We’ve been wanting to visit Dominica for a long time – ever since we started planning this Big Adventure severeal years ago, and looking at the islands individually. Fran, in particular, has wanted to see it. A few weeks ago, we did, and we were not disappointed! I think it’s the most beautiful island we’ve visited – it’s so green and lush, the word “jungle” is always on your mind as you travel around. But the waterfalls – WOW WOW WOW!!! We walked / hiked / swam to seven, and every one was just gorgeous – and one was, for me, maybe the most beautiful natural feature I’ve ever seen, anywhere in the world. (Eric McKinley, I know you like hiking to waterfalls – you NEED to go to Dominica!)
The people were mostly friendly, and some of them – the three we dealt with the most – were off-the-charts friendly and helpful and warm and welcoming. Yes, they were making money from the interaction, but we’ve dealt with a lot of people who do this for a living, and very few have been as wonderful to deal with as Sea Cat, Mr. Beans, and Martin.
Dominica is formally called The Commonwealth of Dominica. Like many islands in the Caribbean, its history includes ownership by England, France, and probably a few others here and there, but it ended up British, and then finally became independent in 1978, when Britain decided it really didn’t want to be in the colony business anymore. It’s 26 nm (nautical miles – that’s 30 normal miles) tall and 12 nm wide, and has a population of roughly 60,000 people. It was badly damaged in 2017 when Hurricane Maria passed directly over the island, having just strengthened to a Category 5, the strongest storm on record to hit the island. (The previous hurricane was David, in 1979, so it doesn’t get hit often.) It devastated most of the island, but unless you knew what it looked like before the storm, you’d never guess. (If you knew what it looked like before, you would notice that almost all of the really tall trees in the rain forest, comprising the canopy, are gone. It will take decades for them to come back.)
We spent about week there, and every single day was wonderful. Here – lemme tell you about ’em!
Day One: Scuba Diving
Dominica was formed by volcanoes, a long time ago. There are nine – NINE! – on the island, but none have really erupted since before Columbus first visited in 149-something (too lazy to look it up). There have been a couple of “steam explosions” – 1880 and 1997 – but no real eruptions. However, “it is the most worrying of all the Caribbean volcanic areas and there is a general feeling that it (like Montserrat pre-1995) is long overdue for an eruption.” Let’s hope not!!!
But what does this have to do with scuba diving? Yep, you guessed it – we climbed up to the top of a volcano and dove in a lake formed by the crater! (No, we didn’t – but it seems like it could be fun, huh?) We did, however, dive on the edge of the crater of one of the volcanoes, that happens to be 80 feet underwater, about 1/4 mile off the southwest corner of the island. You get to the top of the crater at about 30 feet, then go down to 80 feet, and then look into the crater, which goes straight down to about 700 feet. 80 was as far as we went, and then started coming back up. The coral and other “fixed life” (the stuff that doesn’t move, like sea fans and sponges) were vibrant, and there were fish everywhere. Nothing really big, but lots of little fish, including lots of schools of fish, which are always fun to swim with. We did see several large lionfish, but they’re studying them, so they leave them alone in an area for a while, as they gather data about them. THEN they have a lionfish roundup, and a delicious lionfish feast!
The next dive was a set of three or four pinnacles that you just swim around. It’s a good thing it was a guided dive, or we probably would have just swum (swam? swimmed?) around the same pinnacle for the whole hour!
Our dive outfit was Nature Island Dive, run by an American (or Canadian?) couple (Wendy and Simon(?)) who have been there over 30 years. Everyone was very personable, and you can tell they just love what they do. Desiree was our divemaster, and she really knows her stuff. If you’re in Dominica, we can recommend them highly.
Day Two: Adventures with Sea Cat
The next day, we had an island tour scheduled with Sea Cat. Everyone in the boating community who has been to the anchorage in Roseau knows Sea Cat. He’s been guiding people around the island for 30 years, and he’s a force of nature. He’s 55 and looks it, but he has the strength and stamina of a 25 year old, and sometimes he acts like a 12 year old. As we were leaving town, he was telling us about all the buildings and the history, and then as soon as we were on the outskirts, he pulled to the side of the road and started picking local fruits, and flowers, and herbs, and giving them to us and telling us about them. (We ended up with a bag of fresh fruit by the end of the day!) And when we were hiking – WE were hiking, he was just strolling. At one point, as I’m huffing and puffing up what seemed like a fairly steep incline, he’s talking on his phone to another client, and isn’t even breathing hard. But it was at the waterfalls that his youthful exuberance really came out – he climbed up onto everything one could climb onto and jump off of, and challenged me to do it, too. I did my best, but I’m sure I did it like the old man I have become, while Sea Cat (real name Octavius, by the way) did it like he was still a kid.
Our day consisted of visits to three waterfalls – Middleham Falls, Titou Gorge, and Trafalgar Falls (which is actually two falls very close together).
Middleham Falls is reached after about an hour hike, and it’s no joke. Up, up, up, then down, down, and all of it on a well-kept trail through the rain forest. Sea Cat pointed out plant after plant, and at one point somehow spotted a huge walking stick bug, and plucked him off a leaf for our inspection. A little later, after he had “strolled” ahead of us a few hundred feet and was out of sight, he popped up out of the roots of a big buttress tree and scared the crap out of us! (The first time we saw him act like a 12 year old – but not the last.)
At the end of the trail is a wooden platform where you strip down to just your swimmers and scramble over the rocks to reach the pool at the base of the perfect waterfall. Then you jump in the pool of course – and for the next 20 seconds or so, you question your sanity, because the water is COLD!!! Like, take-your-breath-away cold. But as much as I despise being cold, I had convinced myself to embrace this – I’d never swam in a waterfall pool before, and I had just hiked an hour to get to this one. Strangely, as cold as it was, it wasn’t unpleasant – maybe adrenaline keeps you warm?
After only a few minutes of pool time, Sea Cat swam to one edge and climbed out on the bare rocks and up to a ledge about 10 – 12 feet above the pool and jumped in. Of course, I had to at least try to do that, didn’t I? He showed me where to put my feet and where the handholds were, and in only about 40 minutes, I managed to get to the ledge he had reached in 30 seconds. The jump was fun, and exhiliarating (did I mention the water was a bit chilly?). Then Fran did it, taking only a minute to reach the ledge. Then Sea Cat showed another guy (Matt, visiting with his girlfriend Brenda, from Tennessee) how to climb to the ledge safely, and showed him where to jump to avoid the rocks. He did this throughout the day, making sure other tourists were safe doing what we were doing, even though they weren’t paying him. It was really wonderful to see someone so passionate about his chosen profession!
On the hike back to the truck, I told Sea Cat that I really didn’t like to be cold, and that I was surprised that I was even able to talk myself into getting into the cold pool. He smiled a knowing smile, but didn’t say anything. (This is what they do in movies, to give the audience a hint that the guy is actually the killer.)
In the truck, he told us that when we reached the next stop, all we were going to see was a big fence, and we wouldn’t understand what we were doing there. But he’d take us to the important spot, and when he yelled “Ollie! Ollie! Ollie!” – we should just JUMP! When we reached the next stop. all we saw was a big fence, and we didn’t understand what we were doing there, but we followed him up a short path, where there was a metal fence about waist high. He started hollering “Ollie! Ollie! Ollie!” – and I looked at him like a possum looking at your oncoming headlights. “What? What am I supposed to do?” “Climb the fence and JUMP, just like I told you!” So I did – and plunged about 15 feet straight down into Titou Gorge. More cold water! “Swim that way – we’re right behind you!” he shouted. SPLASH! Fran was in. SPLASH! Sea Cat was in. We swam about 100 feet up the gorge, and there was the waterfall, not nearly as big as Middleham, but incredibly cool because it seemed to shoot out of the rocks before splashing into a pool that was surrounded by high rock walls. With the lack of sunlight in the gorge, it has an almost eerie feeling – something that the director of “Pirates in the Caribbean” must have felt, because they filmed a scene in the gorge.
Sea Cat showed us the trick to working our way up behind the falling water, but it was still hitting us so hard we couldn’t stay there more than 5 seconds or so, before being flushed into the pool. And as we swam back out of the gorge, he stopped at a place where the walls were close together, and he climbed out of the water, doing a Spider Man thing up the rocks, then splashed into the pool from about eight feet up. He coached me through the same move, but I couldn’t get nearly as high as he did, and I just kinda flopped back into the water like a flounder – but it was fun!
When we reached the spot in the gorge where we had jumped in, we just kept swimming another 50 feet, and the gorge gave way to a big wide pool – where everyone ELSE was getting into the gorge. Sea Cat saw me looking at the pool and realizing we could have gotten in that way, and he said “Yeah, I don’t like getting in through the pool.” Like a twelve-year old.
Our next stop was for lunch at a restaurant overlooking River Rocks, the spot in the river that’s below Trafalgar Falls. It’s your prototypical mountain stream scene – big boulders in the river that the water washes over, under, and around – except that instead of a grassy meadow in the background, there’s papaya trees, banana plants, coconut palms, and every other gorgeous tropical plant you can think of.
Finally, the last stop of the day, Trafalgar Falls. This is two completely separate falls that are only a few hundred feet apart. “Mama” is the shorter of the two (75 feet), “Papa” the taller (125 feet). It’s an easy walk over big boulders to get to the pool at the base of Mama, but it’s a climb to get up to Papa’s pool. By this time, I was feeling all the fun of the day, so when Sea Cat asked which one we wanted go to, I looked at Fran, then at Sea Cat, and said “I think we’ll do that one”, pointing to Mama. “Great choice!”, he replied. “This way.” And after about 5 minutes of scrambling up rocks, we realized he was taking us to Papa. He’s a twelve-year old!
It took awhile to get to the pool, with several points where he was showing us exactly where to put our feet, and what to grab onto, and constantly reminding us to be careful on the slippery rocks. (The people who chose Mama needed no such instructions – they just WALKED THERE.) After 10 minutes or so, we were at the pool. Sea Cat made sure that I entered the pool to the right – “Stay that way! Over there!” – as I lowered myself into the third frigid water pool of the day and swam across it. When I reached the other side, I turned back to see Sea Cat and Fran sitting in another pool on the LEFT side, with steam coming off of them! Papa has a hot water spring that flows into it at that point, and they were sitting in its little pool, having a good giggle at my expense. “Come on over here – you can go back and forth between the hot and cold!”, he said. “Nope – I LOVE cold water! I’m staying over here! Can you throw some ice cubes in? It’s a bit warm!” (Strangely, I wasn’t minding the cold water one little bit. I must be losing my mind.)
I finally did swim to the warm pool – it’s perfect hot tub temperature – and after a few minutes soaking in it, I stood up and started looking for the source of the hot water. That’s all it took for Sea Cat to say, like the twelve-year old he is, “You ready for MORE adventure?”. “Sure – why not?”.
We carefully climbed up the rocks for another 5 – 8 minutes, reaching a small pool with the full force of the falls above crashing into it. I imagine a small percentage of visitors make it to that point. Most people choose the much less challenging Mama, as I had. But most people aren’t there with Sea Cat, who is having none o’ that nonsense!
On the climb back down, we stopped once more in a little pool that’s a perfect mix of hot and cold water and just relaxed a bit, and I told Sea Cat “Of all the places we’ve been up and down the Caribbean and the Bahamas, I think this is the most beautiful and impressive of them all.” And I meant it.
The drive back to town was uneventful. Either that, or I was so exhausted I just didn’t notice any of the events taking place. Luckily, Mr. Beans was waiting for us at the dock to taxi us back to Smartini. If I had to drive Killer after that day, I probably would have run into something.
“Who’s Mr. Beans?”, you may ask. He’s one of the “boat boys” who works for Sea Cat. Sea Cat owns several mooring balls in Roseau harbour, but he has a small team of guys who do all the boat boy stuff – guide you to a mooring when you arrive, help you get tied up to it, taxi you to shore as needed (there’s no great place to tie up your own dinghy), then take care of anything and everything else you need while you’re there.
In some harbours on some islands, the boat boys can be a little pushy, somewhat annoying, not unlike a street vendor who just won’t leave you alone. We encountered that only a little, in only a few harbours, but Mr. Beans was not like that at all. He made sure we knew what he could do for us, and that we knew he was there to make our visit better, and that all we had to do was call him on the radio and he’d take care of us. And he did. He water-taxied us to and from the dive shop on our first day, and to shore on the second day to meet Sea Cat. He filled our propane tank. He even brought us fresh spring water from one of the many springs on the island, because it’s so fresh and delicious. (It’s just water, not some magic elixir – but he brought it to us, unasked for, just to help make us feel welcome.)
Anyway, Mr. Beans was great, and happy, and helpful, and wonderful. If you boat to Roseau in Dominica, call Sea Cat on VHF 16 when you’re a few miles out, or call for Mr. Beans directly. You’ll be happy you did.
Day Three: Roseau to Portsmouth
Sadly, we had to leave Roseau too soon and head to the other big harbour, Portsmouth. There were things on the north end of the island we wanted to see, and we also wanted to keep moving north to take advantage of an amazing calm stretch in the Eastern Caribbean. It was like a lake as we cruised up the West Coast of Dominica to Portsmouth, where we planned to spend another three nights or so. As we rounded the point and the anchorage came into view, we radio’d for Martin, who met us, told us we were too heavy for their moorings, and then guided us to a good spot to anchor. Martin is like a combination of Sea Cat and Mr. Beans, and he’s excellent at both aspects.
Day Four: The Indian River
When we had arrived in Roseau a few days before, and Mr. Beans took us to Customs and Immigration, he also took Alain and Jillian, from the sailing catamaran Water World. While Mr. Beans was doing all the paperwork and dealing with the agents (something that has never happened before – thank you Mr Beans!), Fran and I started talking to Alain and Jillian, and by the time we were done, we had invited them over for cocktails that evening, and they became our new best friends. Alain and his wife Sandie are from France, and they live on Water World in the Caribbean several months each year. Jillian and her husband Patrick live in France, too, although Jillian is from Trinidad, and they both lived in the U.S. for a time – they met in San Francisco more than 20 years ago. Jillian and Patrick had just begun a visit with Alain and Sandie a few days before we met them. They would be going to all the same places we would over the next week, so we made plans to do the Indian River tour together when we reached Portsmouth.
Martin picked us up in “Providence”, his trusty steed. (An open aluminum boat with room for about ten passengers, powered by a 55 horsepower Yamaha outboard.) It was only 7:30 a.m., but he said you want to go early, while the birds are still there, and before the cruise ship passengers arrive. The passenger list included Fran and me; Alain, Sandie, Jillian, and Patrick from Water World; and a dad and his three teens who are on a one year Big Adventure of their own. Everyone else was a native French speaker, including Martin (he’s from one of the French islands, but has lived on Dominica almost half his life), so he did the narration in both French and English.
The Indian River empties into Prince Rupert Bay (where we were anchored), so Martin puttered right up to the mouth of the river (more like a big creek) in Providence and tied her up to the dock there. Then we all transferred to one of the three or four big wooden rowboats tied up there, apparently all shared by the guides. (Maybe that’s how they limit the number of boats on the river at once – when they’re all being used, no one else can go!) Martin started rowing, and pointing out plants and birds and such, and in minutes, it looked as if we had gone back in time a couple of millenia. The river is very slow moving, so slow that it’s affected by the tide from the harbour. The water is rather dark, partly from the dirt particles that end up in it after every rain, and partly from the tanins of all the mangrove and other trees that live on the shoreline.
At one point, Martin saw two large crabs up under some tree roots, and moved the boat near them to try to catch one. Catch a crab barehanded, leaning out of the boat and reaching up under tree roots? No way. “Ten bucks says you don’t get him!”, I offered. Five seconds later, Martin held up the larger of the two crabs and said “I’ll take that in US or Euros.” (Yes, I paid up – in Euros.) Then he proceeded to tell us all about how to make this crab into a delicious soup with callaloo, the “collared greens” of the Eastern Caribbean. (He does a cooking demonstration on the island a couple times a month.)
We saw several species of birds, but neither of the native parrots. (That’s OK, we saw some on our hike with Sea Cat.) Several hummingbirds (there are four species on Dominica), a few different herons and egrets, a banana bird, and more. We saw some pretty impressive lizards, all looking like bigger, burlier cousins to the little anoles we have so many of in Florida. We saw “Calypso’s cabin” from Pirates of the Caribbean. But the stars of the show were the trees that grow right at the water’s edge. I won’t even try to describe them – just look at the pictures. Wow!
When we got as far upriver as we could go (it gets very narrow), we docked the boat at a little bar / nature center there, and Martin gave us a walking tour, pointing out another 20 or 30 plants that grow on the island. Then he taught us how to play dominoes, island-style. (Fans of Mexican Train, this is the simplest domino game possible, I think, so they punctuate each play by literally slamming the domino onto the table.)
What could have been over in two hours took us about four, because Martin went out of his way to show us things (like the crab) and tell us things that he could have easily cut out. And the tour – from the time he picked us up on our boats until he dropped us off there – cost each of us EC$50. That’s 50 Eastern Caribbean dollars, which are worth about 40 cents each, so about US$20. What a bargain!
(I hope you’re not getting tired of reading about Dominica, but I’m getting tired of writing about it, so I’m going to step up the pace a little.)
Day 5: Martin collected us and the crew of Water World from our boats about 9:30 a.m. and left us in the capable hands of Alec, one of the drivers / tour guides he works with. Alec drove us to an area called Syndicate, I think because it’s a big property where a lot of different farmers grow things. (But that’s a guess – it could be because the Mafia owns and runs it, but we didn’t meet anyone named Guido the whole time, so I don’t think so.) After an easy hike through a lot of the farmland (which looks more like a slightly thinned jungle, and not much like any farm I’ve ever seen), we came to a small rocky creek that we crossed over three times before finally reaching Syndicate Falls. Yay! Another waterfall! Yay! It has a pool at the bottom! Yay! It’s COLD! But by now, I’m on a roll, and I just stroll right in and paddle around like it’s no big deal. Heck, I think next New Year’s Day, I’m going to find one of those Polar Bear Swims to do, where you jump through a hole they cut in the ice.
We all (except Alec – he obviously has more sense than the rest of us) got in, and got our pictures with the water crashing down on us, and then had a nice hike back to the car, and an excellent lunch at a local (non-tourist) restaurant. We finished the tour with ice cream at a place claiming to have been selling ice cream on the island since 1968! I don’t know about that, but my two scoops were delicious, and I didn’t hear Fran or any of the others complain about theirs.
Day 6: Water World (Alain, Sandie, Patrick, and Jillian) left for Marie Galante, one of the islands on the south end of Guadeloupe, which would be our next stop, too. But new friends Dean and Kim Martin, on sailboat DreamCatcher, whom we met while on the dock in Grenada in December, arrived in Portsmouth on Day 5, and were rarin’ to start exploring the island with us on Day 6. Martin picked us up about 8:30 and left us with Marcus, another of his excellent drivers, for a tour of a LOT of the island. It ended up being an all day affair (we didn’t get back to our boats until almost 7:00), and during the day, we saw:
The Portsmouth Saturday Produce Market – you can’t believe how much food is raised on Dominica. No one could ever go hungry here – seriously.
Red Rocks: a very cool nub that sticks out on the NE corner of the island, all big and rocky and (for the most part) red, not unlike something you might see in the desert Southwest of the US.
The Kalinago Reservation: the only area in the world where the native people of the Caribbean still live in a community. Some refer to them as the Caribs, and honestly, I don’t know the difference between the Caribs and the Kalinago, but I know that Europeans pretty much wiped them out, and then tried to make amends – much too little too late – by setting aside this area of Dominica for them. Sound familiar? Anyway, we drove through their reservation, and Fran and I bought a beautiful basket from the woman who wove it (she showed us how she makes the materials from dried reeds). We also bought some cassava bread, because Martin acted like it was the best thing since… well, the best thing in a long time. It looks like a fat pancake made of something kind of lumpy, and none of us were prepared for the taste. Honestly, I was thinking it would be really starchy or chewey or fibrous (cassava is a root, after all), or something less than wonderful. I was wrong! Fran, Dean, and I all devoured one of the “pancakes”, even though we knew our next stop was for lunch! It was sweet, and chewey (in a wonderful way), and warm, and I’d eat another one, right this minute, if I had one offered to me.
A black sand beach, where the sand is actually a type of iron that comes from volcanoes, and because of its molecular structure, it doesn’t ever get rusty looking.
Lunch at Islet View Restaurant and Bar, in a small village with the unlikely name of Castle Bruce, overlooking yet another lush green valley so full of various fruit trees you could feed the entire NFL from it without any effort. My smoked chicken meal had the best chicken I’ve had in a long time (since the jerk chicken we loved so much in Turks and Caicos a year ago) – and it cost about US$11. Dean had curry chicken, Fran had curry pork, and if I can remember what Kim had, I can die a happy man. But everyone loved what they had.
The last waterfalls of our visit to Dominica, Spanny Falls. We walked on a paved / gravelled path all the way to the wooden platform of the first falls – by far the easiest falls we’ve visited. But to get to the second one, about a hundred yards away, we had to climb up a trail so steep that there’s a rope tied to trees along most of it, just so you can go up and down. Of course, we had to do that one – and swim in it – then return to the first one, and swim in it, too. And we took the best selfie (or, because it was four of us, is it a “weezie”?) of this whole trip so far. (Thank you, Google Pixel 3a phone with amazing camera!)
By then, we were all exhausted, and we were about an hour out of Portsmouth, so we just slumped into our seats as Marcus delivered us safely home. On the way, we couldn’t help notice the highway lights that are being installed all over the island – they’re solar AND wind powered! No wires to run! No coal or diesel to burn! They dig a hole, plop a pre-made concrete base into the hole and fill in around it, then attach the light to it with four big nuts and washers. Brilliant!
Day 7: I think we slept until about noon, but we didn’t have a tour that day, and it was our last day in Dominica. We did some boat projects, napped, and at about 6:30, we picked up Kim and Dean and motored to the beach for the PAYS Beach BBQ. PAYS is the Portsmouth Area Yacht Services group, a formal organization of “boat boys”, who are really doing a great job of welcoming boaters to Portsmouth. They installed and maintain the moorings, they do the Indian River tours, and generally do what’s necessary to take care of boaters. Of course they get paid by the boaters, but what’s different about PAYS from most (any?) other area is that they all (pretty much) work together, and put the customer ahead of any petty squabbling. And once a week, on Sundays, they host a beach BBQ, with all the grilled fish, chicken, salad and other sides, plus all the PAYS Special Rum Punch you can drink, for only EC$50 per person (About US$20.) The food is delicious, the music is infectious (even I danced!), and the rum punch… well, let’s just say that if you’re planning on leaving at sunrise on Monday, you don’t want to have four of their rum punches on Sunday night. I was warned. Now I know.
In case it’s not obvious, we LOVED Dominica! In terms of natural beauty, it’s on a par with all of the big islands to the south – Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Grenada. Except for the waterfalls. I can’t tell you why, but I simply loved the waterfalls. Other islands have some, but I don’t think any other islands have as many as Dominica, and I can’t hardly imagine one any more perfect than Papa at Trafalgar Falls.
And the people. Now, to be honest, almost all of our dealings were with people in the tourist biz, so they were being paid to show us a good time. But that’s been the case on every other island, and for some reason, the people on the other islands just don’t seem to measure up to the people we met in Dominica, in terms of friendliness, warmth, and a genuine desire to share their beautiful island home with us.
Would I want to live here? I don’t know. The more we’re away from home, the more I miss being with our people – in the Midwest, and Fort Collins, and Oregon, and Satellite Beach. But if we decide to live in the US most of the year, and spend winter in the Caribbean – Dominica is going to get a really close look!
If you’ve made it this far, thank you! Your reward is this link, to about 175 pictures we took on Dominica, uploaded to Google Photos.