Dominica: adventures on the Caribbean's 'Nature Island'

There’s a flotilla of lounge chairs docked by the infinity pool and along a white sand beach. The menu at the sprawling hotel’s swim-up bar includes frosty local favorites all day long. You have an all-inclusive choice of food and activities, as long as you stay on the manicured resort grounds. All you have to do is laze in the sun, dip your toes in the bathtub-warm water and discover the wealth of shopping experiences at hotel boutiques—when you’re not golfing.

Is that your Caribbean vacation dream, or is it a sanitized travel nightmare?

If parking your action by the pool all day has you fidgety in 15 minutes, don’t chalk it up to your inability to chill out. Maybe you need to join the outdoorsy set and consider visiting Dominica, the Caribbean island for those who don’t think they like Caribbean islands.

Inner Cabrits

View of Douglas Bay and Prince Rupert Bay, Dominica. Photo by Matt Becker

Dominica is an ideal place to both relax and get active. Called the ‘Nature Island’ due to its volcanic peaks, lush rainforest, clear waterfalls, abundance of rivers (and even boiling waters), it’s frequented by people who want to do more than lounge around all day.

The island has the Caribbean’s first long-distance walking trail, the Waitukubuli National Trail, which covers 115 miles of shockingly beautiful terrain. The trail crosses through the Carib (Kalinago) Territory, and the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes the world’s second largest boiling lake.

The trail is marked in segments for those who don’t want to hike its entire length. During Hike Fest, held annually in May, groups of both islanders and visitors get together on weekends to hike different segments.

The journey to Dominica’s Boiling Lake is a six-hour round trip over challenging terrain, and one of the island's most demanding trails. The trail meanders through rainforest and rises gradually from 1690 feet to 2260 feet before dropping toward the Trois Pitons River. Next, the path heads uphill again and follows a ridge as it moves from rain forest to montane forest and tops out at 3160 feet, with views across the Morne Trois Pitons National Park.

The trail then dips down into the Valley of Desolation. Volcanic activity in Dominica has changed this once-forested area into a strange, rocky landscape of gray and gold, punctuated by grasses, mosses and lichens. Silvery water of varying temperatures meanders through the area, like ghostly streams. A flooded fumarole, the Boiling Lake appears at the end of the trail like a cauldron of bubbling opalescent water enveloped in a veil of vapor, until a breeze comes along to blow the cloud away.

The famous boiling lake

The mist begins to clear over Dominica's boiling lake. Photo by Antoine Hubert.

You don’t need to be a hard-core hiker to enjoy the flora and fauna on the island. Easy walks to the Emerald Pool and Trafalgar Falls provide leisure time to enjoy lush scenery worthy of a slow pace. Keep your eyes and ears open during a walk along the Syndicate Nature Trail; the area is home to the two native island parrots, the Sisserou and the Jaco.

Emerald Pool

The Emerald Pool. Photo by Johnson Chen

Aside from the wealth of hiking options in Dominica, water activities like kayaking, snorkeling and diving abound for visitors who want a closer look at the island’s wildlife and awe-inspiring views. An easy snorkeling spot, Champagne Reef contains warm, bubbling waters created by geothermal vents. As you swim through curtains of bubbles in the azure sea, reef fish and turtles venture closer to get a good look. Kick down to the shallow bottom to feel the warm water come from cracks in the reef.

It’s not all about the saltwater, even though the island is, of course, surrounded by it. With opportunities to cool off in Dominica’s waterfalls and rivers (it’s said that the island has a river for every day of the year), fans of freshwater sources have more than enough choices. Guided boat tours on the Indian River cruise beneath the jungle canopy next to thickly buttressed bwa mang trees and often end over rum drinks at riverside bars with your boat captain (mine was named Fire). Doesn’t that sound much better than whiling away your trip at a swim-up pool bar?

Jill K. Robinson’s articles have been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle, World Hum, Journey and more. Even when traveling, she can always be found online at Danger Jill Robinson.