Flying down to the small Caribbean nation of Dominica, I see at once why the place markets itself as the Nature Island. Beneath me, the 4,000-foot mountains are verdant and craggy, the near-vertical slopes dotted with trees and crowned with mist. The plane circles, and I glimpse a few of the 365 rivers that flow through the rain forest that blankets two-thirds of the island. And then we start to drop, rapidly. The plane sweeps and cuts, kamikaze-style, through clouds and between looming rock faces—how else are you going to land on the Caribbean’s most mountainous island?We corkscrew madly, wings rattling, then we skid to a halt on a short runway, and I have arrived in what promises to be a natural paradise.
At the 3 Rivers Eco Lodge, a sustainable hotel-encampment consisting of four cottages on a terraced hillside, the water is heated with solar power, the soap is locally made and biodegradable, and many of the toilets are self-composting. Owner Jem Winston is a Brit and self-proclaimed "hippie backpacker," and he leads me up a hill, past a swimming hole, and into the woods, where he shows me a giant, guest-ready tree fort. "I didn’t cut down a single tree to build it," he assures me proudly. "We used nothing but dead, fallen timber."
I am beginning to understand why the 29-mile-long Dominica is, with New Zealand, one of only two nations to have "benchmark" status with Green Globe, an Australian NGO that sets stringent ecotourism standards. The environment—and environmental politics—are front and center here, and most places I visit on the island have a homegrown, unvarnished quality.
Right now, Dominica’s tourism industry is nascent, bringing in just $60 million annually, compared with nearby St. Lucia’s $290 million. There are no chain hotels here, and the infrastructure tends to be basic. Nevertheless, nearly 300,000 cruise ship passengers visited Dominica last year, and its minister of tourism, Yvor Nassief, is working hard to draw more high-end visitors. Dominica recently deepened its port, making it navigable for the cruise industry’s new jumbo liners. The country also just spent more than $30 million to illuminate and expand its airport, and by next spring planes will be able to arrive at night, allowing both U.S. and European travelers to bypass a long-standing hassle: the need to overnight in San Juan. All this development means that Dominica—up to now a destination mainly for the backpack-toting adventurer—is suddenly facing a conundrum, shared by many small islands: how to remain authentic as it endeavors to build its economy and become an ecotourism magnet.
The next day, I take a difficult hike up to Boiling Lake, which steams and bubbles with volcanic activity. The landscape is lush and otherworldly—untouched. The traffic is scant on the absurdly steep, potholed road that takes me from the capital, Roseau, to a mile-long aerial tramway that climbs right into the clouds. I can see the rough ocean surf chopping at the shoreline below and I’m reminded that the island was a main location for the shooting of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies—a sign of things to come, perhaps.
Indeed, Nassief has of late been luring new foreign-owned hotels by offering tax holidays and the right to import duty-free construction materials. An American investor, Beverly Deikel, is building a $10 million property, Rosalie Bay Nature Resort, right on the beach, but at a strategic distance from what she hopes will be her hotel’s main attraction: a nesting colony of 800-pound leatherback turtles. Six Senses Resorts & Spas, a Bangkok-based chain, is also planning a beachfront luxury eco-resort.