Into the ‘Heart of Dominica’: A Restorative Day at the Center of the Island

Morne Trois Pitons dominates the 'Heart of Dominica', as seen from the Pond Casse round-about in the center of the island.

Morne Trois Pitons dominates the ‘Heart of Dominica’, as seen from the Pond Casse round-about in the center of the island.

On a blistering hot day in early May 2015, with brush fires and choking smoke persisting near my neighbourhood, I high-tailed it out of Roseau and headed for the ‘Heart of Dominica’. Friend Jenny was game for a little ‘cool out’ as well, so I drove us out-of-town and up the Imperial Road, passing by Springfield en route to the Pond Cassé round-about, in the center of the island.  From there, we proceeded in an easterly direction  on the road to Marigot and the Melville Hall (Douglas-Charles) Airport. By the time we reached this central plateau in the island’s interior, the temperatures were lower by a few degrees and the air was sweet and pure. We gazed in awe at Morne Trois Pitons, Dominica’s second highest peak, which dominates prominently in this area, and we were glad to be in her soothing shadow!

My agenda was three-fold, and I was determined to realize a couple of leisurely activities outside of a pre-planned

Jenny 'cools out' by the Laurent River at the River Stone Bar & Grill in Bells, Dominica.

Jenny ‘cools out’ by the Laurent River at the River Stone Bar & Grill in Bells, Dominica.

lunch and ‘lime’ at the peaceful and popular River Stone Bar & Grill on the westerly outskirts of the village of Bells (Belles). Managing Director Maxine Alleyne-Esprit had told me only a few days earlier that she is now open for lunch from Wednesdays to Saturdays, as well as  on her usual Sunday afternoons.  Once I knew that, and the weather was more than fine, I couldn’t wait a moment longer to go there!  I was long overdue to spend a little time in this lovely setting, as  I had enjoyed other afternoons in this pristine locale.  You can read about them here and there.

The Penrice (Spanny) Falls is on private property, but one can access it by checking in at the bar next door.

The Penrice (Spanny) Falls is on private property, but one can access it by checking in at the bar next door.

Our first stop along the way before our lunch destination was at a popular little site located close to the Spanny Disco, just before Bells and about a 15 minute drive from Pond Cassé.  The original proprietor of this bar/snackette (now deceased) had developed a trail to take people to two pretty waterfalls about 15 -20 minutes by foot into the rainforest. The Penrice Falls, now commonly known as the Spanny Falls have been admired by thousands, but for me, it would be the first time  I went right to the viewing platform.  Fifteen years ago, I had taken a visitor there, and we had commenced the mini-hike.  However, it had been very rainy and we did not have on proper footwear to negotiate extra-large mud puddles, so I never actually got there! Better late than never.  I did explain this to the current proprietor, Spanny Junior, and I think he was amazed.  We paid him $10 ECD each to enter the private property to cover maintenance costs for the upkeep of the trail, as it is not a government eco-site.

The cleared path to Penrice (Spanny) Falls is well-kept and easy to access at its trail-head.

The cleared path to Penrice (Spanny) Falls is well-kept and easy to reach at its trail-head.

As  we walked along the cleared track, we admired flowers that had obviously been planted and well-tended by the owner.  Then we passed quickly through a bit of farmland and directly entered the forest.  Jenny examined some bright red insects and I too studied them with curiosity.  We descended stone steps, cut into the rock and home-made handrails ,which at times were  a bit loose, therefore, I grabbed onto them with care.  We descended further into the woods until we came upon a constructed platform and the first of the two falls directly in front of us .

I look to look at the different types of fungi that appear on tree trunks near the forest floor.

I like to look at the different types of fungi that appear on tree trunks near the forest floor.

The vegetation on this natural stone wall is lovely to look at.

The vegetation on this natural stone wall is lovely to look at.

Jenny gazed up at the top of the first Penrice (Spanny) waterfall in the bright sunlight.

Jenny gazed up at the top of the first Penrice (Spanny) waterfall in the bright sunlight.

Well constructed steps aid in the descent to the waterfall, although the railings are loose in spots.

Well constructed steps aid in the descent to the waterfall, although the railings are loose in spots.

The first Penrice (Spanny) Waterfall is a pretty sight with a shallow pool beneath it.

The first Penrice (Spanny) Waterfall is a pretty sight with a shallow pool beneath it. The pool beneath the second cascade is apparently deeper.

In the dappled sunlight, the tumbling waters took on  jewel-like colours at its base.  We noticed a rope attached to some trees to our right of the first waterfall, and assumed it led to the second cascade, apparently five minutes further.  We did not attempt it at that time, as we were not dressed to grapple and climb over rocks and loose soil.  We also remarked that the dry season was clearly evident, as the river below the falls was almost completely dry!

Depp in the rainforest by Penrice (Spanny) Falls, the river appeared to be almost dry, as is common in the month of May, normally the hottest month.

Deep in the rainforest by Penrice (Spanny) Falls, the river appeared to be almost dry, as is common in May, normally the hottest month.

I think this is Morne Couronne, which is located east of Penrice (Spanny) Falls.

I think this is Morne Couronne, which is located east of Penrice (Spanny) Falls.

After a short while, we headed back to the Spanny Bar (where I had parked the car) and spent some time looking at the pretty flowers, marvelling at distant mountain vistas and listening to some Jaco Parrots, which had been perched nearby and took flight when they saw/heard us!

A lovely mix of anthurium lilies is found at the trailhead to the Penrice (Spanny) Waterfalls.

A lovely mix of anthurium lilies is found at the trail-head to the Penrice (Spanny) Waterfalls.

Whatt a pleasure to see beautiful cultivated roses in the Heart of Dominica!

What a pleasure to see beautiful cultivated roses  by the Spanny Bar in the Heart of Dominica!

I thanked Spanny Jr. for the viewing opportunity and we drove further into the Bells area for the main event: lunch and ‘lime’ at River Stone!

When we arrived a few minutes later, we were warmly welcomed by wait-staffer Carlos and Chef Kevin Gregoire.  They had been expecting us as I had made a reservation the day before. We sat under a large umbrella on the cozy veranda overlooking the Laurent River.  I remarked once again that the dry season was clearly evident, as the water level was so low, as compared to how I had seen it at other times of the year. We first enjoyed some fresh pineapple and mango juice, delicious and sweet.  This generous drink held us well so that we could ‘bathe’ in the river before having a big lunch.

Jenny stuck her toe in, and decided that she would not go further.  Besides, she was entertained by little fishes that were fascinated by her feet, the only part of her body that she dipped into the cool rushing river. I, on the other hand, ventured further into the flow.  Even though the level of water was low, the powerful current forced me to proceed cautiously and hang on to nearby boulders. Otherwise, I would have definitely ended a little further down river.  Because it was more shallow than at other times of the year, I did not swim about, but contented myself in submerging between two big rocks!  In no time, I was definitely cooled off! We both focused on the upriver scene before us.  While butterflies and birds flitted about, we wondered about the power of nature and the strength of the waters rushing down Morne Trois Pitons, regardless of the season.

At River Stone, I appreciated this beautiful pure white anthurium lily.

At River Stone, I appreciated this beautiful pure white Peace Lily. (Thanks to Fae Martin for flower ID).

If this is a Bird of Paradise flower, the it is the perfect complement its lovely surruondings.

This Heliconia is the perfect complement to its lovely surroundings. (Thanks to Fae Martin for flower ID).

The flowers around River Stone Bar & Grill add to the peaceful ambiance of the place.

The flowers around River Stone Bar & Grill add to the peaceful ambiance of the place.

The River Stone Bar & Grill, as seen from the river bank below.

The River Stone Bar & Grill, as seen from the river bank below.

The Laurent River at Bells has a very powerful flow, even with lower water levels in the dry season.

The Laurent River at Bells has a very powerful flow, even with lower water levels in the dry season.

The River Stone Bar & Grill is situated right over the Laurent River.  What a view!

The River Stone Bar & Grill is situated over the Laurent River. What a view!

After this commune with the river, we wandered around the property. Once again, we admired the gorgeous flowers that grow prolifically on the grounds.  When we were satiated with the views  of the Nature Isle in this pristine locale, we returned to the cozy outdoor dining room to order lunch.

The cheery, expansive dining area evokes a feeling of oneness with nature.

The cheery, expansive dining area evokes a feeling of oneness with nature.

We both ordered a very tasty mahi-mahi fish wrap, with purple cabbage salad on the side. The delightful combination of herbs on the fish and in the dressing

Chef Kevin Gregoire serves up sumptuous lunches at the River Stone Bar & Grill in Bells, Dominica.

Chef Kevin Gregoire serves up sumptuous lunches at the River Stone Bar & Grill in Bells, Dominica.

caused us to slowly savor every morsel.

This delicious fish wrap with tangy cabbage salad on the side was prepared by Chef Kevin  Gregoire at the River Stone Bar & Grill in Bells Dominica.

This delicious fish wrap with tangy cabbage salad on the side was prepared by Chef Kevin Gregoire at the River Stone Bar & Grill in Bells Dominica.

While we had only ordered small portions instead of possible large ones, we were surprised to be filled up by the generous serving, and as such, had no room for dessert!

In the freshest  air imaginable, high in the mountains, surrounded by verdant rainforest and a rushing river, we both totally relaxed and forgot about our cares back in the city.

After almost four hours of ‘lime’ time, I suggested reluctantly that we move off and head back to our respective homes.  Otherwise, I might have been tempted to stay all night!  We said good-bye to Carlos and Chef Kevin, with assurances that we would return as soon as we could!

As we drove back to Pond Cassé, the third part of my plan was eventually realized.  It took me  two drive-by’s,

The entrance well-constructed steps down  to Jaco Falls actually refers to its as Hibiscus Falls!

The entrance has well-constructed steps down to Jaco Falls, but actually refers to it as Hibiscus Falls!

along with assurances from Jenny (and what she could read on the sign), as well as a query to a bus driver who had parked at Spanny’s Bar that we had actually passed the nature site that  is originally known as Jaco Falls.  I had been confused because the sign in a brightly coloured kiosk refers to the setting as Hibiscus Falls.  However, I now understand that the two names mean the same thing!  I pulled over by the side of the road and went to the attendant to make enquiries about entrance fees.  The charge in 2015 is $3 USD for visitors and $5 ECD for citizens of Dominica.  As I am the latter, I paid the lesser fee; however I felt unsure that the lady was convinced of my status. But I am what I said I am, and that’s the truth!

Jaco Falls is a pretty little site located close to the main road to Marigot and the airport.

Jaco Falls is a pretty little site located close to the main road to Marigot and the airport and is just minutes from the Pond Casse round-about.

I entered under a large sign announcing Hibiscus Falls, and immediately descended numerous steps before I arrived at the viewing area. All in all, it probably took me 5 minutes.  The stairs are well constructed with a strong railing, and one can even view the Jaco/Hibiscus Falls near the top of them.  Therefore, no need to exert energy to see another lovely waterfall, just minutes off of the main road.  I took a few photos in the late afternoon sunlight.  As Jenny had seen this site before and remained outside ,I did not linger, but I was glad to have finally ‘found’ this waterfall.

Jaco/Hibiscus Falls can be easily viewed without much effort from the top steps near the entrance to the site.

Jaco/Hibiscus Falls can be easily viewed without much effort from the top steps near the entrance to the site.

After many years of driving by the property, it had been right under my nose, with a different name than I had expected!

A few minutes closer to the round-about at the center of the island, we pulled in to the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT)office.  A friendly neighbour saw us drive up, and he quickly advised us that the staff had just left, as it was now 4:30 p.m.  We still got out and looked around, as we were curious about the building and its lay-out in this natural setting.  It is conveniently located near the trail-end of WNT Segment # 4 at Pond Cassé, and is very near to the trail-head of WNT Segment # 5.

Finally we stopped at Pond Cassé to admire majestic Morne Trois Pitons and to photograph her, even though her three peaks were slightly shrouded in clouds. I recalled a day many years ago when I had attempted the challenging climb to her summit.  While I didn’t quite reach the top, the views from my very high vantage point of the countryside below were unforgettable!

By now, the light in the mountains was fading, and we returned to the oppressive heat that lingered along the west coast and the Roseau area.  However, I managed to ‘stay cool’ that evening, as I fondly recalled the wonderful day spent at River Stone Bar & Grill and the ‘Heart of Dominica!

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Three Saturdays in May: Dominica’s Hike Fest 2013 – Part 3

Gwendominica hams it up for the camera on one of several crossings of the Layou River during Hike Fest's 3rd and final Saturday adventure in 2013.  Photo taken by Simon Walsh, professional photographer at Images Dominica.

Gwendominica hams it up for the camera on one of several crossings of the Layou River during Hike Fest’s 3rd and final Saturday adventure in 2013. Photo taken by Simon Walsh, professional photographer at Images Dominica.

When I arrived at the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association office to register Hike Fest participants at 7 a.m. on Saturday May 18th, I had no idea that all 77 of us would be spending more of this trek in the water than on land!  The “Maroon Heritage River Hike” would be the last of a number of outdoor adventures that were offered this year as part of  the annual Tourism Awareness Month   activities on the Nature Island.

The trail is well maintained and signs do point the way on land  - but the river is another matter!

The trail is well maintained and signs do point the way on land – but the river is another matter!

At about 9:30 a.m. on that dry day in paradise, we disembarked from four buses at the village of Bells, which is located in the  island’s interior, north of the Pond Cassé round-about.  Anticipation and expectations were high.  We listened to long-time Hike Fest organizer and professional photographer Simon Walsh , who outlined the details of this adventure and introduced our guides.

At the start of the hike, about 80 enthusiasts strolled down to the Layou River en route to Jacko Steps and Jacko Flats.

At the start of the hike, about 80 enthusiasts strolled down to the Layou River crossing en route to Jacko Steps and Jacko Flats.

We were in for a few surprises and a load of fun – but I won’t give it all away at the top of this post!  The main objective was to experience and observe a very significant, historic place deep in the forest and high above the Layou River.  Our foray would take us to  two nearby locales called Jacko Steps and Jacko Flats, which are named after a famous negre maron (maroon or escaped slave) chief named Jacko. He  hid there in an encampment with his supporters  in the late 1700’s, raided and plundered many plantations and avoided capture by the British for about 40 years!

What is quite ingenious about this maroon and his followers is that they cut over 100 steps into the stone so that they had a stairway down the 300 foot cliff to the river.  However, these cuttings are far from ordinary.  They are very narrow, extremely steep and excessively high, which would have made it very difficult for British troops to quickly and easily attack them. The maroons would have seen them first from their  high hiding places in the dense forest.  Furthermore, the remote location of Jacko’s camp  on a plateau (flat land) was far from accessible.  As we quickly found out, getting to and from this area involved crossing the powerful Layou River, not once, but several times, depending on the direction of one’s approach.   They were well protected on three sides, because of the winding river with its forceful current and the steep, heavily treed cliffs.  Jacko was  a brilliant strategist, in my humble opinion!

We soon found out how clever Jacko was as we forded the  river for the first (!) time

The first crossing of the Layou River was only knee-deep.  The worst (best?!?) was yet to come - for us, but my camera had already begun to fade out before it succumbed to the river...

The first crossing of the Layou River was only knee-deep. The worst (best?!?) was yet to come – for us, but my camera had already begun to fade out before it succumbed to the river…

Trudging through the plateau hig above the rive rwas relatively easy - until we met the  Jacko steps!

Trudging through the plateau high above the river was relatively easy – until we met the Jacko Steps!

We walked up a path which met the challenging steps. Then we cautiously climbed down them to meet the river again! It was increasingly easy to understand why Jacko’s band of maroons were relatively safe from capture for so long.  One would have had to have been very familiar with the terrain, accustomed to the climate and in top physical condition to safely and successfully negotiate those steps!

These hooks were put in place over a couple of centuries ago to assist with a cable mechanism to pull goods up and down the steep steps.

These hooks were put in place over a couple of centuries ago to help with a cable mechanism to haul goods up and down the steep incline at the steps.

David (r) is an incredible guide who moved with swiftness and strength and saved a number of us from trips or topples over treacherous terrain.

A section of the Jacko Steps. David (r) is an incredible guide who moved with swiftness and strength and saved a number of us from trips or topples over treacherous terrain – both on land and in the river!

The start of the descent seemed easy - but of course Jacko would have planned it that way!  It was the  bottom up that was almost impassable - with good reason!

The start of the descent seemed easy – but of course Jacko would have planned it that way! It was  from the bottom up that was almost impassable – with good reason!

We definitely treaded with caution on the treacherous descent to the river.

From there, we realized that although the sun was shining, this was not a day for dry clothes.  As we traversed the rushing river, we  slid over slippery rocks and were often caught off-balance by the thrust of the current as its waters coursed towards the sea. Even along the shorelines, large boulders and uneven ground put my weak ankles to the test.   I had switched to plastic sandals and was thinking about putting on my hiking boots again.   I had carried them over my shoulder until that point.  But when I traversed a powerful cascade,  I tipped over with the force of the water and my  boots fell into the turbulent waters and started to drift away.  Simon immediately came to my aid and quickly retrieved the boots.  “So much for your dry boots,” he chortled.  I laughed out loud in response. If it hadn’t been for his sharp reflexes, I would have lost a  good pair of  outdoor footwear.  Thanks Simon!!!

When I reached the shoreline after about the third crossing, I realized that while my boots had been saved, I had potentially lost some other possessions, thanks to Mother Nature.  Although I had tucked my loosely plastic-wrapped   camera and my cellphone into my sports bra, I had not fully anticipated that the fearsome Layou would be so high on a dry day.  But I did have a few moments in waters up to my neck, so you know what happened next.  The camera was already fading, after several years of good service.  And as for the cell phone, it is drying out in a container of rice (!) as recommended to me by several people.  We’ll see what happens… Now there is a lesson learned – for me  – and for you!

As further photos on my part were out of the question, we were fortunate that Simon brought along a sophisticated camera and managed to keep it dry.    To see his excellent photo journal of the day’s events, look at his business face book page for Images Dominica, of which he is a partner.

At about the midway point of the several river crossings, a powerful current and fairly high waters presented a major obstacle for many of us.  I credit our guides, particularly David and Roberta, for getting us safely across to the opposite shore.  I had a moment or two during that exercise when I felt  as if the river  were about to carry me away.  I was trying with all my might to resist it and I tensed every muscle.  Strong hands pulled me safely to the other side.  I sat down and trembled for a few moments.  It occurred to me that the challenging Boiling Lake trail was perhaps a better option for my style of hiking.  But after a while I changed my mind.  Some African drummers had brought their instruments and were restoring our energy through their rhythmic sounds.

The joy of hiking in Dominica is that each trek offers something different about the Nature Island.That is what makes every outing a memorable adventure!

By the time we had slogged to the sixth crossing, some of us opted to go overland, thereby eliminating at least one traverse before the grand finale.  We were more than waterlogged, to put it mildly  While a few people started ahead, I and a few others insisted that we wait for a guide.  As I have observed and heard, it is very easy to get lost in Dominica’s dense jungle and I was not going to be party to that!

Roberta guided us through scrub,  farmlands and a cow pasture. Suddenly, we were back at the river’s edge, where we waited for the water enthusiasts to catch up to us for that very last crossing.  Amazingly, a small puppy, picked up at the trail-head, finished the  entire journey with us.  I watched people  carry him safely through all the rough waters.  I was also astonished that a nine-year old boy and ten-year old girl made the trip with relative ease.  I was so delighted for them, although they acted as if it were nothing.  Next time, I hope they will bring all their friends!

During the last traverse across the Laurent River, which flows into the Layou ,I actually began to feel more at ease with the flow of these  forceful bodies of water.  I seemed to be able to make moves that matched their unpredictable rhythms.   As we walked down the main road through the village of Bells to relax at the nearby RiverStone Bar ‘n Grill, I thought about Jacko with the greatest of  admiration and respect.

My day was not quite over, as it was time to eat and then  listen to some cool’ jazz and creole’ music from live bands.  I’ll tell you all about it in the next post!

*Special thanks to the Hike Fest Organizing Committee, particularly Maxine, David and Simon.  A big up to the tourism and hospitality interns (Victoria and the other young lady) from the Dominica State College  who helped me with registration and provided much needed support.  The guides with whom I associated were very good and added to the quality of the experiences.  I had a blast and I think most others did too!

**  I am also grateful to those in my hiking ‘pod’, especially Liz, Christabel, Wendy and the faculty ladies from Ross University Medical School for their congenial company.  Didn’t we have fun!!!

*** DO NOT attempt the Jaco Flats/Steps Hike without a knowledgeable guide. The Layou River is well-known for its flash floods, so it is inadvisable to go there on a rainy day.  The river crossings are not obvious and the current can be very strong. Local guidance is essential.

REFERENCES:

Caribbean Sunseekers Dominica by Don Philpott.Chicago: Passport Books, 1995.

Dominica: Isle of Adventure by Lennox Honychurch. Second Edition. London: Macmillan, 1995.

The Dominica Story: A History of the Island by Lennox Honychurch. London: Macmillan, 1995.