Hiking, Eating and more in The Windward Isles: St Lucia and Dominica

“You want to hike the Boiling Lake…? Really?!”

Our suggestion was greeted with a look that was a mixture of incredulity and sympathy. Dominica’s “Boiling Lake” is heated by the underlying magma. At 66 metres in diameter it’s the second largest in the world. It’s difficult to get to see it with it being high in the Morne Trois Pitons National Park and not served by roads. The eight mile hike is considered to be the toughest in the West Indies.

Boiling LakeTo get there you have to walk for one and half hours hours through tropical rainforest (the clue is in the name: Tropical = hot and humid = wringing sweat T shirt), before crossing a river – if you’re lucky, on rocks, if you’re not, by wading through it. You must then ascend Mount Nicholls, which is 3128 feet high, on steps which in places amount to tree roots and rocks, descend the same, clamber down a 10 metre smooth rock face into the Valley of Desolation and cross that too.

The Valley of Desolation is inappropriately named. It’s an area of steaming, smoking fumaroles, where the rivers run either warm or hot; where the guide will boil an egg in a bubbling, boiling pool and where a river runs pure white. The rocks are extraordinary shades of yellow, orange, brown, green and white and the whole area gives off a sort of apocalyptic sulphurous smell. But desolation? No, it looks amazingly beautiful.

Valley of DesolationAfter crossing the milky river, there’s a couple of steepish ascents and then you arrive at a point high above the lake. On a bad day the lake is obscured by cloud and steam and you don’t get to see it at all.

And then you have to walk back…

We were lucky. The view was good and the lake bubbled away like a giant boiling hot Jacuzzi. We returned to the car tired but elated.

But this was 10 days into our trip….

Having found direct return flights from Manchester to St Lucia for slightly over £400 and internal flights from St Lucia to Dominica, the opportunity to see and compare two independent but previously British islands, 107 miles apart with Martinique in between, seemed too good to miss.

Accommodation in St Lucia is concentrated in the north of the island and predominantly consists of large, all-inclusive style resorts, where the beach can be walked on but is owned by the hotel, so you have to run the gauntlet of beach loungers and bar music. We had therefore opted to stay in a private villa, the cost shared between two couples and which worked out no more expensive than a medium sized hotel would have been.

With views stretching down the island and across the bay and with hummingbirds flitting among the bougainvillea , it was no hardship to rustle up a breakfast or simple meal and eat on one of the three balconies. The assigned maid, Brenda, contacted a local fishermen who delivered freshly caught Mahi-Mahi and then she cooked us a delicious Caribbean curry with green banana, which is cooked in the West Indies as a vegetable. There was enough fish left over to cook wrapped in bacon, with salad and sweet potato wedges. Simple, easy to prepare, and divine to eat with a bottle of chilled wine while watching the sunset.

Pitons St LuciaThe primary hike here is the Gros Piton, one of two “pitons”, or volcanic cones, near Soufriere on the Caribbean coast and the pride of the island. They must be: images appear on everything from fridge magnets to chocolate boxes. St Lucia is very hot and Soufriere was a two hour drive from where we stayed in the north. Two hours of driving along pot-holes, round horseshoe bends and whilst trying to avoid the many hazardous drivers. We contemplated it but a near vertical two hour plus hike to 2618 feet in the blazing sun didn’t seem like a good plan. Instead we drove to Soufriere at a leisurely pace and hiked the Tet Paul nature trail. Only 45 minutes but easy walking and outstanding views encompassing both Pitons.

Our time here was leisurely. We did some short walks – Pigeon Island, the Soufriere drive-in volcano, Diamond Botanical gardens, the Fond Latisab Creole park, where traditional crafts are demonstrated, and the Forestry Department’s slightly run-down Union Nature trail – but could find nothing lasting longer than around 45 minutes. Between all of these places and our villa was Rodney Bay, the beach resorts and the yachts of the rich.

Nice View St LuciaSlightly disappointed with the commercialisation, but nevertheless relaxed, we headed north, to Dominica , pronounced Dom-in-eek-a, and not to be confused with the Dominican Republic.

Dominica is a small island, 29 miles long by 18 wide. The population is around 72,000, mostly around the capital, Roseau, in the south. Every day, somewhere in Dominica, it rains. The island has 375 inches of rain a year and a river for every day. There are two seasons, wet and less wet. But it’s also hot. And this combination enables Dominicans to grow exotic fruit such as carambola (star fruit), guava, passion fruit, paw paw and soursop.

Root vegetables include yam, sweet potato and dasheen. Dominicans told us they never eat fallen fruit…. “why eat fallen fruit when you can pick one fresh from the tree?”. So we were looking forward to a feast of these fruits and vegetables, combined with the fish of the Caribbean… Mahi-mahi, Kingfish and Barracuda. No wonder Dominica has earned the nickname “Nature’s Island”.

At the airport, in the North, we collected a hire car, headed south, glancing slightly nervously at the guide books which stated that “Driving in Dominica is not for the faint-hearted. The roads twist and turn, climb and fall, through horseshoe bends with precipitous drops.” While all of this is true, it wasn’t that difficult; outside of Roseau there’s not a lot of traffic, they drive on the left (well, they’re supposed to!) and the roads are generally well-surfaced. The scenery makes it a spectacular drive. Only at night is it a problem: pedestrians feel free to walk in front of you, oncoming drivers seemed invariably to have full beam on and the horseshoe bends make the road look as if it’s just disappeared. Only once did I try night driving… never again!

We headed for our chosen accommodation, the Zandoli Inn on the south coast; the Zandoli is a small five-bedroomed hotel owned by mother and daughter team, Canadians Linda and Jenn. At the time of our visit Linda was in Canada, but Jenn proved to be a fabulous host and cook. A former restaurant-owner, Jenn cooked us Barracuda with dasheen cakes, pots of home made chocolate laced with rum, a local soup made of dasheen leaves and coconut milk, soursop ice-cream, lobster risotto, Rabbit Terrine, Mahi-Mahi salad… I could go on but you get the drift.

Every night was a culinary delight and we couldn’t wait to get back and try her rum punches before a delicious dinner. Oh, and the papaya and ginger daiquiri… we’re already planning another trip just for that! We were a willingly captive audience, with no desire to try anywhere else. Besides, to venture out would mean braving those roads at night!

Jenn consulted the cruise ship schedule. When there’s a ship in, avoid the Caribbean coast around Roseau and visit the east (Atlantic) coast. When there’re no ships, visit the Roseau valley, the waterfalls at Middleham and Trafalgar, the exotic Papillote gardens, hike the Freshwater lake ( one and a quarter hours, very high upon the mountains and invariably wet. No problem, walk Dominica style i.e. without a rain mac, get absolutely wet through and dry off in the subsequent sun). Go whale-watching — with “Dive Dominica” expertly seeking them, we saw three sperm whales, all close to the boat. Go snorkelling. In water only three feet deep and within two metres of the tide line, see around 20 different species.

Cheeky crabJenn’s friend, Chris, suggested we hike down to Glassy Point on the east coast on a day when there was a ship in. Walk about an hour down from the mountainous coast road through rainforest to the sea. As we walked we saw hundreds of lizards and some black and yellow land crabs scurrying out of the way. The path took us down to a volcanic rock point at the shore. In the rock pools were the same species of tropical fish we had seen snorkelling the previous day. The views stretched right down the east coast and we could see Martinique clearly.

It was Jenn who suggested we visit her friend , Pommp. Pommp is now 67 years old. In his 20’s, he took a look at the world, didn’t like what he saw and moved three miles into the mountains with his wife, Evelyn. For the last 38 years (“but I think of it as only one day,” said Pommp) they have been living life to their own beliefs. Devoutly Christian and strictly vegan ,they have built a farm and organically grow everything they need.

What about the cow, sheep horse and chickens?… They are just pets and we only use their manure

Is there anything you have to buy?… Garlic, onions and nails

Do you have any money?… Some: we sell organic produce to hotels and restaurants .

What do you do when you need medical care?… We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. As yet there’s been no need. The emphasis here is on prevention not cure.

In this period they have had children and a son aged 22 and a 24-year-old daughter share their beliefs and still live with them.

Do you get many visitors?… Some. We now get some pharmaceutical students looking at what we do.

Why do you grow those tiny chillies? The one I tried just about burnt my mouth away!… I eat three a day, they are good for the prevention of stomach ulcers.

To get to Pommp’s place we had to hike for one and a half hours steadily uphill and wade across six streams, (or the same stream six times!). We had needed a guide, 24-year-old Dominican, Tariq, another friend of Jenn’s. Without Tariq we would never have found Pommp. It used to be a very secluded hideout. Tariq who also guided us to the boiling lake through the steaming vents of the Valley of Desolation and it was Tariq who carried the water and Jenn’s cheese and plantain sandwich picnic.

Walking in Dominica had been like walking in Jurassic park, without the Dinosaurs. After a week of this heaven, we had to fly back to St Lucia to catch the plane home. With a spare morning before the flight, and as we were staying in Soufriere, we decided to have one last try at the Gros Piton. We started early, 8 am, before it got too hot. But lack of time meant that we could only reach half way. It was either reach the summit or catch the plane home. Regrettably, the plane won. It would have been wonderful to have been able to say that we’d done the hardest hikes in both Dominica AND St Lucia, but it was not to be. (Strictly speaking , Petit Piton is more difficult but as it involves some climbing, it’s not what we would call a hike.)

St Lucia was named by Columbus who landed there on St Lucy’s day. Dominica was named by Columbus because he sailed past it on a Sunday, deeming it too small to be worth stopping.

If Columbus were to sail today, I wonder if he would still make the same decisions?