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Nature makes Dominica a Caribbean island of adventure

ROSALIE, Dominica

If we'd come here without a guide, we surely would have turned back.

The already steep trail through the lush coastal rain forest had become inconceivably steeper. We were about to get into mountain goat mode. We would have to use all four limbs to descend a 30-foot vertical segment, one of many punctuating the trail, using thick ropes and tropical tree roots — our lifelines to the ocean cove below.

We were led by a British former firefighter turned ecolodge host and his 12-year-old son. Young red-haired Alex had already kicked off his Crocs, opting to hike barefoot. His father, Tim, carefully recorded video for his website.

To them it was just another walk in the woods. To us, it was pure adventure and the highlight of our January honeymoon. In the end, we were rewarded with a giant waterfall shooting out of the top of a high cliff and cascading into the choppy Atlantic.

We wanted a trip where we could hike and scuba dive, where we could experience elevation on land and depths in the sea. Florida's flatlands had made us eager to traverse mountainous terrain and feel the kind of burn in our legs that ensures a deep sleep.

Years ago we took our first Caribbean trip together to St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We loved the hiking and diving and the trade winds that kept the air fresh. We asked the locals where they would like to vacation. Dominica, they told us.

We had never heard of it. We have since found that many Floridians who have traveled in the Caribbean islands haven't heard of it either.

Often confused with the Dominican Republic, Dominica (da-mi-NEE-ka) is in the West Indies, between Martinique and Guadeloupe. English is the official language, although many residents speak a Creole language that is a mix of French, Carib and West African languages. The independent country of about 72,000 has one of the lowest crime rates in the Caribbean. It is a place that feels serene and worry free. There are no casinos, no visible sex or drug industry and few nightclubs.

The nine potentially active volcanoes add to the drama of steaming ocean vents and hot and cold sulphur springs. Dubbed "the Nature Island," Dominica has deep river valleys, freshwater lakes (alligator free) and countless waterfalls.

Our trip lasted 11 days. We left our cellphones and laptops behind and headed for our first four nights in a comfy rain forest yurt at Mermaid's Secret on the Atlantic side, and the other six in a quaint one-bedroom lodge overlooking the capital of Roseau, framed by the blue-green waters of the Caribbean.

• • •

Far from being an exercise in roughing it, our yurt had all the comforts of home: a hardwood floor, electric lamps, a dresser and a white-sheeted bed.

Our first night in the yurt, we saw a spider nearly as big as our hands on the inside wall. We weren't sure we had a shoe big enough to kill it. But it slipped out and vanished into the night. We asked the owner the next day if that was common. No, he said. In three years, he'd seen maybe one. We never saw another, but that didn't stop us from checking our bedsheets carefully every night and emptying out our shoes in the morning. Adventure comes in many forms.

Overall, we were surprised by the lack of bugs, especially the biting kind. Here we were in the rain forest, but we could sit comfortably at sunset on our kitchen porch with nary a mosquito.

Steps from our yurt, a deep, calm depression in a river called Mermaid's Pool waited, ready to invigorate us each morning or rejuvenate us each afternoon.

We made our dinner in the well-equipped kitchen, housed in a separate building about 25 feet from the yurt. We ordered groceries ahead of time: bread, rice, milk and cereal. We had plenty of fresh fruit and eggs from the property. We also ordered two local meals that were waiting for us in plastic containers in the fridge, a tasty beef stew as well as callaloo, a rich stew made with spinachlike dasheen leaves, squash (pumpkin) and tropical root vegetables.

Mermaid's Secret owners Tim Williams and his wife, Sam, hail from England. They bought the 3 acres near the town of Rosalie three years ago, but the business is still in its infancy. Though they've rented the cabins before, we were their first yurt guests.

They made us feel at home from the start, picking us up at the airport an hour away. Tim and his son gave us guided hiking tours. Every day, Tim brought us fresh fruit grown on the property — papayas, grapefruit, passion fruit. One morning, he came bearing two freshly opened coconuts with straws. Sam gathered lemongrass, cinnamon leaves and lime leaves for our tea.

In the evenings, they invited us to sit on their colorful cabin porch to share a beer or rum mixed with fresh passion fruit juice. They regaled us with hilarious stories of their travels against the percussion of rain on the tin roof and the background sounds of night critters.

On the last day, the sadness of departure was mutual. Tim drove us to our next accommodation on the west coast, an hour away in the capital of Roseau.

• • •

Roseau is tiny even for a Caribbean capital and feels more like a village than a city. As the roads descended toward the west coast, we saw colorful buildings with hand-painted signs. Wall-sized ads for "Kubuli Beer — Dominica's Pride." A bright sea foam green shop next to a fuchsia two-story home with a navy blue and orange concrete railing. The look was at once charming and weathered by salty air and time.

We settled into our lodge on the hill above the capital. Sisserou Lodge is an airy one-bedroom apartment with French doors that open to a wraparound porch, affording views of the Caribbean and the often rainbow-filled skies above.

Late that afternoon, our lodge hosts took us to one of the local thermal baths up the hill. Screw's Sulphur Spa has several pools of varying temperatures.

Hot springs are abundant due to the volcanic nature of the island. We saw one in the town of Soufriere that sits on the seashore in front of the Roman Catholic Church of St. Mark, built in the 1880s. Locals constructed a bath to retain the water warmed by volcanic vents beneath the sand.

We spent the first morning in search of food to fill our fridge and counter for the six-night stay. Luckily, along the waterfront the best farmers market that you can imagine happens Monday through Saturday. About 350 vendors congregate in one big social scene. There are lively conversations, bright colors and the pungent aromas of vanilla, cinnamon and clove. We bought fresh-caught fish for about $3 a pound — a fraction of what you would pay in Florida.

Like most things in Dominica, the market is not there because of tourists, but visitors get to take part in this daily dance.

One of the wonderful things about Dominica is the ability to explore the towns on foot. We took a bus south to Soufriere, where we watched life unfold.

On the porch of a small building we met Tony, doing a crossword puzzle. He invited us inside Tony's Wine Bar, where we sampled an array of local rums. The Dominica resident returned after living in London for many years. Retired now, he runs the only place in town we found to grab a meal and drink.

With our hunger satisfied, we stretched our legs again and headed south, a 30-minute walk along the water to Scotts Head, the southern tip of the island. We arrived shortly before sunset, just in time to watch the fishermen pull in their boats for the day.

• • •

Getting into or onto the water is essential in Dominica. The deep waters around the island make a hospitable habitat for whales. Pilot, humpback and sperm whales (which breed here) can be seen year-round, and operators boast an 80 percent sighting rate. Our three-hour excursion ended up in the unfortunate 20 percent. But no one minded. The temperature was perfect, the breeze was refreshing, and the beer was cold. We made friends with visitors from Martinique and Germany, with whom we later dined.

We brought our own snorkel gear and boarded one of the ubiquitous minibuses that would drop us off 30 minutes south at Champagne Reef. The bus rides are a great way to spend time with the locals. The buses often blare gospel or reggae tunes, and while it can get hot waiting for them to fill up (they leave when they are full, not on a schedule), all we rode had air-conditioning.

Departing the bus, we walked about 100 yards to the 80-degree water. Donning snorkels, fins and masks, we submerged into the blue. It was just as advertised: tiny bubbles leaking out from dozens of ocean vents, creating the effect of swimming in a giant Champagne glass. We had the place to ourselves, but it can get crowded when the cruise ships arrive.

The Scotts Head-Soufriere Marine Reserve on the southwest tip of the island helps ensure pristine scuba diving conditions on this calmer Caribbean side. Nursery grounds and spawning areas are protected, and no personal watercraft are allowed. We did two dives there, where the shoreline's steep cliffs (one used in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel) drop straight into the sea. A variety of fish and giant barrel sponges were our reward.

As we wrapped up our island time, we realized how relaxed we were. Though we had plenty of adventure, we never felt we were in danger. Trails were well marked and the water was safe to swim in. The locals were so friendly, the air so perfect. We didn't want to leave.

On the way to the airport, we stopped for one last meal at Rudy's Restaurant and Bar in Castle Bruce. Behind the bar were dozens of bush rums infused with fruits, vegetables and spices: star fruit, rosemary, guava, carrot.

Tanned and relaxed, we sat on the rustic terrace with a thatched roof, sipping our rum samples. From our table we had a bird's-eye view of the Atlantic, waves lapping black sand beaches below. The forested mountains beckoned us to stay.

On the small American Eagle plane, we watched out the window as the rugged green jewel disappeared into aquamarine waters. Like the taste of the rum, the taste for another adventure in Dominica lingered.

Lara Cerri can be reached at lcerri@tampabay.com. Ted McLaren can be reached at tmclaren@tampabay.com.

Dominica

How to get there

By air: There are no direct flights from the Tampa Bay area. American Airlines flies to San Juan, but most of its routes go through New York or Miami. Many JetBlue or AirTran flights go directly to San Juan; you can then take American Eagle to Melville Hall Airport in Dominica. You can also fly to Antigua or Barbados on American and get a connecting flight with Liat. You'll need to be creative. We stayed a night in San Juan on both ends of the trip.

By sea: There are ferries from Guadeloupe and Martinique to Dominica. But beware, if the seas are rough it can be an unpleasant ride. Several cruise lines come to Dominica's west coast, among them Princess, Norwegian, Celebrity and Carnival.

On land: You can rent a car in Dominica or take a taxi. Public transport is quite good, especially the minibuses (about $1.50 per ride) in the Roseau area.

Diving and whale watching: We booked our scuba diving ($80 for a two-tank dive) and whale watching ($57.50 per person) through AL Dive in Roseau (aldive.com).

Where to stay

Sisserou Villa, Lodge & Cottage: The luxury lodge overlooks Roseau from a giant wraparound porch and has a fully equipped kitchen. Owners are helpful and can get you a driver and local cellphone. They offer a discount if you also stay at Mermaid's Secret. $150-$350, dominicaholidayvilla.com

Mermaid's Secret: Tropical cabins and a yurt with all the comforts of home, set in the rain forest near Rosalie. Units are fully equipped and self-catering. Numerous fruit trees and herbs are on property, and there is a riverside bar and a natural pool for swimming. Friendly, helpful owners. $95-$105, mermaids-secret.com

Where to eat

Some of the best food is sold in the streets of Roseau. Follow your nose or ask the locals the way to the roadside grills to find jerk pork, steamed fish, grilled plantains and roti stuffed with curried vegetables. We also sampled sweet confections made of nuts, coconut and tamarind. Coconut water and sugar cane juice are plentiful, and take your time to find the Juice Man in Roseau's French Quarter, who puts tropical fruits in a blender and serves up a refreshing, healthy drink. In Roseau, there are no chain restaurants save for a KFC on the waterfront. With a sizable Rastafarian population, there is also plenty of vegetarian cuisine, including items like breadfruit pizza, green banana roti and yam pie. Smaller "snackettes" are also popular, serving cheap and local cuisine.

Pearl's Cuisine (King George V Street, Roseau) Local cuisine including pelau (stew of meat and pigeon peas), roti (Indian-influenced flatbread), stuffed bakes (flat rounds of dough, fried then split open and stuffed or served plain), accras (vegetable fritters) and fresh fruit juices. Also Creole fish, curried goat and callaloo.

All Nations Bar and Restaurant (52 Victoria St., Newtown, Roseau) Fish roti and vegetable platters. Great fish and chips! Good selection of beer, spirits and local fruit juices. Try the specialty lime rum punch.

Ruins Rock (King George V Street, Roseau) While the food looked run of the mill, hit the cafe bar and try one of the many rums infused with fruits, vegetables and spices (banana, star anise, cocoa, tamarind). Souvenir spices available.

Zam Zam Cafe (62 Citronnier, Castle Comfort, Roseau) If you tire of tasty Creole food, check out perhaps the only real Mexican food in town. Enjoy their strong rum punches at sunset.

Where to shop

It's no shopping mecca, but Roseau does offer a few places for souvenirs. You can find jewelry or sculptures made of all parts of the coconut and coconut tree, banana leaf, grass, shells, seeds, river rocks and bamboo. There are also lovely baskets woven by the native Carib Indians. We found spices (like cocoa) in the outdoor market, and herbal "bush" teas (made with soursop leaves, sorrel, noni and basil), soaps and native rums in the grocery stores. We found a studio by local folk artist Gregnon Julien (74-A Victoria St., Roseau) by wandering the streets of Roseau. His lively, colorful paintings depict scenes and still lifes in Dominica.

Essential guide

You won't find any recent comprehensive guide to Dominica by Lonely Planet, Fodor's, Moon or any of the big names. What you need is Paul Crask's Bradt Guide to Dominica, 2nd edition (2011).

ON THE WEB

Go to links.tampabay.com for a gallery of photos by Lara Cerri and Ted McLaren.

Nature makes Dominica a Caribbean island of adventure 05/17/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 18, 2012 4:43pm]

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