Dominica: Natural Wonders Above and Below

“It’s just a two-hour drive to Roseau,” said the agent of Island Car Rentals at picturesque Melville Hall Airport in Dominica. He made sure the little Suzuki 4×4 had a spare tire, a jack, and made note of all the dents larger than a softball. As he handed us the keys, he gave us one final bit of warning, “Ya need to be blowan da horn at every turn in da hills!” And with this sage advice, we jumped into the Suzuki and eagerly headed toward the impossibly green mountains.

We had always heard Dominica (pronounced DOM-in-EE-ka) is a haven for eco-tourism, with the richest rain forest in the Caribbean and incredible marine life by anyone’s standard. With all this in mind, we couldn’t wait to discover why this verdant island gem has the world rooting for its ecological preservation.

Nature Island

Aptly known as the “Nature Island of the Caribbean,” Dominica remains one of the Windward Islands’ most unspoiled retreats. It is just 29 miles long (46 km) and 16 miles (26 km) across at its widest point, but boasts the highest mountains in the Eastern Caribbean, with Morne Diablotins (Devil’s Mountains) reaching to 4,747 feet (1,438 m) above sea level. The island is also home to 3,500 of the last Carib Indian descendants who reside in a 3,700-acre (1,480-hectare) area called the Carib Territory. This is definitely worth a visit for an insight into a disappearing culture. The rest of the island’s population is mainly of Afro-West Indian descent, with a population of roughly 75,000.

Dominica is part of the British West Indies, nestled between the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Dominica’s volcanic origins left mostly black-sand beaches, and its natural allure lies more in its ample gifts above and below the surface. The island’s dense rain forest is punctuated by countless waterfalls, more than 300 rivers, gorges, hot springs, and one of the largest active boiling lakes in the world. A canvas of exotic ferns, palms and flora compete along the forest floor, while green iguanas, geckoes, butterflies, bats and some 160-plus species of birds inhabit the interior. Wafts of the island’s spicy scents float everywhere and tease your senses with cinnamon bark, bay leaves, nutmeg, ginger, lime, coconut, cocoa pod fruit and even sorrel juice. More than 25 percent of Dominica is already protected as national park or forest reserve. A fine example is the 17,000-acre (6,800-hectare) Morne Trois Pitons National Park, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Good, sturdy all-terrain shoes and a raincoat are wise for anytime of the year. With average rainfalls nearing the 300-inch (762-cm) mark, being prepared for a tropical downpour is a good idea. Overall the climate in Dominica is warm and tropical with the main rainy season falling between June and October. In winter, the higher elevations can get cool enough for a jacket in the evening.

Sunday Island Past

When the Caribs settled the island in the 14th century, they named it Waitikubuli, which means, “tall is her body.” Christopher Columbus renamed the island on Sunday, November 3, 1493, calling it Dominica or Sunday Island. After this initial discovery, the Spaniards generally avoided the island as this was the very heart of the “Cannibal Isles.” Here the fierce Caribs where able to maintain their final stronghold for nearly 200 years. There was even a treaty reserving the island for the “native Indians” and many Caribs from other islands fled here. But in 1750 the French decided the island’s location was too valuable to honor a treaty for Indians. They moved in with a campaign so thorough that only 400 Caribs survived and fled to the windward shore, where they could remain relatively undisturbed.

Along with the rest of the Eastern Caribbean, Dominica had to suffer the seesaw territorial claims of the warring European factions. The British and the French swapped claims on the island on a regular basis, with a final attempt by the French as late as 1805.

In the late 1700s, slavery was still in place, but Dominica’s rugged terrain offered excellent cover for escaped slaves to hide and develop ragtag communities. These escaped slaves were known as Maroons and they eventually became a force for revolt. Their memory remains eternalized by a mountain peak known as Morne N`egres Marrons near the center of the island.

Emancipation came in 1834 by British declaration and Sunday Island again became a refuge for slaves escaping from the French islands nearby. Thus the early Dominicans were made up of a tough, spirited and independent group that did not readily adhere to authoritarian rule.

While always having a fairly poor island economy, there was a bright spot by the late 1800s. Having planted thousands of acres of limes, Dominica was the world’s largest supplier of limes for quite a while. In Roseau, a factory was set up to produce Rose’s Lime Juice, which can still be found behind almost any bar in the world.

In 1967 the island became self-governing and in 1978 it took its full independence from Britain. After more than two decades of stability, Dominica now seems to celebrate its past, embrace its enormous natural resources and optimistically look toward the future.

Craters and Bubbles

Standing atop many of the island’s high points and peering across the intense azure seas, you cannot help but wonder what lies beneath Dominica’s watery surrounds. The Atlantic coast is often rough and not generally accessible for diving, but the Caribbean side, or West coast, is calm and inviting for divers and snorkelers alike. As you slip beneath the surface, it becomes obvious how the walls, seamounts, volcanic crater rims, caverns and other exotic reef formations mirror the topside extremes. The magic of the rain forest seems to overflow through the rivers and melt into the sea.

Virtually all the dive-oriented resorts are along the Caribbean coast and cover three distinct areas that can supply enough diversity for even the most avid diver. Most sites are near shore, but due to the rocky steep shores it is often more comfortable to dive from a boat. Some dive operators have “house reefs” which can offer you unlimited shore diving during your stay.

Starting to the far south where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean in the area known as Soufriere/Scotts Head Marine Reserve, there are enough sites to keep you busy for days. For our first dive we headed to the area’s most famous dive site known as Scotts Head Pinnacle. The seas were glasslike as we approached the pinnacle and peered through the depths to the schools of fish cascading over the reef. A picturesque swim-through bisects the pinnacle and opens on the steep wall of a volcanic crater falling to more than 120 feet (36 m).

Just a little north from Soufriere and a short boat ride away is a series of five pinnacles starting in depths of 30 feet (9 m) to 80 feet (24 m) called Dangleben’s Pinnacles. These are ideal for being surprised by the schools of larger fish like horse-eye jacks, cero mackerel, barracuda and trains of creole wrasse. But just a few minutes away, there are a number of sites for macro enthusiasts, with names like Coral Gardens, L’Abym and Point Guinard. For snorkelers, kayakers and shallow-water divers, the famous subaquatic hot springs, known as Champagne Reef, can be enjoyed in 15 feet (4.5 m) of depth. In this novel site, you are not the only one blowing bubbles, as hot water and steady streams of bubbles rise from the sea floor, creating the illusion of diving in a rather large glass of champagne.

Heading farther north to the less frequented central Caribbean coast, you will find a dozen of the most pristine reefs in the Windward Isles. Memorable locations like Rodney’s Rock, Berry’s Dream, Castaways Reef, Batali Pinnacle and even Whaleshark Reef all lie within a 10-minute boat ride from the central dive resorts. These sites range from depths of 20 feet (6 m) to 130 feet (39 m) while offering a wealth of diversity from critter dives to more awe-inspiring drop-offs.

North of this central zone is a final marine reserve area called Portsmouth/Toucari. For many, there is a sense of adventure in diving the remains of an 18th century wreck such as found here at Cottage Point, but the reefs and pelagic life in the area are equally exciting.

Wherever you choose to dive along the coast, it will be a revelation for those new to Dominican diving, not to mention the added thrill of topside visits from pods of dolphins, and with some luck, sperm and humpback whales (see sidebar).

Adventuring the Winding Roads

No matter how die-hard a diver you are, the green hues of the mountains that are your constant backdrop will inevitably lure you inland. There are short easy walks, moderate hikes and very challenging treks for the most fit. It is best to grab a map and try to plan an itinerary, but remember that with the twisty mountain roads, nothing is as close as it appears. There are plenty of helpful guides to steer you in the right direction or even take you on an informative hike.

From the capital of Roseau, a likely starting point, there are a number of sites to head toward within a five-mile drive. One of the most notable, Trafalgar Falls, is just straight up the winding road from Roseau. It’s an easy 10-minute walk along a reasonable path to a viewing platform for a majestic look of not one, but two stunning waterfalls.

Also nearby, Ti-Tou Gorge or “Little Throat,” describes a narrow water-filled canyon that offers an invigorating swim upstream to the base of a lovely waterfall and a hot mineral cascade.

The most beautiful and remote waterfalls are Sari-Sari and Victoria Falls. Both are on the southwest coast. To reach them requires some moderate hiking and fording.

The country’s most exotic and athletic attraction, Boiling Lake — a flooded fumarole (a lake formed over a volcano) — remains the province of hikers with strong lungs and sturdy shoes. It is a six-hour round-trip of sometimes steep hiking through the heart of Dominica. Lugging 30 pounds (13.5 kg) of camera gear each was in retrospect not the wisest decision on our trip; our experienced guide wore a light backpack that hauled just his raincoat, a bottle of water and a few sandwiches. After a few sweaty hours of trekking the narrow steep trail, mountain ridges and Valley of Desolation (pools of boiling water and sulfuric hot springs) — we were finally standing on the edge of this 413-degree-Fahrenheit (212-degree-Celsius), sulfur-scented steam bath. While waiting for a breeze to clear the fog and hair-curling humidity, we realized images would never really do this impressive site justice.

When Not Diving or Hiking

Accommodations in Dominica tend to be smaller establishments scattered along the west coast and sprinkled in the hills. Although there are a few dedicated dive resorts, almost any hotel or inn will help arrange diving with a local operator. In lieu of typical upscale high-rise resorts, you can expect comfortable lodging in a beautiful surrounding with attention and help from the owner or local staff. You also might consider staying a couple of days in a rain forest location. Falling asleep to the sounds of forest creatures and tropical rain dancing on your roof is a treasure not to be missed.

Most resorts have very enjoyable restaurants, but for variety, it will mainly be found in Roseau. The emphasis is on West Indian, with a little island Creole and French influence scattered about.

These days it is very popular to say that an island is “like the way the Caribbean use to be.” Dominica may be one of the few places this truly applies. A visitor to the island still feels like a rarity and is treated with friendly curiosity. On Dominica you feel like an explorer, not just a member of Caribbean commute.

Story and photos by Tanya Burnett and Kevin Palmer