Dominica offers lots of 'wow' moments

Island is full of natural wonders

June 22, 2008|By Lauren Viera | Lauren Viera,Chicago Tribune

DOMINICA, West Indies - Rumor has it, once you've mastered driving on Dominica, you can drive anywhere in the world.

It's easy to see why. It is, literally, a jungle. Its roads, most of which are no wider than an alley, crawl over mountains and cling to cliffs tumbling down to the Caribbean Sea. All of their turns are shaped like hairpins, and all of their curves are as blind as the nightfall here, where there are no streetlights or stoplights - only stars. And, just to make things interesting for the 66 percent of the licensed driving world who are accustomed to keeping right, Dominica's former British Commonwealth status means that here, one hugs the curves to the left.

But driving on Dominica would be missing the point. This island is meant to be explored on foot, ideally while wearing a pair of Teva sandals. It's crawling with natural hiking trails adorned by 1,200 species of plants and flowers, some of which recoil when touched, like sea anemones.

There are spectacular waterfalls and hot springs, including the huge Boiling Lake in the center, and the island is surrounded by waters clear enough for snorkeling, deep enough for diving and just choppy enough to make kayaking interesting. And because it's not easy to get here, it remains - and here's the tour operator's selling point - "one of the most unspoilt islands in the Caribbean." Pronounced "Dom-in-EEK-a," not to be confused with the Dominican Republic (though it often is), this English-speaking volcanic island is home to about 71,000 people, including 3,000 native Caribs, who reside in a dedicated Carib Territory on the island's northeast side - similar to the Native American reservations in the States.

They were the primary inhabitants of this island until 1493, when Columbus landed here on a Sunday, hence the name; the indigenous Carib name is Wai'tu kubuli, or "tall is her body," as the island is a lengthy 29-mile stretch of beautiful curves and contours.

Other than the addition of ramshackle houses, several dozen small hotels and the few Jeeps and buses that brave the roads, things haven't changed much in the 500 years since. Until recently, cruise ships didn't even dock here. There are a few tourists, but they're a fairly specific breed: thrill-seekers who climb mountains for kicks. Like Denise Calfo and Jeff Biddle.

The Los Angeles duo has visited Dominica seven times over the last eight years. They've never rented a car. Instead, they commute around Dominica's 290 square miles the way most of its residents do: via the bus system and their own two feet. They've hiked up to Boiling Lake, Dominica's gem of a landmark, twice; they've reached the summit of Morne Diablotin, the island's tallest mountain (4,747 feet) and most challenging hike. They drink Kubuli, the local beer; they know a few Creole-inspired Dominican phrases; and they couldn't care less about beaches.

"We aren't sit-on-the-beach-all-day kind of people," Calfo said. "I like some time on the beach, but the best thing about Dominica is how many things there are to do."

Beaches aren't really the point here; there are only two or three worth seeing. There are no traditional resorts and fewer traditional hotels. Wearing beachwear on the street in the two cities, Roseau and Portsmouth, is considered improper. But in the jungle - where mosquitoes surprisingly aren't a problem - it's a different story.

"The first rule in Dominica is, always wear your swimsuit."

That mantra comes from Samuel Raphael, owner of Jungle Bay Resort and Spa which, true to its name, is nestled in the middle of a jungle overlooking Pointe Mulatre Bay on the island's southeast side. Sam and his wife, Glenda, spent 10 years developing and building the 55-acre property, which is the perfect prototype for Dominica's slowly growing tourism industry: It's eco-conscious, unapologetically hospitable and naturally gorgeous. Each of its 35 tropical hardwood cottages is raised on stilts for ideal views and circulation; their solar-heated outdoor showers drip back into the jungle, polluted only by natural and organic soaps. All of the furniture is made from local wood and handcrafted by folks from the neighboring villages.

As if following Raphael's orders, everyone at Jungle Bay wears a swimsuit constantly - and not necessarily to take advantage of the modest swimming pool assembled with volcanic stones. They wear their swimsuits because on Dominica, all roads lead to hikes, and all hikes (most of them, anyway) lead to water.

Take Victoria Falls. Located a few miles inland from Pointe Mulatre Bay (a distance that, on these roads, takes about a half-hour to drive), the hour hike to the spectacular 425-foot falls entails traversing a muddy trail that loses itself amid the rapidly growing rain forest, and, thereafter, four river crossings each way. The water is swift but not cold; it's incredibly clean and softened by sulfur but has no sympathy for expensive cameras, inappropriate footwear or, for that matter, small children.

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