Updated: 28th July 2019

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PRODUCED IN PARTNERSHIP WITH VISIT DOMINICA

The tears started to build in my eyes as the rugged road battered our cars suspension. ‘It will be worth it’ Alex, our driver-come-new-best-friend called from upfront, ‘It’s my favourite beach in Dominica’.

It wasn’t the dirt-track or bumpy journey that was getting to me though; it was a glance at my watch and the realisation that, in a few hours, we would be saying goodbye to this precious island. The time was fast approaching to board a small twin-prop and leave this wild, rugged, beautiful nation that had stolen my heart.

It’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere that made me cry on goodbye, but The Commonwealth of Dominica had got me good. Places like this are not only rare but why I fell in love with travelling. Incredible landscapes, friendly faces, untouched nature and that feeling of discovering something special. It’s not like it had taken a while to grow on me either; my love for this country had started just moments after our arrival.

‘Honking is good; honking is friendly’ Alex shouted over the rhythm of his horn, as our vehicle climbed up into the mountains and passed waving villagers, a short toot greeting each person back. Behind us, the tiny airport faded into the distance, as rainforest and river coated landscapes enveloped us.

We stop suddenly, killing the engine of the car to better hear the Parrot calling at the side of the road. With fresh lemongrass in our hands and a light sprinkling of rain, I felt a world away from the flat white beaches of Antigua where we had spent our stopover.

I’d been in Dominica for less than thirty minutes, and I already felt at one with nature. You don’t have to go looking for mother nature’s most exceptional work here; it’s everywhere and all-encompassing. This is why the locals proudly call their home the nature island.

Fort Young Hotel amongst the hills of Dominica as seen from the ocean
Fort Young Hotel

Exhausted from the connecting flight, Dominica’s airport is so small that only short flights from the Caribbean can land here, we happily dropped the bags into our rooms at Fort Young Hotel in the low-key capital city of Roseau before gleefully accepting (the start of many) rum punch.

Fort Young is not only historical but also one of the nicest and most famous hotels on the island. A homely 3-star offering with an epic location. You don’t come to Dominica for luxury resorts and back-to-back 5-star retreats like other Caribbean islands, you come here to hike, canyon and bathe in countless rivers, and this was the perfect base.

With a casual snack bar, fancier restaurant, swimming pool and on-site dive shop, it ticked the boxes. For me, being just minutes walk from the restaurants, shops and city life of Roseau was even better though. You don’t need to try hard to slip into a resemblance of local life here.

Slipping into bed with the wide balcony doors open and the lightly lapping waves of the Atlantic outside, I was quickly lullabied to sleep. It felt like being on a cruise ship, with just ocean as far as the eye could see.

‘No cocktails, no lying on the beach here, no-no. Strap your boots on and go dive in some pools’ Marvin our guide laughed as the heavens opened and we dipped under a lush green canopy of trees.

By the time the Umbrellas were erected though, the rain had already passed. It wasn’t the first shower, nor would it be the last on our short hike to Middleham Falls. The wild verdant rainforest was enchanting come rain or shine.

Marvin tore off leaves from plants that tasted of crisp green apple, and handed me red berries after checking they were safe to eat. Everywhere you look in Dominica there are hanging fresh goodies, and our hike had evolved into a masterclass in wild fruit salad making.

Around an hour into the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, we turn a corner and Middleham Falls in all its towering beauty greets us. Over 150-feet of powerful water cascaded down the rock cliff, and surprisingly, we had this natural wonder all to ourself.

In fact, we met a total of eleven other visitors that morning, a point which made Dominica seem all that more enthralling.

Waterfall crashes down with a man standing in front of the pool and the rainforest of Dominica on either side
Impressive Middleham Falls is a short hike away

While the off-season might bring some bad weather, deadly Hurricane Maria which tragically tore through the country in 2017 being the rare epitome of this, it also means far fewer visitors.

With the cruises only docking during the high-season, Dominica, with its limited airport arrivals is a blissful escape away from these months. That said, I’ve heard that it can become a chaotic mass of people when the cruise ships ferry in the visitors.

Dominica isn’t a flat island like other Carribean ports such as Aruba, where cruise-goers disembark and head to the nearest beach. So when the ships do arrive, the narrow mountain roads and nearby attractions, of course, become crowded with visitors.

So come in the off-season, and stay for a while. If you want to go all out, the Waitukubuli trail provides the perfect two-week trek across the island, linking the multiple trails of Dominica together. Without any predators and a great value National Park Ticket, which all park visitors must get no matter the length of stay, it’s a serene hikers paradise.

I quickly learnt these rainforests though aren’t just for hiking and waterfalls, though there are countless options to choose from. In amongst the mountains and volcanos you can get your adrenaline pumping while Canyoning, or bathe in beautiful natural pools.

Ti Tou Gorge was my first taste of moss-covered rocks and refreshing waters. For those seeking the easiest way to sample the gorges of Dominica, a short swim takes you to a small waterfall inside. If you want to go all out though, then Canyoning with Extreme Dominica is the perfect ticket.

Scared of heights, I was surprised that I somehow convinced myself this would be a good idea, but here I was. Thirty feet below me in a dark pool of refreshing water, Berani’s voice echoed through the canyon as he counted me down: ‘3, 2, 1, jump!’

I shut my eyes, screamed a profanity into the dark stone of the canyon around me, and leapt off the edge, crashing into the entirely fresh and refreshing water below. It took me a while to get into it, but by the time we slung ourself onto the last zip-wire, I was a Canyoning convert.

Dominica
Inside the rainforests of Dominica

For those not wanting to stray too far from the relaxed Caribbean vibes, Dominica serves up its nature in various forms and levels. From the easy to chill in Emerald Pool, one of the islands best-known attractions, to the intense hiking routes which deliver you to natural wonders such as the Boiling Lake.

Situated in the heart of Dominica’s World Heritage Morne Trois Pitons National Park, this vast bubbling lake of boiling water is a sight to behold for those who tackle the heavy hike there. We opted for a more more relaxed approach to our bodies of water though and drove to the Freshwater Lake which danced in and out of the clouds as brave locals took a dip.

With some 365 rivers in Dominica, one for each day of the year as the locals regularly point out (a stark contrast to the 365 beaches nearby Antigua celebrates) it’s no surprise there are multiple waterfalls to venture too. The twin falls of Trafalgar, although not as impressive as Middleham, are easy to access, and it was closeby that I sampled my best meal on the island.

‘Shrimp, chicken or fish?’ a friendly face asked us through a small window. In the local restaurants of Dominica, menus aren’t needed, and at the River Rock Cafe, this was no exception. The creole sauce coated freshwater shrimp were juicy and tasty, and the Soursop juice a dreamy accompaniment. In the background, the sounds of tumbling water and chirping birds perfected the scene.

The only disappointment of my trip to Dominica was Wotten Waven, a spot with a selection of hot water springs billed as a rejuvenating visit. The concrete pools though weren’t a welcome sight, and I’d take the cooler, but more natural beauty of the island’s pools any day.

A small bird as spotted while bird watching in Dominica
Dominica is a bird watchers paradise

‘Look, it’s there’ whispered Bertrand, better known as Dr Birdy on the island. Pressing my eye against the telescope, the beautiful Sisserou (Imperial) parrot greeted me in the far distance.

Bird watching had never appealed to me before, but here in Dominica, Dr Birdy is somewhat of an institution, so I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see Dominica through his eyes.

‘Dr Birdy!’ excitedly called an English voice ahead of us. A lady who had seen him speak at a bird-watching talk in the UK the previous year shook his hand, cementing his celebrity status

We spent a few hours walking through the rainforest, admiring the various birds on the island as we explored the Syndicate Nature Trail. Without any predators or big animals on land, the Parrott’s and other birds of the island become the most beautiful wildlife. I left that walk with a new appreciation for all that lives in the skies above us.

While the wildlife on land might be small, a few thousand feet off the coast is another story.

‘Did you see that?’ Squealed Macca in excitement as two breaching Sperm Whales disappeared into the deep blue. The rest of the boat stared on equally in awe of these magnificent creatures, as a pod of Dolphins joyfully played around us.

One of the only countries in the world to have a resident population of Sperm Whales, your chance of seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild here are high.

With deep waters, less traffic and a wealth of food opportunities off the Dominica coast, the Whales can be spotted for most of the year. Limited daily boat tours keep their distance, and strict and hard to get permits are required for swimming to keep them protected from human interaction.

Dominica appears, for now at least, to be a country that’s not intent on destroying its self for the tourist dollar. Nature is the prime currency here, and I hope it stays that way. It’s also a country proud of its culture and celebrating its history.

Three Dolphins jumping out of the water in Dominica
Playful Dolphins followed the Sperm Whales

There was no fanfare or fences as we crossed the border to the Kalinago territory, home to the indigenous owners of the land.

It was the same lush green land of hanging bananas and Atlantic wave views. The only noticeable difference to me was the abundance of yellow flags outside homes, a nod to the upcoming elections where red and blue flags had dominated the rest of the island.

Dominica was initially known as Ouitoucoubouli, and then Waitukubuli, which is also the name of the hiking trail across the island. Formerly known as the Carib Indians, the ancestors of the first residents here came from Asia, and across the Bering Straits, before settling in the Orinoco River basin in South America. It was from here that the Kalinago travelled to become the first settlers of Dominica.

Wanting to learn more about the history, we headed towards the Kalinago Barana Aute (the village by the sea) where a visitor centre shares the history of the natives of the island.

As with much of the Caribbean, a history of slavery and misery is part of Dominica’s past, with the Spanish and Christopher Columbus, followed by the French and British.

On the flatter islands of the Caribbean, the native populations were enslaved or murdered. Here, in Domnica, the mountainous landscape helped the Kalinago hide away from the invaders, and many continued their life and culture on the isolated east coast.

This protected area of the island is known as the Carib Quarter and covers some 3700-acres of land with a population of around 3500. Outsiders can’t buy property or land in the reserved, though I was pleased to hear the Kalinago can live anywhere in Dominica.

With their own chief, elections and representation, the Kalinago are the only indigenous populations still to be found in the Eastern Caribbean. Justinian, who guided us around, suggested that 90% of the Kalinago population though are now mixed.

In the Kalinago Barana Aute alongside the history hall, you can see the traditional side of the Kalinago. From weaving and dancing to the thatched houses, which are now only really used as homestays for tourists. For the most part, you wouldn’t notice any difference in the reserve, and sadly, the language has nearly died out. A few phrases are still in use, and a 104-year old lady living in the Village is one of the few still to know much of the older language.

For those wanting to learn more about the Kalinago, the visitor centre is open daily 10-5pm, although some of the workshops and displays only run during high season. Tours are ticketed, while a donation to the visitor centre is appreciated for those just coming to see the area.

Saturday marked the last day of my stay in Roseau, and although I was only moving an hour up the west coast, I felt like I had already crammed so much into my Dominica vacation.

Being market-day, I ventured out into Roseau and picked up an abundance of fresh fruit at the bustling stalls with their colourful umbrellas.

Roseau had been good to us and was an easy city to settle into. A local museum and the botanic gardens are the main visitor’s attractions in the capital. A collection of cool bars and countless rum punches had kept us entertained each night.

Be sure to ask for the ‘local drinks’, and you’ll save plenty of dollars, as local rum punches are billed in the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, as opposed to the cruise-ship ready menus many places have in USD. Oh, and be sure to sample the Coconut tablet-style sweets.

Driving up the west coast, we passed silver sand beaches which started to fade into black sand the further north we headed. The Volcanic side of Dominica was beginning to show, yet these dark sands were surprisingly soft as we arrived into Portsmouth, Dominica’s second city.

Aerial view of a beach on Dominicas west coast with a small town alongside it
Beaches along the west coast of Dominica

Picard Beach Cottages didn’t just feel different from Fort Young; it felt like a different country entirely. The vibe was more SE Asia backpacker and the wooden cottages just seconds from the ocean were a delight.

You couldn’t call this place luxury, but it was perfect. Small kitchenettes accompanied the front rooms with sea views, while comfortable beds provided a relaxing sleep to the sounds of rain.

Waking the next morning, the rainbow over the ocean and my private balcony provided a dream coffee retreat to enjoy my book and be reminded just how incredible this planet is.

Across the water was the Cabrits National Park, where Fort Shirley, now a hostel sits alongside the construction of the islands first luxury resort.

Portsmouth was even more sleepy and relaxed than Roseau. We wandered along the beach to local juice cafes and restaurants; all the while surprised at just how few visitors seemed to be on this incredible island.

One of the main attractions on the west coast is the Indian River, where small wooden boats take you into overhanging palms where the Kalinago had lived initially.

More recently, it has been one of the many locations across Dominica used in Pirates Of The Caribbean.

The tranquil sounds of nature were only interrupted by the oar splashing as our boat-man guided us upstream.

Like most good journeys in Dominica, it would end at a Bush Bar, a modest wooden spot where various local rum flavours are served up. Being a popular tourist attraction, this bar didn’t feel as authentic as some of the others we had visited, obviously though, that didn’t stop us from sampling the many rum flavours on offer here, and raising a glass to an amazing trip.

The Indian River as seen from above with the mountains of Dominica in the background
The Indian River is one of the widest in Dominica

The tears started to build in my eyes as the rugged road battered our cars suspension. ‘It will be worth it’ Alex, our driver-come-new-best-friend called from upfront, ‘It’s my favourite beach in Dominica’.

It wasn’t the dirt-track or bumpy journey that was getting to me though; it was the glance at my watch and realisation that, in a few hours, we would be saying goodbye to this precious island.

The final day of what had felt like a month in this paradise came round, and Alex promised us he had left the best to last.

Baitabou beach sits on private land, which meant after our prolonged climb down the ‘road’ we had to shed a few dollars to spend some time here. I’m not a fan of paying for beaches, but this deserted stretch of palm-fringed coastline was worth every penny.

Ellie and I were alone, other than Alex and the beach attendant, and we both glanced at each other with that look of disbelief.

We sat there in near silence, watching the waves lap onto the sands and enjoying this private slice of paradise. When we did speak, it was to agree on how unique this island was, both of us seemingly at a loss for words.

‘You’ll be coming back’ Alex said as we hugged it out at the airport. It wasn’t a question; it was a statement, confident that this magnificent country of his had earned a place in my heart.

‘Carnival is in February, or October for independence celebrations full of culture’ he finished with, as my mind started planning out when I could make this happen.

We stepped into the tiny terminal, and the check-in assistant asked why I was grinning at the prospect of going.

‘I’m not smiling because I’m happy to leave, I’m smiling because I’ve found paradise’ I answered, and the three of us, the only people in the terminal building, grinned as if no one else in the world were in on the secret of this magnificent country.

Dominica turned out to not just be the nature island, but the island I’ve always longed for.

I just didn’t realise it actually existed beyond my dreams.

*My visit to Dominica was in partnership with Discover Dominica, and you can find more awesome reasons to visit on their website. As always, opinions are my own, and I legit cried on the way to the airport to leave – it has been a while since a new country did that to me!

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