Dominica: Off the Grid

– Natural jewel of the Caribbean encourages Eco-Tourism on its way to becoming the first climate-resilient nation.

My summer on Dominica was where I learned to feel safe away from home. I had traveled before, but mostly in Europe and was accustomed to busy metropolitan areas. In Dominica, my daughter and I lived in one room with two double beds, a hot plate and small fridge, a bath wedged in where a hall used to be, on the second floor of a science center with a view of the ocean from the patio and a zig zag trail to a river. The walls were thin and we could hear the manager of the center snore during his afternoon naps in the office. The small balcony in the front of the room offered a view of the entrance gate but also a magnificent 20-foot-long Thunbergia vine with sky-blue flowers where the purple throated hummingbirds, the largest of the three varieties in Dominica, hung out and dashed from flower to flower. As the summer progressed, people who had met us and began to know us would stand below the balcony, call out to us, and when we appeared, would throw us a pineapple, sea grapes, bananas, and sometimes, frog legs in a jar; a delicacy on the island.

We had no car so we would hitch a ride to Roseau, the capital, for entertainment and for the Saturday food buying at Old Market, a 300-year-old institution where locals sold fresh fruits and vegetables on the old cobblestone floor. After my first market day, I learned to carry a small cloth bag for the eggs; they were handed to me individually and I cradled six of them in my hands on the crazy, jagged ride back up the mountain to the Science Center.

I had no idea how peaceful a place could be, an entire island kind of peace, that is if you didn’t listen to the frogs at night or the bats in the bamboo. Dominica is about 290 square miles, longer than it is wide. The indigenous people, the Kalinago, called the island Waitukubuli meaning “tall in her body.” Columbus renamed it for a Sunday, the day he arrived: Dominica. The nation gained its independence from Great Britain in 1978. Though the official language is English, with the colonial French influence and its location between Martinique and Guadeloupe, French Creole is also spoken.

What stands out about Dominica is that it is not like other Caribbean Islands. Some historians suggest that should Columbus visit again, Dominica is the only island he would recognize. The people along with their government have taken eco and natural island seriously. As of January 1, 2019, the prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, announced that Dominica would be the world’s first climate resilient nation. They banned plastic and Styrofoam used in the food service industry: lids, cups, single use Styrofoam, plastic containers, disposable plastic cutlery and drinking straws. Additionally, there would be no duty on biodegradable products or on reusable shopping bags.

On such a small island, the task of getting rid of plastic has been an issue, especially when a-cruise-ship-a-day lands in Roseau and Portsmouth (a town on the north end of the island). What draws people to Dominica is that it is pristine, quiet, and safe. The day trips include hikes and excursions to many of the natural sites on the island. Several vans full of cruise ship tourists would hit the Science Center where we were staying every day after lunch for beverages and a musical show with women in traditional Dominican attire (long skirts with matching tops and head scarves). The tourists would lounge, listen to the music, have a cold drink, look at the view, and then move on.

Rainforest Encourages Eco-tourism

There is a lot to see. Two-thirds of Dominica is still rain forest with 300 miles of hiking trails, 365 rivers including hot springs from volcano heat, and a boiling lake – a strenuous three-to-four-hour hike up to see it and a three-to-four-hour hike back down through mud and narrow trails. Suggestion: don’t wear your best shoes, mine got sucked into the mud so many times I could no longer tell what color they were. And, if trekking to the boiling lake, get a guide; definitely worth the price. The Boiling Lake is a flooded fumarole, an opening in or near a volcano through which hot sulfurous gases emerge. Steam forms when superheated water condenses when it emerges from the ground, thus, the lake is covered in a constant cloud of vapor. The lake is known as the world’s second largest boiling lake, at approximately 200 feet across. (The largest is Frying Pan Lake, located in Waimangu Valley near Rotorua, New Zealand.) In 1870, two Englishmen, Edmund Watt and Henry Alfred Alford Nicholls, sighted the lake and a government botanist, Henry Prestoe, was added in to investigate. They found the water temperature from 180-197 degrees Fahrenheit (82-91.5 Celsius) along the edge of the lake but couldn’t measure in the center where the lake was boiling. The depth was recorded as greater than 195 feet. Not a good idea to swim. Resist. This trek is for the experience of seeing.

There are three rain forest reserves on Dominica: The Morne Trois Pitons National Park, the Cabrits National Park, and the Syndicate Forest Reserves. All are protected by national laws. These laws also protect the Sisserou Parrot, Dominica (land) crabs, hummingbirds, and the crapaud, a local species of frog. As of 1997, the Morne Trois Piton National Park was designated as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

Besides the national laws passed in Dominica to protect the environment, Green Globe, certification and performance improvement program based on Agenda 21 principles for sustainable development agreed to by 182 heads of government at the United Nations, named Dominica as the first country in the world to be benchmarked as an eco-tourism destination. Eco-tourism has spawned other projects. One is to develop electric production using hydropower and wind. There are three hydroelectric plants producing 27 percent of the island’s electricity. With the volcanic area and the boiling lake, Dominica has the resources to produce geothermal energy with estimates at 500 megawatts of geothermal power. Tapping into other sources, the island’s solar and wind power has the potential of producing 5.6 kwh of solar power per square meter a day and 30 MW of wind power.

Local entrepreneurs are encouraged to pursue their own energy-efficient projects. Some of the accommodations/resorts use solar or wind energy either entirely or at least partially. These go from the basic living in the rainforest kinds of experience, totally off the grid, like the Three Rivers Eco Lodge with its jungle cabins and bamboo tree houses, to the more upscale Secret Bay with cooking classes, kayaking, snorkeling, swimming, yoga classes, organic dining, and hiking. They have a wild orchid garden on the clifftop nearby with an accessible sea cave, full of exotic fish. There are many options including hotels near dive sites like the Anchorage Hotel in Roseau. Though not off the grid, the Anchorage management allowed us to pay a day rate for use of the swimming pool. We’d hitch down the mountain, have breakfast at the Anchorage restaurant, swim, visit the library, walk a bit, then head back up to the Science Center.

Ocean Encourages a Living Habitat

I am not a diver, but diving is taken seriously on the nature island and the water is protected by laws and guarded as much as the rainforest. Champagne Reef, named because of the bubbles coming from cracks in the sea bed generated by geothermal activity, is on the south of the island in the Soufriere-Scotts Head Marine Reserve. Sea horses, bright reefs, sea crabs, and squid are abundant. Other dive sites located in this reserve include Soufriere Pinnacles, Dangleben’s Pinnacle and Pointe Guignard. The Cabrits Marine reserve near Portsmouth to the north is where sponges and Creole fish can be found. The Cottage site near Portsmouth is an old wreck site with many colorful fish species.

The waters around the island are the summer habitat for migrating sperm whales. The whales and their water mates, dolphins, are often seen along the coasts. Species most sighted include the pantropical spotted dolphin, the Fraser’s Dolphin, the bottlenose dolphin and the short-finned pilot whale. Pack a copy of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” because a sperm whale can often be seen as well.

Ocean projects like the Dominica Sperm Whale Project has operated under permit from the Government of Dominica’s Fisheries Division since 2005, and ITME Dominica, a marine biology and environmental studies program, has generated and compiled environmental data to pave the way for future marine science projects and has provided Dominica with its first publicly-accessible database on the island’s marine habits. The water is a major resource for the island. The rainforest produces ample rain fall, the 365 rivers are clear and drinkable, so why not export water? The fresh water from the rivers produce 300 million gallons flowing into the sea.

Historical Sites Encourage Browsing

Walking in the rainforests near Portsmouth may give an opportunity to see a Sisserou parrot, the national bird of the island nation and can only be found in Dominica. Several parrots can be seen in the Botanical Gardens, a 40-acre garden near Roseau. Though formerly a sugarcane field, the Roseau Botanical Gardens was conceived by the British Crown Government in 1889 to encourage a supply of properly propagated seedlings of various tropical crops for the island farmers. There are two sections: ornamental and economic. The ornamental was landscaped with ponds, ornate iron gates, a fountain, and 500 species of exotic and indigenous trees and shrubs. Tropical storms and hurricanes have taken their toll on the Gardens but they still provide a space for cricket matches, national parades, cultural celebrations, and recreational activities.

The Roseau Public Library is a 1906 stone house funded by Andrew Carnegie and maybe because we were there for the summer, we got a library card. If no card is available there is a wrap-around porch designed for sitting and reading. Check out books by Dominican authors like Jean Rhys (1890-1979) “Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1908–86) “The Orchid House”(1953), Lennox Honychurch (1952) “The Dominica Story” (1975), Marie-Elena John (1966) “Unburnable” (2006), Elma Napier (1892-1973) “Black and White Sands” (1962 but published until 2009) and Alex Waugh “Island in the Sun” (1955) and “The Fatal Gift” (1973). A great way of not packing lots of books to read and tapping into the local literature, especially nice to have a reading day after hiking to the Boiling Lake. Relax.

The Dominica Museum features exhibits on the island’s natural history, culture, economy and history. Much of its historical account was written by local historian, author and grandson of a writer, Lennox Honychurch (grandmother was Elma Napier). It is worth a visit in downtown Roseau.           

Historical research suggests that the original people of Dominica were the Ortoroids from 3100 B.C.E. but disappeared by 400 A.C.E. when the Arawak Igneri people settled in Dominica. (Stay with me here, this gets more interesting as the history unfurls.) Then in 1400 A.C.E. the Kalinago tribe, known as the Caribs, settled in the area, ousting the Arawak Igneri people from the island. The Kalinago people called the island Waitukubuli, remember? The Kalinago/Caribs, fought fiercely to protect Dominica from colonial invasion. Though known for their strength and ability to keep most of the colonists at a distance, they also created a unique mixed language. Men’s and women’s speech were different. The men used a Carib language and the women used an Arawak Iñeri language with their children. A pidgin language (Carib/Arawak) bridged the genders and survived until the 17th century. As if that isn’t amazing, Dominica has the only remaining population of the pre-Columbian Carib Indians. Their territory, Kalinago, is 3,700 acres on the eastern part of the island. They have a heritage village recreating life of another time and introducing their history through arts and crafts. The village offers home stays to experience a different culture.

End-of-the-Day Encourages Eating and Drinking

Most restaurants in Dominica specialize in using local produce and fresh seafood. The food is simple and healthy using a Creole style of spicy sauce made with tomatoes, peppers, onion, celery, and fresh seasonings. Curry goat and callaloo soup (a creamed spinach soup) are worth a try. Tropical drinks include (this is long, stay with me) guava, mango, pineapple, lime, grapefruit, passion fruit (my favorite, I even brought some syrup home to make my own), cherry, avocado, plaintain, tamarind, papaya, bananas, gooseberry, barbadine (largest of the passion fruits), orange, tangerine, apricot, mangosteen (tastes like lychees and peaches) and soursop (tastes like strawberries and apple). And, these local drinks and food are all part of the eco-tourism experience. The best hamburger I have ever eaten was in Roseau: a freshly baked bun right out of the oven with a 100 percent beef patty, giant slice of fresh red tomato and razor-thin sliced cucumbers. Add a glass of Kubuli beer, the local Dominica beer made with 100 percent natural spring water that results in a light German type lager, and the meal is complete. The beer name is short for Waitukubuli. The beer has a Gold award from the Monde Selectione Quality Awards. After dinner, relax under the stars with a Macoucherie, a rum drink made with local sugar cane.

Getting to Dominica Encourages Planning

There are two airports: Douglas-Charles, about 60 minutes from Roseau, and Canefield, about fifteen minutes from Roseau. Canefield has a short runway with limited to low lighting. Visitors to the island must connect through another travel hub such as Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, or St. Martin, or take a ferry provided by L’Express D’iles from Guadeloupe, Martinique, or St. Lucia. The ferry docks in Roseau. There are taxis and car rentals. Cruise ships dock at Roseau and Portsmouth.

However you can get there, just get there. I encourage everyone to experience the ecology, culture, history, and peace found on this natural gem of the Caribbean.

Story by Leara Rhodes

Rhodes teaches in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. After a Fulbright to Haiti, Rhodes chose to live on the island of Dominica at a university-sponsored science center in the rainforest.

Photography by Paul Crask

Dominica Geographic

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