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February 1999 Vol. 14, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Castle Comfort Lodge, Dominica

not the same old Caribbean above or below

from the February, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Ive put in my time on low, scrub-covered Caribbean islands where the tallest relief was a bump in the sand, and Ive done it with little complaint, doing nothing but baking on the beach between dives. However, this trip would be different. Dominica is an island of beautiful contrasts: high mountains and deep valleys, lush, breathtaking rainforests, and thundering waterfalls and hot, volcanic springs, exactly what unfolded out my window as the rainforests banana leaves scraped my planes wing. We touched down safely and came to a screeching halt on the shortened runway at Melville Hall Airport in Marigot.

As soon as my group had cleared customs and immigration, a friendly representative from the Castle Comfort Lodge loaded us and our gear onto their bus for an ascent over a 5000-foot mountain and the 90-minute ride to the Lodge. Lost in the mist and prolific flora, I found that the time passed quickly. When we arrived at the town of Roseau, back at sea level again, I was already imagining the hiking and kayaking tours that waited for me when I didnt have my head underwater. If the waters below Dominica echoed the profusion and diversity of its topside terrain, this would be an excellent dive trip.

At Castle Comfort, we were greeted by the friendly owner, Derrick Perryman, who offered strong rum punches. While he briefed us, our bags were whisked to our rooms. Derrick, a Dominican in his 40s, manages the resort with his wife, Ginette, who runs the front desk where guests can arrange kayaking, make phone calls, and summon cabs. Both were attentive problem-solvers who have organized the resort to accommodate their guests.

The Castle Comfort is just outside Roseau (you can even walk into town), a busy town with interesting colonial buildings and friendly, if not effusive, locals. Castle Comfort Lodge, DominicaThe Lodge is a small establishment of fifteen rooms, most of which had adjoining terraces or patios. Unfortunately, theres no bar (but there are drinks), no pool, and no beach; swimming is off the dock only, though theres the hot tub that also serves as a central meeting place.

Derricks Dive Dominica is a professional and efficient operation. He has aluminum 80s available 24 hours a day for unlimited shore diving: just put up the dive flag at the end of the dock, gear up, and jump in. The shore diving, however, was not to my taste--a rocky bottom and wall-to-wall sea urchins. Some divers, however, enjoyed the eels, a variety of crabs and shrimp, and the possibility of seeing squid at night.

I found the boat diving, with two-tank boat dives in the morning and a third in the afternoon, to be much more interesting. I dove from two of Dive Dominicas four boats and found both clean and ample with heads, shaded areas, and two double-rung ladders on the stern of each boat. The crew tossed current lines--a real help--so you could pull yourself to the ladder. The staff removed and rinsed our gear after the dives, then left it in the drying shed so it was accessible for shore diving. They had water and no snacks, but the sites are close: 20-30 minutes, max.

Dominicas underwater terrain does indeed reflect its spectacular surface landscape with volcanic coral structures and dramatic 600-foot walls within 100 yards of shore. The pristine and unsullied reefs are punctuated with phenomenal topography, including abrupt walls, gaping craters, and inviting swimthroughs. And theyre bedecked with a burgeoning array of marine life from undulating anemones to hefty squid to fat barrel sponges. Though there are few pelagics and many fish traps, fish life is still more prolific than many places Ive been in the Caribbean. I found fierce currents, but for me battling them made negotiating the sites a struggle sweeter for the winning.

Boat rides in the 47 Bellcraft aluminum catamaran with Cummins diesels were generally comfortable over this Novembers mild seas. After a twenty-minute ride to Scotts Head Pinnacle, a crater where you can dive either inside or outside, a giant stride off the back immersed me in the 80 water. Forty feet below, a tunnel- like swimthrough beckoned like a gaping mouth. Packed with barrel sponges and soft corals, sea fans, and sea plumes, and accented with a scattering of puffers, trumpet fish, and scorpion fish, its opening was flooded with light. The current was tremendous, pressing me to its own designs; not everyone could maneuver through the conduit and several divers were blown back. The swimthrough seemed to go on forever past green finger sponges and netted barrel sponges, but I finally completed the passage and reached the wall. The strong current reduced the duration of the dive to 40 minutes, less than the trip norm of 50-60 minutes. On another day I dove to 80 on the outside of the precipice, reveling in the large soft corals and giant barrel sponges.

Diving in Dominica is incredibly varied. Each site is distinguished by its own unique topography and cast of residents. Champagne featured streams of warm, freshwater bubbles that are forced up through the ocean floor by the active volcano on the island. Castle Comfort Lodge, Dominicae incessant bubbles were especially intriguing to the phI found coral clusters on sand flats at 50 that plunge over a wall, then spent my time lolling in the warm bubbles, watching the occasional scrawled file fish, an octopus, large crabs, coral-banded shrimp, and many tiger-tail sea cucumbers. Thotographers and produced some great photos.

Dangelbens North, which at 50 is a great reef dive, displayed plump, gorgeous anemones and immaculate corals along with nimble spray crabs, squat anemone shrimp, banded clinging crabs, and arrow crabs by the dozens. There were spotted drums of all ages everywhere. Dangelbens Pinnacle, a more advanced, 100 dive, had strong currents and magnificent swimthroughs. Here I discovered southern stingrays, puffers, and even a seahorse, and I swam side by side with a friendly hawksbill turtle. Coral Gardens, a 65 dive with curlicued seahorses, scorpion fish, and lizard fish, and Le Sorciere, a deeper, 120 dive with a plethora of squirming eels and hefty turtles, are both good dives for beginners. Whale Shark Reef in the central west was a longer, 45-minute boat ride to a deeper dive, around 100, but the scattering of one- to two-foot turtles, trumpet fish, and audacious squid who dallied with divers cameras made the dive memorable.

Dive Dominicas dive program alternates divemasters from dive to dive. The divemasters tended to lack enthusiasm and were incomplete in their briefings, failing to draw maps or supply us details and relying more on our willingness to follow their lead. They guided us through the terrain but rarely pointed much out. One exception was Woodie, a Dominican swimmer in the Atlanta Olympics who was well-educated, well-traveled, and at ease with the guests. His facile communication was a real bonus, improving his briefings and interaction with divers; he excelled at pointing things out and identifying them. However, he was only our divemaster on two of six days. The divemasters on the four remaining days were uninformative and generally indistinguishable from one another.

Despite the fact that everyone in our group of fourteen (there were also three Swiss divers and four other Americans at the resort) was experienced, we were not allowed to dive our own profiles. They never took roll call (relying instead on head counts) nor checked our depth, time, or computers. We were limited to 100 feet on the first dive and 60 feet on second or third dives, and these limits were strictly enforced. Of course, some dives would have required a shovel to exceed their limits, but on other dives I would have liked to have gone deeper. In fact, I decided to give it a try at Le Sorciere, where I dropped to 120, but they motioned me to come up and chewed me out after I surfaced, so on future dives I tried to abide by their limits, albeit begrudgingly. Of course, sometimes it was hard for me to figure out just what those limits were: one experienced diver passing through a swimthrough at 40 had a divemaster grab her by her tank valve and pull her out for no apparent reason.

Otherwise, the dive program was flexible and accommodating: they were happy to hold the third dive in the afternoon if the group preferred to leave later, and they would arrange a third boat dive or a night dive even if only two people wanted one. Generally, they were prompt, professional, and efficient.

After the spectacular diving, however, meals were a definite let down and often not to my taste. Though most of the reader reports Id read in the Travelin Divers Chapbook said that the food was good, it didnt much suit my New York palate. Dinners were served family style, though most of what appeared in the two or three enormous bowls they proffered were assorted local root vegetables including potatoes, yams, dasheen, and other similar offerings I was often at a loss to identify. The entrees, usually fish or poultry, were served plated. One night, for example, we were offered a choice between fish or frog legs (which they called mountain chicken), which for me wasnt much of a choice, although the fish dish I chose was decently prepared. There were no salads, fruits, or green vegetables; when I requested a banana daiquiri (on an island choked with banana trees), I was told the kitchen had no bananas. Wine, mixed drinks, and Kabuli, the local beer, which was good, were reasonably priced.

I found breakfast the best meal of the day as entrees were cooked to order. Waitresses brought papaya, mango, grapefruit, and other tropical selections, then took your order for a main breakfast dish such as eggs any style, pancakes, French toast, and cereal. Lunches, however, were unbelievably slow. Tip: if you want to dive in the afternoon, order lunch at breakfast. When I did so, it was waiting for me when I arrived after the morning two-tank boat dives. Otherwise, I was rushed to make an excursion or third boat dive. The only thing offered for lunch that I enjoyed was the grilled chicken sandwich, although some people liked the flying fish sandwich. They offered no snacks at the resort or on the boats, and I lost weight on the trip. Without the protein bars brought by a friend, the incredible coconut bread we bought in town, and the Kabuli, I would have been hungry indeed.

The two-building layout of Castle Comfort relegated guests to either newer or older quarters. Fortunately, I stayed in the newer building, which was farther from the road and closer to the water. It housed the dive shop, drying room, and reception area on the ground floor and four rooms above. Rooms 14 and 15, the two best rooms in the place, faced the ocean and overlooked the dock. Since it dropped into the low 70s in the evening, I could turn off the air conditioning, rely on the ceiling fan, and listen to the waves. The two rooms on the opposite side, 16 and 17, were also nice, although they face into the property. Rooms had either a king-sized bed or a double bed and twin, a wicker chest with three drawers and shelves in addition to a decent-sized closet, and a table and chair. Bathrooms had plenty of hot water. Rooms were small and plain, but adequate, safe, quiet, and well-kept; they were cleaned every morning when beds were made up and fresh towels left.

The other eleven rooms were in the older main building, which also housed the hotel laundry room (where theyd wash things for you if you asked), an upstairs terrace where you could sit and have a drink before dinner, and a dining room that was alfresco but covered. Rooms in this building either faced the road (upstairs rooms had road views only) or the property. Although some have television and telephones, they lack terraces and patios, are noisy from constant traffic, and are charmless. When making reservations, specify no roadside rooms.

Afternoons, it was a choice between a third boat dive, a shore dive, or one of the many worthwhile excursions offered by Kens Excursions. Trafalgar Falls was my favorite. I reached the falls after a slippery hike up the two waterfalls, which had very cold pools at the bottom to swim in. Titou Gorge was a very magical place that required hikers to swim through the gorge between canyon-like walls to reach a cavern room with waterfalls toward the back of the gorge. And theres the famous 14-mile round trip hike to Boiling Lake that passes through magical rainforest terrain, or you can try your hand at sea kayaking along calm shores. There was little to do at night save sitting around or in the hot tub having a last drink or two, so guests tended to retire early.

All in all, Dominica is a jewel both under and above the water. It is still pristine and relatively undiscovered, and I hope it will remain so by keeping its focus on ecotourism. Though the accommodations arent luxurious and the food isnt gourmet, the topography is stunning both in and out of the water. Diving in the fish-rich waters in the mornings and hiking in the rainforest in the afternoon make an excellent combination.

T.C.

Castle Comfort Lodge, DominicaDivers Compass: Castle Comfort Lodge/Dive Dominica can be reached at 767-44-82188; their toll-free number is 888-414- 7626, fax 767-44-86088. Their e-mail address is dive@cwdom.dm, website address http://www.divedominica.com ....four-night dive package is $579, double occupancy, $668 single and includes 4 dives; 7-night package is $949 double occupancy, $1095 single and includes 11 dives...all packages include airport transfers in Dominica, unlimited shore diving and unlimited air fills for shore diving, use of tanks & weights, breakfast & dinner daily, welcome rum punch, U.S. departure tax, service charge and government hotel tax...whale-watching excursions are available...American has a 1-1/2 hr. flight daily connecting from San Juan to Marigot...round-trip airfare from JFK to Dominica ran $569....there are also flights into Canefield in Roseau, but the airport accommodates only smaller planes and hence takes only inter-island flights...two divemasters were in the water on every dive...visibility was consistently around 75...no log books required but they did ask to see certification card and had me sign a waiver...Sherwood rental equipment was available, with regulators and BCs each renting for $8/day, wetsuits and computers for $10/day...no repair facilities, photo processing, nitrox, or camera facilities were available....there were separate water tanks for cameras and camera tables on the boats....Roseau hosts a local straw market with the expected variety of tee-shirts, wood carvings, and beads. Local painters, wood carvers, and weavers also offer interesting works. I recommend Tropicrafts and The Mill, where Louis Desiree and other excellent local carvers have their studio. Also, there is a local pottery factory where you can sometimes get lucky. Cruise ships arrive in Roseau once or twice weekly. The Fort Young Hotel, the largest hotel in Roseau, offers decent food, dining room with pianist, and bar with tv for sports fans, but no dive operation....best time to visit Dominica is April through November...average water temperature is 78-82 F....despite Dominicas reputation for rain, it never rained while I visited except in the rainforest, though cloudy weather was the rule... the area was amazingly bug-free, even within the rainforest...

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