It was wonderful to travel and learn enough about the heart of these islands to notice the contrasts, in culture, in politics, in landscape and in life. So to the story…
Our group of 12 assembled amid the raucous if harmless Barmy Army cricket supporters there for the third (sadly unwinnable) test match. Pigeon Island, a peninsula with two small but impressively steep hills, was our first little hike. Via the charming village of Gros Islet, a laid back locals place, with the colourful children’s playground and the shortest ferry ride ever. We climbed to the fort and imagined the firing of the cannons, and great effort required to haul said canons up the steep gorge. Amazed that the causeway wasn’t built until the 20th centuary, using the material dredged out from the marina.
Lincoln, our local guide, gives us a great introduction, talking about the governors (good and bad) the schools and the odious cost of school books. Much talk of corruption and ill spent funds.
On our walk we learned the useful skill of growing bananas: they produce all year round, protected once first curling, in their blue plastic bags. Great care is given to producing nice ‘looking’ bananas for export, and every flower is taken off by hand. Each plant only produces one bunch of bananas, but then shoots up another plant like a sucker. We try a new fruit called ‘golden apples’ only vaguely like and apple. All but the brave politely refuse the stinking toe, which stinks but apparently doesn’t taste as bad. We sample turnovers, a hearty snack of fresh bread containing a sweet coconut paste, and on the walk we do coconuts proud: jelly coconut, dry coconut, milk and pieces of the coconut heart; taken from the trunk, this is considered a delicacy.
We arrive by ferry, having lovely views all the way up the west coast, noticing how it goes from dry to lush, greener and hillier. We walk in rainforest, see the beautiful Balata Gardens, go down to the south coast to the mangroves and salt flats, then the stunning 14km coastal walk on the Caravelle Peninsula. Martinique feels so much wealthier and well organised than St Lucia, though with too many cars and not enough public transport.
It all feels very french, but the creole traditions are around. The dancing is a swaying riot of colour, quick changes and very large bustles. The Indian influence in the traditional costume is apparent in the madras fabric. We learn the code of ladies headscarf knot tying: one knot is young free and single, two for ‘engaged, or almost, three is married, and four is ‘la courtesane’. Julie, born in Scotland and now well rooted in Martinique, surprises us with her description of the power of the remaining Béké families, the old plantation owners, still holding about 75% of the wealth, land and businesses, flaunting their power and deeply racist. Alex, our other guide, turns out to know his local fauna well (just as well, he has a top notch birding crowd to impress) and I meet a few new birds: the jolly brown trembler, the yellow legs, brown pelican, the plover hopping along the beach. I just about move the group on from the bird observatory without using a crowbar. I’m glad we didn’t meet the world’s 4th most poisonous snake, the fer de lance, a pit viper, they do hang out here.
They are proud of their rum (the french always like a drink after all) and we get get a sample. Old rum, coconut rum, dark rum, white rum, the group’s preferences vary for sure. But everyone liked the coconut ice cream.
Hotel la Pagerie, close by and named for empress Josephine’s birthplace, was perched on the long finger of Trois-Ilets, a bustling french holiday village feel, stunning beaches with glorious sunsets and a la ‘belle Martinique’ ferry to take us across the Flamands bay.
The aftermath of hurricane Maria was there at every turn, but just as amazing as the devastation caused, was the determination and success the Dominicans were making of the rebuilding. Our guide Lincoln helped us understand a great deal. His personal story or sitting out the hurricane huddled under a tabletop as the roof of his house crashed down around him, wondering if his wife and son sheltering on the floor below, would be ok. Months without a roof, 7 months without electricity and only just linked back to internet. Villages swept away or engulfed by the raging torrents of mud coming down from the mountains. As well as the obvious damage of ruined homes and trees stripped bare right across the island, we learn about more difficult problems: a rainforest canopy ripped off island wide, means far less water can be retained in the soil. Of the 70,000 inhabitants, 10,000 have left and not returned. Damage to crops and industry was extensive. And yet there we were in a four star hotel with an infinity pool complete with waterfall. No one complained much about the odd missing plug or wonky towel rail.
Dassa’s wife provides our culinary ‘experience, delicious home cooked food, helped by some of us willing cooks, and learnt about many new spices and herbs. Much seemed stronger and brighter out here, except the raw cinnamon, which we saw how it was stripped off a most ordinary looking log. The rum tasting was fun, comparing aniseed, lots of spice, a sweeter chocolate rum, and one more. Everyone had their favourite.
Soufriere Primary School, supported for several years by Ramblers Heart and Sole charity, is still being rebuilt, though it should be ready quite soon now, so we visited the temporary school in St Anne’s, where the children are taught in two shifts because of limited space. We present a shiny new flip chart stand and some stationery. Staff and children are just charming.
Bubble Beach (which we named Cava beach – apparently champagne beach up the coast was very stirred up, so cava is now the better bet). Beaches here are black sand or pebbly, as it’s a more obviously volcanic island, but swimming above a sea bed with a constant stream of rising warm thermal bubbles, was quite a thing. Lying in a shallow pool of hot sand with the bubbles was something else again!
Many of our walks included part of the distance in a boat, a little ferry or a fishing boat, great to see the land from a different angel, and interesting to hear about the local fishing, small scale but big fish. We ate a great deal of tasty marlin and tuna on this holiday.
The Horseback Ridge walk on the east coast of Dominica gave spectacular views, and enhanced by tales of the Kalinago people living here in their reservation.
They work hard to keep their culture alive, and we visit their reconstructed village, see the basket weaving and eat the most delicious chicken stew, I foolishly volunteer to demonstrate the traditional dancing, and Prosper tells their story of crossing the bearing straits, then coming up to the islands from South America. They want to move away from the name ‘Carib’ given it’s connotations of cannibalism nonsense and slavery.
I remember the walk to Signal Hill for three things: the wonderful smell of the fresh lemongrass swishing in the wind all around us, the views, of course, the islands spread all around us, and the birdwatchers in seventh heaven as we linger by the dam watching the cute families of whistling ducks, the heron and many more birds I cant remember. Dassa’s islander joy and enthusiasm, and his hat, also deserve a mention. And the 4 lovely beaches at Hawksbill, what a great relaxing middle of nowhere to wind down at the end of our trip. While ‘all inclusive’ is hardly the ramblers typical style, it did work well for a final two nights.
A memorable trip, a super friendly easygoing group, only one sticking plaster used, and no forgotten passports. What else could a leader ask for? Thanks everyone, I had a blast.