January 21, 2020

Discovering Dominica: the Nature Island

Sometimes the livin' is easy on an island we visit and before we know it a week has passed. Not so for Dominica; we had to work for it, but we are so glad that we put forth the effort.

Dominica - not to be confused with the Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic we visited last spring - is an independent island with a population of about 70,000 and is known as Nature Island. Dominica was devastated by category 5 Hurricane Maria in 2017, and while some signs of damage remain, the island is well on its way to a full recovery.

Prince Rupert Bay, Portsmouth

Unlike most islands, where we anchorage-hop our way along the coast, Dominica has only two main anchorages: Roseau on the southern end and Portsmouth at the northern point. This is because the island is steep to, with sharp underwater drop offs that go from 50 ft to 500 ft within a hundred yards of shore, which can make anchoring difficult and dangerous along the narrow shelves near shore.

With only a few days to go before the Christmas and Boxing Day holidays, we decided to sail past Roseau and head directly to Prince Rupert Bay, Portsmouth on the north side of the island, so we could get settled in and a car rented before things closed for the holidays.

We arrived to Portsmouth from Martinique on December 23, after an early 5 am rise for the 55 nm, 9-hour sail north. We had 20-25 knot winds and 7-foot forecasted seas, and sailed along on reefed sails with five or so other boats taking advantage of the same weather window. We had a great sail across open water, averaging between 6.5-7 knots (one of our fastest sails ever) and even spotted several humpback whales a few dozen feet from the boat.

Once we were in the lee of Dominica, we lost most of the wind behind the steep mountains and then we were hit by a series of squalls coming off the island - so our winds constantly shifted from 5 knots to 25 knots, which made for pretty challenging sailing conditions our final few hours.


As we've mentioned before, on many of the southern windward Caribbean islands, we are often greeted by men in small skiff boats - referred to as 'boat boys' - offering moorings and selling homemade bread, fruits and vegetables. In Dominica the boat boys have banded together to form PAYS, or the Portsmouth Association of Yacht Services, and offer tours, moorings, anchorage security, laundry and many other services. The group operates very well and is hopefully an example that will spread to other islands. We picked up a mooring from PAYS for a week for $160 Eastern Caribbean dollars (or about $10 US per day).

Dominican Distress

Since we are always out at anchor or on a mooring, we use our small dinghy boat to get ashore; so it's important to cruisers like us to have a safe and accessible dock where we can land and lock the dinghy. The PAYS dock was destroyed after a tropical storm this summer, another dock in the bay had swell breaking over it (giving us concern for our safety if we tried to land there), so that only left one dock - the main fisherman's dock, which doesn't allow you to lock your boat. We hear frequent reports of dinghies and outboard engines being stolen throughout the Caribbean, and while theft in Dominica is likely no more frequent than on any other island, it still made us nervous to leave the dinghy for a few hours. Replacing a stolen dinghy and outboard engine isn't easy or cheap in the Caribbean!

Sundays in nearly all Caribbean islands are a day for worship and rest, and most markets and stores are closed and usually only a handful of restaurants are open. While we expected Portsmouth to be quiet, the small, old town lacked charm at first glance, and we really weren't feeling enthusiastic about the island.

Should we stay or should we go?

A challenging sail into port, a quiet and rundown town, and nervousness about the dinghy dock had us reconsidering our stay in Dominica. Usually when we arrive to a new island, we are excited to explore and look forward to spending time there, but Dominica just felt hard to us, and we weren't sure it was where we wanted to spend Christmas. We spent a few hours walking and talking through our options, and over lunch (where Sara mistakenly tried to pay with some Dominican Republic pesos) we made the decision to leave the next morning...but on the way back to the boat, we changed our minds once again and decided to give Dominica a chance!

The next morning, December 23, with renewed spirits for exploring the island, we headed to the car rental to lease a car for the next several days, so we'd have a way to explore the sites while the stores, markets and restaurants were closed for Christmas.

After Nick secured a Dominica drivers license for $30 EC (about $10 USD) at the police station, we set off to the propane supplier. Propane is not sold in any of the French Caribbean islands (only butane) and during our month in Martinique we had burned through one of our tanks, and we always like to keep a full spare onboard.

Dominica's roads are in mostly great condition but are narrow, steep and winding and the 20 mile drive to Roseau took us more than an hour. After filling our tank and driving through the town, we headed to Scotts Head Marine Park on the very southern tip of the island. Scotts Head is 250 ft above sea level and gives spectacular views of the rest of Dominica.

Car woes

After a full day of driving, we parked our car a few blocks from the dock and headed back to the boat. The following morning, Christmas Eve, we headed into town and found the car in the middle of a bustling street market! Since we appeared to be blocking several stalls, we rushed to start the car and get out of the way, but absolutely nothing happened when Nick turned the ignition! After stepping out of the car and sharing our predicament with a vendor, we suddenly had four men yelling in every direction for jumper cables, trying to open the hood of the car, and then shouting for tools when it was realized a loose battery terminal was the problem.

In all the madness, Sara was busy buying fresh juices, coconuts, passion fruits and more from all the vendors helping us. Finally, after several more minutes of chaos, we got the car started and the heck out of there, and we made sure that evening to park much further away! 😁

Chaudiere Pool

With a full day of sightseeing planned, our first destination for the day was the tropical Chaudiere Pool, about 5 miles east of Portsmouth. After we left the main road, the terrain was rough, and after another mile or so, we decided to leave the car behind and hike the rest of the way to the pool.

After a short hike, we arrived to the pool of cool, fresh water, and were excited to have it all to ourselves! Nick was feeling daring and even jumped several times from the cliffs into the deep pool.

Red Rocks 

After a drive through the seaside town of Calibishe, we arrived at the stunning Red Rocks at Pointe Baptiste. Dominica is home to 9 volcanoes, many more than most tropical islands (half of the Caribbean's volcanoes are found on Dominica)!

The smooth, red volcanic rocks are stunning against the deep blue of the sea and appear otherworldly on the lush, tropical island. There is even a small cave to climb in and explore.

That night, we joined about 30 other cruisers ashore for a special Christmas Eve barbecue hosted by the PAYS group; we had so much fun meeting cruisers from across the globe - several at our table had just crossed the Atlantic from Europe - and enjoyed the delicious food and rum punches!

It's all swell

On Christmas Eve the winds shifted a bit to the west and the swell to the north, creating some very uncomfortable roll-you-out-of-bed swell. We had poor sleep overnight and woke up to even worse swell on Christmas day, forcing us to secure items onboard as if we were making an ocean passage! We'd planned a lovely Christmas meal but found it nearly impossible to walk about the boat with it rocking so much from side to side let alone prepare and cook any items, so we had a quiet day aboard with a far simpler meal than planned.

Trafalgar and Middleham Waterfalls

The next morning, December 26, we set out for a full day of exploring. Our first stop was to Trafalgar Falls in Morne Trois Pitons National Park. The twin waterfalls tumble high off the mountainside and are a popular stop for cruise ship passengers since they are only a few minutes hike from the parking lot.

Afterwards we headed to Middleham Falls, reportedly one of Dominica's most beautiful falls. The 45-minute hike through the rainforest keeps the crowds away, and the 275-foot tumbling falls are lovely prize for the effort. We cooled off in the freshwater pools and enjoyed a nice picnic lunch before hiking back to the car.

Titou Gorge

Our final stop of the day was to Titou Gorge, where you swim through a narrow gorge split in the high cliff walls to a small waterfall. The water was freezing cold, so it was a quick swim through for us!

Cabrits National Park 

The following day, we made one final stop to Cabrits National Park, which has numerous well marked hiking trails around the point as well as ruins of the British 18th century Fort Shirley.

We hiked 6-miles around the point, and got several spectacular views of the harbor, as well as of the 290-foot Maltese Falcon, one of the largest sailing yachts.

The next morning, December 28, after a quick stop into town to visit the bustling Saturday market for provisions, we dropped our mooring lines and raised our sails for Guadeloupe!

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