Domica - January 2002
A trip to Dominica on the last week of January 2002. Prices and weather reflect the week we were there.
We took the Air Canada flight from Toronto to Antigua on Saturday morning. Arriving in Antigua we had to clear Immigration (slow), get our luggage, clear Customs and then (with all our luggage) go out of Arrivals and right to the far end of the building to check in with Caribbean Star. We had to pay for our tickets, check in our luggage and get our boarding passes. This took time but all the information for our reservation was there. Caribbean Star stamps the paper you received on arriving in Antigua so you do not have to pay the departure tax. Then we had to go back in Departures, through Immigration and security. We just had time for a before the flight was ready to board (on time). You are given a boarding pass lanes go with open seating. Get on early on the right landing at Melville Hall Airport is interesting – watching the trees go by past the window as you fly into the valley. Clearing Immigration and Customs was quick. Someone from KHATT (Ken's Hinterland Adventure Tours and Taxis) was there to pick us up and drive us to Castle Comfort – an interesting 1 to 1 ½ hour drive across the island.
We took the Caribbean Star flight from Dominica to Antigua on Saturday morning. We had to pay $20 US a person departure tax. We had been told this could be done with a Traveler's Cheque but the rep had to get Customs to approve the cheque and they charged $5.25 US for cashing the cheque. Getting through Security was very slow – the x-ray machine was broken and they had to hand search all the carry ons. If you want anything to eat, you have to get it before going through Security. We left right on time despite the pouring rain. Arriving in Antigua we had to clear Immigration (slow), get our luggage, clear Customs and then (with all our luggage) go out of Arrivals and half way down the building to the Air Canada checkin. There was someone there to check us in, accept our baggage, give us our boarding passes and stamp our arrival papers. We had about six hours in Antigua and asked the Air Canada rep when we had to be back to the airport. The answer was 2 hours before our flight. We went to the taxi dispatch desk at the airport and got a taxi driver to give us a rate for a tour - $20 US an hour. We drove to the south coast to see Shirley Heights, the interpretative center and Nelson's Dockyard. Back at the airport the bar was out of food except for hotdogs but the beer was cold. There is duty free at Antigua but not in Dominica. If buying duty-free in Dominica buy at one of the local grocery stores – same price as the duty-free stores and easier. To buy duty-free at a duty-free store in town you need to bring your plane ticket and passport, pay for the duty-free at the store and pick it up at the airport. One of the duty-free stores was charging more for rum than the local grocery store was charging.
Castle Comfort is small but very friendly. All your charges at the hotel, bar and dive shop are put onto a tab that is paid (by credit card, traveler's cheques or cash – US or EC dollars) when you leave. The food is GREAT, dinner starts with an interesting soup and rolls followed by an entree (one day was Cornish hen, one day chicken Creole sauce and the other days a choice of two entrees) plus normally four side dishes (salad, rice and beans, dasheen rolls, eggplant casserole, breadfruit, fried plantain, etc.) followed by a dessert. Breakfast was a piece of fruit (mango, grapefruit, orange, etc), fresh squeezed juice (orange, grapefruit, sour sop, etc), coffee or tea and a choice of hot items (bacon and eggs, banana pancakes, french toast, omelet, etc.). Lunch is pre-ordered at breakfast and is not included in the meal plan. You can eat in a group or by yourself at a table for two with a view of the water. The bar was very quiet all week, the most excitement was at sunset when we all gathered to look for the green flash (saw it 3 times).
The desk at the hotel will arrange tours through KHATT (Ken's Hinterland Adventure Tours and Taxis). You can put all your tours onto a tab that is paid (by credit card, traveler's cheques or cash) before you leave. The tours are the same price for the first 1 to 4 people, so finding someone to join you will save you some money. If picking a tour that says you will get wet, they mean that you will probably cross the river several times and may well be in up over your knees – whatever you wear on your feet will get wet. A moderate tour can be as easy as a climb over some wet rocks and river crossings (Victoria Falls) to a hard walk up and down the side of the mountain (Middleham Falls). Check with KHATT on what type of hike it is and what you should wear. We wore hiking boots to Middleham and were glad of the traction on the muddy logs and slippery tree roots. We wore running shoes to Victoria and they were wet for two days. If you get a chance, don't miss Titou Gorge, it is a short, simple walk to the gorge and then a swim through the grottos and up to Devil's Eye where the water comes in through an arch of rock. If you are thinking of doing the 6 hour boiling lake hike you have to be in VERY GOOD condition. The distance is not that far but the hike is up and down the mountain side and hard on the legs. Always bring some water on any hike. Often there will be a chance to swim, so wear or bring a bathing suit and a towel. We took a backpack with water, towels and rain ponchos on the hikes and left a set of dry clothes in the van.
We took the Dive Dominica whale watching tour and got to see 1 sperm whale. He was a juvenile that was curious about the boat and came over to see us. We spent about 4 hours on the water hunting for whales and were lucky enough to have 24 minutes with the whale. This is not always the case. They do find the whales most of the time but do not always get as close or see the whale for as long as we did. You pay your money and take your chances.
The people are VERY friendly and very proud of their country. We walked into Roseau from Castle Comfort and a number of people said hi or waved to us. Everyone speaks English. The roads are narrow, twisting, have few road signs and driving is on the left. You can rent a car (most with British right-hand drive) but it is easier and safer to hire a taxi from KHATT. The rental driver will be so busy watching the road and traffic that he will not have time to see the countryside. The country is very mountainous, with sudden short rain showers followed by rainbows. Although it can also rain heavily and did, we still had breaks between the rain. The mountains are covered with trees, ferns, epiphytes, etc. It looks a lot like parts of Costa Rica but there is not as many animals or birds to be seen and the mountains are much more rugged. The tall waterfalls going down the vertical mountains into pools are gorgeous and make for dramatic pictures. Unlike most Caribbean islands, Dominica does not run on island time. All the tours, dive boats, planes and meals were on time. Roseau is a bustling town, with busy traffic and people. The local rum punch varies from strong to killer depending on who mixed it and has various spices in it including nutmeg!
The diving in Dominica is different from diving on a coral reef. There are lots of crinoids and sponges but not much hard coral. The crinoids are large and colourful and easy subjects for photographers. The near shore waters are divided up into diving and fishing areas. Because of the local fishing there are not a lot of large fish but you do get to watch the fishermen in their small wooden boats that look like they should tip or sink any minute. We saw lots of eels, including a 6' spotted spoon-nose eel, buried in the sand until the dive guide tickled it's tail. We saw two flying guignards at Pointe Guignard and sea horses at two locations. One location had a male and female sharing a perch. There were huge bristle worms, lizard fish, long nose butterfly fish, yellow headed tile fish, trumpet fish, barrel sponges, vase sponges, etc. On a single dive we saw a golden tail moray, spotted moray, chestnut moray, sharptail eel and spotted spoon-nose eel. We did a night dive from the boat and saw 2 lesser electric rays, 2 sea horses, 2 spiny lobsters, basket stars and sea urchins out feeding, an ocelate swimming crab with a missing claw and lots of sleeping fish. We did two night dives from the dock at Castle Comfort and saw two orange ball anemones, an apricot side gill slug, a lesser electric ray that objected to our lights (never been chased away by an electric ray before), lots of sleeping soap fish, arrow crabs, basket stars, brittle stars, a sharp tailed eel out hunting, pair of small squid, coronet fish, slipper lobster, and a school of 1000s of shiny fish flashing back the refection of our lights. We did not get out to the drop-off from the dock, we did both our night dives in 15 to 40 feet of water hunting around the rock piles. If we had more time we would have gone for a day dive off the dock and tried to find the shipwreck just south of the dock in 90 feet of water. The water drops off very quickly, very close to shore. At one mooring the front of the boat was in 30 feet of water and the back was in 90 feet. This makes for very vertical and dramatic walls. You will probably do one dive at Scott's Head just so you can say you dove inside an old volcano but the diving is better further north. You will do at least one dive at Champagne, this is where the bubbles come up through the ocean floor. Don't miss putting your hand into the oulet of the vent to feel the heat of the volcano underneath you.
The water was 80 degrees all the time at all the depths.
The visibility was 60 to 100 feet on the boat dives and about 40 to 50 feet off the dock.
The dive boats are fast, roomy, and have a head, dry towels and fresh drinking water.
The dive boats LEAVE ON TIME (9 am) and return at 1 p.m.
The crew will load your gear on board the boat. You have to make sure all your gear is on the boat and you have two tanks before the boat leaves the dock. You have to set up your gear on the 1st tank, change tanks between dives, remove your gear from the 2nd tank and pack away your gear at the end of the dives. The crew will unload your gear and rinse it after the dives.
Dives are done following a dive guide. At the end of the dive you are allowed to wander around under the boat until out of time or air. Surface interval between dives was one hour.
You are responsible for watching your depths and times. It is easy to go deeper than you planned because of the vertical walls. Going down just a little further to see that huge barrel sponge. Safety stops were built into the dives, we normally spent the last 10 minutes on the way back to the boat in 20 feet of water.
The diving on the lee side of the island was easy and beautiful. A group of more adventurous divers wanted to dive in the Atlantic around the south end of the island. They got into heavy seas and when they got in the current was ripping. One couple gave up (the smart ones), one guy hooked onto the edge of the reef and pulled his way through the current, then he ended up deeper than he planned and had a short dive. There are times when the Atlantic is not that bad but why bother.
Would I go back YES. The diving is outstanding for all the crinoids, sponges and odd critters. It does not have the fish life or corals of somewhere like Bonaire but has a beauty of it's own below the water and is much more lovely above the water.