August 6, 2012, 2:31am
IT is raining on Dominica, and this is no passing shower. I’m soaked to the skin, I’ve lost the sole from my shoe and I’m covered in a reddy brown mud. Dominica, known as the “nature island”, is already turning all my preconceptions about a Caribbean “paradise” on their head. Not famous for its white sand beaches, rum cocktails and reggae bars, Dominica instead has lush rainforests, steaming valleys, bubbling springs and rich marine life as well as hiking trails like the one I’m attempting today.
“You going to get wet, dirty and muddy. You going to fall over rocks, slip down and slide on your ass,” says my Red Cross guide with a grin as she manoeuvres me dexterously across a ravine while pointing out a snake with her free hand. This is no walk in the park. This is hiking through the rainforest, Dominican style.
The Waitukubuli National Trail is the first and only long distance hiking trail in the Caribbean, traversing the entire island. Named after the indigenous name for Dominica (meaning “tall is her body”), it runs for 115 miles from the south to the north of the island and is divided into 14 sections. Hikers are able to complete one section per day so in theory it will take two weeks to cover the entire trail. It traverses forest reserves, national parks, old slave routes, ruins of plantations that once processed sugar, coffee and limes, small farms and country villages. I’m completing section 10 and 11, Colihaut to Syndicate, which finish with a refreshing and fragrant walk through a banana plantation towards a welcome glass of juice. The trail is the brainchild of Bernard Wiltshire, a passionate Dominican environmentalist who persuaded the British Development Division to fund studies into the trail. He claims to have been inspired by walks across the Pennine Way when he was in the UK, although it is hard to see any similarities.
As a reward to myself for completing the section, I am spending the night at Secret Bay, Dominica’s latest luxury eco resort tucked away far from the ravines and the waterfalls in the north west of the island. Minimalist, chic and beautiful, it is the opposite of my mud splattered, dishevelled shoeless self, which arrives at its entrance in dire need of a hot bath. Situated on a cliff-top overlooking the sea (there are four spacious, secluded villas and bungalows, each with a large open veranda), Secret Bay is one of the most eco-friendly developments in the Caribbean and the entire site was painstakingly developed using green and sustainable practices to minimise environmental impact.
The bath I have been dreaming about is an elegant, free standing tub with a view out to sea. Created by Dominican Gregor Nassief, who used to visit the eponymous Secret Beach as a child, the wooden longhouses are supported by curving stems of concrete,
From my terrace I can see neighbouring Guadeloupe in the distance, as well as the twin peaks of Cabrits and Prince Rupert Bay. Whales can be sometimes be seen from this same spot, says Gregor, one of the few places in the region where they can be seen from the land.
Secret Beach itself is one of the few white sand beaches on the island (many have black volcanic sand) and is only accessible by kayak, which Gregor’s Venezuelan-born wife Sandra helps me negotiate, passing caves where a honeymoon couple are snorkelling.
Secret Bay is not a conventional hotel, and has a distinct “hands off” style. There is no reception, no restaurant, and no bar, but organic food is supplied for guests to cook themselves in the villas’ designer kitchens or gourmet meals are prepared to order. Yoga and massage are offered on the privacy of one of the meditation platforms jutting out on the tangle of walkways around the property.
In comparison to my hike, a walk around Dominica’s capital Roseau is a staid stroll on flat pavements, which take me through the old French quarter, Roseau cathedral and the picturesque streets and shops, which reflect Dominica’s mix of French and English colonial history. Roseau is home to one of the best-preserved collections of 18th century Creole architecture in the Caribbean and I spot the slightly dilapidated former home of author Jean Rhys, whose atmospheric novel Wide Sargasso Sea and many of her other works draw reference from her early life on Dominica.
At Fort Shirley on the Cabrits headland, local historian Lennox Honeychruch is overseeing restoration work on the 19th century garrison, which at one time housed 600 men and was the scene of the famous revolt of the West India Regiment in 1802, when African slave soldiers took over the garrison in protest over conditions. As a light shower starts to fall again, I begin to appreciate that, although you could get very wet on Dominica, it is never dull. Extreme activities on offer here include canyoning, which involves jumping into pools, wading through rivers and rappelling through waterfalls. This can be combined with walks to the famous Boiling Lake, a boiling volcanic cauldron in the heart of Dominica’s rainforest wilderness. I choose a swim underneath Trafalgar Falls and then on for a bathe in a natural hot spring at Screw’s Sulphur spa at Wotten Waven. I can smell the sulphurous springs before I see them but dips in each of the hot, cold and warm mineral pools prove worth the whiff. A rainbow curves over the horizon as I emerge from my natural spa treatment for a cup of local bush tea.
Dominica is the only Caribbean island with a population of indigenous Carib Indians (around 3,000); known locally as the Kalinago – and I was interested in finding out more about their lifestyle I opted to spend the last night of my visit experiencing the new home-stay programme. Designed to provide visitors with an opportunity to experience the unique heritage of Dominica’s first settlers, the scheme also allows the residents of the community to benefit from tourism.
My Kalinago hostess Regina greets me at the traditional house she has built herself. Regina, a farmer, is far from unsophisticated, having travelled around the world as a free trade ambassador for Dominica’s banana business. She tells me about the produce she grows; dasheen, cassava, yams and sweet potatoes and explains the way the Territory works. It is collectively owned with an elected chief and there is a strong sense of community
There is no flushing toilet in this house and the facilities are basic, but it is clean, the food is good and plentiful and Regina is a fascinating dinner companion.
In the middle of the night I can hear the rain battering on the galvanised roof and I awake at about five to the sounds of local workers chattering in Creole. Over a hearty breakfast of freshly baked bread, mango juice and eggs, I learn that the Kalinago language died out because of colonization, but Creole is still widely spoken and even local news programmes are broadcast in it.
At the Kalinago Barana Aute, a model village showcasing the Kalinago lifestyle, history and crafts, manager Kevin Dangleben tells me that given a choice of traditional accommodation in a hut or simple accommodation such as Regina’s, or a home with more modern facilities, few visitors opt for the more comfortable choice. People from the French Caribbean islands, he adds have been particularly keen to stay here, attracted by a simpler, easier way of life that has largely died out on the other islands.
I complete my tour with a boat ride down the Indian River, black crabs scuttling along the river banks and iguanas watching me curiously from the trees. The sun comes out at last.
British Airways offer return flights from London Gatwick to Antigua from £615.76 return including taxes/fees/charges. This is for travel departing up to mid-July and from mid-August onwards. Visit www. ba.com/antigua
or call 0844 493 0787.
www.liat.com operates a regular daily service to Dominica (Melville hall airport) from Antigua. Flights take about half an hour.
rates range from $378 to over $1,000 per night depending on the unit and season.
Homestays with local families and small guest houses are available as an accommodation option on the Waitukubuli trail www.waitukubulitrail.com
For details of Homestay in Kalinago territory see www.kalinagoterritory.com
For information on the island visit www.discoverdominica.com.