Commonwealth of Dominica, West Indies
“The Nature Island of the Caribbean”
By Annie Montgomery
Tucked between Martinique and Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, the Commonwealth of Dominica (NOT to be confused with the Dominican Republic) is situated at the northern end of the Windward chain of the Lesser Antilles.
Dominica is the largest island of the group, covering an area of 290 square miles. Once a British colony (fought over several times by the French and now independent), Dominica is often overlooked by Caribbean travelers, who, more often than not, have never heard of the last remaining unspoiled Caribbean island.
Called “The Nature Island of the Caribbean,” Dominica’s lush, rugged terrain features towering volcanic peaks, dense, primordial rainforest, untouched coral reefs, bubbling oceans, the largest boiling lake in the world, dozens of wild waterfalls and lakes, and 365 freshwater rivers — “one for every day of the year!”
And, as the last outpost of the remaining Carib Indians, there’s even some unique, indigenous local culture to discover. In fact, Dominica is as close to a South Pacific Island as you can get in the Caribbean. OK, there are no picture-perfect, white-sand beaches (they’re black or silver, thanks to the volcanoes of the island), but there are also no big hotels, no hustlers, and no crowds of drunken, sunburned, T-shirt wearing tourists.
Dominicans are serious about keeping their island safe from the clutches of high-rise, cruise-ship, Caribbean tourism, and what little you will find on the island has been responsibly and consciously developed. If you are a nature buff, like to hike, climb, kayak, snorkel or SCUBA dive, or are just into getting away from it all on a laid-back, but unique island, discover Dominica.
WHEN TO GO
It rains a lot in Dominica, which is why it is so lush. The clouds soak up the water from the 365 rivers and then hover around the Morne Trois Pitons and Morne Diablotin (over 4,500 ft.), obscuring views and shrouding the island in a kind of misty mystery.
Sometimes, the clouds are so thick, you can sail right past the massive island without seeing it! Every afternoon every day of the year, these incessant clouds let loose with a light shower somewhere on the island. Even in what is considered high, dry season–December through April–the seas can be rough and the rains frequent. The temperature varies: on the coast, it averages in mid-80s all year, but up in the mountains and rainforests, it can get as low as the 60s. Whenever you come, bring something to keep you warm and dry. It does get warm and sunny here, and you can even get a good tan, but, hey, you didn’t come here for the sun and sand.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
American Airlines, Air France, Air Canada and British Airways fly to Melville Hall Airport in Dominica daily via connections at San Juan and other large islands, but the flights are only once a day and the airport is on the far side of the island from most accommodations and attractions in or around Roseau.
The one-hour drive across the island has been described by some travelers as the most terrifying they have ever taken because of the steep and winding mountain roads. Still, if you plan to fly here from the US or Europe, or are staying in the northern part of the island near Portsmouth, it’s the only way to go. Buckle up. Liat, BWIA and other regional airlines also fly to Roseau’s nearer Canefield Airport via smaller islands.
Most travelers opt to forgo the harrowing cross-island drive from the airport to the capital city of Roseau, and opt instead to arrive via high-speed ferry from Guadeloupe, Martinique or St. Lucia. The ferry plies the islands daily, making stops at Dominica several times a week. For up-to-date schedules, contact L’Express Des Iles Ferry Service in Dominica, Tel: 767-448-2181.
Car rentals are available in Roseau, Portsmouth and at both airports, but they are expensive (app. US$50/day) and driving in Dominica is not for the faint of heart. There is only one major thoroughfare that hugs the coast and circles the island, but Dominica is a big island and many sights and activities (especially rainforest hikes) are in the interior, accessed mostly by unmarked, narrow slippery, dirt roads. You will need to get a Dominican Driver’s Permit to rent a car, but most car rental agencies can provide these. Driving is on the left-hand side of the road.
- Valley Car Rental
Goodwill Road, Roseau
A reliable local car rental agency that offers competitive prices, jeeps, hotel/airport pick-up and drop-off.
If you plan to do a lot of hiking or sightseeing, the best bet is to hire a guide or taxi to take you where you want to go. While it is expensive (it can cost up to US$20 just to get from Roseau to the rainforest), package rates are available and most hotels and tour operators in the area can provide car/driver/guide arrangements. The benefit is that you’ll be taken directly to trailheads by someone who knows where they are and will hang around waiting for your return.
- Malley’s Tour and Taxi Service
Provides hourly or daily sightseeing taxi service to all the major sights.
The next best alternative is to take an island mini-bus. These local busses meet at the bridge in Roseau and, like most local minibuses, leave when they are full, pack more people and goods than you ever thought possible in a small space, and make frequent stops along the way. But, they are inexpensive, a good way to meet locals, and great for getting from one place to another along the coastal route. Not so good for getting to more remote places. Hitchhiking is another possibility. Stand on the side of the road with your hand out and it will only be a matter of minutes before you are offered a lift in the back of a truck or car. It’s very safe —and many locals do it — and a hearty “thanks” is all that’s necessary in return.
BEST MAJOR ATTRACTIONS
There are more than enough attractions to keep you satisfied for a long time on the island, but here are few you won’t want to miss.
- Emerald Pool
This is the hidden tropical waterfall/pool of your imagination. With lush vegetation, colorful flowers, warm water (that appears emerald green), rocks to sit on and slide down, this grotto gem is the most popular attraction on the island, and for good reason. It’s just a 15-minute walk down a well-marked nature trail just off the Castle Bruce Road, and is open daily from morning until dusk. Whatever you do, don’t go on a cruise-ship day (twice a week in season), or it will be overrun with tourists. Instead, pick an off day and you’ll have the pool to yourself for hours! Small admission fee.
- Trafalgar Falls
If you’ve ever wanted to climb a waterfall, this is the one to try. Trafalgar Falls is actually two separate falls — one warmer than the other — that cascade down a river of boulders into rocky pools. It’s a short walk to the viewing platform, and from there, follow the path down the rocks to the falls. You can climb all the way up to the pool at the base of the falls for an exhilarating swim. Be careful, though. The rocks are slick and in rainy season, flash floods can occur.
- Boiling Lake
One of only two such lakes in the world — and the largest — Dominica’s Boiling Lake is in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a 17,000 acre park that also houses several fresh water crater lakes, Middleham Falls, and dozens of hiking trails. Boiling Lake’s temperature is extremely high, thanks to the volcanic heat of the crater in which it lies, and the sulphuric springs of the nearby Valley of Desolation produce quite a smell. This isn’t a swimming place, if you haven’t figured, but it’s an amazing and eerie sight. It’s a three-hour, strenuous hike to the lake, and while you can do it by yourself, it’s a good idea (advisable, really) to hire a guide, as the trail is rough. Bring lots of water.
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTIONS
- Carib Territory
On the other side of the island from Roseau (close to Melville Hall Airport), 3,700 acres of land have been given to the roughly 3,000 descendants of the original inhabitants of the island, the Carib Indians. This is the only place in the Caribbean where the Carib live independently and today’s Caribs are involved in agriculture and fishing. Many still live in traditional stilt houses and ply the waters in the carved dugout canoes of their ancestors. >A drive through Carib Territory is worth the effort for the last glimpses of a once-mighty culture. Stop into the Salybia Catholic Church to see the incredible canoe altar, climb up Crayfish River, and check out L’Escalier Tete-Chien, “The Snake’s Staircase,” a stepped, hardened lava flow jutting into the ocean that features in Carib Legend. Stop at one of the roadside stalls and pick up a beautiful woven basket made and sold by traditional crafters.
So called because of the thousands of tiny, warm, air bubbles that percolate up from the ocean floor, this unmarked, rocky beach south of Roseau is worth finding. Like being in a natural hot tub, you can swim and snorkel among the escaping volcanic bubbles rising from cracks among the coral. There isn’t much to see underwater, but it’s a lot of fun. >Champagne is located on the coastal road between Roseau and Scott’s Head, but you’ll have to ask your taxi driver, hotel or a local person how to find it. If you don’t go on a cruise-ship day, you’ll have the place to yourself!
- Syndicate Nature Trail
If you are a bird watcher, you’ll want to head to Syndicate Nature Trail in the Northern Forest Reserve, to spot the indigenous and endangered Sisserou and Jaco Parrots. The best time to catch them is dawn or dusk.
- Ti-tou Gorge
Plunge into a cool pool and swim 50 yards upstream surrounded by sheer rock walls, then turn around and ride the current back down: welcome to Dominica’s water park! >Ti-tou Gorge begins at the start of the Boiling Lake Trail at a terribly unscenic hydroelectric dam (most of the island’s electricity is produced by channeling the voluminous amount of fresh water that pours from the skies and lakes). Follow the water pipeline past the abandoned shack once belonging to a guy who allegedly attacked a developer who wanted to build a cable car to Boiling Lake. Read the hand-painted signs for a first-hand lesson in island politics and tourism development. The entrance to the gorge is just behind the building. When you’re finished, make sure to stop at the natural hot springs just below the dam to warm up.
BEST ACTIVITIES AND TOURS
There are three national parks on the island — The Morne Trois Pitons National Park, Cabrits National Park (a land and marine park with the ruins of an old fort) and Northern Forest Reserve — and numerous other preserves for hiking and trekking. You could easily spend weeks trying to hike the many different trails to lakes, waterfalls, mountaintops and ruins. But to make sure you have the best hiking experience, it’s a good idea to hire a local guide. Buy a multi-entrance pass at any of the main sites for US$10 and you can come and go for days.
- Ken’s Hinterland Tours
P.O. Box 1652, Roseau, Dominica
Ken’s Hinterland Tours is the oldest tour operator on the island and can provide single day or multi-day guide packages for all kinds of activities with transportation included.
SCUBA Diving and Snorkeling
Dominica’s underwater bounty is just as spectacular as that of the land. With miles and miles of untouched reef, made even more colorful by the volcanic stirrings and freshwater runoff, Dominica has the best diving and snorkeling in the Lesser Antilles. There are several great dive spots, including Soufriere/Scott’s Head Marine Reserve (an underwater crater teeming with coral and fish), Cabrits Point and numerous smaller spots up and down the Western coast. Opportunities for whale and dolphin watching are also available. There are several dive shops/hotels between Roseau and Scott’s Head, all of which offer dive packages, day/night dives and whale watching, along with other island tours.
- Dive Dominica
P.O. Box 2253, Roseau Dominica
Dive Dominica is the oldest dive outfit on the island and is located just outside Roseau in Castle Comfort.
- ReefBall Coalition
Based at Castaways Beach Hotel and Dive Center, the non-profit ReefBall Coalition offers divers and snorkelers a chance to help build an artificial reef. 8-day packages include lodgings and meals, and participants construct reef balls out of lightweight cement and then take them out to sea for placement. A cool way to help preserve the beauty of Dominica for generations to come.
Tel: in the US 864-879-7543
Take a tour through the Carib territory with NICE, Native Indigenous Carib Excursions. Former Carib Chief Irvince Auguiste provides first-hand knowledge of Carib traditions, lore and experience. All transports included.
There are a number of guesthouses and hotels in Roseau, and a few small-scale resorts and self-catering cottages scattered around the island, but here are the real standouts.
- Papillote Wilderness Retreat
Located in the rainforest a short walk from Trafalgar Falls, the Papillote Wilderness Retreat is a hidden Eden. With acres of tropical gardens, waterfalls and natural hot springs hot tubs, Papillote offers double rooms, a self-catering waterfall cottage, and a gourmet outdoor restaurant. Try the flying fish sandwich for lunch. Rooms US$80-$215. MAP US$35/pp.
P.O. Box 2287, Roseau, Dominica
- Sunset Bay Club Beach Resort
The only dive hotel (or any other kind of hotel, for that matter) located on a beach, Sunset Bay Club would make Gilligan proud. This hotel features a PADI certified dive shop and offers the only “all-inclusive” on the island or Bed & Breakfast style. Packages and rooms for certified divers from US$175.
Batalie Beach, Roseau, Dominica
Tel: +1 767-446-6522
- Roxy’s Mountain Lodge
The closest lodging to the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, Roxy’s is like a youth hostel in the rainforest. An excellent base if you plan to do a lot of hiking, Roxy’s can provide excellent, knowledgeable local trail guides. Great food, hot herbal teas, friendly folks. Rooms from US$50-$75.
P.O. Box 265, Laudat, Dominica
- The Carib Territory Guesthouse
The only lodgings in the Carib Territory is the guesthouse, owned by a native family. Great home-cooked food, excellent and knowledgeable guides to Carib Territory sights. US$30-60.
Camping is not allowed anywhere on the island to preserve the natural environment. BEST EATS
The local specialty is something called Mountain Chicken, which really isn’t a chicken at all, but a frog that lives in the rainforest. Eat it if you must, but only in season. Otherwise, go for crayfish, callaloo or fresh fish. The local beer is Kubuli, and the brewery likes to produce all kinds of special editions, depending upon the season (the Carnival brew has a higher alcohol content than the regular!). All hotels have their own restaurants and there are a few snack bars and small eateries in town, but once again, your best bet is to head out.
- River Rock Cafe
Just down the road from the Papillote Wilderness Retreat is a small roadside restaurant and bar that is the best local spot on the island. Sidle up to the bar for a drink with one of the local guides waiting for his charges, or step inside and sit at one of the tables on the deck overlooking the river and rainforest. It’s a great place to wait out an afternoon rain shower and the rum punch is strong. >Lunch is served off the full menu, but for dinner, you have to order in advance: the owner, Dennis and his lovely wife, Laura prepare the meal just for you — chicken, fish, callaloo, dasheen, plaintains, rice — a genuine Creole home-cooked meal. You could be the only guests for the night! The owner has an amazing stereo system, and like all Dominicans, a love for local music. Make sure to get the name of any CD you like, so you can find it in town.
- La Robe Creole
The most famous restaurant on the island serves delicious, affordable, Creole food for lunch and dinner daily. Located on the waterfront in Roseau between the Fort Young and Garraway Hotels.
- The Sundowner Café
A fun, island-like seaside café in Scott’s Head Village with great fresh seafood, organic, homegrown veggies and a killer Rum punch.
Music is a big thing on Dominica, and every village and neighborhood has a local band that plays compas, cadence, zouk, soukous or Creole music of some kind. The best local entertainment is to catch a jump-up or dance party. Ask around in Roseau or Portsmouth, which is where they are most likely to happen.
- World Creole Music Festival
At the end of October, beginning of November, Dominica is host to the annual World Creole Music Festival featuring bands from all over the Creole world, from Africa to the Caribbean. Catch the latest sounds from Cuba, Haiti, French West Africa and even Canada. If you like island dance music, you’ll want to be here.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Dominica at Carnival time in February, you’re in for a treat. Dominica’s Carnival is a distinctly local affair, with local band after band parading through downtown Roseau on flatbed trucks racked with thumping speakers. Add costumes, jump-ups, a battle of the bands that lasts for the next three days, an on-going beauty pageant to select the Queen and Princesses, and free flowing rum and Kubuli beer, and you have the makings of a party to end all parties. But don’t be surprised if you’re one of only a handful of foreigners: remember, the world hasn’t discovered Dominica yet; enjoy it while you can. >For exact dates of festivals and events, contact the Dominica Festivals Commission at 767-448-4833, firstname.lastname@example.org for the official dates.
Dominica isn’t the place to come for shopping. While the old market area in Roseau sells lots of souvenir-type trinkets, the best purchase is a traditional Carib basket from one of the makers in Carib Territory. Several crafts shops in Roseau offer local crafts like pottery, painted candles and clothing. If you are into art, there are a number of talented local artists whose work can be found in galleries on and around Cork St. in Roseau. Check out Caribana on Cork St. for a good selection of local arts and crafts. Another great purchase is a CD or cassette of local music. There are several record shops in Roseau. Pick up some Cuban compas or some Dominican cadence to take home. If you want to bring home the taste of Dominica, head to the supermarket in Roseau and pick up some Dominican coffee, marmalades or pepper sauces. Great gifts, and you can’t get most of this stuff at home. Look for the Bello brand.
VISAS AND DOCUMENTS
No visa is required for entry to Dominica, though a valid passport and a return or onward ticket is required. Departure tax is US$12 per person.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Dominica is very safe. Other than the usual precautions, make sure to lock cars and don’t leave any valuables in them or on the beach. It’s a good idea to hire a guide if you are planning any kind of hike into the Boiling Lake region or the Northern Forest Reserve. Hikers have gotten lost or caught in flash floods. No immunizations are required for travel to Dominica, unless coming from a yellow fever infected region. Up in the rainforest, the water is so pure you can drink from streams (I’ve done it several times, though it’s not advisable). The tap water is also drinkable and safe. In an emergency, there are hospitals or medical clinics in Roseau, Portsmouth, Grand Bay and Marigot.
MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS
The official currency is the Eastern Caribbean Dollar (EC$2.67 = US$1), though US dollars are accepted. Travelers’ checks, cash and credit cards are accepted almost everywhere. There is an ATM machine at the Royal Bank of Canada across from the Ferry pier in Roseau.
Dominica was the first country to have an all-digital phone system and while you can make international phone calls from most hotels, they still aren’t cheap. You can also make calls from the public phones at the Cable and Wireless in Roseau with a Caribbean phone card or your own calling or credit card. The main post office in Roseau is open daily from 9 —4. The Cornerhouse Café is a laid-back Internet café in Roseau with great Dominican coffee and a second-story verandah for people-watching.
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