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April 1997 Vol. 12, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dominica, Nature’s Last Island

Diving in an unspoiled Caribbean paradise

from the April, 1997 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Nestled between the islands of Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south, lush, mountainous Dominica is one of the last Caribbean islands to feel the tread of tourists' feet. Castle Comfort Resort, a small, family-style resort with an intimate bed-and-breakfast ambiance, was one of the first on the island and has dominated the dive scene here. But as airline connections become easier and more divers discover the grand scale of Dominica's rain forest trails and the pristine reefs below, several new choices of accommodations and dive operations are becoming available.

Both Ben Davison and I have visited Dominica, and we concur wholeheartedly on the beauty of the diving and the hiking. I have no tales of big fish, but as soon as I get into the water, I know there's something I like about it, something that's indescribably different from other Caribbean locations.

On the following pages, one of our correspondents reports on his trip to one of the small, new luxury resorts, Petit Coulibri Cottages, and another longtime correspondent gives us a quick rundown on his recent stay at Castle Comfort.

J. Q.

Dear Fellow Diver, Our guide from the hotel met us at Melville Hall Airport, loaded up the van, and set out to cross the island of Dominica -- a solid two-hour ride through the rain forest with a couple of shopping forays (pineapples and bread) and a social call thrown in for good measure. Then we began the final leg of our journey: an additional half-hour up a very rocky dirt road to reach Petit Coulibri Cottages, our 1,000-foot-high paradise. I found myself thinking, "No pain, no gain" -- but by week's end, the drive would become barely noticeable, and the effort of enduring the half-mile ride down to the dive site and back up to the cottages would mysteriously fade away.

As soon as we could tear ourselves away from the spectacular view from this onetime sugar-cane-and-cacao estate, proprietors Loye, Bernard, and Amy Barnard gave us a tour of the entire resort: three cottages. Ours was a stone duplex with a bath and a half and a kitchenette with refrigerator and oven.

One or two other couples, mainly Europeans, came and went during our week there, but it was never crowded. With only three cabins, how could it be? Here in tropicalshower paradise, water is collected from the skies and heated by the sun; the water pressure in my shower was as good as home. Each cabin has a collection of wall fixtures and lamps that provide dim illumination at night (enough to allow reading), and 110V electric outlets.

There were other pleasures: a fridge stocked with sodas ($2) and other drinks; floorto- ceiling slat windows facing Martinique (23 miles south) -- no screens, but bugs were not a problem; in fact, we enjoyed the company of the birds that sometimes flew into our cottage. There's a pool overlooking the ocean a thousand feet below, but it was being repaired.

From the Heights to the Depths

Dominica

Dominica

I opted to have breakfast brought to me most mornings, and although the only item that changed was the fruit, the day's first meal was always excellent, a beautifully prepared platter with scrambled eggs, fresh fruit, banana fritters with passionfruit syrup, coconut bread (outstanding), and coffee. At $10 per person, it was fairly priced, even generous -- I kept leftovers in the fridge.

Around 8:30 a.m. it was time for the daily 15-minute ride (part of the package) down the mountain to Scott's Head Bay Marine Reserve in Soufriere, where the island's best diving is found. Nature Island Dive is owned and operated by three couples with diverse backgrounds, international diving experience, and great attitude.

My dive buddy and I checked in at the dive shop and found that we were two of only five divers for the day. After completing the brief paperwork, I wandered around the shop inspecting their rental gear, which seemed abundant and in good condition. The staff got us our weights, brought our gear to the boat, set it up on the shop's aluminum 80s, and we were off.

We didn't bother with a checkout dive; instead, we went straight into a panic dive that stirred concern about the coming week with Nature Island. After entering the water, but before we could reach the dive site underwater, we found ourselves in a strong current. Despite our desperate attempts , we couldn't make it work, and the dive had to be cut short.

But my doubts soon faded. We moved immediately to a nearby site and found ourselves diving on a fine, healthy reef. I dallied along, poking through a variety of anemones, huge barrel sponges, azure sponges, crinoids, and bristle worms. Although I didn't see giant fish, I was often surrounded by schools of snappers, saw groupers in the foot-and-a-half range, and even spotted a turtle.

Dominica, Nature's Last IslandBy week's end I was convinced that this group's service was matched only by Peter Hughes on Cayman Brac, and some liveaboards. Each day they asked us where we wanted to dive, and within a 10-minute boat ride, there we were. I was allowed to dive my computer; no depth or other requirements were ever mentioned, but most profiles were 60 to 80 feet for 50 minutes.

Nature Island Dive has two custom-built 21-foot aluminum dive boats with sunshades, twin outboards, and space that's ample for 10 divers but better with fewer. Entry was by backward roll, exits up a stern ladder. There's not enough camera space, but I didn't find this a problem because we returned to shore between dives. At first I thought returning between dives would be a hassle. I was wrong; it was wonderful. With most dives less than 10 minutes away, it gave us a clean, dry place to change film and a chance to use the bathroom. Because we were a small group, we often went together to get coffee at the Sea Bird Cafe, a short walk north of the shop, without worrying about being late for the second dive; after all, it couldn't start until we returned.

Food on the Hill

When we were done with our morning dives, we had lunch at a nearby restaurant -- usually the Sea Bird Cafe, where we found a good menu, great views, and good company. Then it was back up the mountain to the resort by 2:30. Afternoons were left open. Amy was great at arranging guided tours and hikes, and everyone was available for a lift down the road to the dive shop.

After our first day's diving, we had dinner on the verandah of the main house, overlooking the ocean. I had a spicy fish chowder, freshbaked bread, Carib-style moussaka, a grapefruit-arugula salad, and coconut sorbet. Menus here were somewhat programmed, like those on a live-aboard, but I could either dine in the main house or be served in my cottage. Most meals were made of locally grown ingredients and were reasonably priced at $25 per person -- a real bargain, considering how much they would cost if you cooked them yourself. There were a few restaurants that I had wanted to try, but travel times and taxi costs more often than not persuaded me to stay at the cottages and enjoy good food with a view. Dominica, Nature's Last IslandI also heard stories about great games of dominoes and even dancing in town, but I was content to look at the stars or read a book.

Champagne Diving

Simon was an enthusiastic divemaster, adept at finding marine life that didn't want to be found. On my first dive at Dangleben's Pinnacle and Inside Scott's Head, I asked to see a frogfish. Simon quickly found and pointed out a yellow frogfish perched on a sponge.

That night we dived Inside Scott's Head again for one of the most impressive night dives I've done in over 15 years, a dive packed with marine life and colors that rivaled the town pier in Bonaire before they scraped it clean. Dominica, Nature's Last IslandI saw nearly a half-dozen orange-ball corralimorphs, an immense number of crustaceans including big crabs (the claws alone were eight inches wide) and six lobsters, and every kind of eel imaginable, including the rarely seen blue conga. I talked about this dive for the rest of the week. We didn't get home until almost 9:00 p.m., but when we arrived, we found waiting for us in our cottage a delicious pumpkin soup, an oversized chicken calzone, salad, and sorbet. What a day!

Over the next few days, we dived several sheer vertical walls packed with healthy corals, giant brown barrel sponges, schools of red snapper, and trunkfish. I saw more frogfish; a gray one that was barely visible, even in my well-framed close-up photos, and a yellow one perched on a small brown sponge.

My last dives were at equally impressive sites: Debby Flo, Soufriere Pinnacle, and Scott's Head Pinnacle. Simon reflected that he'd not dived this wreck site for more than six months, so he wasn't sure what to expect. Two wrecks rested on the sand bottom, one wooden, not much compared with large wrecks, but with decent marine life, including a truly photogenic azure sponge growing off its side and a mushroom scorpion fish perched nearby. Our safety stop was in the famous Champagne site, where tiny bubbles emanate from the beneath the rocks, giving you the feeling of swimming in an ocean of sparkling wine. Not much marine life here, but a terrific safety stop.

Out of Eden

Melville Hall is
Dominica's largest air
field. It's a two-hour taxi
trip through the mountains
to the resorts -- an
entertaining ride, but for
convience, the smaller
Canefield is a short 15-
minute ride from
Roseau.

I went down the mountain on Saturday afternoon to pick up my dive gear at the dive shop. They had washed and bagged it for me. The diving was most memorable for the pristine reefs, abundant healthy corals, and wide-ranging photo opportunities. I can't remember the last time I was so impressed with a dive operation.

I hope that in the future E-6 processing will be available on the island and that Nature Island Dive will have oxygen on the boats -- even if the ride back is short.

All good thing have to come to an end, at least for a while. I give Petit Coulibri only four stars because of its cost; but the resort is spectacular, and I'm glad I stayed there. However, there's another place I will seriously consider next time: Nature Island, which has its own cottages over the water a short walk from the dive shop. It's less expensive and much more convenient.

C. M.

Ditty Bag

Waterhouse Tours in Florida (305-451-2228, fax 305-451-5147) is now the
booking agent for the dive operation, but I booked directly with the hotel (809-446-3150)
and with the dive shop (809-449-8181, fax 809-449-8182).
Official language is English. Departure tax is $10. . . . Round-trip airfare from
Miami on American Airlines, with a plane change in San Juan, was about $700. . . .
Petit Coulibri was $180 per night, based on a weekly stay. Dive packages were
$315 for ten dives, with no surcharge for making one of the ten dives a night
dive. . . . Daytime temperatures were about 80°F, although it was 10° cooler at
Petit Coulibri (and sometimes damp). Water temperature was also about 80°F
(in May) and visibility ran 60-80 feet in this, the beginning of the off season. . . .
Nature Dives also rents bikes and kayaking trips, though I did neither. . . . If
you'd like to explore the island after your morning dives, you can rent a car or
jeep for about $350 per week. There are no real beaches to speak of. . . . Required
Reading: Caribbean Sunseeker's Dominica just came out and is full of color plates,
vivid descriptions of sites, and key travel information (Passport Books, $10.95).
The June 1990 National Geographic has a beautiful description of the island,
as do publications from Dominica's Division of Tourism (212-682-0435, fax
212-697-4258). . . . There are several web sites for Dominica. Start with
http://www.delphis.dm/home.htm.

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