Known as “Nature’s Island,” the *Lonely Planet* lists Dominica as number four for Best in Travel for 2017. Locals joke that “…if Christopher Columbus rose from the grave and returned to the Caribbean, Dominica is the only island he would still recognize.” As I started to explore the island, I understood why. With its lush, rainforest-covered mountains, and its fresh running streams and rivers, you cannot help but be enamoured by the environment. My stay will include soft adventure tours of hiking, snorkeling, zip-lining and horseback riding.
Encompassing an area of 15 square kilometres on the east coast of the island, the Kalinago Territory holds all the secrets of the traditional culture and way of life of the Carib Indians. The Kalinago name for their island is Wai‘tukubuli (“Tall is Her Body”), but was renamed Dominica by Columbus. Three National Parks constitute this first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern Caribbean. Rainforests cover two thirds of the island’s surface (surprisingly sans poisonous creatures), with over 1,000 plant species, 170+ types of birds, and hiking trails over a dozen mountains.
Battling over possession of the island, the French and English struggles ended in simply contributing to its cultural richness. Meanwhile, the Kalinago/Caribs managed to retain their hold on Dominica and St. Vincent as neutral lands not to be occupied by any European power but, left to the Kalinago people in perpetuity.
I was drawn to explore the colourful and bounteous markets with jovial vendors displaying their wares with a welcoming – and highly infectious – demeanour. In search of fresh coconut, I stood watching with fascination as the vendor chipped away at the nut with a machete. I held my breath with each strike, praying he would not lose an appendage on my behalf. Afterward, he halved the nut and handed it back with a ladle, fashioned from the outside of the shell, with which I could scoop out the meat. As a woman walking alone throughout the city, I felt safe. I later discovered Dominica boasts a very low crime rate. Here, I must agree with Jerry Grymek, Account Director and Dominica Public Relations Representative for Canada: “It stole my heart.”
The village of Soufrière is a beautiful reminder of the early French settlement. Here, St. Mark Church (1844-1890) draws tourists with its colourful brickwork, and adds to the history of how the French intermingled with the islanders.
Directly beside the church is “Bubble Beach.” Or more correctly, Soufrière Sulphur Springs, a popular spot with tourists and locals alike. The sands of the spring are so hot, it takes a little finesse to enter. However, this became preparation for my visit to Ti Kwen Glo Cho at Wotten Waven, where I could choose between the sulphur spring or the healing mud baths.
In Soufrière Bay, Champagne Reef is one of the Caribbean’s top five dive sites, and was recently rated as the No. 1 snorkeling site among 25 Caribbean snorkeling sites by Caribbean Travel & Life Magazine. Underwater geothermal springs vent gasses in the form of thousands of warm bubbles. It’s like swimming in a glass of champagne. Boulder corals sat atop the reef, and plate corals gave way to whip corals as I went deeper. Sponges were plentiful from the top to the lowest depths. I was in good eco-company as this reef is home to lobster, parrot fish and Hawksbill turtles.
Back on land, Rainforest Riding is a family-run business owned by Canadian Valerie Francis. Located between the National Park and the beach, Valerie and family members will take you by horseback through the rainforest along a section of the Wai‘tukubuli Trail. Ride along beside the Roseau River, or swim with your horse in Prince Rupert’s Bay.
Eventually, and reluctantly, we ended our peaceful ride at Fort Shirley, Dominica’s most historic site. The Cabrits Garrison at Fort Shirley (built 1774-1825), overlooks Prince Rupert’s Bay. The Garrison, including barracks and officer’s quarters, became obsolete at the end of the war. Abandoned in 1854, the fort and garrison were used as a quarantine station and hospital in the 1870s and the 1920s. It was later established as a National Park in 1986, and now flourishes as such.
Paddling on the Indian River, I was in search of the Sea Witch’s cabin where they filmed segments of Pirates of the Caribbean. Along the way, the entangled tree formations of the Mangroves made for an ominous-looking cinematic effect. In the midst of this unassuming location is Hideaway bar. It made for a quaint, down-to-earth setting for a drinking establishment – much in keeping with a pirates’ hideout – with tables and seats cut from varying sizes of tree trunks and limbs.
Hiking along the Wai‘tukubuli trails in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, I headed off to the Emerald Pool at the base of a 12-metre waterfall, and found the perfect spot for a rejuvenating swim. Continuing along the trail, I happened upon an outlook, where I stood in awe of the magnificent view. The trees seemed full of parrots, hawks, hummingbirds and many other types of birds. Their songs harmoniously blended to create a unique island symphony. Combined with the fragrances and the sea air, the semi-hidden outlook made a perfect location for an impromptu meditation session. Just stop, breathe, relax and repeat, remembering the sentiments of JRR Tolkien: “Not all those who wander are lost.”
The Papillote Wilderness Retreat and Tropical Gardens sits on the slope of Morne Macaque, near the small mountain village of Trafalgar. Founder/owner/manager Anne Grey first came here in 1961 from New York looking for something more. Anne immediately fell in love with the island and purchased a piece of land in the mountains. Her paradise grew from a small snack bar to a craft centre and a full restaurant.
After losing it all to Hurricane David in 1979, Anne and Cuthbert Jno Baptiste implemented the island’s first skills-training program, engaging Trafalgar youth in learning construction skills. The site now boasts a spa and a non-profit botanical garden with 1.6 hectares of developed trails, two waterfalls and natural, volcanic, hot mineral springs and bathing pools, all surrounded by the fragrances and the songs of the rainforest.
Anne’s dream now includes two two-bedroom suites with individual outdoor kitchenettes, ideal for families to enjoy that with which Anne first fell in love.
Perfectly relaxed, it was time to face my biggest fear and head off to try some zip lining through the rainforest canopy at Adventure Park. Stepping off the platform and flying through the canopy, I was so busy watching for the birds I could only hear during my previous ground explorations, that I forgot to be afraid of the height. The rewards of this elevated adventure far outweighed my fears. Was I weak in the knees afterward? You bet. And absolutely exhilarated!
My Dominica adventure provided a natural conduit to physically and spiritually connect with the true essence of “Nature’s Island.” This is one bucket-list location well worth repeating.
Having experienced Dominica in her full beauty, I believe, with the strength and resilience of her people and the land itself, she will quickly regain her natural allure for all to enjoy.
Editor’s Note: According to reports out of Dominica, Hurricane Maria devastated the island when she struck on September 18, 2017. With a force that took 85 per cent of all homes and 100 per cent of the island’s GDP, Maria destroyed much of the infrastructure, leaving Dominica’s most vulnerable people without proper supplies. If you’d like to send help through the Red Cross, visit www.ifrc.org/en/