“You want to make sure with a race in which you'll be flying home with other drivers that you don't crash into them. It's happened before, and it can make for a little bit of a tense situation.”
An abrupt turn of the steering wheel maneuvered the Jeep off the narrow rutted road. The driver jumped out, grabbed his machete, ran to the nearby trees and hacked down a few mangos. The man sliced through golden skin, revealing fiery orange flesh, so juicy it oozed down his sinewy arms. "Fruit of the island," he said, offering the pieces to his passengers.
Clearly, you don't have to make a trip to the market to enjoy a quick snack on Dominica (pronounced dom-in-EE-ka), a relatively unknown Caribbean island that has changed little since British novelist Alec Waugh called it "green, all green" in 1948. Wrote Waugh: "I cannot believe that in terms of grandeur and majesty there can be found anything in the world to rival Dominica's succession of forest-covered mountains."
Life here is elementary: rain pours, sun shines. The cloud-shrouded rainforest drizzles over 300 inches of precipitation each year, filling Dominica's 365 rivers. Mountains soar toward 5,000 feet, and the ground is so emerald it might be mistaken for Ireland.
A view from the air confirms the island's sparsely populated and unspoiled state. You have to look closely to glimpse small towns edging the coast. On Dominica, you step back in time, slipping off worries like a snake shedding skin. Then you bask in the sun with the skittering geckos.
"The Nature Island" of the Caribbean (not to be confused with the similarly named Dominican Republic) lies tucked into the Windwards, a dollop of paradise between Martinique and French Guadeloupe. Dominica's inhabitants proudly self-govern their 290-square-mile commonwealth, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year.
Its land, sea and people are gorgeous. No wonder producers chose the site for scenes in Pirates of the Caribbean II and III. The panoramic backdrop of Morne Trois Pitons National Park, which is protected as a World Heritage Site, covers 17,000 primeval acres-two thirds of the country.
Yet Dominica remains hidden from mass tourism, perhaps partly because white sandy beaches are rare; most are rocky and narrow. Fewer than 85,000 visitors spend at least a night here each year. That means you needn't worry about running into partying conventioneers-and that you'll find not a single high-rise, chain store or name-brand hotel on the island. There are no traffic jams, late-night casinos, designer boutiques or plush resorts-just kind people, pure water and spectacular views. And no one wears a watch. On Dominica, island time prevails.
So slow down. This place is oblivious to 21st century worries and demands; waterfalls gush, whales breed, lakes boil and tribes still exist. And adventure awaits you at every turn.
First came the Arawaks, then the Kalinago Indians settled. In the 1500s, pirates and explorers like Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins started arriving. Most mispronounced the tribal name, making the word "Kalinago" sound similar to "cannibal." Over many years, the slur grew into myth and the Caribbean natives became "Caribs"-thought to be man-eaters.
Today, about 2,500 descendants live in eight collectively owned villages on 3,700 acres, the only indigenous-peoples reserve in the Caribbean.
Kalinago Barana Autê, meaning Carib Village by the Sea, opened in 2006 to encourage understanding of native heritage and customs. Guides explain artifacts and history in the museum, then escort visitors around trails on the Crayfish River. They pass between thatched huts dotting the complex and over a footbridge by impressive Isulukati Falls.
The residents demonstrate how to make cassava bread, weave baskets with larouma reeds and dig out Gommier trees to make canoes. You can buy their arts and crafts, woven handbags and calabash birdfeeders at the Cultural Center. Stock up because the airport has no gift shop.
Most vacationers don't come to meet Caribs, though. The country beckons stressed managers hoping to unwind, and working parents who crave tranquility, wisely leaving toddlers at home. Naturalists arrive looking for wildlife and divers come to explore thriving reefs.
Urban rebels and backpackers test themselves against the wild terrain, hiking up, down and around gnarly unearthed tree roots. Overgrown paths are crammed with crimson bird-of-paradise, magenta ginger lilies, white calla and enormous curling ferns. You'll encounter boulders and ford gushing streams, soaking boots and socks, because no other route exists.
A well-marked trail leads to mist-enshrined Borei Lake, another to Middleham Falls. Plod up the vertical rise listening for muffled trills of tropical birds. Perhaps you'll spy a Jacquot parrot, a fou-fou (purple-headed hummingbird) or a bullfinch-if your thumping heart and gasping breath don't scare them away.
Boiling Lake remains the island's most notable challenge, an arduous day-long trek. It begins near Titou Gorge, a ravine created from violently spewed magma. As it cooled, the lava formed pond basins and rock "rooms."
Continue along, descending into the Valley of Desolation, a barren site smelling of sulphur, strong enough to kill surrounding vegetation. Here, hot, sweaty and exhausted hikers begin to question their strength or sanity. Finally, the gigantic cauldron appears, popping from steaming volcanic activity below-a 207-foot bubbling soup bowl of a lake, much too hot to touch at 180 degrees Fahrenheit.
Thankfully, an alternate return route winds by cooler, spa-like mud baths. Though not postcard pretty, it's Mother Nature's reward. (Warning: don't expect the mud baths to soothe aching muscles; those are guaranteed for the following day. All must pay for bragging rights.)
While Dominica features craggy mountains, the ocean's depth is astonishing. Scuba Diving magazine rated the island second in the Caribbean's top dive destinations for its caves, wrecks and dramatic drop-offs. The water near Scotts Head plunges to 6,000 feet with aquarium-clear visibility.
Snorkelers paddle over coral reefs, through tiny champagne bubbles that burst on the surface. Kristin Vorhes, a vacationer from Washington, D.C., said, "They were like diamonds rising from the bottom of the sea." The warm water attracts squid, parrotfish, anemones and rare black coral; it's a fantasy world for underwater photographers.
Whale-watching enthusiasts can find seven species nearby. Researchers are studying the sperm whales breeding in the deep water. Sport fishermen go after yellowfin tuna, barracuda and marlin. Others kayak on Freshwater Lake or tube down Layou River.
Water, water everywhere: moss upholsters trees and rocks, so plush you could sleep on the ground and never feel any bumps. While rainforest vegetation is plentiful, however, the green of money is not. Housing on Dominica remains much like it was a century ago: one- to two-room dwellings, many still without plumbing. And poverty escalated in the 1990s, when banana growers succumbed to competition, oversupply and cheaper prices from Latin America. A fair-trade act helped restore the farms and the government began restructuring the economy in 2003, but agriculture remains critical.
The terrain proves difficult to work, except for easy-to-grow taro root, the potato of the tropics, and thousands of acres of banana palms. Many trees hang with bunches wrapped in bright blue plastic bags. While this sheathing keeps the produce bug- and bird-free for export, the view recalls artwork from Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who dressed New York's Central Park in orange cloth gates.
Dominica's poverty notwithstanding, the New Economics Foundation, a British think tank, rated it fourth in 2006 on its Happy Planet Index. The index ranked countries according to the relative efficiency with which they "convert the planet's natural resources into long and happy lives for their citizens."
In 2007, meanwhile, National Geographic Traveler ranked Dominica among the world's 10 most sustainable islands. Still, the island could easily be overly commercialized. Cruise ships already stop, and last year, about 270,000 cruisers came ashore.
Dominica is developing fast and a 2007 report on the economy stated, "The problem remains of balancing the need for increased tourism with the protection of the island's unique and vulnerable eco-system."
Whatever construction arises, now is the time to explore this still-unspoiled isle. Jive at a music festival, feed on organic produce and almost-wiggling seafood and enjoy that easy, slower-paced way of life: sun, surf, sleep. Take the challenge of outdoor extreme exercise to renew body and spirit. Discover Dominica and redefine yourself.
Traveler Report Card
ACCOMODATIONS (B+): Small, independently owned guest houses, cottages and hotels, no all-inclusive resorts or chain hotels. Jungle Bay and Beau Reve compare with fine hotels stateside. Excellent eco-lodges, such as 3 Rivers, and camping facilities for nature lovers.
FOOD (B): Seafood, fresh vegetables and organic fruits are plentiful; fine wines are not. Restaurants are small, usually attached to hotels except in Roseau. Snackettes carry provisions and sundries.
ACTIVITIES (A+): Scuba and snorkeling rated as some of the best in the world. Ocean kayaking and fishing are fantastic, whale watching is astonishing, especially during winter. Hiking, the most popular activity, is challenging and majestic at
a World Heritage Site. Golf? Don't be ridiculous.
QUIETUDE (A+): Colorful sunsets, rolling surf, back-to-nature escapes. No casinos, traffic jams or resort conventions--ever. If you're heading toward Roseau, avoid cruise ship arrivals and Saturday market.
Traveler Fast Facts
WHAT IT IS: An island in the Caribbean, between Martinique and Guadeloupe, that is 30 miles long and only 16 miles wide. Mountainous rainforest and rugged terrain, underdeveloped compared with other Caribbean isles. The capital is Roseau on the southwestern coast. Dominica's rich culture comes from its mix of English, French, African and Carib peoples, evident in their food, music, dance, language and hospitality.
HISTORY: First came the Arawaks, then the Kalinago Indians. The Kalinagos resisted European colonization but eventually succumbed to disease, greed and tyranny from Spanish, English and French forces. Independence was gained from Britain in 1978.
AMBIANCE: Friendly people. Expect to hear, "OK, all right," which means hello. Follow the laid-back lifestyle and greet locals before asking a question. Dress is casual and comfortable-t-shirts and shorts. Sneakers and Tevas are suggested instead of flipflops due to rocky, hilly terrain. Boots for hard-core hikers.
GETTING THERE: Business airplanes, mostly turboprops, land at Melville Hall Airport in the town of Marigot, on the island's northeastern stretch. The asphalt runway is 5,249 feet. (If you're staying in Roseau, plan on an hour-and-a-half drive because of mountainous roads.) Dominica's other airport, Canefield, has a paved runway only 3,130 feet long, which accommodates small aircraft. Located on the island's western side, Canefield is just 15 minutes from Roseau. Airplanes currently land only during daytime at both airports, but a current expansion project at Melville Hall includes runway lights to permit night operation. Ferry service runs to and from Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia. Ferries dock along with cruise ships at Roseau piers.
GETTING AROUND: Driver's permit required. Driving is on the left side (this is a former British colony) and can be a bit terrifying through blind curves and mud slicks. Locals know the roads and drive fast. The only posted speed limits are in cities and towns. Prepare to let your inner Jeff Gordon out, but be careful.
ACTIVITIES: Roseau features a farmers' market every Saturday and the 40-acre Botanical Gardens, founded in 1891, include flora, fauna and a parrot
aviary. The Carib Cultural Village-Kalinago Barana Aute (www.kalinagobaranaaute.com) lies on the Crayfish River in the Carib Territory. About 2,700 descendants of the Kalinago (often called "Caribs") live in the only indigenous people's reserve in the Caribbean. A guide escorts visitors through the museum and around the trails, presenting historical, hands-on demonstrations. "The Real Mas," Dominica's version of carnival or masquerade, runs from December until Ash Wednesday. Annual Dive Fest every July includes an underwater treasure hunt. World Creole Music Festival delivers lively entertainment over the last weekend in October. Independence Day or Domfesta celebrations occur November 3.
ODDS AND ENDS: Local currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar. Passports are necessary. English is the language here, although you'll hear Creole, too. Car and mobile phone rentals are available at the airport. Electrical services use 220/240 volts. For more information, visit www.discoverdominica.com or www.avirtualdominica.com.
Where to Stay
Beau Rive (www.beaurive.com). This small boutique hotel near Castle Bruce offers eight impeccable, oversized ocean-view guest rooms with balconies. Owner Mark Steele serves gourmet meals on the patio, overlooking Wakaman Point.
Fort Young Hotel (www.fortyounghotel.com). The island's largest guest residence, this hotel in Roseau is built around the walls of an 18th century fort. It features an oceanside pool, dive center and massage/wellness facilities.
Jungle Bay Resort (www.junglebaydominica.com). Located in Delices, this hideaway on the ocean's edge includes 35 mountainside tree-cottages, a restaurant and health spa. Adventure packages include guided outings and transportation. The rustic, luxuriously appointed guest quarters feature private verandas and enclosed showers open to the starry heavens, but no TV. Yoga classes and the white noise of rolling surf provide relaxation. In 2007, the property won the Condé Nast Traveler World Savers Award for small hotels and resorts.
3 Rivers Eco-Lodge (www.3riversdominica.com). Located in Rosalie, this facility offers Green Globe-certified camping, a dormitory, tree house or cottages, restaurant and environmental education workshops. A backpacker's dream.