A symphony of volcanic mountains, lush rainforest and unspoilt beaches, Dominica is a hidden gem of the Caribbean. It’s also one of the smallest countries on Earth. But as Bay’s Nick Smith discovers, this tropical paradise is the definition of the phrase ‘small is beautiful.’
When it comes to the West Indies, the world is divided between those who first went there before the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise hit our silver screens at the dawn of the millennium, and those who have only ever paid a visit since Captain Jack Sparrow and his blackguard chums became household names. Being in the second category of Caribbean traveller, whenever I go anywhere remotely connected to the movie sequence, I’m often left wondering what tour guides in the good old pre-Sparrow days used to talk about. But here we are at palm fringed Batibou Beach in Saint Andrew Parish on the northern coast of Dominica, with local guide Clive Lloyd meticulously drawing my attention to the shooting locations for the third instalment, Dead Man’s Chest. You can see why this remote paradise was used as the stage for the somewhat improbable swordfight between Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom and Jack Davenport. But it also seems bizarre that one of the most exquisite beaches on Earth should only be famous these days for being a backdrop to cinematic fiction. There are clearly more pressing issues to consider: such as why the village just up the road is called Hampstead or even, for that matter, why this speck of volcanic rock is named after the Latin term – dies Dominica – for Sunday. Pointing across the bay to the peaks beyond the rainforest, Clive delivered his first non-piratical fact, which was that there are 365 rivers on Dominica: “one for every day of the year”. Feeling that this was a suspiciously similar sales pitch to that I’d experienced on nearby Antigua, where there are supposedly 365 beaches, I decided that this trip to the Lesser Antilles would be the one where I dispensed with the services of a guide and went freelance.
For the record, Hampstead gets its name from the originalBritish colonial settlers who fetched up in Dominica from North London to set up a sugar plantation and factory, later turning to lime and cocoa farming, before settling on coconut and copra production. The reason the island is named after the Latin for Sunday is simply that the 15th century Italian explorer Christopher Columbus first spotted the island during his second voyage of Caribbean exploration the on 3rd November 1493, which happened to be a Sunday. When asked to describe Dominica, the explorer is said to have demonstrated by crumpling a sheet of parchment and throwing it onto the table. To Columbus, the sharp folds and shadowy clefts mirrored the landscape of the island he’d ‘discovered’ – that was already inhabited by a tribal people called Caribs, hence the name ‘Caribbean’ – where deep-forested ravines are interspersed with knife-edge ridges. Realising there was no gold to be plundered from the sharp folds and shadowy clefts, and taken aback by the cool reception meted out by the indigenous people, Columbus beat a hasty retreat, leaving the Caribs in peace until the French came along and colonised the region for much of the 18th century. In 1763 the French were booted out by the British, who went on to keep the island for themselves for more than two centuries, before granting independence from the Common-wealth on 3rd November 1978, 485 years to the day after Columbus first set eyes on Dominica. All of which to my mind has the edge over fictional privateers, no matter how swashbuckling.
The reason my tale starts at Batibou Beach, on Dominica’s northernmost shores, is that I’d arrived by plane at the nearby airport that at the time was called Melville Hall about ten miles away. With Clive’s help I hired a cranky old moped to get around the island, and without much reluctance we parted company. Further to which, I headed into the interior, vaguely intending to cover the length of the island, final destination Scotts Head of Saint Mark Parish, the furthest point southwest at the convergence of the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. This peninsula is named after the 18th century army officer George Scott who had been part of the British invasion force before becoming lieutenant governor of Dominica, and who is perhaps best remembered for being killed in a dual. Meanwhile, the Caribs, more correctly Kalinago, who still inhabit a territory to the east of the island, prefer to call the peninsula Cachacrou – roughly translated as ‘the hat which is being eaten’ – which is considerably more poetic than some of the remaining colonial place names, includ-ing the town of Massacre whose self-explanatory designation memorialises a dark moment in the history of the indigenous people of Saint Paul Parish in 1674.
For the explorer on two wheels it’s something of a blessing and a curse that there are no major roads to speak of on Dominica. On the upside, there’s a feeling of high adventure as you weave along rough mountain tracks with hardly a sign of the modern world to be seen. On the other side of the coin, despite the island barely covering 300 square miles, it’s a long and hard, sweaty and bumpy slog to get anywhere at all, as there is barely a proper road to be had for love nor money in the great forest reserves, while the roadsides are littered with long-abandoned cars that never quite seemed up to the job. But after a few hours hard graft I managed to pitch up at Jacko Falls in Morne Trois Pitons National Park on the River Deux Branches, named after the maroon chief who escaped slavery and led a rebel band of fellow
maroons into the jungle. This was where he lived a tropical version of the legend of Robin Hood, joining forces with the Caribs and entering into conflict with the British colonial authorities, only to disappear like smoke into the densely forested wilds of the mountains. These days, of course, it’s all a little less dramatic, with the rainforest a paradise for nature-lovers. Hike along the humid trails and you’ll find geothermal lakes, sulphurous springs and you might even get to see one of the world’s rarest parrots, the Imperial Amazonian. Known locally as the sisserou, it’s Dominica’s national bird and it perches on the country’s flag.
From the central highlands I scooted northwest to Portsmouth where, in the comparative cool of the leeward side of the isle, I spent a few days exploring the Indian River by boat, staying in a waterside cabin with virtually every mosquito in the Western Hemisphere for company. Despite there being a feast of grebes and scaups, shovelers and teal to pass the time it was something of a relief to get out from under the canopy’s humidity and back to the light breezes of the west coast. I pointed the vehicle north heading for Fort Shirley where the views of Rupert Bay are stunning, even if you have to look over rows of artillery that were once in place to deter the French fleet from coming too close. Situated in a massive crater in Cabrits National Park and perched on a scenic peninsula, the forest does its best to reclaim the more dilapidated remains of the former military stronghold. Meanwhile the old Officer’s Quarters at are now a plush wedding reception venue and home to Dominica’s annual Jazz n’Creole Festival. You’d hardly call it an advertising copywriter’s dream job, so you have to admire the ingenuity of the scribe that came up with the slogan: “Home to uprisings, victories and defeats, Fort Shirley now connects visitors to an island at peace.”
Perhaps it had been a trifle hasty to dispense with Clive’s services so early in the piece because I found myself in need of local assistance over the days that followed. As I threaded my way down the west coast towards Scotts Head, it wasn’t so much that I couldn’t find a whale watching boat tour company in the wonderfully named hamlet of Castle Comfort. It was more that I needed some local savoir faire to steer me through the maze of touts offering me what were clearly bogus experiences. And while the golden rule of travel is to never under any circumstances lose your patience, I was starting to get seriously irritated by the cloud of hucksters that were hassling me at every turn to part with extortionate quantities of US dollars in exchange for a billet on one of their presumably non-existent tours. A real local like Clive, I reasoned, could employ the sort of approach with these highwaymen in a manner that would land me in trouble were I to try it. Eventually I managed to find a sign saying Dive Dominica and did as the sign instructed by diving through their gate and into their reception area. After which it was the work of only a few minutes to get myself on a tour where, putting out into the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea aboard a sleek white catamaran, I relished the sensation of gliding past the motor-powered pleasure boats rammed to the gunwales with whale-watching hopefuls.
I’ve tried to see whales the world over, from Indonesia to South Africa, and the truth is the enterprise is nearly always a complete waste of time. Anyone expecting to replicate the sort of encounters you routinely see on David Attenborough’s natural history documentaries are destined for disappointment and should spend a moment quietly reflecting on the fact that the camera-men on these television programmes often spend years in the field hoping against hope to get a few seconds of decent footage. But I did catch sight of the tail flukes of the occasional sperm whale, and while that might seem to fall outside the category of something to write home about, it was exciting enough. The real treat however was seeing the entire length of the west coast of Dominica spread out like a great green silken ribbon against the sky. We sailed back to shore in the early evening light, and as I drove down to Roseau on my moped, I saw plenty of brown pelicans and when the sun eventually set, there was the type of smoked salmon sky that you only ever seem to get in the Caribbean.
The rest of my self-guided tour of Dominica passed without incident. At Roseau I visited the famous botanical gardens, the highlight of which was an old yellow school bus that had been completely flattened by a falling baobab tree during Hurricane David in August 1979. The bus has taken on the status of a memorial to a natural disaster that left three-quarters of the island’s population homeless, destroyed the banana and coconut crop, ripped out the power and water supply, washed out all the coastal roads and generally left the town of Roseau looking, according to one commentator at the time, like ‘an air raid target’. By the time I got to Scotts Head, the impossible beauty of the cobalt blue of the sky meeting the lapis lazuli and indigo of the ocean had put such negative thoughts out of my head. Turning north to make my way back to the airport, I headed for the Kalinago Territory where there is a model village that aims to show tourists like me how the original tribes of the Caribbean lived before it was serially colonised by Europeans whose only objective was to make money from the fertile soil and climate. I took photographs of the traditional wooden shacks that would have been hopelessly inadequate against the extremities of the tropical rainstorms. Then I saw a shack-shop selling traditional baskets, where my tourism dollars would help support the local Caribs. But it felt like a new form of colonialism, only by another name.