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Dominica - The Nature Isle - West Indies |



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We have embarked on a four-hour-long hike to Boiling Lake - the world's largest bubbling caldron of water and the main reason that the Morne Trois Pitons National Park was designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

It had been mercifully warm, humid and drizzling rain here and there as we set out early in the morning with Henry, our guide.

It's the Caribs that keep on springing back to mind when my friends, Henry and I make our way into the island's southern forest, especially when we find ourselves in front of a living gommier.

The popular tale that there's a river here for every day of the year is fiction. But it is true that it rains as much as 300 inches annually in some parts of the island, making Dominica one of the wettest places on earth. I've begun to get used to the smell of damp clothes.

The gommier is almost the first tree I notice: 60 feet high with a straight, whitish trunk perfect for chiseling out a canoe. A few slashes in the bark reveal where someone has tapped its sweet-smelling resin for furniture glue, or incense, or perhaps to cure a toothache.

But what's most impressive about this specimen is that it's grown up since Hurricane David tore through Dominica 20 years ago, leveling this entire area. The regenerative power of the timber, vines, and other vegetation, which now look as if nothing had ever disturbed them, seems the stuff of science fiction. There's a saying in Dominica, if you stand still too long, something will start growing on you. As we walk farther into the forest, we fall deeper under its spell. Instinctively conversation becomes hushed. There's the sound of tink frogs and the call of a siffleur montagne, a rufous-throated solitaire, creaking away like a rusty garden gate.

From the ridge we get a clear view of the canopy; dotted here and there with flaming red tulip trees, a favorite ornamental species of the British, who brought it in their slave ships from West Africa. I heard that a German tourist once fell to her death, trying to sidestep a mud puddle.  

Gradually, the story of Dominica unfolds - a tale of conquest and defeat. First the Caribs came, then the French with their slaves and coffee, then the British with sugarcane, cocoa, and limes. Settlers arrived, tried to make their fortunes, and left - hounded out by the next colonial wave or overwhelmed by the forces of nature. So far, the mountains, the rain, and the rain forest have always been on the winning team.

At last, when my legs are starting to nag me with suggestions that I should he more fit, we descend from a world of verdure into the Valley of Desolation, a bizarre moonscape broken by puffs of steam from hot vents and geysers. Here, the crust of the earth is yellow, dotted with pools of boiling gray mud, and the streams are so laden with minerals they flow jet-black, orange, or blue. There are lichens and algae of every color sucking up the sulfurous warmth, but no other plants, except for a strange local bromeliad flowering in exile.

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The scene is a fitting avenue to the lake itself, which, when it appears around that final rocky bend, looks like something dreamed up by Tolkien. It hisses and seethes, a giant, milky mass 200 feet across, in a crater 300 feet deep.

It feels as if we've made it to the heart of the island and found it heaving with impatience. The sulfur steam taints our clothes, and the heat is almost unbearable. I know the caldron hasn't actually erupted for more than a hundred years, but despite the spectacular occasional glimpse, when the clouds of vapor part, down the Sari-Sari valley to the cool blue of the Atlantic, the lake makes an uneasy place to rest.


"Pilot, whales at two o'clock!" We hurtle around the boat like it's on fire. There's a moment's agony when everyone else seems to see the creatures and I can't. Then there they are, rising and falling through the waves and cruising toward us - two, three, five, ten... no, thirty of them. There are three babies with the whales, and they're agog with curiosity.

Just 20 feet away from the boat, they line up like a row of floating torpedoes and pop their heads up to take a look. "Man, they checking us out!" cries the skipper's mate, as an eerie underwater singsong comes over the hydrophones. Skipper Derek Perryman has sighted whales hundreds of times in the five seasons he's been operating his cruises out of Roseau. He's filmed them, snorkeled and dived with them, and helped to collect a wealth of data on their behavior. But by the look on his face, you'd think this was his first encounter. Twenty species of dolphin and whale have been sighted within five miles of Dominica, he tells us. There's a nine-in-ten chance of spotting at least one cetacean species simply because there are so many sperm whales here. (Giant squid in the depth 2,000 feet below us are the main attraction for them.) As we head for home, Derek adjusts the hydrophone and has a last listen for the telltale clicks of a sperm whale. There's one close by, but a cruise ship docked at Roseau two miles away starts its engines and blocks out all other sounds.


Roseau strikes me as a matchbox town, scarcely a capital city, though it has its cathedral, ministry, statehouse, courthouse, two marketplaces, and a building honoring Queen Victoria. There's a sense of transience about the place, as if it might blow away at any minute. It's the kind of precariousness that has me looking over my shoulder from time to time to check Morne Micotrin the supposedly dormant volcano that stands watch over the town, and when I lie down for a siesta beneath one of the remaining banyans in the botanical gardens, I half expect to feel vibrations.

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Hurricanes, fires, and floods have swept Roseau away numerous times it the past; Hurricane David took out the whole bayfront. The result is a town of patchwork charm. Among the unresolved piles of rubble where the buildings used to be, are the survivors, with their gap-toothed jalousied windows, verandas askew, and wooden shingles curling up at the edges like old sandwiches. New arrivals - all smoked glass and chrome and self-satisfaction and another generation of tin-and-driftwood structures (sometimes painted with graffiti) fill out the mix.

Alongside Roseau, the cruise ship Fascination looks as outrageous as a flying saucer with room for 2,000 passengers, it's almost as big as the new bay front. Dominica's entire hotel industry can accommodate only 1,700. The town's population has grown by ten percent for the day, and the pace of life has changed dramatically. The road to Trafalgar Falls, a few miles out of town, is a traffic jam of minibuses. An hour away, in the middle of the forest, there's a line for the Emerald Pool, and a catering truck has been set up to provide burgers and Mexican specialties.

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Apart from taxi drivers, few locals I have talked to seemed to welcome this thrice-weekly invasion. Dominica doesn't have beaches, and golf courses, and 300-bedroom hotels. People come here for peace and quiet and because this island is one of the last unspoiled islands in the world. Dominica has resources that most resorts just dream of: waterfalls, mountains, and rain forests. Dominica has hundreds of birds, 36 species of orchid, edible frogs... Where else can you drink water from a stream nowadays without poisoning yourself? With passions running high in Roseau, it's a relief to head back to the country for our last couple of nights on the island before we head up to Guadeloupe.

My goal is Morne Fous on Dominica's southernmost tip, and my coccyx is bruised from bouncing along the stone-paved road laid by slave labor in the 1700s - a road that once led to the sugar estate at Bois Cotelotte, where Empress Josephine is said to have stayed. All that's left of the place is an old stone mill and a line of strangler figs that must have lined an avenue. From rainforest to boiling lake, the message on this Caribbean island is clear: Dominica - Nature calls the shots.

Main Page Dominica Photo Gallery About the Island of Dominica Journey to the Boiling Lake   How to get to Dominica Map of the Island Airfare & Hotel Info Contact Us Advertise Here Neighboring Island: Guadeloupe Neighboring Island: Saint Lucia Home Page