Travel

In the British Virgin Islands, a Lesson on Loving Your Backyard

What's in your backyard?

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

Mervin Hastings has always had a thing for the outdoors. Born and raised in the British Virgin Islands, he spent much of his time exploring his backyard of Brewers Bay, on the island of Tortola. As an adult, he turned his passion for naturalism into a profession: studying conservation biology and now working in the BVI’s Environment and Climate Change Unit under the Ministry of Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration.

When the pandemic hit, he added another title: tour guide. Stuck in lockdown at home, he turned to the familiar outdoors for comfort, broadcasting educational nature walks to his friends on Facebook. It sparked interest and eventually led to Hastings creating a new company: Eco Adventures BVI, born out of the interest of locals wanting to know more about their own country, an inspiring example of making lemonade out of pandemic lemons. And in Mervin’s case, it’s also literal-at the end of his tours, he offers guests local soursop and passion fruit juices and, yup, homemade lemonade. As told to Vanita Salisbury.Growing up with my grandmother, we mostly used herbal remedies. So if I had a cold or the common flu, if I had a headache or my stomach hurt, my grandma would take me outside and show me the plants you would need to brew into teas good for that [ailment]. If I had a headache, we would use crab bush; if I had a fever, we would use lemongrass; if I had the flu, we would use the crab bush or the blackwater bush.

From the age of six, I was snorkeling, diving, fishing, doing all of that stuff. My parents were part-owners of campgrounds in Brewers Bay. So from the time I was a young teenager, I would take campers to the pineapple farms, to the batcaves, out diving on excursions. At a previous job with the Conservation and Fisheries, we would do a summer program where we would take students ages eight to 16 out in the field and teach them botany, and about the environment. So I’ve been doing this tour-guide stuff for quite a while.
 

Photo Courtesy of Mervin Hastings
Photo Courtesy of Mervin Hastings
Photo Courtesy of Mervin Hastings

This Eco Adventures BVI tour company, though, came about because of Covid. I was stuck in Brewers Bay so I was like, let me start doing what I was doing as a kid, let me go out and start walking around. Because I was bored! I went on Facebook Live to show my friends what I was doing, and it was a hit. Even though I was on lockdown, I was out showing people that there’s stuff in the BVI to do. I started getting some feedback, like, “Wow, we didn’t know that the BVI had all those caves; wow, we didn’t know the BVI had this or that.” And I had friends telling me, “Mervin, I want to go with you.” So I started off taking a few friends with me, and they said, “Mervin, I would pay for this.” And I said, “Really now!”

It was very surprising that people who had been in the BVI their entire lives didn’t know we had a bat cave, or a bamboo meadow. They didn’t know about the endemic species of plants or the herbal remedies we have available on the island. So basically I started doing my job, but on tours. I started teaching my guests about what I learned from my work, and my grandmother. And I love history, so I started teaching them about the history of the BVI.

A lot of people didn’t know that [the island of] Tortola got its name from the Dutch, and not the turtle dove, which is our national bird. The Dutch came to the Virgin Islands in 1653, and these were Dutch islands for 22 years. People who came to Tortola came from northwestern Holland, and there’s a peninsula there called Tholen. So the guys called it “New Land of Tholen.” Over the years, Ter Tholen became Tortola.

People like to hear stuff like that. They’re interested in hearing about the cholera epidemic that hit us, and slavery-where our ancestors came from. We came from two tribes in Africa: the Akan tribe and the Igbo tribe. So if anyone from Tortola wants to trace their heritage back to Africa, those are the two tribes they would want to look into. And I just give them a little bit of history: from 1720 to 1800, there was a total of just about 6,000 slaves brought into the Virgin Islands.
 

Photo courtesy of Mervin Hastings
Photo courtesy of Mervin Hastings
Photo courtesy of Mervin Hastings

I love to get people involved, especially students. I like to pick up animals, I like to pick up plants, I like people to smell the plants. You remember things from your senses: from smelling, from touching, from feeling. The Virgin Islanders are very religious people, so they don’t like snakes. Snakes are satanic. I love snakes, so I enjoy taking students out and collecting snakes and showing them the snakes are harmless.

I tell them the boa is endemic to the Virgin Islands; please don’t kill it if you see one. Here’s the Puerto Rican Racer, please don’t kill it; they have their purpose in the environment. Even the termites. I offer the termites for people to taste, but not many people take me up on it. A lot of people take samples of bush medicine, though.
 

Photo courtesy of Mervin Hastings
Photo courtesy of Mervin Hastings
Photo courtesy of Mervin Hastings

I’m not the only one who started up a business like this during the pandemic. There’s another company called Hike BVI, [the owner is] a friend of mine; there’s another group called Heritage Tours. I consider myself to be doing guided educational tours. Currently I have about eight different tour routes, and I’m always expanding. I try not to take more than 25 people at a time. The maximum I’ve taken is 40. But if I’m by myself, I feel comfortable with 15. The local rate is $20 for an adult, $10 for students. If you’re visiting, tourists pay more. They pay $40 [for adults] and $20 for kids. And I require a minimum of five people to book a tour.

I hope people get a love for nature and the BVI out of the tours. I’m actually very happy that we get a lot of locals coming on our tours because I’m teaching that the environment is very important in the BVI. A lot of people don’t have a love for the environment, but they’re seeing that the BVI has a lot to offer. You don’t have to jump on a plane; you can do a staycation.

And believe it or not, I have a lot of people who are now not killing snakes! I now have people who call me and say, “Mervin, can you come and get this snake?” I’ve had at least two requests to come and remove snakes from people’s homes. They’re not killing them, so I’m happy for that.
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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She has eaten the termites on Mervin’s tour. They tasted nutty.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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