ROSEAU, Dominica - On the knife-edge trail that leads down to the Valley of Desolation and Boiling Lake, nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, Peter Green, our guide, turned and cautioned, "Walk on the left side; the right side is suicide."
After three hours of roller-coaster trekking into the heart of tropical greenness, my 58-year-old knees, one minus meaningful cartilage, were on fire, and we were about out of water. I tried to recall how much this daylong torture cost, but my mind was blank ($60.50 per person, plus tip, it turns out).
When I observed that this was one tough slog and that my mud-encrusted sneakers were ruined, Green smiled and said, "This is Dominica." He was quick to point out that if I looked up from my footwear I could see the Atlantic Ocean and Martinique in one direction, and the Caribbean Sea in the other. Dominica (pronounced dom-ah-NEE-ka), not to be confused with the Dominican Republic to the northwest, is nestled in the Lesser Antilles, between Martinique and Guadeloupe. It sits astride two clashing tectonic plates, which explains why an island a bit larger than Martha's Vineyard has mountains that approach 5,000 feet.
Ironically, the Valley of Desolation would save me from burgeoning self-pity. Its sulfurous odor and billowing steam advertised it for miles but failed to prepare us for the landscape we would traverse: spitting hot springs, steaming rivulets, and boiling puddles of chalky, gray-blue, magma-heated water. We were inside one of the volcanoes that gave birth to Dominica 26 million years ago.
Technically dormant, this caldera hadn't had a big eruption since 1880, although Green noted as we passed a seismograph beside the trail that there had been an "episode" in 1995. An earthquake the previous summer had caused more than $500,000 in property damage.
Boiling Lake awaited a mere 15 minutes up the trail. The lake and the trail leading to it are in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, one of the island's many protected areas. The 17,000-acre reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only such designation in the eastern Caribbean. As we marched, Green recounted the gruesome tale of the guide who fell into the lake trying to retrieve a client's camera. When we reached our destination none of us went anywhere close to the edge, but the roiling waters 50 feet below were visible from a safe distance.
We ate in silence until Green launched into a series of jokes that brightened our mood. On the less strenuous way back, we luxuriated in the rapids of a heated stream and drank from a cool mountain spring.
Dominica was the last island to be formed in the Caribbean, and its indigenous population resisted European colonization longer than its neighbors. Christopher Columbus spotted the island in 1493 but decided not to land. He named it for Sunday, the day he sailed by. Columbus's snub is understandable. The island is rugged in the extreme, and its coastline is off-putting. And while the French and English fought over it for decades, the land was not suited for large-scale plantation development.
That landscape has saved Dominica from being overrun by tourism. There are no giant hotel chains, no American-style minimalls, no all-inclusive resorts. In Roseau (pronounced rozo), the capital, the town still belongs to the locals. There are funky beauty parlors, grocery and hardware stores, bars blaring zouk music - a fusion of local Caribbean styles. Reasonable, unpretentious restaurants abound, where visitors and residents mingle.
Garage, for example, is a small eatery with open-air windows and an intimate rectangular bar. After the grilled blue marlin, baby back ribs, and rum punches, the question had to be posed. "So, hey, this used to be, like, a garage?" The barkeep smiled and said, "It still is." A trip to the downstairs bathroom would confirm the unique synergy.
The Fort Young Hotel, with panoramic views from Roseau of the Caribbean and Scott's Head at the island's southwestern tip, served as our base camp. Though it is one of the island's high-end establishments, the cost was not exorbitant: $115 a night for a spacious room with two king-size beds and a porch for savoring sunsets and listening to the waves lapping the rocky shore below.
Our first adventure, like those to follow during the week, was booked at the hotel's activity desk. Martin, our guide, drove us about 30 minutes into the interior to the twin Trafalgar Falls, two of the island's 12 spectacular waterfalls. On the way he introduced us to Dominica's flora and fauna, often stopping to point out a calabash tree here, a sorrel plant there, or to pluck a roadside plant, such as an indigenous variety of watercress that tastes faintly of mustard.
Throughout the week our guides tutored us on Dominica's botanical and zoological heritage. Sixty percent of the island remains covered with natural vegetation, including six varieties of rain forest, more than a thousand flowering plants, and dozens of edible delights like breadfruit, coconuts, mangos, and papayas. There are said to be 365 rivers on the island, although one guide admitted the number depended on your definition of a river. Still, he put the figure at 83 significant waterways that meander from mountain to coast.
Dominica hosts 172 species of birds, among them its national symbol, the endangered Sisserou parrot, four species of hummingbird (we spied three), broad-winged hawks, yellow-crowned night herons, and the brown trembler. We didn't see the elusive Sisserou, but we encountered many of the boisterous and also endangered Jaco parrots on our various hikes.
On underwater sorties you can "champagne" snorkel, passing through silver bubbles rising from fissures in the bottom and enjoying intermittent bursts of warmth from hot springs. Offshore, and not too far off because depths rapidly reach thousands of feet, a resident pod of sperm whales gamboled. We were barely five miles out on the Dive Dominica boat when we began following various congregations of whales, including two mothers nursing calves.
On other days we swam in Emerald Pool, through Ti Tou Gorge, and beneath Spanny Falls. We rowed up Indian River. Sometimes we just walked about town. The small Dominica Museum and Market Square are two blocks from the hotel. The residential architecture of Roseau, while eclectic and tumbledown here and there, contains examples of what is called the "vernacular" Caribbean style: modest but stylish houses with louvered windows and doors, verandas with decorative fretwork, hip roofs, and hurricane shutters.
In a week we couldn't do it all. We didn't visit the Carib Territory, a 3,700-acre reserve on the northeast coast, where descendants of Dominica's original inhabitants live. We didn't climb the highest peak, Morne Diablotin, at 4,747 feet; walk through the Botanical Gardens; go scuba diving or horseback riding. There are several historic forts we didn't tour. The entire Atlantic coast awaits our next visit.
Dominica is not for everyone. That may be its saving grace.
David Holahan can be reached at email@example.com.