10 tips for your trip to Dominica, the Caribbean’s Nature Island

November 30, 2020

1. Pack a hiking bag, whether or not you’re going hiking.

Dominica is the kind of place where you’re apt to run into a spontaneous outdoor adventure—there’s a great view over that hill, a local recommends a hard-to-find jungle spot to scope out, or your day simply ran long because you lost track of time—and for that, you’ll want to be prepared.

That means sunscreen, hat, bug repellent, a change of clothes (or at least shoes!), and a bottle of water with you, pretty much wherever you go. If you’re really taking this to heart, an extra battery or charger for your camera or phone, a towel, a small first-aid kit, and, of course, snacks. This way you’ll be open to anything that comes your way, and it won’t leave you scratched up or sunburnt.

2. Don’t wait for the check to arrive.

Dominicans are polite. And yet, if you feel like you’ve been sitting at that restaurant for two hours and the waiter is ignoring you, that’s probably true. What’s really happening is that they’re giving you space, letting you know that you’re welcome to stay—there’s no pressure to leave. If you’d like to get your check and head out, just let them know.

3. Yes, you can handle the hike to Boiling Lake.

There are no age or weight restrictions for the hike to Boiling Lake. Ask around, and you’ll hear anecdotes of average 60-year-olds crushing it, in-shape 19-year-olds getting jello legs, and couch potatoes completing it, albeit slowly. If you can handle stairs, you can likely handle this hike.

But, as with anything that’s physically difficult, know your limits. If you think you might be on the slow side—or you just love snapping photos or taking in views—start early. 6AM early. That gives you eight hours to be out of there by the recommended time. Be sure to pace yourself, too; slow and steady wins this particular race.

And regardless of your fitness level, go with a guide.

4. Be prepared for the roads—and the language of honking.

Driving in Dominica isn’t a walk in the park—at least at first. You’ll be driving on the left, navigating narrow lanes, cement drainage ditches, and drop-offs into the ocean. The drive from the airport up north to Portsmouth is the most harrowing, as it cuts across the island’s cliffs with few lights to give solace along the way. (The drive from the airport south to Roseau is much less white-knuckling.)As you’re navigating the tight turns and blind curves, you’ll hear short, high-pitched honking. At you, at each other, in general. This is—surprisingly—a form of politeness. They’re likely honking before a curve to let any oncoming cars know they’re there; they may also honk after passing as a sort of thank you. Sometimes, they’re just honking because they know each other and want to say hello.

So when it comes your turn to honk, have at it. (Or if you just want to hire a driver, have at that, too.)

5. Load your maps when you have wifi.

Avid travelers may know this hack, but it’s easy to forget if you tend to frequent wifi-rich lands, where service is rarely an issue. Here’s the trick to remember: When you’re at your hotel or at a restaurant with free wifi, load your maps then. Leave them up. They’ll stay up, giving you directions and mileage, letting you know how to get around the island. With road signs few and far between and the standard map given to visitors more of an infographic, you’ll be glad you did.

6. Don’t count yourself out if you’re a poor swimmer.

Whether it’s snorkeling, canyoning, or scuba diving—yep, scuba diving—don’t sit it out. With fins and/or a life jacket on, you can do just about anything. And places like Titou Gorge and outfitters like Extreme Dominica require life jackets as safety precautions. As for scuba diving, take the PADI Discover Diving course, and they’ll train you up to get you down 30 feet or so deep, accompanied by a certified guide.

7. Don’t assume high season is the time to go.

Dominica’s high season is November – April, which also happens to be cruise season. If you want to avoid the crowds coming off the boats, grab tickets for shoulder season. Rain can hit anytime from June – November, but it will come and go, leaving sunshine in its tracks.

If you do happen to be on the island during cruise season, try to book your excursions in the morning, before the crowds descend. Nothing like having the beach to yourself!

8. If you get one souvenir, get it in the Kalinago Territory.

Once rulers of the entire Caribbean, the only home the indigenous Kalinago have left is in Dominica. Just like in the States, indigenous tribes are holding tight to what little of their culture they have left, and they deserve your support.

The Kalinago have long been basket-weavers, and if you visit the model homes at Barana Autê, you’ll see their wares in a small shop near the entrance. The weavers themselves are nearby, available to answer any questions (ask them about how they dye the larouma reed to make the rich, warm colors), and prices are reasonable—especially considering the days it takes to make each piece!

9. When you need an off day, head to the hot springs.

Leave your hot springs day for when you truly need it—after hiking boiling lake, canyoning, trekking to waterfalls, or slogging along miles of the Waitukubuli National Trail. You’ll enjoy it that much more.

10. Always ask a local if you have a question—any question.

Know these two things: 1) Most Dominicans are ridiculously open and polite. 2) Most Dominicans know most Dominicans, at least the ones in their neck of the woods. Whether you’re looking for a turnoff or you can’t find Marvin, just ask.

Case in point: A few years ago, the Dominican government considered putting up street signs on all the roads. The public largely responded with, “But everyone knows where everything is!” In other words, consider Dominica your friendly island neighborhood. You’re in good hands.