ROSEAU, Dominica — Out of a population of 70,000, this island has more than 20 people who have reached their 100th birthdays and beyond. That’s one of the highest longevity rates in the Western Hemisphere. What’s their secret?
After a few days on Dominica, the answer seems clear: This mountainous, rain-forest-cloaked island is like heaven on earth. Who wouldn’t want to stick around? But just in case there’s something in the water, we spent as much time in it as we could, snorkeling in the “champagne bubbles” created by geothermal activity, soaking in orangey sulphur pools that made our skin feel baby soft, and hiking on a rain-forest trail with more water features than the Bellagio in Las Vegas — including the second-largest boiling lake in the world.
The first thing to know is, you are not in the Dominican Republic. Dominica is in the Windward Islands of the West Indies, between Guadeloupe to the north and Martinique to the south, with a land mass about three times the size of Barbados. Flights from Boston to Dominica connect through Antigua, Barbados, St. Martin, or San Juan to tiny Melville Hall Airport on the island’s northeast side. Flying in, you marvel at the sheer green-ness of this volcanic island and its mountains rising nearly 5,000 feet above sea level.
Dominica calls itself “The Nature Island,” and it’s not hyperbole: 60 percent of the island is covered by rain forest. There’s a river for each day of the year, plus 12 large waterfalls — not to mention 19 major dive sites and 22 species of cetaceans.
At first glance, the island is reminiscent of St. Lucia. But Dominica is much less developed. Ecolodges rule here, not sprawling resorts. Cruise ships do show up at Roseau, the capital, from October through April, pulling up so close to the Fort Young Hotel that guests can hear the ships’ announcements from their balconies.
Dominica was once home to a thriving banana industry, but tourism is now the mainstay — especially active vacationers who would rather hike and dive than sprawl on a beach. “We get people who are passionate about nature and looking for an authentic experience,” says Yvonne Armour, president of the Dominica Hotel & Tourism Association.
Looking for clues to Dominicans’ longevity, we considered that folks seem genuinely calm and friendly. “Just lime!” they say, meaning, “Chill out.” According to Marcella Cools of Sunset Bay Club Resort, “Nobody goes hungry here. If someone can’t feed her kids, everyone gives food. And everyone says, ‘Good morning.’ ” Or maybe it’s the local food — Creole dishes, lots of plantains, vegetables, and fish — and the local rum, Macoucherie, used in ubiquitous fruity rum punches. Perhaps it’s the curative powers of the spices grown on island, like cinnamon and nutmeg, and the sap of the gommier tree — “very effective at repelling evil,” according to hiking guide Derrick Joseph. Or maybe it’s all of that outdoor activity. Growing up, “there was no television, so we would go hiking,” Armour said.
For the visitor, maybe the best tactic is simply to revel in all of this, and make the most of the time you’re here. Visit some of the most unique spots on the island and vow to come back — after all, you’ll need two weeks or so to hike all of the 115-mile Waitikubuli National Trail. A great first outing for New Englanders starved for warmth is snorkeling at the Champagne Reef in Scott’s Head-Soufriere Marine Reserve on the southern tip of the island. This is a popular excursion for cruise ship passengers, but it’s still a blast. You meet at a beach bar to get your gear, and then stroll a boardwalk to a rocky beach where they’ve set up a plank to make entering the sea easier. And suddenly, you’re tickled by strings of warm bubbles that rise from the hot springs below. Lovely!
The champagne reef is just south of Roseau, home to 18th-century buildings and the lively New Market on Saturday mornings. Crafts, souvenirs, and local produce and fish are sold in stalls. Nearby are the hot sulphur springs in WottenWaven. The cruise ships tend to go to Screws Spa, so we opted for Tia’s, where you can soak in three sulphur pools, surrounded by greenery.
That will get you feeling relaxed for hiking. With more than 300 miles of trails, Dominica is a haven for hikers. It’s an easy walk to the Emerald Pool, a lavish waterfall with a popular swimming hole at its base. You won’t be alone here, but so what? If you’ve got your hiking boots on, keep walking: The Emerald Pool is located within the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, and it’s one of the sites along the spectacular Waitukubuli National Trail. This 115-mile marked trail, split into segments, runs from Soufriere in the south to Cabrits in the north. Trail segments vary in terms of difficulty, but count on thick, jungley tangles of tropical foliage, waterfalls galore, local communities, farm lands, coastal areas, and pathways that were first cut by indigenous people.
And count on this: mud. Lots of goopy, sucking mud and slippery rocks that can make even the flatter sections of trail a bit of a challenge. But the payoff is incredible, especially when the landscape opens up to reveal views of the mountains. Some hikers are so enamored of this trail, they hike it all, combining walking with home stays with local people (contact www.DiscoverDominica for details).
The ultimate bragging rights come with hiking to the Boiling Lake and the Valley of Desolation. We asked nearly every Dominican we met, “Have you hiked it?” and most said, “Yes, once,” with an expression on their face that seemed to say, “And never again!” This hike should be done with a local guide (it’s easy to get lost), all the better for moral support as you ascend to 2,264 feet and descend 98 feet toward the Trois Pitons River. A highlight is the Valley of Desolation, a geothermal wonderland of sulphur streams, hot boiling mud, mini-geysers, and fumaroles. And, finally, the lake, a cauldron of boiling water about 200 feet wide, an eerily fascinating natural wonder that’s well worth the six hours of hiking (round trip) it may take to reach it.
After all this, you’ll likely come back from Dominica with what the locals call “a banana on your face” (a smile) and a vow to just lime.Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright @gmail.com.