Loved by active adventurers, low key nature buffs and kids looking for an eco-friendly Caribbean vacation that is off the beaten path.
Dominica is one of the least known islands in the Caribbean, cradled between Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south. In my recent travels there, I was struck by the natural beauty and timeless quality of this virtually undiscovered territory. As the plane descended slowly over the rainforest canopy, I got my first glimpse of an untarnished paradise. It was refreshing to see a coastline unobstructed by large scale resorts and, instead, dotted by humble homes and eco-friendly lodges.
Even beyond the physical beauty of the island, there is undeniably positive energy and charm fueled by a lively and colorful Caribbean culture. Keep in mind that the locals know the island better than the best guide book on the market and they are the best resource to a personalized and memorable vacation. Families are encouraged to take their travels in stride and enjoy themselves knowing they are in the safest and friendliest of all the Caribbean islands.
Active Families Court “Pirates”
The nation’s population is mainly of African descent and they are by far some of the most friendly and open people around. English is the official language, second to French Creole, so communication poses no problem for travelers. The strength of community on the island makes Dominica feel immediately like a home away from home. Visitors are welcomed wholeheartedly by locals who love nothing more than showing off their homeland.
And as it turns out, the native Dominicans have a lot to brag about. With over two-thirds of the tropical forest protected by the national parks system, their island has remained a haven of natural wonders: verdant rainforest, mineral rich volcanic soil, sulfur springs, breathtaking waterfalls and panoramic views around every corner.
While Dominica is not typically known as a family destination, in recent years it has become more suitable for families traveling with younger children. Since the cast and crew of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” stepped foot on Dominica for the filming of the second and third installments of the blockbuster movie series, the island has gained more recognition as a kid-friendly zone. Many local tour companies have designed special daytrips to bring movie fans to the recently famous sites, such as Ti Tou Gorge, High Meadow and Hampstead, as well as guided tours that highlight the island’s biodiversity for young learners. Ask your hotel concierge for a recommendation.
Civilized Capital of Roseau
Even the most enthusiastic nature lovers may need a break from the wilderness and a return to civilization. For this, spend a day or two in the island’s capital Roseau. There is a higher concentration of hotels, lodges and restaurants than elsewhere on Dominica. The rest of the island is so remote that basic items such as bug spray, sun block, film and batteries can be difficult to come by.
The city has a distinctly Caribbean feel and is characterized by a mixture of British and French colonial architecture. In Roseau there are several churches, museums, botanical gardens, parks and beaches to visit, as well as a huge outdoor market held every Saturday. Roseau is also a good starting point for vacationers to pick up any last minute items that might have been left behind.
While it is definitely important for families to do preliminary research and have a rough idea of what they want to accomplish in their travels in Dominica, it is equally important for them to remain flexible. This is especially true for families more accustomed to the order and organization that comes with more popular vacation spots.
Eco-Touring On A Bio-Diverse Island
One of Dominica’s greatest strengths is the accessibility of radically different island terrain. Unlike many of the all-inclusive Caribbean destinations that tend to limit the experience of guests, the entire island is at the disposal of the traveler. The island is so remote that there is a magical feeling that everything encountered is uncharted territory. Dominica is known for its peaceful and secluded beaches and there are several hot spots families won’t want to miss. Some of the most stunning beaches on Dominica are located around the coastal village of Calibishie on the northeast Atlantic side of the island. The fishing community of Portsmouth, the second largest village, has Secret Beach, the hidden gem of the Caribbean side. While in Portsmouth also take advantage of a guided river boat tour along the Indian River. Adults can sit back and relax as the kids delight in finding the many large crabs scuttling sideways along the shoreline.
Snorkeling and scuba diving tend to be better on the southern tip of the island and the best beaches are around Soufriere and Scott’s Head Marine Reserve. Beach days in Dominica are made complete by a stop at one of the many Kubuli shacks on the island. These popular hangouts are a great place to chat up locals and sample the island beer (Kubuli of course!) or a rum punch; tropical fruit juices and soda are available for the kids.
Nature enthusiasts should plan on spending several days in the south exploring the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, home of lush rainforest, dozens of waterfalls, volcanoes and hot springs. The highlight of this area is the hike through The Valley of Desolation to the Boiling Lake. To say the least, this hike is intense. Even the most active and healthy families should take this into careful consideration before proceeding onto the first of 7,000 steps to one of the world’s largest boiling lakes, second only to New Zealand’s Waimangu Lake in Rotorua.
A less intense hiking option for families traveling with younger children is the two-hour circular loop to the Freshwater Lake. In the north, families should explore the Northern Forest Reserve, a great place to spot Dominica’s national bird, the Sisserou parrot, or climb the island’s highest peak Morne Diablotin. In between nature treks, visit the Carib Territory. A national park and reservation for indigenous people from the West Indies, it is one of the best educational opportunities for adults and kids on Dominica.
Getting there & getting around
As remote as “Pirates of the Caribbean” may seem, Dominica is easy to get to. The two major carriers that service Dominica are American Airlines (800/433-7300) and Liat Airlines (888/844-LIAT). There are two airports on the island; Canefield is the larger, located on the southwest side of the island, just three miles outside the capital city of Roseau. Connections will most likely take place in the hub of the Caribbean, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Many people choose to fly into Canefield as it is close to many of the premier destinations in the southern part of the island, such as Trois Pitons National Park. However, there are several benefits to flying into Melville Hall, the alternative airport an hour from Portsmouth. Plane tickets are significantly cheaper with Melville Hall as the destination, and families could conceivably save hundreds of dollars on airfare. By arriving in a less populated area, travelers open up other opportunities to explore Dominica’s less frequented places. And the thrilling drive around the coast en route to the main attractions in the south is a definite plus.
Getting around Dominica is more of a challenge. There is one main road that wraps around the coastal exterior of the island with dozens of smaller inlets leading into the interior sections. The three ways to travel around the island are public transportation, rental car and hired driver. Public transportation is the cheapest available option but the least recommended for travelers, as buses are not air-conditioned, are oftentimes over-packed, and run on an unpredictable schedule. Renting a car is a decent option but you’ll face the hassles of a driving on the left hand side of narrow, curvy roads. The mountain-hugging roads are not very well maintained and there are sharp drop-offs from the shoulder, often without guardrails, so drivers need to use extra caution.
The best option is to hire a reliable driver and taxi for the extent of your stay. With a driver, visitors are better able to relax and enjoy the scenery of island while having a knowledgeable and friendly guide to answer questions and guarantee their safe delivery Prices will vary; on average a car and driver can be hired for around $125 per day, a reasonable rate especially considering they will take you anywhere and everywhere you need to go. Prices run cheaper for half-day fares or local drop-offs and pick-ups.
For any first time visitor without a pre-arranged tour, it is a good idea to find a hotel close to one of the two airports for just the first night or two. This will leave room to explore the island without getting pigeon-holed into one lodge or tour company. Even during peak season (November through February), the island is far from crowded. However, play it safe and book in advance when planning travel in October, during the annual World Creole Festival. And with the upcoming Reunion Year 2008, a year-long celebration of Dominica’s 30th year of independence, hotels and lodges are expected to be in higher demand.
Lindsey Abram, author and photographer, is an avid traveler, nature lover and outdoor adventurer based in Boston, MA. In addition to writing and editing, her passions include, kayaking, snorkeling, and camping. Lindsey has traveled extensively in the US and in over a dozen countries, including France, Ireland, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic, St. John and Dominica. Through these experiences, she has discovered the significance of ecotourism and teaching children and adults to minimize the negative impact on their places of travel.
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