Volume No. 2 Issue No. 42 - Monday June 9, 2008|
Dominica offers an ecological escape from the everyday
Lauren Viera - Chicago Tribune (http://www.chicagotribune.com)
DOMINICA, West Indies—Rumor has it, once you've mastered driving on Dominica, you can drive anywhere in the world.
The spectacular Victoria Falls in Dominica is a favorite destination among locals and tourists alike. The hike to the falls is about 45 minutes each way and involves eight river crossings (Tribune photo by Lauren Viera / May 27, 2008)
It's easy to see why. It is, literally, a jungle. Its roads, most of which are no wider than a Chicago 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 (travel time runs about 17 hours with two connections), 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.
But mostly, it's rough and rugged. As the story goes, when Columbus returned to Spain and was asked by Queen Isabella to describe Dominica, he crumpled a piece of paper to replicate its topography.
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 and Jeff.
From Los Angeles by way of Chicago, Denise Calfo and Jeff Biddle have 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. Or, if you just want to sit and do nothing, it's so peaceful and the air is just so fresh and fragrant from all these exotic flowers that grow all over the place."
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, handcrafted by folks from the neighboring villages of Delices and Petit Savane.
As if following Sam'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. One of the crossings required this 5-foot-11 lady to wade up to her waist; the others are tests of balance and confidence while scaling slippery boulders and wading through swift rapids. The difficulty level of this hike? "Moderate."
In all, there are 365 rivers on Dominica—some easily explored; some strenuous. Locals joke that Trafalgar Falls' 10-minute stair-stepped "hike" was designed for cruise excursions. Emerald Pool, Dominica's most popular tourism destination, is another easy one. The green-hued natural pool sits pretty in the island's UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a 15-minute walk through the rain forest, marked by vistas overlooking the seemingly bottomless green valley below. Stop at one even for a minute and you'll spot parrots and hawks flapping by nonchalantly. The phrase "Wow" is uttered a lot here, even by the locals.
Get out on the water—or, better yet, in it—and the wows continue. Perched above Grand Bay on Dominica's south side is the tiny village of Stowe, where the locals get most of their fish . . . and it smells like it. From here, conditions are nearly perfect for kayaking a half-mile out to Carib Point, then snorkeling along the reef below. The waves are relatively calm in this bay, even when mild storms pass through dropping light (and, sometimes, very heavy) rain. It's always raining somewhere on Dominica, but excursions are rarely canceled as a result since the weather is so changeable. Snorkeling in the rain isn't glamorous—few things on this island are—but floating just below sea level, looking down on schools of exotic fish while millions of little drops of water dot the ocean's surface, is surreal.
Post-kayaking, there's an obligatory stop down the road at Nick's Spotlight, a popular snackette (bar-shack) at the crossroads of Berekua and Pichelin. When he's not out guiding excursions to landmarks such as Sari Sari Falls, Nick serves Kubuli beer and treats tourists to the traditional Caribbean rum tour—a one-stop sampling of at least a half-dozen locally produced rums, not unlike a Napa Valley wine tasting.
In lieu of the tour, I give Nick permission to pick my poison, requesting only that it be something local and something interesting. After offering a pause long enough to make me a little nervous, from under his corrugated metal counter Nick produces a worn plastic, gallon-sized fuel jug labeled, in shaky handwritten black lettering, "JAH RUM." Barely visible through the opaque plastic, the shadow of a large, dark green bush bobs in the foreign liquid. Down the hatch it goes. . . and, about an hour later, one feels a little irie. And then, there's that phrase again: "Wow."
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