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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A secret garden to discover before the cruise ships do

Trafalgar Falls, a double waterfall a few hundred yards above the Papillote Wilderness Retreat, a botanical garden and hotel in Trafalgar, Dominica, in February 2024. Dominica, a remote Caribbean island, enchants with its waterfalls, hot springs and hummingbirds — but a new airport and more tourists could tame its wildness. (Christopher H. Warren/The New York Times)

By Nina Burleigh

The hiking trail to Middleham Falls on the Caribbean island of Dominica is all wet leaves, slippery black stones and steps formed by tree roots. It could be a path in Middle-earth, shrouded, shadowy and green, fit for hobbits and fairies. Where sunlight pierced the canopy, rainbows formed in the mist, almost close enough to poke. Here and there, hummingbirds drew nectar from huge blossoms.

The goal on that January day: a 200-foot forest cascade filling and refilling little pools on the valley floor, where I could — as one does in the secret hot pools and isolated waterfalls of Dominica — shed my clothes, slip into water and commune with the hummingbirds like a fairy queen.

Dominica — 29 miles long and, at its widest, 16 miles across — is one of the wildest Caribbean islands. A former British colony, it lies in the eastern Caribbean between Guadeloupe and Martinique. Many travelers base themselves in its capital, Roseau. Thanks in part to its rugged topography, bisected by a volcanic mountain range with Jurassic-looking conical peaks, the island was the last Caribbean island to be colonized by Europeans.

Even today, getting to and around this tropical bastion, a New York Times 52 Places to Go in 2024 pick, takes a taste for adventure, patience and a strong stomach. There are few direct flights from the United States, and once one lands, the journey is not over. Driving around the island in a rental car — to lodging, hikes and snorkeling sites, and to visit local experts — usually involved long, queasy rides on narrow concrete ribbons hacked through mountain jungle in the last century by pickax, shovel and wheelbarrow.

A place of ups and downs

The island is a big draw for hikers who enjoy a challenge: Walking almost anywhere beyond the coast involves going up or down. Boiling Lake, a flooded volcanic fumarole and popular attraction, lies at the end of a strenuous three-hour trek from the village of Laudat. The government is building a cable car, scheduled to be completed late this year, that will whisk visitors from near Laudat to the lake in just 15 minutes.

Even after the cable car opens, hikers will be able to choose from a network of mountain paths, including the 115-mile Waitukubuli National Trail, which traverses the entire island in 14 stages and takes six days to complete. (Waitukubuli is the Indigenous name for the island.)

Dominica, which brands itself as the Nature Island, has tried to protect its wild side. The route to Middleham Falls is one of dozens of marked and unmarked hiking trails around the volcanic 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Offshore, the government has opened a new reserve for sperm whales, complementing a marine reserve that protects coral and reef animals. And locals have joined the effort. For the past year, Simon Walsh, who runs Nature Island Dive, and his fellow divers have been painstakingly applying an amoxicillin caulk to corals showing signs of stony coral tissue loss disease, which has been spreading around the Caribbean for about a decade.

My travel companion and I snorkeled in the reef near the dive shop at Bubble Beach (so named for the tiny bubbles from volcanic springs rising from the sand) and easily spotted the white medicine outlining the disease-damaged spots.

Walsh had plans to save some specimens from coral bleaching, a devastating phenomenon linked to climate change, by transferring some into tanks to protect them from another summer of record-high water temperatures. But a tragic turn of events has put that effort in jeopardy.

Walsh has operated both coral rescue projects through a nonprofit called REZDM. The organization, formed after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017, received much of its funding from Daniel Langlois, a Canadian philanthropist who had built an off-the-grid resort near the town of Soufriere. Last November, Langlois and his partner were killed, a rare crime on a largely safe island. The police have charged the American owner of a neighboring estate, who had reportedly been feuding with Langlois over the use of a road through his property, and a Florida man, with murder. Walsh doesn’t know whether the projects will continue to receive funding.

A garden everywhere you go

Dominica receives up to 250 inches of rain annually, feeding crystal streams, waterfalls and thousands of acres of lush forest. Hurricanes like the Category 5 storm Maria have ravaged and reshaped the island repeatedly over the centuries.

The upside to all that precipitation is the Edenic ecosystem. Much of the island feels like an untamed garden. Spectacular blossoms peek from profuse green almost everywhere. Birds of paradise and other dazzling flowers sprout like weeds. Grab a handful of tall grass on a roadside, crush it and inhale lemon grass. Pluck a berry from a tree, and it could be one of a half-dozen types of cherry. And 20-pound globes of jackfruit, rock-hard and encased in bright green, elephant-skinlike hide, dangle from branches.

At Papillote Wilderness Retreat, we were able to spend the night in a garden. Situated a few hundred yards below Trafalgar Falls, a double waterfall, Papillote predates many of the other eco-friendly establishments on the island. Its owner, Anne Jno Baptiste, came from New York in 1961 and bought the land, including its 40-foot waterfall and steaming volcanic springs, to create a botanical garden. Now 94, she is modest about her garden and philosophical about the challenges. She has survived five major hurricanes. “We’ve had some landslides,” she said. “You see, everything changes. Life is like that. You just pick up the pieces.”

The retreat is a charmingly ramshackle landmark with a few simple rooms. Steps wind underneath Day-Glo orange and pink flowers and giant ferns to a secret garden. Twice daily, we wandered down and found out what standing under a 40-foot waterfall does for sore shoulders, then plunged into a hot pool for a long soak. Our accommodations also had a perpetually bubbling tub of hot volcanic water inside the bathroom. Our room went for $130 a night (as with many places on the island, we paid in U.S. dollars, worth about 2.7 Eastern Caribbean dollars, the local currency).

Ambitious Plans and Rising Fears

Historian Lennox Honychurch is among the islanders who worry about the government’s plans to expand and modernize tourist infrastructure. Like many Caribbean islands, Dominica is conflicted between the demands of snowbirds with money who want luxury accommodations and easier air access and environmentalists and advocates of a scaled-down, sustainable local economy who fear losing the “nature” part of their island.

Besides the cable car to Boiling Lake, builders are working on a large, new international airport, about a one-hour drive from the capital, which is expected to be completed by 2027, according to Samuel Johnson, CEO of the International Airport Development Co. of Dominica. And the government is planning to welcome 500,000 cruise ship visitors annually. “Their dream is to have big, glitzy hotels with marble lobbies,” Honychurch said.

For now, upscale food and lodging are available, but they’re not the norm. A few high-end resorts serve good meals — but at prices that would raise eyebrows even in Miami or New York. The best food options in terms of taste, price and ambience are roadside shacks and kiosks with outdoor tables.

In Soufriere, we bought plates of takeout chicken stew for about $5.90 each at the shed-size, pastel blue Teachers Place. We ate stewed fish ($15) on the porch of the River Rock Cafe and Bar, with stupendous views of the Roseau River tumbling through the forest. The best meal we had was chicken roti (about $4.80) at Vado’s HotSpot, a bright red roadside cargo container.

Soaking in the Stardust

One rainy afternoon after a day of hiking and snorkeling, we decided to check out the volcanic pools at Ti Kwen Glo Cho (patois for Coin de l’Eau Chaude, or “hot water corner” in French), in a riverine slot between two towering walls of green. For about $18.50 for the two of us, we entered and found our way to a series of steaming cement-lined pools nestled among low palms, ferns and birds of paradise.

We joined a gaggle of other international visitors in the largest pool, and soon we were all cooking together like a global soup. We sat in the boil until we could stand it no longer. Steam rose from bright red bodies draped on the pool’s edge, cooled by tiny raindrops. Drowsy, blissed out, practically narcotized, we lay supine as the sun dropped behind the mountain, peepers started clamoring in the shadows, and the sky turned starry black. “We are stardust,” I thought, recalling the lyrics of the Joni Mitchell song “Woodstock” as I looked to the heavens.

Barely a day later, back in the cold, gray winter of the Northeast, surrounded by traffic, fast food and ATMs spitting sheaves of dollars, I couldn’t help thinking back to that beguiling dusk at Ti Kwen Glo Cho and finishing the verse of the song: “And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

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