Dominica has stolen our hearts.
In our travels, we have visited at least 15 Caribbean islands – each beautiful in its own way. But Dominica blew us away with its stunning and relatively unspoiled natural beauty, colorful and festive Creole culture, and laid-back, friendly people. Dominica is a real gem, but it’s one that many tourists haven’t discovered yet (shhh!).
It’s pronounced Dom-in-EE-ka, and it’s probably not the place you’re thinking of. Like most people, we confused Dominica with the much-more-touristed Dominican Republican when we first heard of it. But Dominica is a world unto itself, a much smaller island situated in the eastern Caribbean south of Guadeloupe and north of Martinique.
It’s called the Nature Island for a reason. Dominica is a very mountainous and rugged island with 9 semi-active volcanos, natural hot springs, tropical rainforests, too many gorgeous waterfalls to count, and a river for every day of the year (over 365). There are spectacular and panoramic vistas around every bend. Overall, Dominica has an unspoiled “Jurassic Park” aura that kept us flashing back to our visits to Kauai, Hawaii – especially the more remote and less-traveled corners.
It’s off the tourist radar. With a population of only 70,000, Dominica has no highways or traffic signals, no fast food chains (except for one KFC in the capital, Roseau), and no high-rise resorts. The island does receive up to 200 cruise ships a year, but the season was over by the time we got there (early June) and things were blissfully quiet. We encountered very few other tourists. Bonus: Dominica is one of the least expensive Caribbean destinations we’ve visited, so far.
Its culture is unique in the Caribbean. Although Christopher Columbus “discovered” Dominica in 1493, naming it for the day of the week (Sunday) on which he first sighted the island, Dominica’s human history dates back much further. Inhabited by humans since at least the 5th century, the island was dominated by the Kalinago people by the time Columbus showed up – and they put up such a fierce resistance that Dominica was one of the last of the Caribbean islands to be colonized by Europeans. The majority of today’s Dominicans descend from enslaved Africans brought over to work the plantations in the 1700s, but the Kalinago still exist. In fact, they’re the only community in the entire Caribbean directly descended from pre-Columbian indigenous people. Here’s an interesting article about the Kalinago and their relationship with Dominica’s forest resources.
Dominicans are survivors and innovators. Dominica was dealt a devastating blow by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The island was almost completely stripped of its lush vegetation, and almost 90% of its housing was destroyed. Even now, almost six years later, we saw evidence of the disaster everywhere – but we also saw shiny new houses, businesses, and public buildings. Flying in past the treetops, we saw plenty of thick jungle growth, with a few bare tree trunks poking out as a reminder of just how much the island lost. Since Maria, the people and government of Dominica have been working together to create the world’s first climate-resilient nation, capable of prospering despite a new era of storms made worse by climate change. Dominicans know that there will be more Marias, possibly even more devastating, but they are determined to survive and thrive.
We just returned from almost two weeks on Dominica. Here are our highlights and tips. And since we’re already planning a return trip, we’re using this as a place to list our “must dos” next time! (Usual note: Photos are in galleries – just click through to see bigger versions.)
Take a hike
There are hundreds of hiking trails on Dominica, but the grandest is the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT) – the longest hiking trail in the Caribbean at 155 miles. The WNT consists of 14 segments and runs the length of the island from Scott’s Head in the south to Cabrits National Park in the north. Although we did plenty of hiking, we didn’t attempt the WNT this time (perhaps we’ll try a segment or two on our next visit). It’s not for the faint of heart; in fact, lingering hurricane damage can make the WNT pretty hazardous without a guide.
Swim underneath a waterfall (or three)
There are too many waterfalls to count on Dominica. If you only have time for a few, make sure you visit Emerald Pool, Trafalgar Falls, Salton Waterfall, and Spanny Falls. All four are east to reach over short, well-groomed walking trails.
Jump into a canyon
Full disclosure: We are a couple of 60-somethings in decent shape and reasonably active. We are neither extreme sports nuts nor athletes, so we never imagined we’d be capable of rappelling down four different sheer rock faces and jumping from heights up to 20 feet into natural waterfall-fed pools. But that’s exactly what we did with Extreme Dominica on an expedition they call The Canyon Experience. This is a LITERAL ropes course, where you push yourself to do things you didn’t think you were capable of. It was an absolute blast, and we’d do it again in a heartbeat!
Tips: Good closed-toed water shoes that keep out gravel, yet let the water flow through, are a MUST for this canyoneering experience (My Columbia water shoes and John’s Keen sandals were ideal). If you want to take pictures, bring along a waterproof clear plastic case for your phone with a lanyard. Extreme Dominica provides wet suits, life vests, helmets, and climbing harnesses and conducts a brief training session at their headquarters before heading out to the canyon. They promise all ages and experience levels can do this trek, and we’re perfect examples!
Here’s a video of our first rappel (trust me, I was a lot more terrified than I look!). What it doesn’t show is the drop of at least 40 feet below me.
Our favorite beaches were Mero Beach on the west side, Black Beach near Red Rocks, and Batibou Beach on the north side. Since we were staying an easy walk from Mero, we went there often – and it has some of the calmest, clearest water for swimming we’ve ever experienced at a beach. Heavenly.
Dive dive dive
We had a great morning of diving with Dive Dominica off Champagne Reef. We did two hour-long dives, one over a rich forest of sponges and the other a bit closer to shore, with a wall covered in coral and an abundance of other sea life. The visibility was at least 60 feet – amazing!
We did not get to snorkel over the famous fumeroles (volcanic steam vents) that give Champagne Reef its name, with gas and steam bubbling up from the bottom. Next time!
Have a relaxing resort day
On Dominica, even the fanciest resorts offer day passes as a way of generating extra revenue – especially in the off season. After researching the different options, we chose day passes at the Rosalie Bay, a beautiful resort on Dominca’s eastern shore. We paid about $80 US apiece, which included pool access, a three-course lunch, three cocktails (or mocktails), and a massage for John and pedicure for me. It was a much-needed day of pampering! Other resorts that offer day passes are the Pagua Bay House and the Fort Young Hotel.
Getting there/Getting around
Currently, only American offers direct flights from the U.S. to Dominica from Miami (it takes about three hours). There are no direct flights from Europe, but the island is served by several Caribbean airlines. Landing in Dominica is an interesting experience, since the runway’s located in a rather deep valley (you see nothing but jungle vegetation right until the wheels hit the ground!).
There is a direct inter-island ferry service linking Dominica to Guadeloupe, Saint Lucia, Saint Martin, and other nearby islands. It’s an inexpensive option for us to consider for our return trip . . .
The best way to see Dominica is to rent a car (taxis are super-expensive and there are no ride-sharing services). We were very happy with the service we got from Courtesy Car Rental; they even came late in the evening to swap our car for another after we experienced a problem with a tailgate that wouldn’t stay shut. We’ll definitely use Courtesy again.
One more interesting thing about driving – especially for us “yanks”: The cars are righthand drive on the left side of the road. As our Brit friends said, we were finally driving on the “right” (correct) side! Not only was this our first experience with right drive, but the winding and narrow roads of Dominica (in various states of repair) made things extra interesting. Be sure and use your horn on blind curves, and watch out for steep drops on the lefthand edge of the pavement.
Where to Stay
There are all types of accommodations on Dominica, but short-term apartment rentals are especially common. We opted to go mid-range as usual, renting a spacious apartment overlooking Mero Beach from Caribbean Sea View Holiday Apartments. With a full kitchen, we were able to save money by making our own breakfast and a few simple dinners. Perched high on the hill above the beach, the apartment afforded spectacular views – especially at sunset. And the on-site host, Ellie, was incredibly helpful and responsive, even letting us do laundry at one point. We will be staying there on our next visit!
Where to Eat
Our favorite dining experiences included Chez Wen Cuisine at Scott’s Head (try the curry shrimp!), Indee’s Beach Bar on Mero Beach (chat up the friendly owner, Indira), the River Rock Cafe nearTrafalgar Falls (the kind owner re-opened the kitchen just to make us lunch), Lacou Melrose House in downtown Roseau, and the Pagua Bay Bar and Grill.
- Discover Dominica, the official tourism site, is a great information source.
- A weekly park pass offers discounted entry into several points of interest. They’re available at all sites administered by the Dominica parks department (we bought ours at Cabrits National Park). More info here.
- Here’s a list of organized tours in Dominica.
- Unlike Puerto Rico, our previous Caribbean destination, you’ll find WiFi everywhere on Dominica (we didn’t bother getting SIM cards). US dollars are accepted, but the local currency is the Eastern Caribbean Dollar (XCD).
- Whale watching: Dominica is the only country in the world where the sperm whale resides all year long, and several tour companies offer boat expeditions to see these huge beauties (including our dive operator, Dive Dominica). In fact, during prime whale-watching season, your chances of sighting whales are 90%. We couldn’t fit it in this trip, but it’s definitely on our list for next time.
- Two more experiences on the docket for next time: Visiting a hot springs at Wotten Waven, and visiting the famous Boiling Lake.
We’re already planning our return trip to Dominica! Next: Back to Brazil