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A lush land for active ecotourists

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephen Jermanok
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2004

DOMINICA -- ''Follow me closely," said our guide, Kent Auguiste, as we made our final steps down the steep flanks of Morne Watt into the so-called Valley of Desolation. The landscape was a study in contrasts, from the rock slides that created the barren brown slopes to our right to the green mountain ridges that rose dramatically straight ahead.

At the moment, however, it was the white smoke billowing up from the scorching stream at our feet that held my interest. The smell of sulfur was overwhelming and the sounds of foaming, gurgling water didn't exactly instill confidence in my footing.

People flock to the Caribbean to sift their toes in the pearly white sands. But in Dominica (pronounced dom-in-EEK-a), the attraction is not the relatively few beaches, but a lush mountainous interior ripe with every tropical fruit and vegetable imaginable, and inundated with so much water that around every bend is another raging waterfall, a serene swimming hole, or a hidden hot spring. Indeed, this island close to Martinique has become an affordable haven for the active traveler who yearns to hike through a jungle-like forest, dive and snorkel on living reefs, and kayak in sheltered coves. Sure, you can still lounge with a good book, but it won't be on an overdeveloped strip of sand. You will be high up in the hills on some small eco-resort balcony sipping fresh passionfruit juice and listening to the Atlantic crash onto the rocky shores below.

Dominica's volcanoes might be dormant, but there's still fire in the belly of this island. The Valley of Desolation was just one of the highlights on a seven-hour hike inside Morne Trois Pitons National Park. Auguiste led my climbing partner and me over muddy trails through a dense forest of tall gommier trees, used to make dugout canoes for 20 to 30 paddlers, and past the massive trunks and aerial roots of the banyan-like chatagnier trees. As we made our ascent out of the rain-forest canopy, iridescent purple-throated hummingbirds kept us company as they stuck their heads into the tubular orange and red heliconia flowers.

At the far end of the valley, we arrived at the rim of Boiling Lake crater. Steam emanates from this cauldron of bubbling water where temperatures reach 198 degrees.

''Don't get too close to the edge," said Auguiste as I peered down, wondering how many people had met their demise in this unforgiving witch's brew.

Back down at the trailhead, we had earned the right to swim in the dark cool waters of the Titou Gorge. Inside a narrow chasm that filters out sunlight, I felt like Jonah swimming through the ribs of the great whale. Words echoed off the cavernous walls. More muscle therapy awaited us that evening in the natural hot spring of Papillote Wilderness Retreat.

Owner Anne Jno Baptiste came to the island from the States in 1961. Eight years later, she bought seven acres that she would cultivate into a flower-rich botanical garden and one of the Caribbean's first ecoresorts. I walked the trails, a luxuriant and tangled growth overflowing with indigenous orchids, begonias, and bromeliads, in one of the rare moments it did not rain. There's no secret why Dominica remains so velvety green while other Caribbean locales are so arid and brown: heavy downpours. Some parts of the island receive more than 300 inches of rain annually.

''The umbrella is part of the wardrobe here," said Jno Baptiste with a laugh.

All that rain produces innumerable waterfalls. A 15-minute walk from Papillote, the Breakfast River careers down the hillside to form Trafalgar Falls, one of 14 big falls in the country. Trafalgar is actually two waterfalls, with the higher Papa and lower Mama plunging over boulders like blond ponytails dangling from one big mountainous head.

On our final day, we visited the small fishing village of Soufriere and had our first taste of salt water. Standing on the shores of a quiet cove that appeals to divers and sea kayakers, our guide, Oscar Etienne, had us thrust our hands into the black sand to show that even at the outer edges of the island, the ground is still steamy.

''Can't keep it there too long before it's barbecued," Etienne said with a smile.

We paddled along the rugged coastline, accompanied by dozens of thin needle-nose fish that flew in and out of the waves. Later, we exchanged kayaks for snorkels and hovered above tiny bubbles the locals call the Champagne Pools. Geothermal vents in the ocean floor allow the hot air to rise.

Back on dry land, Etienne handed us a cool glass of fruit juice. No protein shakes or Gatorade necessary. In Dominica, they do everything the natural way.

Stephen Jermanok is a freelance writer in Boston.

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 DOMINICA: If you go: Dominica

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