Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Beauty of Dominica

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The Beauty of Dominica
The Beauty of Dominica

Capt. Mike Burke was a pirate. The World War 2 Navy veteran admitted it to me with a sly smile during an interview in his office in Miami Beach.

He was dressed like a pirate with a sea-faring cap, boots and jeans. I was interviewing for a job as a publicist with the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises line that Burke owned.

I had heard about the Windjammer Barefoot Cruises from two poker-playing buddies. We were living in Naples, FL. and were regulars on the gambling cruise ships that sailed from Ft. Myers into the Atlantic Ocean where for six hours you could gamble, drink and be entertained to your heart's content. The ships would leave the dock at 7 p.m. and return about 2 a.m.

My friends Joe and Peter had been on barefoot cruises before and had nothing but praise for them.

'They're the greatest,' said Peter, a native of Denmark. 'I hear that Mike Burke is a jolly type of guy. You'll probably like him and the job should pay well.'

The position had been advertised in the Miami Herald and more than 100 people applied for it. I ranked high on the list of probables, but Burke didn't hire me. Instead, he offered me a free cruise on one of his ships, the Flying Cloud. The nine-day cruise would make stops at a number of islands including Dominica, Grand Cayman and Isle De Saints, a small French island.

'You're a freelance writer,' Burke said, puffing on a cigar. 'Maybe you'll find something to write about.' He winked.

I booked passage on the Flying Cloud which was scheduled to embark from Port Everglades the following Saturday. When Joe and Peter heard about it, they decided to join me on the cruise.

'Are you guys sure you want to give up poker for nine days?,' I said, kidding them. 'You might not be able to handle the withdrawal pains.'

'We'll be okay,' Peter said. 'I love ships and I hear the Flying Cloud is a great one. It's one of the tall ships with three sails. This will be a cruise you will always remember.'

He was right.

The ship was about 280 feet in length and accommodated 125 passengers with a crew of 25. My stateroom was small but sturdy and included a shower and a porthole.

My poker pals showed up in time to join the embarkation party that included free drinks, a reggae band and passengers dancing to the incessant beats of the drums.

After the party ended, we set sail. Peter decided he wanted to sleep on deck the first night and sleeping bags were provided for the two of us. As the sleek tall ship glided through the calm waters, flying fish accompanied us. The bar stayed open throughout the night.

It was a night to remember. The creaking masts. The full sails billowing overhead. Dark shapes were moving in the frothy water, sharks, dolphins or other denizens of the deep.

It took two days for me to relax at sea. We spent days sunning ourselves on deck. The meals were incredible and the crew treated us like royalty. One of the crew members was a Jamaican whose name was Isaac. The ship's captain was a young man with blonde hair whose name was David.

On the morning of the third day, we sailed to Dominica and dropped anchor. Captain Dave called all the passengers on deck and told us we were going to spend the day in Dominica. He also said the island had once been populated by cannibals and headhunters.

A senior woman raised her hand. In a meek voice, she said, 'Captain, when was the last incident of cannibalism on the island?'

Without missing a beat, Captain Dave turned and said, 'Steward, what day of the week is it?' Everyone roared with laughter and the woman was, of course, thrilled.

Small boats put us ashore. Several taxis were waiting to take the passengers where they wanted to go. The capital city of Roseau was about three miles away. Joe, Peter and I decided to be true adventurers and walk through the jungle to get there.

We passed beneath coconut palm trees with velveteen monkeys scampering through the fronds. As we approached a wooden bridge over a stream, we could hear the sounds of female voices down below. Half a dozen women were washing clothes in the water. They were bare-breasted and they waved at us and blew kisses.

'Aren't you guys glad we didn't take the taxis?' I said.

About a mile down the trail we came to a small village. Two boys were playing with hand-carved trucks that they pushed with sticks. I had an idea. I called the kids over and asked them if they wanted to compete in a race. I told them the rules: I would be at the finish line and when I gave them the signal, they would push their trucks toward me. The first one to get there would win .50 cents.

I walked to the bottom of the hill. When I turned toward the two kids, they had suddenly turned into 50. One of them even had a stick and no truck. The jungle telegraph is a marvelous invention and nobody understands how it works.

I held my hand in the air. 'Ready...set...go,' I said. I never got the word 'go' out of my mouth before the earth exploded in dust and the children had arrived at my feet.

There was no way to tell who had won the race. We compromised and gave each of them .50 cents.

Dominica has been called the land of 1,000 rivers because of its natural beauty and hot springs. I gave it another nickname -- Little Tahiti because of its resemblance to that South Sea island.

We sailed to Isle De Saints and Grand Cayman where we enjoyed delectable island food and shopped for hand-crafted items. The nine days passed far too quickly.

On our final day at sea, Captain Dave held an amateur contest on board. Each passenger and crew member was expected to contribute to the talent.

Capt. Dave put on an eye patch and joined with another crew member in tying their legs together and dancing a pirate jig while singing a bawdy song. I told some lame jokes as a stand-up comedian.

It was Issac who stole the show. He had a remarkable voice and sang a velvet rendition of Nat King Cole's 'Mona Lisa.'

As our ship approached the harbor of Port Everglades, I gave Peter and Joe a hug.

'You guys were right,' I said. 'This was a voyage to remember.'

(AUTHOR'S NOTE: In 2017, Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Maria. Over 90 percent of the buildings on the island were destroyed or damaged and many people were left homeless. The inhabitants of Dominica are in the process of rebuilding their tropical. My prayers are with them).

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