Before I arrived, I had no idea where Dominica was. For years this tiny West Indies nation, with a population of just over 72,000, has flown under the radar. A Google search showed it sits between Martinique and Guadeloupe and bills itself as the Nature Island, which is fair considering there are eight active volcanoes, 365 rivers, countless waterfalls, 300-miles of hiking trails, bubbling natural hot springs and a 200-foot-wide “boiling lake” on its 289 square miles.
I thought about all this on the two-hour drive from Douglas Charles Airport to my hotel – the journey was a Jurassic Park-like thrill ride. I took my mind off the steep ascents and hairpin turns by focusing on the riot of vegetation we passed: jungle vines dangling like tentacles, gommier or “gummy gum” trees towering 10-storeys high, ginger lilies, orchids, heliconias, and the bright scarlet blooms of the Bwa Kwaib, the national flower.
I was staying at Coulibri Ridge, an off-grid luxury resort run by Montreal couple Daniel Langlois and Dominique Marchand. Built entirely of volcanic stone, it stands like a sturdy sentinel on one of the many mountainous peaks of Dominica – pronounced “Dom-i-NEE-kah” – by far, the prettiest island I have ever seen.
Langlois and Marchand realized on their first visit to Dominica in 1997 that the island, almost two-thirds of which is rainforest, had exactly what they needed to be able to harness enough sun and wind to support a 14-suite “community” – they prefer that word to resort – “of solar-sharing buildings that sustain one another.”
They’ve spent the past two decades researching, designing and building the resort, overcoming hurricane damage and pandemic delays.
If you think sustainability means sacrificing creature comforts, the 285-acre Coulibri Ridge will prove you wrong. Suites here – studios, lofts and one-bedroom penthouses – are elegant and comfortable. The décor is West Indies meets Scandinavia, with bold colours and sleek furniture made from recycled teak.
I had a penthouse, in one of five three-storey buildings, with a kitchen, two terraces, an outdoor shower, living room, dining room and on top, a spacious bedroom and ensuite bathroom.
What is most fascinating about Coulibri, however, is what you can’t see. Langlois took us on a tour of his “utility room” – a long hall with a trio of mini-grids, each with 288 recyclable non-lithium batteries that capture the sunlight and produce enough power to run the resort with its two restaurants, two kitchens, spa, gym, yoga pavilion and conference rooms. (Two bird-friendly wind turbines also help.)
Underground there is a labyrinth of tunnels that direct rainwater – from specially designed roofs – to cisterns that hold up to 200,000 gallons of filtered, chemical-free drinking water.
A connection to nature is ingrained in the Dominica lifestyle, which has a strong culture of farming and fishing. The meals on offer at Coulibri (which means hummingbird in French) are exceptional and feature produce from the property’s orchards where cacao, avocado, mango, passion fruit, breadfruit, jelly coconut, plantain, soursop, banana and guava trees flourish on land that is “mowed” by eight cows. There is also a hydroponic greenhouse in the works which will supply vegetables that are difficult to get on the island, such as different types of lettuce and peppers.
To cut down on food waste, guests at Coulibri are given the evening’s menu early in the day and are asked to make their dinner choices. Some of the most memorable dishes were Coconut Curry Lobster in Banana Leaf, a Chicken Roulade with sautéed cabbage, a Lentil Dahl (with the most amazing pumpkin fritters) and homemade Guava sorbet with a chili pineapple compote.
Despite the luxe atmosphere of Coulibri, this is not the island for people whose idea of a Caribbean hike is the trek from their hotel room to the beach. In fact, there are very few beaches here.
Dominica is an island defined by natural extremes, which makes it ideal for adventurers who can take advantage of challenging hiking trails, explore its giant waterfalls, snorkel at Champagne Reef (named for the champagne-like bubbles that float on its surface from underwater fissures), scuba dive in underwater volcanoes or try the sea-kayaking trail that explores the length of the island’s coastline.
Everywhere you visit on this island there are examples of the geothermal activity bubbling away below its surface, including the Boiling Lake, so-named because a vent in the earth’s surface has pushed out volcanic steam and water. It is the second-largest hot lake in the world (along its edges the temperature ranges from 82 to 91.5 Celsius) after Frying Pan Lake, near Rotorua, New Zealand.
But you will also find rocky valleys punctuated by the eruption of mini-geysers, geothermic rock pools that belch forth sulphurous fumes in the heart of the rainforest and bubbling natural hot springs. One afternoon, we visited the Ti Kwen Glo Cho Hot Baths, where we steeped in two great stone pools of thermal water, surrounded by rainforest.
After that excursion, we were all grateful to come back to the resort, wash off the rust-coloured film on our skin from the thermal water in our outdoor showers, and have a treatment at the spa. I opted for a facial, then had a soak in a tiny pool on the spa terrace, overlooking mountains and the lush Soufriere Valley below.
So far Dominica has avoided the rampant development that has blighted so much of the Caribbean but – with the steady stream of endorsements beginning to come its way – those days are likely numbered. Travel & Leisure magazine, Lonely Planet and Time have all recently named Dominica one of the top places to visit in 2023.
Coulibri Ridge’s owners have one wish. They built their retreat to showcase the possibilities for self-sustaining communities in Dominica and around the world. “We really hope our guests walk away with an awareness of how they can incorporate sustainable practices into their everyday lives,” Langlois says.
I think it rubbed off. One of the first things I did when I returned home was look up the cost of motion-activated lights and faucets which I had discovered in my suite.
- Rooms at Coulibri Ridge start at US$700 a night. American Airlines offers non-stop service to Dominica from Miami, depending on the season. coulibriridge.com
The writer travelled as a guest of Coulibri Ridge. It did not review or approve the story before publication.