Dominica

Known as the 'Nature Island' of the Caribbean, Dominica (pronounced Domineeca) is the place to come for dense forests, volcanic hills, rivers, waterfalls and the Boiling Lake. Dominica was the first country to be Green Globe benchmarked. It is also a highly regarded diving destination, with a good marine park system, and for much of the year you can see whales and dolphins offshore. Hotels around the island are small, intimate and low-key, greater development being deterred by the lack of beaches. It is the only island where Caribs have survived and they still retain many of their traditions such as canoe carving. The island's culture and language are an amalgam of the native and immigrant peoples: Carib, French, English and African.

Getting there

There are no direct flights from Europe or North America to Dominica. Connections must be made in Puerto Rico, St Maarten, Antigua, Barbados or the French Antilles. There are ferry services from St Lucia and the French Antilles, but it can be rough in the channel.

Getting around

It is a good idea to rent a car or jeep as buses take a lot of planning. There are few road signs, but with a good map finding your way is not difficult. Dominicans drive fast so you may want to take a taxi to enjoy the views. Main roads are fairly good, but in towns and south of Roseau, roads are narrow and in poor condition. Apart from the Massacre to Soufrière/Scotts Head route, it is difficult to get anywhere on the island by public transport and return to Roseau in one day; it is just possible to get to Portsmouth and return in one day, the first bus is at 1000, returning at 1600.

Roseau

Roseau, the main town, is small, ramshackle and friendly, with a surprising number of pretty old buildings still intact. The houses look a bit tatty with rusting tin roofs and a general lack of paint, but there is still some attractive gingerbread fretwork in the traditional style on Castle Street and others. A typical house, called a Ti Caz, has a stone base, the walls are boarded with timber and the windows have hurricane shutters for protection or jalousie shutters for privacy. The roofs are steeply pitched, with the ends hipped, giving additional bracing against hurricanes, while verandas give shelter from the sun and rain. Quite a lot of redevelopment has taken place over the last few years, improving access and making the waterfront more attractive. The Old Market Plaza is a pedestrian area, with shops in the middle. The old, red market cross has been retained, with 'keep the pavement dry' picked out in white paint. Between the Plaza and the sea is the old post office, now housing the
Dominican Museum
, which is well worth a visit. The
market
, at the north end of Bay Street, is a fascinating sight on Saturday mornings from about 0600-1000; it is also lively on Friday morning, closed Sunday. The sea wall was completed in late 1993, which has greatly improved the waterfront area of town, known as the
Bay Front
or
Dame Eugenia Charles Blvd
, after the Prime Minister who promoted the development. A promenade with trees and benches, a road from the Old Jetty to Victoria Street, and parking bays take up most of the space. The current cruise ship jetty is T-shaped and for a several weeks in the winter season ships tower above the town pouring forth tourists.

The 40-acre
Botanical Gardens
, founded as an offshoot for Kew Gardens in London and dating from 1891 are principally an arboretum; they have a collection of plant species, including an orchid house. Storms and hurricanes over the last century have taken their toll on the gardens and wiped out the ornamental garden area. You can still see the old bus crushed by a baobab tree during hurricane David in 1979. Several Jacquot and Sisserou parrots can be seen in the bird sanctuary in the park, thanks in part to the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. Breeding programmes are underway; some of the offspring will be released to the wild. The gardens are now the main open space and recreational area for Roseau. Parades, cultural events and cricket matches are all held here. The Forestry Department is based here, forestry@cwdom.dm.

Trafalgar falls

The Trafalgar waterfalls in the Roseau Valley, 8 km from the capital, have been the most popular tourist site for many years. Hot and cold water used to flow in two spectacular cascades in the forest, but unfortunately the volume of the hot fall was sharply diminished by a hydroelectric scheme higher up and a landslide after the September 1995 hurricanes covered both the hot and cold water pools. The path from the visitor centre to the viewing platform at the falls is easy to follow, but if you want to go further than the viewing point, take a guide because there is a lot of scrambling over rocks and it can be difficult at times. Trying to cross over the falls at the top is very hazardous. Bathing is possible in pools in the river beneath the falls. There are always lots of guides. Some guides
can be abusive if you insist on going alone. Agree the price before setting out (around EC$10 for two or more people in a group). The Trafalgar Falls are crowded because they are close to the road (bus from outside the Astaphan supermarket in Roseau or walk). A natural sulphur pool has been set up at
Papillote
restaurant by the falls, in lovely gardens. There is also a road from the sulphur springs of the settlement of
Wotten Waven
through forest and banana plantations across the Trois Pitons River up to the Trafalgar Falls.

Morne Trois Pitons National Park

Much of the south part of the island (17,000 acres) has since 1975 been designated the Morne Trois Pitons National Park and in 1998 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Evidence of volcanic activity is manifested in hot springs, sulphur emissions and the occasional small eruption. Its attractions include the
Boiling Lake
(92°C), which may be the largest of its kind in the world (the other contender is in New Zealand) and reached after a 6-mile, 3-hour climb from Laudat, returning on the same path. An experienced guide is recommended as, although easy to follow, the trail can be treacherous, particularly when mist descends.

Below the Boiling Lake is a spectacular region known as the
Valley of Desolation
, where the forest has been destroyed by sulphuric emissions. At the beginning of the trail to the Boiling Lake is the
Titou Gorge
, now considerably damaged by rock fall from the hydroelectric development in the area, where a hot and a cold stream mingle. However, there is nothing more refreshing or soothing after hiking to and from the Boiling Lake than swimming through the Titou Gorge. The
Kent Gilbert Trail
starts in La Plaine and is about 4½ miles long. It affords views of the Sari Sari and Bolive Falls, but avoids the Valley of Desolation. While this makes it a less strenuous route, it is also less impressive.

Also in the park is the
Freshwater Lake
, east of
Morne Macaque
at 2,500 ft above sea level, and two miles from Laudat. A road leads to both the Freshwater Lake and on to the start of the 45-minute trail to the island's highest lake,
Boeri
, between Morne Macaque and
Morne Trois Pitons
.

The National Park Service has built a series of paths, the Middleham Trails, through the rainforest on the northwest border of the park. The trails are accessible from Sylvania on the Transinsular Road, or Cochrane, although the signs from Sylvania are not clear. The road to Cochrane is by the
Old Mill Cultural Centre
in Canefield; once through the village the trail is marked. About 1½ to two hours' walk from Cochrane are the
Middleham Falls
(about 250-ft high) cascading into a beautiful blue pool in the middle of the forest. Once past the Middleham Falls the trail emerges on the Laudat road. Turn inland at
Sisserou Hotel
and then immediately right behind the Texaco garage (30 minutes' walk from Roseau) a steep road leads 2½ miles up to
Giraudel
(50 minutes' walk). From behind the school here a trail goes up through a succession of smallholdings to
Morne Anglais
(3,683 ft; a two-hour walk from Giraudel). This is the easiest of the high mountains to climb. The trail is fairly easy to follow but someone will need to show you the first part through the smallholdings. Ask in the village or go with a guide.

South coast

In the far south are the villages of
Soufrière
and
Scotts Head
. Both are worth visiting for their stunning setting on the sea with the mountain backdrop and brightly painted fishing boats on the shore. There are plenty of buses to Scott's Head, over the mountain with excellent views all the way to Martinique. Ask around the fishing huts if you are hungry, and you will be directed to various buildings without signs where you can eat chicken pilau for EC$6 and watch dominoes being played.

On the south coast is
Grand Bay
, where there is a large beach (dangerous for swimming), the 10 ft-high
Belle Croix
and the
Geneva Estate
, founded in the 18th century by the Martinican Jesuit, Father Antoine La Valette, and at one time the home of the novelist Jean Rhys. It is being upgraded to a heritage park. From Grand Bay, it is a two-hour walk over the hill, past Sulphur Spring to Soufrière. The area has a reputation for violence related to the growing of marijuana .

Leeward coast

The Leeward coastal road, north from Roseau, comes first to
Canefield
, passing the turning for the twisting Imperial Road to the centre of the island, and then the small airport. The coast road passes through
Massacre
, reputed to be the settlement where 80 Caribs were killed by British troops in 1674. Among those who died was Indian Warner, Deputy Governor of Dominica, illegitimate son of Sir Thomas Warner (Governor of St Kitts) and half-brother of the commander of the British troops, Colonel Philip Warner. From the church perched above the village there are good views of the coast. The next village is
Mahaut
and just north of here near DCP a newly paved road, called Warner Road, climbs steeply up towards Morne Couroune. It then levels out and joins the main Layou Valley road at the Layou Valley Plaza, a few miles west of the Pont Cassé roundabout. The views are stunning and are best when coming downhill.

North of the Transinsular road are the
Central Forest Reserve
and
Northern Forest Reserve
. In the latter is
Morne Diablotin
. From Dublanc, walk 1½ hours on a minor road and you will see a sign. The trail to the summit is very rough, about three hours' steep walking and climbing up and 2½ hours down, not for the faint hearted, take a guide.

The coastal road continues to
Portsmouth
, the second town. Nearby are the ruins of the 18th-century
Fort Shirley
on the Cabrits, which has a
museum
, in one of the restored buildings. It has recently been renovated and there is an excellent plan of how the fort once was. Clearly marked paths lead to the Commander's Quarters, Douglas Battery and other outlying areas. The cruise ship jetty (small ships only) has a visitors' centre. Prince Rupert Bay has been much visited: Columbus landed here in 1504, and in 1535 the Spanish Council of the Indies declared the bay a station for its treasure ships. Sir Francis Drake, Prince Rupert and John Hawkins all traded with the Caribs. Construction of Fort Shirley began in 1774. It was abandoned in 1854 and initial restoration began in 1982.

From the bridge just south of Portsmouth, boats make regular trips up
Indian River
, through a tunnel of vegetation, a peaceful trip as long as you are not accompanied by boatloads of other tourists. There is a bar open at the final landing place on this lovely river which accommodates large numbers of cruise ship passengers and serves them the very potent spiced rum, aptly named
Dynamite
. You can then walk through fields and forest to the edge of a marsh where migrating birds come in the winter.

The north

From Portsmouth, a road carries on to the
Cabrits National Park
and the island's north tip at
Cape Melville
. A new road leads off this at Savanne Paille; it is a beautiful journey over the mountain, through a valley with sulphur springs, to Penville on the north coast, where you can pick up the road heading south.

Another road from Portsmouth heads east, following the Indian River for much of the way, winding up and down to the bays and extensive coconut palm plantations of the northwest coast, Calibishie, Melville Hall Airport and Marigot. There are some beautiful sandy beaches at Hampstead and Larieu.
Calibishie
is a charming fishing village looking across to Guadeloupe. There are hiking trails to the forest and wide, sandy beaches nearby; local guides are available. Transport to most areas in the north is good, as is accommodation. There are some grocery stores, restaurants, post office, petrol station and a health clinic.

Transinsular road

The shortest route from Roseau to Marigot and Melville Hall is via the Transinsular Road. It climbs steeply with many bends from Canefield. You will see coconut and cocoa groves, banana plants all along the gorge, together with dasheen, tannia, oranges and grapefruit. At Pont Cassé, the road divides three ways at one of the island's few roundabouts.

Heading west from Pont Cassé the road affords some spectacular views. Layou River has some good spots for bathing, one of which is particularly good. Just over five miles from the roundabout there is a narrow footpath on the right, immediately before a sizeable road bridge. It passes through a banana field to the riverside. On the opposite bank a concrete bath has been built around a hot spring to create an open-air hot tub (Glo Cho) with room for four or five good friends.

Heading north from Pont Cassé, a 20-minute walk from
Spanny's Bar
on the main road leads you to
Penrice Falls
, two small waterfalls. There is great, but cold, swimming in both pools. At Bells there is a fascinating and beautiful walk to
Jacko Flats
. Here a group of maroons (escaped slaves) led by Jacko had their encampment in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Carved into the cliffs of the Layou River gorge, a flight of giant steps rises 300 ft up to a plateau where the maroons camped. Ask in Bells village fo
r a guide and dress for river walking since much of the trail is in the river itself.

Heading east from Pont Cassé, the path up the Trois Pitons is signed on the right just after the roundabout, three hours to the summit. The
Emerald Pool
is a small, but pretty waterfall in a grotto in the forest, 15 minutes by path from the Pont Cassé-Castle Bruce road. Don't go when cruise ships have docked. There is a reception
area, with snack bar, interpretation centre, stalls and toilet facilities. There are no buses from Roseau. Catch a minibus to Canefield and wait at the junction for a bus going to Castle Bruce.

The Atlantic coast

This coast is much more rugged than the Caribbean, with smaller trees, sandy or pebbly bays, palms and dramatic cliffs.
Castle Bruce
is a lovely bay and there are good views all around. After Castle Bruce the road enters the
Carib Territory
, although there is only a very small sign to indicate this; to appreciate it fully, a guide is essential.
Horseback Ridge
affords views of the sea, mountains, the Concord Valley and Bataka village. At
Crayfish River
, a waterfall tumbles directly into the sea by a beach of large stones. Nearby is the
Carib Cultural Village
, or Kalinago Barana Autê,
, www.kalinagobaranaaute.com
. The Kalinago (Carib) people have a reception centre, snack bar and gift shop with an easy trail round the huts (ajoupas) in the village. A Karbet (the biggest hut) is used for cultural and theatrical performances. Traditional activities include canoe building, cassava processing, calabash decorating, basket weaving and cooking. You can buy pottery, woven goods, coconut products and other crafts.

The
Save the Children Fund
assisted the Waitikubuli Karifuna Development Committee to construct two traditional buildings near
Salybia
: a large oval
karbet
(the nucleus of the extended Carib family group), and an A-frame
mouina
. The former is a community centre, the latter a library and office of the elected chief. The Carib chief is elected for five years and his main tasks are to organize the distribution of land and the preservation of Carib culture. The Church of the Immaculate Conception at Salybia is based on the traditional
mouina
and has a canoe for its altar, murals about Carib history both inside and out. Outside is a cemetery and a three-stone monument to the first three Carib chiefs after colonization: Jolly John, Auguiste and Corriett.

L'Escalier Tête-Chien
, at Jenny Point in Sineku is a line of rock climbing out of the sea and up the headland. It is most obvious in the sea and shore, but on the point each rock bears the imprint of a scale, circle or line, like the markings on a snake. It is said that the Caribs used to follow the snake staircase (which was made by the Master Tête-Chien) up to its head in the mountains, thus gaining special powers. Do not go without a guide as there have been a number of incidents of mugging.

In the southeast at La Plaine a fairly easy trail can be followed to the
Sari Sari Falls
(about 150 ft high). At Délices, you can see the
Victoria Falls
from the road. Take an experienced guide if you want to attempt the steep hike to either of these falls and avoid them in the rainy season. The White River falls in to the Atlantic at
Pointe Mulattre
, reached by a steep road from Delices down to the sea. There are great places to picnic, rest or swim in the river. At the weekend local families picnic and wash their cars here. Be wary of flash floods and do not cross the river after heavy rainfall.

The road between
Petite Savanne
and the
White River
links the south and east coasts. It is extremely steep but offers spectacular views of both the Victoria Falls and the steam rising from the Boiling Lake. A new eco-friendly 50-cottage resort and spa has been built close to the White River (www.junglebaydominica.com).

Beaches and activities

The Caribbean side of Dominica gains or loses sand according to swells and storms but the black coral sandy areas are few and far between. A small one exists just off Scott's Head (favoured as a teaching ground for divers, snorkellers and canoeists, so sometimes crowded), but further north you must travel to Mero beach or
Castaways Beach Hotel
.
Macoucheri Bay
and
Coconut Beach
near Portsmouth are probably the best areas for Caribbean bathing. Don't be tempted to swim anywhere near Roseau or the larger villages because of effluent. For some really beautiful, unspoilt, white sandy beaches, hire a 4WD and investigate the bays of the northeast coast.
Turtle Beach
,
Pointe Baptiste
(impressive red cliffs),
Hampstead
and
Woodford Hill
are all beautiful but the Atlantic coast is dangerous. Look at the sea and swim in the rivers is the safest advice. Very strong swimmers may be exhilarated by
Titou Gorge
, near Laudat, where the water flows powerfully through a narrow canyon and emerges by a hot mineral cascade.

Diving

Dominica is highly regarded as a diving destination and has been featured in most diving magazines as 'undiscovered'. Features include wall dives, drop-offs, reefs, hot, freshwater springs under the sea, sponges, black coral, pinnacles and wrecks, all in unpolluted water. Due to steep drops the sediment falls away and visibility is excellent, at up to 30 m depending on the weather. Many drop-offs are close to the beaches but access is poor and boats are essential. There is a marine park conservation area in
Toucari Bay
and part of
Douglas Bay
, north of the Cabrits, but the most popular scuba sites are south of Roseau, at
Pointe Guignard
,
Soufrière Bay
and
Scott's Head
. An unusual site is
Champagne
, with underwater hot springs where you swim through bubbles, good for snorkelling. This area in the southeast,
Soufrière-Scott's Head
, is now a marine park without moorings so that all diving is drift diving and boats pick up divers where they surface. Along the south and southeast coast there are more dive sites but because of the Atlantic currents, these are for experienced, adventurous divers only. Note that the taking of conch, coral, lobster, sponge, turtle eggs, etc, is forbidden and you may not put down anchor in coral and on reefs; use the designated moorings. Snorkelling is good in the same general areas as diving, including Douglas Bay and the Scott's Head/Soufrière Bay Marine Reserve
.

Whale and dolphin watching

Whale watching is extremely popular, and the success rate is the best in the eastern Caribbean. The female whales and their calves are in the Caribbean waters for much of the year, with only the mature males leaving to feed for any length of time. If your trip is successful, you could be treated to the sight of mothers and their young swimming close to the boat, or young males making enormous jumps before diving below the waves. Dolphin are abundant too, particularly in the Soufrière Bay area and even if you miss the whales your boat is often accompanied by a school of playful dolphin. Several different types of whales have been spotted not far from the west shore where the deep, calm waters are ideal for these mammals. Sperm whales are regularly seen, especially during the winter months, as are large numbers of spinner and spotted dolphins. You can also sometimes see pilot whales, pseudorcas, pygmy sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins, Risso's dolphins and melon-headed whales.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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