Christopher Columbus first discovered Dominica in 1493, and it feels like there is much that has not changed on the island in the centuries which have passed since. In fact, the locals say that his footprints can still be seen.
The first lesson I learned upon arrival from our wonderful guide Alexis was that Dominica is often confused with the Dominican Republic. However, aside from the absence of one final consonant, that is where any similarity ends.
Dominica is large island, around the same size as Barbados, although its mountainous and rugged landscape mean that it is not possible to build an international airport (there are two domestic airports with flights from Puerto Rico, Barbados, Antigua and other islands, as well as a ferry service from Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Lucia). Hence it remains almost untouched by mass tourism but with huge appeal for nature and wildlife lovers who truly want to get off the beaten track. As our guide explained, Dominica looks like a scrunched-up piece of paper.
The local language is Creole (like St Lucia) but the locals all speak English. There are around 3,500 Caribs (of Indian descent) who were part of the original civilisation and still live on the island.
Our arrival was at Portsmouth, a good beginning as this was my own birthplace, albeit in the British equivalent a few thousand miles away and at least 20 degrees cooler in mid-January. The sun was shining as we took the tender from the Royal Clipper across to the marina, which turned out to be a simple wooden jetty leading to a ‘security’ room, where there was a smiling local offering her table of Dominican merchandise where, amongst the fridge magnets and t-shirts, we were encouraged to purchase Bwa Bande, the local Viagra – clearly our group of middle aged tourists looked like willing customers!
Portsmouth is home to the Cabrits National Park, and a wide range of trails are on offer to see different species of lizards and birds, as well as almond trees, bay leaf trees and an interesting looking fruit called Noonui – once thought to cure cancer and Aids. A rush of visitors to the island almost removed every trace of this fruit, until its supposed healing powers were proved to be only a local myth.
There’s also an impressive fortress complete with cannons and an ordnance room of cannon balls, where the French and English alternated their battles for the country. The British were the most recent rulers, but the island became entirely independent in 1978.
We then drove through the market town of Portsmouth and onward to the Indian River, where part of Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed. Rowboats with guides are ready to be hired to take the tourists down river and past Calypso’s House, still standing since it was purpose-built for the movie in 2004. Our guide, James (known locally as 007) was a wealth of knowledge, some of it unprintable, having been one of the guides for the filming and on first name terms with Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley (the latter James decided was certainly in need of a good dinner!).
The river trip is punctuated by a killer ‘Dynamite’ cocktail at a tranquil bar and tropical gardens at the furthest point of the river that is accessible by row boat. This led to a slightly blurred return journey through the mangroves although I noted that James did not partake. As he wisely said: “Don’t drink and drive”.
To sample a taste of eco- luxury on Dominica, we then visited the eco Secret Bay resort, the brainchild of a local man who dreamed of creating a series of luxury lodges, at one with nature, hugging the coast and with incredible views. The Secret Bay’s concept is simple – you rent one of the six independent lodges, your fridge is stocked on arrival according to personal preferences, and then you can self-cater or be catered for with a 24 hour concierge service. Lovely touches such as a Beanock (think beanbag masquerading as a hammock) are featured in each house as well as private plunge pools, and terraces. The rooms themselves are built in local wood, almost chalet like but totally in keeping with the surrounding forest.
A speed boat is on hand for snorkelling and diving as well as a driving service for eating out in local restaurants. This is true eco-luxury if that is not a contradiction of terms, with low impact tourism and 5 star service. The snorkelling experience is sublime, with spectacular marine life thanks to healthy and colourful reefs.
After a short visit to Dominica, I was left with a real desire to return. We had seen only a small part of the island, being assured that there was much left to visit. Here are some suggestions for those lucky enough to be able to linger longer:
- Sulphur springs at Roseau.
- Trafalgar falls, the Emerald pool and the endless nature experiences. 12 waterfalls, boiling Lake, the world’s second largest volcanically heated lake. Read more.
- World Creole music festival in October.
- Kayaking, zip lining and aerial tram.
- Whale watching.
- Kubuli beer hiking 184km Waitukubuli National Trail – takes at least 2 weeks.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Star Clippers.
- The Royal Clipper – The Windward Islands of the Caribbean
- The Royal Clipper – The Windward Islands of the Caribbean – Ports of call and excursions