One of the first things you notice after arriving in Dominica is how polite and friendly everyone is. This isn't because you are a tourist, it's just how people treat each other on the island. And it's not just a nod and hello, it's “good morning” and “good afternoon”. This is particularly noticeable if you ride on any of the local mini buses that travel all around the island. As passengers climb into the van they will invariable greet all on board accordingly and all will reply. A cursory “hello” is not sufficient, it needs to be “good morning, good afternoon or good evening”. In our week on Dominica we found it to be one of the friendliest places we'd ever been to.
For those who don't know, Dominica, the ex-British colony is not to be confused with the Spanish speaking Dominican Republic far to the NW. It's a small island nation of just over 70,000 inhabitants in the north of the Windward Islands.
Dominica is volcanic and mountainous with much of the original rainforest vegetation still intact. It's rugged terrain made it less than ideal for the sugar cane plantations that cleared the land of it's neighbours, such as Antigua and Barbados, where little remains of the native vegetation. Consequently it has great hiking through it's World Heritage National Parks – Morne Trois Pitons and Morne Diablotins National Parks, and hence it proudly wears the title of Nature Isle.
It does not have the long stretches of white sandy beaches that lend themselves to large resort development, so it has escaped this to date. Though it does have some very nice black sand beaches such as Mero and Purple Turtle.
Add to this the fact that it's airport can not cope with large air carriers so there are no direct flights from Europe or North America to Dominica, and you get a tropical island in the Caribbean different to the rest.
There is a lot to keep you occupied on a trip to Dominica. The Government Tourist website has plenty of info, so click here if you want a comprehensive source of 'to dos'.
Here are some of the things we did in our week there. Note: in trying to travel the Caribbean on a budget, which isn't always easy, we opted to visit most of these sites by local bus or taxi, and not by going on organised tours, which are also available. This kept the cost down, and what we also discovered is that it is possible to do many day trips on Dominica this way.
We stayed in the pleasant St James Guesthouse in the capital Roseau so all trips were done as day trips from there.
Trafalgar Falls is one of Dominica's most popular tourist destinations. In the high season it gets a lot of visitors, especially when cruise ships are in Roseau as it is only a short drive from the capital. But we were there in June (low season - the beginning of the wet season) and we only met a handful of other tourists.
We caught the local bus from the bus station that serves that part of the island. It's only EC5/$US2 one way. If you want a taxi to take you there without the wait for the bus (minivan) to fill up it'll cost around EC25/$US10.
The bus will drop you in the township of Trafalgar from where it's a half hour walk to the Falls entrance. A taxi will take you all the way to the entrance. Entry is EC12.5/$US5. There are two falls – Papa and Mama. Hot springs run into the falls so some pools are warm and sulphurous while others are cool and refreshing.
Getting to the different pools for a dip can be tricky with slippery rocks and no clear pathway, but if you can manage the climbs up and down you'll be rewarded with a plunge pool in a fabulous setting.
All of this is with a verdant, tropical backdrop. Very enjoyable.
Roseau's Botanical Gardens are a short walk from the centre of town. From the gardens there is a track that ascends the hill behind the city from where you can get a great view of busy Roseau below – this is Jack's Walk.
It is clearly signposted and involves a well maintained, climb up steps through overhanging rainforest. Cost: free.
Portsmouth and Indian River Boat Trip
Portsmouth is Dominica's second biggest city/town, but with only 3200 people it's hardly an urban jungle. One of it's main attractions is the Indian River Boat Trip.
Access to Indian River and the boat trip lies on the main road about a kilometre short of Portsmouth if you're coming from Roseau and the south. We caught the local bus from Roseau. It was a one hour trip and only cost EC9/$US3.75 per person each way.
When we got off the bus the bus driver sang out to his mate at the boat station and we found we had a seamless transition from bus to boat. A number of boat paddlers wait at the small dock (the trip is by row boats as engine driven boats are not allowed up the river as they do too much damage and disturb the atmosphere).
It's EC12.50/$US5 to enter the park and the boat rides tend to be a standard EC50/$US20 per person for a one to two hour trip (depending how long you linger at the small riverside bar at the turnaround point).
Our boatman David was excellent. He pointed out different wildlife along the river, chiefly birds, crabs and fish, as well as explaining the different trees and vegetation.
Some of one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies was filmed in Indian River and a replica of 'Calypso's Shack' is in the place of where the original stood during the filming.
The buttressed roots of the trees along the river are a feature in their own right and look positively surreal in some stretches, especially if the light is right.
We stopped at the halfway point for a walk along the shore followed by a rum punch at the Dynamite Bar.
The Indian River boat trip is definitely a recommended activity if you visit Dominica.
After the boat trip we walked the short distance to town and then a little further on to Purple Turtle Beach for a dip.
Keen day trippers can continue a little further north to the Cabrits National Park and Fort Shirley.
A EC5/$US2 bus ride south of Roseau takes you to Champagne Reef. The name comes from the strings of volcanically generated bubbles which emerge from the reef and sea floor a short distance off the rocky beach.
It's only $US5 entry and, if you don't have your own snorkelling gear, you can hire it there. There is also a small restaurant where you can get a bite to eat or a cold drink when you've finished playing in the underwater bubbly playground.
Note: We didn't take photos as we left cameras at the guesthouse, not being sure if they'd be safe on shore while we were snorkelling. However, we don't think this would've been a problem after all.
These falls are within the World Heritage listed Morne Trois Pitons National Park. We visited in June, low season, so there was no one there. We saw one other tourist and the ranger who collected our $US5 entry fee.
We went by bus and were dropped off at the corner of the road that leads to the Falls track. It's a 1 km walk from there to where the track starts. The walk to the falls takes around 45 minutes and passes through lush rainforest. It's a very pleasant walk. We wore sensible footwear which is necessary as it can be a bit slippery and muddy at that time of year.
It's a bit of a climb first up and then down to the base of the falls but well worth it.
We had a refreshing dip in the pool in front of the thundering falls.
Emerald Pool is exactly that, an emerald coloured pool at the bottom of a 15metre waterfall. It's a 30 minute drive/bus ride from Roseau. Entry is $US5, like everything else in Dominica. It's inside the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, so the setting is rainforest and green, green, green.
You can cool off in the pool after you've completed the 15 minute walk from the entrance. There are also viewpoints to the Atlantic and Morne Trois Pitons (Dominica's second highest mountain).
We have only touched on some of the possibilities when visiting Dominica. Other options include a 6 hour trek to the Boiling Lake, the second biggest in the world (the biggest is in New Zealand). Not surprisingly there are also a number of hot springs for bathing on the island.
Dominica also has what is considered to be the only remaining community of Carib people, also known as Kalinago, the inhabitants of the Caribbean islands prior to European colonisation. They have their own territory on the east coast which includes a model village for tourist visits.
We don't want to romanticise Dominica. Like most small Caribbean nations, Dominica struggles to provide all the services and infrastructure we take for granted in developed industrialised countries.
There are plenty of people doing it tough. But throughout our stay we found a pride in their country and a courtesy towards each other that stood out for us. We loved Dominica and would recommend it highly.