Ultimate Adventure: Discover Dominica
Five hours into the Boiling Lake hike -- still three hours from getting off the trail, back to the jeep and into traction -- I'm halfway up another heartbreaking hill and ready to throw in the towel. My legs are rubber, my feet are lead. I take one step, cramp, grimace, rest awhile, sweat, then take another step. Thirty feet above me, my guide, Clem Johnson, is literally hopping up the mountain from foothold to foothold. "C'mon man," he calls in his Dominica-born, London-educated accent. "It's all in the legs."
Yeah, maybe it's in his legs. I wish I had his legs. Actually, right now I wish I had just one of them so I could beat him senseless with it for showing off.
Boiling Lake is the king butt-kicker of Caribbean hikes. It starts out relatively easy, meandering along the spectacular Titou Gorge, before turning into a death march. Fittingly, the trail takes you through the Valley of Desolation, a steaming, hellish, volcanic landscape, before terminating at the bubbling lake itself, the largest of its kind in the world. It's a worthy achievement to make it to the lake. I just wish they had a helicopter service to get you back.
Dominica's imposing landscape -- a jumble of volcanic mountains shrouded in a billowing explosion of green rain forest -- makes it the perfect adventure island. It's Jurassic Park without the dinosaurs, although with parts of the interior so scantily explored, a whole herd of Tyrannosaurus could be stomping around up there and no one would know.
Hundreds of rivers flow down the mountains. Some, dipping close to the molten heart of the island, run hot. Where these feeder streams join a larger river, you find spots where the locals have piled rocks to create natural hot tubs. Upriver, deep in the forest, lie some of the Caribbean's most breathtaking sights: thundering waterfalls, hidden lakes and clear green pools framed by exotic flowers and dangling vines.
You can spend weeks on Dominica doing one hike after another and still not feel you've even scratched the surface of all there is to do. And that's just on land.
Dominica's diving is every bit the adventure as its hiking. In Soufrière Bay, Johnson and I descend onto a site where the Atlantic and the Caribbean meet in a confluence of currents that sustains a raucous multiplicity of sea life. The underwater geography here was created by both the bold, violent strokes of seismic forces and the patient artwork of corals. Massive pinnacles of rock, the ragged edges of a volcanic crater, are smothered in golden sea fans. Gigantic black coral trees host dozens of tiny, juvenile trumpetfish, attesting to the fecundity of the waters. In one dive I find both the largest sponge and largest example of rare pillar coral I've ever seen. There are jawfish, mantis shrimp, pistol shrimp and fields of garden eels. On one small coral head, I see several species of anemones each with its own set of uniquely symbiotic species. The reef here is an uninhibited celebration of natural selection.
After the dives, we head back out on another Anchorage Dive Center boat, this one a big motorcat equipped with hydrophones able to listen in on some of the locals. Just a mile offshore, a chattering burst of clicks spits out of the speakers. Sperm whales. "They're close," says the captain scanning the water. A moment later, "There she blows!" And it is indeed a she. Dominica has a year-round resident pod of sperm whales made up of females and their calves. The big males come down in the winter to challenge each other and to mate with the females in the warm waters off the island.
After one mother whale arches her back and lifts her broad, trademark tail to propel her deep into the abyss to hunt squid, her young calf approaches our boat. The canoe-size newborn rolls onto its side to look up at us through a shallow curtain of water, one side of its tail fluke lazily breaking the surface like a shark's fin. From just a few feet away, I can clearly see the whale's eye. It looks like it wants to play, and I almost expect it to wink and ask if I'm up for an adventure.
Where to Stay: Dominica
At Anchorage Hotel & Dive Center (767-448-2638; www.anchoragehotel.dm), 32 oceanview rooms, a restaurant and a fresh-water pool provide comfort. The onsite dive center and tour company can arrange excursions.
At a primo spot in downtown Roseau, the Fort Young Hotel (767-448-5000; www.fortyounghotel.com) boasts 53 guest rooms and suites, each with a private balcony. This recently renovated property includes three restaurants and a bar, a health and beauty center and a dive shop.
Reproduced with permission from Bonnier Corporation. All rights reserved.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication