Small Dominica is Caribbean’s best-kept secret


The sun beats down on my sweaty top half while my legs go numb underwater. At the far end of the shallow turquoise pool I’m standing in yawns the cave mouth, Larissa Liepins writes for Montreal’s Gazette.

“Watch out for the current!” a guide yells at half a dozen tourists who make their tentative way toward the opening in the rock face. “You’ll have to fight it!”

I notice the tourists all wear flotation devices around their waists. I do not. Nor do I have a guide. Also, we only just finished lunch, which included a couple of very punchy rum punches.

There are no signs identifying what I’d heard called “the swim of a lifetime,” but I’m here at Titou Gorge on Dominica (pronounced Domi-NEE-ka), a small Caribbean island whose name often gets it confused with the Dominican Republic.

“It’ll be narrow and dark!” the guide continues with what must be the world’s worst-ever pitch. “But just keep going!”

I’m Canadian; I can handle a bit of cold water, I tell myself. And strong current? Can’t be worse than the average undertow. But narrow and dark as well? Why am I doing this again, exactly?

I look around for my two companions, music journalists who are visiting the island, like me, for the annual World Creole Music Festival. Martei, the dreadlocked Jamaican, is still on land, fiddling with his underwater camera. Jesse, the much whiter Floridian, is dipping a toe in the pool, then yelping a couple of bad words.

Meanwhile, the guide’s disembodied voice echoes from inside the gorge. “There’s nowhere to stop and rest till you’re inside, so whatever you do, just keep moving!”

And suddenly, the last tourist has been swallowed by the cave mouth.

Tired of waiting for Martei and Jesse, I take the plunge, cross the pool and enter the gorge – and it’s exactly as advertised: I can’t see a thing, the water is bone-chilling cold, and I have to kick like mad just to keep from going backward. “Titou” is the word for it, all right: It means “small throat” in the local Creole.

But a few minutes later, my eyes adjust, and by reaching out both arms, I can touch the walls that undulate a good 20 feet up to a sliver of sky. A few minutes and strong kicks later, and the narrow passage opens into a chamber bathed in greenish light filtered through a canopy of trees that arch over the cliff walls. Around one side, the tour group is standing on an underwater ledge outside the pull of the current. There’s no room for me, so I aggressively tread water while the guide explains that the gorge was formed thousands of years ago when water flowing from a mountain lake cut through layers of volcanic rock, creating pools and falls along the way.

Dominica is still being formed by volcanic activity, it turns out: Its nine volcanoes make getting anywhere, including here, an often tortuous drive through landscape so rugged that much of it is uninhabited. The result, though, is one of the most pristine islands in the world. Its six varieties of lush tropical forest, 365 rivers and 12 major waterfalls has earned it the moniker “The Nature Island.”

“This is only the first chamber,” the guide concludes, “but proceed at your own risk. Please head back if you’re not a strong swimmer.”

Most float back; a couple continue. I hang out on the ledge until Martei and Jesse finally appear, Jesse still swearing about the water temperature.

When the last of the tour group empties out, the three of us forge on. We pass through another chamber, then another, until we finally see it: a short but powerful waterfall at the far end. The current is so strong here, we keep to the sides to avoid being swept away. And we have to yell to hear each other above the roar.

It’s then I notice the rope, slightly to one side. With great difficulty, we manage to pull ourselves up it, one by one, fighting the water that threatens to slam us into the side wall. When we finally make it up and over, we’re in another small chamber, fed by yet another waterfall. By now, the noise is so deafening and the current so powerful, we can barely move, much less talk.

Instead, we balance on the lip of the first waterfall and jump into the pool below. It’s deep enough to dive in, so we do. We jump and dive, hauling ourselves up the rope over and over. It’s deliriously fun. And since we’re constantly fighting the current, we stop feeling the cold. (This also means that a sprained toe and badly scraped legs – mine – go unnoticed until much later.) In fact, time seems to stop in this primeval place. We explore smaller chambers and mini-waterfalls. We hang from vines and test the echo. We float from slanted sunbeams into shadowy pools of blue and green. We keep marvelling that we have this magical place to ourselves. When we’re finally disgorged back into the sunlit pool, we’re surprised to learn we’ve been inside nearly two hours.

But the loveliness doesn’t end there. What we hadn’t noticed before is a small, steaming waterfall off to the side of the pool, with a seat for one hewn into the rock. The water comes from a geothermal spring. We take turns under the hot shower until it’s time to go – just as another tour group arrives.

Yet you can’t call this island touristy. The reason we’re here is the tourism authority would very much like Dominica to become as well-known as its neighbours: Guadeloupe, Antigua and Barbuda to the north; Martinique, St. Lucia and Barbados to the south. The reason for its relative obscurity may lie in its volcanic origins: You’re more likely to find black-sand beaches than white, and the best spots for snorkelling tend to be off rough, rocky shorelines. Nor is it overrun with large resorts; with a few exceptions, much of the accommodation is on the basic side.

That said, there’s no question that Dominica deserves a lot more love, at least as an ecotourism destination. Hikers, especially, will swoon over Dominica’s pride and joy: the 200-kilometre-long Wai’tukubuli Trail that traverses the entire island, south to north. While seasoned trekkers can attempt the whole thing in a couple of weeks, it’s divided into 14 segments that are graded, from easy to advanced. I hiked the “easy” 10th segment through mountainous rainforest, picking ripe grapefruits, tangerines, guavas and wild strawberries along the way. During our 2-1/2-hour hike, my naturalist guide and I met only a handful of locals – and the odd hummingbird and endangered parrot – but not a single fellow tourist.

This was a recurring theme almost everywhere on the island. Granted, the surf was particularly rough due to Hurricane Sandy, but snorkelling one windy afternoon at Champagne Reef (so named for the bubbles emitted by geothermic vents under the ocean floor, making you feel like you’re swimming in a glass of champagne) was a solitary experience, save for a regular visitor from Guadeloupe.

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