Many people have heard of the Dominican Republic. Some have even been there. But did you know that there is another Caribbean nation of almost the same name?
If you thought they were the same, let me assure you… they are not. They do have a common history though: both were inhabited by indigenous Amerindians (that came to the Caribbean from South America) when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ the islands – the Taíno in the Dominican Republic and the Kalinago in Dominica.
We had visited the Dominican Republic on our dance-themed trip around the world in 2012. Bachata and Merengue originated there. Dominica had been on our travel wish list for almost as long. I don’t remember how we first heard about Dominica, but the more we read about it and the more YouTube videos we watched, the more it sounded like paradise to us.
With L’Express Des Iles speed catamarans linking St Lucia and its northern neighbours, it was a no-brainer for us to use the ferry (EUR69 pp). To our surprise, the ferry even left Castries 10min ahead of schedule (travellers beware). As with all boat rides in the Caribbean, it was a bumpy crossing (make sure you take tablets if you’re prone to seasickness) – 90 minutes to Martinique, followed by 2 hours to Roseau, Dominica’s capital.
If there is a superlative to the friendliness and hospitality of the Caribbean people, it would have to be Dominica. We felt safe here, no matter where we went. So safe in fact, we even hitchhiked (more on that below).
Since Dominica was one destination we wanted to take our time exploring, we stayed a bit over three weeks and all over the island: three nights in Roseau (on the west coast), three nights in Soufriere (in the south), eleven nights in the mountainous interior and close to the Morne Trois Pitons National Park (nine in Trafalgar and two in Pont Casse), three nights in Portsmouth (in the north) and three nights in the Kalinago Territory (in the east and close to the Douglas Charles International Airport near Marigot).
Arriving on a Friday, we strolled around Roseau the following morning to experience its Public Market in full swing. The place was packed with people. Stalls upon stalls sold fresh produce: fruit and veggies but also meat. It was the total opposite on Sunday, when we walked around a pretty much-deserted town, through the Botanic Garden and up to Jack’s Trail to Morne Bruce for 180-degree views over the capital. We liked Roseau. It has a small town feel, a lot of character, and its historic architecture reminded us a bit of New Orleans.
A taxi driver offered us a ride to Soufriere, for the price of a minibus trip, as he and his wife were going there anyway. Just south of Roseau, he stopped next to a quarry to fill up water canisters with spring water. Turns out, these springs exist all over the island, and locals come to get fresh, clean drinking water – without fluoride or other chemicals.
Soufriere is one of the most volcanically active areas in Dominica. The village sits inside a volcanic crater that has partially collapsed into the sea.
Another remnant of a volcano is Dominica’s southernmost Point: Scott’s Head. We walked there one morning from Soufriere. The hike up to the top is quite slippery and steep. Good shoes are important. From the very windy top, you can see the capital, Roseau in the north, and if the weather is on your side, the island of Martinique in the south.
Scott’s Head is also the starting point of the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT). Consisting of 14 segments overall, hiking trails (originally used by indigenous people and run-away slaves) criss-cross the whole island. Waitukubuli (which means ‘tall is her body’) was Dominica’s original, Kalinago name.
Near the junction of WNT segments 1 and 2, hot water from the Sulphur Springs flows into several stone basins. There is nothing better than resting your tired body after a long hike in hot mineral-rich water.
If you prefer it a little less hot, down by the sea, in front of the church of St Mark, is another thermal bath: the aptly named Bubble Beach. Locals created a rock pool here, allowing hot gases released right on the beach to warm up seawater to a very pleasant temperature. It’s great to watch the sunset, sitting in the rock pool. You could even enjoy it with a drink in hand: the beach comes with its little bar. Watch out though, some patches of sand are so hot you can’t stand on it with your bare feet.
Part of the same fumarole system as Bubble Beach but further north, towards Roseau, is the Champagne Reef. Snorkelling along the Reef was one of our favourites on the island. Bubbles are rising from the seafloor, heating the water around you to bathtub temperature. As you swim along, the water temperature goes back to normal, and you are surrounded more and more by colourful fish and coral of all shapes and sizes. The experience is one of a kind. Words or photos can’t do it justice. You can hire snorkel gear at the dive shop at the entrance (USD19/12 with/without a guide). Make sure you bring a long-sleeve top – both to protect from the sun and from the cooler ocean temperature further away from the fumarole – as you can easily spend hours here.
Morne Trois Pitons National Park
The National Park in Dominica’s interior is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1998. There are so many hikes, you could easily spend several weeks here.
Top of our list was the hike from Titou Gorge (near the village of Laudat) to the Boiling Lake (and back). The lake is the second-largest boiling lake in the world. The largest one, interestingly, is Frying Pan Lake near Rotorua in New Zealand.
As we stayed in Trafalgar, we had to organise a taxi to take us up to the start of the trailhead (there is no direct bus between the two villages). I’m glad we had done the hike around the Quilotoa crater lake in Ecuador as that gave me the confidence I could do some of the more challenging parts (including sliding on my bum into and climbing on all fours out of the Valley of Desolation – another volcanic crater full of geothermal activity). I’m also glad we had a local guiding us. There are parts, especially in the Valley of Desolation and from there to the Boiling Lake, where you could take the wrong turn as there are absolutely no signs marking the trail.
The hike is a grade 4-5, and it definitely deserves it. We made the almost 12 km in 4 3/4 hours (with breaks 6 1/2 hours) and were absolutely knackered afterwards. Looking forward to the refreshing swim in Titou Gorge afterwards got me through exhaustion and pain, and the swim didn’t disappoint. Cold, clear mountain water runs through a very narrow gorge and mixes in a large basin with warm water from a small waterfall… Heaven.
One final advice: Do not, I repeat DO NOT attempt the hike in bad weather. The trail is muddy at the best of times, even though the National Park staff do a great job maintaining it with wooden boulders. It would be very dangerous to attempt in bad weather.
Speaking of bad weather: Almost constant rain put a damper on the long list of hikes we had planned to do in the National Park. In the end, we used a break in the weather to visit Trafalgar Falls. At 0830h, we were the only ones there. Another day, we hiked up to Freshwater Lake (10km return) despite the pouring rain and misty conditions. Well, at least we know now why the island is so green.
Getting to Portsmouth was also an adventure. The usual minibuses do not operate on public holidays… and we happened to travel on Whit Monday. So, our only option to get from A to B was to hitchhike. We made the 52km trip in three different cars. One of the guys who gave us a lift was a Rastafarian… He was singing to his stereo when we flagged him down and continued to sing for us until he dropped us off, making up the words on the fly. Turns out, he is a local singer… Twa Woche, a super nice guy and a great ambassador for the wonderful people of Dominica.
The rainy weather followed us to Portsmouth. Nevertheless, we managed to hike (most of the) WNT segment 14, from Capuchin, one of the northernmost villages of the island (after taking the minibus up), back to Portsmouth. Contrary to the trails we had seen at the beginning of the WNT, segment 14 wasn’t as well maintained. Though each time we thought we’d lost the trail, we were able to pick it up again.
We had chosen to stay at the home of a Kalinago family in Touna Aute/Concord, near the cross-island road that links the Douglas Charles Airport with the capital Roseau. We enjoyed our chats with Irvince, a former chief, getting a glimpse of the life of a modern Kalinago family and the responsibilities of a chief, and his wife Louisette’s delicious home cooking.
We also enjoyed our afternoon swims in the Pagua river… so peaceful and refreshing… we even saw a small crayfish one day.
From Touna Aute, we hiked across the hills to Salybia (4 km), buying freshly made cassava bread at Daniel’s Cassava Bakery. We also happened to meet and chat with yet another former chief, Faustulus Frederick, who was involved in Dominica’s independence negotiations in the 1970’s.
- Emerald Pool – a pleasant, easy walk through gorgeous rainforest takes you to the falls… again, we were the only ones there.
- Kalinago Barana Aute – one of the local Kalinago people (in our case young Kendrick) takes you on a walk through the replica of a traditional Kalinago village, telling you about the history of the Kalinago and Dominica, about the plants growing on the grounds and their uses, traditional crafts (like basket weaving and boat making) and answers any question you may have.
- Red Rocks at Pointe Baptiste – aptly named, these are giant terracotta-coloured rock formations with great views along the coast. From the small parking lot at the end of the Road to Red Rocks, you walk another 300 metres or so along a trail until you reach the sea (entry is USD2, collected by Danny, a Rastafarian who lives in a shack next to the trail).
- Calibishie – a laid-back fishing village with colourful houses.
Besides its truly friendly and welcoming people, Dominica’s assets are its natural wonders. It carries the title Nature Island for good reason. While we encountered water shortage on some of the islands further south (for example, Union Island and Bequia), Dominica has got water in abundance. It’s lush and green, and there are springs everywhere.
If you enjoy hiking and like to relax in hot springs, cool mountain rivers and under gorgeous waterfalls, you’ll love Dominica. If you prefer white sand beaches, partying and all-inclusive resorts catering to your every need, I’m afraid, you may want to look elsewhere. While a big (Kempinski) resort is being built next to the cruise ship terminal in Portsmouth, we hope that Dominica retains its focus on nature-related, smaller-scale tourism.
Paul already added Hiking the WNT in its entirety to his goals, and there are so many areas still to explore, we will be back. Next time, we might be looking to come a little earlier or later in the year though… to escape the rain.
There is a huge advantage though of travelling in the rainy season: you hardly meet any other tourists. During cruise ship season (October to April), up to 3 or 4 ships may anchor at the same time, which means you’d be sharing the island of 73,000 inhabitants with up to 10,000 tourists. While great for Dominica’s economy, we prefer it a little quieter.