Hiking Dominica's Green Peaks


Excerpt from The New York Times
by Jeffrey Gettleman

A "hike" in the Caribbean is not that annoyingly long distance between your hotel room and the beach. True, that is as far as most people want to go before flopping down on the sand and soaking up the sun. But there is actually serious hiking in the Caribbean islands. I wanted something in between, and after a few Google searches of typing in "hiking" and "Caribbean," it turned up roughly 908,000 results.

Dominica, it turns out, is the island of surprises - but in the best way. It is a hiker's paradise, a mountainous, velvety green lump in the middle of the ocean, 29-by-16-miles small, with gorgeous uncut rain forest and the last intact Carib Indian territory.

It's never been your typical Caribbean island. When the first Europeans stepped ashore in the 15th century, they were confused because the native men spoke one language and the native women another. For the next few centuries, Dominica remained off the beaten track, a refuge to runaway slaves and too mountainous for the sprawling sugar cane plantations that came to dominate the rest of the West Indies.

Today, Dominica (pronounced dahm-uh-NEE-kuh) is one of the smallest countries in the world, population 71,000, 15 degrees north of the Equator, and southeast of the much bigger Dominican Republic, which it often gets confused with.

There are few beaches, few tourists, no big hotels and no tiki-lighted limbo contests. But there is a lot of rain. Each year the island gets whopping 300-plus inches.

On my drive through Roseau, the capital, I saw results of this: an incredible fertility, with the hillsides carpeted in a million shades of green and grove after grove of fruit trees - oranges, grapefruits, lemons, limes, six varieties of bananas, papayas, guavas, star fruit, breadfruit, passion fruit - all dangling along the road, the fruit nearly scraping our windshield. Driving through Dominica was like driving through a ripe, juicy tropical fruit salad.

Beyond were stunning green mountain peaks, some as high as 4,700 feet. Legend has it that when Christopher Columbus was asked to describe Dominica to the queen of Spain, he crumpled up a piece of paper and threw it onto the table. That's how mountainous and textured the island was. Columbus eventually learned why the native men and women spoke different tongues: the fierce Carib Indians, who had conquered the islands, exterminated all the indigenous Arawak men but spared the Arawak women, who continued to speak their own language. Today, everyone speaks English (Dominica, a former British colony, gained independence in 1978) and the island is calm, with a growing economy based on eco-tourism and bananas.