Sitting in a thermal pool, enjoying the warm, minerally enhanced water after a round-trip swim through Dominica’s Ti Tou (“Little Throat”) Gorge, it’s easy to understand why this island was chosen for the filming of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Capt. Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) has an appreciation for enjoying life that visitors to Dominica can also experience. After all, this 290-square-mile island with 70,000 inhabitants is said to be so unchanged over the years, it is the only island that Christopher Columbus would still recognize.
It’s one of those travel secrets not yet fully revealed but rapidly gaining recognition. Tourism magazines and reader polls now rank it among the Top 5 destinations for scuba diving, whale and dolphin sightings, underwater photography and natural marine environment. Dominica is home to the first World Heritage site in the Caribbean.
Half of all the 20 active eastern Caribbean volcanoes are on Dominica, but have been silent for 1,000 years.
Still, evidence they are alive below the ocean floor occurs in bubbling sulfur springs, fumaroles and solfataras (holes in the earth emitting hot smoke and gases). The world’s second-largest boiling lake (behind Frying Pan Lake in New Zealand) is 200 feet wide and a remarkable sight.
Nourishment from volcanic activity helps creates a unique environment, including lush tropical forests with 1,200 plant species, roving rivers, spectacular waterfalls fueled by the island’s high annual rainfall and a variety of marine life at places like 15-foot-deep Champagne Reef, where divers view parrotfish, octopus, squid, barrel and vase sponges and brain and finger coral.
On land, Boiling Lake visitors can tour the Valley of Desolation a few miles away and view the multi-colored hues created by fumaroles and solfataras while inhaling the strong smell of sulfur. The lake feeds Trafalgar Falls, one of several popular stops for one-day visitors from the 14 cruise companies that have added Dominica to their itinerary.
Others sights include Emerald Pool, Cabrits National Park and Soufriere Sulfur Springs, where changing rooms allow a quick change of clothes before visitors frolic in pools filled with therapeutic water fed by a nearby hot stream.
White sandy beaches don’t rim Dominica like other Caribbean islands, but secluded coves like Mero, Macoucheri and Portsmouth have glistening volcanic beaches.
One popular activity is to walk across Breakfast River Gorge on a suspension bridge 350 feet above the river below. Lovers of height also can enjoy Rain Forest Sky Rides on high-slung trams with spectacular forest and ocean views.
Nature lovers will seek to observe the fascinating nesting ritual of the seven species of sea turtles – one of the world’s longest living marine sea creatures – that annually visit Dominica’s shores, including loggerheads, hawksbills, green sea turtles and 1,000-pound leatherbacks.
All sea turtle watching is under strict preservation standards.
Dominica sits between the French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and a 300-foot catamaran cycles among those islands and St. Lucia, offering opportunities for sampling other Caribbean Islands.
The only island still possessing indigenous people – Carib Indians - Dominica’s English-speaking residents live longer than their island counterparts, aided by plentiful fresh fruits, herbal teas, clean air and a healthy outdoor lifestyle.
About 60 percent of the island’s surface is composed of rain forest, with the lack of human development, rich volcanic soils and an unlimited water supply creating forests with giant trees, enormous root systems and thick, complex hanging canopy gardens.
Those forests have encouraged the presence of small cabins ideal for romantic getaways on some mountainsides, complete with their own gourmet restaurants fed from local gardens.
One new attraction is The Jungle Bay Resort and Spa, located on 55 acres of jungle encircled by the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, the World Heritage Site.
Thirty-five cottages perch on stilts with private outdoor showers. They blend with the rain forest and absorb the din of the ocean surf. The Resort pampers guests with organic cuisines, yoga, Swedish massages, aromatherapy and cosmetology.
Cookout Under the Stars
Our visit included an evening cookout of local fish on a nearby beach under a cloudless sky ablaze with stars.
Earlier, aboard a small low-slung boat, we meandered up a narrow river lined with lush vegetation and overhung with trees swarming with tropical birds to a secluded bar where we relaxed listening to musical forest noises.
But the highlight was Ti Tou Gorge, where our group of eight had hiked, lugging a cooler of iced beer. First, we entered the chilly water, less that six-feet deep, and began swimming through the narrow gorge with sunlight dappling the tops of two-story high boulders and verdant cliffs lining the river.
After 20 minutes of so, we came to a circular pool at the base of the waterfall that feeds the river and we took turns climbing atop a rock and jumping joyously into the pool.
By the time we returned, we were shivering from the estimated 60-degree temperature water and encountered another waterfall fed from volcanic springs with a temperature suited for a warm leisurely shower.
Some of us eschewed the waterfall to sit in the warm water pools adjoining another nearby river and enjoy the beer and a personally unforgettable Dominica memory.
Of course, fans of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy will want to see Dominica for themselves, just as the cast and crew did during their filming excursions, exploring the island extensively both in and out of character.