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  • A Rare Regal / Caribbean Beauty
    by MICHAEL LAWRENCE
    Even after one-half dozen trips to the island, I am still surprised by the diving. Actually, I would only be surprised if it didnt jump out and grab me in a new and different way each and every day. To explore the island properly is not the work of a single week (or two or three). After perhaps 150 dives off Dominicas coast, Im still finding new and exciting discoveries virtually every time I get into the water. Topside, each afternoon of exploration has taken me to another pristine corner of this gorgeous oceanic rain forest;to waterfalls, steaming natural hot springs, down serene rivers, up steep mountains and through some of the most beautiful territory I have experienced anywhere.

    For those who have not yet discovered the rare, regal beauty of Dominica, lets take a moment to get acquainted. Sitting in the Windward Antilles, in the southeastern Caribbean, Dominica rests between Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south. Dominica (pronounced dom-en-EE-ka) is widely considered to be the queen of natural exploration, the Caribbeans finest adventure island. To begin with, her angular peaks and valleys are blanketed with the most intact oceanic rain forest in this hemisphere. She is home to the highest peaks in the Windward Antilles, reaching an altitude of 4,747 feet at Morne Diablotin. Waterfalls are found as close as five minutes from the road or as far as a two hour hike away. Other names for Dominica include the Nature Island or the Water Island. In reality, the two are inseparably intertwined, the water creating the basis of life in the rain forest.

    Dont think all this water is a detriment to the quality of diving. While Dominica is the exact physical opposite of arid, flat traditional dive islands, the diving is absolutely superb. If anything, the water and organic material brought to the reef by the daily rainfall has created a more vibrant, more thickly populated underwater environment. Given the combination of land attractions and superb diving, Dominica has easily become the finest Caribbean destination for the adventure minded dive traveler.

    Castle Comfort/Dive Dominica: The primary architect of Dominicas relatively new position is Derek Perryman, co-owner and operator (along with his wife Ginette) of Castle Comfort Dive Lodge and its dive arm, Dive Dominica. A former training pilot for the Caribbean airline Liat, Derek came across sport diving in the early 80s. It wasnt long before he was exploring the waters off Dominica. Seeing vast potential in combining diving with the already famous hiking, Derek put two and two together and realized the sum would be much greater than the parts. His childhood home, a small guesthouse named Castle Comfort and run by his mother, Dorothy Perryman, presented that final extra key. It wasnt long before they changed the name to Castle Comfort Dive Lodge and were off and running.

    With careful honing, Dive Dominica has become the finest and most complete dive operation on the island. A superb fleet of vessels, coupled with a well trained staff and a well equipped dive operation, serves the dive traveler in excellent fashion.

    While divers have certainly discovered Dominica, it has managed to avoid the crush of vacationers. The average diver/ adventure traveler visiting Castle Comfort Dive Lodge exhibits a large degree of curiosity about the natural world and a great degree of respect for it. These visitors prefer experiencing the natural realm at its finest rather than seeking the false tropical promise of sun, sea, sand and pia coladas.

    Castle Comfort has gone through a development period not dissimilar to that of Dive Dominica. From its beginnings as a humble but homey guesthouse, it has grown to the perfect size for an intimate dive resort. With the recent construction of a new dive shop, complete with four deluxe rooms overlooking the sea, the total number of rooms is 15. While Ma Perryman passed on several years ago, her sense of gracious, homespun hospitality thrives. The property is alive with flowering trees and bushes shading the tables and chairs placed throughout the yard. A hottub provides a relaxing place to sit in the evening, rum punch in hand, watching the red sun slowly sizzle into the deepening blue sea. Meals are taken familystyle on the open air verandah overlooking the sea. The cuisine is solidly Dominican: breakfasts of fresh local fruit, dark rich Dominican coffee and perhaps some banana pancakes; dinners of callaloo or pumpkin soup, ground provisions (the local name for potatoes, yams and the like) and locally harvested seafood.

    Dominica Diving: Dominica possesses an unusual combination of underwater terrains. While there are fine traditional coral reefs, there is another very unusual edge. The island is volcanic in origin (indeed, it is part of the Caribbean Rim of Fire). As such, much of the bottom terrain is composed of a solid rock substrate encrusted with corals, sponges and all the other elements of traditional coral reefs. As the solid rock faces are impenetrable, however, the population tends to cluster on the face of the reef. This gives the appearance of a greater density and affects their interactions with other marine life and divers. The result? Superb fishwatching. This, coupled with Dominicas broad spectrum of species, leads to exciting discoveries on a daily basis. Frogfish, seahorses, Flying Gurnards and other rarely seen critters are almost common place.

    Visibility is dependably in the 70 to 90 foot range and often exceeds 100. The daily rains and the sediment they bring to the water dont seem to degrade the visibility. Perhaps it is the deep water surrounding the island and that the sediment falls away so quickly.

    Reefs vary from shallow, easy dives to vertical walls. One of the most distinctive dive areas rests at the southern tip of the island in Soufriere Bay. Created by a volcanic eruption sometime in the dim past, it is a direct reflection of this cataclysmic event. The shoreline is the eastern edge of the crater. The southern edge is a tall spit of land called Scotts Head (Cashacrou to the Caribs). The northern edge is barely submerged while the western side is much too deep for sport diving. Lava flows along the edge have created pinnacles reaching to within five feet of the surface. Their walls plunge to depths exceeding 600 feet in the center of the crater. Some of the standout sites are Danglebens Pinnacles, where each side of each pinnacle seems to harbor yet another distinctive variety of marine life, Black Coral trees here, huge Barrel Sponges there. Scotts Head Pinnacles is superb, particularly at Scotts Head Arch, a tunnel in 25 feet of water filled with Blackbar Soldierfish and schooling grunts. Also worthy of note are LBym Wall, Danglebens North and Scotts Head Drop-off. South of the island are magnificent sites such as Mountaintop, Village Condo and Suburbs.

    Out Into the Bush: Rain forest excursions are an integral part of the Dominica experience and there are hikes suitable for almost every fitness level. While many trails are accessible without guidance, it is a much better idea to utilize the services of a professional guide, both for safety as well as education. These folks have been wandering the hills since they were children and can show you things you simply wont see on your own. Dive Dominica utilizes the services of Kens Hinterland Adventure Tours, easily one of the most organized groups of professional bush guides in Dominica.

    Dominicas waterfalls seem to lead the pack in terms of popularity and for good reason. The hikes are as easy as the Emerald Pool, a quiet cathedral just a five to ten minute stroll from the main road. The twin falls at Trafalgar (the taller is the Father, the shorter the Mother) are always popular. They are visible from a viewing platform just a 10 minute stroll from the road or can be explored via a path through a maze of boulders. Other slightly more strenuous hikes are the paths to Middleham Falls (about one and a half hours through the heart of the rain forest), Victoria Falls or Sari-Sari Falls (about one hour each). One of the most unique is Titou Gorge (Titou is Carib for Little Throat). To reach this one, you must swim upstream through a series of rooms at the base of 30 to 40 foot cliffs worn into the rock by the force of the water, the little throat of the mountain. At the end is a small waterfall, the last in a short, stepped series of falls.

    For the more adventuresome, a trip to the Boiling Lake is a must. This strenuous hike (several hours in duration) takes you through the various levels of rain forest;including the montane and elfin levels;to the Boiling Lake, the second largest solfatara in the world. The lake rests in the crater of a dormant volcano and is heated by the flow of lava just below the surface. Its moods range from a light bubbling to a full boil with steam streaming off the surface. The trip down leads through the Valley of Desolation, a barren landscape complete with steaming gas vents and hot springs.

    I place Dominica at the very top of my list of Caribbean destinations and feel one of the finest ways to enjoy and explore her is by using the services of Castle Comfort Dive Lodge and Dive Dominica. For further information and/or bookings call them directly on island at (767) 448-2188, fax (767) 448-6088 or call their US office toll free at (888) 414-7626. Dive Dominicas e-mail is dive@cwdom.dm and the Web site is www.divedominica.com.