- The Washington Times - Friday, March 23, 2007

VALLEY OF DESOLATION, Dominica — 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, 200 feet 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 rain forest 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 much in Dominica, the journey takes effort, but it’s worth it.

This jagged, densely forested island, about 29 miles long and 16 miles wide, is between Guadeloupe and Martinique in the eastern Caribbean, 375 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.

Visitors will find exceptionally friendly people, all-but-deserted black-sand beaches and a mountainous interior of dense rain forest, 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,” says Jem Winston, an enthusiastic Englishman who runs 3 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 3 Rivers, the rough-and-ready resort Mr. Winston has carved out of a former banana plantation. He fell in love with Dominica years ago as a young backpacker and worked as a taxi driver in England to raise the money to buy his piece of the island. Opened four years ago, 3 Rivers has four simple wood chalets with beds and mosquito nets, kitchen and bathroom. Each has a balcony — with hammock — overlooking lush 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 Mr. 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 also can take the locally made biodegradable soap provided down to an idyllic swimming hole in one of the site’s eponymous three rivers.

The on-site 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,” Mr. Winston says. “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 17,000-acre 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 upward through the rain forest. 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 reportedly aphrodisiac bark — peeled and soaked in hot water — is known as “forest Viagra.”

The trail emerges into a clearing on a mountain ridge, more than 3,000 feet 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 by bright blue and milky white streams; and dotted with jets of sulfurous steam and hot water bubbling from the earth.

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

Dominica’s authorities have worked to ease the journey — the trail, though often steep and wet, is well maintained, with wooden steps in parts. A new picnic shelter has been built, from wood hauled up to the site by foot, just before the trail’s final section.

The return journey is easier, and our sense of triumph at having reached the lake was only slightly dampened by the rain that began as we arrived and continued for the next three hours.

Relief was at hand as we emerged, limping and wet, from the forest. At the trail head is Ti Tou Gorge, where a natural pool provides the chance for a revitalizing dip. After a short swim — against the current — through a narrow ravine, you emerge in a sun-dappled canyon where a waterfall plunges into a rock pool. We ended the day exhausted but refreshed.

The next day, we were ready for another hike, but shorter. Fortunately, the area around 3 Rivers offers many opportunities for walking, river swimming and exploring. Mr. Winston recommended a truly off-the-beaten-track destination, a secret beach just a 10-minute drive from 3 Rivers.

Getting there involves a walk through the woods followed by a descent off a 100-foot cliff face, aided only by a fixed rope and some sturdy tree roots. At the bottom is a deserted beach pummeled by a spectacular waterfall that arcs from the cliff top straight into the sea. It’s a stirring sight that offers the chance for a refreshing shower before tackling the climb back up the cliff.

Locals have received funding to replace the rope with a rope ladder that will make it slightly easier to reach this beautiful spot. Dominica is making some concessions to tourism, but don’t expect the luxury treatment just yet.

• • •

For information on Dominica, visit www.discoverdominica.com or call 888/645-5637. English is the official language, but the majority of the people speak Creole.

There are no direct flights to Dominica from the United States or Europe. Flights with connections on international and local carriers are available via Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, St. Lucia, Antigua, Barbados, Guadeloupe and Martinique. Dominica is served by American Airlines-American Eagle, Liat and Carib Aviation. Ferry operator Express des Iles connects Dominica’s capital with Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia.

The main roads in Dominica are generally good, but minor roads can be rough and wet. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended. Island Cars and Bonus rental agencies have desks at Melville Hall, the country’s main airport, and more car-rental agencies are based in Roseau.

For information on 3 Rivers, visit www.3riversdominica.com or call 767/446-1886. A cottage that sleeps up to three persons costs $77 per night. There also is space for camping, a dormitory and a bamboo treehouse that sleeps up to three.

A guide for hikes to Boiling Lake can be arranged by 3 Rivers; others are available in the nearest village, Laudat, about a 90-minute drive from the lodge.

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