Having never visited the Caribbean, I was excited to be travelling to Dominica. Not fully knowing what to expect I began my journey with an open mind - perhaps somewhat influenced by a general stereotype of Caribbean diving: wrecks, sharks and sandy bottoms…
My initial research of this island, with the richest rainforest and highest mountains in the Eastern Caribbean, suggested I was destined to find somewhere a little more unusual than your average Caribbean postcard; what I discovered on arrival was a total surprise.
Undiscovered, undeveloped and perhaps a little underappreciated - Dominica may well be the Caribbean's last hidden gem. As one diver I travelled with (and no stranger to the Caribbean) evoked, "If Christopher Columbus was to visit each Caribbean island today, surely the only one that he would recognise would be Dominica!"
Getting there was straightforward enough
I flew to Antigua with BA and after a short wait at the airport I boarded one of the shiny-new planes that comprises part of the LIAT fleet, a swift operation that island-hops around the West Indies like a bus service. Our first hop brought us to Guadeloupe, which took all of 15 minutes. Some passengers disembarked and others boarded then we made our final 15-minute hop to Dominica.
Descending amongst the tall, green and rugged mountains that dive into deep-blue sea, it was clear that this island danced to the beat of its own steel-drum. We stepped off the plane to an enchanting symphony, composed by the inhabitants of the surrounding rainforest, accompanied by the sound of a river.
Dominica is a very small island
It only takes one-hour to navigate across the mountains, on well-tarmacked roads, travelling from the airport in the north east to just a little further south of the Island's capital Rousseau in the west.
I first stayed at the Anchorage, a purposeful resort predominantly suited to divers and holidaymakers focussed on getting all of the action Dominica offers and less-fussed about having a 'mega-lux' bathroom or a 'boutique' suite. Sure, all the walls are funky pastel-colours, however, it is in the ideal location for the nearby Marine Park and some of the better dive sites like 'Dangle Bends' and 'Champagne', as well as offering the only shore diving in all Dominica; just one giant stride off the hotel's own jetty.
The next hotel I stayed at was the Fort Young Hotel, 5-minutes north, in Rousseau itself. It was a big step up from the Anchorage and set within the old capital's fortress it has plenty of character and style. A lot of the old colonial architecture remains and is coupled with contemporary finishes and whilst you cannot directly access the beachfront that it sits on, a waterfall flowing into an infinity pool looks straight out across the Caribbean Sea as though you were floating into the blue-horizon.
One evening we visited the rum-shack owned by our divemaster, Sherman
It is a 3-minute walk from the Anchorage hotel and whilst sipping his delicious rum punches, he served up an entree of fresh lobster-stew, which was delicious. A little further down the road, at the Westport Tavern, we sampled Lionfish for the first time. It is served in many different ways including battered, grilled, curried, stewed and I tried pan-seared, served with sweet-potato or plantain fries. It's surprisingly tender and very tasty - plus there's the added satisfaction of helping the local community by easing the burden of this invasive species.
We continued diving at the Anchorage although we were staying elsewhere. Due to the close-proximity of the Marine Park to the Anchorage dive-resort and its neighbour Dive Dominica, most hotels on the island send their guests to either of these two dive-centres. Interestingly, as of August 1st, Buddy Divers who currently operate a successful dive centre in Bonaire, will be setting up a new centre, based at the Fort Young Hotel.
The diving set-up was very relaxed and very comfortable. We were a group of 5 divers and had a large catamaran to ourselves. When we were ready, we simply rolled the steps down from the bow and walked into the calm clear water. We saved the rum punch for after the third dive
The diving set-up was very relaxed and very comfortable. We were a group of 5 divers and had a large catamaran to ourselves. When we were ready, we simply rolled the steps down from the bow and walked into the calm clear water. We saved the rum punch for after the third dive.
The diving in Dominica is very unusual. Despite a volcanic and mountainous topography, mirrored below the waves by deep ocean trenches providing food and permanent shelter for the many pods of dolphins, as well as the female species of one of the ocean's largest mammals, the sperm whale: Dominica is definitely more of a macro-diver's mecca then an adrenaline-diver's. The wrecks and sharks are nowhere to be seen and the barren sandy bottoms are replaced by volcanic silt and large golden-orange sponges, muddish-terracotta hard and soft corals populated by a plethora of weird and wonderful reef life.
Over the last 15 years I have seen my fair share of bleached beds of dying corals and the lack of life it had once supported. Dominica's reef, though lacking of anything much larger than a parrotfish or torpedo ray, accommodates a fascinating variety of crab, shrimp, starfish and eel; the yellow-headed jawfish; frogfish; leaf fish and ancient soft corals that could be as old as 150 years old. As well as the life it supports, some dive sites leak volcanic 'Champagne' bubbles from little vents and cracks for dramatic effect.
Much like its underwater ecosystem, "the Natural Island" is recognised for its lush tropical and fertile landscape. Trekking paths lead to the countless waterfalls, rivers, hot springs, sulphur spas and occasionally back down to secret beaches and bays along the coastline.
A sustainable paradise
In between more diving and exploring the interior of the island , I visited two very unique resorts - both exclusive 'eco-retreats'; ideal for honeymooners, couples and small families. Secret Bay in the northwest is stealthily crafted into a cliff leading down to one of the most beautiful beaches I saw on Dominica. Rosalie Bay in the southeast sits quietly at the mouth of a river, where fresh rain from the mountains runs into Atlantic. The stunning resort prides itself on using solar power and growing its own organic ingredients for the kitchen. Both resorts were quite breathtaking and really complimented the natural, eco-friendly ethos of the island.
Whilst the lack of high rise hotels, resort chains and fancy restaurants suggests to some the lack of wealth, there is no evidence of poverty amongst locals. Everyone and everything seems very fair and content. A taxi driver clarified that nobody on the island goes without food, clean water and energy in their homes; and it makes sense, as tropical downpours high in the mountains supply constant fresh water, their flow down waterfalls allows hydro-energy to be generated and more recently research has focused on harnessing the island's geothermal power too.
As well as sustainable energy the government have really focussed on sustainable income and the importance of local livelihoods. Knock-on effects from western supermarket monopolies are being felt in a country that once supplied vast quantities of local produce like bananas, avocados, pineapples and coconuts to France and England as well as reaching far flung countries like Russia. Responsible tourism by adventure seekers, naturalists, divers and cruise ship guests will play a growing part in the nation's economy and challenge their strong ethos of preservation; already the development of a Ross Medical University can be seen to have a visible impact on the local economy with more shops and apartments being built to accommodate students drawn in from all over the world.
I believe that Dominica will hold out far longer than other neighbouring islands and that it will remain as a naturally preserved wonder of the Caribbean for some time; due to the population's pride and their determination to responsibly share their treasure with the rest of the world.
We can help you to make the most of your time in Dominica and if it doesn't sound like somewhere you could spend too long, why not combine it with another contrasting island nearby.