A visit to Dominica (pronounced Do-min-EE-kah) promises to be unlike any other Caribbean island you’ve visited. Prepare to slow down, take in the scenery, breathe fresh air like you haven’t breathed in years, sample fruit right off the trees and experience nature in a way you can only do in a few places on earth. This “Nature Island” is 29 by 16 miles of rain forest, dense lush vegetation, waterfalls, freshwater pools and bubbling hot springs from the active underwater volcanoes surrounding the island. It’s easy to spend a few days here and never see a beach — or at least a sandy one.
On our visit, we learned why producers selected Dominica as the backdrop for parts of the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies. As you drive the coastline on roads hacked out of the mountainside, jagged edges plunge into the ocean with mango trees and ginger root cascading down into the sea. And as you take the valley roads inland, you’ll be awed by the utter majesty of the unspoiled nature rising up around you like a cathedral.
The island has a lot to offer, not just in what it does have — but also in what it doesn’t. There are no chain hotels, big-box mega-stores or ubiquitous restaurant brands. Locals have fought to keep it that way, too, and so the island remains untouched. Originally populated by the Carib tribe of Indians in the 1800’s, the French and British fought for control of the island. If you glance at a map of the island, it’s clear by the town names that the French populated the South (Roseau, Soufriere) while the British occupied the North (Portsmouth). Eventually, the British conquered the French portion of the island and maintained control until 1978 when Dominica gained independence. The island still has a Carib population of about 3,000 people; they occupy a northeastern corner of the island. A drive through this “Carib Territory” will give you a glimpse into life as it was for the native inhabitants a century ago and as it still is today.
Dominica has survived with a predominantly agriculture-based economy, though in recent years the banana trade has suffered thanks to changes in trade subsidies. Tourism also remains strong, with Dominica attracting a stream of naturalists who flock to the island to see 172 types of birds, 12 major waterfalls and peaks that rise to 5,000 feet. Divers and whale watchers also come in hordes to explore the waters that plunge to nearly 6,000 feet right off the coastline, providing an ideal base for seven types of whales that can be seen nearly year-round.
No matter when you visit, the temperature on the island hovers around a moderate 77 degrees, although it’s cooler in the mountains, humid in the rain forest and warmer on the coast. The driest months are January through April, but don’t be surprised if you experience a brief downpour every day.
What to See
Hiking and swimming are the number one activities on this gorgeous island. Go for a hike through rain forests or valleys that end in sparkling freshwater pools. You can choose your hike based on the level of difficulty. Suggestions include:
Easy: A 15-minute trail in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park leads to the Emerald Pool, complete with a 50-foot waterfall plunging into a freshwater pool for swimming.
More Difficult: Another 15-minute walk through the rain forest in the Roseau River Valley leads to the twin Trafalgar Falls and swimming pool. In certain areas you’ll have to climb over boulders, which can be challenging, especially when they’re slippery.
Challenging: For a day-long adventure, this is undoubtedly the most impressive site on Dominica. Hire a guide to take you to Boiling Lake. This two- to four-hour hike (each way) leads you to a steaming water-filled crater with temperatures believed to reach 197 degrees Fahrenheit. The lake is actually a crack in a volcanic crater through which gases escape from the molten lava below.
Morne Diablotin National Park is named for Dominica’s highest peak, Morne Diablotin, which rises almost 5,000 feet above sea level. It’s in this park that you have the best chance of spotting the rare Sisserou parrot, the green and purple bird that can only be found on Dominica. Bring binoculars for other bird watching.
One of the most impressive remnants of the Royal Navy in the Caribbean, this old fort in Cabrits National Park housed over 700 men in its day.
For a snorkeling adventure, head to Scotts Head Marine Reserve at the southern tip of the island. Next to the town of Soufriere, this reserve offers a chance to snorkel on top of an underwater cauldron that’s still bubbling up warm water.
Book a guide for an Indian River boat ride. This is one of the island’s best bird-watching spots. To arrange for a guide, stop by the Portsmouth Visitor Center.
Take a driving tour of the Carib Territory, home to the native Dominican Indian tribe. Nestled in the northeastern corner of the island, the tribe — now about 3,000 strong — farms and produces handcrafted items that you can get at nearby shops. Visit the Kalinago Barana Aute, a model Carib village where you can learn about the life and history of the tribe.
Active travelers should sign up with Wacky Rollers for river tubing, kayaking, a visit to an outdoor adventure park or a Jeep safari ride. You can contact the company directly or book through your hotel or cruise ship.
Don’t worry if you’re not up for hiking. You can still experience all the rain forest has to offer by coasting above the treetops in your own tram. The Dominica Aerial Tram package from Rainforest Adventures Dominica includes a ride through the rain forest canopy, the services of a naturalist guide, a walking tour and a complimentary drink.
The Anchorage Hotel offers boat trips several times a week to see the local humpback whales, sperm whales and orcas that love Dominica’s deep offshore waters. You’ll also spot dolphins, turtles and seabirds along the way.
Dominica is not the best Caribbean island for beaches, but sun worshipers won’t be bereft during their visit. On the west coast of the island just north of Roseau is Champagne Beach, which gets its name from the volcanic vents that are still spitting bubbles up from fissures in the ocean floor. The narrow Scotts Head Beach, on the southernmost tip of the island, fronts both the Atlantic (the waves can be rough — be careful of currents) and the Caribbean (more gentle, this side of the beach is ideal for snorkeling).
Roseau, Dominica’s colorful and crowded capital city, is home to the small Dominica Museum, where you can learn about the history, geology and culture of the island. There’s also a botanical garden where you can wander among fragrant tropical flowers and keep an eye out for the rare Sisserou parrot. You can also make the 15- to 20-minute climb to the top of Morne Bruce, where you can enjoy some sweeping views over the city and out to sea.
Sore from hiking? You can bathe your aching muscles in the hot springs of Wotten Waven. A few places to take a indulge yourself include Tia’s Bamboo Cottages or Screw’s Sulfur Spas.
Where to Eat in Dominica
Dominica’s Creole-influenced cuisine relies on locally sourced fish, chicken, fruits and vegetables. One meal you’ll see on nearly every menu (and one that’s a reliable option for travelers on a budget) is stewed chicken, rice, beans and provision (a local root vegetable); it’s often called the “chicken lunch” or “local lunch.” You can find it everywhere from nicer restaurants to roadside food stands. During quieter times of the year, many restaurants may only open for dinner by appointment — call or stop by ahead of time to be sure.
For an authentic Dominican meal set in the middle of the rain forest, Papillote is not to be missed. A restaurant, guesthouse and gift store are located at the head of the Roseau River Valley, just yards from the trail to Trafalgar Falls. The restaurant features fish specials as well as local specialties like callalou soup. Try the soup with the “local lunch,” which changes each day but always features island-sourced fruits and vegetables, like dasheen and plantain as sides. The freshly squeezed juices are delicious.
For fine dining overlooking the sea, try the Waterfront Restaurant at the Fort Young Hotel in Roseau. The Creole-influenced cuisine emphasizes fresh seafood and local vegetables, but you’ll also find imports such as steak.
In Roseau there are several excellent restaurants offering local Creole cuisine. Among them are Guiyave and Pearl’s Cuisine. Both offer freshly caught fish prepared in Creole style and delicious fruit and vegetable juices.
For cheap eats in the Portsmouth area, try the laid-back Purple Turtle Beach Club. The view at this beach-front bar and restaurant is fantastic, the food less so (though the chicken lunch special was tasty enough and quite affordable).
If you need a change from stewed chicken and rice, check out the Asian fusion offerings at Escape Beach Bar & Grill — part of the Red Rock Haven Hotel near Calibishie. The restaurant overlooks Pointe Baptiste Beach and offers dishes like seared tuna over wasabi mashed potatoes.
Where to Stay in Dominica
If you’re looking for familiar chains or splashy mega-resorts, choose another island. Dominica’s accommodations largely consist of small guesthouses, cottages, rain forest lodges and independent hotels. Because of the lack of mass tourism, rates here are extremely affordable. When choosing where to stay, keep in mind that getting around this small island can be more time-consuming than you’d expect (roads are narrow, mountainous and often riddled with potholes). To save time, book a stay close to the attractions you most want to visit.
Guests at the Papillote Wilderness Retreat can bathe in mineral pools, wander through vibrant tropical gardens and enjoy a location just down the road from one of Dominica’s most popular waterfalls (Trafalgar). Rooms offer rain forest views and are enlivened with colorful flowers from Papillote’s gardens. The on-site restaurant offers excellent local lunches and fresh-squeezed tropical juices.
In Roseau, the 71-room Fort Young Hotel overlooks the waterfront and incorporates the remains of an 18th-century fort (built by the French and overtaken by the British). On-site amenities include a gym, a spa, a swimming pool, a business center and duty-free shops. The hotel works with local tour operators to organize snorkeling and diving trips, whale watching excursions, and adventure trips to the island’s most popular attractions.
Comfortel de Champ is a basic but comfortable option in the Portsmouth area, overlooking Prince Rupert Bay. (Enjoy a drink and a fantastic sunset nightly at the bar.) Nice perks include free Wi-Fi throughout the building and mini-fridges in each of the five rooms. The owners have adopted several eco-friendly practices such as solar panels and rain water collection.
You’ll find a veranda with sweeping ocean views in each of the 10 guestrooms at Beau Rive, located in the densely forested hills of the island’s east coast. Eco-friendly policies are emphasized here, including solar-heated hot water, locally sourced ingredients in the restaurant and chemical-free compost in the garden. Children under 16 are not permitted at Beau Rive.
Serious hikers won’t find a better location than Roxy’s Mountain Lodge, which offers easy access to the Boiling Lake, Middleham Falls, Titou Gorge and Freshwater Lake hiking trails. Rooms are rustic but clean, and most look out over a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains and rain forest. Breakfast and dinner are available here for an extra fee; the kitchen will also pack bag lunches for hikers.
Where to Shop
Shopping opportunities on Dominica are fairly limited. Your best bet is downtown Roseau, which offers a local fruit and vegetable market that many say is the best in the Caribbean, as well as local arts and crafts stalls in the Old Market Plaza. There are also several duty-free shops here, such as Cocorico and Jewellers International (the latter is at the Fort Young Hotel).
For handmade crafts, head to the Carib Territory, where you can find locally made baskets, pottery, and artwork made from coconuts and calabash gourds.
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–written by Amanda Orr and Sarah Schlichter