Dominica, The Nature Island

By Carol Antman

For several years, a yellowing magazine clip had lingered in our “dream trip” file tantalizing my husband and me: Take the “ultimate challenge…” hiking to “hot streams of varied colours, sulphur deposits, boiling mud, mini-geysers and fumaroles…”

It touted a paradise of 365 rivers, hot springs, waterfalls, tropical fish and the perversely attractive Valley of Desolation. Located in the Lesser Antilles (and not the Dominican Republic), Dominica is an independent country lovingly called the Nature Island where people live close to the land, eat what they grow, drink from the streams, catch fish and spear lobster. Two-thirds of its 290 square miles is covered with lush rainforests, blanketing the mountains to the black sand shore. English is the official language; locals also speak a colorful Kwéyòl. Despite being ranked as the top sustainable island in the Caribbean by National Geographic, it is the least visited with only 75,000 overnight visitors each year. Vacationers looking for wide beaches go elsewhere. But for outdoor enthusiasts it is a gem.

Hitting The Trail
The Waitukubuli National Trail is the Caribbean’s first long distance hiking trail, running 115 miles divided into 14 sections of varying difficulty.  We slogged along for two hours on section six up the picturesque coast.  A short traipse on section one led to a stunning view of Martinique. Our high-tech hiking boots and poles seemed like a necessity until a trio of barefooted men walked past balancing buckets of fresh catch on their heads, spear guns in hand.

In this magical place, people have waterfalls in their backyards. At both Spanny and Jacko Falls, we paid the proprietors a couple of dollars and walked down short paths past their modest houses for refreshing dips, alone in paradise. Even at the spectacular Emerald Pool in the Trois Pitons National Park there were only a few other tourists. We bathed in the hot springs at Soufriere and Wotten Waven and snorkeled on the southern coast where scuba diving is a big attraction.

One highlight was Champagne Beach where effervescent bubbles, emanating from inside the volcanic earth, tickled our bellies as we swam through a veritable aquarium. “If the bubbles ever stop, we’re really in trouble,” our guide Asha quipped. Could be an earthquake.

Having a guide for a few days enabled us to hike to the spectacular Victoria Falls down an obscure path that crossed a river several times. As we swam beside the cascade, I told my husband, “Take a picture of this with your mind to look at whenever you’re stressed.” So we stayed happily damp either sweating up the hiking trails, going from one swim to another or from an occasional rain shower.

Cabanas, Baby!
Dominica lacks infrastructure like high rise hotels, but we made good choices by staying at the luxurious Pagua Bay just a few minutes from Douglas Charles Airport.  We were greeted by Jenny, ever cheerful and welcoming, mixing us a strong rum cocktail. The six cabanas are air conditioned, beautiful and spacious. Each morning the proprietors, Rick and Alicia, circulate among the guests offering maps and suggestions on excursions.

Down the coast near the UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Park, we stayed in the more rustic Mango Cottage at Citrus Creek Plantation beside a roaring river with a private swimming hole.

Dominica Eats
Both hotels have on-site restaurants that impressively prepare tasty meals . At Pagua Bay, the lobster ceviche was a spicy, colorful treat and the homemade bagels and ice cream were unexpected surprises. At Citrus Creek, I celebrated my birthday with a French onion pie and luscious chocolate cake with passion fruit ice cream. Roadside shacks like Melvina’s served a filling Creole plate for just $5 and on Nosari Beach, Keeping It Real grilled us the best lobster of our lives. Driving our 4-wheel on the left was challenging. Narrow roads, precipitous shoulders, missing bridges and wrecked cars permanently planted against trees tested us. Reacting to my swervy driving, Mark made sounds I’d never heard from him before! Continuous curves befuddled our GPS  “In 20 meters turn right, in 20 meters turn left, in 20 meters….”  But friendly locals were always happy to point us in the  right  direction.

“It has never been easy to define the mysterious charm that has lured people to stay in Dominica forever and from which others have fled without even taking time to unpack,” wrote writer and legislator Elma Napier.  But if you pack a sense of adventure and some stamina, you too will fall under its spell.

Dominica, The Nature Island