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Dominica
An Eastern Caribbean island the size of Manhattan, Dominica’s volcanic peaks are veiled by pristine cloud forests and sweep down to bright, warm seas with healthy reefs: one of the world's best whale watching destinations. This forbidding geography slowed the roll of French and British colonizers, allowing the indigenous Kalinago people and escaped slaves (maroons) to set the pace. The result: a welcoming Caribbean Creole culture that hasn't succumbed to mass tourism yet. Go soon, while the spectacular trails, dive sites, and waterfall grottos of Dominica ("Dom-in-EEK-a") remain uncrowded!
The tropical climate doesn't waver much, averaging a balmy 75°F (24°C) in winter and a steamier 86°F (30°C) come summer. Mist and rain keep the island lush year-round, especially at higher, cooler elevations. Dominica tends to be driest and sunniest from mid-December to mid-April, so expect peak prices and crowds then. Many businesses shut down during September and October, when hurricanes are most likely to hit. February brings Caribbean Carnival intensity, while the World Creole Music Festival keeps things bustling in late October.
Most international travelers fly into Douglas-Charles Airport (DOM) via Liat, Winair, or Seaborne services from other islands. The airport has an ATM and a taxi rank with clearly marked and regulated prices. To travel by sea, L'Express des Iles zips high-speed ferries between Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, and Saint Lucia. Buses run throughout Dominica, but in a rather improvised fashion without terminals or schedules: Vehicles just circle until they fill. Car rentals are an option for bold souls who don't mind navigating fast traffic on steep, winding roads—all while driving on the left. Buy a $12 temporary license.
Nature takes the center stage here. Tropical rain forests swathe the island's mountainous heart, an ideal spot to bird-watch or tackle the Waitukubuli Trail, which runs 115 miles north to south. Water babies can splash in jungle grottos like the Emerald Pool and plunge into an ocean-flooded volcano crater that still bubbles at Champagne Reef. Afterwards, simmer in a hot spring at Screw's Sulfur Spa. Dominca's also the most reliable place in the world to spot sperm whales.
Dominicans take great pride and pleasure in their cuisine, which centers around fresh, organic ingredients. Expect plentiful vegetables and seasonings, and very well-cooked meat (a holdover from the pre-refrigeration era). Fish and chicken dominate lunch, the main meal, along with "provisions" like boiled yam, taro, or sweet potatoes, sometimes livened by plantains and breadfruit. Menu highlights include crab backs, curried goat, and chatou water (octopus soup). Vegetarians will thrive on dishes like rice and peas, and callaloo (taro leaf) soup. Wash it all down with fruit juice, coconut water, or sorrel (hibiscus tea), plus local rum and Kubuli beer.
First settled by the Kalinago people, Dominica received its modern name—meaning "Sunday Island"—from Christopher Columbus. It evaded colonization for the next 270 years, thanks to its rugged, rain forested mountains, which acted like citadels for the indigenous Kalinago as well as for African slaves who had escaped from European settlements and neighboring islands. French and British occupations further spiced the mix. The official language is English, though French and local Creole dialects are also spoken. Enjoying nature takes center stage here, from beach sunbathing to epic diving to the Caribbean's first long-distance hiking trail. But don't miss historical sites like Cabrits National Park and the indigenous interpretive center, Kalinago Barana Autè. The island's main festival is Mas Domnik (Carnival) in February.
Warm, welcoming and generally uncrowded, Dominica is a great destination for children, unlike some of its glitzier, hard-partying Caribbean counterparts. "Go play outside" is the order of the day here. Head to the west coast beaches for safer, sheltered swimming (Purple Turtle and Douglas Bay tend to be family favorites). Stretch short legs on hikes like the Syndicate Nature Trail and Cabrits National Park paths, then swim below a jungle waterfall at the Emerald Pool. And don't miss the chance to see sperm whales and 13 other marine mammal species!
Dominica has a flair for "bush rum"—infusions ranging from chili, coco, and cinnamon to more zany options like beet or turtle penis. Some under-the-counter concoctions even feature ganja. Take home a bottle of BB, rumored to be an aphrodisiac, or Rum Dogs, aged in charred oak barrels submerged in the sea. All health care costs on the island must be paid up front, so make sure to invest in travel insurance, especially if you're diving, hiking, or tackling more extreme outdoor adventures. For less acute ailments, such as jet lag and traveler's tummy, explore the island's rich tradition of herbal remedies.
Discover Dominica: http://www.dominica.dm

Dominica Traveller magazine (helmed by Paul Crask, author of the island's only standalone guidebook, by Bradt): http://www.dominicatraveller.com

Superstar Dominica historian and politician Lennox Honychurch's website: http://lennoxhonychurch.com/
Amanda Castleman

Travel writer and photographer Amanda Castleman lived in Europe and the Middle East for eight years before returning to her home port of Seattle. Despite her yoga-and-yogurt tendencies, she's a former wilderness guide who's happiest covering nature, animals, and outdoor adventures. Her Honduras scuba article won a Lowell Thomas award (travel writing's ersatz Pulitzer). A renowned journalism instructor since 2003, Castleman still teaches an annual Travel Writing Master Class online and a week-long workshop in Rome each spring. Bring her an apple and she'll reveal the best espresso in the Eternal City...