When I first sailed along the west coast of Dominica and marveled at its green forests and majestic peaks, I understood how Columbus must have felt when he first glimpsed the island on his second voyage in 1493. Dominicans proudly exclaim that if this great explorer were to return to the Caribbean today, this country would probably be the only one he would still recognize.
That is because the self-proclaimed “Nature Island,” located between the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique is not overly developed. Hotels are cozy and intimate, people are friendly and there are no crowded beaches in this English-speaking land.
Above all, visitors will find unique natural attractions which can be seen either on a drive around the country or by taking a hike on any number of trails that crisscross the island. The recently opened Waitukubuli National Trail is one-of-a-kind in the Caribbean. It consists of 14 segments of varying degrees of difficulty and lengths that traverse the island from north to south over a total of 184 kilometers (115 miles).
Morne Trois Pitons National Park in the island’s interior became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Its unspoiled features will appeal to nature lovers and adventure seekers of all ages and abilities. Within the park’s boundaries are five major mountains which are almost 5,000 feet high, one of which is named Morne Trois Pitons. As well, the Boeri and Freshwater Lakes are found at higher elevations, as are some towering waterfalls, the spectacular Valley of Desolation, the second largest Boiling Lake in the world and other geothermal areas. The Smithsonian Institute has previously described Dominica as “a giant plant laboratory, unchanged for 10,000 years” (Fodor’s Caribbean, 1996). You will understand why when you see the pristine forests and vegetation, uncommon wildlife and 360 degree breathtaking vistas.
It would take many days, perhaps even months (and possibly years!) to discover all of Dominica’s ecological delights. During my first few years in Dominica, I explored the island by foot and transport from my home base at the serene Springfield Guest House, a former plantation nestled on the edge of the rainforest. Right away, I admired the fascinating terrain and gained insights into my adopted country’s culture.
Dominica is known for its underwater sites, as well as the above-ground ones and is know as a diver’s delight. I do not dive, but I enjoy looking just beneath the surface of the sea. For a bit of easy snorkeling, I traveled to Scott’s Head, a point of land on the southern coast of the island. From only a few feet offshore, I floated above dozens of flashy tropical fishes. As I was on my own in the water and not a deep-sea diver, I did not venture out to the steep cliff, which drops off along the face of an eroded volcano.
The taxi trip there and back along the southwest coast was also awesome. Between Pointe Michel and Champagne Beach, we drove between barren gray cliffs and the calm Caribbean Sea on a very narrow road. The scenes constantly changed as we journeyed through seemingly mystical forests (where some episodes from Pirates of the Caribbean 2 and 3 were filmed in 2005).
While I was in the southwesterly part of Dominica, I totally relaxed myself by taking a long hot soak in the large mineral pool at the Soufriere Sulphur Springs Eco-Site. The mild smell was not overwhelming. I was so relaxed that I fell asleep in the taxi on the way back to Springfield!
Next morning, I awoke refreshed and enthusiastically donned my hiking boots for the lengthy trek to Middleham Falls in Morne Trois Pitons National Park. It would take about five leisurely hours (round trip) on foot from Springfield via the Cochrane village route , but I was not in any rush. I was now on island time!
A certified guide told me much about the flora and fauna of the area as we moved deeper into the rainforest. I saw a cuckoo and the elusive rodent called an agouti. I also heard the plaintive call of the mountain whistler who hides high in the treetops. Gigantic tropical plants such as palms and ferns shaded the track.
Although I was in reasonably good shape, the biggest challenge for me was fording several mountain streams while keeping my boots dry. A little coaching from my guide and some new-found confidence on my part enabled me to cross the running rivers by hopping from rock to rock. I was soaked with sweat and weary from exertion when I first glimpsed Middleham Falls. It literally took my breath away! This powerful cascade plummeted several
hundred feet into a sparkling pool at its base. It was a shock to the system to plunge into that seemingly frigid water beneath the falls, but I soon warmed up on the surrounding rocks in the brilliant sunshine. In a short while, I was refreshed enough to begin the return journey. Since that first expedition, my love affair with hiking in Dominica continues to thrive!
Another day trip took me inland through the Carib Territory where about three thousand Kalinagos live on 3,700 acres of land on the northeast side of the island. These indigenous people are said to be the last of their kind in the world. They continue to practise traditional skills such as farming, weaving and the building of ocean-going dug-out canoes for fishing. (There is now a model village called Kalinago Barana Aute which offers tours, craft demonstrations and traditional performances to the public). There were also many opportunities to buy beautifully crafted pieces, such as baskets from these friendly folks.
On the Atlantic coast, the view was spellbinding from the top of L’escalier Tete Chien (‘The Snake’s Staircase’ – there is a Kalinago legend about this site) at Sineku. This hardened lava flow looks like a serpent’s head crawling up from the ocean. It looks like a natural staircase down to the sea. I did not attempt it that day (I have a couple of times since), but I admired others who maneuvered the sometimes slippery steps.
As we headed back to home base, we passed through banana groves, flower gardens and endless panoramas in every direction. The small, winding road blended into the greenery, giving a sense of intimacy with nature. My reward near the end of the day was a dip in the Emerald Pool, an easy 15 minute walk on a groomed trail from the parking lot. In the slanting rays of the afternoon sun, the waters did glisten like a jewel. As there was no one else by the pretty waterfall, I felt as if I had captured a piece of this pristine beauty for myself, at least for a few moments.
The Nature Island has many earthly treasures. Dominica is definitely – and naturally – delightful!
* An earlier version of this article was published in Caribbean Compass, January 1999, page 19.
The adventures described here represent some of my very first impressions of Dominica. I can assure you that they are definitely lasting! Many of the pictures here were taken on later excursions than the above-described. My brother’s photos are much appreciated. He’s been to Dominica three times!
If you wish to visit any of the sites or go exploring while visiting Dominica, I strongly urge you to take a certified taxi or hire a qualified guide. Not only will you be more secure, but you will gain tremendous knowledge and insights about the Nature Island from these informative professionals.