Two years on from the most devastating hurricane season, the Nature Island is once more beginning to bloom. And now is the time to visit, says Paul Crask
In September 2017, the category-five Hurricane Maria battered Dominica, causing destruction on a scale never before recorded. Two years later, the country is getting back to normal; there are some homes, businesses and roads that still need fixing up, and there are mental scars that may never heal properly, but Dominica’s road to recovery has been nothing short of miraculous – in fact, some visitors are blissfully unaware of the nightmare many experienced. Most of the tarpaulin roof coverings are now gone, all roads are motorable, the airport and ferry terminal are fully functional, hotels are open for business and new eco-resorts are being constructed.
There is an optimistic purpose to the recovery; one of ‘building back better’, and becoming more resilient to the effects of climate change. In a bold first step along a new path of ecological awareness, Dominica has banned the importation of single-use plastics.
Dominica’s landscape is green once more, though it will take several more years for the rainforest canopy to be dense and lush again. But there is immense beauty in the island’s revival, and its recovering wilderness is still replete with rivers so pure that you can drink from them, towering waterfalls, crater lakes and panoramic vistas of volcanic mountain peaks, rugged coastlines and blissfully untouched sandy coves. It is with good reason that Dominica is known as the ‘Nature Island’ of the Caribbean.
Visiting is great at any time, but October offers particular delights. This is the annual Creole and Independence season, a cultural highlight of the year with displays of traditional bélé dancing and wob dwyet costumes, a feast of seasonal dishes such as crabback, and live music performances culminating in the annual three-night World Creole Music Festival.
Dominica’s Creole culture has its roots in both Africa and France, influencing cooking, dance, music and language (often called patois). Although Dominica was colonised by the British for the longest period of its post-Columbian history, it was the proximity of Guadeloupe to the south and Martinique to the north that advanced the influence of France.
Dominica’s cultural identity is complicated; Amerindian, enslaved African, colonising European and independent West Indian all contributed to a blend that can be rich, beautiful and colourful, conflicted, difficult and confused. But this is also what makes it fascinating and resonant, particularly during festivals, which reach a climax in October. Dominicans like to free up, and this is one of the best times to do it.
So, why not plan a visit? Here’s our guide to the ideal week on the island…
Dominica in seven days
Ease yourself into the Nature Island with a gentle walk around the Cabrits National Park. Established in 1986, this 525-hectare reserve is located on twin volcanic peaks that separate Prince Rupert Bay and Douglas Bay
in northwest Dominica. It is home to the partially restored ruins of the 18th-century Fort Shirley Garrison and includes a marine reserve and ecologically important wetlands. The park has a network of easy walking trails through dry coastal woodland, revealing ghostly remnants of garrison structures such as the commandant’s quarters and cannon emplacements, all of which are gradually being enveloped by ficus (fig) roots and other jungle vines. From the restored officers’ quarters, troop barracks, guardhouse, cannon batteries and powder magazines, you can enjoy sweeping views of sailboats at anchor in Prince Rupert Bay. In May each year, Fort Shirley is the picturesque setting for the climax of Dominica’s annual Jazz and Creole Festival. Following your woodland walk, spend some time on Purple Turtle Beach or at Toucari Bay, where you can enjoy tranquil, shallow-water bathing (both beaches are ideal for kids), as well as beachside food and drink.
Recommended: Madiba Beach Café on Purple Turtle Beach; Keepin It Real bar and restaurant in Toucari
Staying in the north, begin your day with a walk along the otherworldly coastline of Red Rocks at Pointe Baptiste. The best times to visit are early morning and late afternoon, out of the harsh glare of the midday sun, when softer light illuminates the yellows, oranges and reds of this fascinating series of coastal rock formations. Just a short distance from Red Rocks is the Pointe Baptiste Estate where delicious bean-to-bar chocolate is created. After lunch in the lovely coastal village of Calibishie, head to the west coast for a boat ride up the Indian River. Peaceful and teeming with wildlife such as wading birds, iguanas and large mountain mullet, the river is fringed by wetlands, dense forest and mangroves. At journey’s end, check out the rustic bar and gardens (try the dynamite rum punch), and ask your riverboat guide to show you the secluded abode of Tia Dalma – this area was a film location for the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean movie series.
Recommended: Coral Reef Restaurant in Calibishie
Gear up for a couple of days’ hiking in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The elevated village of Laudat is the gateway to several hiking trails in the park. You could begin with the moderately easy loop trail around Freshwater Lake. Located between the peaks of Morne Trois Pitons and Morne Micotrin, the four-hectare lake is surrounded by montane thicket and cloud forest, and the trail enjoys panoramic views of volcanoes and coast. It takes about an hour to complete the walk; if you’re hungry afterwards, head to the visitor centre for Creole food and refreshments. You can also explore the lake by kayak if you are still feeling energetic. From Freshwater Lake it is a short hop to the Middleham Falls trailhead. This two-hour there-and-back hike meanders through rainforest habitat that is still recovering from the hurricane. Although the canopy is no longer as dense as it was, the forest is still lush and beautiful, with plenty of bromeliads, wild anthuriums and tree ferns. The waterfall is one of Dominica’s tallest; clamber down the rocks for a dip in the large pool, or simply enjoy the view from the platform. Alternatively, spend the afternoon relaxing and getting close to nature with a forest-bathing (shinrin-yoku) experience, considered to be a highly effective way to improve physical and mental wellbeing. End the day with a picnic, watching a game of cricket in the Botanical Gardens on the outskirts of Roseau.
Recommended: KHATTS Tours for guided hikes; Live Your Nature for a unique forest-bathing experience
Hike to the Boiling Lake – an exhilarating full-day challenge. From Titou Gorge, pass through rainforest before ascending Morne Nicholls, the highest point of the hike. After a steep descent, walk through the Valley of Desolation, a volcanically active caldera of steaming fumaroles, hot rivers and bubbling mud. The final stretch crosses warm-water rivers with natural hot pools – great for the return leg – and climbs the eastern rim of the crater to the Boiling Lake, a giant flooded fumarole reputed to be the second largest of its kind in the world. Back at Titou Gorge six to eight hours later, take a short swim upriver to a hidden waterfall before heading to the village of Wotten Waven for a muscle-relaxing soak in one of several hot volcanic spas.
Recommended: Just Go Dominica Tours for hiking the Boiling Lake in Morne Trois Pitons National Park; Ti Kwen Glo Cho Hot Springs in Wotten Waven for a hot soak.
Go scuba diving. For beginners, Dominica is a great place for a Discover Scuba try-dive. Inshore waters are calm, the marine life is healthy and abundant, and professional outfits along the west coast offer daily boat diving and PADI training. Because Dominica’s waters are so deep, reefs, walls and pinnacles are all very close to the shore. Experienced divers enjoy abyssal drop-offs, huge barrel sponges, diverse marine critters and super photography opportunities. Turtles and rays are common. Most divers head for the Soufriere-Scotts Head Marine Reserve but there are also great dive sites in the mid-west near Salisbury, and in the north around Cabrits and Toucari Bay. Spend the afternoon taking in some of Dominica’s more accessible ecological sites. Start with magnificent Trafalgar Falls at the head of the Roseau Valley. It is a short and easy walk to the viewing platform from where you can enjoy a view of both waterfalls (known locally as the Mother and the Father). Head inland to the heart of Dominica and take a leisurely walk through recovering rainforest to the idyllic Emerald Pool. End your day relaxing at the mid-west coast community of Mero Beach where there are several good local bars and eateries.
Recommended: Nature Island Dive for scuba diving in Soufriere-Scotts Head Marine Reserve.
Take a canyoning trip. There are several options based on your level of experience. Most novices follow a serpentine route that starts and ends at Titou Gorge, near Laudat. Your canyoning operator will give you a training and safety drill before you head out. All equipment is provided (helmet, wetsuit, buoyancy jacket, rappelling gear) – just bring swimwear and a pair of trainers that you don’t mind getting wet. On your journey through a river canyon you’ll rappel down waterfalls and leap into pools on a trip of between two and four hours depending on group size. For advanced canyoneers there is the mouth-watering prospect of an extended route culminating in a breathtaking rappel down Trafalgar Falls. A good canyoning operator has two guides accompanying you on your trip. Complete your day with a drive down to the southwest fishing communities of Soufriere and Scotts Head where you can enjoy a swim, some easy snorkelling and a delicious lobster or lionfish dinner.
Recommended: Extreme Dominica for canyoning; Chez Wen in Scotts Head for a lobster dinner.
Explore the rugged Atlantic coast, beginning with a short hike along the White River to the magnificent Victoria Falls. River crossings are shallow and there are lovely pools and cascades for bathing. The waterfall can be reached in less than an hour and is one of Dominica’s most spectacular sights. Locate the trailhead at Zion Valley near the village of Delices where Moses James and his family offer guide services as well as an insight into the Rasta way of life. Enjoy some bush tea and ital food before travelling up to the Kalinago Territory where you can learn about the cultural heritage of Dominica’s indigenous people at the Kalinago Barana Auté, a showcase Kalinago village. The Kalinago are descendants of Amerindian people who travelled to and settled in the Caribbean islands before the arrival of colonising Europeans. They are known for inherited bushcraft skills such as fishing, canoe building and basket weaving. Try some cassava bread, often cooked roadside, and browse indigenous craft stalls found in most of the Territory’s welcoming villages.
Recommended: Islet View near Castle Bruce for dinner and one of Rudy’s bush rum infusions
WHERE TO STAY
• Veranda View: Colourful B&B right by the Atlantic near Calibishie (www.verandaviewdominica.com)
• Villa Vista: Attractive three-bedroom retreat above Hodges Bay (www.villavistadominica.com)
• Bayview Lodges: Self-contained apartments overlooking Hodges Bay (search on Facebook)
• Hibiscus Valley Inn: Rustic rainforest bungalows along the Pagua River (www.hibiscusvalley.com)
• Villa Passiflora: Exquisitely designed villa and cottage – the perfect private retreat (www.villapassiflora.com)
• Fort Young Hotel: Luxury meets adventure on the coast at Roseau (www.fortyounghotel.com)
• Bluemoon Cottage: Cosy two-bed house and studio amid tropical gardens above the Roseau Valley (www.bluemooncottagedominica.com)
• Charlotte Valley Estate: Pretty 1920s homestead at the edge of the forest, within walking distance of Roseau (www.charlotteestatebnb.com)
• Citrus Creek Plantation: Excellent riverside ecolodge on the island’s wild east coast (www.citruscreekplantation.com)
• Banana Lama Eco Cottages: Three sustainability-focused, architecturally incredible chalets near Rosalie (www.bananalamaecovilla.com)
• Tamarind Tree: Clifftop hotel in the middle of the west coast, with impressive views (www.tamarindtreedominica.com)
• Sunset Bay Club: Comfortable spot amid lush gardens on Batalie Bay (www.sunsetbayclub.com)
• Secret Bay: Intimate, award-winning eco-luxe resort in the northwest (www.secretbay.dm)