Sophie Goddard takes a trip to the Caribbean to ‘Nature’s Island’
“Drink rum and do what makes you happy!” This was the sage advice given to us by ‘Dr. Birdy’ (real name Bertrand Jno Baptiste) the leader of the bird-watching tour we joined on the sunny island of Dominica. He was (I think) joking, but it’s clearly advice worth heeding, since not only did he seem pretty content with his lot, but so did the other Dominicans we encountered. In fact, Dominica is home to an unusually high number of centenarians (their lifestyle is currently being researched by scientists) so it figures they’re doing something right.
The first thing to know about Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) is that it’s pronounced ‘DominEEca’. An island found halfway between Guadeloupe and Martinique, it’s less popular than its Caribbean neighbours, perhaps in part because it has no international airport or direct flights (travellers from London come via Antigua, Barbados or St Lucia to one of the country’s two airports). There are also less white sandy beaches than, say, Barbados (you’ve got volcanic ash to thank for that). But once you’re there, those cramped plane seats and sleepy stopovers are soon forgotten.
Known as ‘nature’s island’, Dominica’s rugged landscape is especially spectacular when you consider the mass devastation left by 2017’s Hurricane Maria. It struck September 18th, ravaging the island and wiping out homes, roads and entire forests. It’s estimated an incredible 90% of buildings were damaged or destroyed in the most powerful storm in Dominica’s history, with 31 losing their lives and thousands left homeless. The effects are visible wherever you go – in places, the landscape is completely barren with buildings still closed and businesses yet to reopen – and everybody we speak to seems to have been affected in some way, losing loved ones, homes or work. But despite the huge scale of the disaster, the island is doing an impressive job of getting back on its feet.
There are more active volcanoes in Dominica than anywhere else in the world, per square metre, and an enormous rainforest covers much of the land, along with rivers, waterfalls, pools, lakes and huge, high rugged mountains. The terrain was deemed so spectacular that scenes from the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films were shot on the island. The lush vegetation has made it a mecca for bird-watchers too, which is why we found ourselves in the Morne Diablotin National Park, following the Syndicate Nature Trail. With Dr. Birdy leading the charge, my group and I hiked – well, more of a gentle amble – in search of local wildlife (which includes around 300 snakes, thankfully none poisonous). We learned plenty on our travels – for example, the Begonia plant, we discovered, tastes pleasantly like apple if you nibble a leaf. We spotted gray kingbirds, red–necked parrots, house wrens, bananaquits and hummingbirds – all happily cohabiting above us in the mango trees. After an hour of walking, we reached a leafy clearing, high up in the forest with nothing but impossibly tall, towering trees stretched out for miles beneath us. To our amazement, our guide sweeps his arm over the impressive landscape and tells us, “There wasn’t a single leaf after the hurricane, this was all completely empty”. The notion is almost too mind-boggling to compute.
A whale of a time
If bird-watching isn’t your bag, whale-watching should be – it’s an absolute must in Dominica since it’s the only country in the world where the sperm whale – AKA the largest predator on the planet – resides all year round. We took an afternoon trip out with the excellent Dive Dominica (£55pp) who follow strict codes of conduct to minimise disturbance, never luring or baiting the whales towards the boats. After our first spot of dolphins, we clocked the famous sperm whales within an hour of setting sail, as the Dive Dominica shared their impressive knowledge and (very patiently) answered everybody’s burning questions about the magnificent mammals. A truly unforgettable experience, it’s something I’ve recommended to anyone and everyone since, so if you get the chance, do it. Hankering after more animal action? Rainforest Riding run excellent horse-riding trips through the Cabrits National Park from (£77pp) and if you’re feeling daring, you can even take a gentle ride on horseback in the waves.
When it comes to where you lay your head, options are steadily growing, since the Marriott and Kempinki chains have both announced plans to open hotels on the island in the very near future. Our first stop was The Fort Young Hotel, on the south of the island, which is just a minute’s walk from the ferry port and close to the nearby market and sites like the Roseau Cathedral and Dominica Museum. The location and views of the Caribbean are second-to-none and while rooms are simple and fairly no-frills, prices are reasonable and staff are friendly (they also serve a great poolside piña colada). We enjoyed dinner in the hotel’s restaurant and the seafood was raved about by all (Dominica, it transpires, isn’t great for vegetarians or vegans). For those keen to push the boat out, islanders told us that Secret Bay, near Portsmouth, is a suitably luxe alternative (there you’ll find high-end tree-houses with private pools and jaw-droppingly good views).
Our next stop was Picard’s Beach Cottages, a row of beach-side ‘cottages’ found on the north of the island. Each ‘cottage’ (more of a beach hut, really) was named after a member of the Pirates of the Caribbean film crew (mine housed cinematographer Dariusz Wolski) as a nod to their stay during filming. Don’t expect high-end luxury – cottages are basic and not wonderfully secure (my door blew open in the night) so it would be sensible to ask reception to store valuables. Still, when you’re that close to the water, who cares? And if you wake to the sound of rain on the roof, hotfoot it to the pontoon ASAP – I saw the best rainbow of my life just before breakfast one morning.
When it comes to dining, many restaurants are still finding their feet post-Maria, and limits on imported produce bring about their own challenges – but that’s not to say there aren’t some hidden gems well worth seeking out. The first is The Great Old House, found in Roseau (just a stone’s throw from The Fort Young Hotel). The atmosphere is lively, service is excellent and the frozen daiquiris are next level (you’ll appreciate them in the heat, too). If there’s space, ask to sit on the balcony and order the red snapper, which was raved about by my fellow diners. The other is Secret Bay’s heavenly Zing Zing, where you can watch experimental chefs prepare seasonal tasting menus for around £60pp. After Hurricane Maria, one of the original Secret Bay villas was rebuilt, this time as a restaurant. ‘Building back better’ is a phrase I heard often during my stay in Dominica, but I’m pleased to report it seems to be true – Dominica’s future looks brighter than ever.
- Try Rainbow Yoga – truly beautiful. Watch out for news of a yoga festival coming to the island soon, too.
- Chill out at Bongo Baths – enjoy a drink and watch the stars in your own rock pool for just £10pp an hour.
- Book onto the Indian River Tour – a must for ‘pirates’ fans (there’s a refreshment stop at a rum shack too), expect to pay £15pp for an hour and a half of river action.
- Visit Papa and Mama Falls – go before midday to avoid the crowds.
- Explore Fort Shirley in Cabrits National Park. If local historian Dr. Lennox Honychurch, who helped restore the building in the 1980s, is around, make the most of his excellent knowledge.
- Return flights with BA via Antigua cost from £615pp
- Fort Young Hotel: Rooms cost from £129 per night based on two people sharing a double room
- Picard Beach Cottages: Cottages cost from £91 per night based on two people sharing a double cottage
- Airport Parking and Hotels offers a wide range of parking at all major airports in the UK. One week of Meet & Greet parking at London Gatwick Airport costs from £94. Visit www.aph.com or call 01342 859442
- For more information visit discoverdominica.com