Dominica is the Caribbean's secret jewel
By Linda Tagliaferro
Tucked away in between Martinique and Guadeloupe, the boldly beautiful island of Dominica beckons you with its wealth of natural wonders. Few tourists know this stunning, unspoiled Caribbean island, with its waterfalls, lush rainforests, year-round whale watching, and cloud-covered mountain peaks that rise out of the sea to nearly 5,000 feet.
Often called "The Nature Island of the Caribbean," Dominica is perfect for visitors seeking a tranquil vacation filled with breathtaking views, exotic birds, blue-green vegetation and black, volcanic sand beaches. An added bonus is that this relatively undiscovered destination is also one of the Caribbean's best travel bargains. Hotels and restaurants here cost much less than those on neighboring islands.
Dominica also offers a unique cultural experience. It's the last place in the world where the indigenous people of the Caribbean live. On the East Coast, you can visit the Carib Territory, where about 3,000 Carib Indians still practice the skills handed down to them by their forebears. Here you can purchase traditionally-woven baskets, and if you're lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of some strong men working on a dugout canoe made from the trunk of a gommier tree, crafted in the same way that their seafaring ancestors built them thousands of years ago.
The island is like a 29-mile wide botanical garden. Everywhere you look, there are lush mountainsides punctuated with wildly colorful flowers. There are more than one thousand different species of plants in this Caribbean paradise, including countless types of orchids, as well as the exotic Angel Trumpet - a large, gracefully curving pale orange flower that measures about six inches in length.
You're not likely to go hungry during your visit, but chances are you'll work up an appetite viewing all the fruit trees on the island. There are avocados, bananas, papayas and 21 different varieties of mangos. Breadfruit trees yield a large, yellow-green skinned fruit that locals cook into delectable croquettes.
The thick leaves of the dasheen plant are made into a tasty green soup called callaloo, which is not to be missed. One of Dominica's staples, the roots of the plant are also eaten. Round and ripe calabashes are made into a spicy orange "pumpkin" soup, another island favorite.
There are hiking opportunities for every level of energy and expertise. Take a leisurely stroll to Emerald Pool, where a waterfall feeds a deep green basin that invites swimmers to cool off in its tranquil waters. To reach the pool, you'll walk through parts of Morne Trois Pitons National Park and marvel at the towering trees and delicate orchids that you'll see along the way.
For highly experienced hikers, there's an all-day trek to the Boiling Lake, a volcano-heated body of water that resembles a bubbling witch's cauldron, and is reached by a strenuous walk through the Valley of Desolation.
If you'd rather not hike, you can view the lush landscape from the comfort of a rowboat on the Indian River. For $12 per person, you'll spend one or two hours on this calm body of water, while your capable guide rows you slowly through a vista of fern trees, swamp bloodwood trees, and other greenery dotted with deep red and pink hibiscus flowers. Fish dart through the water as your boat floats lazily by.
You might think twice about driving on the island. Not only is the traffic on the left side, but the meandering mountain roads are narrow and challenging, and there are no traffic lights. Luckily, it's easy enough to hire a taxi with an experienced Dominican driver for about $18 an hour, or take one of the inexpensive buses that run throughout the island.
Your best bet is to sightsee with one of the island's tour guides. Ken's Hinterland Adventure Tours & Taxi Service (www.kenshinterlandtours.com) offers experienced guides who will pick you up at your hotel and escort you through a number of adventures ranging in price from $25 for a bird watching tour to $40 for village and coastline sightseeing.
Dominica is definitely a bird watcher's paradise. There are two rare species of colorful parrots found nowhere else in the world. In the Syndicate Rainforest Nature Trail in Morne Diablotin National Park, you'll catch glimpses of the island's national bird, the Sisserou or Imperial parrot, the Jaco or Red-necked parrot, and the more than fifty other types of bird that live in the park.
On the way to Middleham Falls, where a thundering stream of water cascades 300 feet into a pristine pool, you'll hear a symphony of birdsong, including the haunting notes of the rufous-throated solitaire, a small gray bird with a bright red throat, and the cooing of the red-necked pigeon. The island also boasts a wide variety of birds, including the blue-headed and purple-throated hummingbirds that flit from flower to flower.
There are also natural wonders beneath Dominica's surrounding waters. With steep drops and colorful coral reefs, the island is one of the best diving spots in the Caribbean. Snorkelers and scuba divers will find countless underwater locations with spectacular views. Dominica's abundant underwater sites include a spectacular diversity of marine life - multihued corals and yellow and orange sponges, schools of almost 200 species of fish, seahorses, electric rays, Caribbean reef squid and sea urchins.
Year-round whale watching excursions will bring you face-to-fin with 18 species of whales and dolphins, including sperm whales and humpback whales, spotted, spinner, striped and bottlenose dolphins. Tour operators like Dive Dominica (www.divedominica.com) use an instrument called a hydrophone, which is basically an underwater microphone, to listen for the whales' clicks and plaintive underwater melodies that can be heard as far away as seven miles. Although there are no guarantees for whale sightings (the whales aren't under contract), there's about an 85 percent chance of seeing these gentle marine giants in Dominica's calm waters.
Excitement runs high when the boat takes off in the direction of the sound and passengers cry out, "I see it!" Huge spouts of water from the whales' blowholes rhythmically shoot to the surface. Finally, the dark gray back of an immense mother sperm whale comes into view alongside the smaller form of her calf. Suddenly, the mother's back curves upward, and with a dramatic flourish, her tail goes skyward and out of the water, and she disappears below the waves.
The curious whale calf, however, is intrigued by the shape of the boat and circles it, trying to make sense of this odd floating object. After a while, the young whale has seen enough, and, with a flip of its tail, descends to join its mother.
Accommodations on Dominica run the gamut from cozy guests houses ($30 to $135 per person per night) to hotels like the Anchorage Hotel & Dive Center (www.delphis.dm/anchor.htm) for $85 to $175 per person per night to the luxurious Fort Young Hotel (www.fortyounghotel.com) in Roseau, Dominica's capital ($80 to $250 per person per night). There are romantic hide-a-ways like Exotica (www.exotica-cottages.com), a remote, private cluster of spacious cottages in the mountains for $99 to $140, and Papillote Wilderness Retreat, set in a rainforest just a 15-minute walk from Trafalgar Falls for $80 to $215 (www.papilotte.dm).
There are beachfront properties like the Picard Beach Cottage Resort, (www.delphis.dm/picard.htm) at the foot of the island's highest mountain, Morne Diablotin. The resort faces a black sand beach with sapphire-blue water where you can swim, snorkel or kayak. Prices range from $120 to $180 for cottages with bedrooms and kitchen facilities.
Wherever you stay on this enchanted island, you'll be greeted by warm, hospitable people. You'll be surrounded by towering peaks carpeted in green, and you'll see rainbows nearly every day. So pack your bags, take along a sense of adventure, and treat yourself to this hidden Caribbean wonder.
Getting There: Although there are no non-stop flights to Dominica, you can easily reach the island by flying BWIA to Antigua, St. Martin or St. Lucia, and then taking a local carrier to Dominica. American Airlines flies to Puerto Rico, where you board an American Eagle plane. Air Jamaica flies to Barbados, and then connects with E.C. Express Airlines.
Climate: Average temperature is a pleasant 80 degrees. The sun shines almost every day, but you'll need an umbrella for rainforest walks.
Best Times to Visit: November through May. (June through October is hurricane season in the Caribbean.)
Language: English (with a charming lilt) is the official language. Creole and French patois are also spoken.
Money Matters: The official currency is the Eastern Caribbean dollar, but the U.S. dollar is widely accepted.
Electrical System: You'll need a transformer and an adapter for U.S. appliances.
Entry Requirements: Proof of citizenship with a photo, and a return ticket.
Water: Yes, you can drink the water. You'd pay for water this pure anywhere else.
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