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Dominica – Boat Boys, Rum Punch and Beautiful Scenery

Just 23 nautical miles separates Les Saintes, the little bit of Caribbean France [1], from Dominica, but the islands are worlds apart. Dominica became a firm favourite in the Ty Dewi travels….

After our very pleasant time at Les Saintes, we headed south to Dominica in a flat calm sea, motoring all the way. Perfect conditions for Gesa! A couple of miles out from Portsmouth, Dominica, we were met by our first boat boy. Now, boat boys are a feature of some of the islands here, but we’d yet to come across them. In short, they are guys with a boat who make their living offering stuff to yachties.

Much as I like to support the local economy, I don’t reckon it’s best done by paying over the odds for things you can do yourself or buy in town. By the time we had anchored, we had been regaled by about six different guys in little boats. I’d decided to use one of them for a ride to Customs, as that was a long way and it made sense versus using our dinghy, so eventually I chose one of the nicer sounding guys, Raymond. That was good, we negotiated twenty local dollars for him to ferry me to an ATM for cash and then to Customs.

boat boy dominica

Raymond the Boat Boy, Dominica

As it happens, he took me to Customs first, producing a $100 note and saying ‘pay me back once we’ve gone to the ATM’. So far so good. I complete Customs fairly easily and return to find Raymond desperately trying to start his outboard engine. Oops. Not being in a particular hurry, I sit back and watch with quiet interest as he tries all sorts of things to get it started, to no avail. Another boat picks up his own passengers and offers the embarrassed Raymond a tow, so we are towed back to the anchorage. He’s obviously a bit down on his luck today, and I still don’t have any cash to pay back the $100 he loaned me.

He thinks the problem is a broken spark plug, and I happen to have spares of the right type, and tools, so I invite him to tie his boat alongside and try to fix it there. He’s pretty grateful, and takes one of my spare spark plugs. I tell him I’ll still pay him for the trip, since I did get there and back and he gives me a load of passion fruit that he has on board. Later I see him in town, pay him back the $100 plus $20 for the ride and we chat about a trip up the Indian River, a local tourist favourite. I’m lukewarm on the idea, so he says he could do it for us at a discount, $45 per adult and maybe $20 for the kids. So, says I, we’re talking about $100 for us all? “Yeah, I could do it for that”. He’s a qualified guide, which means he’s been trained on the flora and fauna. The trip is about two hours and said to be lovely. I promise to get in touch when we get back from St Lucia, and I will.

So now I actually have one of the local boat boys well and truly on my side, which turns out to be pretty useful. The others soon get the message that we’re not spending over the odds on stuff. I’m offered a Dominican flag for $50EC and when I laugh, the price is dropped to $40. I go into town and buy one for $8. In town, I buy four grapefruit, three cucumbers and a lettuce for another $8. Back on the boat, a boy arrives offering fruit. How much for a grapefruit? $2 he says. I tell him I bought fruit in town. “What? So what does that leave for me, then?” he says. Competition, maybe?

All of this is actually quite interesting and fun in a way. It’s less fun seeing the poorer guys, who paddle out on surfboards, trying to peddle fruit. I’m told most of them are junkies who have lost their boats and everything else and are struggling to get by until the next fix. It’s sad to see, but not the sort of contribution I want to make to the economy.

Beach time in Portsmouth, Dominica

Beach time in Portsmouth, Dominica

We’re only spending a few days here on the way south, we’ll suss the island out and spend longer on the way back north, so we stay around the anchorage, go to the beach, frequent the ‘Purple Turtle’ beach bar and marvel at the price ($5EC) and strength (near lethal) of the rum punches. Gesa has three, loses her ability to count and has another, then the next morning denies writing emails to friends until I show them to her on the screen. The kids enjoy the beach, which is classic Caribbean: palm trees leaning outwards towards the water, and a rope swing rigged on one, which Issie loves. There are also many sand crabs which lurk, looking warily at you and dashing off to their holes when you get too close. Follow the hole down into the sand and you can dig them out and have a closer look.

We walk up to the old British fort, Fort Shirley, which is partially restored and has a marvelous outlook across the bay. The Fort was so imposing that it never saw action; the French and others took one look and kept out of the way. Some of it is very nicely restored, with original cannons still there. Walking further into the rain forest, you find many buildings, including the once grand Commandant’s mansion, now derelict with sections of wall leaning at crazy angles and trees wrapping themselves around the stonework in bizarre forms. In places it feels like a weird, Gothic horror movie.

forest ruins dominica

The forest reclaims the old commandant’s house at Fort Shirley

I like Portsmouth, the main town at this end of the Island. It’s very underdeveloped, for the second largest town in the Island. It’s like a moderate English village, but with crappier shops. Better fruit and veg though. The place has a good feel to it, welcoming but not grabbing – poor and entrepreneurial, for sure, but you ask directions on the street and you get them, plus a conversation and without a request for a dollar. It’s the last bit that differentiates it from, for example,  St Johns, Antigua.

The town almost immediately backs onto rain forest wooded slopes of the volcanic mountains that make up Dominica. It’s one of the most mountainous, most volcanic islands – apparently there are eight potentially active volcanoes being closely watched here. Most islands have just one. The terrain looks amazing. Sadly, we can’t hike much with the kids, otherwise there would be an all day, eight hour walk to the boiling lake, where volcanic gas bubbles up through the water. We will hire a car when we come back and go find the hot spring baths and some other great places, and I think we’ll try out more of the local buses to get a feel for the Island. I’m looking forward to getting back here on our way north.

The view from Fort Shirley, Dominica

The view from Fort Shirley, Dominica