Brushed by bounty, swathed in sunshine, wrapped by azure water, with rainforest and mountains everywhere. Dominica is the Caribbean’s best-kept adventure secret.
Story by Delano Lavigne, Photos by Jimmy Martinello/Outpost Travel Media
My alarm rings quietly as I lie awake at the early predawn hour of 3:30 a.m. I gently roll out of bed and pack the few remaining items, including a perfectly overripe mango, into my bag and step outside under a moonlit sky. There’s an hour before I have to leave for the airport, and although general logic would dictate an extra hour of sleep, I’m more compelled to enjoy an extra hour with my feet half buried in black and silver sand, listening to the Caribbean Sea amble onto shore.
I walk a few metres along the beach, just enough to gain a reasonable distance from my rustic bungalow, and feel more fully immersed in my surroundings, stretching my gaze far across the calm waters, watching the waning moon slowly fall towards a seemingly endless horizon.
My thoughts travel, like the light of the moon, beyond what my eyes can see, and I imagine myself floating high above the beach like an orbiting satellite, observing and conscientiously witnessing the unique geographical and historical beauty of the location.
I become aware of the fact that I’m standing on the shores of a sea that stretches from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the coast of Venezuela, making it more than 2,500,000 square kilometres in size, even as my academic self revels in the idea that it contains no less than 25 countries; a smorgasbord of island nations, continental countries and dependent territories, it’s a veritable foreign-relations chessboard.
And we are here—or more pointedly, in the magnificent Caribbean island country of Dominica—to explore as many adventure opportunities as possible.
From my imaginary orbiting observatory I “see” myself standing on the eastern reaches of the sea, where more than a baker’s dozen of small islands are linked together like marching ants, and momentarily connect to the deep history of this particular island: to Christopher Columbus, who is said to have “sighted it” in 1493 on a Sunday (hence its name: diēs Dominica is Latin for “the Lord’s Day” and Domenica is Italian for Sunday) and was futile in his attempts to conquer it; to Europe’s polemic colonial past here that began in 1627 and lasted until Dominican independence in 1978.
It feels like no other place on earth I have visited thus far—and I’ve been to a lot of places!—and I am awestruck by both its natural and historical wealth, feel overwhelmed by its candid beauty. I also feel confused, and grateful, that a paradise such as this exists and is relatively absent of overdevelopment.
The ubiquity of beach resort hotels on island nations is a notion dispelled by Dominica’s tempered on-island tourist development. (Funny fact: it’s pronounced “Dom-in-EEK-ah.”) Don’t get me wrong—tourism, especially cruise-ship tourism, is as commonplace here as it is elsewhere in the Eastern Caribbean. And the on-island tourism opportunities—from lodging to food to day and overnight activities—are extensive. They are however, markedly different than those of neighbouring islands; they are uniquely Dominican.
There is little reason to doubt why Dominica is called “Nature’s Island” (and it is)—although at first, I admit, I interpreted the moniker with the supercilious cynicism of a self-proclaimed veteran backpacker to be little more than an unconvincing marketing tactic that was more cliché than truth.
But after days of exploring the island with my Team Outpost colleagues, I can say we have been humbled by its stunningly natural beauty, and how the land itself reigns here—the population is only about 68,900, and tourism is one of its top industries.
Our journey to Dominica began with a window-crowding flight. Jimmy, Zach and I took turns pressing our noses against the always too-small plane window, trying to guess at which island Dominica was as we flew over the emerald waters of the Caribbean. “Is that Dominica? No wait! Is that Dominica?” Until finally, out of the clouds, came an island more mountainous than any we had seen, and at which point we knew we had arrived.
Our first stop on the island was at Rosalie Bay, a shallow cove along the sometimes turbulent and windblown shores of the northeastern Atlantic coast of the country. When we arrived the sky was grey and seemed to threaten rain, which we later learned was often the case on the eastern side of the island, especially during hurricane season.
Rosalie Bay, along with Petit Soufrière Bay just to the north and a short list of small towns along the east coast, is the first stop for storms rolling off the Atlantic Ocean. Save for the Cape Verde islands off the coast of Senegal, there is only open water between the western coasts of Africa and the eastern shores of Dominica, exposing Rosalie Bay to the force of Atlantic storms—though not all storms are hurricanes, which only hit directly here about once every 10 years.
This geographical and climatic reality became clear to us when we attempted to enjoy our first Caribbean swim. But like three Canadian goslings ready for their first swim yet unsure of their new surroundings, we waded into the deep blue waters of the vibrant Atlantic but were effortlessly pushed back by thick waves of red and black seaweed.
Unfazed yet euphemistically educated, we settled for a quick saltwater rinse and moved on, feeling satisfied with our first genuine Dominica experience.
The next two days were spent exploring Dominica’s unique offerings, which included two of the trip’s highlights: Aba Wavine Cyrique and the Kalinago reserve.
Aba Wavine Cyrique is a spectacular waterfall, one of only a few that drops directly into the ocean. To get to the falls we hiked amid wonderfully fragrant cinnamon, bay leaf, star fruit and mango trees. The trail passed stilted houses, where we came across a father and his young daughter peeling the bark from a cinnamon tree branch in a three-walled lean-to.
The trail continued for a short while, before dropping almost vertically to the beach below. Using a maze of ropes and roots we monkey-barred our way to the black-sand beach below, and were rewarded with an incredible view of a 100-foot waterfall spilling into crashing Atlantic waves.
The next few hours were spent climbing along the naturally cobblestoned walls of the beach, catching freshwater showers from the water falling from high above and experiencing the unusual and taste-enhancing effect of what is commonly called “miracle fruit”—a small red berry you suck that has the pleasant aftereffect of masking all sour-tasting flavours for about an hour, making everything you eat taste sweet or sugar-like. (Some people think miracle fruit should actually replace refined sugar in our Western diet.)
Eventually and reluctantly we leave the serene seclusion of the Aba Wavine Cyrique and climbed back up and into the thick forest of tropical trees.
Passing back along the trail we came across the same father and daughter harvesting cinnamon in the lean-to, and this time were graciously invited to sit with them. In broken but friendly English they shared with us their simple and well-practiced method of curing cinnamon. We sat with them and watched in fearless wonder as the girl, who looked to be no more than seven years old, skinned the outer layer of bark from a branch using a 10-inch blade. Within a few minutes the father was breaking open fresh papaya and mango, adamantly offering us fresh cinnamon to take home with us.
This is life in Dominica—mangoes so abundant you can pluck them as you trek, papaya so fresh even a dull knife can slice one like butter.
From there we hiked north along roads and coastal trails toward the 3,700-acre reserve, the Kalinago Territory, the formal home of Dominica’s Carib population—the only pre-Columbian Indigenous people remaining in the entire Eastern Caribbean islands.
Officially established in 1903 under a British mandate, the territory is a rugged stretch of mountainous land that is home to approximately 3,000 Kalinago. Small wooden and bamboo houses line the narrow road that passes through the reserve and to the community working to maintain its identity and support a local economy. Alongside the many fruit stands that we had learned were common for an island replete with the bounty of an Eden were roadside stands filled with carvings, basket weavings and the delicate beadwork of local Kalinago artisans.
At the end of our hike we visited a well-maintained traditional Kalinago settlement, which though slightly manicured gave us the opportunity to experience authentic Indigenous traditions like cassava root bread spiced with coconut and ginger, and so support the preservation of the Indigenous culture. [Editor’s note: In these photos above (face painting), our guide was Peter Green, from Peter Green Bushman Tours in Dominica. Here’s some info on him, and you can check out his Facebook page for more photos and contact info.]
The following day we moved away from the coast and took our first steps into Dominica’s lush tropical rainforests.
Our first of three explorations into the heart of the island began with a hike along the stunning Waitukubuli National Trail and toward the picturesque freshwater pools of Middleham Falls. Waitukubuli, in the native language of the Kalinago, means “tall like her body” and was the original name of the island before Columbus supplanted it. The original name does the island much greater justice because it reflects its uniquely mountainous terrain as compared to its relatively flat-island neighbours.
The entire trail—which is said to be the first (and best) long-distance walking trail in the Caribbean—is 184 kilometres long (about 115 miles) and winds its way through coastal areas, local villages, rainforest and national parks, including Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As we made our way to Middleham Falls (which is actually in Morne), we trekked elevations that accumulated to about 4,000 metres and took us over deep gorges and pristine streams. The hike was undeniably beautiful, and the magnificence of the forest never ceased to impress—the magnitude of its abundance was in fact, at times overwhelming.
We, or at least I, had never visited an environment that offered so much bounty—Dominica has more forest-clad land than most islands in the Caribbean, and, according to the WWF, more than 50 species of birds (including parrots; birdwatching is big here), at least a thousand species of flowering plants, and about 60 woody plants and tree species per hectare!
The sheer volume of fruits, herbs, spices and medicinal plants left the impression that if ever there were a place to be marooned on a deserted island it would be in Dominica, and in this place. Above that we were told there are no poisonous plants, animals (neither snakes nor spiders!), insects or bugs to worry about. And at that I decided that if ever our Western economic and political structure collapses into some apocalyptic chaos, my best chance for survival would be here!
The impressions and memorable moments from the forest continued into the next day as we made an eight-hour hike across the island’s second highest peak and toward its famed “boiling lake”—apparently the second hottest lake on the planet! We tasted wild watercress, lit the sap of the gommier tree, picked wild ginger and painted our faces with the tricoloured clay of the Valley of Desolation.
Yet the most memorable moment of the day was not the fresh plucked mango, the blue waxflower or the literally boiling lake of sulfur-rich water. The most memorable moment was the discovery of a rock-carved rainforest lagoon gorge at the very end of our trek.
Hidden only a few metres from our trail we noticed a tropical pool that led behind us to a narrow row of 10- to 30-metre-high cliffs, coloured green from moss, and that dropped straight down into turquoise coloured water. The gorge was no wider than 10 feet across, and almost instantly reminded me of the famed sandstone walls that lead into Petra; but rather than red sand there is blue water, and after eight hours of tropical trekking we barely hesitated and dove right in.
The lagoon snaked into the cliff walls more than 50 metres back, before churning into white froth from the spillover of double-stacked waterfalls. It felt almost impossible to have found such a beautiful place. I felt, as one does when they have become privy to one of nature’s secrets, humbled by the simplicity of the natural world.
From the rainforest we travelled west to the small and compact capital city of Roseau and its wonderfully vibrant Saturday market. As early as 5:30 in the morning Dominicans from all over Saint George Parish—Dominica is divided into 10 administrative districts called parishes—made their way to Roseau’s Old Market Square. Located directly on the seafront the square was once the location for all major trading between Dominica and its neighbouring islands, including everything from commodities to slaves. I even heard that public executions were held in the square (so long ago…).
In the 1980s the square was converted into the bustling open-air market it is today, and by the time we arrived it was overflowing with the animated sounds of a community partaking in the culture-rich tradition of exchanges. There were stands of watermelon, pineapple, carrots, radishes, potatoes, lettuce and onions, all of which are grown or harvested from the island. There were pickup trucks filled with ready-to-drink coconuts. The fish market, with its pungent smells, was filled with wild yields caught from both the sea and one of the island’s 365 rivers.
“Nothing is imported here,” boasted one of the market’s patrons, as he gave me a taste of the locally made coconut butter. I couldn’t help but think how interesting it is that in Canada buying local is more a matter of trend and luxury than an innate and financially affordable characteristic of our economy. In Dominica, local is a word used to describe where people are from, not where their food is from.
From the market and the small compact urban streets of Roseau we made our way north toward the country’s former capital city, Portsmouth. Almost immediately upon arriving we could tell that despite the meager 45-kilometre distance from Roseau, we had nonetheless come to a very different part of the island.
Tucked away at almost the tip of Dominica, in a wide crescent-moon-shaped bay, we found long sandy beaches hugging the coastline and tall coconut trees casting shade across pensions and beach houses. Hidden coves of coral reef and secluded beaches provided us with ample opportunities to dive, swim and escape anything resembling a crowd. The mountains stood high above the town, but rolled gently into the ocean and gave way to a slightly less dramatic landscape than that of Roseau.
The gentler slopes of the mountains also gave way to the island’s widest, and as far as I could tell, most important waterway—the Indian River.
Originally navigated by the Kalinago as a trade route but eventually overrun by French and British colonialists, the river carries great historical significance for Dominica and is protected by the government. For example, no motorized boats are permitted on the river—a rule we were happy to learn was dutifully enforced, even during the filming of multiple scenes from the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean.
The river also has incredible ecological significance. Its brackish waters gave life to a biodiversity we had yet to see on the island, which was surprising, given what we had already experienced. But the river ecosystem is unique because it converges between mountains and sea, between freshwater and salt water, the tropical colours of mountain flowers mixing beautifully with river herons and fish.
The river also seemed to inspire stillness within each of us. Maybe it was the fact that our trip was coming to an end and we were filled with the quiet reflection needed to prepare for our return home. Maybe it was the enervating effect of the hot sun and rum. Maybe it was the silent rowing of our boat through thick groves of 200-year-old swamp blood trees.
Regardless, what I like to remember is that stillness and inner reflection were absolutely possible here, and that a trip to the Caribbean in so far as Dominica is concerned can lead to an authentic, rugged and adventurous exploration of nature’s stunning bounty. ♦
Delano Lavigne is a professional explorer, expeditioner and climber who was a member of Team Outpost for several expeditions.