THE ISLAND OF DOMINICA IS A CARIBBEAN SECRET
Oh dream of dreams: here I am swimming through a sea of champagne, bubbles boiling all around me and rising gently to the ocean surface. I almost want to take the snorkel out of month and lap up the sparkling liquid – but I won’t of course, because sensibly I know that drinking and diving don’t mix. Besides, the gross salty seawater might spoil this dream that has me frolicking around in a goblet of booze.
This is the Champagne Reef; a colourful and lively coral cloaked in vivid sponges that arcs off the southern western shore of the beautiful island of Dominica, where subterranean geothermal springs make the sea fizz with bubbles. The volcanic gasses warm the clear aquamarine water and attract a huge number of unique and startlingly beautiful fish. Head out on your own, or better still, hook up with a guide who will explain all the fanciful sea creatures you run across – seahorses, frogfish, scorpion fish, bat fish, lobster and crab, and waterfalls of creole wrasse and many other schools of fish that plunge over the vibrant reef.
Dominica is dubbed the “Nature Island” for its wealth of natural beauty. Untamed tropical rainforests cover two thirds of the island and are home to 1,200 species of plant life. Dominica is a hiker’s haven and a diver’s dream, with some of the best diving found anywhere in the world. Seahorses, sperm whales, frogfish, electric rays, sea snakes and turtles are just some of the creatures you might encounter amid its colourful reefs. Morne Trois Pitons National Park is a World Heritage Site and its volcanic features include, hot sulfur springs, fumaroles, and bubbling lakes.
The small island remains a relative secret amongst Caribbean travels, a lack of notoriety that is both unfortunate and appealing. There are no sprawling, expensive, glittery resorts, no cookie-cutter all-inclusives, and no over-crowded natural wonders being commercially exploited. “The Nature Island” is a place where you will find beauty unspoilt and culture preserved, on a green and mountainous island brimming with stunning natural splendour - dormant volcanoes clad in blankets of tropical vegetation, national parks, rushing rivers (365 rivers flow through its 750 square kilometres), sparkling waterfalls, hiking trails through tropical rainforest, and turquoise waters in picturesque bays where the snorkelling is superb.
With a landscape so dramatic and vibrant, it often feels like you are wandering through a film set, so its little wonder Dominica was selected as the backdrop for many of the scenes of “Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man’s Chest.” The Indian River is one of those recognizable locations, eerily beautiful, and the deepest river on the island. I rent a wooden long boat in the town of Portsmouth, and my boat operator and guide Ajahlie navigates slowly upstream into the dense rainforest. Tall trees with gnarled branches stretch out to form a canopy over the wide river, and splashes of colour are provided by seaside hibiscus, whose flowers turn from yellow to orange as they age. Egrets, herons and kingfishers blend into the tangle of roots exposed on the river banks.
We paddle past places used as locations in the film, like the Calypso Witch’s Cabin, and stop for a break at a dock shaded by mangrove and bloodwood trees that belongs to the Bush Bar, a favourite hangout of Johnny Depp’s during filming. Here, cooling off with a homemade rum concoction, I almost expect Captain Jack Sparrow to make an appearance.
The village called Kalinago Barana Aute, on the rugged northwest coast of Dominica, gives you a rare glimpse into Kalinago architecture and their way of life before the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1493. Kalinago territory, a large area of 4,000 acres established by the British in 1903, is home to the largest remaining population of Kalinagos in the Caribbean. A guided tour around the beautifully re-constructed settlement gives a background on the fascinating history of this indigenous people, and you can learn about their food, natural medicine, warrior mentality, family life and the island’s flora which the Kalinagos used masterfully, from the stems of the larouma plant used by the women to weave fish baskets to the strong gommier trees reserved for the construction of their dugout canoes. These hewn long boats were fast, silent and agile, and a major factor in the Kalinago’s ability to successfully resist all European attempts to invade Dominica for almost 200 years. Make sure to sample the Cassava bread baked on the premises the traditional way. The Europeans would rename the Kalinago “Caribs,” a word that would influence the name of the entire Caribbean region.
Waitikubuli is Dominica’s native name, meaning “tall is her body,” which describes the island’s long, thin shape. Well, you could also describe her body as wild, rugged, untamed, lush and quite dramatic. Waitikubuli is also the name of the island’s 184 kilometre hiking trail that takes adventurers from Scott’s Head in the south, through the mountainous jungle and rainforest interior, to Cabrits at the northern tip. For those without the two-week time needed to take the full trek, the trail is divided into 14 segments, or there are many other shorter hikes. Take a 4.5 km hike into Boiling Lake and the Valley of Desolation, which showcases hot streams, sulphur deposits, boiling mud, mini-geysers and fumaroles. For those seeking easier waterfall hikes in Dominica, try Trafalgar Falls and Emerald Pools, or Middleham Falls, the island’s tallest waterfall, with its large buttressed Chatannye trees along the path.
Dominica is one Caribbean island that beckons you away from the coast and beaches and into its mountainous interior, so may I suggest hiring a car and undertaking an unforgettable, dizzying drive through the island’s rainforest. With 365 rivers, one for every day of the year, navigating this small island of only 750 square kilometres takes time, but it is time well spent. Traffic is scarce, but honking is essential, for the climb into the jungle is full of constant switchbacks and blind corners. The roads wind past stray dogs and squat metal-roofed homes enveloped by vines, bromeliads, ferns and Flamboyant trees. Palms, Breadfruit, Papaya and Jackfruit trees provide a canopy over the roadway with a look both enchanting and menacing, and as if there wasn’t enough flora, old car tires painted in pastel colours and planted with red and yellow flowers line the roadway.
Pedestrians appear out of nowhere, walking the winding roads at all times of day, clutching either an umbrella or a machete, and often both, presumably to fend off the encroaching vegetation or the inevitable rain. Our driver, Martin, seems to know everybody, and toots his horn for every passer-by, as well as every dangerous corner. He also knows, and this is the value of a hired driver, every hidden gem; restaurant, roadside pub or secret hot spring. Dominica’s volcanic landscape and hot sulphur springs is a huge draw for those seeking relaxation and wellness, and we stop often for a soothing soak in a hidden pool or to grab a Kubuli beer to calm our nerves, suitably frayed by the jungle drive.
There is just something about the Caribbean that sets it apart, a certain cool, hip, laid back vibe that has you wishing you were twenty again and a beach drifter. The little island of Dominica is such a place, not really discovered yet, a bit like her neighbouring islands were some 50 years ago.
IF YOU GO:
Dominica is officially the Commonwealth of Dominica, a sovereign island country. The capital, Roseau, is located on the leeward side of the island, and is full of marvellous architecture, enthralling history and inviting markets. The island lies south-southeast of Guadeloupe and northwest of Martinique.
LIAT flies to Dominica directly from Barbados, Antigua and San Juan, while Westjet and Air Canada service these gateways. Island hopping from nearby Martinique and Guadeloupe by ferry is also a popular way to access the Nature Island.
Dominica specializes in small personalized service (there are no major chain hotels). For details on accommodation and activities go to www.DiscoverDominica.com
PHOTOS by Jamie Ross (Except #1 Courtesy Discover Dominica)
1. Diving on the Champagne Reef (Courtesy Discover Dominica) 2. The Calypso Witch's Cabin from "Pirate's of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest" on the Indian River 3. The Indian River Boats tied up at The Bush Bar. 4. Kalinago Barana Aute 5. Waterfall at PapilotteTravel Writers' Tales is an independent travel article syndicate that offers professionally written travel articles to newspaper editors and publishers. To check out more, visit www.TravelWritersTales.com
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