Whether you arrive in Dominica by sea or by air, your likely first impression will be one of awe at the sheer dramatic majesty of the place, one with which few islands in the Caribbean can compete. Nicknamed ‘the nature island,' Dominica (locals stress the third syllable) lures independent travelers and eco-adventurers with its boiling lake, rainforest-shrouded volcanoes, sulfurous hot springs, superb diving and the Caribbean's first long-distance hiking trail.
An English-speaking island wedged between francophone Guadeloupe and Martinique, Dominica is also on a different path to its neighbors in development terms, with no big cruise terminal nor an airport that can take even medium-haul flights. This means the island's traditional character has been far better preserved than elsewhere in the Lesser Antilles.
Hurricane Maria wreaked absolute havoc on Dominica in 2017, from which the island is still painfully – but determinedly – recovering.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Dominica.
Easily Dominica's best beach, this gorgeously wild coconut-palm-fringed crescent has good swimming and snorkeling, and there's an (often unmanned) beach bar serving drinks. It sits at the end of a 0.6-mile dirt road that's only accessible by 4WD or on foot. The surrounding land is privately owned, and you may need to pay US$5 entry. Often there is nobody at the entrance and the barrier is locked, so leave your car and walk down to the beach.
The trail to one of Dominica’s highest waterfalls (200ft) traverses thick rainforest with towering trees and ferns. Although well built and not terribly long, the trail gets slippery and requires rock clambering and fording several creeks, as well as long uphill slogs. Bring a swimsuit to cool off in the pool, which is easily one of Dominica's most beautiful sights. Allow about two to three hours round-trip.
The star attraction of this small national park on a forested headland a mile north of downtown Portsmouth is Fort Shirley, an impressively restored 18th-century British garrison, just a five-minute uphill walk from the park entrance. Views over Prince Rupert Bay are especially lovely in the late afternoon. Three longer trails crisscross the park, leading past the officers' quarters, the soldiers' barracks, the powder magazine and other vestiges from the past.
The short swim from a swimming hole through a narrow gorge to a powerful waterfall is charmingly spooky; it's dark down there with steep vine-clad lava walls no more than 5ft or 7ft apart. It's an ethereal and unusual place, but can get crowded. If there's a cruise ship in port, come early or late in the day for relative serenity.
This re-created traditional village on the Crayfish River near the Isukulati Falls is a good spot to get an overview of Kalinago history and culture. The 30- to 45-minute tour leads to various huts where locals demonstrate the crafts of basket-weaving, canoe-making and cassava-baking. An architectural highlight is the huge Karbet (men's house) where dances and cultural presentations take place. En route you get to enjoy awesome views of the falls and the crashing waves.
Just beyond the visitor center here you'll find a viewing platform with full-on views of the two side-by-side falls: the 125ft 'Father' fall and 75ft 'Mother' fall. Following the narrow rocky trail beyond the platform means negotiating slippery boulders, so wear sturdy shoes and watch your step. You can cool off in the swimming hole below Mother fall. If you want to hike to the hot springs below Father fall, a guide is recommended.
Shimmering shades of blue and green, Freshwater is the largest of Dominica’s four lakes and the source of the Roseau River. It is easily reached via a paved road that veers uphill just before Laudat and delivers sweeping views of the valley, Morne Anglais and the sea.
Created by former Kalinago chief Irvince Auguiste, this living village on the Pagua River was created to introduce visitors to the way of life of Dominica's indigenous people. On guided 90-minute tours, you'll visit a traditional herbalist and the homes of basket-weavers and craftspeople. Visits include a stop at Auguiste's own home. The project encourages active exchange between visitors and locals to break down cultural barriers. With advance notice, it's also possible to stay overnight (from US$30 per person).
A narrow isthmus separating the fierce Atlantic and the calm Caribbean leads to Scotts Head, the rocky headland named for an 18th-century British lieutenant governor. A short hike leads up to a smattering of ruins, the remnants of the fort he erected in defense of Soufriere Bay. There's great snorkeling off the pebbly beach, and a bar that rents gear and serves cold drinks.