One of the beautiful things about the Caribbean is how each island is so different from its relatively nearby neighbors. An hour boat ride or a 25-minute flight can transport you from the world of high-rise beachfront hotels, drunken nightlife and crowds of pink-skinned revelers to the complete opposite. That's exactly what happened to me when I traveled the short distance from the well-known island of Saint Maarten to the I-wasn't-sure-what-to-expect island of Dominica.

Encompassing only 290 square miles, and with only about 72,000 people, much of Dominica's mountainous terrain is a UNESCO-world heritage site, Morne Trois Pitons National Park. It's the youngest island of the Lesser Antilles. In fact, it's still being formed via nine active volcanoes and plenty of geothermal action, resulting in the world's second-largest hot spring, Boiling Lake (which literally bubbles like a pot of pasta water), and numerous natural hot springs throughout the island. Calling it pristine is not an overstatement: Plants and animals that are extinct on other Caribbean islands are still present in Dominica, and when you're hiking through the rain forest, it feels different — like you're in a place where humans are not dominant.

One of the many freshwater streams in Dominica, "the Nature Island." One of the many freshwater streams in Dominica, 'the Nature Island.' (Photo: Starre Vartan)

All the nature is good for people, too: Dominica is home to many extremely long-lived people (a high number of centarians) and the average — about three times more common than in developed countries — even though health care spending is less than 10 percent that of the United States.

That may be due to the clean and healthy water flowing from springs throughout the island, the relatively relaxed lifestyle, the close-knit communities, or the heavy use and knowledge (especially among the older generations) of herbal medicine on the island. Plant leaves and roots, and spices like cinnamon, noni, sorrel, guava and ginger are used regularly for a variety of common ailments. Among the handful of Dominican people I spent time with during my visit, from one of the last of the original AmerIndian people native to the Caribbean (more on them below) to a bay-extract farmer I met on a hike, to the shuttle driver who picked me up from the airport, Western medicine was secondary to what I'd call a "plants-first" health routine.

An aerial view of the Rosalie Bay Resort in Dominica. The low-impact Rosalie Bay Resort is thoughtfully placed between a freshwater river and the sea. (Photo: Courtesy Rosalie Bay Resort)

I learned about all of these tropical plants on an herbal medicine walk with the redoubtable Judy Joyce, the director of activities at Rosalie Bay Resort, an ethical retreat nestled in the rain forest on the Atlantic Ocean side of the island. Recognized by National Geographic as a Unique Lodge of the World for its beauty and sustainability efforts, the resort was an ideal home base for exploring the "The Nature Isle" of Dominica.

The nature trail at Rosalie Bay Resort was one of my favorite areas to bird-watch and listen. The easily walkable path takes visitors through the rain forest to the sea, and as you can see in the short video I made above, it was not only a lovely morning meditation walk, but an easily accessible way to showcase the variety of local plants. Joyce took me along this route and pointed out so many edible and medicinal plants I could barely keep track. It's also fun to see the many plants we keep indoors growing wild there — and the plants are so much larger than we're used to.

A wind turbine in the background and a river-water pool in the foreground at Rosalie Bay Resort The wind turbine is the first of its kind on Dominica, and pool is clean river water. (Photo: Courtesy Rosalie Bay Resort)

Rosalie Bay's owners, Minnesota-native Beverly Deikel and Dominican Patris Oscar, are leaders in ethical tourism on the island, and the thoroughness of the environmental initiatives at the resort are impressive, from UV-filtered spring water to a rock-sand-and-plant filter for the septic system, to a natural river water and salt pool, to natural products used in their beautiful riverfront spa, and more than 200 solar panels for hot water and electricity.

Rosalie Bay Resort suite porch. All aspects of the resort are environmentally sensitive, including placement of the guest rooms, where you get lulled to sleep by the ocean sounds. (Photo: Courtesy Rosalie Bay Resort)

Locally made furniture, LED lighting, and all-native local plantings round out the attention to the environment. Size matters too: The resort can only accommodate up to 60 people, meaning more privacy for guests, lots of quiet, and less impact too. And, oh yeah, Beverly and Oscar have installed the island's first wind turbine (pictured above), below which a huge organic garden provides food for their popular restaurant, Zamaan.

They're also serious about sea turtle conservation, and as National Geographic notes: "Rosalie Bay Resort may be the world’s only high-end hotel to have taken into account the habits of baby turtles when drawing up the blueprints. But when turtle eggs were found on the property’s black-sand beach, building the lodge in a turtle-friendly way became a top priority." The resort ended up founding a sea turtle conservation program on Dominica that's recognized around the world and has won multiple awards.

The small, but critical beach where leatherback, green and hawksbill sea turtles nest. The small, but critical beach where leatherback, green and hawksbill sea turtles nest. (Photo: Starre Vartan)

If they're there in the right season (March-October), visitors can experience sea turtle births or sea turtles laying eggs, supervised by local experts of course. And because poaching of turtle eggs is still a concern, the resort employs a sea turtle night watchman during the season as well as education for local schoolchildren about the endangered turtle populations their island is home to, which include leatherback, green and hawksbill sea turtles.

A baby sea turtle makes its way to the ocean on Rosalie Bay's beach. A baby sea turtle makes its way to the ocean on Rosalie Bay's beach. (Photo: Marine Creatures/Rosalie Bay Resort)

Outside the resort, there's plenty to see, from numerous hiking trails to active volcanoes, to relaxing in hot springs, to whaling (a pod of sperm whales lives off the island year-round) and reef-diving. And of course, my personal favorite, waterfall-swimming and canyoning — walking/wading along freshwater rivers.

Waterfall swimming in DominicaSwimming in a waterfall pool on Dominica was nothing short of a magical experience. (Photo: Roystan Lockhart/Dominica waterfall/hiking guide)

The largest population of Amerindians in the Caribbean — over 3,000 of them — still live on the eastern side of Dominica. Starting with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the late 1400s and throughout the English and French occupations of the Caribbean, most of the tens of thousands of native people died of disease or at the hands of the European colonialists. Currently, most of the population of the island descends from the African slaves who were brought there for labor. But due to Dominica's rugged terrain, the Kalinago (formerly known as Carib Indians) were able to eke out an existence, hidden away in the mountains, until 1902, when they were finally granted their own territory.

You can visit the Kalinago Territory, a living-history museum set on a beautiful coastal spot, to learn more about the last of the people who you learned about in history were eradicated. It was a humbling, incredible experience to learn about these people who I never knew still existed today.

Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.