As journeys go, this one didn't have the most promising beginning. Starting with a wake-up call at an ungodly hour to make my very early morning flight, it continued with a taxi driver who arrived 20 minutes ahead of schedule and then seemed miffed that I wasn't quite ready. The climax came at the airport, when the ticket agent at the U.S. Airways counter asked me how I wanted to pay for my bag.
I explained that I was flying international and didn't need to pay for my bag, to which he replied, "U.S. Air doesn't consider the Caribbean international. May I see your passport, please?"
Um, OK. (U.S. Air also doesn't consider Canada, Latin America, Bermuda or South America, except Brazil, to be international either, according to USairways.com.)
The bright spot was my final destination: the beautiful island of Dominica. Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, Dominica (pronounced DOM-i-NEE-ka) lies between the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe in the southern Caribbean.
Of the 103 countries I have visited, this is one of the most beautiful.
It has frequently been said that if Christopher Columbus, who first sighted it in 1493, were to return to the Caribbean today, Dominica is the only island he would recognize.
Dubbed "the Nature Island," it has an abundance of natural riches: two coasts (Atlantic and Caribbean), six major mountains (the highest, Mont Diablotins, is 4,747 feet), 16 waterfalls, the world's second-largest boiling lake (the largest is in New Zealand), a virtually untouched interior rainforest, and three national parks (one of which, Morne Trois Pitons, is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Caribbean).
If Antigua boasts 365 beaches, Dominica counters with 365 rivers. No other island, however, can claim a snorkeling spot like Dominica's Champagne Beach, where, because of activity from volcano-like fumaroles, bubbles spiral toward the surface, giving one the feeling of swimming in a flute of Perrier-Jouët.
Of course, there's also a lot Dominica doesn't have: sprawling, all-inclusive resorts, casinos and the surly attitude often found elsewhere in the Caribbean. There are no people following you around braiding your hair as you attempt to wave them off, and no aggressive hawkers trying to sell you sodas or ankle bracelets, although there is a gent who stands by the roadside and will allow you to snap a picture of the boa constrictor draped around his neck for a small fee.
In many respects, Dominica is the "un-Caribbean Caribbean."
Trail across the island
Dominica remains relatively unknown to most Americans, but it has long been on the radar of serious hikers, thanks to its most unusual national park, Waitukubuli National Trail. The 115-mile trail, divided into 14 segments, crisscrosses the entire island, from Soufrière on the southern coast to Cabrits in the northeast.
Lest anyone get the idea that he or she can knock off several of these trails in a day, allow me to quash that notion. I pride myself on being a competent hiker, but I quickly discovered that I wasn't ready for Segment 4 of the trail, which ends at the Boiling Lake and takes a grueling six hours to complete (most of it a strenuous mountain climb.)
Still, I wasn't giving up without a fight. Jenner Robinson, owner of Smart Excursions, my guide for the five days that I was on the island, suggested we try a portion of the more moderate Segment 5 instead.
We started off from the Emerald Pool, deep in the rainforest and one of the island's famed beauty spots. As I picked my way carefully across lichen-covered boulders in mountain streams and up hills dense with vegetation, I thought I might not have seen the Boiling Lake, but I did see what makes this trail so special.
(FYI: For physically fit recreational hikers, one segment a day is suggested, and no matter what your skill level is, it's always recommended that you be accompanied by a guide.)
Soar above the rainforest
If you're not a hiker, don't fret. The island is full of incredible scenery. For starters, a 20-minute walk will take you to Trafalgar Falls: two impressive falls that plunge 200 feet into a pool surrounded by lush vegetation.
A short distance from the falls, you can board the Rainforest Aerial Tram, a 90-minute gondola ride that ascends through and above the rainforest canopy. As I inched up the mountainside, enveloped by towering palms, spreading ferns, giant elephant ears and colorful bromeliads, I heard the melodious trilling of the mountain whistler, a tiny bird with a big voice, and one of the 170 species found on the island.
After the tram ride and hike to Trafalgar Falls, I was ready for a lunch of grilled chicken washed down by the local beer, Kubuli, at the Papillote Wilderness Retreat, which, hidden as it is in the rainforest, certainly lives up to its name.
Next came a leisurely soak in the pools at Screw's Sulphur Spa. The five interconnecting hot and cold pools — I could swim from one to the next under a series of bridges and arches — are surrounded by the rainforest canopy.
The beauty of the spot is surreal (the final pool overlooks a jungle river), and there's no trace of the smell of sulphur.
Another idyllic spot is the Indian River. Hire a boatman to guide you through a veritable jungle of rare orchids and exotic ferns, where you can spot giant land crabs lurking under the bankside vegetation.
Just when I thought I was hopelessly lost in a tangle of green vines and murky brown water, my boatman pulled up at the Indian River Bush Bar and asked if I'd like a local rum concoction called "the dynamite" to help fuel my return trip.
Visitors can learn a bit of the island's history at the nearby restored Fort Shirley, in the Cabrits National Park. The British built the garrison on a hill overlooking picturesque Prince Rupert Bay as a means of protection, primarily from the French who were in control of the islands surrounding Dominica.
Within the park grounds, former military roads make up part of Segment 14 of the Waitukubuli Trail.
For more of the island's history, spend a few hours in Carib Territory at the Kalinago Barana Aute Heritage Site. The Carib Indians, or Kalinago as they prefer to be called, came to the island after a migration that anthropologists think took them from the Asian steppes across the North American continent to the Caribbean.
Here, they have established a cultural center in a breathtaking setting atop the rugged cliffs overlooking the Atlantic.
On my way to the airport, after five days of whale watching, hiking, waterfall viewing and generally reveling in some of the most beautiful, unspoiled scenery I've ever seen anywhere, Robinson, my guide, said he hoped I'd enjoyed my time on the island.
"Next time, you should go to Calibishie in the northeast," he said. "Now that's where the real scenery is."