Known as the Nature Island, Dominica (pronounced DomiNEEkah) is often confused with the Dominican Republic. We don’t expect that to happen for much longer.
Though historically a lesser-visited island in the Caribbean, Dominica is now served by direct flights on American Airlines from Miami, and Kempinski opened a luxury resort in 2019.
Nasha Smith takes you through divine Dominica, in four dreamy days.
I’m a St Lucian travel writer who has studied abroad in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, Spain, the USA and Wales – yet I always find my way back to the islands of the West Indies. And I promise you, when you touch down in Dominica you won’t be able to stay indoors. This beauty beckons you to rekindle your relationship with nature as you discover its soothing properties, with its hot springs and blankets of vegetation serving as holistic antidotes to stress.
Why you should visit Dominica
With dramatic gorges, impossibly green rainforests, limitless rivers and ethereal sunsets, Dominica earns its title of “Nature Isle.” But this island nation is also the Caribbean’s most unspoiled jewel, offering a respite from life’s chaos. A connection to nature is ingrained in the Dominican lifestyle. A strong culture of farming and fishing results in fresh, wholesome cuisine. Nine volcanoes have left the island bubbling with geothermal activity – and abundant hot springs. Hiking trails abound through the verdant interior. The air is clean, the water cool. What’s not to love?
Putter around Portsmouth
Start your day with a hearty breakfast at one of several spots in Portsmouth, the second-largest town in Dominica. U&H Delights on Harbour Ln serves up a variety of omelets, sandwiches and quesadillas (stuffed with eggs, ham, chicken, veggies or fish), waffles, smoothies (made from local fruits like guava, banana, mango, passionfruit, papaya, cherries and sorrel) and more. Sweet Tooth Treats on Bay St is another breakfast nook that promises good food and better vibes, with a decadent menu featuring waffle tacos, stuffed donuts, pancakes, fluffy scrambled eggs, crispy bacon and herb breakfast potatoes.
Dominica is the land of 365 rivers, none more famous than the Indian River, which flows into the Caribbean Sea. (Entrance to the Indian River is covered under Dominica’s eco-tourism site pass, which costs $5 per day or $12 for a week, during which time pass holders are allowed unlimited visits to eligible sites.) Once a transportation route for commerce and trade, the river today is a source of serenity – and a fabulous area for hiking. The trailhead starts just outside of Portsmouth near the bridge.
At the visitor center, you can also book a spot for a guided tour in an eight-seat boat ride ($20). One thing you will quickly learn is that aliases are part of West Indian culture. Ask for “Cobra,” “James Bond” or “Lawrence of Arabia” – three boatmen who are tour-guide favorites. Fun fact: James Bond also served as a guide for Pirates of the Caribbean stars when they were filming on the island.
Oaring by hand, these river boatmen have mastered the recipe for decompressing. The tour is unhurried, moving at a gentle pace that allows you to appreciate the flora, fauna and wildlife of the coastal wetlands. The atmosphere is quite cinematic, with a thick canopy of trees allowing minimal light to filter through, and gnarly, interwoven roots of bwa mang trees crawling along the river’s edge. Stops along this river “lime” usually include Cobra’s Bush Bar, where the signature drink is known as the Dynamite, an explosive concoction of local cask rum, gooseberry, passion fruit, lime and guinep (a slippery, tart, sweet and sour fruit the size of a large marble). Cinephiles will recognize Tia Dalma’s Shack from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest along the route.
Lunch at Madiba Beach Cafe
No trip to Portsmouth is complete without a stop at Madiba Beach Cafe. This unassuming open-air shack perched on the beach serves fresh seafood against a backdrop of gently lapping waves and a serene sea view. The catch of the day is typically grilled and consistently delectable – but the real star is the homemade ice cream. Try the rum raisin or (and?) peanut flavors.
Dominica’s iconic 114-mile-long Waitukubuli National Trail weaves through the rainforest and notable landmarks. The full two-week trek won’t be possible for most time-limited travelers, yet there are several stops along the way worth exploring during a visit to the island. Cabrits National Park, where the extended hike culminates, is a picturesque peninsula covering over 1300 acres of land. (The eco-tourism pass is valid for this park.) The reserve sits between the remnants of extinct volcanic peaks, allowing an unfettered view of the beach below. Another highlight at Cabrits is Fort Shirley, a historic military outpost offering sweeping views of the northern coastline. Multiple cannons and barracks remain on the property, which is today a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Sunset drinks at Roots Rock Bar
The airy wooden deck at Roots Rock Bar and Grill in Bell Hall is perfect for pre-dinner drinks and a front-row seat to watch the sun slide into the sea. Knock back a few shots of local bush rum in this idyllic setting.
Even this relatively leisurely day will leave you ravenous. Grab a taxi or drive to Steak House Restaurant & Lounge in Picard, a mother-daughter-run establishment with sumptuous fare. While it’s tough to pick a favorite from the flavor-infused menu here, the shrimp-stuffed grilled fish is otherworldly. The slew of sides includes buttered rice, whole-mozzarella potatoes, corn pie, green-banana-cheddar pie and more. Consider setting aside a couple of hours to soak in this gastronomical experience – and be sure to book a table in advance as reservations fill up quickly.
For accommodation, Riverside Hotel in Picard offers spacious luxury suites amid Dominica’s natural wonders. Depending on your room’s location, you might enjoy a view of the mountain, a village, the Caribbean Sea or the river.
Cavort in Calibishie
Home to the island’s longest barrier reef, elegant and scenic Calibishie, on Dominica’s northern coast, provides a chance to escape and unwind. Minibuses plying the route from Portsmouth to Marigot through to Castle Bruce also serve the village, with the drive averaging 25 to 30 mins.
Prep for a breakfast picnic by stocking up on local delights from one of the multiple roadside eateries or cafes along the main road, then head to Point Baptiste Beach. As a heavily volcanic island, Dominica isn’t your typical white-sand, beach-bum vacation destination – yet Point Baptiste is the exception that proves the rule, with golden sands and shallow, tranquil waters. After you enjoy your breakfast spread, lie out on the deserted beach, relax, swim, read…or do nothing at all.
Explore cliffs and small caves
Yet do find time to explore Red Rocks, the adjacent cliff formation easily identifiable by its smooth surface and unusual reddish color, the result of mineral oxidation from endless sun and seawater. Explore the small caves wedged into the cliff along with petroglyphs and stairs carved into the rock, then gaze from the summit out at the expanse of deep-blue water – and, on a clear day, the neighboring French islands of Marie-Galante, the Saintes and Guadeloupe. Visit on your own or get a history of the unique formations from the unofficial caretaker, who usually patrols the site collecting donations toward the preservation of the area.
Poz Restaurant & Bar at Calibishie Gardens is popular with both tourists and Dominicans thanks to an extensive menu and the warm and welcoming personality of its eponymous owner. A plant-framed wooden entrance leads to a magical garden eatery flanked by a pool. The seafood is sublime (the coconut shrimp is a favorite) and the presentation pristine, while the rum punch successfully straddles that razor-thin balance of fruity and potent.
Pointe Baptiste Estate Chocolate Factory for dessert
Chocoholics may want to save room for dessert at Pointe Baptiste Estate Chocolate Factory. This small family-run operation produces fine chocolate bars in uniquely Caribbean flavors like “spice” (blending West Indian cooking staples cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves), ginger, hot pepper, coffee, mint, tangerine and traditional milk chocolate; visitors will be guided through the process of transforming the cacao into decadent bars, truffles and nibs. The 25-acre property caters to overnight guests with a 1930s villa adorned with antique furnishings, paintings and a vast library. The distinct scent of jasmine, frangipani, and ylang-ylang beckons you to a magnificently lush garden filled with fruit trees, flowers and medicinal plants. A “chocolate cottage” overlooking the gardens features an open wall and a king-sized bed – the perfect setup for stargazing. After your chocolatey afternoon, return to the Red Rock summit for a splendid sunset vantage point.
Find a hidden restaurant for dinner
Come dinner time, head to a gem that is truly hidden: Coral Reef Restaurant. Venture behind a grocery store along the main road to uncover a charming haunt with a phenomenal ocean view. Proprietor Gus and his crew provide authentic Dominican-creole cuisine, a blend of African, Amerindian, Indian and French flavors that embody the West Indies’ many tangled roots. Try the extra-tender short ribs – then stick around for post-dinner drinks.
A lodging highlight of Calibishie, Villa PassiFlora offers direct access to the beach, an infinity pool, an extraordinary sunset view and even a cook (for an additional cost). The three-room villa is the ideal setting for an intimate escape.
Get to know vibrant Roseau
Get an invigorating start to your day in Dominica’s capital and largest city with green juices, all-natural healthy smoothies, fresh-pressed juices and herbal teas at Tropical Blendz Cafe on Old St. Heartier breakfast fare includes staples like pancakes, omelets and eggs, or quintessential island bites like fried plantain and accras (salty fish cakes), and pillowy fritters made with salted codfish, peppers and the occasional dollop of hot sauce.
Wander over to Old Market Sq, a historically significant location in Dominica. This cobblestoned area was once a site for auctioning slaves – and sometimes for carrying out executions. Today, it’s a bustling marketplace along the seafront where you can pick up fresh produce, fruits and handcrafted wares from local artisans (think woven baskets, handmade jewelry, essential oils and soaps).
Historical artifacts at Dominica Museum
What the quayside Dominica Museum lacks in size, it makes up for in rich historical and cultural artifacts, all curated by preeminent island historian Lennox Honychurch. Among the items on display are a pwi pwi (the raft fashioned from tree trunks by Dominca’s native Kalinago people) and musical instruments used by early settlers.
Head 15 minutes northwest on Dame Mary Eugenia Charles Blvd (named after Dominica’s first female prime minister) to the Botanic Gardens. The property was once a thriving sanctuary replete with some of the most beautiful flowers in the Caribbean; unfortunately, Hurricane David in 1979 and Hurricane Maria in 2017 damaged the grounds. Still, you’ll find over 50 types of indigenous plants, including the bwa kwaib (Sabinea carinalis), Dominica’s national plant, which yields a riot of scarlet red flowers when in bloom. The sisserou parrot, the national bird of Dominica (one only found on the island), also calls the gardens home. The body of the regal but shy “pride of Dominica” is deep violet, with a shock of greenish-yellow wings tipped with red streaks. Keep an eye out for the signature baobab tree that fell and crushed an empty school bus during Hurricane David: still alive today, it remains a symbol of the country’s resilience.
Views of the capital and Emerald Pool
For panoramic views of the capital, make the short trek to Morne Bruce on the outskirts of the city center. It’s a five-minute drive, or a 20-minute hike from the Botanical Gardens if you’re up for walking. Come lunch, Escape Bar and Grill is known for innovative cocktails like the Grinch and the Pineapple Express – so be sure to sample a couple during a hearty meal of wings, grilled ribs, fried plantain, burgers or shrimp in garlic sauce.
Emerald Pool is a serene stunner within Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site (it’s also eligible for the eco-tourism pass). Hop on a minibus, and let the driver know that Pont Cassé is your destination – about 40 minutes away. (If you’re driving, there’s plenty of parking.) When you get off at the park’s entrance, it’s an easy 10-minute walk from the visitors center through the forest to the magical grotto – which was also featured in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. A slender pillar of frothing water cascades over the rocks from a 40ft (12m) drop, while a semi-secret cave offers even more seclusion just off the main pool. Underwater algae are responsible for the pool’s greenish tint, yet it’s the sunlight reflecting off the water and bouncing off the leaves that gives it the signature emerald appearance. Swimming is allowed, though the water is not very deep so diving is not advised. On-site vendors serve lunch if you want to make a full afternoon of it; you’ll also find two viewing platforms, lots of benches, toilets and a changing room.
Dinner in Castle Bruce
Catch the sunset at Islet View Restaurant & Bar, a 15-minute drive away in Castle Bruce. Come for the views; stay for the 50 varieties of homemade rum. Then it’s on to dinner: perched on the edge of Roseau, the Old Great House Grill & Bar blends Western cuisine with local flair. Like many restaurants on the island, seafood is a staple, as are starchy root vegetables like dasheen (taro), sweet potatoes and yams. Everything is made with the freshest ingredients for optimal flavor.
Rambling near Roseau
For more than 30 years, Pearl’s Cuisine has been churning out breakfast delicacies in the city. Make a beeline to Great Marlborough St to enjoy saltfish accras, souse (a light, broth-like dish consisting of pickled pig trotters and cucumber flavored with onion, garlic, lime and various spices), stuffed pies and local cocoa tea. The lunch menu is equally mouthwatering.
Bubbly Adventure at Champagne Reef
It’s time to visit Champagne Reef, one of the most unique experiences on the island (grab a bus, or drive for 15 minutes). Where else can you snorkel around a golden-tinged reef in what seems like a glass of bubbly? That’s what it feels like, thanks to volcanic gas rising from the seabed that mimics the sparkling wine’s effervescence. The water is warm enough here to enjoy for hours; avid snorkelers will also enjoy the riot of color from the vibrant sponges, trumpet fish, parrotfish, turtles and seahorses. Be sure to carry water shoes and an underwater camera or a waterproof case for your phone to document the spectacle. Entrance to the beach requires a $2 marine-reserve fee payable at Donny’s Beach Bar. You can also rent gear from Donny’s and other operators on the beach, and join one of their dive tours (from $20). The occasional strong current makes good swimming skills essential.
Lunch at Scotts Head Beach
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, head 15 minutes east to lunch at Chez Wen Cuisine on Scotts Head Beach. This bayside restaurant specializes in seafood (we love the grilled fish in garlic sauce) but does offer other options like grilled chicken and several stewed meats.
Spa Day at Ti Kwen Glo Cho
Ti Kwen Glo Cho (“little corner of hot water” in Creole) is about 40 minutes heading northeast, – and well worth the lengthy trip. A $10 entry fee gains you access to a lush garden with stone pools of healing thermal waters – they’re hot, but not dangerously so. It’s just what a sore, achy body or overactive mind needs. There’s no rush in this sanctuary, so take as much time as you need.
Luxe dinner to end your stay
Hands down, the best restaurant view in Roseau belongs to Palisades at the Fort Young Hotel. (This upscale, all-inclusive property is a wonderful place to stay the night, too.) Dine outside with unfettered views of the Caribbean Sea as the sea breeze lightly caresses your skin, or opt for a more intimate indoor meal. The fusion of local and international flavors with contemporary and traditional dishes yields options like dasheen fritters, Cajun-spiced grilled chicken breast, vegetable arrabiata and Dominican fruit cake. The dress code here is on the elegantly casual side (no shorts) – and it will feel nice indeed to end your fabulous four days on a stylish note.