DOMINICA, West Indies - Rumor has it, once you've mastered driving on Dominica, you can drive anywhere in the world.
It's easy to see why. It is, literally, a jungle. Its roads, most of which are no wider than an alley, crawl over mountains and cling to cliffs tumbling down to the Caribbean Sea. All of their turns are shaped like hairpins, and all of their curves are as blind as the nightfall here, where there are no streetlights or stoplights - only stars. And, just to make things interesting for the 66 percent of the licensed driving world who are accustomed to keeping right, Dominica's former British Commonwealth status means that here, one hugs the curves to the left.
But driving on Dominica would be missing the point. This island is meant to be explored on foot, ideally while wearing a pair of Teva sandals. It's crawling with natural hiking trails adorned by 1,200 species of plants and flowers, some of which recoil when touched, like sea anemones.
There are spectacular waterfalls and hot springs, including the huge Boiling Lake in the center, and the island is surrounded by waters clear enough for snorkeling, deep enough for diving and just choppy enough to make kayaking interesting. And because it's not easy to get here, it remains - and here's the tour operator's selling point - "one of the most unspoilt islands in the Caribbean." Pronounced "Dom-in-EEK-a," not to be confused with the Dominican Republic (though it often is), this English-speaking volcanic island is home to about 71,000 people, including 3,000 native Caribs, who reside in a dedicated Carib Territory on the island's northeast side - similar to the Native American reservations in the States.
They were the primary inhabitants of this island until 1493, when Columbus landed here on a Sunday, hence the name; the indigenous Carib name is Wai'tu kubuli, or "tall is her body," as the island is a lengthy 29-mile stretch of beautiful curves and contours.
Other than the addition of ramshackle houses, several dozen small hotels and the few Jeeps and buses that brave the roads, things haven't changed much in the 500 years since. Until recently, cruise ships didn't even dock here. There are a few tourists, but they're a fairly specific breed: thrill-seekers who climb mountains for kicks. Like Denise Calfo and Jeff Biddle.
The Los Angeles duo has visited Dominica seven times over the last eight years. They've never rented a car. Instead, they commute around Dominica's 290 square miles the way most of its residents do: via the bus system and their own two feet. They've hiked up to Boiling Lake, Dominica's gem of a landmark, twice; they've reached the summit of Morne Diablotin, the island's tallest mountain (4,747 feet) and most challenging hike. They drink Kubuli, the local beer; they know a few Creole-inspired Dominican phrases; and they couldn't care less about beaches.
"We aren't sit-on-the-beach-all-day kind of people," Calfo said. "I like some time on the beach, but the best thing about Dominica is how many things there are to do."
Beaches aren't really the point here; there are only two or three worth seeing. There are no traditional resorts and fewer traditional hotels. Wearing beachwear on the street in the two cities, Roseau and Portsmouth, is considered improper. But in the jungle - where mosquitoes surprisingly aren't a problem - it's a different story.
"The first rule in Dominica is, always wear your swimsuit."
That mantra comes from Samuel Raphael, owner of Jungle Bay Resort and Spa which, true to its name, is nestled in the middle of a jungle overlooking Pointe Mulatre Bay on the island's southeast side. Sam and his wife, Glenda, spent 10 years developing and building the 55-acre property, which is the perfect prototype for Dominica's slowly growing tourism industry: It's eco-conscious, unapologetically hospitable and naturally gorgeous. Each of its 35 tropical hardwood cottages is raised on stilts for ideal views and circulation; their solar-heated outdoor showers drip back into the jungle, polluted only by natural and organic soaps. All of the furniture is made from local wood and handcrafted by folks from the neighboring villages.
As if following Raphael's orders, everyone at Jungle Bay wears a swimsuit constantly - and not necessarily to take advantage of the modest swimming pool assembled with volcanic stones. They wear their swimsuits because on Dominica, all roads lead to hikes, and all hikes (most of them, anyway) lead to water.
Take Victoria Falls. Located a few miles inland from Pointe Mulatre Bay (a distance that, on these roads, takes about a half-hour to drive), the hour hike to the spectacular 425-foot falls entails traversing a muddy trail that loses itself amid the rapidly growing rain forest, and, thereafter, four river crossings each way. The water is swift but not cold; it's incredibly clean and softened by sulfur but has no sympathy for expensive cameras, inappropriate footwear or, for that matter, small children.
The difficulty level of this hike? "Moderate." In all, there are 365 rivers on Dominica - some easily explored; some strenuous. Locals joke that Trafalgar Falls' 10-minute stair-stepped "hike" was designed for cruise excursions. Emerald Pool, Dominica's most popular tourism destination, is another easy one. The green-hued natural pool sits pretty in the island's UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a 15-minute walk through the rain forest, marked by vistas overlooking the seemingly bottomless green valley below. Stop even for a minute and you'll spot parrots and hawks flapping by nonchalantly. The phrase "Wow" is uttered a lot here, even by the locals.
Get out on the water - or, better yet, in it - and the wows continue.
Perched above Grand Bay on Dominica's south side is the tiny village of Stowe, where the locals get most of their fish. From here, conditions are nearly perfect for kayaking a half-mile out to Carib Point, then snorkeling along the reef below. The waves are relatively calm in this bay, even when mild storms pass through.
It's always raining somewhere on Dominica, but excursions are rarely canceled as a result, because the weather is so changeable. Snorkeling in the rain isn't glamorous but floating just below sea level, looking down on schools of exotic fish while millions of little drops of water dot the ocean's surface, is surreal.
Post-kayaking, there's an obligatory stop down the road at Nick's Spotlight, a popular snackette (bar-shack) at the crossroads of Berekua and Pichelin. When he's not out guiding excursions to landmarks such as Sari Sari Falls, Nick serves Kubuli beer and treats tourists to the traditional Caribbean rum tour - a one-stop sampling of at least a half-dozen locally produced rums, not unlike a Napa Valley wine tasting.
In lieu of the tour, I give Nick permission to pick my poison, requesting only that it be something local and something interesting. After offering a pause long enough to make me a little nervous, from under his corrugated metal counter Nick produces a worn, plastic, gallon-sized fuel jug labeled, in shaky handwritten black lettering, "JAH RUM." Barely visible through the opaque plastic, the shadow of a dark-green bush bobs in the foreign liquid. Down the hatch it goes. And then, there's that phrase again: "Wow."
If the first rule in Dominica is Always Wear Your Swimsuit, the second should be Always Bring Your Snorkeling Gear.
On my last day here, I went down to Soufriere Bay off Scotts Head for one last chance to swim in that amazingly warm water. As soon as I waded out to my waist, some kind of giant, beautiful, aqua-colored ray floated by, and a million little yellow and black fish fluttered around my bare feet.
Afterward, bumping along that twisty, windy road one last time for the 2 1/2 -hour trek up the side of the island to the airport, I found driving to be the easy part.
The hard part? Leaving.
Lauren Viera writes for the Chicago Tribune.
IF YOU GO
Dominica is in the center of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies, between the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Dominica has two (very) small airports: Melville Hall Airport in the northeast, about 90 minutes from the capital of Roseau, and Canefield Airport in the southwest, just north of Roseau. Major airlines fly to and from Melville Hall but only during daylight hours, as the airfield has no lights.
Dominica is rugged, rough and rainy. Much of it is walkable - and hikeable - but getting from place to place requires ground transportation. Driving on the island isn't easy, but it also isn't impossible. If you rent a car, opt for a Jeep or similar all-terrain vehicle. Taxis are available for hire, and there is a bus system.
There are no commercial hotel chains on the island. Most inns and resorts (none of which resembles stereotypical Caribbean resorts) offer meal and excursion packages, since cross-island transportation is limited. Because Roseau and most adventure destinations are on the southern half of the island, staying in the south is preferable.
Jungle Bay Resort and Spa (767-446-1789; junglebaydominica.com), off Pointe Mulatre Bay on the southeast side, is a phenomenal eco-friendly resort consisting of modern, treehouse-like cottages with quaint outdoor showers, comfortable beds and spectacular ocean or jungle views. Regular rates, with breakfast included, start at $169 per night. Plan to get a workout during your stay: Most cottages are about 100 steps above ground.
A lovely, smaller alternative is Zandolli Inn (767-446-3161; zandoli.com), near Grand Bay. There are five rooms (starting at $135/night), and breakfast and dinner are optional. The inn's best feature is its location overlooking the bay: There's a private trail down to a natural pile of huge, smooth boulders that slip into the ocean - the perfect launching pad for swimming and snorkeling.
WHAT TO DO
Hiking, snorkeling, diving, kayaking and swimming are all popular here; sunbathing isn't. Well-known hikes include Trafalgar Falls, Emerald Pool, Victoria Falls and, for more experienced hikers, Boiling Lake. The most popular snorkeling and diving spots are at Champagne near Soufriere Bay. Kayaking is common in the many bays surrounding the island.
Official Dominica tourism information: 866-522-4057;