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Dominica - the Emerald Isle

A traveller's tale.
 

Southern Dominica

The drive from Melville Hall airport goes south along the choppy, windward east coast, up winding roads, through switchbacks and settlements of a few houses here and there, across some of the island's 300+ rivers, over a pass in the centre of the island, down the other side and along the tranquil west coast to Roseau, the capital. 
 
Family-owned and run Castle Comfort Lodge and Dive Dominica are my hosts for three days, and greet me with a wicked rum punch. I will soon learn that Andrel the barman has a range of his own concoctions, some of which are award winners. (Andrel's Antidote was my personal favourite, a mix of various rums, juices, and spices that somehow tastes like you could have it for breakfast.)
 
With no beaches in Roseau, the hotel's bar and restaurant are right over the water, facing the sunset, and the dive centre is on site. My room, one of 17, was 30 seconds from everything so in no time my bags were in my room, my dive gear in the dive centre fffffor the following day's diving, I was perched on a bar stool chatting to fellow divers guests Martin, Joe, and Marco. 
 
At 0845 the next morning we boarded one of Dive Dominica's dive boats, a twin hulled affair that can take 20 divers. We picked up three from the hotel next door and a group of 10 from Fort Young. With 17 of us on board, three dive guides came along to look after us. After a 15-minute ride south we were at Scott's Head Drop Off, so called as this promontory is where the British Garrison commander Scott was decapitated by the French. The island changed hands seven times in total, before the British finally wrested control of the islands for good. 
 
The briefing was full and thorough, and then down into the clear blue Caribbean waters went I. Whilst not having the diversity of other warm water dive destinations, the Caribbean has its own unique fauna, and the reefs here are rich in sponges and endemic corals. Schools of the strikingly blue Tomate swam past on the wall, trumpetfish lurked in wait for prey, and improbably shaped trunkfish puttered around. It was a pleasant start. The second dive took us to Soufriere Pinnacles, just off shore from the picturesque village of the same name. A series of underwater mounds, the Pinnacles are literally covered with in stovepipe, rope, and barrel sponges, and colourful schools of grunts and snapper. The guiding was unobtrusive; the guides pointed out fish of interest and looked for critters, but were happy for buddy pairs to explore at their own leisure and both dives overran the intended max dive time of sixty minutes. Nitrox is available but really not necessary, there is reef from deeper than you can safely dive to the safety stop, so long dives on air are easy. 
 

Despite the long dives and even with a surface interval over an hour, we were sitting down for lunch before 1pm. Martin, Joe and Marco were going for a shore dive later that afternoon, but I was signed up for an afternoon whale watching trip. Dominica is home to approximately 50 of the world's largest carnivores, the sperm whale. Year round mothers and daughters cruise the deep waters a few kilometres off shore and, between January and April when the sea is a little cooler, are joined by males looking to mate. 
 
Using a hydrophone, we listened out for their distinctive clicking, like a superfast morse code. Occasionally the enchanting lullabies of passing humpback can be picked up, but not on this day. After an hour we hear d a faint sound, and 10 minutes' cruising later saw our first water spouts. A mother and calf swam in front of us, their small dorsal fins dwarfed by their body length. After a few minutes they gave a final spurt from their blowholes, raised their tails as if to say goodbye, and dived down into the depths looking for food. Once they commence a deep dive there is no point hanging around, they can dive down to three thousand meters and go down for over an hour. Fortunately the whales tend to stay close to each other so it only took us a few minutes until the next jet of water was spotted. Over the next couple of hours we observed half a dozen pairs, and when we headed for home, the crew served sundowners n either fruit punch or a gingery, nutmeggy concoction of Andrel's confection. 
 
The next morning we dived at Swiss Cheese, so called because of the number of holes and swim-throughs, and Champagne, which earned its moniker due to the bubbling natural warm underwater spring found on the sands at the end of the dive site. Visibility was the same as the day before, a good 25 meters or more, and divers set off exploring the sites in small groups. The first site was fishy, with more snapper and Tomate and lots of chromis and large, solitary barracuda, the second started with a wall down to 25 meters and tapered up to a sandy slope and then plateau, dotted with coral heads. In one a small porcupinefish hovered in a window in a sponge, beautifully framed with the sun's rays beaming through the water behind it. Arrow crabs, more like large underwater spiders than crustaceans, lurked under miniature overhangs, in tiny caves, and on sponges. Whilst looking for seahorses on a small bed of seagrass, Marco briefly found a very small Octopus, and Martin found a scorpionfish in four meters of water under the boat. Another very pleasant morning all in all. 
 
After lunch I swapped lenses and went for a macro dive in front of the dive centre. With no rivers nearby and no public access, the water was clear and reef in good shape. I merrily furtled around with my camera, finding eels cleaner shrimp with eels and small groupers, boxer shrimp and trumpetfish and juvenile angelfish going about their business. 
 
Joe and Marco had hired a small SUV and invited me to explore part of the island with them. After a run through Roseau, a gander at the market, and lunch in a local eatery, we headed up to firstly the spectacular Trafalgar Falls, and then the ethereal Titou Gorge. Trafalgar Falls are actually two waterfalls, Mother and Father, which plummet down from on high. Next to them lie natural pools of 30-degree centigrade mountain water, a great place to relax and take a natural spa. Though there are other places to do this too. Nearby Screw Spa has a constant stream of volcanic mineral water feeding a series of stonewalled pools. The higher the pool the warmer the water. With Joe at the wheel the more places we stopped to relax, the better. 
 
Marco took over driving duties for the trip up to Titou Gorge, where the water was a refreshing 21 C and the final swim to the base of the waterfall energetic with a camera housing in hand. Above the narrow gorge, barely five meters wide in parts the forest is lush and verdant, the full canopy hiding much of the cloud cover, the steamy air filled only with the sound of the rushing water below. From the base of the Gorge it is a five-minute swim through the dark and narrow passage to the open and bright natural light of the shaft carved out by the waterfall. There isn't much to hold onto and the bottom is five meters below, so once I'd made it as close to the Falls as I could get swimming one handed, I drifted gently back to the entrance, and another warming natural spring.
 
The most spectacular spring of all though must be Boiling Lake. Located in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a World Heritage Site, it is a 60-metre wide flooded fumarole at the end of a demanding but spectacular path. The hike goes past thick purples mosses and rare orchids that can only grow due to the sulphuric gasses released through volcanic vents and hot springs. The source of the heat is believed to be a magma chamber beneath the lake. The 4-km return walk takes around six hours and although it can be hard work in places, is a great way to experience pristine Caribbean rainforest.
 

 Northern Dominica

Coulibistrie and Batalie Beach sits 30 minutes north of the capital, still on the east coast, around 30 minutes south of Portsmouth, once the capital until the French had had enough of the surrounding mosquito-ridden swamps and shifted it south. The names of other settlements bear witness to the island's bilingual past, with Colihaut and Bruce's Castle being more prime examples. Coulibistrie is also the nearest settlement to Sunset Bay Resort, the fruit of 17 years' dedication and graft, the dream of a Belgian couple of restauranteurs, called Marcella and Roger. 
 
Set just back from their own beach of volcanic black sand, the 11 rooms are comfortable and spacious, with a pool, sauna, and river. The in-house dive center is on the premises, just down a short flight of steps from the restaurant terrace. I arrived in time for aperitifs, generous servings from a selection of fine rums, before fish soup and the house speciality, a huge plate of lobster, both spiny rock and slipper varieties, served with frites and croquettes, naturellement. After washing it down with a few Kubuli beers, and Roger's ritual "digestif offert par la maison" of eight-year old rum, I was ready for bed. 
 
The morning birdsong was delightful, and the flat sea twinkled at me as I ate my breakfast of perfect crepes, eggs, bacon, and fruit. There were only three of us diving, and dive guide Stephan, an ex-reef scientist-cum-dive instructor, took us to Rina's Hole, which sounds even more inappropriate when said with French intonation and accent, and Coral Gardens. The reefs here are more of the sloping variety rather than the sheer walls and pinnacles of the south, but the coral and sponge life is just as good, with large coral heads and swim-throughs, fields of swaying fern-like fans, solitary great barracuda and the occasional turtle. With the amount of sponges around and Bommie to sleep under, it looked like turtle heaven, and evidence of their regular mealtime visits was plentiful.
 
The house reef is also excellent, dropping off surprisingly quickly, as I hit 35 meters in the afternoon with the bottom some way below me still. Yellow-tailed barracuda swam around a pinnacle at 14 meters, some jacks chased baitfish Whilst garden eels swayed mesmerically on the sandy slopes. Despite the feasting in the restaurant, lobsters were abundant and ventured further out of their hidey-holes than others I have seen elsewhere. 90 minutes flew by and only my air gauge needle made me surface, though the smells wafting down from the kitchen en as I rinsed my gear dispelled my regrets. 
 

There are a dozen dive sites that Sunset Bay dive regularly, some as out and back circuits from the boat, others as drift dives. Nose reef, a series of Gerard Depardieu-esque proboscii-shaped ridges starting at 40 metres and running up to 14, and Whale Shark were my favourites. Of course Whale Shark has no whales and no sharks, though I did find a partially eaten dead stingray, but was once the site of sighting, according to local lore. Stephan made an admirable but futile attempt to teach me some endemic coral names; I was finding it hard enough to remember the names of the different rums Roger was giving us. 
 
The northern half of the island also has plenty of non-diving attractions. I went for a rowboat cruise up the Indian River, the only navigable river in the country. It took an hour to row up to the last navigable spot (to be more precise, it took the guide an hour to row, I just sat, looked, and listened). The scene with the witch from Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed here, but the attraction for me was the lush scenery, the bird life and the crabs living in the tree roots. The ruins of Hampstead Estate at Hampstead beach, Red Rocks beach, and the Carib territory, where some 3000 Caribs live, are all worth a visit, too. And the island is a hiker’s paradise with a 14-segment south to north trail traversing the island. One can do the whole thing in 10 to 14 days, or just a few segments, either camping or staying in guesthouses along the way. For active travelers and nature lovers, Dominica is the jewel in the Caribbean crown.
 
Indigo Safaris organizes tailor-made trips to Dominica covering accommodation, diving, hiking, guided walks, and vehicle rental.
There are only two dive centres worth diving with, there is one other part-time operation, and that's it. There isn't the demand for more, with the island only having a handful of hotel options. There is also Fort Young Hotel in Roseau, but the despite, or possibly due to, its billing as the "premier" hotel on the island, is also the dock for the cruise ships that block out the ocean view....
 
Rates based on two sharing:
At Castle Comfort 7 nights with breakfast,  10 boat dives, 1 night dive, unlimited shore dives cost  $1210 with airport transfers, cylinder, weights, and belt.
 
At Sunset Beach 7, nights with breakfast, 10 boat dives, unlimited shore dives, low season $780, high season $824, with th airport transfers, cylinder, weights, and belts. Full board rate  $1091 low season, $1136 high season.
 
Contact us for more information.
boiling lake 5
cabrits national park fort shirley
calinago falls
emerald pool 3
emerald pool 6
fresh water lake
indian river 3
indian river 7
middelhalm falls
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rosalie beach
sari sari falls
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spanny falls
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waterfall
  

 

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