You can now discover the other Caribbean on Dominica's new long trail. But should you?
The rumble coming from somewhere off in the rainforest should cue me to trouble. I’m hiking toward 275-foot Middleham Falls, the tallest cascade on the Caribbean island of Dominica, and I expect to see what I’d previewed in photos: A gauzy, decorative ribbon trickling into the kind of pool where tropical maidens in shampoo commercials lather their hair. I’d imagined taking a dip myself, if only to wash away the grime of my third day on the Waitukubuli National Trail (WNT), a new 115-mile path that runs the length of the island and links hot springs, rainforests, cliff-rimmed beaches, and waterfalls. But recent rains have turned the normally tame Middleham into a neck-snapping fire hose.
Bullets of mist sting my eyes when I try to look into the white cloud swirling before me. My companions—two Dominicans serving as unofficial guides, plus a photographer—ham it up with a few “storm-pummeled newsman” routines, then we all start hiking back along the spur trail toward the WNT. Only now, there’s a brand-new waterfall raging across our route.
“We’re cut off!” shouts Michael Eugene, the WNT’s bespectacled guidebook author who talks like a scholar but hikes like an Ironman (he’s personally walked every mile of trail in his native land). He’s visibly rattled, and I make a conscious effort to slow my breathing as I realize our situation could turn dire: With a Niagara right behind us and its mini-me ahead, what’s to say they won’t merge into an even bigger flood pouring down where we now stand? We need to get out of here, pronto.
We link arms and long-limbed Howard Ambrose, a hiking guide who moonlights as Dominica’s star basketball player, wades into the rushing current flowing out of the fall. The water swirls around his knees, but I’m half his height. It rises above my waist. “Don’t lose me!” I shout above the roar, hoping to sound more cavalier than terrified.
In the midst of the dicey ford, it dawns on me what a gamble this hiking route really is.
Dominica developed the Waitukubuli National Trail to bolster ecotourism. That’s right, this cash-poor country is looking to adventuresome backpackers like me to boost the economy. The hope is that hiker revenue can bring prosperity to the island’s rural villages without blighting its wild mountains and rainforests. If that happens, Dominica’s success might embolden other destinations to build trails, not mega-resorts. But with the current tugging at my legs, I have to wonder: Is this new route ready for prime time? Will Dominica’s big bet pay off?
DOMINICA IS NOT to be confused with the Dominican Republic. That country produces fine cigars (like Cuba, its neighbor). Dominica, a much smaller country in the Windward Islands 280 miles east of St. Croix, exports nothing of consequence. The steepness of its mountains thwarted logging, its banana industry collapsed after losing battles with fungal blights and bigger Central American producers, and its rum is just so-so.
Nor does Dominica attract many tourists; at least, not compared to other Caribbean destinations. In the British Virgin Islands, 300 miles away, tourism accounts for 58 percent of the GDP. It’s just 25 percent here. Dominica’s mountainous jungle and cliffy shorelines don’t attract the typical Caribbean vacationer seeking talcum-soft beaches (of which Dominica has none). Even its primary airport remains small-scale, because there’s no place on the island flat enough for long, jumbo-jet runways.
So instead of courting global resort chains, this country of 72,000 started branding itself as “The Nature Island” in 2006. With 41,303 acres preserved as wilderness (about 20 percent of the country), Dominica contains more protected lands than anyplace else in the Caribbean, and is said to be the only Caribbean island that Christopher Columbus would still recognize today (in fact, its unspoiled landscape attracted Pirates of the Caribbean film crews in 2005 and 2007). Its snorkeling and diving rank among the best in the world (find both at Champagne Reef). Dayhikes lead to geothermal marvels such as 198°F, 200-foot diameter Boiling Lake and the fumarole-ridden wasteland known as the Valley of Desolation.
The notion that long-distance trails can stimulate rural economies is not without precedent. The Appalachian Trail has brought shuttle services, hostels, and outfitters to rural areas all along the route. The Pennine Way has done the same in England. So the Dominican government spent more than $4 million building the WNT, making it the largest non-road infrastructure project ever attempted in Dominica. The trail, completed in 2011, is the Caribbean’s first long-distance hiking route. “Waitukubuli” is the indigenous name for the island; it means “tall is her body,” referring to the mountains that rise almost 5,000 feet from the sea.
“Already, communities that have never gotten dollars from tourism are offering homestays and working as guides, exchanging their life stories in a sustainable industry,” says Eugene, a tour operator who studied chemical engineering at The City College of New York and only later discovered what he considers to be his true calling: hiking. And growing eco-tourism in Dominica. He helped bring the WNT to fruition by developing its management plan and instituting global trail standards (islanders might embrace unmarked trailheads and uncleared landslides, but Americans and Europeans prefer ample signage and trail maintenance). Though the trail is still relatively unknown, Dominica’s Ministry of Tourism and Urban Renewal estimates that the island already sees about $282,000 annually from WNT thru-hikers, who spend about 10 days on the trail (plus an unknown amount from section hikers). That’s still a small slice of the tourism pie, but it’s an important slice, as it’s increasing the number of overnight travelers who visit rural areas (as opposed to the cruise ship tourists who only spend a few hours ashore in the port area). But Eugene dreams big: His current goal is to get the WNT recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like Japan’s Kumano Kodo and Spain’s Camino de Santiago.
I’d never felt compelled to visit the Caribbean’s beach resorts—but a multiday hiking route through pristine mountains is my kind of vacation. The last Caribbean island to be colonized by Europeans, Dominica seemed like a throwback to the long-lost BCM (Before Club Med) era, and this trail promised a way in. By hiking through rare, virgin rainforest, meandering across empty beaches, and soaking in natural hot springs, I’d check off the exercise and exploration boxes on my “perfect vacation” list. Plus, I’d round that out with the stuff everyone rightly loves about the Caribbean: fresh fish for dinner, tree-ripe tropical fruits, lingering sunsets.
My pretrip planning included researching the island’s rare birds, but no fitness train- ing. After all, I’m accustomed to the Rockies’ big, lung-straining elevation gains, and the Sierras have turned my photographer pal Rachid Dahnoun into a mountain-climbing machine. Hiking in the Caribbean? How hard could it be?
FROM DOMINICA’S capital, Roseau, Rachid and I (and Eugene, who’s hiking the first three days with us) caught a half-hour van ride to the trailhead in the fishing village of Scotts Head, at the southernmost tip of the island. After snapping a few photos of brightly painted dories, we followed WNT signs up a steep, paved road. Land crabs, flushed from the ground by yesterday’s rains, scattered from our approach like cockroaches. “Tasty cockroaches,” said Eugene, explaining that they make an excellent bisque.
The pavement ended and the dirt trail climbed steeply, like New England’s notorious elevator shafts. I was glad for our laughably light packs. Overnight camping is permitted along the WNT, but most hikers opt to stay in hostel-like accommodations that have sprung up along the route. That’s because the trail rarely wanders farther than a few miles from any town. Except for sections seven through nine, which plumb roadless rainforest (carrying a hammock there is ideal), the rest of the trail lends itself to Euro-style overnights in hiker refuges like Rodney’s Wellness Retreat in Soufriere, our crash pad between sections one and two.
Rodney’s version of “glamping” is simple but comfy: big, basecamp-size tents filled with fat airbeds and colorful cotton rugs. Hammocks link some of the property’s cashew, mango, and breadfruit trees, but instead of napping, Rachid and I walked five minutes down the road to Soufriere’s hot spring, which bubbles out of a black-sand beach lapped by gentle waves. Lying in the shallow 105°F water, we confessed to feeling more worked than we’d expected to be after our first day. Though we’d covered just 5 miles, we’d enjoyed no gentle grades, and every step challenged our footing with rocks, roots, or mud. But the warm soak and an icy Kubuli beer back at Rodney’s felt plenty restorative, as did the next morning’s breakfast of traditional Dominican porridge sprinkled with homegrown nutmeg and papaya. “There is only one way to understand Dominica,” Rodney’s proprietor Bevin Lewis said while waving us farewell. “You have to walk across it.”
Preferably with an umbrella. Rain lacquered the coffee trees we hiked past on section two and filled the forest with mist. “Liquid sunshine” is what Eugene and others call the showers, either out of appreciation or marketing spin. What’s certain: Dominica’s mountains are so steep that past inhabitants decided it was easier to hack a tunnel into the rock with hand tools rather than suffer all the ups and downs. For nearly a quarter-mile, we hiked across a blessedly horizontal piece of trail created by that rock cutout, which seemed to underscore Lewis’s point: Topography is destiny in Dominica. It shapes the island’s travel, weather, villages, agriculture, and now, tourism.
What it doesn’t do is afford big views. Despite the constant climbing, the WNT’s green tunnel is more AT than PCT. But we soon learned to appreciate the jungle’s subtler rewards. We discovered cinnamon trees and gommier trunks that ooze a flammable sap and grow so fat that indigenous Caribs carved them into sea-going canoes. We stayed alert for a glimpse or call of one of Dominica’s two endemic parrots, the ultra-rare Sisserou and the Jaco. Even the trees laden with ripe mangoes—which until now I’d only seen in grocery stores—seemed exotic. We plucked mangoes from the branches, peeled them like bananas, and devoured the sweet, drippy fruit. How could I ever go back to the dried stuff ?
Dominica has other surprises in store. The Rockies may have better vistas, but they never produced a trail angel like the dread-locked savior who appeared at the end of section two, driving a black pickup bound for Harmony Gardens. Roy Ormond and his wife Sharon—Dominica’s version of tree-hugging hippies—run an organic farm and minister to hikers by providing tent accommodations and cooking Ital food, the vegan diet observed by strict Rastafarians.
“I knew something good was coming my way today, I just sensed it,” Sharon said as she hugged me tight like a long-lost auntie. We sipped lemongrass tea, talked reggae music, and feasted on Sharon’s shredded pumpkin patties. The pair described the flutes and walking staffs that Roy carves from forest bamboo, and told stories about the boggling diversity of forest plants that they continue to harvest as generations of their ancestors had. “The forest is our medicine cabinet,” Roy said.
I FINALLY GOT my vista on day six, atop a coastline that makes Hawaii’s Na Pali look B-list. I was standing on the bouldery seam between Dominica’s eastern cliffs and the wind-churned Atlantic Ocean, and I was aching to pick my way north along the water. But the WNT doesn’t cut across the vertical rock jutting out of the ocean. It looked impossible. Instead, it heads inland and burrows through cassava farms.
The coast is home to the Kalinago, the 3,000 remaining members of the indigenous tribe that Christopher Columbus named “Carib,” and they’re as disappointed as I was about the trail’s routing. After deeming the cliffy shoreline too rugged (read: expensive) for trail building, the Dominican government opted to route the WNT inland over existing farm roads and village footpaths. The Kalinago felt shortchanged—an understandable reaction after decades of racial discrimination. (The Kalinago Territory ranks as one of the island’s poorest, receiving electric lighting as recently as 1986. Water and sewage sys- tems weren’t installed until 2000.)
Community leaders are investigating whether the Kalinago Territory, perhaps with international help, might be able to construct the oceanside route that the government wouldn’t attempt. In the meantime, the tribe established the Kalinago Barana Autê cultural center around the WNT, so that the trail winds among its sculpture gardens, traditional thatched straw meeting houses, and cassava bread bakery. I bought a few loaves (they looked and tasted like extra-thick tortillas) and watched a group of women making baskets, the tribe’s signature handicraft. “Showing off our culture for visitors rekindled our own pride and self-respect,” the center’s manager told us. He said that the revenue earned by selling hikers baskets, bread, lodging, and guide services is just one of many positive effects the trail has brought.
That night we slept in the home of Regina Joseph, a brawny Kalinago grande dame who rents her spare room to hikers. She was also in the process of building a traditional thatched-roof hut where she plans to host future visitors in hammocks, per Kalinago custom. She related stories of her voyages in the 48-foot kanawa that she and others carved from a gommier tree and paddled 60 miles to Guadeloupe, as her forebears used to do. The next morning, she served Dominican cocoa tea, made with fresh coconut milk blended with cacao and other spices that Joseph grinds herself. The drink was musky and exotic, like a tropical hot chocolate. It offered still more evidence that the WNT is a multi-sensory experience, with taste high on the list.
I was reminded of this again on the day we got trapped by the rising water. I wouldn’t have made it across the flooding stream without help from our long-armed guide. He hauls me to safety and we slosh along the WNT to a road crossing where we spy a makeshift food stand with a hand- painted sign reading “Dani’s Snack Dee-lite.” We duck beneath the blue tarp roof, still buzzing with nerves after our treacherous river crossing. A break for steaming pork stew and a few lumps of coconut candy sounds just fine. And would I like to try Dani’s special anise moonshine? Why, sure.
Raising the shot of bush liquor feels like a toast. Here’s to the unlikeliest long trail I’ve ever hiked, I think. It’s still a gamble, but I like the odds.