Dominica’s ‘Hotel The Champs’ Rebounds After Maria

Cabrits in daylight
Daytime View of The Cabrits and Fort Shirley from Hotel The Champs six months after Hurricane Maria.

During my post-Maria visit to Dominica, I had briefly chatted with Hans Schilders and Lise Van de Kamp,

Hans & Lise at The Champs 2013
Hotel The Champs Proprietors Lise Van de Kamp and Hans Schilders.

Proprietors of Hotel the Champs in Picard, near Portsmouth before actually staying at their establishment in March 2018. Up to then, we just  happened  to meet up by chance at various venues around Roseau, such as the Fort Young Hotel and the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association.

As this stay on-island came to a close, I looked forward to spending some quality time in their company at their award-winning five-room hotel on the hill. From their location, I was able to get a sense of the post-Maria situation in the north of the island, take my last tour with Dr. Birdy  to  the Syndicate Nature Trail, and most of all, catch up with my dynamic hosts to learn about their post-Maria plans and climate resilience projects. (For an overview of Dominica’s intention to become the first climate-resilient country in the world,  click here  and also here)

Throughout the years I lived in Dominica, I had always enjoyed occasional visits and overnights at their establishment, as my northern base.  In fact, I was the first guest at Hotel The Champs when they opened their doors in 2008!   And six months after Maria, I was further delighted to be among other guests who were spending their vacation on Dominica at this quaint property overlooking Prince Rupert Bay, with stunning vistas of the Cabrits National Park and Fort Shirley. I have previously written about my fun-filled occasions at The Champs on my Ti Domnik Tales blog, and you can read those posts here.

Dr. Birdy  had driven  me, with all my luggage to Picard from my apartment at the home of friends Vernon and Geramise Gordon, near Roseau. After he dropped me off, I chatted briefly with Lise and we arranged to meet at the pool a bit later that afternoon. Meanwhile, I went for a short walk up the hill behind their property. I was shocked to see the extensive damage to the terrain nearby.  I already knew that The Champs had lost its entire  roof and all of its solar panels had blown away, but the force of Maria was further reinforced in my mind when I observed the devastation of the forest a short distance away from the hotel.

The hills just above Hotel The Champs were slowly recovering six months after Hurricane Maria:

 

I slowly strolled back to the hotel, and took time to gaze at the more-exposed Morne aux Diables, the island’s northernmost peak.  Without the normal shroud of dense verdant cover,  its distinct profile stood out starkly against the baby-blue sky of this serene afternoon on the Nature Isle.

Morne aux diables and environs
Morne Aux Diables on March 24, 2018, as seen from the road above Hotel The Champs in Picard, Dominica.  The town of Portsmouth is located in the foothills, centre/left of this photo.

 

I was very hot and sweaty by the time I pulled on my bathing suit and quickly showered off for my anticipated refreshing dip. In The Champs salt-water pool, I truly relaxed and savored the sensation of enveloping my body in the warm water for several minutes.  Then Lise appeared, and her infectious energy, along with a few laps together rejuvenated me as I listened to her incredible Maria stories with focused fascination.

Champs Hotel 2
The inviting pool at Hotel The Champs was fully operational, minus solar lights only, when I enjoyed it in late March 2018, six months after Hurricane Maria.

As we swam several lengths of the pool, Lise described that terrible unforgettable night on September 18, 2017. The hoteliers had stayed in one room, while their  guests were in the adjacent rooms.  They were forced to  hold the door shut against the powerful winds and horizontal rains with only their hands for an hour and half during the worst of the storm. There was no way to communicate with the people staying in the other rooms. They could only hope they were okay and protect themselves as best as possible. As it turned out, their guests from the USA were holding their door shut as well, and their French visitors on the other side remained on their bed while rainwater  gushed through the window.  Fortunately, they were all fine. But when they opened their doors after the cyclone had passed, they, like everyone else on Dominica were totally shocked by the surreal scene of devastation around them.

Lise also shared some Maria stories about her staff.  Sadly, three of them lost their homes, and some of the others left the island. But thankfully, their lives had been spared. From the original 12 who were with them before the storm, only five continue to work with them, due to the changed circumstances for everyone.

However, the proactive proprietors had decided within one week that they would reopen the hotel, and carry on as best as possible. And true to their word,  they opened their doors to guests once they had electricity, which was around the end of October, only six weeks after Maria! Although the new roof was not yet finished, the enterprising couple were able to offer A/C in the rooms, access to the pool, and meals on the balconies! The understanding guests still had internet access through Mobile hotspots, and happily tolerated cold showers until solar water heating became available in late December!*

Evening by Cabrits
View of The Cabrits and Prince Rupert Bay at dusk from Hotel The Champs.

 

After the swim and Maria stories, I changed for dinner and waited for my hosts in their temporary dining area.  The sun was setting and there were some beautifully lighted boats in the bay.  I could never tire of that view, and I felt increasingly  sedated as I sat at a table and sipped on a drink.  I noticed that Hans had his swim as the sun was setting, while amiably chatting with some of the other guests who were also refreshing themselves in the pool. By the time everyone arrived at the pre-set tables, I was feeling very sleepy.

Boats by PBH
The sea view directly in front of Hotel the Champs, along Picard Beach.

When Sabrina placed the huge fish dinner in front of me, I savored every bite on the generous plate that she had prepared until I could eat no more. Meanwhile, Hans updated me on their plans with respect to becoming a climate resilient hotel, and explained about the “water-proof” roof that had recently been completed.  When Hans excitedly described “the special roof that took forever,” he noted that its construction became a reality with consultations with several building professionals. He also said that the new roof included a “TPO” layer, which is a strong plastic glued to plywood beneath it, with heat welded seams so that the entire roof is like one complete sheet of plastic.  It is white to reflect the sun and strong enough to hold all the solar panels and even walk on it!

The Champs Hotel
Everyone from everywhere is welcome at Hotel The Champs.  The congenial hosts speak several languages too!

Mind you, these hoteliers have been thinking green for a long time.  Since they opened a decade ago, they enhanced their sustainable priorities as their business evolved, including storage and filtration of rainwater, conversion to LED lights and  installation of DC inverter units for air conditioning purposes.

It seems to me that Maria’s devastating blow only further reinforced their desire and determination to become increasingly energy-efficient and seek solutions to the concerns surrounding the climate resilience of life and property should another natural disaster or unforeseen event impact their business. Their overall objective endeavors to be fully functional within 48 hours of a disaster, once all of their infrastructure is in place!*

Over the course of my three-day stay at Hotel The

Birdy and Lise (2)
Dr. Birdy and Lise Van de Kamp made my time in the north of the island enjoyable and unforgettable! Not forgetting Hans, who was attending a meeting!

Champs, Hans and Lise took me around their property and showed me what had been restored, reconstructed, renovated, initiated and soon-to-be improved to resist a natural disaster or unforeseen loss of utility services.  My head was spinning with their ambitious projects and I could only admire and be in awe of their dedication and determination to not only improve their own enterprise, but also contribute to a more sustainable, environmentally friendly, climate-resilient way-of-life. I hope that others will follow their lead!

For me,the stunning 270 degree views from the sea-facing balconies and dining area, delicious food, congenial conversation, comfortable room and relaxing pool-time enabled me to  easily distract from the reconstruction activities, which discretely continued in the background.  My visit at Hotel The Champs was far too short and filled with activities: the exciting tour to Syndicate Nature Trail with

Hibiscus at Cabrits
A beautiful post-Maria hibiscus bloom at Hotel The Champs.  Lise was understandably very proud of it!

Dr. Birdy , more intriguing conversations with Lise and Hans, and a long walk along lovely Picard Beach.

As I prepared to depart Dominica after two months on-island post-Hurricane Maria, I felt very optimistic. While there is still a substantial rebuild in store for Nature Islanders, the Hotel The Champs is  an exceptional example of how it is definitely possible to “Build Back Better.”

When Marlon, the hotel’s driver punctually knocked on my door at 3:45 a.m. on Tuesday March 27th to drive me to Douglas-Charles airport for my early connecting flight en route to Canada, I didn’t feel quite so sad about leaving my beloved adopted country.  I believe that by the time I return next year, considerable efforts will have been put in place to work towards making the Nature Island’s structures and infrastructure as resilient as the amazing people who live there!

THE END!  (This is the last post in ‘After the Hurricane: A Post-Maria Visit to Dominica‘ blog. Thanks for reading!)

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Picard Beach, a few minutes walk from Hotel The Champs, offers incredible views of The Cabrits and Fort Shirley, as well as sun, sand and sea.

*Details of the Hotel The Champs ‘Climate Resilience’ plans were provided by Hans Schilders as a follow-up to our conversations in March 2018.  He presented his experiences and initiatives to a  symposium on  Climate Sensitization and Disaster Risk Management, facilitated by the DDA, in collaboration with the  CTO in Dominica in July 2018. I am grateful to Lise Van de Kamp for re-telling and reminding me about Maria stories from Hotel The Champs.  Sincere thanks to both of you and all the best! I look forward to spending more quality time at The Champs next time I am on-island.

 

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Adventures with Dr. Birdy*: Searching for Parrots on the Syndicate Nature Trail

 

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A Chatannye, with its broad buttresses, remains standing in the Syndicate Nature Preserve near Portsmouth, Dominica. The Gommier trees (with white trunks) also survived the ravages of Hurricane Maria.

There are tears in my eyes when Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste  picks me up at my apartment in the home of longtime neighbours and friends, Vernon and Geramise Gordon in Wallhouse. It’s my last morning in my old neighbourhood in Dominica, and I love it there so much, I really don’t want to go! Alas, all good things must come to an end, but this visit is not quite over yet.  I am going to spend some fun-filled time near Portsmouth, in the north of the island, stay at the hotel of friends, and search for parrots on the Syndicate Nature Trail!

When Birdy drops me off at the international award-winning Hotel the Champs, I am warmly greeted by Lise Van de Kamp, who welcomes me like an old friend.  I had already seen her, along with her partner and co-proprietor Hans Schilders in Roseau, but only briefly, and I looked forward to catching up with them and hearing their ‘Maria’ stories during my short stay with them. More on their activities in the next post!

Birdy quickly arranged pick-up time for our tour the next day.  He could not linger, as he was taking a small group to Syndicate later that afternoon. I wished him luck in sighting parrots,  and  hoped I would be fortunate to see some birds the following morning.

Bright  and early, on Sunday March 25, 2018, I am ready for today’s adventure with Birdy just before 9 a.m.. I’ve had a filling breakfast and I am all set!  Of course, he is already there when I exit the hotel.  We drive down the hill to the main road, and Birdy has

Birdy and Me
Dr. Birdy and Gwen are ready to hit the Syndicate Trail in search of parrots! Photo taken by Lise at Hotel The Champs.

already spotted a Jaco in a tree not far from Hotel the Champs.  I see it too. I am off to a good start!

We have only just begun the short drive to the Syndicate  turn-off as we proceed along the Picard portion of the E.O. Leblanc Highway.  Suddenly, Birdy pulls over, stops the vehicle, gets out, and says that he has something to show me.  He takes out his high-powered ‘telescope’ from the back of his bus, and sets it up on the shoulder of the road. We are facing a marsh, that is, wetland, and I know I must be in for a treat.  The sun is beating down, even though it is still early, and I start to sweat while I wait a few minutes for him to position the scope and locate this ‘surprise’.

“Ah hah! There it is!” proclaims Birdy,  “Gwen, come and have a look and tell me what you think it is.” I shut one eye and position the other over the view-finder. “Wow!  That is amazing.  Oh I love it.  It seems so close.  What is it doing?” I asked.  “It has young and

American Kestrel
American Kestrel as photographed through Dr. Birdy’s high-powered telescope.

that is the nest in that broken tree stump. It’s feeding juveniles right now. Tell me what you think it is,” coached Birdy.  “Hmmmm. I see the sharp beak and the claws.  Could it be a Chicken-Hawk, also known as Malfini in Creole?” I ask timidly.  “Well… you are on the right track.  It is a bird that is in the same family (Raptor or Bird of Prey) as the Hawk,” he replies encouragingly, “It is actually an American Kestrel. I hope you will remember that!” he chuckles.  “Oh Birdy, I’ll try my best.  Ask me when we pass by here later,” I laugh in reply. “I am sure you will.  You are doing well,” coaches Birdy as we continue the drive to our intended destination.

When we reach the village of Dublanc after a few minutes, we turn inland and immediately commence our steep ascent to Syndicate, in the foothills of Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest peak. As we drive higher and higher, I note devastated farms, mainly citrus and banana , and the strangest looking trees I have ever seen.  Somehow, their odd post-Maria appearance is more striking to me here than on the other adventures with Birdy  this trip. Maybe it’s the mighty  mountain (Diablotin) and the sparsely covered fields which form the eerie backdrop. There were moments when those twisted, bent, broken trees looked other-worldly to me.  Maybe it’s the mystery surrounding the elusive Black Capped Petril (aka Diablotin) bird that makes me feel this way.  If you’re curious, check the details by clicking here!

The other-worldliness (vine shrouded or exposed terrain) of the Syndicate Estate in the foothills of Morne Diablotin six months after Hurricane Maria:

 

 

Despite the changed beauty, I gasp with delight at the lush green terrain and inhale the fresh pure mountain air as we arrive at the trail-head.

As soon as we are out of the vehicle, Birdy  draws my attention to the beautiful flowers that line the start of the track.  It has rained here last night and the trail is slightly muddy.  I am so glad that I have worn my hiking boots, as the

going is a bit rough in spots.

I have been here numerous  times over the almost two decades that I lived in Dominica, and I find it hard to believe that there is no longer any rainforest canopy.  The foliage of tall Gommier, Chatannyé and Karapit  trees once densely covered the trail.  Now the whole area is exposed to sunlight, and regrowth is obvious. Dr. Birdy shows me several saplings in various stages of growth.  He is very encouraged by how quickly the young trees reach towards the sky in a few short months since Maria.  As always, he declares and I have come to believe that “nature is resilient.”

The rainforest canopy is still drastically reduced six months after Hurricane Maria, but there is hope that it will recover, as evidenced by regrowth on the forest floor:

As we take in this changed beauty, Dr. Birdy first hears and then points to a pair of Jaco Parrots perched in the trees not far from us.  I take this to be a good sign, and am hopeful of catching a glimpse of a Sisserou (Imperial) parrot, whose numbers have always been significantly less than the Jacos.  Since Hurricane Maria, there have been a few sightings of this endangered bird (as per the IUCN Redlist in 2016), which is only found in Dominica, and is a national symbol. I am hopeful that this will be my lucky day. If anyone can locate them, it’s Dr. Birdy, who has occasionally seen them since the destructive storm hit the island in September 2017.

As we near the look-off over the Picard River far below, Dr. Birdy has already shown me a Blue-Headed Hummingbird  perched in a tree just behind where we have already walked.  As I’ve seen several on this visit, I trust that this tiny, beautiful bird, found only in Dominica and Martinique is indeed thriving.

All of sudden, Birdy picks up his pace.  With his large telescope in hand, he rushes to the edge of the look-off.  He has heard the distinctive squawk of the Sisserou on the opposite ridge and is hopeful that we will catch a glimpse of it today! I heard it too, but I am definitely not moving as fast as he is.  By the time I catch up with him, he has already set up the scope and is gazing with intensity into the lens as he scours the opposite ridge for the reclusive bird.

 

Patiently, seemingly endlessly, we watch and wait.  I take in the whole scene: a slope of Diablotin, the Picard River far below, the verdant ridge directly opposite, the broken and bent trees, the blue sky, the serenity of this special space in the wilderness of Dominica.  I wander around and content myself with thoughts of the possibility of seeing a Sisserou. Suddenly, Birdy calls me over to look into the telescope.  Nope, it’s not the national bird, but instead is a Jaco feeding on a fig-like fruit on a Ficus tree.  The agile bird balances precariously on a thin

Jaco Parrot Botannical Gardens
After unsuccessful attempts to photograph a Jaco in the wild, I was thankful to have taken this photo of one in rehabilitation following Hurricane Maria. It was recovering at the Parrot Aviary in the Botanic Gardens on February 9, 2018.**

branch, even hooking his claws around it to feed upside down.  I squeal with glee in the forest.  It’s not the big bird, but it is a thrill to observe the smaller parrot as if it were only a few feet away – instead of a long distance across a ravine!  As it  moves with agility from tree to tree and branch to branch, we watch it for a good long time – until it can no longer be seen in the range of the scope.  Once more, Birdy has heard the Sisserou.  It’s over there somewhere but did not come into our view during the couple of hours we spent at this site.  It’s okay: I am really not disappointed – except that the photos I took of the Jaco through the scope did not turn out!

We make our way back to the trailhead,  and the bird sightings are not over yet. I hear a call that sounds familiar to me, once Birdy has drawn it to my attention.  We back track a little and Birdy sets up the scope again. He finds the bird perched on a high tree branch and tells me to look.  It’s a Mangrove Cuckoo and I have never knowingly seen one, although I have heard it many times over the years in my old neighbourhood south of Roseau.

With the sighting of that pretty bird, it is a fitting end to my adventures with Dr. Birdy during this return visit to Dominica.  As we drive back down the mountain, I tell him where I would like to go next time: nearby Syndicate Falls; Segment 12 of the

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In the valley between these ridges, the Syndicate Falls waits for me in the continuing saga of my adventures with Dr. Birdy!

Waitukubuli National Trail; and Middleham Falls from the Cochrane Village track are tops on my list.

Learning about Dominica’s flora and fauna with Dr. Birdy is an ongoing process and I am very grateful for his enduring ‘lessons’ over the past 21 years. As we pass the wetland area where we stopped to observe a bird several hours earlier, Birdy asks: “Gwen, do you remember the name of the bird we saw his this morning?” I pause for only a second. “American Kestrel!” I shout out.  Birdy smiles. “Yes!  Now you’re getting it.”

Even after 21 years of traversing trails on Dominica, there is still so much more to see, visit and learn. I can’t wait for my next adventure with Dr. Birdy on the Nature Isle!

*Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste, a retired Forestry Officer in Dominica is a renowned and highly regarded local tour guide and birding specialist.  He can be contacted at: (767) 245-4768 (WhatsApp, text or call) or by email at: drbirdy2@cwdom.dm

**Sisserou (Imperial) and Jaco (Red-Necked) Parrot were photographed on February 9, 2018 and are published with permission from Dominica’s Forestry, Wildlife and Parks Division and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. In March, the Sisserou, along with a “mate” and several Jacos at the Parrot and Conservation Research Centre (Aviary) in the Botanic Gardens were transferred to the Association for the Conservation of Threatened Parrots  (ACTP)’s facilities in Germany.

 

 

 

Dominica’s Beloved Beaches along the Caribbean Coastline: Changing Sands, Sensational Scenes

Gwen on Mero Beach
Gwen enjoys sunset on Mero Beach Dominica.  Photo taken by Tina Alexander.

I have always loved Dominica’s Mero Beach.  My devotion goes back a long way: more than twenty years, in fact.

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A perfect sunset in paradise on Dominica’s Mero Beach.

 

 

 

 

Storms have constantly altered the shoreline, and businesses have come and gone and been replaced by others. However, the beautiful seaside setting and its charming village remain enchanting and welcoming, even after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. Mero was one of the first villages to organize a clean-up campaign after the category 5 cyclone, as the residents take pride in their attractive community and are delighted that visitors always enjoy their time relaxing and dining in this seaside locale.

 

 

Along with time well spent in the warm waters, it’s always been the ideal setting to dine by the sea and socialize. On a Saturday afternoon in March, I joined a group of women for a ‘Ladies Night Out’ which was coordinated by Tina Alexander of Lifeline Ministries. We arrived just before sunset at Connie’s Mero Beach Bar, renowned for its views and substantial Dominican-style meals. The staff at Connie’s put on a huge spread: it was a veritable feast, including freshly caught fish, which was enjoyed by all. We traveled there by bus from the Roseau area, allowing opportunities to meet and converse with old friends, as well as exchange views with new ones.  During this exceptional and meaningful gathering of some professional women on the Nature Isle,  I listened, learned, communed and laughed for several hours that evening.  I look forward to joining them again when I return to Dominica!

 

When I returned to Mero a few days later, I indulged in yet another hearty lunch at Connie’s, then took a sea bath and then lounged in the shade with a glass of freshly squeezed, lightly sweetened lime juice at Indee’s (formerly Romance Cafe) further up the beach.  On a normal day in March (peak tourist season) this substantial stretch of sand would likely have been filled with visitors from a cruise ship.  But on this beautiful day, six months after Hurricane Maria, with no cruise ships in port, I had the entire beach all to myself to enjoy as I wished!  It’s probably the first (and only) time that ever happened to me in my beloved adopted country, or anywhere else! I floated easily in the gentle surf, walked the expansive shoreline, and delighted in watching pelicans  as they dove into the sea for their own fish lunches.

By mid-afternoon, I was suitably relaxed and ready for a physiotherapy session with longtime osteopath  and friend Martine Varlet, who lives in Mero Heights, above the village.  While she worked on some strained muscles caused by the rigors of  overseas travel, we caught up on news. I felt completely rejuvenated after the session with her! It couldn’t have been a better finish to my spectacular day spent by the sea at Mero Beach.

Admittedly, I love being beach-side in Dominica almost as much as being in  the mountains! Luckily, I did have some other opportunities to be in close proximity to the Caribbean Sea while I was on-island post-Hurricane Maria.  I did miss liming (relaxing) on Champagne Beach, which had suffered extensive damage as a result of the cyclone, but I know that I will return there as soon as this sensational eco-site is operational again. You can read about it in my Ti Domnik Tales blog, by clicking here.

As well,  the southwestern coast, comprised of the  Soufriere /Scotts Head area was not fully recovered from the storm. While I may have been able to enjoy a dip in the changed surroundings, I again decided to wait until next visit, in anticipation of restored facilities and sites that I had enjoyed for many years previously. You can read about my earlier activities in this popular seaside region by clicking here.

As it turned out, I  actually spent time “by the sea” in the city of Roseau,  comfortably seated and sheltered in the covered dining area at the Fort Young Hotel. Many days, depending on the hour,  I ordered what was not readily available elsewhere: passionfruit juice, freshly caught fish,  codfish bakes, tempting desserts or the substantial lunch buffet. Some mornings, I just nibbled on toast and sipped  coffee while I took advantage of wireless services,(not then available  in my neighbourhood post-Maria).

During my  ‘day-cations’ at Fort Young, I would conveniently meet and greet friends and associates, dine alone or with company, get updates on renovations-in-progress from General Manager Marvlyn James, prepare for meetings, organize photographs, write letters, formulate drafts of posts for this blog, as well as stroll the length of the seaside terrace in order to enjoy the  views and watch the waves when I needed a break from my scrutinizing my  tablet.

 

During the last few days of my post-Maria visit, I ventured to the north of the island, where I caught up with Lise van de Kamp and Hans Schilders, proprietors of Hotel The Champs, located at Picard, just south of the town of Portsmouth.

While I stayed there, I observed and listened to enthusiastic accounts of post-Maria progress from the energetic hoteliers.  As well, I further explored the terrain and searched for parrots with Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste. Hans and Lise were endeavoring to repair their award-winning establishment in an effort to become the first climate resilient hotel on Dominica.  More about their timely project in a subsequent post.  The amazing adventure with Dr. Birdy will also be revealed in a forthcoming post.

Of course, quality ‘Caribbean beach time’ was  part of my plan in the northwestern region of the island. Actually, there are numerous gorgeous stretches of white, golden or black sand all around the northern tip of the island, including those just beyond Portsmouth, facing the Guadeloupe Channel, and others on the Atlantic coast near Calibishie in the northeast.  But I had basically run out of time and those experiences would have to wait until next visit!

As it turned out, sea conditions were not ideal for a ‘sea bath’ during my chosen day to linger on Picard Beach.  Instead, I walked as far as I could along the sandy seaside in a southerly direction, completely mesmerized by the sea in its highly agitated state. It was not possible to go the whole distance to Coconut Beach due to the strong surf, which tossed up debris and scattered stones, so I contented myself by lounging on a beach chair in front of the quaint Picard Beach Cottages.  From there,  I watched the relentless wave action with great fascination. Coincidentally, I had spent a week there during my second visit to Dominica about 21 years earlier and I highly recommend the private beach-side cottages for a genuine seaside experience with a tropical garden in the background.

On my last Sunday in Dominica, having completed the latest adventure with ‘Dr. Birdy’ in the Syndicate Nature Reserve, we lingered over a late lunch at popular Purple Turtle Beach Club in Lagoon, Portsmouth.  The place was packed, and the meal was a long time coming.  However, while we waited, we discussed bird sightings and post-Maria tourism issues as we looked over this lengthy stretch of sand in Prince Rupert Bay. It was very hot there, especially so since we had been at a much cooler elevation in the foothills of Morne Diablotin, the highest peak in Dominica. That afternoon was steamy at the seaside, and sun seekers sought shade while they waited for the sun to dip a little lower on the horizon!

 

Dominica may not be a tropical destination that is recognized for its beaches, but I know better. So I am sharing a secret: the Nature Island’s black, white and golden sands and  smaller, intimate, often-deserted seaside locales offer authentic Caribbean ‘downtime’ the way it was meant to be!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Places I (have) Love(d): Dominica’s Beautiful Beau Rive Closes Its Doors

When I was scouring the internet for any available information about Dominica during those first few days following Hurricane Maria, I came upon some aerial photographs. Very little news was leaking out of the island, as it was basically cut-off from the outside world for several days. As I quickly scanned dozens of shots, I could hardly recognize once-familiar places on the island.  The apocalyptic views only made me fear the worst for everyone in Dominica, and my heart skipped several beats when I came upon a view of Beau Rive Boutique Hotel. I knew that the proprietor, Mark Steele was overseas, as September was the usual month in which the hotel was closed and he took a well-deserved break.   There were a few comments beside the shocking photo and I added my own: “OMG, has Mark seen this?”

Fearing the worst, I immediately fretted about an ominous outlook for hurricane-impacted Beau Rive. For me, the lovely hotel had always been an idyllic escape from the busy-ness around Roseau.  Once or twice  a year, for over a decade, I would traverse the island, en route to the east  coast where I would immerse myself in its complete serenity, casual elegance, extraordinary hospitality and tantalizing meals.  I considered it a true Dominica ‘east coast’ retreat and I always felt ‘at home’ there.

As I consistently enjoyed every visit, I could never resist writing about my exceptional experiences at this award-winning hotel, and as such, I included several pieces  in my Ti Domnik Tales  blog .  They can be found here.

Beau Rive after Hurricane Maria
Beau Rive’s devastation as captured in this aerial photo a few days after Hurricane Maria.  Taken from the Beau Rive Facebook page.

My worst fears became a blunt reality when it was confirmed that  this international award-winning accommodation incurred severe damage during the storm. When Mark found out about the wrath of Maria during his overseas travels, his first concern was for his staff and their well-being. Initially, he had no idea of the extent of the devastation.  Even before he was able to make his way back to the island, he had organized an online fundraising campaign for his staff, now jobless. It quickly reached about $20,000 USD from compassionate and concerned former guests, many of whom had become friends with the Beau Rive family during their often-repeat visits.

When Mark arrived back in Dominica, the whole surreal scene must have been a severe shock to his soul.  He had lovingly built  the impressive hotel by hand, yet his perspective remained focused on concern  for the plight of others. Regardless of his personal loss, he  seemed determined to find a way forward, despite this unforeseen catastrophic event.

I did have the pleasure to see him a couple of times while I was on-island a few months after Maria, and  I was encouraged that he was  forging ahead with other plans and possibilities. I admired his tenacity and focused efforts to complete his ‘retirement’ home, which had sustained damage and losses during and after the storm.

In the mean time, he made a temporary shelter for himself in the only dry room in the hotel.  While there, he reported that he was making his way through a substantial number of  books that still sat on shelves in the sitting room. Miraculously,they were not damaged by the howling winds or the driving rains. And to think he was enjoying them all by flashlight in the complete darkness, as there was no electricity for months to come.  As well, he could only communicate via cell phone calls or texts, as wireless internet was non-existent at that time. You can read more about Mark’s musings and activities post-Maria on his Facebook page here.

It was about mid-March when I finally visited with him near Castle Bruce at the once-beautiful Beau Rive.  Our mutual friend, birding specialist and tour guide extraordinaire Bertrand Jno Baptiste, a.k.a. ‘Dr. Birdy’ (more on other touring adventures in subsequent posts) drove me across the island so that we could first visit the Emerald Pool, a renowned eco-tourism site and then spend a few hours on the east coast, in Mark’s congenial company.

When we first arrived, it was all I could do to hold back the tears.  Mark, as always, came out of the changed entrance way to greet us.  I could only offer him a huge hug and a big pat to Maxim, one of his beloved dogs that had survived the hurricane. All around me was evidence of the massive destruction. Bits and pieces of galvanized roofing material, random boards, guttering, downed trees chopped into segments and other types of debris were neatly piled up along the lane-way. Dr. Birdy, with his ever-sharp eyes, spotted an errant nail near the parking spots and we immediately looked around for others – one  of the lingering hazards all over the island post-Maria.

Mark took us through the reception and library areas and we ended up by the once operational swimming pool.  We did not venture upstairs, where the extensive destruction  of the bar, kitchen and dining areas, now with a non-existent roof must have caused Mark tremendous heart-break.  I could instantly recall the many fine meals I had enjoyed in those serene surroundings overlooking the ocean, which I cherished as fond memories of time well-spent at Beau Rive.

As Mark further described the situation to us, I felt the tears pricking my eyelids again.  I did not take photos of the devastation of this outstanding Dominican

South westerly view from Castle Bruce Road
Post-Maria landscape southeast of the Castle Bruce Road in March 2018.

property as I felt that would only add insult to injury. Instead, we chatted about Mark’s experiences when he returned to Dominica after the hurricane. As well, he shared some of his ideas about future plans, which I will leave for him to disclose publicly! I gazed all around me and tried to get my mind to adjust to the drastically altered scene.  Castle Bruce and environs on the island’s east coast had suffered  severe blows from the extreme sea blast of the category 5 winds that left much of the lush landscape burnt and battered. It seemed that it would take a longer time for nature to recover on this side of the island and in the areas where the wrath of Hurricane Maria basically tore up everything in its path.

Sea Views from Beau Rive in different times.  They are taken at slightly different angles and heights, nevertheless, the change in the terrain is dramatic! On the left, a pre-Maria view and right, six months post-Maria!

After a filling Dominican lunch at the nearby Islet View Restaurant, we drove to Mark’s house, which was nearing completion before Maria but was not  habitable due to damages and losses incurred in and following the horrific storm. Despite the ravages of Maria and its aftermath, I was, as always, completely taken with the beautiful panorama in Mark’s personal piece of paradise.  In this idyllic setting,

Sheep at Marks
Sheep safely graze at Mark’s farm in Dominica.

sheep peacefully grazed and Dr. Birdy identified a variety of birds that flitted around the property. Although all of Mark’s goats were lost in the massive storm, he did not lose his desire to farm, raise and nurture a variety of livestock, including sheep, a bull and a cow.

Despite the beautiful outdoor environment, I was most taken with a stunning piece of stained glass, designed and carefully made by Mark’s hands.  Miraculously, it had survived the storm and I take that to be a very good sign! It is my sincere hope that in this sensational tropical setting, Mark can find peace and contentment,  and renewed fulfillment as a musician and visual artist!

Marks Home (2)
The beautiful stained glass window/skylight, created and handmade by Mark, is representative of his extraordinary artistic talents!
Mark and Birdy (2)
Longtime friends Mark  and Birdy.  Two great guys I am honoured to know on the Nature Isle!

Although the hotel as I once knew it is permanently closed, the property is up for sale and I expect that any prospective buyer could make the most of this extraordinary site.  But whatever future fate befalls the former Beau Rive, I do know that Mark

 

will make the most of his changed situation. And I will always cherish my fond memories of a  place that I have truly loved on Dominica.