Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Goodbye, Dominica

Friday, May 31 - Thursday, June 6, 2013
Yes, it's really going to happen. We're finally leaving Dominica. We've spent over two weeks in Portsmouth, and have toured much of the island. Still, with 365 rivers and nearly as many waterfalls and hikes, we know we've only scratched the surface. We're already thinking about the places we'll visit when we return.

Our last week here was a bit quieter than the previous one. We finally managed to do a few daytime boat projects (like vacuuming, laundry, etc.), saving our outings for the evening. We enjoyed beach-side happy hours with friends at Blue Bay Bar, sometimes meeting other cruisers on their way south. Our big event was on Saturday, when we attended Dominica's "National Tourism Cocktail Party". The function was hosted by (and benefited) the tourism board and was held at Fort Shirley in the Cabrits National Park. For $60 ECs (about $23 US), we got a booklet of food, drink, and gift vouchers to be used at various tents that were set up around the grounds. They even offered free massages! Many of the locals showed up in their very best (6" stilettos and all), and it was a great night for people watching.

Monday, we joined Anne Bonny for a hike through the rain forest to find Cobra's Indian River Bush Bar. We'd tried this soon after our Indian River tour (the bar was closed when we arrived by canoe), but were never able to find the right path. This time, Andrew (Sea Bird) gave us much better directions, and we had no problem finding the trail. We enjoyed a gorgeous walk through dense woods. We still felt like we were in a fantasy movie as we stepped over old train rails and the massive system of tree roots. We spotted birds and big iguanas in the trees, and ripe mangoes were just waiting for us on the forest floor. We'd expected a long hike to the Bush Bar, but spotted the building's roof after only 10-15 minutes. The bar was open this time (yay!), so we finally got to try their infamous "dynamite" punch. Even if you're not a big rum drinker, you've got to try one of these. Made with freshly-squeezed juices and local spices, they go down awfully fast. Fair warning, though: we've been told you explode after your third one! 
If you want to find the Bush Bar on foot, tie your dinghy up at the Indian River dock. Turn right onto the main road, go past the bank and gas station, and take the first left after Woody's Pizza. At the top of the street, turn left just before the big yellow house. Go straight through the field until you see a bridge leading into the forest. Follow the path for 10-15 minutes, and you'll arrive at the Bush Bar. Pretend it was a much longer hike, and congratulate yourself for having earned a rum drink. HOWEVER: as lovely as the walk to the Bush Bar is, it doesn't come close to replacing the experience of a guided canoe trip up the river. Albert and the other "boat boys" are terrific guides, and this is definitely a place where we enjoy stimulating the local economy. Your best option? Do both!

Wednesday we decided to move the boat to Roseau in order to shorten the jump to Martinique. It was only 18 miles from Portsmouth to Roseau, and the forecast called for 15-20kts of wind with 4-5' seas. Anne Bonny had called us the night before with an anchorage update, telling it wasn't nearly as rolly as we'd heard from others. We had an easy motor-sail down to Roseau, with conditions even calmer than had been forecasted for a change. We managed to find a spot to drop the anchor near Anne Bonny, Catatude, and Pa'la O'la, the only trick being finding a shallow enough spot amidst the local mooring balls. One word of warning for our friends on their way here: the water is still 25+ feet deep 100 feet from shore, and you often spin in circles and find your stern near the shoreline. It's pretty intimidating! For $10 US a night, you can pick up a good mooring ball. That might be a better option if the winds are expected to pick up.

We spent Wednesday afternoon wandering through town, and Thursday Desmond on Sea Cat took us down to Champagne Beach. Champagne Beach's claim to fame is its underwater thermal springs that release bubbles from the ocean floor. The bubbles make you feel like you're in a sea of champagne, and the water temp is closer to that of bath water. We snorkeled through the bubbles, found a gorgeous reef with plenty of fish to photograph, and even found a small pool that was super-heated by the underground vents, thanks to the surrounding rocks that reduced the inflow of cooling sea water. All in all, we had a fantastic's not every day you get to swim over a volcano. :-)

Thank you again, Dominica. We've had an unforgettable time here, and can't wait to come back after hurricane season. In the meantime, we're planning to make a quick stop in Martinique before continuing on to St. Lucia. We'd like to be in Grenada by mid-July, and still have a lot of beautiful ground to cover. Til next time...

FYI: Champagne Beach is south of Roseau. You can reach it by bus, but it's faster and easier to do it by boat. We recommend Sea Cat (available on VHF 16), who will run you down in a fast skiff for 25 EC ($10 US) per person. Just make sure you have sturdy sandals or shoes...the beach is made up of all sizes of smooth rocks/boulders that can shift like marbles and are surprisingly painful to the feet!

Please enjoy more pics of Dominica here.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Falling in Love with (Wet) Dominica - Part II

Sunday, May 26 - Thursday, May 30, 2013

Yes, Dominica is still our favorite island in the Caribbean. Granted, it's been testing our patience this week thanks to four days of nonstop heavy rain...the kind you think twice about before even leaving the boat. Open the hatches...close the hatches...turn on the the hatches again...for about two minutes before the rain resumes and you have to close them again! Sunday was the worst of this, when we and our friends each managed to collect anywhere from 20-40 gallons of water in a few hours.
Fortunately we got a short break in the weather just in time to get ashore for the big cruisers' beach party, sponsored by the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Security (PAYS). For 50 EC (about $20 US), we enjoyed grilled chicken and fish, coconut rice, salad, and unlimited rum punch made with fresh fruit juices.
We had a chance to hang out with old friends and meet some new ones, sing and dance to old disco music (come on, who can resist "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease"?), watch Shane from Moonshine do his fire dance, and enjoy the hospitality of the PAYS team. The rain began coming down in buckets soon after the rum punch arrived, but at that point, who cared?!

Surprisingly, Monday was NOT a hangover day. After the stories we'd heard from friends who'd attended previous Sunday BBQs, we figured the PAYS guys must've gotten a bit more conservative with the fresh juice-to-rum ratio...not that that was a bad thing.  :-) We woke to another washout - who am I kidding? It never stopped raining all night - and joined Anne Bonny for a wet walk to Portsmouth's university district. We enjoyed burgers at the Uptown Diner, a hang-out catering to students from the American medical school across the street.
Afterwards, we hiked up the hill to scope out future dining options: the Tomato Cafe, an eclectic restaurant featuring a huge menu plus imported deli meats and cheeses; Bob's Chinese Restaurant (we were all dying for a Chinese fix); and our true destination, De Champ, a hilltop restaurant with amazing views and nightly specials (Sunday Jazz brunch, Quesadilla Monday, Wings Wednesday, etc.) that's #1 on Trip Advisor.
We knew De Champ would be closed, but took a walk up the hill to learn more about the place. The owner, Lies (who turned out to be Dutch), met us outside and invited us in for a tour. We got to chat with Lies for a bit and enjoy her hospitality, and we were blown away by the views below us. We arranged to have the De Champ shuttle pick us up the next evening for "Taco Tuesday", and headed back to the boat to see who would be joining us.

With nine active volcanoes on Dominica, there were also plenty of opportunities to find heated pools on the island (for more info, click here). Tuesday we began the day with a tour to our first hot pool, courtesy of Andrew on Sea Bird. He'd warned us that the pool was small and good for about six people, but somehow we got more and more friends interested and ended up with nine. Andrew's as laid back as you can get, and took our larger group in stride. (And at 25 EC a head, the more, the merrier, right??)
After picking each of us up from our respective boats, Andrew loaded us into a taxi for the short ride up to the trail head. From there, it was an easy, albeit muddy, hike across two streams and dense rain forest to the pools. Fifteen minutes later, we reached our destination. We'd brought a cooler and snacks, and spent the next hour and a half enjoying first the hot pool, then the cool pool, and even the "massaging" waterfall upstream. What a day! Not that it was over...
Denise had mentioned to Andrew that the Indian River Bush Bar had been closed when we'd taken our river tour, so he agreed to show us a local bush bar not far from the hot pool. We hiked across a farm, chatting with its owner and sampling his papaya, until we reached another farm with a little wooden shack. The farmer sold us a bag-full of mangoes and sweetsop for 10 EC (about $4 US), and the ladies at the bar introduced us to their version of "Dynamite". For those of you who've been in the Dominican Republic, this is a more nutmeg-ey version of Mamajuana. The first one is tasty in an adventurous sort of way, but the second one will kill you!

We made it back to our boats in time for a quick shower and a dinghy ride to the beach. We'd asked Lies at De Champ to have her shuttle pick us up at 5pm, and her driver was right on time. We had a truck-full as we made our way up the hill, and got a table on the balcony overlooking the hillside and harbor below. It probably would've been a gorgeous sunset...if not for the RAIN. (Did I mention this went on for most of the week?) Anyway, we had a great time with Anne Bonny, Pa'la O'la, and ShaSha, and enjoyed experiencing another local hangout.

Wednesday was one of those days where frustration with one thing manages to taint the rest of your day. Rene's new (as in four-month-old) laptop got a few raindrops on the keyboard (Stacy's bad). At first it seemed fine, but over a few hours, the keyboard froze up. We weren't sure whether it was the water droplets or Stacy's key combos from drying the keyboard, but nothing was getting those keys to work. The laptop seemed fine - the hard drive seemed to be intact, the CD/DVD player worked - but we couldn't DO anything with no keyboard. Consequently, most of the morning was spent reading laptop forums and trouble-shooting. Grrrrr! Rene did manage to go ashore to reserve a rental car for Thursday, and we spent the rest of the day cleaning the boat for happy hour on Pipe. ShaSha had left the anchorage that morning, but Susie (S/V Spirited Lady) and her crewman, Richard, joined us along with Denise, Chris, and Christian (Anne Bonny) for a fun evening on our boat.

As for that rental car? It was tour time, baby! We got a good deal on a Honda CRV from Silver Lining in Portsmouth, and Denise and Stacy found a few hikes in the center of the island and nearer Roseau. We were looking for easier hikes - not so much out of laziness, mind you, but more out of a desire to cover as much ground as possible in one day. The only trick to our plan? Not all of the hikes mentioned in our cruising guide, online, or in the Frommer's guide were obvious from the road. Hmmm....the better to get you to hire a guide, we supposed. Our first stop was supposed to be Jaco Flats/Steps, an old camp for escaped slaves from the 1700s.
We drove into the mountains (thank god for 4-wheel drive!) to the general vicinity of the site according to our not-so-detailed road map. After 30 minutes of wandering along a pothole-strewn road (yes, in the rain), we finally reached a road construction team who said that Jaco Steps was behind us. "Go back to the school and ask there." Ohhh-kay. Rene managed to do a five-point turn without sending us over the edge of the cliff (he was such a trooper!), and we headed back the way we'd come. We stopped at a shack across from the school, where Denise jumped out and tried to get directions from the woman inside. "Yes, Jaco is near here, but you have to cross the river to get there. Not recommend it when it's been raining like this." Well, THAT hadn't occurred to us. Many of Dominica's rivers are prone to flash flooding - seriously, Dominica's rainstorms put Florida to shame - and it really wasn't a good idea to wade across them in the middle of a downpour. Next...

Our second (or technically first) stop was the Emerald Pool, one of Dominica's most easily accessible waterfalls and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Chris and Denise had been here on their island tour, but we'd run out of time and had missed it. Being great sports and loving it themselves, Chris and Denise made sure we stopped in to see this gorgeous spot. We walked for 10-15 minutes along a well-maintained trail, through dense rain forest, until we reached a clearing. Like Spanny Falls, we were surrounded by lush ferns, moss-covered trees, and Tarzan-like vines. A 40-foot waterfall dropped into the pool below, where we could swim in the chilly waters. Other than a young couple who joined us as we were leaving, we had the whole place to ourselves.

From Emerald Pool, we drove down to Dominica's capital city of Roseau. We knew that both Spirited Lady and Catatude were supposed to be anchored there, and we wanted to see if the anchorage was as rolly as we'd been warned. We couldn't see many boats from the main part of town, and decided we'd try to get closer after coming back down the mountain from Trafalgar Falls. In the meantime, we found a Jamaican patty shop (our guilty pleasure we first discovered in Puerto Rico) for a quick lunch bite before heading out to the falls.

Given its beauty and proximity to Rouseau, Trafalgar Falls is supposed to be one of the most visited attractions (think "cruise ship passengers") in Dominica. Fortunately, it was late enough in the season that the cruise ships were all gone, and we had Trafalgar Falls entirely to ourselves. An easy 10-minute walk brought us to the viewing platform, where we first spotted the 75-foot falls to the right, followed by the 125-foot falls to the left. What a spectacular shot!
We were able to get even closer to the right-hand falls by following a path beyond the viewing platform that led over mossy boulders to twin hot and cold pools. The hot pools were fed by underground springs, while the cold pools were fed by the lower waterfall. The two pools came together to form a single warm pool...perfection! Do you see why we love this island so much?

Our last stop was at Titou Gorge, on the other side of the village of Laudat from Trafalgar Falls. To Seattle girl Stacy, who hears "gorge" and thinks "Columbia River Gorge", the mental picture was of a large canyon with beautiful vistas and Kodak moments. In reality, Titou Gorge (meaning "Little Throat" in the Carib language) was described by a tourism website as a place where we'd "swim from the base of a waterfall through a series of natural rooms and ponds formed by high cliff walls canopied by interlaced trees". Definitely a must-do on our list!
We were able to follow the park signs for most of the way... until we reached what seemed like a dead end. A park guide was nearby, and told us that we were "seconds" away from the parking lot. Expecting a welcome center like we'd seen at Emerald Pool and Trafalgar Falls, we were surprised to find...NOTHING. No structure, no people to look at our park passes, no ladies selling Dominican souvenirs. Nada. Our trusty park guide pointed us towards the path, which we followed until we came to the river. While the river may not have been "raging", the continuous rains had certainly increased its flow. Were we supposed to cross this? Would there be a path at the other side? How deep was the river?
Denise decided to do a little more exploring, and soon found a path that took us to a makeshift bridge - little more than boards and a wobbly handrail fastened to water pipe - that crossed about 30 feet over the river. We got to the other side, and met another tour guide at the entrance to the gorge who was waiting for his guests. It turns out that this was also the trail head to the "Boiling Lake", another Dominican attraction that involved a more vigorous 5-9 hour (round trip) hike. One of his guests told us that the swim through the gorge felt great after the trip to the boiling lake (his speed? 3.5 hours each way). Yes, the water probably would feel great after such a long hike. To us? It was freezing!
The water took our breath away as we got in, but the dim caverns of the gorge taunted us forward. Our Doyle cruising guide had warned that we might want to bring a floatation device to help us along (a Styrofoam "noodle" would've been perfect); we thought it was because of the deep water in the gorge - NOT because of the numbness creeping into our limbs! We soon got into can't-touch-the-bottom depths as we entered Titou Gorge, which was a series of open caves cut by lava flows. We swam against a strong current, thanks to the water that flowed from a source waterfall, through the gorge, and over the wall at the entrance. Rene and Denise made it to the source falls in the last cave for pictures, but Stacy was too numb to get there.
(A hint for future visitors: the water depths inside the gorge are dependent upon rainfall; for us, it was 15-feet deep. A swim noodle and fins would make the trip much easier, and a shortie or microprene wetsuit would be ideal.) On the plus side, the current took you back out into shallow water before you could blink, and there was a small spring with warmer water flowing from a pipe in the outer wall. Even Rene was covered with goosebumps by the time he got out of the water, but it was well worth it. Each place we visited was unique, each one breathtaking in its beauty. There are so many different hikes and attractions on this island...who knows what we'll go see next?  Cheers!

For more pictures of this beautiful island, click here