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Exploring Dominica – The Adventure Island

It’s nearly a year since we last departed these shores of ours for the breathtakingly beautiful island of Dominica in the Caribbean. Given the first lockdown happened shortly after returning to the UK, it never felt like the right time to write up this post. But in honour of the anniversary of our visit and that there is at least a little light at the end of the tunnel, I felt this was a good time to record our adventures on this amazing little island.

Dominica is one of the least visited islands in the Caribbean (a huge plus for me!), primarily because it doesn’t have the long powder-white beaches of its neighbours and so it’s lacking the big all-inclusive hotels crammed along its shores. Lucky Dominicans!

Known instead as the Caribbean’s adventure island, it is without doubt the perfect spot for thrill-seeking families, with gorgeous volcanic scenery, stunning waterfalls, boiling lakes, hot springs, secret coves, a permanent pod of sperm whales swimming in its waters, oh and no poisonous snakes or spiders. Quite literally my idea of heaven.

If you’re looking for a luxurious holiday laid by a pool or hotel beach, this is not the island for you. But, if you’re looking for a bit of excitement on your holiday in a stunning setting, I cannot recommend this island highly enough. We’d return in a heartbeat.

Here’s what we got up to on this delightful escape:

Day One – Exploring & Emerald Pool

After a long journey the previous day, the last part involving a hairy drive to reach our Airbnb villa along dark winding roads in a somewhat dilapidated 4×4 hire car, we’d hit the beds rather early the night before. The next morning, I woke early with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. There is something glorious about waking up to the sounds of the creatures of the rainforests – the cicadas, birds and something that sounded like someone punching buttons into an electronic device… bizarre but very cool.

Padding out to the veranda to look out over the coconut, banana and cacoa trees growing in the garden to the primary rainforest beyond, nestled as we were on the side of a mountain, I was speechless at the beauty of God’s world. We could hear a waterfall running somewhere below us. The Beans were busy exploring every part of this gorgeous house and showing their teddies the pineapples growing in the garden, so I decided to slip off for a quick run.

Uphill on the way out, I ran past smiling men leaning against their windows watching the world roll by, past glorious vegetation with colourful birds flying in and out of the hedgerows, past burnt-out old cars on their sides, left to rust in nature. The heat, altitude and humidity were proving tough, but it was such a great way to get a sense of where we were staying, right in the middle of a local community, with no hotels in sight. The downhill homeward route was easier, and I enjoyed my run, passing locals on their way to work and school. There’s clearly no issue with crime here as the mums were hailing down any passing car to take their children to school – some of them looked no older than five!

We spent the rest of the morning in the bustling little capital of Roseau, loading up on food for the week – prices are expensive here as they ship in so much of their produce. It was hot down on the coast, so we drove back up to the tranquillity of the villa for some afternoon relaxation before checking out the Emerald Pool, just ten minutes down the road. We arrived after the ticket office had closed, so we didn’t even need to pay for the pretty little wander down to this picturesque pool and waterfall. The kids had a lovely swim, tested out their new snorkels, spotted some enormous shrimps and had a microadventure walking behind the waterfall. We had the place completely to ourselves, just passing some locals on our way out.

On our journey home, we stopped at a fruit seller to pick up some local fresh fruit – apple flavoured bananas (pink colour inside and out), which were delicious, special type of limes (they tasted like a cross between a lime and grapefruit) and papaya.

Day Two – Canyoning!

This was undoubtedly Bean11’s favourite day of the entire year!

For our canyoning trip along the Titou Gorge, we opted to go with the company Extreme Dominica, and I’m so pleased we did! Not only did we have the most awesome fun abseiling, traversing and cannonballing along this stunning ravine, but I felt safe at all times under the excellent care of Jeffrey and Akeel. This duo is extremely professional, and they sing for you too! Accompanied by the dulcet tones of Jeffrey singing My Girl, along with whoops of joy, and a littering of “Yeah mans!” you couldn’t help but have a smile permanently affixed to your face!

Check out the video of our adventure with Extreme Dominica on this post.

 With a last photo under a waterfall, we hiked back to the van and headed home with the music blaring and our guides singing along at full volume! Once back at their HQ and stripped of all our equipment, we’re offered some melon and hot chocolate straight from the cocoa bean. It’s delicious!

After burning a serious number of calories, we eat out for dinner at Rock’s Ruin Café in Roseau. It looks like a rum shack maybe more used to the local backpacker than a family of four, but the food is really good.  

Day Three – Whale Watching

We opt for a morning of relaxation after our big day, playing games from the villa, reading and birdwatching from the veranda – we spot a hummingbird and brightly coloured parrot, endemic to the island.

In the afternoon, we’ve planned a whale watching excursion with Dive Dominica. Thanks to the deep waters off the coast of the island, Dominica is home to the best-studied population of sperm whales in the world; nearly 200 reside in its waters. Unfortunately, though they’re clearly being very elusive today and we travel a long time in the boat, testing the waters at various points along the way with their specially designed listening device.

It’s not looking like we’ll see whales today. But at the eleventh hour, one of the spotters shouts, “There she blows!” And we spot the spurt of water coming out at 45 degrees (unlike other whales which shoot straight up) and then the bump on the head and finally the whole head, which looks like a grey hull or a submarine sitting in the water. The head of the sperm whale is enormous (one-third of its body length). They think this one is about 37 feet long and female.

 We watch for a while and then suddenly she flips up her tail and descends into the deep (she’ll be down for a few hours). We then spot another one taking in oxygen at the surface for maybe 10-15 minutes. And suddenly with a quick warning from the guide, she flips up her tail and descends like her mate in the pod. The Beans are thrilled to see these enormous creatures up close and we were grateful the guides went the extra mile to find them for us. We’re a long way out now, about half-way to Guadeloupe! The kids spend the return journey quoting Shakespeare at each other – obviously!

Day Four – Champagne Reef and Climbing Scott’s Head

After a slow start, we pack up the car to explore the south of the island. First on our schedule is snorkelling Champagne Reef, so called because a volcano sits submerged underneath, releasing bubbles of carbon dioxide from the seabed. Swimming through these bubbles really does feel like you’re bobbing around in a glass of champagne. If you stay still whilst floating amongst the bubbles, you can get up close to the abundant colourful fish, such as wrasse and parrotfish, watching them feeding on the reef. It’s like swimming in an aquarium.

We snorkelled out to the abutting reef; here there are colourful corals and barrel sponges and we also spotted a huge school of trumpetfish swimming just beneath the surface. It’s idyllic. We spend all morning here and only leave when our stomachs tell us it’s lunchtime. We drove to the southern tip of the island through Soufriere and onto Scott’s Head, stopping at the new Jungle Bay resort for a delicious lunch.

Suitably replete, we drove back down to Scott’s Head and parked up for the short amble across the isthmus and up to Scott’s Head itself. It’s a stunning walk with the sun beating down on us and views across the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. Frigate birds, brown boobies and pelicans swoop around the sky above us. The kids chatter excitedly and MrJ teaches them how isthmuses are formed. Along the route, we read all the information boards about the history of the area – the fights between the French and the English – the geography, and the flora and fauna.

It was a wonderful day, topped off by sitting on our deck in the evening watching the sun set with beers and books. Perfect!

Day Five – The Big One: The Boiling Lake Hike

For our fifth day, we decide to tackle Dominica’s most famous hike, a 6-hour trek across volcanic landscapes, through a fumarole field known as the Valley of Desolation, to the second largest boiling lake (a flooded fumarole) in the world. As the route is notoriously difficult to follow with much of the walk along razor-thin ridges (and this mum is not good with heights), we opt to hire a guide. But not just any guide, a volcanologist no less, who comes highly recommended!

We pick him up on our way to the Titou Gorge, the starting point for our hike and by 8:45 we’re on our way, with several warnings from Rob that it’s going to be a really tough day – he’s worried the kids won’t make it, but I know the Beans are very resilient, particularly if they’re distracted by volcano chat. As if to prove the point, we reach Breakfast River within the hour (a normal rate for good hikers), and, after a quick stop for a drink from the fresh running water, we smash the next section of the hike – the steep uphill section up the side of Morne Nicholls (one of the volcanoes) – in just 24 minutes. It’s supposed to have taken us an hour.

Hiking with a volcanologist was an awesome experience. As we walk, he points out the volcanoes surrounding us, explaining how this type of volcano explodes, almost like a tube of toothpaste. Its eruption didn’t produce thin fast flowing lava, but a thick swathe of hot molten rocks that push up and out like toothpaste flopping out of the tube in various directions. The children are riveted. He has so many interesting facts to impart and Bean10 laps it up asking a million questions. To be honest, I’d have been willing to pay him just to talk to Bean10! It meant that I had a very relaxing walk, happily daydreaming without interruption!

At the top of Morne Nicholls, we take a quick break before descending into the Valley of Desolation. This is where the hike got tough. It was less of a hike and more of a scramble/lowering ourselves down rock faces slowly and carefully. We all ended up covered in an orange clay (which Bean10 thought looked like he had fake tan on!). At some points we had to hold onto a rope attached to the cliffside and abseil down small sections (without any safety equipment). I was uncharacteristically calm about this; I think possibly because Rob had such a calm, relaxed but reassuring demeanour.

After quite a lot of work on the muscles, we arrived at the Valley of Desolation, which was breath taking. It felt like we were in a Star Wars set, with steam rising from vents in the ground at junctures across the valley; huge deposits of yellow sulphur and white mica; bubbling hot water erupting from holes in the ground; black water flowing (caused by the growth of bacteria who love hot conditions); slashes of orange iron deposits, and an eerie feeling. Hence its name. But at the same time, it was beautiful. Stunning. Otherworldly. And oh boy, did Bean10 have a lot of questions for Rob. He wanted to touch everything, but Rob persuaded him to be careful lest the water was boiling. We cautiously picked our way across the valley, over steaming streams of hot water, careful not to accidentally fall into the scalding hot water. It took us a while to cross as there was so much to see and examine.

The smell was bad, hence the facial expression!

On the far side of the valley were a series of naturally formed hot pools, connected by waterfalls of warm water and shaded by trees and foliage. Rob pointed out the one we intended to bathe in on our return leg. On we pushed across streams and, in some sections, climbing (without harnesses) up the cliffsides. After a lot more up scrambling up and down rocks, we finally arrived at the Boiling Lake.

It was totally worth the hike. Just below us was an enormous whitish-blue lake and at its centre the water bubbled furiously sending up clouds of water vapour into the sky and waves of hot water to its edges. It was a phenomenal site. We ate our lunch here watching the lake, as Rob regaled us with fascinating stories. Then, we turned around and completed the hike in reverse.

As we neared the Valley of Desolation, we found Rob’s designated hot pool, and stripped off for a little dip, which was incredibly rejuvenating. Tough to leave, we finally dragged ourselves away, scrambling back over the awe-inspiring Valley of Desolation and up the very steep side of Morne Nicholls to its summit. My legs were burning but the kids still seemed to have bundles of energy. After a short break, we pushed on through the last section of hiking back to Titou Gorge, arriving after 4hours 45 mins of walking. An excellent challenging hike. And one which we couldn’t have done without Rob.

To finish off the day, the kids, MrJ and Rob took a swim through the Titou Gorge to see the beautiful waterfall at the end (I opted to look after the bags as the water was ice cold!), warming up afterwards under the pipe of warm flowing water. Then, it was back to Roseau to drop off Rob and again opt for the easy culinary delights of Ruin’s Rock Café (there aren’t many restaurant options in this city…).

Day Six – Recovery

After our hard day’s walking, this needed to be a day of complete rest, pootling around the villa, reading and playing on the veranda. Its highlight was discovering the Zeb and Zepis Bistro only ten minutes from our villa, which served quite honestly the best food I have EVER eaten. We were in heaven. Dominica’s restaurant options are limited but this one is outstanding. It was a good job we only found it towards the end of our holiday, or we we’d be a lot poorer!

Day Seven – Trafalgar Falls

Another early start (we’re up with the sunrise here) and out to Trafalgar Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s already jam-packed with cruise ship passengers, but they only have time for a quick photo of these majestic twin falls before they’re moved onto their next destination. We passed them and carefully clambered over the rocks to find a natural water pool near the base of the smaller of the two waterfalls, known as the Mummy Falls. The kids had a wonderful time exploring and sliding down from one pool to the next.

After chatting to some locals, they pointed out a natural hot spring at the base of the higher waterfall, the Daddy Falls. We had to be extremely careful climbing up to this spring as the rocks were very slippery and the boulders enormous. MrJ leads the way and very carefully we pick a circuitous but safe route to a pool just underneath the one at the base of the falls.

The kids excitedly slipped into the ice-cold water and swam over to the hot springs and mini (hot) waterfall on the far side, with huge orange iron deposits scarring the cliff above. MrJ and I joined them, braving the ice-cold shock to the system to get there! But once in that hot spring, it was absolute heaven with the huge waterfall thundering above us and looking out over the rainforest below. Just stunning. I happily lazed there whilst the kids and MrJ dipped in and out of the cold water finding natural water slides to play in. Unfortunately, I spent so long in there that when I stood up, I looked distinctly like a tangerine as the iron deposits seemed to have stained my skin – a unique look!

Our own mini hot springs

We slowly made our way back down again, and next headed up to the Freshwater Lake, a volcanic lake at 2,800m altitude, which fills a volcanic crater between two of Dominica’s volcanoes. We walked around this beautiful area and then the crazy Beans decided they’d like a dip in its icy waters, although they didn’t last very long!

After the morning’s excitement, we drove back to the villa for another afternoon of chilling out on the veranda, our favourite spot.

Day Eight – Exploring the North of the Island

On the last full day of our holiday, we drove over to the north of the island through the Layou Valley, another picturesque part of the island. We meandered our way alongside the river on one side and towering walls of the gorge on the other. The road was in a bad condition though and we had to engage 4×4. The roads improved once we hit the coast, and we cruised along Dominica’s west coast up to its northern tip to Fort Shirley.

We had a wander around the Fort buildings, read about the history and checked out the cannons, marvelling at the view of the bay below. Then, we headed up the hill to see the battery. On route, we saw hundreds of little lizards, some very large ground lizards (they looked like iguanas) and a snake (harmless thankfully).

Next on the agenda after our hot walk was some beach time at Toucari Bay, a cute little bay with a very laid-back Caribbean feel. We spent the rest of the afternoon snorkelling, swimming and jumping in from the pier. A perfect, relaxed end to the holiday.

The next day we sadly had to say goodbye to this glorious island, after one last visit to Zeb and Zepis Bistro to experience their amazing food once again. And then it was back to the UK and our first lockdown experience. I feel very lucky to have squeezed this trip in before the pandemic hit and hope to return one day in the not too distant future.

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