Dominica, the stunning Nature Island, on a budget: Tips and advice
Dominica is one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean, and yet not many people visit. The main tourism comes from the cruise ships that dock in its main port of Roseau for the day, but what Dominica has to offer cannot be covered on a day trip – it really takes at least a good week to explore the island properly.
The reason Dominica, an English-speaking island, hasn’t hit it off with tourists is because its beaches have black volcanic sand, instead of the pearly white you’ll find on other islands. It also doesn’t have a direct flight from mainland Central or North America – you have to come via another Caribbean island like Puerto Rico – but don’t let that put you off from visiting.
What Dominica has to offer in natural beauty will more than make up for its dark colored sand. The island is mountainous, with too many waterfalls to count tumbling out its lush jungle canopy. Rivers and streams flow over boulders and into natural hot springs, and if you hike up a hill you will be offered spectacular vistas stretching from the mountains to where the greenery meets the sea.
There are certain benefits to visiting a Caribbean island that isn’t overrun by tourists. Prices are lower than its more expensive neighbors like Guadeloupe, for example. The disadvantage is that there’s not a huge range of accommodation available, and budget stays can be hard to come by.
But after living on the island for two months, I’ve come up with some tips on the best places to dine, stay and things to do in this tropical island paradise.
Dining out in Dominica
If you want a breakfast on a budget, stop by Le Petit Paris Bakery and pick up a croissant. There’s a lack of good, wholesome bread on Dominica and when we discovered Le Petit Paris Bakery it was like unearthing our own little gourmet heaven. Run by a French baker, every Friday is pizza night here and it gets busy as locals crowd the outdoor tables to chow down on the tasty pizzas from the wood fired ovens. For each pizza you order, you get a glass of wine for free, and for every three pizzas you get a free bottle!
Keeping the French theme running, head over to Romance Café on Mero Beach. This little restaurant is on one of the best beaches on the island, even if it does have black sand. Run by a French woman, there’s a bar that gets busy when the cruise ships are in, but if you visit when they’re not it’s a picturesque spot to watch the sun go down. The food here isn’t super cheap but when it’s the only place to eat French cheese on the island, who can resist? It is, hands down, one of the best restaurants on Dominica.
If you’re looking after more budget fare, every Friday night Fort Young, a hotel in the center of Roseau, has a BBQ night with live music. The service is often slow, but for $10 a person you can get a full plate of BBQ meats, beans and salad. The cocktails are also cheap during happy hour, and with the restaurant adjacent to the ocean, it’s a great place to come to kick off your weekend.
Another spot that puts on a good BBQ, this time on Sundays, is Castle Comfort, which is just down the road from Fort Henry. The lunch time feast is served on the terrace overlooking the sea and it’s delicious.
If you prefer the jungle to a beach scene, head up the road from Roseau to the Papillote Tropical Garden restaurant at the Papillote Wilderness Retreat. This is at the more expensive end of the dining experiences in Dominica, but it’s certainly worth a special treat. I think it’s one of the most serene spaces I’ve ever eaten in. The restaurant overlooks the mountain and you can feast on flying fish and freshwater prawns here. But the best part about your visit is that before or after you dine you can enjoy the retreat’s hot springs with a tumbling waterfall as a backdrop. The wait staff will even bring you drinks to sip on while you relax in the hot waters.
Accommodation in Dominica
Before choosing your accommodation on Dominica, you really need to consider what you want to get out of your holiday. There are two main towns to stay in – Roseau (the capital) and Portsmouth. Roseau is more bustling and has a great number of restaurants and things to do. If you are in to scuba diving, there are more dive shops here and the diving is cheaper than in Portsmouth.
Portsmouth is a good place to base yourself if you want to hike the Northern tail of the Waitukubuli Trail, as the main trail head is here. It’s also a good spot for exploring the Indian River and hiking up to Fort Shirley.
If you decide on Roseau, some of the more budget accommodation finds are Loubiere Residence and St James Guesthouse where you can stay for between $35 and $45 a night. (Two people sharing a room.)
This is possibly as cheap as it’s going to get in the capital. Loubiere Residence is a simple guest house on the beach, close to many restaurants and bars. It’s a good option if you’re not planning on hiring a car.
Staying at St James Guesthouse includes a free breakfast and the accommodation is located about a five minute walk from town.
If your budget can stretch a little further, to about $65, we would recommend staying at the Humming Bird Inn which is a five minute drive north of Roseau. The hilltop retreat is set in lush gardens and overlooks the ocean.
If you choose to stay in Portsmouth, which is to the north of the island, you will find more luxurious resorts like Secret Bay. From $600 a night though, places like these might be a little out of your price range!
If you’re travelling with friends, head to Madelene's Apartment for $50 a night, where four people can rent a two bedroom apartment, complete with a lounge room and kitchen. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the center of town and a five minute walk to the beach from here.
Another option is Valentine Apartments where you can rent an apartment for $60 a night. It’s quite a popular place for university students as it’s close to the Portsmouth University, Ross.
If your budget can stretch to $110 a night for two people, try The Champs Hotel which has a hot tub and flat screen TVs.
Getting around in Dominica
Dominica isn’t the easiest place to get around, as it’s mountainous, which rules out bike riding. For some reason motorbikes and scooters aren’t popular on the island either.
There is some unreliable public transport, however. You can catch a minibus to get across the island. They don’t really have official bus stops, but if you wait on a main road, one is bound to come along and you just flag it down. You pay about $2 for a 20 minute journey or so on these rides.
These rides are hectic though – you’ll be crammed – sometimes as many as 15 in one minivan, which makes the trip winding up through mountain roads uncomfortable.
Another option – and in my opinion the best choice – is to rent a car. We rented a tiny Nissan Micra for $30 a day which was certainly affordable. Problem was, it seriously struggled to get up some of the hills. I mean, really struggled. Those of us sitting in the back had to get out of the car at some points! I would recommend paying an extra $10 a day and getting a better vehicle if you can.
You should also keep in mind that they drive on the left in Dominica and the roads aren’t in the greatest condition. Many of them are potholed and during heavy tropical rains it can be especially difficult to navigate the twists and turns in a car.
Things to do in Dominica
Keep in mind that most of the activities in Dominica are best done in the early morning or late afternoon, both to avoid the heat of the day and the swarms of tourists that come from the cruise boats that dock in the harbor of Roseau. Better yet, check the cruise boat schedule and venture out when the cruise ships aren’t in town.
Dominica isn’t called The Nature Island for nothing. If you are interested in outdoor activities then Dominica should be placed firmly on your bucket list.
Often when we were hiking around this slice of paradise, it felt as though we were stepping on to a film set – it was so beautiful it didn’t feel real. We mustn’t have been the only ones to feel this way – the location was used in the film Pirates of the Caribbean ‘Dead Man's Chest' starring Johnny Depp and Keira Knightly.
If you want to explore the places that featured in the film, start with hiking the Waitukubuli Trail. This stretches from the bottom to the top of the island and is the first long distance hiking trail in the whole of the Caribbean. To hike the entire trail would take you more than two weeks, but it’s broken up into segments so you can do some sections as day hikes like we did. Segment 12 is the area that features in the film, and you can read more about it here.
If you’ve seen the film, you might remember the scene where Jack Sparrow visits the witch doctor in the depths of a swamp. This area exists and you can float down a canoe, guided by a local, and explore the Indian River near the town of Portsmouth.
Here, you will come across the hut that was featured in the film. It’s not the original one – this was dismantled after filming had finished – but one that was reconstructed for a rich business mogul’s daughter’s birthday, which was held on the island.
Continuing up the river you will come across a bar. Your guide will dock the canoe here and you can sip a rum and coke at this jungle spot, deep in the middle of the rainforest. Quite the experience! This river jaunt will set you back around $15 per person. To do it, simply turn up at the mouth of the river, where the main jetty is, and there’s bound to be a guide ready to take you up the river.
If you want to continue your rum and coke sipping, head to Screw’s Sulfur Spa in the heart of the jungle. Screw, a Rasta man who will welcome you with a big smile, has spent years building his hot spring pools. The water is from the natural hot springs in the surrounding area, but the pools have been shaped to channel this water, turning it into an oasis complete with a bar. But if the $18.50 entrance fee puts you off… I have a more budget option in store.
Trafalgar Falls is further up the mountain from Screw’s and is a natural hot springs. Entry to this protected park is $6 and you will walk a short way down a trail through the jungle, bringing you to two waterfalls that are side-by-side.
The waterfalls are impressive – they’re tall and thundering as they cascade into rocky pools at the bottom – but the highlight of the experience is the hot springs that adjacent to them. These are hidden inside the jungle canopy and sitting in these natural pools is even more magical than Screw’s, mainly because they aren’t manmade. There’s no bar though…
If you’re after more waterfalls, one of the best hikes is to Middleham Falls. Many people do this hike with a guide, but it’s not really needed as the trail is obvious. The hike takes about an hour and a half one way and will lead you to a spectacular 200 foot waterfall. The trail is a little hilly on the way there, so a refreshing dip in the pool at the bottom of the falls will cool you down, although if it’s been raining recently the water might be a bit treacherous, so be careful.
If you want to see natural beauty but aren’t in to hiking all that much, you can pay $6 and visit Emerald Pool in the center of the island. Here you can walk a simple ten minute trail (down some steps) to arrive at a lush waterfall that cascade into a beautiful pool surrounded by boulders and jungle. You certainly don’t need a guide for this visit and in fact, it’s better without one because if you go at the right time of day you might be lucky enough to have the pool to yourself.
One hike where we did use a guide, and where I’d recommended to do so as you could get lost, is the hike to Boiling Lake. This strenuous day hike will take you up and down a mountain, deep into the jungle of Morne Trois Pitons Park and across a landscape called the Valley of Desolation. Here you will find steaming pools of sulfur bubbling up from the ground, giving the impression that you’re crossing Mars rather than the jungle.
The hot water bubbles down and mixes with a stream that rushes over rocks and larger boulders – it really is spectacular.
Further along you come to Boiling Lake, the crater of the volcano where the water is indeed boiling. People have fallen in before, so watch you step.
A guide will cost you between $50 – $100, which sounds like a lot but if you go in a group of five it really is a good price for a day hike. We highly recommend Peter the Bushman as he is very experienced and gives you a lot of information along the hike. His phone number is 767-235-2270.
One of the least known hikes on the island, and perhaps the most daring, is Wavine Cyrique. Not for the faint-hearted, this hike involves climbing down a cliff-face using ropes and tree ropes for a ladder. If you stare through the tree canopy, you can see the sandy bottom of the cliff, meters below. It’s scary stuff.
But once you complete the hike and arrive on the black sandy beach, you will be rewarded. A spectacular waterfall pours out of the side of the cliff, tumbling on to the beach below. It’s so beautiful you may have to pinch yourself to check whether you’re dreaming.
Before you do any hiking, you will need to register at one of the National Park’s offices and pay an entrance fee which is valid for a few days. These can be found along points on the Waitukubuli Trail. For more information, visit their website.
If you prefer history over nature, Dominica does have its own fort in Portsmouth which has been lovingly restored by local historian Dr Lennox Honeychurch over the past few years. Fort Shirley was built in the 18th century and it costs about $5 to visit. Make sure you admire the views over the harbor, and take some time to explore the paths that wind around the back of the gardens to where there are fortified ruins that haven’t yet been restored.
If it’s culture you’re after, you must visit one of the most fascinating cultural places in the whole of the Caribbean – the Carib village. Located on the East Coast of the island where the Atlantic Ocean crashes below, this is the only remaining place in the world where native Carib people can be found. Their language has sadly already died out, but you can still get a tour of the village and see their culture and way of life first hand. It is very different from the rest of the island and if you are lucky they will even put on a dance performance for you. It costs about $5 per person to visit.
Dominica really has it all – nature, history and culture. All it’s lacking is the white sandy beach. But if adventure and an active holiday is what you’re after, Dominica should be your first stop in the Caribbean. Skip the well-trodden paths like the Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic (not to be confused with Dominica!) and get your own slice of paradise on The Nature Island.
Carmen is one half of the couple behind Double-Barrelled Travel, a travel blog focused on vlogging. Carmen married Dave three years ago and they quit their journalism careers in mid-2013 for a life on the road.