“I wonder how many people have arrived here in error?” I asked myself as I filed through immigration at the basic, boxy, pink concrete building known as Douglas-Charles International Airport. I’m in Dominica – an entirely different destination to the similarly named Dominican Republic, which is also in the Caribbean.
But I’m glad I’m at this island. Dominica is a beautiful, lush, green and mountainous place where you can watch whales or sit in warm water under waterfalls. It is promoted as the ‘nature island’ and you experience that as soon as your flight lands. I flew from the overdeveloped island of St Maarten, crammed with high rises and high rolling casinos. And the 350km distance between them seems to span decades.
My cab took 75 minutes to cover the 50 km to the capital Roseau, passing rum shacks and roadside vegetable stalls. There’s no overtaking as the narrow road winds through dense rainforest. Daylight appears to have a green filter and you twist and turn past banks of flowers, thick foliage and fast-flowing brooks.
Some of the concrete bridges are washed out, their tarmac surfaces sliding into the water as you drive past them over replacement bailey bridges. There’s said to be 365 rivers and most burst their banks during cyclone Erica in 2015.
This island offers unspoiled beauty mixed with real communities. They’re not all pretty but you won’t find the tacky tourist attractions that have sprung up elsewhere in the Caribbean.
My accommodation was the Anchorage Hotel, just a few miles south of the capital. It has 31 simple but spotless en-suite rooms built around a large and an enticing pool. They describe the rooms as ‘island style’ with the red tiled floors and bright bedding adding primary Caribbean colour to the spaces.
I liked the room key fob – a wooden carving of a whale’s tail. A nice touch. The hotel is built alongside the ocean and the wharf from which it takes its name – Anchorage. This isn’t a faceless chain hotel. The Anchorage opened for business in the 1960s as a family-run guesthouse, offering accommodation for yachties. The Armour family used to dive and snorkel from the guesthouse and they quickly became interested in the whales that swam past. So they started the whale watching tours, which soon become the driver of the business that has expanded into a dive resort and school.
The hotel was created in the 1970s and is still operated by the family of founder Janice Armour. She’s a Dominica national-treasure. Janice is highly respected for her role in shaping her nation following independence from Britain. She was the first to identify the potential for tourism and arranged the early package tours on the island, based on nature and wildlife watching. Her daughter Yvonne is now Chief Executive of the hotel group and they’ve added a low key beachside resort just outside the island’s second-city of Portsmouth.
Janice retains an apartment within the hotel but her daughter and grandchildren now run the business. The kitchen staff still use Janice’s cookbook though, to ensure that food is consistently good.
I sat by the bar, chatting to the entertaining barman Laro, between sips of delicious ‘callaloo’. This local green dish looks a bit like spinach soup. It’s good, very creamy. And afterwards I enjoyed one of Laro’s specialities – he makes the island’s best rum punch!
The next morning and with a surprisingly clear head from the ocean breezes, I climbed the steps to the hotel’s raised restaurant area. The decking provides a perfect place from which to watch all of the activity on the waters – from fishing charters to cruise ships berthing near the capital a few kilometres up the coast.
As I tucked into a delicious local breakfast of salted codfish with the part-fried Caribbean Johnny cakes, I looked down at the 75-foot catamaran alongside the jetty. This boat was set to provide the highlight of my trip – whale watching.
The family take marine life seriously. This isn’t a novelty boat tour. The Armours have studied whales and dolphins for generations and there’s a mini museum filled with display boards and information on marine mammals beneath the restaurant. Passengers waiting to board the boat in the departure area can view a sperm whale skeleton, too.
I was told that there would be a 95% chance of seeing whales. Once on board the boat, Janice’s grandson, 26-year-old Beyenne Armour-Shillingford, explained how the crew would find the whales – by using two hydrophones. The sensors are dipped into the water and one picks up the whale sound within a radius of 5 miles. The second directional sensor can work out where the whale is within a 15° arc. It is mostly sperm whales around the island so there was a lot of excitement on board when the ‘singing’ sound of a humpback came over a loudspeaker.
“It’s just like something out of finding Nemo,” Beyenne told me. “The movie offers the perfect representation of what they sound like.” He thought the whale was close to Scott’s Head Bay.
As the trip went on I was impressed at Beyenne’s understanding of the whales. Following a brief sighting he declared that he knew which whale it was. “It’s either Pinchy or Quasimodo within the group of seven,” he told me. The Dive Centre has compiled a family tree that displays the different relations between the local whales. “They have friendships. Some are closer to each other which helps you identify them when they are in pairs,” he told me.
“Sam was first seen in 1978,” Beyenne explained. “She’s in her 70s and we find that she goes missing for a few months at a time. We think she’s vacationing on the other islands,” he joked. “We have been researching that over the last few years, to see why she seems to head off and come back. We’re not quite sure why but we will find out of next few years,” he added.
The crew can also identify whales as ‘local’ by their clicking. “They have colloquialisms,” Beyenne told me. It was extraordinary. The crew also correctly predicted when the tracked whale would surface. “Whales are generally underwater for between 45 minutes and an hour,” Beyenne explained. “They make a special movement underwater before they dive so we know when they will resurface,” he told me. Beyenne told trippers to get their cameras ready – just before the whale’s tale flicked into view. The incredible sight was met with gasps of delight on board.
Gary, on holiday from Antiparos where he operates Blue Island Divers with his partner Albena, is used to seeing sealife but told me that the whale watching was really special.
“I’ve never seen anything like that before and probably won’t again,” Gary told me. “You got the classic tail right at the end.” Gary had been standing at the front of the boat on meshing. He could see the waves beneath the plastic lattice. Beyenne told me that the whale calves are curious and will come right under the boat and swim around. The mesh also gives spectators who stand there great view of dolphins, which rise from a depth of 200 feet and jump right in front of the boats.
I was surprised that the whales didn’t appear bothered by the whale watching boat. Beyenne explained that the whales have spent their entire life around the island and know the sound of the seven boats, which continuously watch them. “Other boats, like sailing boats from different islands, tend to scare the them off. They know our boat poses no threat,” he added. The trips are offered year-round but the autumn to spring period is considered high season for sightings. Humpbacks generally visit Dominica between January and April.
Back on land I noticed a large frog sculpture in the hotel lobby. The Armour-Shillingfords clearly had an interest in land-based conservation too. One of the reception team, Carlyn Valmond, explained that it was known as a ‘mountain chicken’ because of its taste. The amphibians are threatened and Carlyn has been volunteering with a local conservation group. “I remember finding some in my grandmother’s fridge and being horrified,” she told me.
Dominica’s wildlife and natural beauty doesn’t stop at the shore. Another family member, Dafar Armour-Shillingford, took me for a trip into the mountainous area that dominates Dominica, away from the coast. Like his brother, Dafar was highly knowledgeable about the island’s wildlife and clearly proud about UNESCO’s recognition that the Morne Trois Pitons National Park has the richest biodiversity in the Lesser Antilles.
As we strolled through the shade of the thick, tropical foliage, I glimpsed the occasional distinctive green and blue flash of a passing parrot. “The sisserou is our national bird,” Dafar explained. “It’s only found here and it’s illegal to hunt them and capture them.” But they’ve become a nuisance for citrus plantation owners recently. There are no big animals on the island. You’ll see small possums climbing trees and if you’re really lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) a boa constrictor. “You won’t see them often. They will just hug you to death” was the overly positive description of the snakes one local gave me.
Drivers in Dominica are advised of the ‘Volcanic Eruption Evacuation Route’, which is quite sobering if, like me, you live in Dorset and the most exotic road sign warns of roaming deer. The landscape is dominated by the 1,342m high volcano Morne Trois Pitons, one of five on the island. One day geothermal power could provide an economic boost, but for now it offers a tourism draw.
There’s a beach not far from the Anchorage Hotel where it looks like someone’s using a soda stream in the sea. The bubbles come up from the reef, emitted by undersea vents. Rather descriptively, it’s called Champagne Beach.
If you can spare six hours you can trek to the Inland Boiling Lake. For locals it’s a rite of passage and all school kids have to do it.
It got really wet and drizzly as Dafar drove us along the highest point in the road – at 2,790 feet above sea level. All that rainwater has to go somewhere and many visitors head to the island’s waterfalls. At Trafalgar Falls there are two waterfalls – and they’ve been assigned genders.
As we stopped to view the impressive twin falls, Dafar tried to stifle his laughter as he explained. “The one to the left, the taller and more slender waterfall, is generally considered the male. The shorter, more substantial fall is referred to as female,” he laughed. Both waterfalls are cold but near the base of the male waterfall there is a hot spring so the pools and streams are lukewarm. If you get to the source of the hot water there are some pools that are extremely hot. Denise from Canada emerged from the water and told me it was quite relaxing, “almost like a massage”, as water cascaded down.
I never knew that there were river crabs until Dafar pointed out an orange creature scuttling sideways across the footpath. Locals prefer the taste to sea crabs and they are a delicacy around Independence Day. They can grow up to eight inches across.
We walked through the rainforest to reach another popular beauty spot – the Emerald Pool. It is surrounded by lush vegetation and from a distance the foliage reflects to give the impression that the water is green.
My tour with Dafar continued to the island’s more isolated East Coast.
Louis Patrick Hill is from the Kalinago people. They were the first island settlers and originally came from the Orinoco area of South America. The tribe was granted a small territory by the British in the 1950s but want true recognition. Louis was born and bred on the island and, following a US Army career, he served as an American Senator.
He told me that it was always his intention to come home. He wants to create an economic opportunity for the people of the territory, an area with very little employment or economic activity. He’s building an eco-retreat in the woods overlooking the coastline. The accommodation is green and sustainable and built traditionally. When it’s finished, you’ll be able to stay in a thatched, wooden, A-frame cottage.
Louis’ idea of tourism is a reciprocal arrangement. He’d like to encourage visitors who will be able to give something back to the community – writers, musicians or artists who can teach in local schools. In return, visitors could learn about the herbs and medicinal plants that the tribe has used for hundreds of years.
As we sat on a deck overlooking the ocean, the waves pound on the rocks below. “It surprises me that people spend so much time protecting wildlife but here we have a tribe of human beings who have been oppressed and exploited for over 500 years. We are an endangered species,” he told me. “We have an amazing ancestry. This territory exists because of the courage of our people who stood up against European colonists.” You can book the Aywasi Kalinago Retreat on airBnB.
The Kalinago have a reputation as craftspeople and are famed for their woodwork and woven mats and baskets. They also produce cassava bread and flour. Smart west coast islanders drive into the territory to get better priced and higher quality fruit and vegetables including sweet potatoes, yams, pineapples or avocados. I had been told that the Kalinago have a close affinity to nature and it’s true that you’ll see some beautiful floral displays in their gardens.
I met Christie Frederick who works at a cultural village called Kalinago Barana Aute. It features a reconstruction of traditional, wooden, thatched Kalinago homes and a meeting hall. It is sometimes referred to as the model village, which I found a little confusing – I had expected tiny miniature houses!
“It explains the culture, lifestyle and clothing of our people,” said Christie. A walkway is decorated with dozens of carved heads on poles that look similar to the famous Easter Island statues. They represent past chiefs.
You might hear people use the term ‘Carib’ or ‘Carib Indian’ but Christie says that is frowned upon. “Columbus said we were cannibals. That’s where the word comes from. If that was true, I’d be fierce, a warrior. I am not that person.”
Sadly, the Kalinago language has been pretty much extinguished but a few words are still used. You’ll hear mabrika. It means welcome.