A report by Tom Allan for The Financial Times.
I pick my way along a ridge just wide enough for two feet; on each side the ground tumbles away into valleys cloaked in rainforest. Thick mist swirls in the gentlest of Caribbean breezes. “You can sometimes see the coast from here,” my guide Marvin Philbert apologises, gesturing into the foggy blankness. Still, this is the “nature island” of Dominica, and I haven’t come here for the sun loungers.
The tiny nation of 74,000 inhabitants (correctly pronounced with an emphasis on the second “i” — Domin-I-ca) offers a Caribbean experience for those not in search of white sand and resorts: it’s an island of rainforests, creole music and remote mountain gorges. I’m here for all of that, and especially for the hiking — the island has the longest walking route in the Caribbean, the 185km (115-mile) Waitukubuli trail.
Today I’m tackling one of the island’s classic hikes, to the Boiling Lake, the world’s second-largest hot spring. Along with my guide Marvin, dreadlocked and in calf-length baggy surf shorts, I am following in the footsteps of the young English physician Henry Nicholls, who in 1875 hacked his way into these forests in search of the mythical lake. Though contemporaries pointed out that it had been visited before, Nicholls lay claim to its “discovery”, bequeathed his name to a mountain, Morne Nicholls, and breathlessly recounted his exploits in the Illustrated London News in a stirring tale of awful abysses and suffocating vapours.
Still, there’s no doubting the difficulty of Nicholls’s trek, which is strenuous even with the help of today’s fixed ropes and cables. From the summit of Nicholls’s self-named peak we descend precipitously into the Valley of Desolation, an alien landscape of sulphurous rocks (with concomitant eggy bouquet) and leg-scalding vents of steam that can open without warning. The mountainsides around are lined with strata of grey and red clays — rich with skin-purifying qualities, Marvin tells me.
The lake itself is even stranger. The cauldron of sludge-grey liquid is usually hot enough to boil an egg in — or a leg, as a local guide found when he lost his footing and very nearly a limb with it. Occasionally, the water can be cool enough to swim in. Today it’s boiling hard and I opt for the safer pleasures of a natural jacuzzi pool fed by one of the hot springs, milky with skin-cleansing clay, bath-warm and blissfully fizzing with bubbles. It’s the perfect salve for sore limbs.
Seven hours after setting off, we return to the car park to find groups of local teenagers somersaulting into the nearby Titou Gorge. We join them for the day’s final activity: scrambling and swimming into the ravine, one of many “canyoning” options on the island. A funnel of smooth rock with a current just slack enough to swim against leads into a cavern filled with echoes and spume. Spot-lit by a hole in the ceiling a waterfall thunders out of the rock, showering a mountain’s worth of rain into the cave.
The long-distance Waitukubuli trail was established in 2013. As with the Boiling Lake trek, Dominica’s terrain and climate render it tougher than the distance suggests: it defeated the ultra-marathoner Kyle Dietz when he attempted to set a speed record in 2017. (He was aiming for two days; the record still stands at six.)
For trail builders there’s another challenge: how to maintain a hiking trail in the tropics, where vegetation seems to grow as fast as you can cut it back, and landslips can carry away a mountainside overnight. Hurricane Maria, the most destructive storm ever to hit Dominica, left much of the trail blocked when it tore through the island in September 2017.
Some sections, however, have been cleared. After a breakfast of fresh pineapple and grapefruit (delicious in a way fruit is only in the tropics), I am picked up from my hotel in the capital Roseau and we wind our way into the mountains. My driver greets every passer-by with a “Yessah!” and a honk of the horn. Jerk barbecues line the road and rum is already flowing in the bars — today the island is celebrating 40 years of independence from Britain.
We arrive at section 6 of the trail in the Kalinago territory on the island’s rugged Atlantic coast (the Kalinago are the indigenous inhabitants of the Lesser Antilles). My guide is Derick Joseph, who lives in one of the villages here and describes himself as “pure” Kalinago (most families have intermarried with non-Kalinago Dominicans). Derick leads me to a clifftop high above L’Escalier Tête Chien, a lava pavement partially submerged in the churning surf. Adjusting his pink baseball cap, he tells me the local legend. It’s a sacred site, as a snake god is said to have come ashore here and slipped into a mountain cavern. The chiefs continue to hold tobacco-fuelled ceremonies in communion with the serpent.
Local guide Derick Joseph, whose knowledge of the rainforest provided Tom Allan with fresh fruit to eat during their hike By 1920, the Kalinago language was lost — though not before gifting to English words such as hammock, canoe and, yes, hurricane. And some of the old knowledge remains: Derick shows me how to split the stems of a forest plant to make baskets and keeps disappearing into the bush to forage, returning with grapefruit, guava, fresh almonds, star fruit and lengths of fibrous sugar cane. Over seven hours of hiking, my energy bars stay untouched.
As we begin the long ascent to Horseback Ridge, the valley below us is filled with music playing over huge backyard sound systems in the village of Bataca. It’s a surreal but quintessentially Dominican moment: to the sound of distant dance-hall bass, a family of endemic jaco parrots fly overhead, and at the side of the trail hummingbirds hover in the afternoon sun, sipping from crimson flowers shaped like trumpets. We climb higher, and the music is swallowed by the forest.
Dominicans know better than most that when something needs fixing, you have to do it yourself. And that is the attitude of Annette Peyer, the Swiss owner of the Tamarind Tree Hotel, perched on a headland near Mero, on the island’s western coast. Rather than wait for the overwhelmed Forestry Division to clear the Waitukubuli trail, Annette has decided to do so herself.
“Everyone thinks I’m mad to take this on,” says Annette as we drive from the hotel to the start of Waitukubuli trail section 11, which skirts the flanks of Morne Diablotins (Dominica’s highest peak, at 1,447 metres), “but really, I don’t care.” Clearing the route is a daunting task, so the hotel are offering a “voluntourism” package to encourage guests to help with the work.
Their first volunteer, a British tree surgeon, proved invaluable. Our enthusiastic but less qualified team of six gets to work, with two Dominicans at the front armed with brushcutters and the rest following on with bowsaws and cutlasses (my inner pirate is satisfied when I’m armed with the latter). To a chorus of tree frogs, we slither and hack our way up the mountain, the tropical downpours providing relief from the humidity.
It’s gruelling work, but Annette’s energy remains undimmed. Leaning on the smooth bark of a fallen tree — elephant-grey and warmed by the sun — we look out over the indigo sweep of Prince Rupert Bay. I ask what keeps her going: “I think I’m just stubborn,” she replies, “and a little bit crazy.”
With some trails still impassable, the hotel has started organising low-tide beach walks, Annette explains, exploring parts of the coast they don’t usually visit. “There’s always something new to see on Dominica,” she adds. She’s not alone in this view. The writer Elma Napier forsook 1930s London high society to build a house on the island’s northern coast and played host to the likes of Somerset Maugham and Patrick Leigh Fermor on the cliffs above her favourite beach. For Napier, the “crumpled” hills and valleys of her adoptive home were “so many and so diverse that no one could see them all in a lifetime”.
The rain clouds above the Caribbean Sea turn golden in the late afternoon light, and my mind turns to the cocktails and freshly landed tuna awaiting us at the hotel. Yes, I can think of crazier places to choose to live — or to come on holiday, for that matter.