The first lesson I learned upon landing in Dominica last month came from the group of Germans sharing my shuttle to the new Cabrits Resort & Spa Kempinski Dominica, newly opened in October 2019 on the island’s northwest coast.
After flying long haul across the Atlantic (and admittedly enjoying perhaps one too many rums during an extended airport layover in St. Martin), the women were leaning heavily into the winding turns in the darkness as our van made the roughly hour-long drive from Douglas Charles Airport on the east coast of the island through its serpentine, mountainous middle.
Note to self, I thought—wait till you arrive at your hotel to enjoy that Caribbean welcome drink. Getting around Dominica is rarely a straight shot, and all the more of a hardship with a head buzz. But staying sober for the ride wasn’t my main takeaway from the women.
“Look at the moon reflecting on the ocean, how beautiful,” gasped one through the jetlag that was surely setting in under the cover of Caribbean darkness. “Banana trees,” exclaimed another, with the same enthusiasm as I’d have for, say, a redwood or aspen tree.
As a Floridian with the Caribbean more or less in my backyard and ocean all around when I’m home, I guess I’ve grown accustomed to paradise views. But already, seeing Dominica’s inky outlines in the darkness through the eyes of others had me full of giddy anticipation at what daylight would bring.
Located smack between the French Antilles islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Eastern Caribbean, English-speaking Dominica took a walloping blow from Hurricane Maria in 2017. It was the worst recorded storm ever to hit the island, and the devastation was profound and wide spread, closing hotels (some of which have only recently reopened) and uprooting residents from their homes and livelihoods across the island.
So, as I sped along the coastline the next morning from Roseau, Dominica’s colorful capital, on a dive boat with Creole Divers Dominica, it was amazing to see the mountainsides thick and lush with foliage.
“After the hurricane, all of the leaves were gone from the trees,” Harry Dresens, originally from Holland, told me. “It was amazing how quickly it grew back.” Hurricane Maria left the local dive industry mostly sunk, though, with shops and boats decimated after the storm, along with many of the hotels. Eager to get back in the water to dive and with an eye on helping locals rebuild, too, Dresens and his Dutch wife, Pamela Van Drie, decided to launch a small dive business with a local Dominican dive master, Gus Bernard, who was captaining our boat this day.
Once Gus and I had strapped on our tanks and let the air out of our BCDs to descend under the water’s surface, I could see broken corals along the top of the reef. But as I tagged along behind him further down the wall, the views were pristine and undamaged—waving sea fans and barrel sponges big enough to stick your head inside, and eels, lobster crabs and snapper peeking back at me at every turn.
Nature is everywhere on Dominica, it turns out. And with 365 rivers (one for every day of the year, the tourism board loves to proclaim!), rushing waterfalls and a 114-mile-long hiking trail (the Waitukubuli National Trail) that stretches the island’s full length, Dominica more than earns its self-appointed moniker as the Nature Island.
I admittedly didn’t have much time to check out all the island offers during my short visit to see the Cabrits Resort & Spa Kempinski Dominica and the level of luxury it’s bringing to the table as the island’s first true five-star hotel. And while the resort won’t appeal to every kind of guest, it’s a game changer on the jetset front for an island long considered the Caribbean’s best-kept secret.
The 151-room property sits right next to the forested headland home to Cabrits National Park and overlooks a long, if narrow, sliver of black sand beach at Douglas Bay. There was no shortage of controversy when Kempinski announced plans to open in this pristine, undeveloped spot along the coast, my taxi driver, who spent several years working as a park ranger, told me. But even he had to admit that the hotel’s design interfaced well with the surrounding nature.
My first thought upon entering into the airy lobby, with its floor-to-ceiling windows spotlighting the sea, was that it felt very nearly Bali-esque, with a lovely sense of the outdoors and incredible sea views streaming in. My new German friends, however, told me they felt the design—modern and clean lined, with lots of light woods and stone elements—was very much in keeping with the overall Kempinski feel.
Most Americans may not be familiar with the German-owned brand, but Kempinski hotels are a fixture across Europe, Africa and Asia. The only other Kempinski property in the Caribbean, however, is the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana in Cuba’s capital (Kempinski plans to open another property on Cayo Guillermo in Cuba in 2020).
The rooms, suites and duplexes are spread across several ocean-facing buildings, angled for both privacy and to maximize views. My room had typical luxury hotel comforts like an espresso maker, large soaking tub, a shower bigger than some Manhattan kitchens (with dual shower heads) and a balcony with comfortable chairs overlooking the property’s enormous centerpiece pool.
The decor could be termed Caribbean-chic, with the perfect mix of muted and colorful tones, streamlined furnishings and large sliding glass doors to bring the views right in.
The Kempinski went all out on its pools, which include a lap pool, the main pool with a swim-up bar, spa pool and an adults-only pool. I presumed it was because Dominica is not exactly known for having fabulous beaches along its rocky and often rough coastline, and the stretch where the hotel sits is no exception. That said, the Kempinski’s small beach is totally swimmable. Once you get past the rather rocky shore, the seafloor beyond is sandy and soft and the water clear and inviting.
Soon, a watersports outfit will open at the property and offer things like snorkeling and diving excursions, SUP and other water sports from the hotel’s dock. I liked learning that the resort didn’t truck in sand from elsewhere to make a fake beach here due to environmental concerns. And if you’re wondering what the large statues of frogs around the property are, they reference a native Dominican toad, the crapaud.
Your dining options at the hotel are limited in number (three) but varied and delicious in variety of foods. Not usually a buffet girl, I gravitated toward the gourmet one at Cabrits Market, which had a grilling station featuring fresh seafood and meats, tasty salads and island fruits and fresh cheeses and charcuterie, too. Kwéyòl Beach Cafe, between the pool and the beach, offers alfresco and covered spaces where you can dine a la carte on things like Dominican Freshwater Shrimp Salad, Accras de morue (Caribbean fish fritters), club sandwiches, burgers and the like.
I didn’t get to try the Pan-Asian restaurant, Bonsai, which will open in 2020 in a pretty, air-conditioned space near the buffet.
During my visit, our nights always ended with a night cap or three at RumFire Bar, which has a cozy fire pit facing the ocean and an even more-warming wall of spirits (they dub it the “barmacy”) where you can sample the island’s famed local bush rums—alcohol spiked with fruits and herbs of Dominica that include cinnamon, guava, mango, starfruit and much more. And all the better that each beverage deems to have a curative quality.
Still putting on the finishing touches during my visit, Kempinski The Spa promises to be the finest on the island, with a handful of private bungalow-style treatment rooms that look like tree houses and are accessed by boardwalks overlooking the dedicated spa pool. My therapist, Maggie, was from Indonesia and had previously worked at a Kempinski property in the Seychelles. After an hour at the mercy of her magic fingers, I decided that Maggie alone would be worth traveling back to the Kempinski for.
I’d clearly been swept away by all of the hotel’s creature comforts, and who could blame me? The place is decadent. The hotel is so big on pampering and airy aesthetics, in fact, it can be tempting never to leave it and just succumb to the sea breezes and indoor-outdoor good life (always the danger of a luxury property).
But Dominica is one island that you definitely want to venture out into and explore—even if only to out to snorkel Champagne Reef (where air bubbles effervesce up from volcanic vents), dive arguably the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean or see one of those 365 wild and wonderful rivers (boat rides along the Indian River, just south of the hotel, are not to be missed and can be arranged by the concierge).
For one of my last sunsets in Dominica, I strode past the Kempinski’s gorgeous main pool, waved to the folks enjoying cocktails at the swim-up bar and plunged headfirst into the calm sea. When I surfaced and turned to look back toward the black sand beach, an end-to-end rainbow was framing the crinkly, emerald mountains beyond it and stretching nearly the length of the hotel.
I took it as an invitation to come back to Dominica to see how nature continues to recover and reclaim her rightful place on the Nature Island.