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THE CARIBBEAN : FAMED AND UNTAMED : TO DOMINICA FOR A WILD TIME

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Dominica’s first brush with Europeans might well serve as a metaphor for its place today among the islands of the tourist-laden Caribbean. On the 3rd of November, 1493, during his second voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus and his crew got close enough to this island of towering green forests jutting precipitously out of the sea to see that there was no welcoming harbor among the rocky cliffs. They paused only long enough to name the island Dominica (Doh-mi-NEE-kah), after the day on which it was sighted (Sunday), and then sailed on without a backward glance. Today, even among those travelers who pride themselves on their Caribbean savvy, it’s a virtual unknown.

Often confused with the Dominican Republic, this largest of the Windward Islands--lying between Guadeloupe and Martinique--isn’t blessed with the sugary white beaches or pale turquoise water that have been the ticket to success for other Caribbean nations seeking the tourist dollar.

While the surrounding islands scurried to build high-rise hotels and gambling casinos, Dominicans quietly continued their age-old tradition of agriculture, growing bananas, coconuts and citrus fruits on whatever plots of land they could hack out of the encroaching jungle. But now it seems it’s finally Dominica’s turn, for it possesses in abundance a commodity that is quickly becoming a lure for the nature-conscious traveler: acre after acre of virgin rain forest, a luxuriant Eden of tangled green that cloaks the island from head to foot.

Getting around is relatively easy for English-speakers. Until 1978, the island belonged to Great Britain, therefore English is the official language. Creole is also commonly spoken, remnant of a brief French rule.

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Twenty-eight percent of the land is protected, either as part of the national park system or forest reserve, a precaution the Dominican government has taken after watching the slow deforestation of many of its neighbors. In truth, the rugged terrain prevents cultivating crops on about 75% of the island, and the remaining land easily supports the population of 70,000. But the government seems to have taken a strong stance in favor of environmentalism out of the belief that its economic future lies in the kind of eco-tourist the island can draw. And so Dominica has begun its cautious ride on that wave, promoting itself as “The Nature Island of the Caribbean.”

A more apt title hardly exists. Rivers and streams, so numerous the Dominicans haven’t bothered to name them all, cascade down mountainsides, rushing over waterfalls into fern-lined pools, pausing only momentarily in their journey to a sapphire sea. Vegetation a thousand shades of green envelopes a landscape so mountainous that much of it remains uncharted and accessible only by foot. Orchids bloom along forest trails (groomed and kept clear by the park service); epiphytes by the hundreds hang from tree branches; poinsettias and vivid red heliconia grow wild over the hillsides.

All is not so placid beneath the surface, however. The forces of nature that gave birth to this volcanic island are still at work, and while there have been no eruptions in many years, there are places on Dominica where the ground hisses and the mud simmers. Nestled in a crater on the south half of the island is the largest boiling lake in the world, accessible to visitors by an ankle-twisting, bone-jarring hike through some of the most spectacular scenery to be found anywhere in the Caribbean.

My own curiosity about Dominica began several years ago when I met a young couple in the airport on St. Maarten who were headed there. Their description of the island as a place apart was enough to get me there--twice--during the past year.

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My first trip, without family, revealed an island paradise I couldn’t believe was known to what seemed only a handful of travelers. I spent the mornings scuba diving among submerged volcanic peaks and hiked every afternoon along the rain forest trails. So struck was I by the beauty of the place and friendliness of its people, that I went back, this time to share the experience with my young son, niece and other family members.

We all snorkeled each morning; the afternoons we spent hiking, but this time hikes tailored to the endurance level of children. With the help of snorkel and hiking guides, by week’s end the children could recognize and name about 50 different varieties of fish, spot the endangered sisserou and jacquot parrots, and give a running commentary on the rain forest habitat.

Most visitors begin their exploration of Dominica in the 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park located on the southern half of the island, about five miles from Roseau. As with all of Dominica’s national parks, there is no entrance fee. Established in 1975, the park boasts six trails that lead to numerous waterfalls, two freshwater lakes and the famous Boiling Lake. We spent several days exploring sites in the park, an easy drive from Castle Comfort Lodge, where we were staying. The easiest hike, and a good introduction to the rain forest, is the quarter-mile loop trail from the main park road to the Emerald Pool. The well-maintained trail winds past ferns and tangled undergrowth, towering trees sprouting bromeliads and occasional glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean far to the east. Surrounded by ferns and flowers, the pool is fed by a waterfall quite tame by Dominican standards, but is a lovely clear green color, making it a popular attraction and refreshing spot for a swim. (Temperatures on the island vary from 70 to 90 year-round, although it is always cooler in the mountains than it is in the coastal areas.)

Trafalgar Falls, just outside the park to the south, is the island’s most famous waterfall. It actually consists of two falls, 100 or so feet apart, one shorter than the other and known locally as the “mother” and the “father.” The smaller falls cascades into a deep pool of icy and turbulent water, while the larger roars from a height of 140 feet to tumble over rocks and boulders on its way down the mountainside. Half of the large falls flows cold like its neighbor, but the other half, springing from a source deep within the island’s volcanic gut, is a deliciously warm 104 degrees. Visitors and locals sit on perfect chair-sized outcroppings in the rocks and allow the soothing water to flow over them.

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Getting to Trafalgar isn’t as easy as soaking up its sauna-like warmth. The first part of the trail, an effortless 10-minute walk from the road, leads to a platform where the falls can be viewed from a distance. From there it’s a scramble over man-sized boulders and across swirling streams, dodging gaps and slippery, moss-covered rocks that can turn an afternoon’s hike into a disaster. Dominican guides, such as the ones who led our group of five, however, have been clambering over these boulders since they were kids. They know every hand-hold and every stepping stone, and should be able to ensure that you arrive--to steep in the fall’s warm water--with all body parts intact. (Although the distance is short, this half-hour hike is for the able-bodied only. Older children will do fine; my 9-year-old son needed very little help, but one of the guides had to carry my 7-year-old niece part of the way.)

If getting to Trafalgar Falls isn’t exciting enough there’s always . . . the Boiling Lake. The words simmer in the back of every visitor’s mind, an unspoken challenge. For there is just no way to see it other than to endure the seven- to eight-hour round-trip hike up steep inclines and across narrow passages, hoisting oneself up by tree roots and sliding down mud slopes.

Yes, I did it on the first trip, and, no, there are no roads, trains, buses or over-flying planes; only feet will get you there. It’s not for children.

It’s a near-vertical climb from the trail entrance in Morne Trois Pitons National Park until the trail reaches the entrance to the Valley of Desolation. There, spread out below like a minefield awaiting its victims, is an expanse of gurgling mud and pits of boiling liquid crisscrossed by mineral-infused streams that flow inky-black, pale blue and chalk-white. The earth steams and the odor of sulfur pervades the air. Nothing grows here. It is a lunar landscape worthy of the best science-fiction movie. Through the Valley of Desolation, up another steep incline and around a corner lies the Boiling Lake. Held captive by the sheer walls of its crater, the lake seethes and churns, its thick, white waters undulating outward from a malevolent-looking center.

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For this hike an experienced guide is a must. One step too close to the edge of a hidden precipice plunges you 200 feet below. Stray from the unmarked path in the Valley of Desolation and you’re up to your knees in scalding goo.

In our experience, hiking guides are easy to find and hire. Most hotels work with a guide service or can recommend someone reputable, and most keep on hand the island guidebook published by the government. Typical rates for an afternoon vary from $20 to $30 per person, usually based on a four-person tour.

Fortunately, Dominica has plenty to offer those whose vacation tastes require a little less adrenaline. The Syndicate Nature Trail in the Northern Forest Reserve winds through the foothills of 4,747-foot Morne Diablotin, Dominica’s highest peak. The mile-long loop trail leads off a gravel road through some of the oldest rain forest on the island. Many of the towering Chataignier trees are believed to be more than 500 years old, and one is thought to have sprouted 1,000 years ago. Even during mid-day the forest is dark, so thick is the vegetation overhead. It pulses with a life all its own, a huge symbiotic being in which every tree, fern, vine and bit of moss has its place. And it drips. The atmosphere is so damp, it seems entirely possible to reach out and squeeze a handful of water from the air itself. The end of the trail looks out over a valley and the forest canopy below, where the observant visitor may catch a glimpse of Dominica’s symbol, the rare and endangered sisserou. Our patience was rewarded, for after 15 minutes at the forest look-out, we

spied three of the magnificent birds.

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The Carib Territory, on the island’s northeast coast, is home for the Carib people, and the only place in the world where they can be found today. Once a dominant force in the Caribbean--after whom the islands are named--they were slowly squeezed off other islands by the steadily growing European presence but found refuge in the wild landscape of Dominica. Here they have had a continuous, if not easy, existence. The territory looks very much like the rest of rural Dominica--small wooden or concrete houses surrounded by neatly kept gardens of flowers and fruit--except for the small roadside stands where people sell traditional crafts.

On the island’s northwest corner, boat rides up the Indian River take visitors through mangroves so thick with vegetation on each side that they join overhead. It’s an Amazon without the piranha, a sort of miniature jungle adventure. Just north of the river, the Cabrits National Park stands sentinel over sparkling Prince Rupert Bay.

Dominica may be the best place in the Americas to introduce kids to the tropical rain forest environment. Harboring no poisonous insects or reptiles and no skin-irritating plants, Dominica is probably safer than one’s own back yard. There are no tropical diseases (no malaria, dengue or yellow fever or intestinal parasites). The water seemed entirely pure (the Dominicans sell it to other islands). At any rate, we all drank water from the tap and ate fruits and salads washed with tap water. Snorkeling within protected bay areas is also appropriate for children. Dive Dominica, with whom we spent our snorkeling mornings, welcomes families on boat excursions and will provide snorkeling vests for all family members.

Scuba divers have come to Dominica for years, attracted by the dramatic underwater scenery of submerged volcanic peaks. After 20 dives in Dominica, I concur. Not only is the underwater terrain spectacular, the corals and sponges are among the healthiest I’ve seen.

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GUIDEBOOK: Island Hopping to Dominica

Getting there: Neither of the island’s two small airports is large enough to accommodate jets, therefore Dominica is served by several regional airlines including LIAT, Windward Island Airways and the new Cardinal Airlines--from gateways such as San Juan and St. Maarten. Canefield Airport is about five minutes from the capital city of Roseau and the most convenient for travelers. Unless you plan to stay at one of a handful of small guest houses on the northeast of the island, avoid landing at remote Melville Hall Airport since it will require a one-hour taxi ride to Roseau and the majority of hotels.

There are multiple possible connections to Dominica, none simple. One possible routing flies from LAX to New York on American or Continental, changes planes in New York, flying on to St. Maarten, where you change to Windward or LIAT for a nonstop flight to Dominica’s Canefield Airport; round-trip fare starts at about $1,050. Or fly Delta from LAX, changing in San Juan for the nonstop flight to Dominica on LIAT; round-trip fare about $900. Where to stay: Hotels and guest houses are generally a bargain compared to the rest of the Caribbean.

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A double at the Reigate Hall Hotel (Reigate Estate, Dominica, West Indies; telephone 809-448-4031, fax 809-448-4034), high on a mountainside above Roseau overlooking the sea, is about $109 a night. The 14 rooms are air-conditioned, with restaurant, tennis court and pool.

The Fort Young Hotel (P.O. Box 519, Roseau, Dominica, W.I.; tel. 809-448-5000, fax 809-448-5006), built on the ruins of an old fort just outside of Roseau, is the island’s most elegant hotel. There are 33 air-conditioned ocean-view rooms, restaurant and a pool. Doubles start at about $120 per night.

A popular spot for nature-lovers is the Papillote Wilderness Retreat and Nature Sanctuary (P.O. Box 2287, Roseau, Dominica, W.I.; tel. 809-448-2287, fax 809-448-2285) in the rain forest close to Trafalgar Falls; only eight rooms, a restaurant and its own hot water mineral spring. Doubles are about $70.

Divers are drawn to the Castle Comfort Lodge (P.O. Box 2253; tel. 809-448-2188, fax 809-448-6088), on the water just south of Roseau. Doubles run about $132 per night including breakfast and dinner. Owners Derek and Ginette Perryman also run Dive Dominica from the same premises. A seven night dive/hotel package that includes two meals daily and 10 boat dives costs $799 per person. Snorkeling excursions can also be arranged.

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For a complete list of hotels and guest houses with rates, contact the National Development Corp., P.O. Box 293, Roseau, Dominica, W.I.; tel. 809-448-2351, fax 809-448-5840.

Getting around: The best way to see Dominica is to hire a tour guide (see below). Van-style buses offer inexpensive transportation between villages but generally not to tourist sites. Taxi service, while easily obtained, should be pre-arranged. Car rentals are available but driving is on the left, and while generally in good condition, the roads are narrow and twisting.

Tours: Ken’s Hinterland Adventure Tours (Ken Dill, P.O. Box 1652, Roseau, Dominica, W.I.; tel. 809-448-4850, fax 809-448-8486), which we used, offers hikes to the Boiling Lake, Emerald Pool and Trafalgar Falls, plus tours of the Carib Territory, a parrot watch in the Northern Forest Reserve, a visit to Cabrits National Park and a boat ride up the Indian River. For a list of guide services, contact the National Development Corp. at the address above.


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