See below for a detailed trip report.
» See all the Dominica trip photos.
The Commonwealth of Dominica (official site), pronounced "Dah min eek' uh," is a small independent republic in the Lesser Antilles. With some 75,000 inhabitants, and at 10 by 30 miles in size, it's one of the more sparsely populated islands in the Caribbean. Because it has relatively few large, white sand beaches—especially compared with its immediate and more well-known neighbors, Martinique and Guadaloupe—Dominica is not visited by many tourists. (Its main industry is agriculture—citrus, bananas, cocoa, etc.—not tourism).
Recently, cruise ships have begun docking in Roseau (the capital) two days per week, but the cruise ship crowd is typically interested in little more than the trinket and souvenir stands which immediately surround the dock; they don't have the time to see any of the things which Dominica unique from its Caribbean neighbors: excellent birding, scuba diving, great hiking, natural volcanic phenomena (including the largest boiling lake in the world), etc. etc. etc.
Dominica's currency is the Eastern Caribbean (EC) Dollar, but U.S. Dollars are readily accepted everywhere (while we were there, at a rate of EC$2.6 to US$1).
What a chaotic start to what we hoped would be a relaxing (and romantic—those who know the end of this story know what I mean) vacation. This was our first time taking NJ Transit to Newark Airport, and we didn't know quite what to expect.
First, the cab was late (which was, sadly, not at all unusual for New Brunswick cab companies); the late cab caused us to miss our train. Luckily, the next scheduled train would still get us to the airport in time for our flight. Unluckily, making our flight didn't matter. Because of American Airlines' silly scheduling—a forty-five minute window between flights—we missed our connection and got stranded in Puerto Rico for the night.
Believe me, we would rather have been stuck in Newark. The highlight of that day and night was napping on the airport hotel's beach. "At least," we figured, "we'll get some good seafood while we're stuck here—it is an island, after all." Not quite. The only seafood place that the hotel staff could recommend was—are you ready?—Denny's. Yes, that Denny's. The one with the Grand Slam breakfast. I suppose we Americans have truly infused our culture into Puerto Rican cuisine. Now, in my heart of hears, I'm sure that San Juan has better seafood to offer than Denny's', but despite our best efforts, we weren't able to learn where to get it.
Please bear in mind, those who know the surprise ending to this story (have you guessed it yet?), that I was hoping for this to be the most perfect, trouble-free trip Sara and I have ever taken. Then again, when have we ever had good luck on trips? (From record cold snaps to record-breaking blizzards, to record-breaking rainfall—we've seen it all while vacationing.)
To add insult to injury, when we called to reschedule the whale watching trip we were now going to miss due to our unplanned layover, we found out that due to the holidays, there wasn't necessarily going to be another excursion we'd be able to make. Plus, we were losing a night at Papillote, which we expected (from reading other peoples' comments) to be the highlight of our lodging in Dominica. Sadly for Papillote, by the time we were able to call them and tell them we'd be in a day late, they had already sent out a car to pick us up—and the airport was over an hour away. We felt bad for the driver; we felt bad for ourselves; we felt bad for the poor American Airlines representative who'd be on the receiving end of the scathing letter we were preparing in our heads.
The day ended with a unsurprisingly bad meal at the hotel which the airline put us up in. We hoped the next day (and the rest of the trip) would go better!
After fighting with American Airlines, we were finally able to book ourselves on a non-stop flight to Dominica. (When we missed our connection, they initially booked us on a flight through Antigua.) After a short turboprop ride and an exciting, mountain-skirting approach into Melville Hall airport, we finally found ourselves in Dominica. 24 hours late, but none the worse for the wear.
Now, we're no slouches when it comes to travel. But, seeing as how there's a dearth of available information about Dominica (hopefully this travelogue will go a little way towards resolving that), we had very little clue about exchange rates, currency in general, and taxi cab etiquette. So—go figure—we got ripped off by our cabbie, Eddie.
We paid US$65 for a ride we later found out should have cost around US$50. Plus, we ran several of Eddie's errands with him (which, actually, was kinda fun). In the end, we arrived at our lodging for the evening (Papillote Wilderness Retreat) almost 2 hours after arriving at the airport. The unfortunate effect of this was that Papillote had already sent out their driver to pick is up from the flight (through Antigua) that American had booked us on in San Juan. We hadn't had a chance to call and tell them that we caught the earlier, direct flight. And it turned out that the same driver who made the first failed attempt to pick us up, also made the second. 0 for 2. 90 minutes of treacherous driving each way.
Speaking of the driving.... Dominica is a dichotomous country. On the one hand, it's modern—for example, literally everyone we met had a cellphone, and the coverage on that island was better than my coverage here at home. On the other hand, it's still got some of the most terrible roads I've seen, period. Potholes the size of hippos, blind curves and steep cliffs all make for a exhilirating if not dangerous ride. To help make it safer (and more fun), we quickly observed that Domincan drivers have developed a complicated set of honks and hand signals which help warn each other of certain road hazards. (Though most honking was really just to say "hi" to a passing friend; and since everybody seems to be friends with everybody else, there's a lot of honking going on.)
Finally, we were at Papillote. It was truly beautiful—not disappointing at all. We strolled around the garden and took in the lush beauty. We had a dip in the small, private thermal mineral pools. (Two pools are reserved for guests only; another, larger one is open to the public.) Our room was nice; no screens on the windows, but it turned out none were needed (we were told that the bats keep the mosquito population in check). It was nice to shower in the thermal mineral water (even though it was fairly ineffectual at actually cleaning our bodies; this was by far the hardest water I'd ever seen).
Dinner at Papillote was okay, but we had expected better based on our pre-travel internet reading. The highlight of dinner was very much a surprise. I would have thought that the tuna would be the winner, but in the end, the humble potato came through. We had the best-tasting potatoes we've ever had. (I had three.) Such flavor as I swear I've never had in a U.S.-grown spud. If you go to Dominica, you must try the potatoes.
Other dinner highlights were guava juice, sorrel juice and a yummy ginger cake (again, three helpings). Sorrel is a red plant which Domincans use (along with cinammon and other spices) to make a punch-like juice around Christmastime.
It had rained all night, and was still raining when we went down for breakfast. Our plan was to explore the island that day, perhaps do some hiking. Instead we ate a lazy breakfast at Papillote (delicious banana pancakes) and mulled over our options.
We eventually made the noncommital decision to visit Trafalgar Falls, which are only a 5-minute walk from Papillote. Trafalgar Falls is actually two falls: a "Papa Waterfall" and a "Mama Waterfall." What's unique about them is that they come from different sources; more specifically, the Papa is hot water and the Mama is cold water.
After buying the required "site pass," we headed down to the falls. (You may want to consider a weekly site pass; we later wished we had known about them at Trafalgar.)
Jackson, a young and friendly guide, quickly attached himself to us as we set down the short trail to the falls, but he was not unwelcome. After a very short walk, we reached the falls. These falls are always supposed to be impressive, but after a full night and morning of rain, they were absolutely torrential. It was an awesome sight.
Normally, people can swim at the base of the Mama fall, but with the enormous volume of water at that time, it wasn't possible. (We were told no fewer than 5 tourist-dies-gruesome-watery-death stories on our way to the falls, by various well-meaning Dominicans who were trying to beat into us that it was too dangerous to try fording the river in its current state.)
The rain had slowed by the time we returned to Papillote. Alfred, the hotel's tour guide (and the poor guy who had been sent to pick us up from Melville Hall on those two fruitless occasions), offered a discounted rate for a day trip to Freshwater Lake and to the Rainforest Aerial Tram. We would be joining two other Papillote guests, so he charged each one of the four of us US$20 instead of the regular $35pp.
The Freshwater Lake hike was short but nice. Alfred was a great guide. The other guests on our tour, Bonnie and Donna (from St. Thomas and California), wanted to ride the aerial tram, so we went along with them. Even though we enjoyed it, it definitely wasn't worth the steep price tag (US$55 per person). The highlight was certainly the 300-foot crossing over Breakfast Gorge, first by tram and then over a too-solid-to-be-fun suspension footbridge.
After the tram tour, Alfred dropped the four of us off at the Cocoa Cottage for dinner. The meal was fun—we got to meet some interesting tourists from Antigua—but the food quality was mixed. (The owner was new, so it might not have been fair to judge her food quite yet.)
The day ended with a short ride back to Papillote and a quick soak in the mineral pools before bed.
This was one of the most-anticipated days on our itinerary. We woke up early and met Bertrand down at the hotel lobby. Bertrand (Bertrand Jean-Baptiste, a.k.a. Dr. Birdy) works for the Dominican equivalent of the U.S. Forest Service. His day job involves monitoring bird populations and nests; on weekends and holidays, he takes visiting birders on guided tours of the local bird hotspots.
A more perfect guide is hard to imagine; Bertrand knows the calls, habits and likely locations of just about every species that appears on the island. He was super-knowledgeable, funny and friendly. Plus, his wife cooks one hell of a good picnic lunch!
We began our day of birdwatching with a drive up the coast. We were able to spot a few pelagic species on the way, including tropicbirds and a brown booby. (Non-birders, stop chuckling.) I'll omit the bird list details, and instead post them below.
Our first stop was the Syndicate Trail. On the road up to the trail, we stopped in several spots to do birding and/or pick some fresh fruit from local orchards. We were able to get several good sightings of Red-necked parrots in and around the citrus groves. We searched for Imperial (Sisserou) parrots from the Syndicate Trail, to no avail. (The rain shower was no help.)
Next, we took a short hike to the Syndicate Falls—where we saw not only a beautiful waterfall, but also several bird species (female Blue-Throated Hummingbird, Rufous-Throated Solitaire) plus a few large, orange crabs. The Syndicate Falls Trail is not very well-known, which kept it nice and quiet, just the way we like it.
On the way to the Syndicate Falls Trail, we got to: taste fresh coffee beans (which taste like sweet peppers), see cinnamon and nutmeg trees, eat some fresh oranges straight from the tree, and forage for avocados and limes.
After descending from the elevations of the Syndicate Falls area, we picked up our picnic lunch (prepared for us by Bertrand's wife) and headed over to Cabrits Park to enjoy it. Delicious. Lunch comprised tee-ree-ree cakes (itty bitty fishies fried up in a batter (tastes much better than it sounds)), green banana pie (green banana tastes similar to potato), fish, green squash with wild spinach and fresh-squeezed orange juice.
We birded around Cabrits and Fort Shirley for a little while (nice views of Portsmouth harbor and Morne Diablotin), and then wound up our fantastic day of birding.
We decided to have one last dinner at Papillote. The menu was callapump soup (made with callalou—a local root vegetable—and pumpkin), sauteed eggplant, yam cakes and a scrumptious lime pie.
Today was our planned botany tour with Cyrille John, Dominica's resident plant expert (and a colleague of Bertrand's).
During this morning's breakfast, we heard some frightening stories about the Layou River Hotel (our next planned lodging; we were supposed to stay there this evening). Apparently, some other Papillote guests had had a booking there, but when they showed up, they were the only ones there and got a bad feeling from the place. (There was also something about locals causing some trouble.) We decided to check it out anyway, later that night.
Cyrille picked us up, and we were off. He happily accomodated our request to check out the moderately-difficult Middleham Falls Trail, which someone had recommended to us the night before. This trail wasn't on his usual botany tour route, but he was able to point out a number of interesting plants along the way.
But the real reward for that 3-hour round-trip hike were the falls themselves. These were our favorite falls of the whole trip—and we probably saw 10 of the best of our lives on this trip.
Our next stop was a brief drive through the Botanical Gardens in Roseau. Then it was off to lunch, so we headed to Cyrille's home in Colihaut where his wife had prepared a very nice meal for us. We had salad from their garden, fish and a mix of provisions (root vegetables) including dasheen and cush cush. We even got to snack on some ice cream from their snackette's ice cream shop adjunct.
We made a few more stops on the way to our hotel (Cyrille was to drop us off at the Layou River Hotel). Each of these stops was worth it—breathtaking views of the sea, gorgeous landscapes and interesting plants. Our [predictable] favorite was sensitive plant, which reacts to tactile stimulation: you touch it with your finger and it closes up its leaves for a few minutes. Amazing.
Now, we hadn't planned on staying at the Layou River Hotel until we were told by Colin—Bertrand and Cyrille's "agent," as it were—that Papillote was too far for the next morning's planned hike up Morne Diablotin. He recommended the Layou River Inn as an alternative to our already-booked night at the Hibiscus Valley Inn, and we took his advice.
With respect to location, we was right. But of the four hotels we stayed in during our trip, this was our least favorite (and one of the most expensive).
The view from our room was utterly gorgeous—the Layou River—but the place had a "resorty" feel to it which we didn't feel was quite our style. Carol, the bartender, was sweet as pie, and the Chinese food was delicious (the hotel is owned by a Taiwanese couple, originally from New York).
Probably our main unhappiness with the room was that it was not cleaned well when we got there. There were droppings (mouse, insect—we're not sure) in the bathroom, and we found and killed (well, Sara found and Ron killed) the largest roach we'd ever seen (several inches long). Also, the hot water ran out after about 5 minutes. These things were probably due to a combination of the fact that (a) we were the only guests staying there at the time, and (b) the building is pretty old and probably needs some renovations.
Dinner was very good: hot & sour soup, spice bean curd and sweet & sour fish. Also fantastic papaya for dessert, and Kubuli (the local beer) to drink.
We went to bed early in preparation for the next day's hike up the famed Morne Diablotin with Bertrand. Of course, I couldn't sleep at all, what with all the planning and scheming—about The Surprise—that was going on in my head....
We awoke to a sunny, clear day. Packed the day bags (inluding the ring!) and went down to meet Bertrand.
On the way to the mountain, the road was blocked by some fallen bamboo. No problem—Bertrand, like seemingly all Dominicans, carries a machete with him wherever he goes! A few whacks later and we were back on our way.
We started the hike. An hour into it, and it was going great. In fact, we even got to see an Imperial parrot perched not too far away, though he took flight before Sara could get a glimpse. Before we knew it, we were almost half way up the mountain.
Then the downpours started.
"Tropical shower," we thought. It might be heavy, but it won't last long.
It didn't stop.
The hike had started to get hard before the rain came. We were already straining a bit to get up rocks and navigate over/under/through/around massive tangles of tree roots. But after a few minutes of rain, we were literally hiking up a small series of waterfalls.
For the first 30-or-so minutes, we tried avoiding the mud pools that were rapidly forming on the trail; we lost a lot of time trying to skirt them by tiptoeing along the edge of the trail. But after a while, it became clear (bad choice of words) that getting wet and dirty was inevitable, so we started walking right through the mud puddles and getting completely on our backs or bellies when we had to crawl or scramble.
Our clothes were saturated and there was water in our boots; I did my best to shield the pack (and its gilded contents) from the rain—good thing I'd wrapped the ring in a plastic bag.
This was the toughest hike either of us had ever experienced. It probably would have been so even if it hadn't rained; the water only made it hardest by a wider margin. Dozens of times, we had to stop and think about how to scale the next rock or set of interlocking roots. We had to continually remove the backpack just so that we could fit through multiple layers of roots.
3 hours and 10 minutes after setting out, we finally reached the summit. On a clear day, we are told that you can see the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Caribbean Sea to the west. We couldn't see more than 10 feet off the mountain. It was cloudy, drizzling and cold. We were filthy and our teeth were chattering.
I looked at Sara and sized up the situation. "The Surprise" would have to wait, I decided.
After a nice packed lunch (again, thanks to Mrs. Dr. Birdy), which included the best sorrel juice of our entire trip, we started back down. It took even longer to go down the wet, treacherous slope.
We finally emerged from the trail head at the bottom, just in time for a passing van filled with cruise ship passengers who were visibly horrified by the sight of our dirty selves striding out of the rainforest. We relished in their discomfort.
We can't remember what we ate for dinner that night. It was Chinese food, and it was good; that's all we know. We tried to clean up our clothes and bodies as best we could, and crashed into bed.
I still had to arrange The Surprise.
Some trouble with logistics today. We hadn't thought that we might need a rental car, but the reality of slow road travel and high cab fares drove us (pun unintended—I swear) to seek one out. Unfortunately, on short notice, we weren't able to get one today.
We also learned that our next hotel was farther away than we realized, which translated into expectations of a more expensive cab ride (even without getting ripped off). And to top it all off, we were running low on cash—and the only ATMs on the island were in far-off Portsmouth and Roseau.
Our hotel called us a cab. It arrived, and the driver was none other than Eddie, who drove us from the airport to Papillote upon our intial arrival. Even though I was sure Eddie had ripped us off on that first drive, we went with him again, and in the end, we were glad. Here's why. We asked him to first take us to the nearest (as in, 40 minutes away) cash machine, which was in a bank in Roseau. When we got there, I asked him to wait for me while I went in to get the money; I entered the bank and got in the back of a loooong line of Dominicans. Fifteen minutes later and one customer closer to the tellers, Eddie walks in to see what the hold-up was. I though I detected a wince as he took a look at the line of people in front of me. (Dominican cab drivers get paid by mileage, not by time.) Eddie walked over to the security guard and exchanged a few words, and then disappeared into one of the bank's back offices. He emerged a few minutes later and motioned for me to join him. I suspected that some shady line-skipping deal was being brokered, and I felt very conflicted about going over to him, but I did.
Inside the office was a very nice woman who processed my transaction. (I'm not sure whether Eddie actually knew her; he seems like the kind of guy who can make friends with anyone in an instant.) I left her office and tried not to make eye contact with any of the Dominicans who, minutes earlier, I'd stood shoulder-to-shoulder with in that long, slow line. I hate getting special treatment in other countries (at least when it's public).
We arrived at Hibiscus Valley Inn and paid Eddie. The Dominica cab story would not be complete if Eddie didn't (legitimately) have no change to give us. He promised, with a smile that said, "This is not true. You know it's not true. And I know that you know that it's not true," that he would, if he were free, stop by and take us to the airport on the day we were leaving. We smiled back, told him to keep the change (effectively giving him a huge tip), and said good-bye to the cabbie who had ripped us off twice and yet whom we loved.
Hibiscus Valley Inn was a great spot to spend the day recuperating. Our "Nature Bungalow" was a lot more rustic than we'd expected (no reliable electricity, for example), but the grounds were very beautiful and very relaxing. We whiled away the day in the hammock on our porch and strolling through the small but impressive flower garden. Lunch was delicious (red beans, rice, cabbage/carrot salad, potatoes), but dinner (salt cod) was way too salty for our taste. The electricity had gone out, so we had dinner (and did crosswords) by candlelight.
Daniel, the extremely helpful host of Hibiscus Valley, was able to arrange a rental car and whale watching for us.
We picked up our rental car (actually, Jeep) from the airport. It took a while to get used to driving on the wrong side of the road, but after a while it wasn't too bad. What was still bad, though, was all of the cliff-like drops, hairpin curves and reckless drivers on the road. Nevertheless, we made it safe and sound to our new home base of Calibishie.
When we arrived at DomCan's guest house, the water was out. We were told that it would come back soon, but for our entire stay at DomCan we had none. Which makes the fact that we loved our stay at DomCan even more significant. (We just went down to the restaurant to bathe/wash. Mind you, the restaurant is on one very scenic stretch of beach, so it's not exactly punishment.) The room itself had great views, too; positioned high on a hill, we saw beautiful sunsets.
We spent the day (and had lunch) in Portsmouth, and ate dinner at DomCan's restaurant. I skeptically tried the lasagna (who orders lasagna in the Caribbean???), and it was AMAZING. Absolutely delicious. I ordered it the next night, too.
Note that while Portsmouth was interesting, it was decidedly unromantic. No surprise questions popped there.
We took a stroll around Calibishie, and enjoyed seeing some authentic Dominican life (e.g., churchgoers singing). I had just read in our travel guide that Dominicans may look surly but rarely act that way, and if you just say hello, they will be very receptive. I tested this out on a very surly-looking man who happened to be carrying a machete. As we passed him, I gave him a cheerful "Hi!" to which he responded by flashing us a huge, bright white smile and saying, "Enjoy Dominica!"
Ever since we'd arrived in Dominica—and especially since our hike and the failed surprise attempt that went along with it— I hadn't been able to sleep well. All I kept thinking was: "Should I do it tomorrow?", "What will I say?", etc. But tonight was the worst night of all; I was running out of time.
This was our last full day here, and I knew I had to spring the surprise today. But WHERE? And WHEN?
We left early in the morning for our long drive across the island—whale watching was down on the southwest coast. It was a beautiful drive along the coast, alternating between elevated ocean vistas and valleys which nestled cute little towns. I knew I seemed distracted; I was constantly looking for a good place to pull over and spring the surprise. We were in gorgeous country, but popping the question on the side of a busy road didn't the way to go.
Finally, as we approached Roseau, I knew I had little time left. We passed by a cricket field which was situated on the front of a sugar cane field. This field was owned by the adjacent Macoucherie Rum factory. We passed the cane fields, and I made the decision.
As I started the sharp U-turn, Sara asked, somewhat alarmed, "Where are you going?" "I want to check out that cool sugar cane over there," I said. I knew it wasn't convincing, but I didn't care (and even if she found it suspicious, she still would never suspect what was in store).
I turned onto the dirt road that wound around the cricket field, and followed it around to the back of the huge lawn. We were a few hundred feet from the road now, on the side of a dirt road, cricket field on our left, sugar cane on our right, dilapidated rum factory buildings in front of us.
I stopped the car, and Sara asked what I was doing. I said, "Let's go look at the sugar cane; it's so interesting!" and tried to sound as though sugar cane were the most exciting thing since talking movies. We got out, and I made some half-assed attempts at caring about the cane.
There happened to be a pretty tree nearby, with a small wooden bench underneath it. I led Sara over to the bench, and we sat down together, facing the cane field. I could tell that she was confused about my new fascination with sugar cane.
And then I did it. I said the words that she never saw coming, and she said the word that I hoped would come. I pulled out the ring. She put it on. It was done.
We giddily clambered back into the Jeep and drove into Roseau, where we did some touristy stuff (who the hell remembers what?). We went whale watching and saw some whales (who the hell remembers those, either?).
We got back to DomCan and had an early dinner. There was a New Year's party planned down at the restaurant later that night, so we went up to the room to nap beforehand. Woke up the next morning. I slept like a baby—for the first night in weeks. Sara was so excited, she didn't sleep a wink.
Departure. Sad. So many lifelong memories made here; but so many more to be made back home.
I've scanned in Bertrand's original copy.