Coffee, chocolates and scuba: 5 countries that do it well
Diving where cocoa and coffee beans are grown ?
This is an idea that I’ve had for a while. And to be brutally honest, I have pitched it to quite a few websites and magazines. Thinking that it would be such a cool subject to write about. Evidently, I am the only one that thinks so. So I decided to write about it on my blog, because where else could I write about the things that I absolutely love? Chocolate, coffee and scuba diving. But where did my idea come from?
A couple of years ago I was invited to a tasting with a new boutique chocolate brand called Firetree after stumbling upon one of their bars in a heath shop. I soon came to realize their ethically produced bean to bar chocolate comes from volcanic locations and some of the most incredible dives that have been lucky enough to do happened in these locations: here chocolate and coffee grow very well, thanks to the climate, the soil, the history and of course the people that harvest such crops.
Firetree collection of single-estate chocolate bars use some of the world’s rarest cocoa beans from remote volcanic islands in the South Seas, Indian Ocean & The Caribbean. The rich, fertile soils found on these islands impart powerful and unique flavour note journeys from cherry, soft lemon and white grape to mushroom, toasted walnut, and truffle.
The names of some of these places (mainly geographically located within the Ring of Fire in the South East Asia Pacific) for me evoke memories of fantastic holidays forgetting about work and about the cold European weather and meeting people of different cultures and heritage tasting new foods experiencing new smells and most importantly diving some incredible locations.
These fascinating countries, in no particular order, are below.
Papua New Guinea
I have visited PNG only once, and at the end or rather in the middle of a very long flu-like illness which saw me coughing on and off for months and generally being quite weak (COVID??). The downside was that, when we finally reached the islands after a very long journey from the UK, I did a couple of days of diving and fell ill again with the worst throat infection I have ever had. Took a few days for me to get back in the water, but I do have fond memories of blue diving in incredible shoals of barracudas, sharks and big pelagic as well as some excellent macros.
Firetree produce a bar of 72% cocoa from Karkar island, which is in fact one large volcano, 60 miles across, and visible from over 50 miles away. But the rich soil you find here on the sides of the volcano is ideal for growing the finest cocoa. Waves of walnut and wild mushroom yield to taste notes of intense cocoa and truffle. They also have recently launched a PNG coffee & chocolate bar that combines the two quality crops from the country into one wonderful product.
While in the country I had a chance to try one of the best coffees produced on the islands called Goroka and while you would find coffee beans from Papua New Guinea occasionally as a single origin through British producers (one of them being 80Stones coffee roasters) the samples we had in the country were excellent.
Goroka Coffee is located 5,000 feet above sea level in the eastern highlands of PNG, four hours from the port city of Lae and one hour by plane from Port Moresby. The rich volcanic soils, sub-tropical climate and fresh mountain air provide perfect growing conditions to grow high quality arabica coffee. Typica, bourbon and blue mountain varieties are grown under shade trees, hand picked when ripe, pulped, washed and sun dried.
The dive site
Restorff island is a very small island not far from Kimbe Bay where we were staying at the time; it’s sheltered and it’s ideal for snorkeling as well. We moored here over lunch break and we had a very relaxing and very long afternoon shallow dive which was unbelievably enjoyable. I remember pure relax searching the reef for small macros including seahorses, banded pipefish, clown fish clown fish. Beautiful sunshine filtering through the shallow crystal waters made everything magical.
I have been to the Philippines for diving a couple of times with varying degree of appreciation for the country; for some reason there was always something odd about it, from one of the worst resort we’ve ever been (which kicked off my Trip Advisor reviewing career!), a dodgy airport official expecting a significant tip at customs to our privately booked driver taking a leak in the middle of a transfer to and from Malapascua. Having said that the diving is actually excellent and a macro lovers’ paradise.
Situated on the most southerly of the larger islands of the Philippines – and in the “Goldilocks zone” 10 degrees either side of the equator – the cocoa farmers of Mindanao Island have the ideal combination of tropical rainforest and volcanic soil. It is perfect for growing a cocoa bean with a distinctive chocolate flavour complimented by layers of citrus, honey and caramel notes.
Firetree have just launched a new bar, 50/50: a melange of golden honey and citrus top notes sing with the rich chocolate brownie depths of their Philippines cocoa. The farmers divide the skills of harvesting and fermenting, resulting in this exquisite dark milk chocolate.
The dive site
Another island site, this is just off the coast of the slightly bigger Malapascua island, again off the coast of the very Big Island of Cebu. Malapascua is mainly known for the tresher sharks which visit the drop off very early morning (a wake up call at 4am is necessary!), but the areas reserves some fantastic macro and coral reef scenes.
Gato island was another absolute stunner of a dive site and sadly I left it to the last day which meant I wasn’t able to go again. We did two dive and I have great memories of swim throughs arches, some blue pelagics, the statue of the Virgin Mary and one of my bucket list: my first Harlequin shrimp !
Over twenty years ago I went to the cinema to see The Thin Red Line by Terrence Malick. While the story covering the WWII battles in the Pacific was the main reason, I left the cinema dreaming of visiting the ‘islands lost in time’ where part of the story is set (although, I discovered later, not actually filmed). I thus planned my 2000 round the world trip starting from the Solomons, with a couple of days in Honiara, the capital and a week on a liveaboard.
The week didn’t quite go as planned (long story, for another post) but I fell in love with the islands, their beauty, their remoteness, the strangeness of their customs and language and the underwater world. We went back in 2010, and have been longing to go ever since. One day…!
The coast of Guadalcanal, nestled in the heart of the Solomon Islands, is home to some of the finest cocoa from this region. The cocoa trees grow in this rich volcanic soil, protected from the midday sun beneath high coconut palms. Their beans encapsulate enduring cocoa undertones overlaid with red fruits, citrus and delicate plum notes.
Firetree have a few bars with cocoa from the Sollies, and have recently launched a new one: red fruits, citrus and plum, with enduring cocoa undertones it. The harvesting, box fermentation and drying are undertaken by the extended family, whose care and skill assures a rare and exquisite chocolate experience.
Firetree have supported local growers for years, and one of the examples is a female grower who, thanks to proper income, has been able to send her children to university in Australia!
The dive site
So many to choose from, it’s quite impossible. From my 2000 trip, I have vivid images of the famous Leeru Cut dive site: a crack through a wall, with light shimmering from the surface deep down the steep passage and the risk of encountering alligators!
From our 2010 dive trip, I remembers tons and tons of stunning sharks. Diving at Uepi Channel in particular, when one no longer signals for reef sharks because there are so many but when three hammerheads swim past, yes you do – even if out of three divers with cameras and go pros, 3 divers experience a fault or malfunction and cannot prove their presence!
Indonesia is one of my favourite countries to visit, because it’s diverse, rich in history and heritage, has delicious food and some of the best diving on earth. I have visited a few times and a few different areas, from the very touristy but still attractive Bali to the remote and unbelievably beautiful Raja Ampat.
Once again Firetree has a bar that evokes Indonesia’s magic: a 72% chocolate with a pleasing blend of cocoa, toasted walnuts, treacle and floral notes from Seram Island, the largest of the Maluku group.
Indonesia is one of the world’s most famous coffee producers, thanks to the rich volcanic soil and climate. I find Allpress‘ dedicated page really helpful to understand the history behind the crop introduction and production methods unique to the country.
They often stock single origin beans from Indonesia, such as this Asman Gayo coffee from a small mill in the Pegasing district of Takengon, in Sumatra’s coffee-famous Aceh region. The Asman Gayo mill serves several small coffee producers within the Pantan Musara villages.
The dive site
How to choose? When I visited the North Maluku area diving in an area pretty empty of other resorts or divers, and we had the dive sites all to ourselves. While there was still a lot of plastic, the reefs were teeming with macro life as well as the occasional reef sharks and ray. Pigmy sea horses on every single dive, how spoilt was I? I hope to visit Sali Bay resort again in the near future to dive again – especially the muck site of Cemetery, where each square meter of sand revealed some wonderful and weird critters such as crabs and shrimps and more seahorses; a shallow dive which means plenty of bottom time with such creatures.
Timor Leste is a small country which has a troubled, tragic history and is slowly getting on its feet. Not widely open to tourism yet, we were so lucky to spend a week diving off a liveaboard a few years ago. With direct flight to Dili, the capital, from Singapore, it’s a pretty easy to reach destination and I am hoping one day it might be more served, as the diving was stunning (if a touch difficult due to strong currents). While on the island, I also tried (and bought) their wonderful coffee, similar in a way to Indonesia’s.
Yet again I rely on one of the UK’s leading independent roasters to provide a detailed and informative history of the Timorese coffee. Look out for single origin options from them or other roasters such as 80 Stones who often roast and sell small batches of East Timor coffee. In Timor itself, the tourism board is also launching coffee tours. Even Starbucks offers a Timorese option!
The dive site
I remember so many nudibranchs absolutely everywhere, some I have not seen since, and tiger anemone, also a species I have not seen since. Many frog fishes and one of the most memorable dive sites I have ever done, the Pertamina Pier off Dili. We did two dives here, one being a night dive. The pillars of the piers tall and encrusted with corals and anemones, it was spectacular to move in and out and explore. This pink enormous chap was there on both dives on a small rocky and colourful rock, and underneath him (not in the phone) an old, discarded, VHS tape.
We had long been planning a dive trip to Belize and when it finally happened, it was somehow a disappoinment, at least from a diving perspective. In two weeks, we did not get a single chance to dive the famous Blue Hole, and we realised the best bit of the trip was the 3 days we spent in the jungle, sightseeing nature and temples. Still, it’s a fascinating country also rich in history and heritage which produces excellent chocolate!
Leaving the volcanic islands behind, the chocolate from Belize is produced by what I consider one of the best UK chocolate makers, Tosier. Female led enterprise, Norfolk based and bean to bar ethical excellence, I love their chocolates. Their award winning Belize Maya Mountain bars come in 70% or 90% and have delicate notes of pineapple, pepper and rainforest fruits. Tasting notes on the elegant sleeve help you truly enjoy this fantastic chocolate.
The dive site
Blue Hole out, most dive sites where interesting but, dare I say, a little plain. Still, we saw a lot of turtles, groupers and many nurse sharks. The water is blue, clear and there are so many giant barrel sponges! My favourite site was possibly when we stayed at Hamanasi resort in the south, and did Jason’s wall, a gentle sloping wall teeming with life and colours.
There are many places still to check out, where diving, chocolate and coffee are such part of the appeal! Honduras beckons a repeat trip, Vanuatu a discovery … any places anyone would recommend?