If you really want a great beach, you should choose another island. Dominica has some of the worst beaches in the Caribbean; most are rocky and have gray-black volcanic sand. But some beaches, even though they don't have great sand or shade, are still good for diving or snorkeling in the turquoise waters.
Although the beach itself is filled with stones, the best place for swimming is at Champagne, south of Roseau and south of Ponte Michel but north of the southernmost town of Soufrière. Snorkeling and scuba diving are also actively pursued at this west-coast beach. Why the name? Volcanic vents puff steam into the ocean, and swimmers have likened the effect to swimming in the bubbly. From the Soufrière Scotts Head Marine Reserve, you can take a boardwalk to the beach, where the stones discourage lying on the beach in the sun.
Another good place for swimming lies on the northwest coast. Picard Beach stretches for about 3km (2 miles), a strip of grayish sand with palm trees as a backdrop. It's ideal for snorkeling or windsurfing. You can drop in for food or a drink at one of the hotels along the beach.
On the northeast coast, four beaches -- Hampstead Beach, Hodges Beach, L'Anse Noire, and Woodford Hill Bay -- are among the island's most beautiful, although none is great for swimming. Divers and snorkelers often come here, even though the water can be rough. Watch out for the strong currents.
The southwest coast also has some beaches, but the sand here is black and rock-studded. Nonetheless, snorkelers and scuba divers flock to Soufrière Bay Beach and Scotts Head Beach for the clear waters and the stunning underwater walls.
Wild and untamed Dominica offers hikers some of the most bizarre geological oddities in the Caribbean. Sights include scalding lava covered with a hot, thin, and not-very-stable crust; a boiling lake where mountain streams turn to vapor as they come into contact with superheated volcanic fissures; and a barren wasteland known as the Valley of Desolation.
All these attractions are in the heavily forested 6,800 hectares (16,803 acres) of the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, in the island's south-central region. You should go with a guide -- there are plenty of them waiting for your business in the village of Laudat. Few markers appear en route, but the trek, which includes a real assortment of geological oddities, stretches 10km (6 1/4 miles) in both directions from Laudat to the Boiling Lake. Ferns, orchids, trees, and epiphytes create a tangle of underbrush; insect, bird, and reptilian life is profuse.
The hill treks of Dominica have been described as "sometimes easy, sometimes hellish," and if it should happen to rain during your climb (and it rains very frequently on Dominica), the paths are likely to become very slippery. But botanists, geologists, and experienced hikers all agree that climbs through the jungles of Dominica are the most rewarding in the Caribbean. Hikers should walk cautiously, particularly in areas peppered with bubbling hot springs. Regardless of where you turn, you'll run into streams and waterfalls, the inevitable result of an island that receives up to 400 inches of rainfall a year. Winds on the summits are strong enough to have pushed one recreational climber to her death several years ago, so be careful.
An adventure only for the most serious and experienced hiker is to Boiling Lake and the Titou Gorge, a deep and very narrow ravine whose depths were created as lava flows cooled and contracted. En route you might spot rare Sisserou and Jacquot parrots, monkeys, and vines whose growth seems to increase visibly on an hourly basis. The lake itself lies 10km (6 1/4 miles) east of Roseau, but reaching it requires about 4 hours of hiking, some of it strenuous. Go only with a guide, which can be arranged through the tourist office.
Taking the Wotton Waven Road, you branch off in the direction of Sulphur Springs, volcanic hot springs that are evidence of Dominica's turbulent past. Jeeps and Land Rovers can get quite close. This bubbling pool of gray mud sometimes belches smelly sulfurous fumes. The trail begins at the Titou Gorge, where you can go for a cooling swim in a pool or enjoy the hot spring waters alongside the pool. A 5-minute swim will take you up the gorge to a small cave with a beautiful waterfall. After the gorge, the marked trail goes through the appropriately named Valley of Desolation and comes out at Boiling Lake on the far side, a trek of 2 to 3 hours one-way. Sulfuric fumes in the area have destroyed much of the once-flourishing vegetation in the region.
Boiling Lake is the world's second-largest solfatara lake, measuring 63m (207 ft.) across. It is a bubbling cauldron with vapor clouds rising above blue-gray water. The depth of the lake is not known. The water temperature in the lake averages around 190°F (88°C). The lake is not the crater of a former volcano, but a flooded fumarole. Getting here is extremely difficult and even hazardous. Some visitors have even stumbled and fallen to their deaths into the boiling waters. The trail is most often very slippery because of rainfall. You'll encounter few visitors along this trail and, if you do, will likely be glad for the company, especially if a hiker is returning from the area where you're heading. He or she can give you advance reports of the conditions ahead of you.
Getting a Guide -- Locals warn that to proceed along the island's badly marked trails into dangerous areas is not a good idea; climbing alone or even in pairs is not advised. Guides should be used for all unmarked trails. You can arrange for a guide at the office of the Dominica National Park, in the Botanical Gardens in Roseau (tel. 767/448-2401), or the Dominica Tourist Board. Forestry officials recommend Ken's Hinterland Adventure Tours & Taxi Service, Fort Young Hotel on Victoria Street, Roseau (tel. 767/448-1660; www.khattstours.com). You can also call Discover Dominica (tel. 767/448-2045) to arrange a tour. Depending on the destination and the attractions, treks cost $40 to $75 per person for up to four participants and require 4 to 8 hours round-trip. Minivan transportation from Roseau to the starting point of your hill climb is usually included in the price.
Dominica is probably the best place in all the Caribbean for kayaking. Depending on the size, you can rent a kayak for $26 to $50 for a half-day, then go on a unique adventure around the rivers and coastline of the lushest island in the West Indies. Nature Island Dive, in Roseau (tel. 767/449-8181; www.natureislanddive.com), offers rentals and gives the best advice. You can combine bird-watching, swimming, and snorkeling as you glide along. Consider Soufrière Bay, a marine reserve in southwest Dominica. Off the west coast, you will discover tranquil Caribbean waters with rainbow-hued fish along the beaches in Mero, Salisbury, and in the region of the Layou and Macoucherie rivers.
Diving has taken off on Dominica. The underwater terrain is spectacular. Most of the diving is on the southwestern end of the island, with its dramatic drop-offs, walls, and pinnacles. These volcanic formations are interwoven with cuts, arches, ledges, and overhangs, home to sponges, gorgonians, and corals. An abundance of invertebrates, reef fish, and unusual sea creatures such as sea horses, frogfish, batfish, and flying gunards attract underwater photographers.
Dive Dominica, in the Castle Comfort Diving Lodge, P.O. Box 2253, Castle Comfort, Roseau, Dominica, W.I. (tel. 767/448-2188; www.divedominica.com), gives open-water certification (both NAUI and PADI) and instruction. Two diving catamarans and a handful of smaller boats get you to the dive sites in relative comfort. The dive outfit is part of a hotel, a 15-room lodge where at least 90% of the clientele checks in as part of a dive package. A 6-night dive package, double occupancy, begins at $960 per person, including breakfasts and dinners, five two-tank dives, and one night dive. A single-tank dive for nonguests goes for $62, a two-tank dive for $140, and a night dive for $68. All rooms in the lodge are air-conditioned and have TVs, phones, and Wi-Fi. On the premises are a bar (for residents and their guests only) and a Jacuzzi.
Divers from all over the world come to the Dive Centre, at the Anchorage Hotel in Castle Comfort (tel. 767/448-2638; www.anchoragehotel.dm). With a pool, classrooms, a private dock, a miniflotilla of dive boats, and a fully qualified PADI staff, this is the most complete dive resort on Dominica. A single-tank dive costs $62; a double-tank dive, $86; and a one-tank night dive, $68. A whale- and dolphin-watch from 2pm to sunset is popular and costs $67 per person. There is an additional $4 charge for use of the marine park for two people. Rum punch is served.
Snorkeling sites are never far away, regardless of where you are on Dominica. In all there are some 30 first-rate snorkeling areas immediately off the coast. The western side of the island, where nearly all of the snorkeling takes place, is the lee side, meaning the waters are tranquil. You can explore the underwater hot springs at Champagne and Toucari, the Coral Gardens off Salisbury, and the southern shoreline of Scotts Head Beach, with more than 190 species of flamboyantly colored fish. The closeness of the reefs to shore makes snorkeling here some of the best in the Caribbean. Your hotel or one of the dive shops can set you up with gear.
The beaches may be lousy, but Dominica has some of the best river swimming in the Caribbean. Some say the little island has 365 rivers, one for every day of the year. The best places for swimming are the refreshing ponds at the base of a waterfall, of which there are dozens on the island. Your best bets are on the west coast at the Picard or the Machoucherie rivers. On the east coast, the finest spot is White River, near the hamlet of La Plaine. Consider also the Layou River and its gorges. Layou is the island's largest river, ranging from tranquil beach-lined pools ideal for swimming to deep gorges and turbulent rapids. All the rivers are pristine and make nice spots for a little sunbathing or perhaps a picnic lunch along their banks.
The staff at the tourist office knows the island intimately and will help you map out a place for a picnic and a swim during your tour of the island, depending on where you're going. They'll also arm you with a good map and directions if you're heading out on your own.
Our favorite place for a dip is the Emerald Pool Trail, which lies in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park. You reach it northeast of Pont Casse, going for 6km (3 3/4 miles) along an unmarked road taking you north to Castle Bruce. Eventually, you reach a sign pointing to the Emerald Pool Trail, the most accessible trail in this lush national park. A 30-minute hike takes you to a stunning cascade of water dropping 6m (20 ft.). This is Emerald Falls, where you can go for a cooling swim. Chances are, you'll have it all to yourself.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.