Rain pings against the metal roof of the treehouse, torrents that rip the hillside and drown the music of the tree frog serenade. Peering out an open window, I watch immense tropical plant leaves fill with water, sag, then douse the already saturated soil.
“No hiking today,” grumbles my husband, in a pre-caffeine stupor.
“Wanna bet?” I reply, eager for our planned trek. We’re part of a small group adventuring to Dominica’s famous Boiling Lake. The volcanic crater sits within 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our six-hour round-trip takes us through the Valley of Desolation, where sulfuric fumes killed most of the vegetation. But, on the return route, we’ll stop to soak our tired muscles in thermal springs.
Dominica, a rather unknown island— just 290 square miles— lies between Guadeloupe and Martinique and is NOT the Dominican Republic. A former British colony, she has governed herself since 1978. The country resembles a preteen, edging toward adolescent experimentation, growth and maturity. But no need for a make-up lesson; the land, sea and people are naturally gorgeous. If only, they stay that way,
Awakened by a few cups of locally grown coffee, husband Jay begrudgingly agrees to the muddy conditions remaining post downpour. We venture to Titou Gorge, starting point for the hike. Foiled again. Security guards, camouflaged as military personnel, turn us away. The forceful watchman claims: “We’re having special operations here. No admittance.”
Frustrated, the dreadlocked guide from our hotel, Moses, argues, “Never seen this closed before.”
A cover-up unfolds, hiding a big secret. The truth, however, appears obvious: hard to disguise cameras and crews filming the CBS Survivor series, “Pirate Master.” The popular theme builds on Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” including scenes shot in Dominica for movies II and III.
But we’re not letting those scallywags defeat us; we switch our destination and finally begin ascent. I stumble along, my balance tenuous, like I’m walking the plank with one too many rum punches. I pray I won’t slip on the treacherous stones or into the oozing muck. Moses, our leader to the promised land of waterfalls, reminds us to pause and look up every ten steps. “Don’t miss the beauty of the forest,” he says with equanimity, like a yoga instructor.
“Ha,” I think, like a city slicker, even though dressed as a nerdy camera-toting tourist.
Water, water everywhere–is this how being slimed feels? Moss upholsters the trees and rocks, so plush a princess could sleep on the ground and never feel any bumps. No wonder– the cloud-shrouded rainforest drizzles over 300 inches of precipitation per year and the island boasts 365 rivers.
We ford a gushing stream, soaking our sneakers and socks; but no other route exists. We trudge up and down (the more perilous) across wild terrain, crammed with colorful bird- of-paradise in bloom and enormous curling ferns.
Jay, no Tarzan, loses his footing and frantically windmills his arms. He tries to recover, stepping on soft grass at the path’s edge. Me-Jane hears the rumble–and turns to see him pitching backward. I grab his ankle, just as he starts falling down the 20-foot ravine. Instantly Moses flies over, like a guardian angel, rescuing Jay from harm. The wayward one wrestles up, leveraging against a giant bromeliad, filthy and a bit embarrassed, but not hurt.
The trail marker indicates a short 45-minute hike. “Dominican time,” I think. Locals, who constantly walk the practically vertical countryside, may arrive in three-quarters of an hour, but our group takes almost twice as long. We reach freshwater Borei Lake sweating and hungry. Aah, a blessed repose. (And lest I forget– a great photo op.)
Moses foretells of hidden Middleham Falls, warning we’ll need to scramble for a peek. Another hiker, Kristen, commits us, “sure, we can make it.”
The pilgrimage, described in my guide book as “arduous”, is more like ridiculous. The first challenge is a section of gnarly unearthed tree roots. I drop down and crawl to maneuver over them, snarling at this feisty forest.
Then, we hit a series of skyward log steps. No flat, nada downhill, just up, up and up. Whew. As a former fitness instructor, I’m chagrined that my heart rate climbs and my leg muscles burn.
One-by-one, we stagger to a resting point, where our guide notices Jacquot parrots. If we contain our breathlessness, we can hear their muffled trills. Moses mimics the song of another tropical bird, who dutifully answers back. Beautiful.
I hear the dim roar of the falls, we’re getting close. We must hoist ourselves over boulders, carefully finding footholds. Then– one more river and o’er muddy slopes to a platform.
Glorious–glistening liquid crystals bounce 150 feet down the noisy waterfall. Bare vines droop from the rocky crevice, like hemp ropes for climbers (no one dares attempt.) A few brave souls conquer the final descent, ready to swim in the pool, but are forced back by the powerful current.
“Namaste,” I whisper, bowing to the trees. Connecting to this juicy jungle brings a Zen moment, a oneness with nature. However, the following day I must remind myself of that tranquility, because never were my calves this sore, even after running a marathon.
Dominica remains undiscovered by mass tourism, fewer than 85,000 sleep-over per year. Sandy beaches are rare; most are rocks. Driving on the left is terrifying; blind curves on twisty pot-holed roads. Locating restrooms? Next to impossible- except at the hallowed hiking centers. Flight schedules are currently difficult, but a runway extension is underway and they’re installing lights.
Not a high-rise, chain store or name-brand hotel rests on her jagged coasts and densely foliated peaks, soaring almost 5,000 feet. Water is plentiful, but money is not. Housing remains much like it was a century ago: one-to-two room lumber dwellings, simply hammered together, many still without indoor plumbing.
However lovely this unpolished isle, she struggles. Residents need jobs if they wish to move beyond their current economic conditions. Judith Thomas, a mom with four daughters, desires progress. Speaking English instead of her usual Creole, she says, “I want my children to have a promising future, but I can’t offer one.” Her girls must wait for opportunities to come to the island, or leave to get ahead.
And sadly, that happens all too often. Many young people go off, creating a gap in the population.
Poverty escalated in the 1990’s, when banana growers succumbed to over-supply, competition and cheaper prices from Latin America. A fair-trade act helped restore local farmers, and the government began restructuring the economy in 2003, but agriculture remains vitally critical.
The terrain proves difficult to work, except for easy-to-grow taro root, the potato of the tropics, and acres of banana palms. Many trees hang with bunches wrapped in bright blue plastic bags. While this sheathing keeps the produce bug- and bird-free for export, the view reminds me of art work from Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who dressed Central Park in orange cloth gates.
How will tourism benefit the country? A look at Jungle Bay, our hotel, provides a fine example. Sam Raphael, the proud Dominican owner, said, “The resort was 100 % built by local residents, with the exception of an electrician and plumber from Antigua, who led the team. Woodworkers from Guyana also came to train locals in construction techniques”
The eco-friendly site hugs a steep slope, edging the ocean. Raphael claims he purchased the property for a reasonable sum, because it was considered waste land, unusable due to the incline. But that location makes an ideal spot for treehouses on stilts.
The rustic, luxuriously appointed guest quarters come close to five-star accommodations with private verandas umbrellaed by the forest. The Swiss Family Robinson would be jealous: rooms boast coffee makers, enclosed showers- open to the starry heavens, but no TV.
Yoga classes, mountain-side spa suites and the white noise of repetitive rolling surf provide relaxation. Local guides lead adventurers and transport guests to Tarzan-worthy swimming holes.
Holistic Jungle Bay runs with 95% Dominican staff, learning first, and now earning good wages. Currently, the management is a family affair, but they hope to expand and promote residents.
Progress has its price, however. I worry that the island’s natural riches will be overly commercialized. I swam through tiny champagne bubbles, like diamonds rising from the bottom of the sea, and snorkeled undamaged coral reefs. “Scuba Diving” magazine rated Dominica second in the Caribbean’s top dive destinations–for her dramatic drop-offs, caves and wrecks.
Whale watching enthusiasts find seven species living and breeding nearby and sport fishermen are attracted by Yellowfin tuna, barracuda and marlin.
Cruise ships are already stopping, allowing passengers to ride the aerial tram, which, I suspect, was built to attract their business. But these visitors only stay a few hours, benefiting just a small segment of the work force.
Even more alarming is what these liners carry. In 2003, the government built a sewage treatment plant near Roseau, the capital. Small Islands Global Forum reports that cruise ships dispose of their garbage on the island.
And there’s talk of an oil refinery on the eastern part, of this, often called “Nature Island of the Caribbean.”
Dominica, the naive pubescent, is developing with growth-hormone surges, pushing rapid maturation. A 2007 report on the economy stated, “The problem remains of balancing the need for increased tourism with the protection of the island’s unique and vulnerable eco-system.”
I just hope she wins immunity and remains a survivor.
If you go:
Turbo-prop planes land at Melville Airport on the island’s northeastern stretch. American Airlines offer connections, only through Puerto Rico. Car and mobile phone rental are available at the airport. Ferries service Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia.
Roseau, the capital, on the southwestern coast, features a farmers’ market every Saturday and the 40-acre Botanical Gardens, founded in 1891, include flora, fauna and a parrot aviary.
Jungle Bay Resort–in Delices, a tropical hideaway on the ocean’s edge, includes 35 tree-cottages, a restaurant, yoga center and health spa. Adventure packages include guided outings and transportation.
Beau Rive–a small boutique hotel, offers eight ocean-view guest rooms. Owner Mark Steele welcomes visitors to impeccable over-sized rooms with verandas, near Castle Bruce. Gourmet meals served on the patio, overlooking Wakaman Point.
3 Rivers Eco-Lodge — in Rosalie. Green Globe certified camping, dormitory, tree house or cottages, restaurant and environmental education workshops.
For further information on Dominica see www.discoverdominica.com