I had traveled to Dominica for the jungle, but as I drove the island, the few things not verdant had been accentuated, the way a fire aglow in a snowy wasteland would capture attention.
Despite the overgrowth of bromeliads and fern trees, my focus kept shifting from the incredible flora to the strips of asphalt spilling down the coast. On descents, roads twisted at improbable right angles, and life outside of the jungle was as intriguing as the forest.
Locals walked the streets carrying umbrellas in one hand (to fight the inexorable rains) and machetes in the other (to trim back the unyielding forest). My driver swerved to avoid a creature. It wasn’t one of the myriad dogs sunning on the tarmac, but something from the sky. A broad-winged hawk. The predator had lost its prey to the canopy.
We stopped at Kalinago Barana Aute, the Kalinago cultural center, the last remaining reservation belonging to the native people of the Eastern Caribbean. (They are known as Caribs on other islands.) Established to preserve culture and provide economic opportunities to the Kalinago people, the center offers visitors home stays and tours.
Like everything else on Dominica, my Kalinago experience began in the jungle. The tour felt like I had been hired at an eco-restaurant and was being shown the magnificent kitchen. “This is where you can find lemongrass,” my Kalinago guide said, pointing to vegetation growing behind banana trees. Every few feet was another spice or herb or dangling fruit.
Eventually, we reached an actual kitchen, where Passing Cloud, a Kalinago man nicknamed for his movements around the island, floated between two stations. Beneath one open shelter, he shredded cassava into a bucket and mixed it with ginger, sugar, salt, and coconut; it looked like he was making spackle. Then he took the concoction to a second hut and formed patties, laying them out on a concave grill, protecting the mixture with strips of heliconia leaf. The end result was cassava bread.
We walked past tree fern roots carved out to represent past Kalinago chiefs; their stretched faces could have been the inspiration for Modigliani. My guide offered stories about warrior initiations, which involved bow and arrow skills and packing facial lacerations with spices. “If they flinched,” she explained, “they could not become warriors.”
She also recited the rules for dispelling bad omens: first bathe with herbs on prescribed days at the intersection of river and ocean, then bury said herbs and walk home without glancing back or engaging in conversation. Should a Kalinago successfully complete these steps, then the only risk was to have his or her buried herbs discovered.
Back on the road, driving south from the reservation, I caught glimpses of turquoise seas through gaps in the palms. Squat homes with corrugated roofs peeked through the forest. The symbols from the island’s recent elections dangled overhead, though the red flags and shoes abandoned on wires would only speak briefly of victory because the less natural disappeared into the green of Dominica.
After leaving the reservation, I stopped at the Islet View Restaurant. The smoked chicken covered in a sauce of callaloo — this being a variation on the nation’s flavorful soup — and the views of the village below would have been enough of a draw.
But Islet View also had fifty different rums infused with herbs, spices, or produce, the bottles standing on shelves behind the bar. I had to choose between the Chavez or Obama Special (without letting patriotic obligations sway me). While rums for complex men had intricate recipes — the Man Better Man was a concocted mouthful — it was the simple and illogical rums that were most impressive. Garlic-infused rum was like a wonderful pasta sauce that somehow doubled as a tasty elixir.
I asked Rudy, the owner responsible for the flavors, to recommend his favorite. “I don’t drink,” he said. “But my favorite would be the Obama Special.” The ingredients included the heliconia’s long leaf, maze mawe or the “sensitive plant” that curls like a pill bug when touched, and bark from the bois bande tree. The teetotaler explained that men loved this presidential offering as two of the three ingredients were a cocktail for virility.
Over the next few days, we continued driving along the Caribbean coast, stopping when roadside grills wafted the scent of barbecued chicken into the car, We halted to snap bay leaves from trees, finally comprehending the incomparable pungency of a leaf that back home had always come desiccated in jars and appeared futile in sauces. We paused when the faded, pastel-colored villages, like Fort Saint Jean, appeared incongruous to the lushness of the island, and braked to hike to another waterfall, each more beautiful than the last.
On my final day on the island, I set off on the most challenging of Dominica’s day treks, the Boiling Lake Trail. The Boiling Lake Trail began through a forest of large-buttressed chatannye (Sloanea caribaea) and massive gommiers (Dacryodes hexandra), the latter of which had been used by Kalinagos centuries ago to build 50-person boats. The trail offered its spice-rack flavors, and my guide, best known as the Bushman, foraged cinnamon bark and handed me leaves that tasted like green apple and offered a remedy for the common cold.
“What time is it?” shouted the Bushman, after he Tarzan-roped himself onto the trail. “It’s hiking time.”
I leapt rivers and ascended mountains with panoramic views of the green peaks. Nearby villages and the capital city looked like distant shires. The mountains were misty from the boiling fumaroles below. I descended the muddy trail and the iron-tinged rock face into the Valley of Desolation.
In the Valley, my guide painted our faces with clay that had gone gray from the mixing of carbon and sulfur in the molten gurgle. The waters percolated and the Bushman placed two eggs in a bag and laid them in a hundred-degree puddle with his hiking stick. Ten minutes later, we ate the eggs and continued downstream, where cool mountain water mixed with lava-heated pools. A natural hot tub had formed beneath a waterfall and had the paradoxical ability to look like an oasis in a paradise.
Thirty minutes later, we reached the Boiling Lake. The steam from the cauldron was at first impenetrable. When it lifted, the gray waters, touched with turquoise, bubbled in the middle.
The Bushman, who had been singing on the hike, mashing up non-classics like Let’s Get Physical with Row, Row, Row Your Boat, had finally grown quiet, conceding to the mystical qualities of the lake. And for the first time even the jungles of Dominica gave way to this inhospitable pool, planting roots a safe few hundred feet on the cliffs above.
Going to Dominica
Getting there: With a stop in San Juan, trips take six to 11 hours (American from MIA, JetBlue from FLL). Roundtrip airfare in early June starts at about $730 from MIA, $1,100 from FLL.
What to do: Besides Kalinago Barana Aute, the best attractions are on trails, especially Boiling Lake Trail for a full day. For a short hike, head to Middleham Falls. Champagne Reef showcases a beautiful underwater ecosystem with volcanic gas bubbles escaping through the coral. For kayaking, head to Freshwater Lake.
When to go: Visit between October and December, when the rainy and hurricane seasons are ending but room rates are still lower. Carnival in Dominica is festive; in 2016, it’s Feb. 8-9.
WHERE TO STAY
Pagua Bay House, Marigot, Pagua Bay; 1-767-445-8888; www.paguabayhouse.com. A small hotel near the airport, it’s a beautiful property overlooking the rough Atlantic near the Kalinago territory.
Jungle Bay Resort and Spa, near the White River, Saint Patrick Parish, Delices; 1-767-446-1789 (917-338-3749 from U.S.); www.junglebaydominica.com. Features 35 cottages veiled by the forest. Rooms look out over the jungle canopy and ocean. Many group activities from trekking to yoga.
WHERE TO EAT
The Islet View Restaurant (Castle Bruce, ✔1-767-446-0370) is the place for homemade rums and great local cuisine.
The Orchard (Great George Street, near King George V Street, Roseau; ✔1-767-448-3051) serves up the best Saturday soup (callaloo to non-locals).
Kimon’s (Loubiere Road, Pointe Michel), an oddly decorated fish restaurant in the village just outside Roseau.
Peter Green, the Bushman, is a good guide for hiking the Boiling Lake Trail. email@example.com.
Jenner Robinson offers tours around the island. He’s punctual and knows the island well. 1-767-276-4659. Jenna23dm@yahoo.com.