass and bay leaves. The entire day was an incredible experience. Thank you, Martin!

It was time to bring the pace down a notch on Friday, when we joined our "boat boy" and tour guide, Albert, for a lazy canoe ride up the Indian River. Lazy for us, anyway...for Albert, not so much! The key to keeping the Indian River so picturesque has been to ban any motors beyond the bridge at the entrance. That means the tour guide, in this case Albert, rows the canoe for miles up the river. Granted, Albert has been doing this for nearly 30 years, and he's probably one of the best guides you can hire for the river tour.

Albert told us all about the river's history and its flora and fauna, pointing out different trees, birds, flowers, fish, and crabs. We saw the spot where scenes from the second Pirates of the Caribbean had been filmed, as well as the leftover sets from a pirate-themed TV series that was just shot a month ago.
We finally reached our "destination" (this tour really WAS about the journey!), only to find the Indian River Bush Bar closed. Nooo! Not that a rum drink was a brilliant idea at 11am, but we'd been told their "Dynamite" was a must-do. Oh, well... we've heard there's a walking trail that goes up to the bush bar. Sounds like we'll have to try to find it one of these days. :-)

Saturday we went to Portsmouth's vegetable market, where we'd been told we should arrive by 6:30am for the best choices and quality. 6:30? In the morning? You've GOT to be kidding. We actually arrived at 8am, and still managed to find more fruits, vegetables, beans, spices, coffee, etc., than we could possibly buy.

After lunch, we joined Catatude and Pa'la O'la for a hike in the Cabrits National Park. We were told we could leave our dinghies at a floating dock next to the cruise ship dock, and walk through the gate (if it was open) or through the adjacent building to Fort Shirley. One problem: both the gate AND the building were locked! Since we couldn't see anyone in the area to help us out, we climbed through a hole in the fence. That obviously got someone's attention, and we were immediately joined by a park official who told us we'd committed an offense and he had us all on camera. Oops! Rene explained what we'd been told about the gate, building, etc., and we were finally allowed to continue on after a stern warning. (Note to other cruisers: apparently you should call "Cabrits Cruise Ship Dock" on VHF 16 for access through the gate/building.)

We finally made our way up the hill to Fort Shirley, an 18th century British fort. The main building has been restored, and you can hike to the ruins of the outbuildings. As we arrived at the main site, we found the entire courtyard filled with buffet tents, tulle drapery, a bandstand, lanterns, white linen-covered tables, and a vase filled with orchids and floating candles at each place setting. The entire place was being outfitted for the wedding reception of a local businessman's daughter, and no expense was being spared.

We tried to stay out of everyone's way as we wandered the grounds, admired the old cannons, and walked through the small museum (more of a clubhouse). We could still hear the sound checks of the band as we started up the trail to the top of East Cabrit. We hiked along a moderate trail through dense forest and hanging vines, stopping to visit the ruins of the Commandant's Quarters and an observation point overlooking the harbor.
We kept working our way uphill until we reached the old battery, a massive rock wall surrounding a courtyard at the top of the mountain. At over 450 feet in elevation, East Cabrit offered us spectacular views of Portsmouth, the harbor, and our own boats in the distance. It was definitely worth all the huffing and puffing to get there.

The fun continued Saturday evening as we all joined new friends ShaSha and Jim for happy hour on their beautiful boat, ShaSha. It was fun getting to know them better, and we look forward to spending more time with them in Grenada. A huge thank you to our hosts!

I guess it's pretty obvious that we've fallen for this gorgeous island. There's so much to see and do that we're taking a lot more tours - and pictures - than we normally would. That also means a lot more to blog about! Since our first five days here have already become a novel-size blog post, we'll have to break Dominica into multiple sections. Tomorrow night is the big cruiser party, hosted by PAYS. Unlimited rum punch? That might warrant a chapter all of its own... :-)

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