The rattling prop plane lurched and careened between steep peaks as we approached Dominica's rudimentary airfield, set in a narrow valley at the edge of the sea. One false turn and we'd be flattened against a mountainside. Yet I couldn't keep from peering out the window at the scenery: brilliant flashes of red and orange wildflowers against crumply, jungly ridges, and clear, boulder-strewn streams rushing through paradise.
Angst and awe intertwined, a mélange of emotions that would sum up the experiences we longtime college friends, Leslie Ricketts, Monica Ekman and I, had on a trip last March to the Caribbean's nature isle.
Positioned between the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the West Indies, Dominica (dom-in-EE-ka) is a 29-mile-long Eden of primeval rain forest, endangered parrots, waterfalls fed by 365 rivers and more than 80 species of orchids. What it doesn't have are white-sand beaches and their attendant resort hotels and casinos. Dominica has remained an unspoiled destination for hikers, naturalists and divers, albeit a tad rough around the edges, as we found out upon landing.
When we made reservations at the Picard Beach Cottage Resort, near Portsmouth, about an hour's drive from Melville Hall Airport in the island's northern realm, the receptionist had said a car would be waiting.
"Need a ride? I'll take you."
As we stood looking like tourists in front of the airport, a man appeared, obviously a local with his British-tinged lilt. Most Dominicans are descendants of African slaves brought by 18th century planters. English is the official language, and, because of a later occupation by the French, a French-based patois is widely spoken as well.
"No thanks. We're taken care of," Leslie said.
The man waited and watched as we watched and waited. He spoke again, insisting that we call the hotel on his cell phone. They knew him, he promised.
Sure enough, the hotel had forgotten about us, and yes, they knew Max. We hopped into his minivan and rode along tiny, twisty roads through fluorescent green cane fields edged with coconut palms, past jagged cliffs overlooking teal waters. Peering now and again in the rearview mirror, Max regaled us with stories about island life and offered to ferry us around during our stay. We made no promises.
Dominica isn't known for its luxe accommodations, but we didn't fare too badly those first few nights. Picard Beach Cottages is a clutch of wood bungalows in 18th century vernacular style, sitting among tropical gardens on the island's longest beach, which stretches a mile. We dropped our luggage and strolled along the volcanic black, palm-fringed sand. We spotted only one person, a distant figure making a beeline toward us. Word had gotten out that new tourist blood had arrived.
His name was Alexis, a tall, young, congenial guy in army pants. He offered to drive us anywhere we wanted. "Parrots, sure, I can take you there. Waterfalls, volcanoes, no problem."
We began to see how, though the island had no formal tourist infrastructure, an indigenous counterpart had taken root in the guise of entrepreneurial young men determined enough to buy a car, enabling them to take visitors to hard-to-reach sites, as well as lead guided hikes, snorkeling excursions -- whatever you want, for a very U.S. fee. The young men are knowledgeable about their island and can provide much insight into local life. But you need to know the going rates and do some hard-nosed bartering. Even then misunderstandings can occur.
The only other options for getting around seemed to be renting a car and negotiating narrow, potholed, unsigned roads (on the left side, no less), or signing up with sketchy tour companies.
As we contemplated our logistical situation, we decided to head to nearby Portsmouth for dinner. That is, until the hotel clerk warned us that it's unwise to venture into town after dark. Machete-wielding men sometimes pounce on unsuspecting foreigners. (Machetes are common here because many men use them in sugar cane fields.) Just petty theft, she reassured, nothing serious. The best option would be to have someone drive us for about 37 cents each, she said.
We chose to dine at the hotel's restaurant, Le Flambeau. The open-air eating area sits right on the water, with clacking palm fronds and the surf mingling in a melodious serenade.
"I'll have the Creole-style kingfish," Monica said.
"No more," the waitress said laconically.
"OK, the flying fish special," Monica said.
While Monica pondered what else to order, I chose the Creole chicken, which the waitress wrote on her pad.
"I'll have that too," Leslie said.
So eating wasn't going to be easy either. We played out this scenario at restaurants all over the island until we learned to ignore the menu altogether and ask the server what was waiting in the kitchen. What was certain was that every dish came with delicious "provisions," side dishes such as beans, rice, potatoes and dasheen (a kind of taro), and that once we got our food, it would be flavored in the delectable Creole way.
Early the next morning, as we were taking a wake-up swim, Alexis strolled up the empty beach to "check up on us." We hesitantly decided that hiring a driver was the best way to go, and, because we had already given Max some business, we agreed to have Alexis take us to the parrot sanctuary that afternoon for about $9 each.
On tiny, winding roads we bumped up to the foot of Morne Diablotins, Dominica's highest mountain at 4,747 feet, deep in the Northern Forest Reserve. This remote wilderness offers just a sampling of Dominica's supreme primordial beauty. We headed on foot down the mile-long Syndicate Trail, which offered our best chance of spotting the endangered sisserou (the national bird) and smaller Jacquot parrots. Alexis knew exactly where the parrots should be. Alas, it was raining, and though we heard the birds, they stayed out of sight.
Next we strolled to nearby Milton Falls. Along the way, Alexis pointed out a cinnamon tree with its peeling, fragrant bark, bananas ready for the picking, coffee bushes, orange trees overflowing with sweet fruit, wild thyme and avocados, mere hints at the fecundity of this lush isle. And we spotted two tiny specks flying high in the sky. Parrots!
When things are too perfect, you know something's wrong. Sure enough, as Alexis dropped us off at the hotel, we nearly fell for one of the oldest tricks in the tourist scam books. We had agreed to the price in East Caribbean dollars, but now our friendly guide insisted that we pay in U.S. dollars -- $75 for a two-hour ride. (U.S. dollars are widely accepted.) We argued and complained, finally compromising at $60 total and learning an important lesson: When settling on a price, make sure you've decided on a currency.
Getting tired of the scams
There are other things to do in northern Dominica, but it was time for us to move 20 miles south, to the capital of Roseau. But the question was how.
The easiest way to get there was with an informal taxi service for $122 East Caribbean ($45 for three). Or was that $122 U.S.? The answers were never straight, and we were beginning to feel uncomfortable. Maybe renting a car would be best, we began to think. Then, by happenstance, we learned that a local taxi minivan could transport us to Roseau for only $2.80 each. It was one of the best finds of our trip.
Alexis and Max were on hand as we rolled our suitcases to the main street and waited for the minivan. And waited. And waited. Finally we relented, agreeing to pay Max the relatively exorbitant price of $45 to drive the three of us. We piled in, and he turned around toward Portsmouth.
"What are you doing?" Leslie cried.
"Taking you to Roseau," Max said.
Once again the plan had changed: He was going to put us on a local minivan, the same one we had been waiting for, pay the driver the going rate and pocket the profit.
"Let us off. Now!" I yelled.
Fortunately he dropped us near the local taxi depot, where we had no trouble finding the next minivan south. (Registered taxis and minivans are designated by an HA or H on the license plate.) As we sped down the coast road, packed between 10 Dominicans and their luggage, closing our eyes as the driver screeched around cars on blind curves, we congratulated ourselves for figuring out a tiny piece of the getting-around puzzle.
Unbelievably, the first thing we saw in Roseau (ROO-so) was an enormous cruise ship, looming over the collection of wood-and-stone buildings adorned with Victorian fretwork and overhanging balconies. Camera-bedecked tourists filled the streets close to shore. One of the first nods to tourism in Dominica has been the development of a deep harbor to support not one but two cruise ships at a time.
We prowled around Old Market Square, a crafts market on the former site of slave auctions and executions; admired piles of bananas, coconuts and mangelos (really sweet oranges) at the Saturday morning farmers market; then strolled away from the sunburned crowd up narrow streets to the botanical gardens, dating from the 1890s.
The only way to reach the secluded Papillote Wilderness Retreat, a cluster of green stucco bungalows deep in the rain forest and our home for three nights, was by taxi. The driver began asking questions about where we would be touring, but by now we knew enough to remain elusive.
Anne Jno Baptiste, an American married to a Dominican, started the nature reserve in 1967, planting indigenous orchids, bromeliads, heliconias and gingers in the jungle at the foot of Morne Macaque. It's now an eco-inn with steaming mineral baths, a labyrinth of walking trails and lots of chaise longues strategically placed for relaxing to the accompaniment of chirping frogs and pattering rain (300 inches of rain annually on the mountains here).
We could have happily stayed exclusively at Papillote, but the seven-mile one-way trek to Boiling Lake beckoned. Many agree that this arduous, all-day hike to the world's second-largest boiling lake, in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, is the Caribbean's most spectacular. You need a guide, which we arranged through the front desk for a whopping $50 each.
Brian, fond of the phrase "Ya, mon," picked us up in his spiffed-up Toyota and drove us to the trail head.
In pouring rain we followed him past giant gommier trees, which the Carib Indians use to carve canoes, and birds of paradise. We panted up and over Morne Nicholls, by which time the rain had abated but not the mud. Then began the precarious, rocky descent into the Valley of Desolation, a Dantesque moonscape that is the lingering devastation of a 19th century volcanic eruption. We had begun to smell sulfur about a mile back, but here the noxious odor assailed our nostrils and throats. More than 50 steaming fumaroles and hot springs bubbled and burped and percolated throughout the moss-and-lichen-covered valley, crossed by inky streams so hot they can burn flesh. With no marked trail, we stayed close to Brian.
On the valley's other side we climbed some more, finally reaching the eponymous lake, measuring 210 feet across and nearly 200 feet deep and roiling away at a constant 198 degrees. It's believed to be a flooded fumarole, a crack through which gases escape from the molten lava below, heating the water. Perched on rocks above the smelly, sulfurous clouds, we ate our bag lunches before heading back the same way, muddy and fatigued but awestruck.
As the sun fell into the shimmery gold sea one evening, Monica, Leslie and I sat on a pier in Roseau watching an illuminated cruise ship, bigger than a building, returning its passengers to sea in cookie-cutter luxury.
Suddenly I became nostalgic. Someday, I thought, big-time tourism is going to find this hidden place, with all its wonders and wondrous quirks. Let's just hope that planners step wisely.
Barbara A. Noe is a senior editor at National Geographic Travel Books in Washington, D.C.