Everything I read said that Dominica should not be missed by nature lovers and friends who’ve been there highly recommended going. So, we decided we had to visit.
In short, we were not disappointed, as we were enchanted with the rugged coastline…
enjoyed the extensive hiking trails…
and marveled at the geological features, such as these otherworldly, red rocks.
What we didn’t expect was seeing so much inspiration for a property in Kenya that Khadija was planning on developing using shipping containers. Yet, in the capital of Roseau, we went to an excellent coffee house called, The Nook which was in such a building.
Where’s Dominica and How To Get There?
Dominica is an island country in the Lesser Antilles, an arc of volcanic islands. It’s the most northern island of the Windward Islands extending south to Grenada. The Windward Islands are called this because they’re against the trade winds for ships from Europe and Africa. The islands north of Dominica are the Leeward Islands (sailing towards the Old World in the same direction as the trade winds) extending from Guadeloupe to the Virgin Islands.
Dominica doesn’t have an airport that can accommodate large airplanes, so most international travelers fly to a Caribbean Island, such as Antigua, Guadeloupe, Barbados or Martinique, then switch to a smaller plane or take a ferry to Dominica. We flew from New York City to San Juan, Puerto Rico, changed planes and flew to the Douglas-Charles Airport in the northeast part of Dominica.
How to Travel and Where to Stay in Dominica
My wife Khadija and I spent eight days in Dominica during the end of January and beginning of February 2020. We traveled throughout the country and saw most of the significant attractions indicated on this map.
Dominica is a small island, about the area of New York City or Malta. However, driving is slow because the island is covered with heavily-forested mountains. The best way to get around is with a rented SUV. We rented from Valley Rent-A-Car in the Douglas-Charles Airport and received excellent pickup and return service from Mrs. Merle Seaman. Be sure you have insurance from your credit card or Valley because it’s easy to scratch the car driving on narrow mountain roads.
If visiting more than a few days, it’s a good idea to stay in more than one place in order to limit the driving time to attractions. We stayed first for five nights at Diamond View Cottages, located a five-minute drive south of Roseau. The spacious two-unit houses have an excellent view of the mountains and the Caribbean Sea.
Clyde (aka Black Diamond) is the owner and worked in construction and cabinet making in the U.S. He has completed three units and is building four more. His assistant is the lovely Clem (short for Clemica, a created name using part of her father’s name) standing with us in this picture.
For our final three nights, we stayed at the Jacoway Inn in Calibishie, which is a convenient base to explore the north and close to the Douglas-Charles Airport.
The Inn is owned and run by Carol Ann, originally from Canada, who has worked years as a chef. The highlight was the outstanding breakfast served outside with the other guests.
Is Dominica Safe?
Dominica is definitely a safe place to visit, as the local population is known for being helpful and friendly. Serious crimes targeting tourists are uncommon, although there may be occasional theft in a hotel room. We were warned not to pick up people asking for rides or go to specific beaches with anything valuable.
Driving requires attention because of aggressive drivers, sharp curves, steep inclines, potholes, pedestrians, and animals on the road.
10 Fun Facts about Dominica
- Nine of the sixteen active volcanoes in the Caribbean are located on Dominica. Because of the constant geological activity, Dominica has many fumaroles (openings where sulfurous gases emerge), calderas (volcanic craters, usually formed by the collapse of the central part of a volcano) and mornes (old-French word for a small mountain).
- The Waitukubuli National Trail spans the north-south length of Dominica for 114 mi (184 km) through coastal villages, woodland hills and forested mountains with waterfalls.
- Dominica is the only Caribbean country where whales can be spotted all year round.
- Dominica was first settled by the Arawaks in the 5th century. During the 14th century, they were displaced by the Kalinago, who named the island Wai‘tu Kubuli, meaning “tall is her body” – perhaps referring to the island’s many tall waterfalls.
- On his second New World voyage, Christopher Columbus named the island Doménica (Sunday in Italian) after the day of the week he found it.
- The French established their first permanent settlements in Dominica in 1690, and in 1727, made it a French colony. The French ceded Dominica to the British in 1763.
- English is the official and universally understood language of Dominica. The majority of the people of the island speak dialects of Caribbean French Creole (a mixture of French, African and Carib languages).
- More than 60% of the population of approximately 70,000 are Roman Catholic, while evangelical and mainstream Protestant denominations have increased in recent years.
- On September 7, 2017, Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Maria, a deadly Category 5 hurricane. The country has steadily rebuilt itself and the forest has recovered so quickly in many places that there is little trace of the damage.
- Dominica is one of the cheapest islands to visit in the Caribbean.
Roseau is one of the smallest capitals in the world, with a population of around 16,000. It’s a compact coastal town jammed next to the mountains.
It’s a fun city to walk around for half of a day, as the locals are chill, and there a number of centuries-old buildings.
When cruise ships stop, it’s a good idea to avoid Roseau, as the passengers overwhelm the small city.
The Dominica Museum is on a quay in front of the Old Market. The three-room museum is worth the visit to learn about the history, culture, and geology of the island. One display is on Jean Rhys, who wrote the famous Wide Sargasso Sea in 1966.
She was born in Dominica in 1890 of Welsh & Scottish descent and moved to England at age 16. She returned to Dominica only once, even though it had a significant influence on her beliefs in social justice. The 1966 book (published when she was 76!) is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre and describes how a woman from an unspecified Caribbean Island became the madwoman in the attic.
The Neg Mawon Emancipation Monument is in the middle of a busy roundabout and was unveiled to the public in 2013. The statue is a tribute to the Maroons, escaped African slaves who formed their own communities in remote areas. Neg Mawon is French Creole for “the black Maroon.”
We had dinner at The Old Stone Grill and Bar, a restaurant popular with visitors and locals serving Caribbean food in plentiful portions. We sat on the balcony admiring the sunset over the water.
We were fortunate to be the only guests for a morning run looking for whales with Creole Divers Dominica, owned by Harry, a retired Dutch science and math teacher. He designed and built the fiberglass, eight-passenger-plus-crew boat, named “Sanne” after his daughter.
While not guaranteed, whale sightings are quite common in Dominica. We spotted a pod of sperm whales, which can remain 45 to 90 minutes underwater. They do not spout water as commonly believed; instead, they exhale very warm air which condenses when meeting the colder atmospheric air.
Nearly 200 females and calves live year-round off Dominica. They are excellent hunters (necessary because they eat over a ton of food every day!) and locate prey (e.g., giant squids) by echolocation.
Soufriere and Scotts Head
We drove south to the fishing village of Soufriere (French for sulfur or sulfur-mine), which has houses extending up the mountain.
Soufriere Suplhur Springs is a little east of the village and has spas offering natural-hot baths in mineral water. Our biggest regret of the trip was not experiencing these baths, either here or in Wotten Waven, which is east of Roseau. In the village, we met this gentleman sitting by a bus stop.
I asked him a few questions about his life and heard a startling tale. He is 76 years old (looks much younger) and was born one of eleven children in Dominica. In 2017, he was home with his wife when Hurricane Maria hit Dominica. He said his beach house was inundated by huge waves, and his wife was pulled out to the sea and perished. He survived with severe injuries by hanging on to a structural part of the house. He said prayers and faith in God allowed him to recover.
We then drove a few more minutes along Soufriere Bay to Scotts Head, a small fishing village that is connected to a “tied island” of the same name. On one side is the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea on the other.
We parked the car, walked across the narrow strip of land, and proceeded up the hill. We arrived at the remains of a British fort with one surviving canon. We met these ladies, one from Barbados and the rest from Dominica, who were enjoying an annual get-together.
We had an early dinner at Chez Wen, which served daily-caught seafood with what is known locally as “provisions,” root crops such as yams, cassavas, sweet potatoes, and many others.
Dominica has some of the best diving in the Caribbean, especially in this area, with a vast underwater volcanic crater, deep cliff drop-offs, amazing rock formations, corals, sponges, many types of fish and other sea animals. We’ve never dived, but we thought this would be a good place to learn. There are also many shallow areas for snorkeling.
Waterfalls and Hiking Trails
Because we like to hike and I like to photograph waterfalls, we went to three of them.
Middleham Falls took us a little over three hours to hike roundtrip, including photographing on a platform by the falls. This trail is within the Morne Trois Piton National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which has other waterfalls, volcanoes, hot springs, and freshwater lakes. The falls are one of the tallest in Dominica.
Our most challenging hike was to Sari-Sari Falls. This hike was a canyoning adventure involving scrambling on the slippery sides of hills and frequently crossing the river.
In Dominica, you can supplement this type of experience by rappelling down cliffs and then diving into the water, but we passed on this. It’s important to have a guide, as every step can be dangerous, especially when crossing the river. We had one of the best in the country, Chadi Symes, who is strong, agile, and knowledgeable about the terrain. He is featured in the first picture of this post.
Starting in a cattle-grazing field at the edge of La Plaine village, we spent ten minutes looking for the steep and muddy path down to the river. Anyone doing this should wear waterproof gear. It took us four hours roundtrip, including photographing the falls.
Sari is a modification of the word “ari” which means tooth in the Kalinago language. Some of the formations around the falls resemble teeth.
After we finished the Sari-Sari Falls hike, we went to nearby Victoria Falls by the village of Delices, part of Zion Valley, where many Rastafarians live. The hike took about half the time as the one to Sari-Sari and involved quite a bit of careful river-walking. The falls are part of the White River, which starts at Boiling Lake in the Valley of Desolation, the place of the most geothermal activity on the island.
The Victoria Falls was the most interesting waterfall of the three because of its cool rock formations at the bottom, and the water is grayish-blue from the sulphur content.
The most visited waterfall is Trafalgar Falls, which is actually two side-by-side falls. It is an easy walk from the parking lot. We skipped it as we wanted an extended hike and it can be crowded, especially when cruise ships are in the country.
Portsmouth and the Northern Link Road
Portsmouth is the second biggest city in the country, with a population of around 4,000, and surrounds a broad and beautiful bay. It’s the beginning of the scenic 7km (4mi) Northern Link Road, which follows the northwest coastline to Penville.
The most interesting part of this road is the drive through the caldera of the active volcano, Morne aux Diables (Devil’s Peak), even though it seems like a valley surrounded by several hills.
This volcano has not erupted in recorded history. In fact, the only recorded volcanic activity on Dominica were steam explosions in the Valley of Desolation in 1880 and 1997. However, volcanologists feel the country has a high risk for a major eruption. In the Lesser Antilles, there is a history of sudden, devastating volcanic eruptions. In 1902, Mount Pelée in Martinique erupted and destroyed the city of Saint-Pierre and killed around 30,000 people. In 1995, the dormant Soufriere Hills volcano in Montserrat erupted and destroyed the capital city of Plymouth; most of the survivors left the island and only 5,000 live there now.
Cold Soufriere Springs is a fumarole area within this caldera and a five minute walk from the road. It has many small (less than 3 ft or 1 meter in diameter) brown pools of cold water which bubble from the sulphur escaping from the ground.
The road twists through mountain villages, some on the coast, and provides many terrific, scenic overlooks.
Calibishie is a small coastal village with a pretty shoreline, comfortable inns and a variety of restaurants.
The highlight of the area for us was the Red Rocks formation on Pointe Baptiste. Flowing lava and centuries of wind have polished the rocks and oxidization has turned them red.
We met Danny who helps maintain the Pointe Baptiste Estate (with a chocolate factory open to the public) and works as a landscaper, carpenter and all-around handyman.
He is a true nature-man who goes barefooted, eats only natural foods, and sleeps in a cave. At age 41, he is wiry, agile, and strong. He has several names including Donny on his birth certificate, Red Rock Ranger, and Snake.
At the entrance of Red Rocks, where the visitor pays a small admission, there is the Red Rock Cuisine, a wooden cabin with a kitchen and bar with outside seating. You order in the morning and your meal is served between 4pm and 6pm. It was the best dining we had in Dominica with tasty and moist parrotfish (divers caught in the afternoon), cassava-fries, fried plantains and salad.
Mac, the owner, takes the orders, cooks the food and prepares the drinks.
Four years ago, he was riding his motorcycle and was hit in the back by a car. His left leg was severely injured and had to be amputated below the knee. He now wears a prosthetic and has recovered to run a successful business.
Kalinago Barana Aute
The Kalinago Barana Aute (Kalinago Cultural Village by the Sea) is a recreated traditional village situated along the banks of the Crayfish River on the Atlantic side of Dominica. The village highlights the history, culture, and heritage of the Kalinago people.
The Kalinago lived throughout the Lesser Antilles and northeastern South America when the Spanish arrived. They fought European subjugation for centuries and slowly retreated to the dense forest of Dominica where they were nearly impossible to find. Today the indigenous are about 5% of the population (around 4,000) and include descendants of other Caribe tribes, such as the Taino and Arawak. Collectively they call themselves Kalinago. The village is in the Caribe Territory of Dominica, which is the largest indigenous, partially self-governing area in the Caribbean.
Kenrick was our informative guide.
I was intrigued by these statues carved from ferns and trees.
Each one represents a chief of the territory since it was founded in 1903. They continue to serve in the afterlife by guarding the community.
Towards the end of the trip, I reflected on our experience.
Few small countries offer as much as Dominica and should be on the bucket list of international travelers who are outdoor enthusiasts.