Almost one-third of the island has been set aside as nature reserves.
We arrived in the late afternoon, with sufficient daylight to see why Dominica styles itself the “Nature Island.” Volcanic in origin, it does not have the white beaches to be found elsewhere in the region. This has spared it the heedless development that has marred some of its neighbors. What Dominica does have are impressive peaks, some of them 5,000 feet high; a dozen spectacular waterfalls; and dense tropical rain forests that allow more than 1,000 species of plants and 172 species of birds to flourish. Almost one-third of the island has been set aside as nature reserves.
Because of the challenging terrain, roads pretty much have to run around the coast. From a map, I would have thought that the ride from the airport to our hotel would have been about 20 minutes, but given all the twists and turns, it took well over an hour. This gave us the chance to chat with our driver, who exhibited both considerable satisfaction that we had made our way to his homeland and optimism about its future.
Part of that bright future will doubtless include the debuts of more adventure hotels, as well as luxurious eco-resorts. We had come to stay at Secret Bay, the first truly upscale property on the island. Gregor Nassief, a man with strong roots on Dominica and an appreciation of its potential (backed by a successful business career in Latin America), discovered an ideal spot for development — a dramatic promontory on the island’s northwest coast situated between two beaches. To realize his vision, he turned to the distinguished Venezuelan architect Fruto Vivas, who also happens to be his father-in-law. The results are stunning: three one-bedroom clifftop villas; one two-bedroom villa; and two hillside villas. All have been executed with superb craftsmanship that brings to mind the best resorts in Southeast Asia.
Without question, the most desirable are the clifftop Zabuco Villas. At 110 feet above the sea, their location alone would set them apart, but the architecture is breathtaking. Supported by four concrete pedestals of sculptural grace, the upper level seems to defy gravity and to float above the ground. Open and pavilion-like, with floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room, the 1,400-square-foot space includes a sea-facing deck, a kitchen fully equipped with German appliances (including a wine fridge), and a combined bed and bath, the latter with Italian fixtures, a freestanding tub and a shower with six heads. On the ground level, there is a plunge pool and a hammock. The beauty of the materials impressed me greatly — warm Guyana greenheart and glowing furniture crafted from Dominican red cedar.
Part of that bright future will doubtless include the debuts of more adventure hotels, as well as luxurious eco-resorts.
“Zing-Zing,” the two-bedroom villa, is done in much the same style, although the view is less impressive and there is a hot tub instead of a pool. The hillside villas are duplexes, each with a kitchen, living area and deck downstairs, and a bedroom and separate bath upstairs, reached via a spiral staircase. Lovely as they are, they suffer in comparison with the Zabuco Villas.
Well in advance of our arrival, the hotel had sent a questionnaire asking about culinary preferences, drink choices and groceries we might want stocked in the kitchen. All were waiting for us. There is no dining room or restaurant at Secret Bay; instead, there is a dedicated cooking facility, where meals are prepared at your direction and brought to your villa by a staff member. For both lunch and dinner, we were given an array of choices. The food was delicious, among the best we’ve had in the Caribbean, and the knock at the door at mealtimes triggered a Pavlovian response of happy anticipation. Among the memorable dishes were grilled tuna steaks with a rich Creole sauce; crisp, puffy vegetable samosas; and an island favorite of mine, goat curry over rice.
The unfailingly helpful staff advised us on hiking, snorkeling and kayaking. We especially enjoyed a visit to the double cascade of Trafalgar Falls, followed by snorkeling at Champagne Beach, so named for the geothermal gas that bubbles up from the reef.
Dominica is an intriguing alternative to the more developed islands. Beach options are limited, but if you are energetic, there are innumerable activities and excursions. And for the more sedentary, there is always a plunge pool and a sublime view.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Superb accommodations; excellent food; the sense of being in a world of your own.
DISLIKE: The most accessible beach is rocky and uninviting.
GOOD TO KNOW: Private chefs can be engaged to cook in your villa, and cookery classes that showcase traditional Dominican cuisine are offered.
Secret Bay 92 Two-bedroom Villa, $930 (winter high season); Zabuco villa, $1,057. Ross Boulevard, Dominica. Tel. (767) 445-4444.