Dominica has avoided the rampant development which has blighted the Caribbean, writes Elizabeth Day
The black-blue sky is studded with flickering pinpricks of light. High above, I can make out a fragile sliver of moon and the starry cloudiness of the Milky Way. Tall trees stretch up into the night, their leaves woven into a dense mesh of shadowy green. There is the sound of running water from the river below and a constant chirruping of crickets. The air smells thickly of cinnamon.
I am walking through a rainforest in the dead of night, attempting gingerly to weave my way between the pitted tree trunks. Fred, the 72-year-old owner of the Shangri-la eco-tourism resort where I am staying, has given me sketchy directions and a rechargeable flashlight. Its faint bulb casts a washed-out yellow pall over the rubbled earth and creeping vines.
I eventually reach my destination: a stone hot tub built into the side of the slope. Steam rises off the surface. Fred has told me I must lie here for several minutes to warm up my muscles in preparation for my massage, which will take place in a wooden tree-hut overlooking the swollen river.
It is while I am lying back in the hot tub, looking up at the darkness, that the rain starts. I can hear it rather than feel it: a sound like the gentle tapping of fingertips against a taut drum.
The small Caribbean island of Dominica is full of such surreal experiences. It is a place defined by its natural extremes. Here you will find lakes filled with boiling water and rocky valleys punctuated by the eruption of mini-geysers.
There are geothermic rock pools that belch sulphurous fumes in the heart of the rainforest. Black sand beaches lie smudged along the coastline in long charcoal sweeps and there are sheer cliffs, steep hills and giant waterfalls.
Everywhere there is a verdant lushness, a windblown beauty that lies almost untouched, as if standing at the very edge of time. Because, while Dominica might possess many astonishing attractions, it lacks the one thing you might expect — tourists.
For decades, Dominica's terrain has proved too tough for all but the most persistent developers to build on. When, after stumbling across the island in 1493, Christopher Columbus was asked to describe the territory by the king and queen of Spain, he is said to have crumpled up a piece of paper and thrown it in front of them, announcing: "That is Dominica."
More than 500 years later, and following occupations by the Spanish, French and British, it remains an island of 72,000 inhabitants and has none of the excess associated with neighbours such as Barbados or Antigua.
As a consequence, there is very little crime and independently minded travellers can feel as if they are forging their own path of discovery.
Over recent years, Dominica has turned this isolation to its advantage, promoting itself as the Caribbean "nature isle" in a bid to attract a new generation of eco-tourists with energy — rather than carbon — to burn.
This is not a destination for sun-lounging. Instead, visitors are encouraged to make the most of the stunning natural scenery and unspoilt hiking routes.
The Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a scenic tropical forest that clings to the remains of a volcano, was designated a Unesco World Heritage site in 1997 and there are regular whale-watching and scuba-diving excursions.
I get my first glimpse of Dominica's rugged charm on the juddering half-hour flight from Antigua. As we fly over the translucent blue of the ocean, the minute aeroplane rapidly banks to the left and we find ourselves in a deep valley with vertiginous green slopes on either side. The plane's windows are almost level with the treetops. For a moment, it feels as if we are going to crashland in the rainforest but then, suddenly, the runway appears.
Corrugated iron shacks, painted in bright pinks and purples, whiz past the windows.
In the mountainous regions, the island gets up to 6m of rainfall a year. When we reach the Papillote Wilderness Retreat, I am greeted by a warm shower, in much the same way as I imagine tourists are welcomed with a garland of flowers when they touch down in Hawaii.
It has its benefits — at Papillote, one of the main attractions is an astonishing garden that houses a world-class collection of rare orchids, pink ginger blossoms and flowering jade vines.
Papillote provides comfortable, clean, simple accommodation: the rooms have varnished wooden floorboards and hot water is provided by the geothermic springs. The restaurant, with dramatic views over the misty valley beneath, serves delicious Creole dishes — tuna with papaya salad and a thick, spinachy soup made from the leaves of the local taro.
In the mornings, you can get a cup of strong Dominican coffee with a plate of fresh fruit to fortify you for the 15-minute trek to nearby Trafalgar Falls, a pair of thundering 38m-high waterfalls.
For those wishing to get even further away from it all, the Rainforest Shangri-la Resort in Wotten Waven provides almost total seclusion. My room is a bamboo cabin set deep in thickets of 6m-high sugar cane, with a hammock on the verandah and an outside shower.
There are no windows, so at night I fall asleep to the sounds of rainfall and an omnipresent wind-chime. Fred Phillips, the American owner, built the resort almost single-handedly and without cutting down a single tree — most of the wood used is red cedar, felled by natural storms in his home state of Tennessee and imported.
For breakfast, you can order eggs that have been hard-boiled in the property's steam geyser and Fred swears that, since drinking the local spring water, his hair has grown darker and his bald patch has gone. The island's laid-back capital, Roseau, provides a charming contrast to the hiking and rainfall. On the coast, it is framed by high mountains rising out of the water. The narrow streets are lined with brightly painted buildings and record shops that pump out a constant stream of reggae.
I made my way to the eastern side of the island, home to eight villages that make up the Carib Territory. The site was set aside for the native Carib Indians by the British in 1903. Only about 2200 Caribs remain after centuries of brutal treatment at the hands of occupying forces. One Carib I met showed me a clifftop from which several hundred of his ancestors threw themselves into the wild waters below to escape being taken as slaves by the Spanish in the 16th century.
Despite its violent history, the Carib Territory is one of the most beautiful spots on the island. Here you will find rugged coastlines with trees swept back by the battering wind and translucent waterfalls sliding over smooth, flat stones into the sea below.
At the nearby Jungle Bay Resort and Spa, the local produce is used to create delicious meals. The resort is a striking place. Each room is designed as a treehouse, built on tall stilts into the mountainside and overlooking the Atlantic ocean. There are several thoughtful touches: the soap in the semi-outdoor showers is biodegradable and guests are each given a re-usable water bottle to cut down on waste.
Residents can make the most of a daily programme of activities including hiking, Caribbean cookery lessons and early morning yoga lessons.
While I am at Jungle Bay, I am taken to a place called Emerald Pool by a local guide called Moses jnr, who has long dreadlocks and an easy smile.
We walk down a winding track, far into the depths of the rainforest, until the trees thin out and we find ourselves in a clearing with a pool of shining water at our feet. There is a waterfall that seems to splash down directly from the sky. We strip down to our swimming costumes and dive in.
The water is cool but soft and, after a while, I turn over to float on my back, looking up at nothing but leaves and shafts of sunlight.
Moses looks at me and grins.
"You could say that there is no one on this island apart from you and me," he says. Here, without a soul to disturb us, I know exactly what he means.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies up to five return services between Auckland and Houston per week. Regional carriers connect to the Caribbean.
Further information: See discoverdominica.com.