Dominica - the garden island

Saxon Blue's Blog
Harvey Jones and Andrea Stokes
Sat 5 Mar 2011 01:59
Jungle Bay, Dominica, Friday night

I'm writing this listening to the sound of the Atlantic surf crashing against the beach outside the window, accompanied by tree frogs, insects and goodness knows what other creatures.

We got a lift from Saxon Blue to the shore with SeaBird after lunch yesterday. The taxi driver was waiting for us so we got loaded up into the standard mini-bus and set off. The driver, Winston, told us about the town of Portsmouth and the upcoming Carnival as he dodged potholes and pedestrians. He explained to us how beautiful girls could just step out into the road as they could be sure that everyone was looking at them anyway. We stopped to fill up with fuel and then set off out of town heading south down the coastal road.

There is only really one road in Dominica, shaped like a figure of 8. Mostly, it hugs the coatline but the middle bit heads up over the mountains from the Caribbean coast to the Atlantic one. As we were going from the very northwestern tip to the southeastern one, we ended up seeing about half the network. The first thing we passed was another massive medical school full of students from the USA. It's like a bit of the US just parachuted in with a huge KFC, shopping mall and other cultural essentials. Even there, the road was terrible although it's apparently being widened and improved by the Chinese who have also funded the National sports stadium and a load of other infrastructure. Nobody seems sure why the Dominicans are the beneficiaries of such largesse but I'm sure the People's Republic are not being entirely altruistic.

After a while, we stopped to pick up a lady friend of Winston's who was just coming along for the ride and I'm pretty sure that he couldn't really believe his luck to get a fare the whole length of the island. He told us the history of the villages that we passed through and the rivers that we crossed. When we reached the biggest river, we turned inland and started to climb. The old bus struggled upwards as the air got cooler and the foliage greener. Everywhere around us, we saw fields of exotic crops. We saw bananas, pineapples, dasheen, mangoes, yams, sugar-cane, limes, oranges, tobacco, cabbages, cinnamon, and even bay trees with accompanying distilleries to extract the volatile oils. All this amongst lush jungle with huge trees, ferns and epiphytes.

I was stunned. It's the first time we've seen any cultivation in the entire Caribbean despite many of the islands having a long history of fantastic fertility. This island really is a garden. If you stood still long enough, I'm sure your shoes would sprout roots and grow a Crocs tree but Dominca isn't alone in that. It does seem to be alone in that the people are still interested in farming for a living. Winston did tell us that far fewer people farm now than when he was younger and I know the market for their bananas was destroyed when Britain joined the EU (although, typically, the French islands still benefit from preferential trade terms). It seems that Dominca provides the produce for the entire island chain. Winston stopped and bought us some mangoes and they were amazing. In fact, all the fruit and veg we've had here is spectacularly good.

As we got to the very highest part of the road, we stopped at a tourist honeypot called the Emerald Lake in order, I think, that Winston could get some rice and peas for his lunch. We got chatting to a guy who was selling fresh coconut water which means that he had a box of young nuts on the back of his truck which he deftly opened with a machete so that we could stick a straw in and drink the delicious juice. It was slightly coconutty, slightly sweet but not atall the milk that we were expecting. He then cut two slivers from the husk and split the whole thing open so we could use the slivers as spoons to eat the jelly from the inside. It's this jelly which, after another year on the tree, turns into the white coconut meat that we're used to. All that entertainment and information for 2 US dollars.

Suitably fortified, we set off down the mountain along roads that were even more winding than on the western side. The Atlantic side of the island is cooler, wetter and it seems a bit more prosperous but the roads are even more tortuous. I must admit that I was losing my interest in driving when Winston finally announced that we were nearly there. We turned off down a concrete track and pulled in at a beautiful wooden building which is the reception area and yoga studio for Jungle Bay. The receptionist sent us off further down the hill in the taxi and then another woman showed us to our chalet.

Each chalet is built into the steep side of the hill so that you're not really aware of the other ones when you're inside your own. They all look out through the forest canopy and over the Atlantic so there's always a breeze and they stay cool all day. Although the back of ours is only just off the ground, the front is about 20 feet up in the air so it's very steep. There's a good-sized room with two double beds and chairs and then a bathroom with the shower stuck out the side so that the water just trickles through the floor and onto the ground below. The resident lizards consider the whole place is built for their benefit and they just wander up and down the walls, inside and out, displaying to each other. It's very rustic but it's all very well built and comfortable and we love it.

We had a beer with Winston who then set off to drive back to the north of the island but I think he will have picked up bus passengers all the way so he'll have had a good day's work. We got our clothes stowed away and then went down for our dinner in the restaurant. We're on an all meals included package so we have to make the most of it. The restaurant is an octagonal structure with a tree growing through the middle of it. It looks right out over the ocean and the open-air pool. The food is right up our street with fresh vegetables and fish, mostly local and almost all organic. The more you eat, the healthier you get - that's my theory anyway.

Before we left, we signed up for a hike to the Sari Sari waterfall and had a chat with the beautiful and supremely efficient Nancy who mentioned sorting us out with a custom-designed tour to visit some local sights that we'd enjoy on Saturday. There are organised excursions going all the time and many people have package deals to include them but we didn't want to be stuck with that so we're now very glad that we chose to be a bit more independent. After our dinner, we staggered back up the many steps to our chalet and were soon fast asleep with the forest and ocean sounds all around us, the windows wide open but no annoying bugs and no rain coming in. Bliss.

We got up at 7am this morning as we needed time to make a good job of breakfast before joining our tour at 9. Eight of us got into the back of a converted pickup truck with sideways facing seats. I wasn't sure about that as they look very uncomfortable but it was actually much better than the minibus yesterday with bucket seats and plenty of air. We drove for about 20 minutes, chatting away to the people around us who were mostly from the USA but with one couple from Martinique. We got out at the end of a tiny road and our guide, Justin, led us through lush fields where he pointed out all the different crops and cut bits off them for us to try.

From there, we headed straight into the jungle. We followed a gorge up into the mountains, alternately walking on a narrow path and wading thigh-deep through the river. The plants were amazing. Tree ferns that towered above us, and everything providing a home for yet other plants so it's all just a tangled mass in the end. By the time we got to the waterfall, we were all sweating so we didn't need much encouragement to do the final bit of scrambling over lethally slippery rocks and into the pool at the bottom. The force of the water was great enough to create a strong wind and blow the spray hard into our faces so that it was uncomfortable to look at the waterfall itself and I'd struggle to explain how high it was. It's way higher than any other fall that I've seen with the foaming water plunging straight down without any rocks disturbing the flow. It didn't quite look real - more like a childs drawing of what a waterfall should look like.

We paused for a quick snack of fresh pineapple and then retraced our steps back to the truck and to Jungle Bay for a well-earned and suitably extensive lunch. We'd only booked in initially for three nights and had asked if we could stay longer now that we'd found how lovely it all is. Nancy organised it so we could extend our stay although we'll be moving to a different chalet and she then set about arranging our personalised tour for tomorrow. In the end, we've got a driver all day just for us for barely any more than the others are paying for a shared coach trip so we're very happy with that.

There was another waterfall walk in the afternoon but we fancied just wandering around the grounds here and having a read and a rest. That's exactly what we did and, what do you know, it was soon time for another feast. We're now up in the recreation room, Andrea is researching Jean Rees who was a Dominican author and wrote a book called "Wide Sargasso Sea" about the first Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre. Everyone has been telling us how much we'll like Dominica and, so far, they've been right.