Dominica: The Nature Island of the Caribbean

Rich with pristine tropical rainforest, vibrant wildlife, imposing volcanic mountains and idyllic waterfalls, the mysterious island of Dominica is a real hidden gem in the Caribbean. A broccoli-like canopy and striking mountainous terrain dominated the view out of my window as the tour bus travelled inland. 

trafalgar falls, dominica

Beautiful bursts of reddish-orange African Tulips, aptly referred to as Flame of the Forest, broke up the verdant landscape with colourful character.

We were heading towards Morne Trois Pitons National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of three national parks in Dominica. Leaving the alluring azure Caribbean Sea behind us, I was eager to explore the rainforest. Before long we were walking amid the trees, following a short trail to Trafalgar Falls. These stunning twin waterfalls, also known as the Father and Mother Falls, could be appreciated from a lookout point that framed the perfect picture. The bright midday sun illuminated the cascading water and surrounding foliage, while the rock face brought earthy grey and brown hues to the scene. 

Considerably harder to photograph was the speedy little black hummingbird seen darting between tropical flowers as we followed the path back. With frantically flapping wings, it elegantly leaned forward with a long narrow arched beak to lap up nectar. I poised with my camera, but the swift bird disappeared in a split second. This rigmarole occurred several times before I finally managed to capture an image. It is easy to appreciate why Dominica is known as the Nature Isle of the Caribbean. This largely unspoiled island is home to numerous rare birds, plants and animals including a boa constrictor subspecies known as the boa constrictor nebulosa or Dominican cloud boa.

hummingbird in dominica

As we were in transit, our bus guide found amusement in winding up us gullible British tourists with tall tales about these reclusive reptiles, famous for strangling their prey before devouring it whole, along with the locals’ supposed fondness for cat meat.  “If you leave your neighbour to look after a fat cat when you’re away, don’t expect to see them when you return,” she said with a charismatic chuckle. On a more down to earth note, she admitted having never encountered a boa, despite living on a farm for many years. She also added that she had never eaten cat and actually had a feline of her own: a black moggy named Ginger. 

“Unlike more developed locations in the Caribbean, mountains and trees dominate the skyline instead of characterless swathes of soaring chain hotels.”

I was charmed by Dominica from the start. Whereas many other destinations in these parts are associated with sun-kissed beaches, Dominica’s appeal stems more from its largely unspoiled rainforest featuring heavenly pools and gorgeous gushing waterfalls. This stunning island in the Lesser Antilles is very much in its infancy as a tourist destination. Unlike more developed locations in the Caribbean, mountains and trees dominate the skyline instead of characterless swathes of soaring chain hotels. A large proportion of visitors arrive on cruise ships. Despite having two airports and a cruise port, the infrastructure has a limited capacity and there are no direct flights from the UK. However, an increasing amount of people, despite usually only sailing in for the day, are being enchanted by Dominica’s enigmatic character and mysterious edge.

mountains in dominica

Surrounded by so much lushness and moisture in the rainforest, it was hard to imagine the harsh volatile landscape of the Valley of Desolation a short distance away. Befitting its name, this greyed sulphurous environment, featuring steam vents, mud pots and hot springs, was created by a volcanic eruption in 1880. Besides a minor steam explosion here in 1997, no other eruptions have been recorded in Dominica’s recent history. In fact, geologists estimate that the last major eruption would have taken place around 500 years ago.

A popular, yet challenging, way to take in this moonscape is on a 13km round-trip hike to another of the island’s volcanically-active sights within the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, Boiling Lake. This flooded fumarole is the second largest hot lake in the world after the Frying Pan Lake in Rotorua, New Zealand. With a whopping nine volcanoes, one of the highest concentrations on Earth, the skyline has a positively towering scale. The tallest of these impressive peaks, at a soaring 4,747 feet, is Mount Diablotins to the north of the island. Spectacular volcanic craters and imposing walls underwater contribute to Dominica’s reputation as a world-class diving location. 

emerald pool, dominica
While there were plenty of hot springs to be found, a more refreshing dip awaited us at the considerably cooler Emerald Lake. Nestled in a tranquil setting, this lovely lagoon-like grotto could not have looked more inviting. As we wound our way down a series of steps, the water revealed itself with sparkling splendour. The sun shot through gaps in the canopy, spotlighting the surface with its rays. Carefully clambering down rocks, I slowly submerged myself; my baked skin immediately soothed and freshened by the surrounding cushion of coolness.

I treaded further out, carefully navigating the unsmooth rocks and pebbles under my feet before swimming closer towards a majestic waterfall for an invigorating shower. After this rejuvenating bathe, we took a slight detour to a spot looking out to the west coast. Behind an impenetrable treescape, the Atlantic Ocean merged with the sky in the sun’s strong afternoon haze. Christopher Columbus was the first known European to land here in the 15th century. He named it Dominica, ‘Sunday’ in Latin, to mark the day the island was spotted. Centuries passed before the British and French started settling.

Plantations cropped up by the turn of the 18th century and, after the British took control from the French in 1763, a conquest made at the end of the Seven Years’ War, the trans-Atlantic slave trade got underway and many thousands of Africans were shipped over. Dominica became a hub for the trading of slaves to neighbouring French colonies such as Guadeloupe and St Lucia. Slavery was not officially abolished here until 1838 and Emancipation Day is celebrated every year on the first Monday in August. Dominica gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1978 and is now a self-governing nation within the Commonwealth.

azure caribbean sea

Many of the Carib people, who had lived in Dominica and across the Caribbean for thousands of years, perished from diseases brought over from Europe, such as smallpox. Others were killed by colonialists. But Dominica is unique in that there is still a thriving Carib community of around 3,000 today, located in a reserve to the north east. Many attempts by the settlers to take back this land failed as the Carib people, often supported by runaway slaves, resolutely defended the terrain. 

Although the Carib Territory was isolated for many years, the emergence of tourism has presented opportunities for people to discover this heritage. Traditional Carib villages form part of the new Waitukubuli National Trail – a 115-mile long distance route covering the length of the island. Named after the Carib Indian name for Dominica, this path is split into 14 sections and is designed to help sell Dominica as an ideal hiking destination. Escape passages once used by slaves and the remains of historic estates are featured, along with an abundance of natural beauty within the mountainous rainforest. 

roseau, dominica

Colourful colonial architecture, mixed with modern buildings, was appreciated earlier in the day when we briefly stopped off at the Morne Bruce viewpoint overlooking the capital city, Roseau. At 300 metres above sea level, this former fort provided a spectacular panorama of the vibrant pattern of roofs below. To the right was the Windsor Park sports stadium that hosts a wide array of events ranging from cricket matches to the World Creole Music Festival and Miss Dominica beauty pageant. Nothing stood out more, though, than the beautiful Caribbean Sea backdrop.

Before leaving Roseau, we passed through the Botanical Gardens. While this area now appeared to be flourishing with tropical flowers and exotic plants, a flattened school bus could be seen squashed under a tree – a clear reminder of the extensive damage caused by the Category 5 Hurricane David in 1979.

squashed school bus in dominica

We were quickly informed that the vehicle was empty when the tree fell, but numerous ancient trees were destroyed and there was devastation across the island, making this an event etched into the minds of many Dominicans. After a day spent wandering through the rainforest, admiring waterfalls, swimming in a stunning pool and appreciating the generally breathtaking scenery, I was sad to be sailing away into the sunset. Out of several islands I visited during an Eastern Caribbean cruise, Dominica was the most fascinating. I plan on returning for a longer trip someday and only hope its unspoiled character remains intact.

Do you like the sound of Dominica? Have you been here?

 

2 Comments

  1. Rita
    August 18, 2013 / 15:46

    Sounds wonderful. You must have had a great guide. Was he local? Do you have any info you can pass along? Thanks.

    • August 19, 2013 / 20:28

      Yes, the guide was local. I wish I noted down her name! It was a tour booked through P&O Cruises called Dominica’s Favourites.