Travel Guide, Winter 1995-1996
Dominica is for people who need sweat and grit in their tropical vacation: The island's few beaches are mostly of black volcanic sand, and none rates even fair by Caribbean standards. What Dominica does have are mountains that rise 4,000 feet out of crashing surf and disappear into the clouds. Vast tracts of old-growth rainforest. Hundred-foot waterfalls. Lakes that boil. And villages where the locals greet visitors with an amiable "OK!"
The classic green-in-your-face place to stay is the Papillote Wilderness Retreat (doubles, $65-$85; 809-448-2287), at the base of 4,000-foot Morne Macaque, with ten simple rooms surrounded by orchid gardens, hot springs, and Trafalgar Falls. Owners Anne and Cuthbert John Baptiste can set you up with a guide ($40 per person) for the hike to Dominica's claim to fame, Boiling Lake, a flooded volcanic caldera deep in the mountainous interior. It's a muddy six-hour round-trip through dripping rainforest: Don't even dream about keeping your feet dry. You'll walk through the surreal Valley of Desolation, denuded of vegetation by sulfurous gas roaring from vents in the valley floor. The lake itself--roiling and gurgling at 190 degrees, surrounded by cliffs, and shrouded in perpetual mist--has no counterpart anywhere in the world. If that hike seems too ambitious, take the two- to three-hour round-trip to Boeri Lake in Morne Trois Pitons National Park. For maps, call the Forestry Division at 809-448-2401.
But Dominica isn't all ferns and granite. To get closer to the sea, base yourself at the island's southern end near the village of Soufrière, on a sheltered bay eight miles down the coast from the shabby capital, Roseau. Set at the foot of a steep valley, Soufrière is the kind of place where folks build roadside stoops out of tree branches just to have a place to watch the world go by. In the center of town, ideally situated between the narrow, rocky beach and the basketball court, is a valhalla of outdoor sport called Nature Island Dive (809-449-8181); it's the only dive shop on Soufrière Bay. Recently set aside as a marine reserve, the bay contains the highest concentration of soft corals in the Caribbean. At an underwater sulfur vent called Champagne Spring, divers and snorkelers weave through columns of noisily percolating gas bubbles. Try hovering directly over the vents; the bubbles tickle like nibbling minnows (two-tank dive, $63; one-day resort course, $84).
Paddlers can explore the bay's calm waters and rugged coastline in custom Paluski sea kayaks ($10 per hour; $40 for a guided half-day trip). Mountain bikers can rent clunky rigid-fork Giant Rincons ($60-$80 per person for group rides); the terrain ranges from smooth plantation roads to gut-busting single track, but one thing is constant: the hills. Independent riders can wear themselves out on a ten-mile network of mountain-bike routes in the Soufrière Valley. The hair-raising Gallion Trail descends about 800 feet in 17 vertiginous switchbacks and spits survivors out onto the beach.
If you want to stay right on the ocean, Nature Island Dive has a two-bedroom cottage with kitchen ($100 for two, $130 for up to four). Those on a budget should try Gachette's Seaside Lodge (doubles, $25-$65; 809-448-7749) in Scotts Head, just down the road. But for stunning views of the Soufrière Valley and Martinique Channel, there's only one place: Petit Coulibri Guest Cottages (doubles, $75; cottages $200; 809-446-3150), a 1735 plantation estate converted to a small lodge. The three stone-and-wood cottages and two studios are up a steep three-mile road from Soufrière.