Thursday, we bit the bullet and paid for a day-long tour of Dominica, which – at $50 a person – is a huge splurge for us. But I’d heard that Dominica was the place to splurge on inland tours, as its virgin rainforest and stunning volcanic mountains are unparalleled in the Caribbean, advice that turned out to be excellent. Besides, our new friends Ed and Elizabeth of Skylark were going. The day before, we’d hiked the Cabrits, a set of hills topped by fort ruins, with them and their dog Luna, so we knew we’d have lots of laughs even if the tour wasn’t up to snuff.
We were picked up at 9 AM from the boat, ferried to shore then piled into the back of a minibus with a family of French tourists. Winston, our driver, was a real character – as we wound through the mountain villages and byways, he’d greet seemingly everyone on the road, stopping here and there to buy a large taro root from a farmer or greet his brother in law. The tour itself was a bit scattershot, as he took us to see his home village and the prime minister’s house, but didn’t leave time for one of the well-known forest hikes we had hoped to do. That said, it was a real kick to see a bit of the non-tourist Dominica.
We stopped to gather guavas and lemongrass alongside the road and squatted by a small stream to crack open a brown nut-like fruit with a rock, revealing a sweet, dry interior that Philip loved and made me gag.
Dominica’s seven potentially active volcanoes (most Caribbean islands have only one, if any) rise dramatically from the sea to over 3,000 feet, creating stunning vistas and copious rain to fill Dominica’s 365 rivers. The volcanoes also fuel hot and cold springs; we hiked to a cold sulphur spring where stinky but clear water bubbled up from the ground in small pools that appeared to be boiling but were, in fact, quite cool. As we descended to the spring, we passed agricultural fields filled with sweet potatoes, taro and other crops. Despite the nearly-vertical slopes, the fields weren’t terraced: the plants seemed to cling to the mountainsides in places.
We passed through the Carib reserve, the only place in the Caribbean where there is still a native population of Caribs. Monty explained the local system of electing a council who chooses the chief, and told us that one of the council members had recently lost his seat because he spoke against blacks, so people didn’t like him. I asked if there was much intermarriage, and he said yes, but that if a Carib woman wants to be with an outsider, she must leave, but a Carib man may marry an outsider and bring her to the reserve. Like most native reservations, the place was poor, seemingly even poorer than the surrounding countryside. We actually bought our first souvenir of our trip here, a traditional mask made out of palm fibers, and I actually felt bad that I couldn’t spend more on the beautiful handmade baskets and gourd birdfeeders.
The bar was stocked with homemade rum infusions, ranging from the obvious rum/fruit combinations to odder concoctions like peanut, Obama’s ?, garlic and – I shit you not – “cock stiffener,” made with the local “Viagra,” bois bande. (We later saw signs in the national forest letting us know that gathering bois bande from the protected trees is a crime, so apparently it’s rather popular around here.)
Our final stop was the Emerald Pool, an absolutely stunning waterfall reached by a short hike through them most primordial forest I’ve ever seen. It had been raining on and off all day, and as we wound our way through the mist, dripping trees and gigantic ferns, we half expected a dinosaur to jump out and snap up the last guy in the line for a snack. I kept exclaiming, “Wow, this is amazing! I’m so happy!” because this was exactly the kind of experience I had hoped to have when we set off – to have my mind absolutely blown by something totally new to me.
On the return to Portsmouth and our anchorage, we wound along a shore road that clung to the sides of the mountains above the ocean, passing through small villages perched on the cliffs. Ed counted villages, saying that the area reminded him of the Italian coastal region of Cinque Terre with its five villages above the Med. We got to four villages before we descended to Portsmouth, the sun just set, and made our way back to our boats, exhausted and happy.