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Surviving Dominica

November 2, 2008 by · 1 Comment 

Beach carin

Rain pings against the metal roof of the treehouse, torrents that rip the hillside and drown the music of the tree frog serenade. Peering out an open window, I watch immense tropical plant leaves fill with water, sag, then douse the already saturated soil.

“No hiking today,” grumbles my husband, in a pre-caffeine stupor.

“Wanna bet?” I reply, eager for our planned trek. We’re part of a small group adventuring to Dominica’s famous Boiling Lake. The volcanic crater sits within 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our six-hour round-trip takes us through the Valley of Desolation, where sulfuric fumes killed most of the vegetation. But, on the return route, we’ll stop to soak our tired muscles in thermal springs.

Dominica, a rather unknown island— just 290 square miles— lies between Guadeloupe and Martinique and is NOT the Dominican Republic. A former British colony, she has governed herself since 1978. The country resembles a preteen, edging toward adolescent experimentation, growth and maturity. But no need for a make-up lesson; the land, sea and people are naturally gorgeous. If only, they stay that way,

Awakened by a few cups of locally grown coffee, husband Jay begrudgingly agrees to the muddy conditions remaining post downpour. We venture to Titou Gorge, starting point for the hike. Foiled again. Security guards, camouflaged as military personnel, turn us away. The forceful watchman claims: “We’re having special operations here. No admittance.”

Frustrated, the dreadlocked guide from our hotel, Moses, argues, “Never seen this closed before.”

A cover-up unfolds, hiding a big secret. The truth, however, appears obvious: hard to disguise cameras and crews filming the CBS Survivor series, “Pirate Master.” The popular theme builds on Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” including scenes shot in Dominica for movies II and III.

But we’re not letting those scallywags defeat us; we switch our destination and finally begin ascent. I stumble along, my balance tenuous, like I’m walking the plank with one too many rum punches. I pray I won’t slip on the treacherous stones or into the oozing muck. Moses, our leader to the promised land of waterfalls, reminds us to pause and look up every ten steps. “Don’t miss the beauty of the forest,” he says with equanimity, like a yoga instructor.

“Ha,” I think, like a city slicker, even though dressed as a nerdy camera-toting tourist.

Water, water everywhere–is this how being slimed feels? Moss upholsters the trees and rocks, so plush a princess could sleep on the ground and never feel any bumps. No wonder– the cloud-shrouded rainforest drizzles over 300 inches of precipitation per year and the island boasts 365 rivers.

Giant curly Fern

Giant curly Fern

We ford a gushing stream, soaking our sneakers and socks; but no other route exists. We trudge up and down (the more perilous) across wild terrain, crammed with colorful bird- of-paradise in bloom and enormous curling ferns.

Jay, no Tarzan, loses his footing and frantically windmills his arms. He tries to recover, stepping on soft grass at the path’s edge. Me-Jane hears the rumble–and turns to see him pitching backward. I grab his ankle, just as he starts falling down the 20-foot ravine. Instantly Moses flies over, like a guardian angel, rescuing Jay from harm. The wayward one wrestles up, leveraging against a giant bromeliad, filthy and a bit embarrassed, but not hurt.

The trail marker indicates a short 45-minute hike. “Dominican time,” I think. Locals, who constantly walk the practically vertical countryside, may arrive in three-quarters of an hour, but our group takes almost twice as long. We reach freshwater Borei Lake sweating and hungry. Aah, a blessed repose. (And lest I forget– a great photo op.)

Moses foretells of hidden Middleham Falls, warning we’ll need to scramble for a peek. Another hiker, Kristen, commits us, “sure, we can make it.”

Tree Roots

Tree Roots

The pilgrimage, described in my guide book as “arduous”, is more like ridiculous. The first challenge is a section of gnarly unearthed tree roots. I drop down and crawl to maneuver over them, snarling at this feisty forest.

Then, we hit a series of skyward log steps. No flat, nada downhill, just up, up and up. Whew. As a former fitness instructor, I’m chagrined that my heart rate climbs and my leg muscles burn.

One-by-one, we stagger to a resting point, where our guide notices Jacquot parrots. If we contain our breathlessness, we can hear their muffled trills. Moses mimics the song of another tropical bird, who dutifully answers back. Beautiful.

I hear the dim roar of the falls, we’re getting close. We must hoist ourselves over boulders, carefully finding footholds. Then– one more river and o’er muddy slopes to a platform.

Glorious–glistening liquid crystals bounce 150 feet down the noisy waterfall. Bare vines droop from the rocky crevice, like hemp ropes for climbers (no one dares attempt.) A few brave souls conquer the final descent, ready to swim in the pool, but are forced back by the powerful current.

“Namaste,” I whisper, bowing to the trees. Connecting to this juicy jungle brings a Zen moment, a oneness with nature. However, the following day I must remind myself of that tranquility, because never were my calves this sore, even after running a marathon.

Dominica remains undiscovered by mass tourism, fewer than 85,000 sleep-over per year. Sandy beaches are rare; most are rocks. Driving on the left is terrifying; blind curves on twisty pot-holed roads. Locating restrooms? Next to impossible- except at the hallowed hiking centers. Flight schedules are currently difficult, but a runway extension is underway and they’re installing lights.

Rocky Beach

Rocky Beach

Not a high-rise, chain store or name-brand hotel rests on her jagged coasts and densely foliated peaks, soaring almost 5,000 feet. Water is plentiful, but money is not. Housing remains much like it was a century ago: one-to-two room lumber dwellings, simply hammered together, many still without indoor plumbing.

Nonetheless, the New Economics Foundation rated Dominica as the fourth happiest place on earth to live.

However lovely this unpolished isle, she struggles. Residents need jobs if they wish to move beyond their current economic conditions. Judith Thomas, a mom with four daughters, desires progress. Speaking English instead of her usual Creole, she says, “I want my children to have a promising future, but I can’t offer one.” Her girls must wait for opportunities to come to the island, or leave to get ahead.

And sadly, that happens all too often. Many young people go off, creating a gap in the population.

Poverty escalated in the 1990’s, when banana growers succumbed to over-supply, competition and cheaper prices from Latin America. A fair-trade act helped restore local farmers, and the government began restructuring the economy in 2003, but agriculture remains vitally critical.

The terrain proves difficult to work, except for easy-to-grow taro root, the potato of the tropics, and acres of banana palms. Many trees hang with bunches wrapped in bright blue plastic bags. While this sheathing keeps the produce bug- and bird-free for export, the view reminds me of art work from Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who dressed Central Park in orange cloth gates.

How will tourism benefit the country? A look at Jungle Bay, our hotel, provides a fine example. Sam Raphael, the proud Dominican owner, said, “The resort was 100 % built by local residents, with the exception of an electrician and plumber from Antigua, who led the team. Woodworkers from Guyana also came to train locals in construction techniques”

The eco-friendly site hugs a steep slope, edging the ocean. Raphael claims he purchased the property for a reasonable sum, because it was considered waste land, unusable due to the incline. But that location makes an ideal spot for treehouses on stilts.

Jungle Bay Treehouse Cottage

Jungle Bay Treehouse Cottage

The rustic, luxuriously appointed guest quarters come close to five-star accommodations with private verandas umbrellaed by the forest. The Swiss Family Robinson would be jealous: rooms boast coffee makers, enclosed showers- open to the starry heavens, but no TV.

Yoga classes, mountain-side spa suites and the white noise of repetitive rolling surf provide relaxation. Local guides lead adventurers and transport guests to Tarzan-worthy swimming holes.

Holistic Jungle Bay runs with 95% Dominican staff, learning first, and now earning good wages. Currently, the management is a family affair, but they hope to expand and promote residents.

Progress has its price, however. I worry that the island’s natural riches will be overly commercialized. I swam through tiny champagne bubbles, like diamonds rising from the bottom of the sea, and snorkeled undamaged coral reefs. “Scuba Diving” magazine rated Dominica second in the Caribbean’s top dive destinations–for her dramatic drop-offs, caves and wrecks.

Whale watching enthusiasts find seven species living and breeding nearby and sport fishermen are attracted by Yellowfin tuna, barracuda and marlin.

Cruise ships are already stopping, allowing passengers to ride the aerial tram, which, I suspect, was built to attract their business. But these visitors only stay a few hours, benefiting just a small segment of the work force.

Even more alarming is what these liners carry. In 2003, the government built a sewage treatment plant near Roseau, the capital. Small Islands Global Forum reports that cruise ships dispose of their garbage on the island.

And there’s talk of an oil refinery on the eastern part, of this, often called “Nature Island of the Caribbean.”

Postcard Pretty Dominica

Postcard Pretty Dominica

Dominica, the naive pubescent, is developing with growth-hormone surges, pushing rapid maturation. A 2007 report on the economy stated, “The problem remains of balancing the need for increased tourism with the protection of the island’s unique and vulnerable eco-system.”

I just hope she wins immunity and remains a survivor.


If you go:

Turbo-prop planes land at Melville Airport on the island’s northeastern stretch. American Airlines offer connections, only through Puerto Rico. Car and mobile phone rental are available at the airport. Ferries service Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia.

Roseau, the capital, on the southwestern coast, features a farmers’ market every Saturday and the 40-acre Botanical Gardens, founded in 1891, include flora, fauna and a parrot aviary.

The Caribe Cultural Village-Kalinago Barana Aute lies on the Crayfish River in the Carib Territory. About 3,000 descendants of the Kalinago (often called “Caribs”) live in eight villages over 3,700 acres -the only indigenous people’s reserve in the Caribbean. A guide escorts visitors through the museum and around the trails, presenting history, hands-on demonstrations, and Kalinago traditions. $10 per person,

World Creole Music Festival- lively jammin’ over the last weekend in October.

Jungle Bay Resort–in Delices, a tropical hideaway on the ocean’s edge, includes 35 tree-cottages, a restaurant, yoga center and health spa. Adventure packages include guided outings and transportation.

Beau Rive–a small boutique hotel, offers eight ocean-view guest rooms. Owner Mark Steele welcomes visitors to impeccable over-sized rooms with verandas, near Castle Bruce. Gourmet meals served on the patio, overlooking Wakaman Point.

3 Rivers Eco-Lodge — in Rosalie. Green Globe certified camping, dormitory, tree house or cottages, restaurant and environmental education workshops.

For further information on Dominica see

Tybee Island, GA. Lighthouse Wedding

May 27, 2008 by · Comments Off on Tybee Island, GA. Lighthouse Wedding 

Islands Magazine Cover — June 2008NUPTIAL NIGHT LIGHT

If you're looking for a unique site where you can seal love's flame with an intimate wedding ceremony, consider Tybee Island Light Station off the northeast coast of Georgia. Surf kissing the shore creates the processional music as you ascend the 178-step lighthouse. (Don't trip on your train!) Emotions will swell bright as the old, 9-foot First Order Fresnel lens when gray-haired Captain Longwater ties the knot at an elevation of 144 feet.

Afterward, you'll savor low-country cuisine: a dish of boiled shrimp, sausage and potatoes. The island remains enchanted by Geechee/Gullah culture, Civil War ghosts and legendary pirates. Just across the bay, luscious Savannah drips with social grace, Spanish moss and that tale of good and evil. DEBI LANDER

Official Link to Islands Magazine article:

St. John, Virgin Islands – Following Caribbean Coordinates

February 23, 2007 by · Comments Off on St. John, Virgin Islands – Following Caribbean Coordinates 

Checking coordinates

Following Caribbean Coordinates with a Hi-Tech Teen

By Debi Lander

The path closes in, narrowing at each turn. Dampness collects on my skin as I plod through sultry, humid air. Above, huge termite nests hang from bay leaf trees while dozens of hermit crabs claw at the pebbly route. The constant need to scratch and swat at mosquitoes annoys me, yet I wind round and around this seldom-traveled trail on the island of St. John.

“What’s your reading?” I yell to my daughter.

She answers: “North 18° 21.038, West 63° 30.078.”

“Not too far now, we must reach West 64°,” I shout back, hoping I’m right.

We’re geocaching, a pirate-like outdoor treasure hunting game pronounced “geo-cashing”. Players use a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver to locate hidden containers in 222 countries. The hi-tech device grabs a satellite signal and reports precise longitude and latitude coordinates. GPS units, accurate to a 20-foot radius, cost $100 and up.

In this pastime, participants place caches wherever permitted, and then publish coordinates at sites like or Some insert Travel Bugs, special objects that players move from location to location, tracking their route online. Owners establish a separate website, requesting photos to show off globetrotting.

Many resorts, state parks, and convention and visitors bureaus are sponsoring geocaches as a way to lure and entertain guests. “It’s really a fantastic family activity,” says Kurt Johnson, a naturalist from Wyoming. “Kids are exceptionally good at this because they’re good with new technology, and they like scavenger hunts. And it brings out the kid in adults, too.”

Fun and family time is just what my husband Jay, Laura and I plan. We’re spending two days at St. John’s Caneel Bay Resort, originally part of a Danish West India Company sugar plantation. The upscale retreat, described as a haven for the newly wed or nearly dead, encourages family-friendly summer activities.

Fifty years ago, Laurance Rockefeller donated 6,000 acres on St. John, diva of the Virgin Islands, to the National Park Service. I’m sure he never imagined visitors navigating via satellite messages. Most tourists come to kick off their shoes on the talc-soft beaches, dip into water so clear it tempts drinking, or snorkel and scuba in the natural deep-sea aquarium. Now the eco-friendly sport of geocaching has arrived in this laid- back Caribbean corner.

Like most teenagers, my 15-year-old daughter Laura is comforted by gadgetry. Travel essentials include her DVD player, a supply of rental movies, her cell phone and iPod, even for short distances. I’ve learned the chances of keeping a solo teen happy grow exponentially when microchips are involved.

Room check-in provokes the question, “where’s the TV and phone?” from my shocked adolescent. Then she eyes the hotel brochure offering geocaching and is anxious to try. I agree to act as a Sherpa, toting bug spray, water, camera and whatever.

The GPS directs us much like a compass. “Arghhh, matey,” I cry-as we both fumble with geographical challenges. My husband commandeers the unit, captaining us toward hidden loot on the property. Written coordinates hint the box lies near secluded Honeymoon Beach.

I pray we don’t uncover lovers as my group tramples through squishy sand. We pass bougainvillea, full of papery iridescent orange blossoms, sharply contrasting the turquoise water. Laura unearths a Tupperware container tucked into a water-eroded tree. She withdraws a logbook and pen, and a tube of small plastic sea creatures, which her niece and nephew will love.

I expected a coupon from the resort, but now understand the rules. Get a gift, give a gift. Fortunately Jay has a few doubloons in his pocket.

Heading in search of our next prize, we fortuitously pass the hotel bar, where hubby and his gin and tonic abandon us. After swigging down a fruit punch (though I considered grog), we divert to the gift shop to purchase trinkets, booty for future hunters.

Scavenging this cache proves more difficult. The GPS reading indicates we’re close, but a dense tropical forest traps us. We’re forced to retrace our steps, circumventing all 11 tennis courts protected by the trees, and approach from a different angle.

Scores of lizards leap across this scrubby terrain, distracting us from the surreptitious attack of a large cactus, overgrowing the walkway. Removing a few needles, I carefully limp along, cursing my footwear choice–flip-flops.

Eventually Laura spies the waterproof bin. She unlatches it–but finds it muggled, a geocaching term borrowed from Harry Potter, meaning “empty.”

“Plundered, ” I cry, “those rakish rouges!” We feel truly disappointed by the cold cache.

Although the final navigational points appear nearby, without a map, I’m lost -I must follow my teen’s lead. We trek for miles, crossing a beach, looking like … out of place geeks: Dumb and Dumber, following a nerdy compass. But I don’t care.

The route again ascends through thorny undergrowth. We eye an iguana, basking in the sun, and pass immense boulders, created from volcanic eruptions that formed the island, millions of years ago.

In the rough
In the Rough

Pausing in the heat, I photograph flowering succulents. The frowns, blood red in the center, run full spectrum to a pinkish hue at the tip. Lovely, except my face color matches. I’m cranky and tired. I could be floating on a raft at one of Caneel’s seven beaches, for heaven’s sake.

We are playing a game of cache me if you can–and losing. After another ten minutes, we swagger toward a wooden bench at an overlook and rest. A thought occurs as if a coconut hit me on the head: I’m spending the afternoon with my daughter, on a languorous isle. Don’t worry, Mom–be happy.

The Bench
The Bench

We reminisce, recalling a snorkel sighting of a Hawksbill turtle, his shell a disguise, like a giraffe’s coat. Together we peer through variegated shades of the teal blue tide, even identifying a few colorful fish.

With fortified spirit and no more whining, we’re determined to finish. At long last the GPS declares the desired “waypoint.” Laura peeks between huge moss-encrusted rocks, big enough to dwarf an NBA player, and discovers the buried treasure.

“Dad will love these,” she says, displaying two new golf balls and tennis ball which, our ever faithful but loopy, golden retriever can chase.

Caneel Bay Resort sprawls over 170 acres, scattered with guest cottages and meandering footpaths. I believe we covered 150, the ones most guests miss. This escapade rewarded us with secret views of tiny islands and cays off the Sir Francis Drake Channel, intimate wildlife detail, and most importantly– time together.

Now, disgustingly hot and bedraggled, we’re about to cache-out. A cleaning staffer stops a motorized cart and we ride back to the bar. This time I order a hearty rum punch, followed by a “Painkiller”–a powerful Caribbean cocktail.

My daughter is often outspoken on her likes and dislikes, but to my amazement, she didn’t complain about wandering in the heat. “We did it Mom,” she proclaims, slapping a high five. I see a hint of pride and affection bubbling within. It’s not a champagne moment by any means– just one that soothes the psyche of a mother enduring the turbulent teen years.

When her dad asks, Laura rates the activity “good” meaning she truly enjoyed the experience.

Be it the lore of a pirate’s chest or wishful dreaming about hidden fortune, searching for “X marks the spot” is a swashbuckling good time. Grab your buccaneer and go geocaching.

If you go:

St. John ranks as the smallest of the three US Virgin Islands. Measuring nine miles long and five miles wide, the territory is largely unpopulated, mountainous and reaches a peak of 1,300 feet. The US National Park Service owns and maintains approximately two-thirds of the land.

Most tourists fly to St. Thomas and hop a ferry for a short ride to Cruz Bay. Cars are driven on the left hand side with challenging steep, sharp turns, but never a stoplight.

St. John boasts numerous white sand beaches running along the shores and some of the finest snorkeling in the Caribbean.

Lodging choices are limited: Caneel Bay and the Westin resorts, privately rented villas and condominiums or Maho Bay and Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds.

Virgin Island National Park; Phone 340 776-6201
Caneel Bay Resort; Phone 340 776-6111
St. John Westin Resort; Phone 340 693-8000
Maho Bay Campgrounds ; Phone 800 392-9004
Cinnamon Bay Campgrounds; Phone 340 776-6330

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