OH, THE PLACES WE’LL GO: Slow, steady and spectacular: a boat tour on Dominica

  • Opinion   Thu, Dec 15th, 2022   Paul Knowles
Simple and spectacular – a rowboat on a river flowing through a tropical paradise.

Simple and spectacular – a rowboat on a river flowing through a tropical paradise.

I have to admit, it didn’t look promising. The itinerary read, “Indian River Boat Tour” and yes, we were on a dock on the Indian River. The boat in question was a rowboat with planks for seats and peeling paint. I had been expecting something with a powerful motor and comfortable seats. But no.

And before we launch our unexpected craft, let me make something clear. I know that the word “Indian” is no longer politically correct when used in the Americas. But the island of Dominica, where we were about to enter the precarious craft, celebrates the heritage and current culture of its indigenous people, the Kalinago, with more appreciation and enthusiasm than you will find almost anywhere else. In fact, a large part of this beautiful island nation is officially designated as Kalinago Territory, and a fact sheet from Dominican tourist folk points out that “the Kalinago… represent the last remaining tribe of the pre-Columbian Carib Indians, going back to about 3000 B.C.”. So, it’s called the Indian River, and that was where we were taking a tour.

One other point. We’re talking Dominica here, not the Dominican Republic. Two destinations that could not be more different, one from the other.

Now, back to the boat. Our small group of travel writers clambered aboard with a considerable amount of trepidation. At worst, it was going to be an uncomfortable hour and a half. At best I thought, a very slow ride to nowhere special.

Wrong. On all counts. This river tour was a highlight of my time in this beautiful and largely unknown country. We used a small outboard for about three minutes and then our guide, Aze, shut it off and took up two large oars. We slowly made our way up-river and that leisurely pace allowed us time to see birds, animals and amazing plants that you never would have noticed if you were hurrying by.

And a couple of other surprises, notably a riverbank hut that looked vaguely familiar. It turned out to be the now-abandoned witch’s house built for the movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead Man’s Chest.” (We later heard a story about Pirates’ star Johnny Depp and his Hollywood colleagues insisting that the windows on the local SUV’s driving them about the island be tinted even darker than they already were!)

But while movie sets are interesting, the tropical birds and beasts were fascinating. I spotted birds including green-backed herons, a bananaquit and a spectacular Antillean crested hummingbird, so amazingly neon blue it took my breath away.

Along the shore, among the multitude of tropical plants and trees (torch ginger, heliconia, bird of paradise plants and more), we found bright green iguanas, a surprisingly blue Dominican ground lizard and many varieties of large, menacing-looking crabs.

The good news by the way, is that Dominica has no poisonous animals or insects. There are some large boa constrictors, but they (apparently) pose no threat to humans. I didn’t see one, which was not a disappointment.

But everything else is either friendly or harmless.

By the time we were fifteen minutes into the tour, everyone was having a terrific time. Which only got better when we reached the Bush Bar, where Bianca, working behind the bar, mixed me their unique specialty, the Dynamite Rum Bunch.
It lived up to its name. And was delicious. But one is entirely sufficient.

Our guide and oarsman, Aze, was superb. He knew every tree, flower, bird, and detail about the Indian River environment and shared them with the expertise of a professor and the wit of a story-teller. And then he fashioned hummingbirds from the leaves of one of the plants at the bar and presented one to each of the women on the tour. Sweet.
The Indian River tour is obviously a popular activity. We met two or three other rowboats carrying other tourists on the same adventure. But because the trip is silent, save for the dipping of the oars and the stories from your guide, you can feel as though you are alone in an unspoiled tropical paradise.

The island of Dominica is, to a large extent, exactly that. An unspoiled paradise. It’s small – population is 70,000 or fewer– and it is home to nine active volcanoes. None are spewing lava, but there is hot water flowing down hillsides and natural “hot tubs” are another popular feature of the island. Many of the warm places we Canadians like to visit are essentially flat – think Florida, for instance. Dominica, rising dramatically from the sea, with its mountains often shrouded in cloud, is the antithesis of this.

It’s beautiful, natural, and rejoices in the simple motto “The Nature Island”. And the Indian River boat tour is just one of many ways you can revel in the nature that surrounds you on this, my new favourite Caribbean island.

Paul Knowles is an author and travel writer. To contact Paul about travel, his books, or speaking engagements, email pknowles@golden.net.