Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated islands in the Caribbean last September. Six months later, how are they recovering? To find out, writers for Travel spent time in St. Martin, St. John, Dominica and Puerto Rico.
The hike to Middleham Falls took precisely 45 minutes, just as my guide, Dylan Williams, had predicted. In that time, Dylan, his girlfriend, Miriam Ormond, and I had marched a mile and a quarter up and down (and up and down) the hills of Dominica’s Morne Trois Pitons National Park, starting on a well-cleared trail through rain forest brush — tree ferns, rubber trees, shaggy epiphytes — and finishing with moderate scrambles over damp rock and down slippery wooden stairs. But finally, we stood on a sturdy platform gazing at the island’s highest waterfall as it thundered 200 or so feet down into a broad, inviting pool.
Between us and the pool, however, stood a field of water-slicked boulders. Suddenly, I felt every drop of my trekking confidence evaporate. I wanted nothing more than to bound over the rocks, as dreadlocked Dylan was doing in Converse low-tops, and dip my feet in the pristine water, but those feet, I was now irrationally sure, would fail me, and I’d slip, fall, dash my brains out below. Nature, until a moment ago so lovely and generous, had turned threatening and dark. Who was I to risk her wrath?
Nature’s Janus-faced narrative also happens to be the fraught story of Dominica, a mountainous little island of 73,000 plopped in the eastern Caribbean between Guadeloupe and Martinique. (Don’t confuse it with the Dominican Republic; the name comes from Christopher Columbus, who sighted it on a Sunday — Dominica in Latin.) For centuries, during which the island was ruled by the Spanish, French, and British before winning independence in 1978, Dominica was a rugged place, fertile but, because it was so consistently hilly, relatively underdeveloped.
In the last decade or so, however, travelers had begun to discover the English-speaking island, arriving by boat or prop plane to dive, snorkel and, most of all, hike the untrammeled topography of what was dubbed “The Nature Island.” Local developers established boutique resorts, like the chic cliffside villas of Secret Bay, and international chains such as Marriott and Kempinski announced plans for their own. In 2016, the government unveiled the Waitukubuli National Trail, a 115-mile, 14-segment path — free of venomous snakes and spiders! — that led from the southern tip of the island all the way to the north. In a world where travelers are always seeking the next unspoiled destination, Dominica, was set to dominate.
And then it was all undone — overnight. On the evening of Sept. 18, 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Dominica with 160-mile-per-hour winds, damaging or destroying the roofs of an estimated 90 percent of buildings (including the prime minister’s residence) and toppling not only power lines but some of the thickest, strongest, oldest trees in the forests. Maria’s rains triggered landslides and transformed the island’s 365 rivers into raging tendrils that washed away bridges and crops and slashed deep cuts along what had been well-laid roads. At least 31 people were killed, and thousands more left homeless. Everything lay in shambles.
Five and a half months later, I arrived in Dominica, my flight from Barbados banking down the steep slope of a lush hill to land at the brief runway of Douglas-Charles Airport. I was there for five days to find out how the island was recovering, and frankly, I didn’t know what to expect: My pre-trip research kept hitting dead ends — websites not updated since before Maria, emails and WhatsApp messages unanswered, Google Maps now outdated. Secret Bay and Rosalie Bay Resort, beloved by friends who had visited, were closed. Would I discover an island back on its feet or struggling through each day?
Immediately after I left the airport — in a minivan taxi driven by Daniel Didier, a seen-it-all 69-year-old — the scale of the devastation was obvious. The winding road across the island to Roseau, the capital, was generally excellent, but there were sudden patches, some a couple of yards, others much longer, where the smooth surface gave way to rocks and rubble. Windowless, rusted-out cars and piles of thick logs dotted the roadside. Blue tarps covered the holes in roof after galvanized-steel corrugated roof. One huge fallen tree hovered nearly horizontal, high in the air across the road, propped up by its fellows, ominous.
Mr. Didier, however, saw bright spots — reasons to be proud of Dominica’s resilience. He pointed to a river where two women were bathing and washing clothes — the water all over the island was still that clean. And the government, he said, was starting to require builders to use heavier roofing material, at a steeper slant, to protect against future storms. When he heard the squawk of a parrot from the forest, he stopped the minivan and squawked back — parrots, he said, had been rarely seen since Maria.
“That’s a good sign!” Mr. Didier said.
Still, challenges popped up everywhere. On the way to Roseau, we stopped at the boxy little Rosie’s A-Cuisine for lunch: stewed pork, fried fish, rice, yams, salad. But when I asked for pepper sauce, the woman behind the counter threw up her hands.
“Ration, ration — everything rationed!” she said.
Dominica, once known as the breadbasket of the Caribbean for its exports of bananas, mangoes, citrus, taro, guavas, now barely had pepper sauce. (It took many market visits to find a bottle of local Big G “Fireball” sauce — which airport security, deeming it dangerous, eventually confiscated.) Not helping matters was the sea itself, where big swells were keeping cargo ships from docking with supplies.
Still, those crashing waves looked awesome outside my balcony at the waterfront boutique Fort Young Hotel, which has reopened 41 of its 72 rooms since the storm. (The hotel’s reservation system said no vacancies, but Hotels.com let me book.) In my room, or with a nutmeg-fragrant rum punch in my hand at the hotel bar, I was hypnotized by the sea, by its barely contained violence: the vast spray of foam across a wooden walkway, the thunder of rocks slammed together by unimaginable forces.
In dense downtown Roseau, normalcy was gaining ground. An old man strummed a guitar on a street corner. Uniformed schoolchildren strolled past the dilapidated childhood home of Jean Rhys, whose novel “Wide Sargasso Sea” reimagined the “madwoman in the attic” in “Jane Eyre” as a Dominica-born Creole. At the Musik Land bar, soccer fans drinking Kubuli, the local beer, and rum spiked with the aphrodisiac bwa bandé cheered Juventus over Tottenham. When night fell, the city calmed. I ate grilled snapper on the terrace of the Great Old House, with a piña colada because they were out of rum punch, and though the streets below were black (electricity remains unreliable) the only danger I felt was that I might stumble on an unseen cobblestone.
If I was going to stumble, though, I wanted to do so not in the urban grit of Roseau but out in the green backcountry. So I hopped into Dylan Williams’s red jeep and headed for the hills.
Dylan — who had been recommended by the Experiences Caribbean tour company — was a man of many talents, a 26-year-old at ease discussing the power of essential oils and the correct way to build a plasma capacitor. A vice president of the Dominica Organic Agriculture Movement, he lived with Miriam at the edge of Harmony Gardens, her parents’ farm 30 minutes southeast of Roseau. (I slept in a tent on their property.) More important to me, Dylan had been contracted to help clear Segment 3 of the still mostly closed Waitukubuli National Trail, and I was going to help him out, as a way to both get some hiking in and give something back to this island.
As it happened, however, Dylan had, just before I got there, fulfilled his contract, lugging a chain saw and 150-pound pack back and forth along the first quarter of the six-to-eight-hour hike. (A contract for the remainder had yet to be drafted.) By the time he brought me — with cans of blue and yellow paint to mark the trail — Segment 3 was in decent shape, though obviously storm-damaged.
I’d hoped to see Dominica as described in “Wide Sargasso Sea”: “Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.” No longer. Floods had torn new ravines, toppled trees and washed away a bridge, and the mere fact that we could see through the denuded forest to the other side of the valley was evidence of Maria’s destructive power. It might be years, Dylan estimated, before the foliage fully recovered, though man-made projects were moving speedily.
“With all the help that’s coming in, with all the money that’s coming in — ha! — it won’t be long,” he said.
I’d never marked a trail before (nor wielded a machete-like cutlass), but I loved the process. More than repainting old marks, we were seeking new ones, on trees and rocks, that would not only be visible from every direction and limn tricky routes but would also provide essential comfort: Relax, they’d suggest, you’re on the right track.
With only 1.25 miles of the segment clear, we finished marking in a few hours. But even if this trail was still recovering, much else was open for business nearby. Dylan, Miriam, and I hiked Middleham Falls, where I eventually scampered down to a lower (safer) pool to fill a bottle with potable water — “cold, pure and sweet,” as Rhys described the island’s springs. We swam up the chilly Titou Gorge, where sunbeams meandered past 20-foot rock walls, and we ate sandwiches next to Freshwater Lake, crisp and placid one moment, obscured by fog the next.
In the evenings, we’d hang about their house, drinking mint-and-lemongrass tea and cooking vegan feasts of rice, beans, salad, fritters. One night, we drove out for a soak in the sulfurous, open-air Ti Kwen Glocho hot springs. The darkness was deep, and a light rain sprinkled off and on, and I gazed at the stars, about the only things unchanged here since Maria.
Maria, Maria, Maria. Everywhere I went, Maria was there. Up north, on a quiet boat trip to Indian River, where parts of “Pirates of the Caribbean” had been shot, I saw juvenile blue herons and gargantuan coconut crabs — and so many Maria-felled trees that the river was closed off above the “Banana Hut” bar. Maria has even found its place in calypso music: At least 15 of the songs in a national competition here referenced the storm, including “Maria Why You Do That to Us” and “Ave Maria.”
When I asked Dylan and Miriam whether Maria had become the catchall excuse for anything and everything, they burst out laughing. It was ridiculous, but it was also reality. You can’t escape from it — you can only deal with it.
After the boat trip, I had a long lunch next to the docks, at the bare-bones Indian River Bar Grill. As I drank a Kubuli (or three), and ate chicken and rice (with spicy-creamy house-made pepper sauce!), I observed the scene. One man asked the young bartender so many questions about the soup of the day — turkey, with optional pig snout — that she teased back, “Why you so troublesome?” An American who had fled to Bolivia during the Vietnam War attempted to download the movie “The Last Castle” on his laptop. The chef responsible for the pepper sauce, Kim Mandy, told me she planned to bottle and sell it to cruise-ship visitors. People came, people went, and for a couple of hours, Dominica seemed to relax. This new normal felt … normal.
“Is there anywhere better than this?” asked a man named Rickson, sitting to my right.
There was, of course, no need to answer.
If You Go
Dominica is still in recovery mode, and with no single, definitive source for information, figuring out what’s functioning — and what is not — remains a challenge. Plan on arriving with plenty of time to explore, and an abundance of patience.
Getting to the island, however, is increasingly easy. Although there are no direct flights from the continental United States, six regional airlines provide service from other Caribbean islands, including Barbados, Saint Martin, and San Juan, P.R.
While many of Dominica’s hotels remain out of commission, the Fort Young Hotel is open during reconstruction, and offers a five-night voluntourism package ($837 per person) that includes trail-clearing. Secret Bay and Rosalie Bay Resort hope to be operational by fall 2018, with the Cabrits Resort Kempinski and Marriott’s Anichi Resort Spa to follow in 2019.
Many popular tourism destinations, such as Boiling Lake, the Emerald Pool and the trails one takes to reach them, are open and accessible. The Division of Forestry, meanwhile, is hard at work restoring the Waitukubuli National Trail. A spokeswoman for the division, Marcy Gachette, said by email that “work is active” on Segments 6, 7, 11, and 13, with Segments 1 and 3 near completion. With 115 miles of trail to restore at roughly $2,000 per mile, she said, it’s going to be a financial and logistical challenge.
Although road conditions vary, getting around the island is straightforward. If you’re comfortable driving on the left, up steep, rough hills, rental cars are available at the airport and in cities. (Best to be familiar with standard transmissions and four-wheel-drive.) Private taxis are on call for trips both short and long. And major routes in and between towns are plied by minivan taxis, which can be hailed from the road and cost very little.
Matt Gross, a former Frugal Traveler columnist for The New York Times, writes about travel, food, parenting, running and many other things.