Dominican Delights – Dominica, the real Caribbean
By Katherine Miranda, special to mongabay.com
May 4, 2006
Prepare yourself. Here, there are no white sand beaches, no golf courses. Here, you’ll find a boiling lake, winding cliff-side roads, bubbling surf and waterfalls that will make your head spin. This is Dominica, and this is the real Caribbean.
Our Easter holiday to this (officially) English-speaking leeward island sandwiched between French neighbors Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south gave us six days to explore enchanting coves, impressive mountains and dozens of rivers. In six short days, we were overwhelmed by Dominica’s charms — her incredible natural beauty and local creole style. Travelers looking to explore and discover, to be educated and reinvented, should consider this an ideal place for a serious Caribbean adventure.
Dominica is considered the “nature island of the Caribbean” and touts 12 major waterfalls, 5,000 foot peaks and 365 rivers, one for every day of the year. She is only 26 million years old, the youngest Caribbean island, which means steep, dramatic cliffs, 60% natural forest cover, and rivers that rush almost as swiftly as when they were first formed. Erosion has not had time to polish the island’s red-earth and black-stone surfaces, and she is craggy, pebbly and unsmoothed. Travelers seeking incredible natural beauty will find just that: nature as it was first created. While most of the island’s population makes a living from agriculture (just about everyone with land grows their own produce), tourism is also big business; Europeans, North Americans and Caribbean’s alike are trickling in, attracted by the unrivaled beauty of this lesser Antille. Large-scale development, however, has been hindered in part by Dominica’s topography, and tourism has not exploded. This means you won’t have to share most of Dominica’s pristine natural sights with anyone else, you’ll probably experience them alone.
Image courtesy of the CIA.
Although many cruise ships float over the gray waves to dock in Roseau, the capital city in the south-east, Dominica does not offer all the attractions of other neighboring Caribbean islands and most cruises are in port for only a day. There is no air-conditioning in most hotels, restaurants, shops or bars, and public transportation is limited to local buses on often single-lane mountain roads. There is no luxury lodging here, and don’t expect a taxi stand just around the corner. For travelers who are used to strips of white sand dotted with all inclusive-hotels, Dominica is shockingly unique.
What Dominica does not have, however, only highlights the powerful sights and exceptional amenities she does. Small guest houses, lodges and B&B’s offer cozy and personal accommodations. Our stay at Calibishie Lodges in the north-east seaside village of Calibishie was an experience all its own. Climb the steep stairs past the pool deck and you’ll enter the Bamboo Restaurant/front desk, where, upon arrival, you’ll be met with a refreshing glass of Calibishie punch. Owners Chris and Linda oversee six suites, each offering an ocean-view terrace and kitchenette. Renting a car is a must, Dominica unfolds for those eager to explore solo and face left-side driving. Situated on the dramatic northern coast are dozens of hidden entrances along the main road that skirts the shoreline from Melville Hall Airport. Follow a dirt road down to the water and you’ll find any one of a dozen deserted coves. Nestled between ninety degree cliffs and the softly lapping Atlantic, you can snorkel on black-sand beaches in three-foot water beneath the shadow of tremendous rock formations protruding lazily from the sea.
Dominica’s more popular traveler sights include land and water attractions that will challenge your sense of adventure and introduce you to a Caribbean you have probably never seen. Champagne Beach, a rocky spit of coast leading south to an underwater geyser is an unforgettable experience. Leave your car in the parking lot above the beach, bring your snorkel gear (the kiosk by the parking lot also rents gear at reasonable rates), and hike half a mile across large, gray sea stones. A short swim from the beach and you’re immersed in a warm pool of effervescence, tiny bubbles gurgling out of small openings in the submerged rocks, whirling around the darting bodies of shiny fish.
In the north-west, Cabrits National Park is the site of Dominica’s oldest British ruins, where Fort Shirley once stood to protect the Portsmouth bay. Today you can hike up the park’s designated walkways through 15th century barracks and storage bunkers or take one of her many trails through this part of the island’s scrubby, drier vegetation. Be on the lookout for endemic birds (there are 172 types on the island), like the slender black hummingbird, which abounds in the bushes here.
Once you’ve explored the north, head south to Dominica’s main attraction: the only Eastern Caribbean UNESCO World Heritage Site, the most extensive rainforest in the tropics. Here, among six variations of forest, there are endless hiking opportunities around and through Morne Trois Pitons and Morne Anglais, all of which should be guided. Our two-hour trek to Victoria Falls over enormous boulders included five river crossings and many slips and slides, but was more than worth the effort when we arrived at the base of this roaring oasis. Sari Sari and Trafalgar Falls, along with the easy-to-reach Emerald Pool (this is where most cruise shippers are taken for a day tour) are just several of the numerous sites that can be accessed by foot on paths of varying degrees of difficulty. The Boiling Lake, located 2,640 feet high in the heart of the southern reserve, fuels many of Dominica’s rivers with warm water heated by a flooded fumarole. Hiking to this vaporous pool takes a total of 6 hours, including a trek across the Valley of Desolation. A seasoned guide is a must.
If you’ve had enough natural history (or you’re too achy to hike anymore), take a drive through Carib territory, where many of Dominica’s Carib Indian descendants live. This area offers a unique opportunity to view traditional canoe and basket making. And for an education in modern urban Caribbean society, head south to Roseau, the capital of the island, where you can shop, eat and drink like Dominicans do. A stay isn’t complete without a steaming bowl of Callaloo soup, made from local roots, or a stop at any of the dozens of snackets along the roads, offering fresh juices, sandwiches and baked cheese turnovers.
A visit to Dominica is truly an education. As a family, my mother, husband and I were able to experience a part of the Caribbean that for many of us who live in large Caribbean cities (like San Juan), is unknown. In hiking boots or behind the wheel of a 4×4, snorkeling or river bathing, Dominica delights and enlightens. Take a breath, prepare yourself, and try it, too.
By Katherine Miranda special to mongabay.com.