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36 Hours in Dominica

[Gallery below]

Story and photos by Dan O’Connor

When BVI Airways pilot and co-founder Luke Smith proposed I take a flight out to Dominica to experience the island’s majestic beauty firsthand, I jumped on the opportunity. Out of the numerous Caribbean destinations he regularly visits through his work, he admitted that Dominica is his favourite. A few days later, I soon found out why.

Luke secured two spots—for me and my girlfriend, Shatki Segura­—on an early Wednesday morning flight and two return tickets for the following night. I wondered what sort of experience I could have on such a short trip: How could I possibly begin to absorb the wonders that the 290-square mile rock coined “Nature’s Island” had to offer?

Luke met us promptly in the terminal and ushered us through the gate to the 19-seat Jetstream 32 prop plane. Two seats awaited us directly behind the pilot’s cabin in the front of the full plane. Luke left the door to the cockpit open so that I could photograph from the pilot’s perspective. With childlike enthusiasm, I was eager to peer in to watch and listen to the aeronautical experts rattle off checks, push fancy buttons and pull nifty handles. I had no idea what was going on, but it made for an exciting journey.

We reached a cruising altitude of 11,000 feet and flew comfortably for about 20 minutes at about 300 mph before the flight descended and made a scheduled stop in St Maarten where passengers who were on the normally scheduled flight were let off. Approaching the airport, we swooped directly overhead Maho Beach, where daring tourists stood, cameras pointing to the sky, eager to catch a close-up photograph of the belly of our plane. We left them dusted and likely hatless as we dipped narrowly overtop of them.

Luke also deplaned in St Maarten, busy with other appointments and scheduled flights, but not before briefing us on the 40-minute flight ahead to our intended destination.

“It’s like flying into Jurassic Park,” he said. “There’s really nothing like it. It’s beautiful.”

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His description was spot on. We flew into the island, spiked with tall mountains covered in thick green foliage and crowned with lazy white and grey clouds—a setting ripe for exploration. We careened through the ravines and through light cloud cover before the runway suddenly appeared through a valley between a mountain pass, and the small craft swooped in for a swift and tight landing on the short runway.

Once off the plane, we were greeted by Al Hypolite, a friendly Dominica national who works for Pagua Bay House, where we’d be spending the night. It was a short, 10-minute drive through narrow, winding roads and mountainous terrain before we reached the Pagua Bay Bar and Restaurant. There, we were greeted by Alisha Davison, who moved to Dominica in 2006 to open the restaurant and boutique villas with her husband, Rick. They’d become accustomed to taking in the BVI Airways crew—regulars who, by glowing accounts, had insisted upon the location. Alicia asked us what we’d like to do, to which I responded with a curious shrug. “Waterfalls? Rivers? Carib culture?”

She answered with a confident smile, assured us that we’ll find all the above through our helpful guide, Al, and sent us on our way. I left with a feeling that our itinerary was in good hands.

From there, Al drove us to our cabin villa, nestled off an open view of the dramatic Pagua Bay and across the choppy Atlantic Ocean. Our room’s exterior was modelled to resemble the banana processing sheds that previously fuelled Dominica’s economy. Regional production powerhouses Jamaica, Honduras and the Dominican Republic have since dominated that industry; however, the architecture fit perfectly within the lush landscaping surrounding the five separate dwellings. Inside, our room was simple and spacious, equipped with a clean and modern design—a calming compliment to its rustic exterior and dramatic surroundings.

Al proved a perfect guide. He was equipped with suggestions for our day’s journey and quickly started to rattle off native locales and tourism hotspots as I fumbled with my map. With a chuckle, he grabbed my map and guided me along.

Al has lived in Dominica his whole life. He and his family live in the Carib Territory, a community where 3,000 Carib descendents live over about 3,700 government-designated acres on Dominica’s east coast. Our route took us directly through the territory’s villages. Small, single-story homes and shops spread out sparingly across the land. Farmers strolled the street’s shoulders, machetes and shovels on their sides; children in school uniforms walked in happy little packs; women weaving baskets sat in merchants stands ready for passing shoppers while others fired up fresh cassava bread nearby. We were flashed frequent smiles and waves as we drove by; Al often patted his horn to say hello to a relative or old friend.

Our drive took us through the Central Rainforest, where thick, sweeping mountainside foliage draped one side of the road as the other dropped off into what may be the Pagua River. Or the Belle, Layou or Melville river. It was impossible for me to tell unless Al informed me. The country claims to have 365 rivers—one for every day of the year, their tourist board boasts.

We eventually reached the entrance to Spanny Falls, which is located in the centre of the island. After paying $10 EC (about US $4) at the entrance, we were on our way. Bright orange and black land crabs scurried out of our way, one after another, as we trotted down the path. Fifteen minutes later, we heard the thunderous crashing of the waterfall moments before it appeared—tall and powerful—through the thick, green vegetation. As I marvelled at the magnificent spectacle ahead, I began to feel a light sprinkle. From the waterfall, I thought. But before long, I’d realised I was about to experience my first torrential rainforest downpour—and not my last.

“Here it comes,” Al said, in a very matter-of-fact way. “Get ready.”

Perched on the large boulders about 20 feet from the fall, we momentarily attempted to shelter ourselves with the towels we had brought along. But after a short while, we embraced the rain, and laughter got the best of us. We used Shakti’s waterproof camera to snap off a few shots before we scampered back to the vehicle. Soaked, but ready for our next adventure, we continued on to the neighbouring Jacko Falls, where it was also raining.

Past a small merchant shack, under which a group of sensible tourists kept dry, we continued on to the river’s edge and to the fall’s base. From there, we climbed across a few boulders and took the plunge into the chilly, rejuvenating water. Rain continued to fall to our lack of concern, but sunlight also broke through the heavy canopy of foliage above. We danced in the sun’s rays for a while before heading back to the merchant tent where we warmed up to local cask rum and fresh fruit samples.

Our final stop was Emerald Pool, whose thick green scenery and mossy swimming hole lived up to its name. Shakti and I splashed around in the water like kids in mud puddles.

By the end of the day, the multitude of sopping wet water activities had us drained, and we headed back to Pagua Bay House, where we enjoyed a quick meal before giving way to an unavoidable coma.

Awaking the next morning refreshed and ready for another full day, Shakti and I were greeted again by Al, who suggested an itinerary that consisted of a trip through a cultural village in Carib Territory, a stop through Trafalgar Falls in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, and a tour of the capital city Roseau. We were sold.

We visited the The Village by the Sea, a recreation of a traditional Carib—or Kalinago—settlement. Our cultural guide, Fatima, led us through a path which cut through the forest and past a series of small huts and past artefacts used by her ancestors. We learned about the local flora and how it was used to treat wounds and sicknesses. She told us about traditional activities that still take place, such as canoe building, cassava processing, basket weaving, calabash caring and herb collecting.

When our tour finished and we left the village, I asked Al how much tradition still remains in the territory’s villages. “There’s still a little culture remaining,” he told me, “but not like in the [history] books—not like in the past. It’s more the elder people who still give back to the culture—the young people don’t care.” Now, the culture is practiced as a celebration of its history and as a source of tourism revenue, he added.

We continued the hour-and-a-half journey to the island’s famous Trafalgar Falls. We travelled through a series of switchbacks lined with bamboo trees and passed through the valleys leading to the islands calm, Caribbean Sea coast. It was balmy and sunny in the valley, but a 15-minute drive back up the mountain and through the rainforests leading to Trafalgar Falls brought a rain cloud at the end of the rainbow. We again braved the rain toward the dual falls and were rewarded by the warm sulphur springs that line the pathway to the chilly waters of the falls. We relaxed in our soothing retreat until our guide reminded us that we had a flight to catch on the opposite end of the island.

Roseau was still on the agenda—so we headed back toward the valley. There, we parked and perused some of the shops. Nothing immediately caught our eye, but our ears were guided to the bass of reggae rhythms coming from a pirate-themed bar, called Ruin’s Rock Café, in the heart of town. There, Al, Shakti and I sat and enjoyed tall rum punches infused with stiff, local rum and fresh local fruits. We noted the couple dozen jugs of exotic rum lining the bar. Some read pineapple, starfruit, vanilla, coffee, ginger, lemongrass and bitterwood. Other exotic blends boasted centipede, lizard and snake. Shakti and I got a closer look.

“Look at that, out of lizard and centipede—must be hot items around here,” I comment to the bartender, and questioned, “Does anyone really drink this stuff?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Me.”

Shakti and I laughed, but I don’t think he was kidding. From behind the bar he slammed down a jar with a large, severed snakehead—much larger than the small one we noticed on display.

“Boa constrictor,” he said with a chuckle, as he set down two shot glasses. He unscrewed the top and told me to have a whiff. It smelled like rotten chicken and feet.

Before I could protest, Shakti nodded her head at the bartender, and he unloaded two tall shots. Without thinking twice, we went for it—two boa constrictor shots to the face.

“Yuck” doesn’t begin to describe it.

It took a couple hours for the lingering shot to settle. The image of the fat boa head still haunts me. But with 36 hours in Dominica, there are only so many roads you can go down, rivers to explore and sporadic decisions to make. Next time, I’m doing a minimum of 72 hours on the island. And next time, I’m coming back for that centipede rum.

Dominica Gallery

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