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Exploring Dominica’s natural wonders

<p>As I picked my way over hot rocks and bubbling mud in the pouring rain, I realized Dominica was not for the faint-hearted.</p>

Country brands itself Caribbean’s ‘Nature Island’

jill lawless/associated press

A hiker makes his way in the Valley of Desolation on Dominica October 2006. The Valley of Desolation is an eerie, treeless swath of volcanic devastation striped black and orange with mineral deposits and swirling with mist and steam.

As I picked my way over hot rocks and bubbling mud in the pouring rain, I realized Dominica was not for the faint-hearted.

I was hiking to the Boiling Lake, a bizarre cauldron of steaming-hot water, 61 metres across, and one of the strangest sights on this rugged and beautiful Caribbean island.

The hike is a six-hour round trip that runs through dense rainforest and over mountain ridges before emerging in the Valley of Desolation — an eerie, treeless swath of volcanic devastation striped black and orange with mineral deposits and swirling with mist and steam.

Like so much in Dominica, the journey takes effort — but it’s worth it.

This jagged, densely rainforested island, about 47 kilometres long and 26 kilometres wide, is located between Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Eastern Caribbean, 603 kilometres miles southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

A poor country of 71,000 dependent on agriculture and tourism, Dominica brands itself the Caribbean’s “Nature Island,” and the name is justified.

jill lawless/associated press

A visitor bathes on Secret Beach near Portsmouth, Dominica in this October 2006 file photo.

Visitors will find exceptionally friendly people, all-but deserted black-sand beaches and a mountainous interior of dense rainforest, clean rushing rivers and jungle waterfalls. Even for a halfhearted hiker, it is inspiring — almost any walk can end with the chance to swim in a river pool beneath a sparkling cascade.

“There is such a delicate balance of nature here,” said Jem Winston, an enthusiastic Englishman who runs Three Rivers Eco-Lodge, an environmentally friendly retreat near Dominica’s wild east coast. “We’ve got everything — heavy rain, heavy sun, volcanoes, earthquakes.”

My friends and I based ourselves at Three Rivers, the rough-and-ready resort Winston has carved out of a former banana plantation.

Winston fell in love with Dominica years ago as a young backpacker and worked as a taxi driver back in England to raise the money to buy his piece of the island.

Opened four years ago, Three Rivers consists of four simple wood chalets, with beds and mosquito nets, kitchen and bathroom. Each has a hammock-slung balcony overlooking lush green grounds, paths lined with mango, guava, star fruit and papaya trees, and forested hills. Four even more secluded cabins nestle in woods above the main site.

The lodge takes its environmentalism seriously, and has a clutch of international awards to prove it. Electricity and hot water are solar-generated, and Winston is installing a hydroelectric generator to boost the site’s power supply.

His pickup truck runs on cooking oil. The cabins have showers, but guests can also take the locally made biodegradable soap provided down to an idyllic swimming hole in one of the site’s eponymous three rivers.

The onsite restaurant provides hearty meals, with fruit and vegetables drawn from 3 Rivers’ own organic gardens.

“What I loved about here compared to other countries was that the people cared about the nature,” Winston said. “They want development, but they don’t want to destroy the land to do it.”

After a night at the lodge, we decided to tackle the hiking opportunities offered by Dominica’s wild, mountainous interior.

Much of it falls within the 6,880-hectare Morne Trois Pitons National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the park is home to freshwater lakes, rivers, mountain pools and numerous signs of the volcanic activity lurking beneath the island’s surface — especially the Boiling Lake, a volcanic fumerole flooded with roiling, boiling water heated by the molten lava beneath.

The trail to the lake begins alongside a rushing river before arcing upwards through the rainforest. Our guide pointed out the fauna and flora of the forest: the Mountain Whistler, which mimics other birds; giant gommier trees, used by the island’s native Carib people to make dugout canoes; the tree called bwa bande, whose allegedly aphrodisiac bark — peeled and soaked in hot water — is known as “forest Viagra.”

The trail emerges into clearing on a mountain ridge, more than 914 metres above sea level, where views extend to the coastal capital, Roseau, and the Caribbean Sea beyond.

From there, it’s a steep descent to the Valley of Desolation — a desolate expanse that looks more like Iceland than a tropical island. Barren of trees, the valley is littered with rocks in black, brown, yellow and orange; crisscrossed bright blue and milky white streams; and dotted with jets of sulphurous steam and hot water bubbling from the earth.

Over one more ridge sits Boiling Lake, grey-blue within its circular crater, its surface shrouded in steam.

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