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A visit to Dominica (pronounced Do-min-EE-kah) promises to be unlike any other stop on your itinerary. Prepare to slow down, take in the scenery, breathe fresh air, sample fruit right off the trees and experience nature in a way unique to few places on earth.
This "Nature Island" measures 29 miles long by 16 miles wide and encompasses about 290 square miles of untamed rain forest; dense, lush vegetation; waterfalls; freshwater pools and bubbling hot springs, heated by the active underwater volcanoes surrounding the island. Much of the interior can only be reached on foot.
It's easy to see why producers selected Dominica as a backdrop for two sequels in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series. As you drive the coastline on roads hacked out of the mountainside, jagged edges plunge into the ocean, as mango trees and ginger root cascade down into the sea.
Once off the ship, head inland to visit the island's impressive national parks or into the water to spot plentiful sea life. Dominica ranks as one of the top sites for scuba-diving in the Caribbean. Its beaches are mostly rocky.
The island features no chain hotels or big-box mega-stores, though there are a Pizza Hut and KFC in Roseau, the capital city.
Originally populated by the Carib tribe of Indians, the island gets its name from Christopher Columbus, who first spotted the land in 1493 on a Sunday. (Domenica means "Sunday" in Italian.) In the 1800's, the French and British fought for control of the island. If you glance at a map of Dominica, it's clear by the town names that the French populated the South (Roseau, Soufriere), while the British occupied the North (Portsmouth).
Eventually, the British conquered the French portion of the island and maintained control until 1978, when Dominica gained independence. The island still has a Carib population of about 3,000; they occupy a northeastern corner of the island. A drive through this "Carib Territory" will give you a rare glimpse at traditional native life in the Caribbean.
Dominica has survived with a predominantly agricultural-based economy that includes bananas. Tourism also remains strong, with Dominica attracting a stream of naturalists who flock to the island to see 172 types of birds, 12 major waterfalls and peaks that rise to 5,000 feet.
Whale-watchers also come in hordes to explore the waters that plunge to nearly 6,000 feet right off the coastline, providing an ideal base for seven types of whales that can be seen nearly year-round, including a resident population of sperm whales.
Weather on the island averages 77 degrees in winter, 82 in summer, although it's cooler in the mountains, humid in the rain forest and warmer on the coast. The driest months are January through April, but don't be surprised if you experience a brief downpour every day.
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Other Southern Caribbean Cruise Ports:
Antigua • Aruba • Barbados • Bequia • Bonaire • Curacao • Dominica • Grenada • Guadeloupe • Martinique • Nevis • Port of Spain (Trinidad) • San Juan • St. Barts • St. Kitts • St. Lucia • St. Vincent
The language of Dominica is English. However, many of the locals also speak Creole.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the Eastern Caribbean Dollar, which is relatively stable and pegged to the U.S. dollar. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There are ATM's in Roseau and Portsmouth connected to Cirrus, Star and Plus networks, which dispense E.C. (XCD) dollars. Banks will also change money. U.S. dollars are widely accepted by most tour operators, restaurants and vendors; however, change may be given in local currency.
Locally brewed Kubuli beer is made with the island's natural spring water and ranks as the pride of Dominica.
Where You're Docked
Most ships dock at Roseau Cruise Ship terminal. It's located in town, just steps away from shops, restaurants and transportation. The Port of Woodbridge Bay, less frequently used, is about a mile north of the city.
Some smaller ships may dock at the Portsmouth Cruise Ship facility on the northwestern tip of the island, about 30 miles northwest of Roseau. Travel time is roughly one hour.
Colorful downtown Roseau spreads out from the dock. The frenetic little city is small geographically but possesses a high concentration of inhabitants. Cocorico Cafe (Bay Front), right across from the pier, is the closest place for snacks, local arts and crafts, and Wi-Fi. A couple of blocks away, the Old Market ranks as one of the best in the Caribbean. The fruit and vegetable stalls provide a nice photo opp, and the local arts and crafts stalls are good places to pick up souvenirs, including Carib baskets.
If you dock in Portsmouth -- the site of a famous battle between the French and English while vying for occupation of the island -- you'll find that the port, located about a half-mile outside of Portsmouth, features a small visitor welcome center and is near some of the only white-sand beaches on the island, as well as Cabrits National Park.
On Foot: Most of Roseau's attractions are within a 10-minute walk of the pier.
By Taxi: Taxis line up at both cruise piers -- certified taxis have either an H, HA or HB on their license plates. The approximate rate is $30 per hour. While there are standard prices set for places like Trafalgar Falls ($25), Emerald Pool ($35) and Champagne Beach ($40), drivers try to increase their earnings by selling tours. Four-hour tours typically will be between $80 and $120 for up to four people; walk a block away from the pier for the cheaper prices.
By Rental Car: Operators include Island Car Rental (767-255-6844), which has SUV's available from about $48 per day; Courtesy Car Rental (767-235-7763), which offers free pickup and drop-off and rents Suzuki 4x4's from $54; and (767-275-5337) Road Runner Car Rental, which rents Toyota Rav4's for $59. Driving is on the left, and with the one-lane roads and mountains, distances take longer to travel than you might expect. Also, you are required to pay $12 for a special Dominica driver's license.
By Trolley: The open-air Hibiscus Trolley Train leaves from near the pier and does a tour of Roseau, driving past the cathedral and other examples of colonial Caribbean architecture. If it's not filled with passengers on a ship tour, the individual fare is $29.75 per person for a 90-minute tour.
By Bus: Mini-buses run by private operators serve as the island's public transportation, and they're fairly reliable. Bus stops are designated throughout the island. Fares range from $1 to $5, depending on the route.
Watch Out For
Especially when exploring Roseau, watch out for crowded, narrow sidewalks. You might find yourself having to walk in the street at times. Also, remember when crossing the street that cars drive on the left.
Hiking and then stopping for a swim is a top activity on this gorgeous island. Go for a hike through rain forests or valleys that end in sparkling freshwater pools. You can choose your hike based on the level of difficulty. Suggestions include:
Easy: A 15-minute, 0.5-mile loop trail in the 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, leads to the Emerald Pool, fed by a 50-foot waterfall. The crystal-clear water appears bright green in the sunlight, reflecting the surrounding trees.
Moderate: A 20-minute walk through the rain forest in the Roseau River Valley leads to Trafalgar Falls, twin falls that flow into a freshwater pool. In certain areas, you'll have to climb over boulders, which can be challenging. A guide is recommended, particularly when you visit after heavy rains, when the flow can be strong and the rocks slippery. Note that the left side of the falls is not safe for exploration.
Challenging: For a daylong adventure, the Boiling Lake is one of the most impressive sites on Dominica. Hire a guide to take you. This three- to four-hour hike (each way) leads you to a steaming, water-filled crater with temperatures estimated to reach 197 degrees. The lake was formed by a crack in a volcanic crater through which gases escape from the molten lava below. On the way, you pass through the Valley of Desolation, which deserves its name.
Sign up with Wacky Rollers for river-tubing, sea-kayaking, a visit to an adventure park or a Jeep safari ride. (767-440-4386)
Morne Diablotin National Park is named for Dominica's highest peak, Morne Diablotin, which rises almost 5,000 feet above sea level. Inside the park, you have the best chance of spotting the rare Sisserou parrot, the green and purple bird that can be found only on Dominica. Bring binoculars for other bird-watching.
One of the most impressive remnants of the Royal Navy in the Caribbean, Cabrits National Park encompasses an old fort that housed more than 700 men in its day -- as well as forest and wetlands.
Been There, Done That
Looking for something a little different? Hang out in Roseau. A 10-minute walk from the pier up King George V Street brings you to the Botanical Gardens. Established in 1890, the gardens are home to more than 50 varieties of trees and a breeding facility for the rare Sisserou parrot. Above the gardens, climb the 35 steps of Jack's Walk and a steep, 15-minute path beyond to the top of Morne Bruce, where you'll be rewarded with panoramic views of the city, the Roseau Valley and the sea. A large white cross marks the vantage point. You'll also see remnants of Fort Young, including a cannon.
The Society for Heritage Architecture, Preservation and Enhancement (SHAPE) offers a self-guided walking tour map pointing out historic sites in Roseau for $5 (available at the tourist office at the Old Market or at the Cocorico Cafe, right across from the cruise pier). You'll learn how the Victorian-era Roseau Cathedral was constructed from volcanic rock and took more than 100 years to build and that the Old Market square was once the site of slave auctions and punishments.
For a snorkeling adventure, head to Scotts Head Marine Reserve at the southern tip of the island. Next to the town of Soufriere, this reserve offers a chance to snorkel above an underwater cauldron that's still bubbling up warm water.
Book a guide for an Indian River boat ride. This is one of the island's best bird-watching spots. To arrange for a guide, stop by the Portsmouth Visitor's Center.
Take a driving tour of the Carib Territory, home to the native tribe. Nestled in a northeastern corner of the island, the tribe -- now with about 3,000 members -- farms and produces handcrafted items, including intricate baskets that you can get at nearby shops. Dominica is one of the few places where these indigenous people have survived.
Go on a whale watch. Take a 3.5-hour trip with Anchorage Hotel, Whale Watch and Dive Center to see humpback whales, sperm whales and orcas that love Dominica's deep offshore waters.
Explore the rain forest on horseback. Rainforest Riding Dominica offers rides on the Waitukubuli National Trails through the Cabrits National Park, as well as rides on the beach.
Creole cuisine is the thing to try. Choose from curries to crabback (stuffed crab backs) and various preparations of callaloo (a spinach-like leafy vegetable). Other treats include fried titiri ackras (small river fish) and bakes (fried biscuits filled with cheese or fish).
Several excellent casual restaurants in Roseau offer local Creole cuisine. Among them are Guiyave (5 Cork Street; 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; 767-448-2930); Pearl's Cuisine, located in an old creole house (25 Old Roseau Street; 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; 767-448-8707); and Cee Tee's Restaurant (King George V Street; 767-616-4500). Note that most restaurants are closed on Sundays.
For an authentic Dominican gourmet lunch set in a botanical garden in the middle of the rain forest, head to the Papillote Rain Forest Restaurant -- really a restaurant, guesthouse, gift shop and swimming venue combined -- in Trafalgar. In the Roseau River Valley, just yards from the trail to Trafalgar Falls, the restaurant is located in a botanical garden. The menu features fish specials, as well as local specialties like callaloo soup. A "local lunch" menu changes daily but always features local fruits and vegetables, such as dasheen and plantain, as sides. It's less than four miles from Roseau (or about a 15-minute ride) and accessible by taxi or bus service. For an extra fee, you can take a dip in the property's hot springs or go on a garden tour. (open 8 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; reservations required for dinner; 767-448-2287)
Staying in Touch
For wireless access right across from the pier, head to the Cocorico Cafe (Bay Front), a casual restaurant and gift shop. Order a beer or anything else, and you can log on for free. Otherwise, the fee is $2 per half-hour, though they are lenient with the minutes. If you don't have your own device, head a few blocks inland to Zenith Internet (11 Old Street), where the computers come complete with HP flat screens and access is $2 for 30 minutes, $3 for an hour. Water and soda are for sale, and the Internet cafe is air-conditioned.
Best for Swimming: Champagne Beach on the west coast of the island (just north of Roseau) gets its name from the volcanic vents that spit bubbles up from fissures in the ocean floor. Swimming here is like swimming in a glass of Champagne. But watch where you step, as there are more pebbles than there is sand.
Best for Snorkeling: Scotts Head Beach is a narrow, sandy patch on the southernmost tip of the island. You can choose the Atlantic side with some rough waves (be careful of currents) or the more gentle Caribbean side, which is ideal for snorkeling and diving. Explore clear waters and undersea walls to spot colorful coral, lobsters, turtles, sponges and more. Dolphins frequently frolic there, too.
Seek out intricate, hand-woven baskets and grass mats made by the Carib Indians. Be on the lookout, too, for island-made natural beauty products like soaps.
Best for First-Timers: You'll want to experience some of the natural attractions that make Dominica so special. Travel into the Roseau Valley to see majestic Trafalgar Falls and the flora of the rain forest, before heading to either Wotten Waven Sulphur Springs for a relaxing dip in the naturally hot water or Emerald Pool for a dip in cooler freshwater. Brief hiking is involved, and sometimes you'll be treated to a rum punch.
Best for Spa Enthusiasts: Embrace the relaxing aspects of eco-tourism on a visit to the Laudat village in the center of the island, where you can swim in Titou Gorge under a waterfall. If the setting looks familiar, it was featured in the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." You'll also visit hot springs, where you can relax your muscles in detoxifying sulphur-rich water.
Best for Snorkelers and Divers: Explore the beautiful underwater world of Dominica on a guided dive or snorkeling expedition. Attractions include multicolored coral and plentiful sea life -- from lobsters to parrot fish. Choose an excursion to Champagne Reef, and you can experience the naturally bubbling water that gives the area its name.
Best for Active Types: Get wet as you paddle an individual inflatable innertube (it looks like a giant tire) on the natural rapids of the Layou River Gorge, with a stop for a swim. If you're really adventurous, you can also combine tubing with zip-lining.
Best for Explorers: Enjoy a leisurely kayak adventure down Dominica's longest river from the island's rain forest interior to the Caribbean.
For More Information
On the Web: www.dominica.dm
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Dominica
The Independent Traveler: Caribbean Travel Guide
--Updated by Fran Golden, Cruise Critic contributor
--Images appear courtesy of www.dominica.dm