Sunday, February 29, 2004
The bananaquit was first up. Strutting across the table outside my cabana as if it were a catwalk, the tiny tropical bird inched almost close enough for me to touch its lemon yellow belly, then glided off.
Anne Jean-Baptiste, co-owner and chief botanist at the Papillote Wilderness Retreat, dropped her spade with the look of someone who had witnessed this ritual before. "Ah," she said, smiling. "Your own personal fashion show has started."
And so it had. A blue-headed hummingbird fluttered by next, followed by a ringed kingfisher with a rust-colored stomach and a peacock spreading its magnificent span of blue, green, turquoise and brown feathers. Then came the butterflies, fluttering in a sweep of deep blues, oranges and yellows. The backdrop of plant life -- from white and pink orchids to heliconias, begonias, elephant ears and jade vine, with its extraordinary aquamarine flowers -- was a spectacle all its own.
I had come to Dominica for this. With more than half of its 289.5-square-mile surface covered by rain forest -- including the lush 22,000-acre Northern Forest Preserve, 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park, and more than 350 rivers and streams -- the Caribbean island offers a smooth entry into the natural bounty of the tropics.
So what if Picard Beach, recommended by locals as the finest swimming spot on the island, turned out to be a basic stretch of gray sand and palm trees. And who cared that one of the hottest after-dark scenes on the island is Wednesday Quiz Night at the Cornerhouse Cafe in the capital city of Roseau. Nor did I mind that this isolated outpost, perched between Martinique and Guadeloupe, took two flights and a ferry to reach from Washington. (A short plane ride is also possible for the last leg.) I had seen my share of Caribbean beaches and up-all-night soca and reggae parties.
And so one day last month my friend Michel and I hopped aboard L'Express Des Iles in Point-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, for the two-hour ferry ride. Our plan was to spend five days hiking and exploring the natural wonders of Dominica.
The French outpost of Guadeloupe had provided us an easy landing in the seductively lush ecology of the Caribbean. Our base was Trois Rivieres, a seaside village in the shadows of La Soufriere, Guadeloupe's 4,813-foot volcano. Nearly every cottage had a garden of banana trees, pink and orange flamboyants and other flora.
We stayed with friends, and their hillside home had the kind of view that winter-weary East Coasters close their eyes and dream about. The regal blue Caribbean was broken only by the occasional ripple of soft white waves. The intimate island of Les Saintes, covered with green, seemed near enough to swim to.
With the aroma of flowers in the air, and locals strolling past clutching baguettes and chattering in French, it struck me at first like a village in southern France.
"No, it's not really a good comparison," said Therese Pusos, who retired and moved here with her husband, Raymond, from Paris three years ago. "They have sun for three months a year and we have it for twelve. I will show you the difference it makes."
They next day she did. Piling us into her car, she drove us around Basse Terre, the fertile, mountainous wing of the butterfly-shaped island. As we rode along the coast, fields of banana trees, coconut palms and other plants stretched far. We wound our way through Guadeloupe National Park, a 74,000-acre rain forest. UNESCO has declared it a Biosphere Reserve, and when we stopped by, it was easy to see why. It is home to more than 300 species of trees and bushes, including towering ferns, lianas and palms, as well as wild pineapples and white orchids.
That night at dinner, Therese showed us another advantage of living in this bountiful region: A cocktail of locally made rum mixed with lime was followed by a mouthwatering tart of pumpkins, onions and fish yanked from the ocean earlier that day. For dessert there were fresh papayas from a neighbor's garden.