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We took a family vacation to the island of Dominica in March 2008 with our two children ages 10 and 13, and a grandparent, and had a marvelous time. Dominica is a very mountainous island with a rain forest climate and a very rich history (I recommend reading “The Dominica Story” by Lennox Honeychurch before you visit). It is the only Caribbean island that still has a Carib Indian population (the Kalinago). After the collapse of the banana industry devastated the island’s economy in the late 1990’s there has been much interest in growing tourism. Hopefully this will be done smartly. We stayed at the relatively new Jungle Bay Resort and Spa, which follows a very interesting model for both eco-tourism and how it meshes with the local economy.
There are no McDonald’s here, nor are there any chain hotels, and in my mind this is a plus. The trip was relatively easy – a direct flight from Hartford to San Juan, and then a flight to Melville Hall airport on the north side of the island. We chose to rent a car. We are glad we did, but read my driving tips below before you decide what is best for you.
This is not the place to go for your typical beach vacation. But if you love the outdoors, and have a sense of adventure, this is the perfect destination. We did a canyoning adventure, rappelling down waterfalls with Extreme Dominica, went scuba diving with Nature Island Divers and took a guided hike to Middleham Falls with Paul Crask. You can read my reviews on these specific trips for more details, as well as my review of Jungle Bay Resort and Spa.
A few notes about driving: Driving is on the left, the roads can be exceptionally steep with endless hairpin turns, and they can be very narrow in many places. The road from the airport to the roundabout (rotary) is probably the worst section. It is paved, but the pavement is not wide enough for two cars and is fairly raised so it is tricky to pull over without hitting an axle. The conditions of the roads are not nearly as bad as in some places like Costa Rica, but there can be many potholes (although the road crews are out every day making repairs). Once you reach the roundabout, the road widens enough to handle 2-way traffic, both west to Roseau and east. Driving at a moderate speed, it took us about 1 ¾ hours to get from the airport to Jungle Bay. I’m guessing it is similar to Roseau. It took an hour to get from Jungle Bay to Roseau following the south coastal route (faster than going north to the roundabout).
We found the people of Dominica to be exceptionally friendly, especially in all the villages along the southeast coast and across to the west. We stopped numerous times to confirm we were on the right road, and always felt comfortable asking for directions. Locals tend to drive very fast, and would beep to pass, but never in an overly aggressive way.
2. Jungle Bay Resort & Spa
We arrived at Jungle Bay at dusk – my husband, 2 children ages 10 and 13 and my father-in-law. We were met in the reception area by the owner, Sam Raphael, and personally escorted to our cottages. Talk about personal service! We felt immediately at home. It is a fairly long but pleasant walk up the road from the main building (parking is in the lot by the main building). There are paths off the road leading up the steep hillside to 35 individual cottages, all basically the same except some have 2 queen beds and some have a king bed. We stayed in cottages 14, 15 and 16, which were perfectly situated, being fairly close to the Pavilion Restaurant and pool. Be aware that it can be a long walk to your cottage, as they are dotted across a very steep rain forest hillside, which also makes the atmosphere of the resort very relaxing and lush. This is an eco-lodge, but while it is not fancy, it is quite comfortable, and charming in a rustic way, and very open to the outdoors. It was definitely my kind of place. I love to go to sleep at night to the sound of tree frogs and waves, and wake up to the chirping of birds. There is no AC (and we didn’t need it – great breezes and a ceiling fan made for good sleeping), no radio, no TV. There are phones and electricity (even though the island is 220/240 the voltage and outlets in the rooms are all 120/240 and work with U.S. power cords), and I had pretty good cell service most places on the island. There are mosquito nets over the beds, but these are mainly decorative, as there was no need to use them. We were there during an unusually wet dry season, and even with rain showers I had one mosquito bite the whole week. I never had to use insect repellent, even when hiking in the jungle with shorts and T-shirt.
Sam’s vision of an eco-lodge extends to include forging relationships with the neighboring towns and improving the local economies. As such, they make all the furniture on site (even the restaurant table and chairs and the pool chairs), and they serve meals cooked with locally grown ingredients. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are all served at the open air Pavilion Restaurant. The breakfast buffet is fine, with scrambled eggs, pancakes, fruits, cereals, breads and juices (the grapefruit juice is delicious) and good local coffee. Lunch has mostly salad and sandwich offerings. I loved the Dominican Delight – a sampling with chicken or fish, and “provisions” (rice, beans, salad, plantains etc.). The dinner menu changed nightly. The food is quite good, but the menu is limited, offering a chicken dish or 2, a vegetarian selection, and a catch of the day (in March it was always either mahi-mahi or kingfish), so by the end of the week we longed for a bit more variety.
The main building is a gorgeous wood and stone building that houses a stunning yoga room, gift shop, front desk, rec room (TV, ping-pong, pool table, books and games) and a room offering 2 computers for Internet access (no charge). Sam’s wife, Glenda, teaches yoga. My kids and I tried a 7:30 a.m. yoga session and really enjoyed it – very relaxing!
Many guests opt for the all-inclusive package, which includes airport transfers, accommodations, all meals, spa treatments and activities. We have never been big fans of all-inclusive travel, preferring to do our own thing. We went with the room and breakfast plan only. We rented our own vehicle and planned our own activities (Canyoning with Extreme Dominica; SCUBA diving with Nature Island Divers; Guided hike to Middleham Falls with Paul Crask). We are very glad that we chose this route, although if you like the ease of all-inclusives, the other guests seemed to enjoy themselves, too.
The downside to staying at a single location is the amount of driving to get to any of the sights (whether you are driving yourselves or on a tour with the lodge). When we go back to Dominica, we will consider staying in a few different locations and enjoying what each place has to offer.
We had a day of SCUBA diving with Nature Island Dive. They are located in Soufriere, which was approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes from Jungle Bay Resort. The plan was to dive the first (deep) dive with my husband, then come back to shore to pick up our kids for the shallow dive, and my father-in-law planned to snorkel. Unfortunately, a cold front had blown in, and whether or not the trip would be on was uncertain. Karen in their office was great to work with, and she called our hotel that morning to say we could still come.
Once we got there, the swells had come up considerably on the beach, and they warned us that the visibility was not good. When we explained that we really wanted to try, they were very accommodating. Because of the swells, they were not able to use their floating dock, so we had to wade into the surf and time the waves to climb on the boat. We managed all this without incident. We received truly personalized service ? we were the only ones diving that day! Tony guided the first dive for us, while Oscar, who is also a divemaster, stayed on the boat. The dive site was less than 5 minutes from shore. Visibility was indeed very poor, and there were some awkward surging currents underwater, but we could immediately tell that the diving is amazing on a great day. We went back to shore for the surface interval and picked up the rest of our clan. Our shallow dive was limited to 40? because our daughter is 10. The dive site we picked was even closer to shore, but the currents were much better and although the visibility was still not great, it was a bit better. We saw seahorses, turtles, moray eel, puffer fish and many other different fish. Afterwards we ate at a very clean, new eatery called ?Tony?s Wine Bar and Café?. They were out of fish (I think due to the weather the fishermen were not able to get out) but the chicken w/ fries or rice was good!
On our next trip, we will look into staying at a cottage in Soufriere so we can do a few days of diving. Keep in mind that this is still a ?third world? island (I hate that term), so it is not a place for glitz, but it is friendly and picturesque.
Staying at Jungle Bay, it took us about 1 hour and 15 minutes to drive to Cocoa Cottage, which is on the road to Trafalgar Falls out of Roseau to meet Richard, who owns both Cocoa Cottage and Extreme Dominica. I had read about his canyoning adventure, and thought it would be great fun to rappel down waterfalls into pristine pools of water. I was a bit apprehensive, because I had not done this kind of thing before, but also because our adventure included my 10 and 13 year old children (who are quite adventurous) and my 71 year old father-in-law (who is not the outdoor type and has never done anything like this before). At Cocoa Cottage we met up with hiker and diver Paul Crask, who just wrote a guidebook on Dominica. Paul was there to video our adventure! We also met, Jeffrey, Richard’s climbing assistant. We started by gearing up in wetsuits, climbing harnesses, life jackets and helmets. From there, we practiced a simple rappel on a short (4 or 5 foot) stone wall on the property. Once Richard was satisfied that we could handle the skills, we headed off in a van up the road toward Laudat. We traipsed down a short path to a river, and the very first thing we did was rappel down a waterfall! After we had each successfully rappelled down, which ended with a swim in a glorious river pool, we had a chance to jump 12’ down into the next pool below. This made me more nervous than rappelling! (My father-in-law chose to rappel this part, but later announced his one regret of the day was that he had not jumped). The day went on with a series of rappels, jumps and walks through the river in this narrow slot canyon. Lunch was very simple (kingfish salad sandwiches on rolls), but we were not there for the food. The whole experience was breathtaking. Safety was of paramount concern, and all the important parts (i.e. rappel ropes) were in good condition (the wetsuits have some wear and tear – understandably). Even though technically we controlled our descent with a rappel device, Richard was on belay from above, and Jeffrey from below, and these were secured in 3 different permanent bolts in the rocks, so there were many layers of safety. After that, all you really need is guts. No prior experience is necessary, but you do need a good sense of adventure, and a love of water helps. On our next visit, we would love to stay at Cocoa Cottage for a couple of nights and explore more the area.
I read about Paul Crask on TripAdvisor, and also saw that he is the author of a new guidebook about Dominica and all its hiking trails. Paul is a British ex-pat who has been visiting Dominica for over a dozen years, and has resided there full-time for the last several years. We asked him to guide us to Middleham Falls. Middleham Falls is a beautiful waterfall that can be accessed on trails from 2 different directions – Laudat, or Cochrane. We decided to tackle the hike from the Cochrane side. It was supposedly a bit longer, but flatter. We were also told that it is a less frequented route. (When we arrived at the falls there was a group of 20 hikers that had come with a guide from the Laudat trail. We only passed one hike the entire afternoon on the Cochrane trail). Almost the entire trail is made with cut logs – ostensibly to avoid the mud in the rainy season. Because it had rained a lot the day before, the logs were very slick. While the main trail is gradual, there are numerous steep descents and ascents into and out of ravines with streams running through (at one point we crossed the stream that flows into the falls further down). These require hand over hand climbing. We were a bit worried about my 71 year old father-in-law, but he managed just fine. Even though the roads are signposted and the trails well marked, we were glad to have Paul guide our hike. He shared a lot of information about the island, the rain forest and the trails, and helped make sure my father-in-law stepped in the right places on the steep parts. From the viewing platform he showed us the best way down to the pool so we could take a dip.
The trail is about 3 miles each way.
6. Glasse Trail
There is a fairly easy signposted hike from the southeast town of Boetica called the Glasse trail. It is a 30-45 minute hike through the rain forest to a rocky coast riddled with caves and tidal pools.
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