Known as the Nature Island of the Caribbean, Dominica is characterised by imposing volcanic peaks, blanketed in rich green rainforest. With the Atlantic Ocean pounding one side and the Caribbean Sea lapping against the other, the sense of nature here is intense.
The locals – around 70,000 of them in total – dictate the pace of life here, where plantain, fish and green bananas are mainstays and KFC the only recognisable chain in the capital, Roseau.
Apart from cruise ships which dock here overnight for a few days each week from November through April, stay-over tourism is still in its infancy. But for how long is anyone’s guess. The national tourism body is well aware of the island’s natural assets and the power of the green dollar – Dominica became the first country in the world to be benchmarked for prestigious Green Globe 21 certification for green practices in the tourism and hospitality industries in 2004.
And as one of the main filming locations for The Pirates Of The Caribbean and the influx of visitors expected to the Caribbean for the Cricket World Cup, the island is slowly gaining exposure. My advice is to get in first. It’s only natural to want to see it before everyone else has.
Many of Dominica’s best sites are reached as nature intended – by foot. The island’s network of trails take in waterfalls, hot springs, rainforest and coastline, and range in difficulty.
Start off nice ‘n’ easy with the 10-minute hike to Trafalgar Falls. The twin falls – known locally as Mother and Father – are viewed from a platform or you can risk life and expensive work camera scrambling over slippery boulders to get to the base.
Starting in the town of Laudat, a two-and-a-half mile road leads to Dominica’s largest lake, the Freshwater Lake. Once there, you can take a guided boat tour and pop into the restaurant to sample the local aphrodisiac brew ‘bwa bandé’, which translates as ‘hard wood’. Enough said.
Not the longest but arguably the toughest trek is that to the Boiling Lake. Taking an average of six hours to complete, this trail travels through rainforest, a steaming volcanic expanse called The Valley of Desolation where boiling water spurts from beneath a gritty grey crust, and across gushing rivers. The ultimate destination, the Boiling Lake, is the second largest of its kind in the world (Lake Rotorua in New Zealand has that trophy). As its names suggests, this is one massive hot tub you don’t want to slip into. A local guide is worth his weight in rum to get you through this little adventure safely.
Dominica is known among divers for its healthy reef system, colourful marine life and unusual volcanic underwater terrain. The island’s most famous site is Champagne, where hot springs release a warm stream of bubbles from beneath the sea floor. Perhaps even more exciting are the rarely visited or unexplored sites used by certain smaller operators such as Aldive and Water Sports (www.aldive.com), who take TNT by kayak to Solomon, a modest reef where a spotted moray eel and huge elkhorn coral are a treat. The endangered Hawksbill Green Turtles are a sight to behold in these waters, as are whales from October through March.
Nature doesn’t have to equal boring and Dominicans have no problem creating their own fun. Adventure activities abound on Dominica, and Wacky Rollers Adventure Park (www.wackyrollers.com) is a good place to get your gall. Equipped with some basic training and a safety harness, visitors take a guided aerial tour of the rainforest via a network of ropes, suspended bridges, and zip wires. If you prefer not to scream in public, best bypass the dead-drop aptly known as Tarzan.
Less daring but equally interesting is the Rainforest Aerial Tram (www.rainforestram.com), a 90-minute guided ride through the tree tops offering stunning views over Breakfast River Gorge and a good insight into surrounding flora and fauna.
If heights are not your thing, All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) tours offer another fun way to explore the forest. Highland Nature Adventures (www.avirtualdominica.com/highrideadventures) run one- or two-hour tours across a 76,000-acre property. You can cruise along and enjoy the scenery, or make the most of the wet and muddy conditions and get stuck in. I’m told Tom Cruise didn’t hold back when he visited the farm on his birthday in 2004, having stopped at the island on Scientology cruise ship Freewinds.
Why hole up in a hotel when you could bunk down in a treehouse? 3 Rivers Eco Resort, set up and run by former London cabbie turned eco-warrior Jem Winston, offers the greenest beds on the island. Run entirely on renewable energy sources, the 12-acre ‘resort’ has cottages, dormitory-style bunkrooms, camping, hammocks, treehouses and huts to stay in. Despite the outdoor loos, this place is more than homely – resident donkeys George and Mildred will carry your packs up steep hill to the forest retreat, while the restaurant stocks the best home-made rum punch around. Alongside regular guests, Winston runs a volunteer programme through which visitors earn their keep by taking part in farming and community activities. See www.3riversdominica.com.
• Janelle Estreich travelled as a guest of the Dominica Tourist Office. For more information on Dominica, see www. discoverdominica.com or call 0800-012 1467.