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Hiking Dominica's Peaks
FIRST things first. A ''hike'' in the Caribbean is not that annoyingly long distance between your hotel room and the beach. True, that's 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 islands, from the 10,000-foot scramble up Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic, the highest point in the Caribbean, to lowland trails through the gardens of St. Kitts. I wanted something in between, and after a few Google searches (typing in ''hiking'' and ''Caribbean'' turns up roughly 908,000 results) and flicking through some guidebooks, it seemed like all arrows pointed to the trek to Boiling Lake, a mysterious bubbling caldron deep in the jungles of Dominica, probably one of the least visited Caribbean islands and a bit of a mystery itself. So the minute after my girlfriend and I landed in Dominica a few weeks ago, we got into a cab and asked the taxi driver how was Boiling Lake. ''It stopped boiling.'' No, really. ''I'm not pulling your leg, brother. It stopped boiling last week,'' said James, the driver. ''Specialists come to the island. They look at lake. They take samples. But water went away. No one knows why.'' I then asked about the island's most famous and unusual delicacy -- the giant two-pound frog known as the mountain chicken. ''No, man,'' James said. ''Hard to find anymore.'' Great, I thought, a 1,977-mile, 10-hour trip and no Boiling Lake and no mountain chicken. 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 a whopping 300-plus inches, and the day we landed it was pouring. As we drove to Roseau, the capital, we 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 as we passed. 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. But some places look a little run-down. And our first hotel was one of them. The Web site for the Roseau Valley Hotel advertised tranquillity, nature and ''deluxe rooms.'' Instead, we were given a unit overlooking a busy road with headlamps shining in our windows. There were mouse droppings in our bathtub. A worm slithered out of the drain. It was a good lesson not to rely solely on the Internet. (We lasted one night.) The one thing the hotel did provide, however, was an excellent hiking guide, Peter Green. Granted, his safari outfit with the hand-painted waterfalls on it and cellphone number written on his chest might have been a little much. But Peter was incredibly knowledgeable about all things, well, green. And he knew the way to Boiling Lake. ''O.K., guys, let's get physical,'' Peter said as we set off into the forest on our seven-hour hike. The sun disappeared above the canopy and we soon found ourselves in a cool, dimly lighted world. The vegetation was incredible: 125-foot-tall gommier or ''gummy gum'' trees; jungle vines dangling like tentacles; spongy pillows of moss that we put our fists through; huge, waxy elephant ears with dime-size raindrops sliding off them. The best part was that unlike most other jungles, there were no dangerous animals lying beneath the trees. The fiercest creature here is the yellow land crab, one of which tried to pinch me as I stepped through a stream (it missed). As we hiked, we played Tarzan and swung from vines, sailing over mud puddles and watching the forest rush past us. We watched hummingbirds drink from lavender morning glories. Peter peeled cool, delicious oranges for snacks. The trail was perfectly marked and well cleared and sometimes aided by logs in the ground that functioned as steps. The best of them were scored with X's for grip. But it was tough trekking. All of us -- me, my girlfriend, Courtenay, and even Peter, a native Dominican -- were often panting. There are really two types of hiking in this world: heads up or heads down. Heads up means the conditions are good, the trail is smooth and you can scan the treetops for birds or gaze off into the misty distance. Heads down means you ain't looking at nothing. Except your own two feet and where to put them next. This was clearly heads-down hiking. As we cleared the top of a ridge, we caught a whiff of rotten eggs: sulfur. We shivered a bit as the sweat cooled on our bodies. We were close, with just one last stretch to go, called the Valley of Desolation. Dominica is a volcanic island (there was an eruption in 1997), and the Valley of Desolation is filled with bubbling mineral pools and frothy, milky rivers and steam shooting out of the earth. Finally we cleared the last pebbly slope and peered down into Boiling Lake. ''Unbelievable,'' Peter said. Boiling Lake, apparently, is a shadow of itself, a muddy gray pool only half full with a few bubbles here, a few gurgles there. We were told that before, you could actually see and hear it boiling like a kettle. Locals think an earthquake ruptured the bottom and caused the water to drain. It wasn't that big a deal to us because the hike had been so invigorating. But Peter was crushed. To him, it was like Old Faithful drying up. That night we stayed at the Papillote Wilderness Retreat, which was heavenly. The resort, which has only seven rooms, is nestled into the emerald hills and buffeted by sounds of crickets and frogs and the drumming of tropical rain. To make it even more perfect for the weary hiker, Papillote is built around natural hot springs. Ten lazy steps from our room was a little grotto with balmy waters that seeped into our skins and made us sleepy. Our room could be described as Caribbean chic, with louvered wooden windows and a big blue-green colors-of-the-ocean quilt on the bed. Dinner was excellent. I had tuna soaked in coconut milk wrapped in some type of jungle leaf, and Courtenay had chicken d'orange. They were accompanied by a kaleidoscope of tropical juices. The next few days we did a number of smaller, less ambitious hikes, just getting to know the island. And that's the thing about Dominica. You could easily spend a week here and not get bored. There's excellent scuba diving off the southern shore and hikes ranging from 15-minute forest strolls to the all-day climb of the island's tallest peak, Morne Diablotins, whose summit is reached by clinging to a curtain of jungle vines. The only gear you need for the hikes is a small backpack, a light rain jacket and a pair of hiking boots or running shoes. One morning we went to Middleham Falls, a 275-foot-high chute of foamy white water in the middle of the jungle. It takes about an hour to reach the falls from the road, and it is truly unforgettable to watch a river go flying off the side of a mountain, tumble through the air and then smash into a frothy pool of water so hard, so fast, that it sounds like a jet engine. Nearby is the Stinking Hole, a steaming fissure in the earth that belches out bitter fumes and is full of bat dung from all the furry winged creatures living inside. Needless to say, the Stinking Hole lives up to its name. We also spent an afternoon at Champagne Beach, a decidedly Dominican beach. For one, it was nearly deserted. And it was rocky, with the surf pounding the shore and making a rich, satisfying crunching sound as the waves sucked softball-size rocks into the sea and spat them back out. The best part was the bubbles. At the reef, volcanic hot springs along the ocean floor send up streams of tiny wobbling bubbles. Snorkeling through them was like swimming in a glass of Champagne. Our last night we stayed at another intimate resort, Beau Rive, which has six rooms, all with a prime view of the forest and the ocean. Mark Steele, the owner, came to the island from England 25 years ago and opened his hotel in 2003. ''It seemed like the real thing,'' he told us, as we lounged on the veranda. ''Dominica was the romantic version of the Caribbean. It was a place where the people hadn't turned into these cocktail-shaking stereotypes yet.'' As we looked across the wild green hills (and shook our cocktails), we agreed. Our little hike in the Caribbean didn't feel Caribbean at all. AT THE TRAIL'S END, QUIET INNS AND CREOLE FOOD The Dominica Tourist Office is at (888) 645-5637. There are no direct flights from the United States to Dominica. You connect through Antigua, Barbados, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Puerto Rico, St. Lucia or St. Martin, and the trip ends up taking the better part of a day. The airlines that fly to Dominica are American Eagle, Air CaraÃ¯bes, Caribbean Star and LIAT; round-trip fares from Kennedy start at about $600 with three stops and multiple airlines. WHERE TO STAY Dominica's hotels are not nearly as fancy as what you'll find on most other Caribbean islands, which is part of the draw. They're also very affordable. Papillote Wilderness Retreat, tucked into the emerald hillsides above Trafalgar village, is reason enough to go to the island. The seven-room nature lodge has its own hot springs and botanical garden; (767) 448- 2287 or www.papillote.dm. Double rooms are $110, plus tax and service charges, and daily breakfast and dinner are $35 a person. Another great choice is Beau Rive, a beautifully styled small inn run by an Englishman who is a jazz pianist. Beau Rive is on the wild eastern shores of Dominica, near Castle Bruce; (767) 445-8992 or www.beaurive.com. Doubles are $120, plus tax and service charges, and dinner $20 a person. There are also a number of midsize hotels in Roseau, the capital. The best known is the Fort Young Hotel; (767) 448-5000 or www.fortyounghotel.com. Doubles from $95, plus tax and service. WHERE TO EAT Most hotels, even smaller ones, offer delicious fresh food. Specialties include tropical fruits and marlin, mahi-mahi and tuna. Among the small Creole restaurants in Roseau is La Robe Creole on Victoria Street, (767) 448-2896. A dinner for two with wine is about $38. GUIDES You don't need one -- trails are very well marked and safe. But you'll get more out of hikes by going with someone who knows the land. Hotels can help make arrangements. We were very happy with Peter Green, who can be reached at (767) 235-2270, (767) 448-2366 or firstname.lastname@example.org. He charges $100 a day for two. JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
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