When Queen Isabella asked Christopher Columbus to describe the island of Dominica, which he first encountered during his West Indies explorations in 1493, he is said to have crumpled a piece of paper and dropped it on the table.
"That," he said, pointing to the rumpled and fissured paper, "is Dominica."
The description was apt. Dominica is a lush, rugged, mountainous land among the Windward Islands of the Caribbean, rising between the French sister islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Rivers--one for every day of the year, the Dominicans say--course through a verdant landscape. Waterfalls cascade in spumes and torrents, filling the air with the sound of arcing water. Red-orange flamboyant trees flare on the vivid green hillsides.
The relatively few visitors who make their way to Dominica find an extraordinary place, a bit of the Caribbean that retains its pristine nature, accessible but largely unsullied by the package tour hordes. According to tourism officials, Dominica received around 69,000 visitors in 1997, a far cry from places like Jamaica, where 1.9 million tourists swarmed that year. The island has developed a following among eco-tourists and low-budget nature-seekers, but the mainstream has shown little interest.
"It was a beautiful place--wild, untouched, above all untouched--with an alien disturbing secret loveliness," Dominican novelist Jean Rhys wrote in 1966, in her celebrated "The Wide Sargasso Sea."
The vast En Grand Bois La forest is a festival of botanical diversity, harboring mahogany and mango, cedar and bay, breadfruit and palm. More than 80 species of orchids flower in this great oceanic rain forest. Fifty species of birds nest in the forest sanctuaries; boa constrictors slither out of the mountains, scanning the villages for chickens or piglets; boiling lakes and sulfur-yellow springs pock the interior in surreal Mars-like landscapes.
Skin Diver magazine has called Dominica the "Queen of the Natural Caribbean." Some of the world's best scuba diving is right off shore, divers undulating through living clouds of flashing soldier fish and yellowtails, Creole wrasse and schooling grunts, past unsullied beds of sea whips and barrel sponges, golden crinoids and colorful gorgonians. Just off the leeward coast, near Soufriere, snorkelers can paddle through a natural world of champagne-like bubbles emanating from the underwater caldera of an ancient volcanic crater. Local charter boat captains haul visitors out to see leviathans cruising the blue waters--one of the best whale-watching spots in the northern hemisphere.
The sun, clouds and high volcanic mountains make Dominica what it is, the lushest island in the Caribbean. Morne Diablotin, more than 4,700 feet high, is the highest in the region, capturing the water-filled trade winds as they make their long sweep from Africa, pulling nearly 300 inches of rain per year onto Dominica's small land mass.
The island is not without comfort. There are a few dozen intimate inns, tiny eco-resorts and family-run hotels scattered over the island--few charging more than $100 per night--and Creole cuisine is ubiquitous and inexpensive. A number of tour guides and services have emerged over the past decade to lead visitors to a variety of magical places, from the majestic leap of Trafalgar Falls to the unearthly Valley of Desolation and Boiling Lake, heated by the volcanic gases of a fumarole and one of the largest of its kind. One morning I took off with a guide, Nicholson Rowe.
"It is a beautiful planet, is it not?" Rowe asked as we hiked through the rain forest. The sound of water--dripping, running, cascading--surrounded us. Elephant ears and mountain cabbage bushed near the base of 300-year-old trees. Ancient gommai trees gave off their lighter fluid smell.
"Ah, the bois bande," said Rowe, pointing with a smile to a nondescript hardwood. Bois bande is highly valued, as the tree's bark is the main ingredient for a local potion, sold under such names as "King Holihazard's Bois Bande Cure"--kind of a Viagra of the forest.
We rested in the midst of the burbling Breakfast River before a puffing climb up to a pass. Martinique wisped into view when the winds split the clouds. As we made our way along the trail, the stench of sulfur began to sting my nose.
"The villages downwind, the sulfur eats the tin roofs every 10 years or so," Rowe said.
We lowered ourselves down the last steep rocky slope into the Valley of Desolation, fumaroles seething and smoke rising from the ocher vents below us. Gray, boiling water coursed down rock channels splotched with rust, umber, sienna and yellows. After an hour of exploring and resting, we made the final climb to Boiling Lake. The fog and steam that swept from the lake's surface parted to expose a roiling, gunmetal lake, eerie in the austere surrounds. A sluggish stream dribbled into the lake from a slope that looked like a stone fruitcake.
We ate our lunch perched on rocks above the sulfurous clouds. Rowe spoke about volcanoes and Martinique, off to the north.
"My great-grandmother, she came to Dominica a week before Martinique blew up in 1902," he said. "Thirty thousand people died when Mount Pelee erupted." Saint-Pierre, the Caribbean's most cosmopolitan city, was destroyed, never to regain its loveliness or urbanity. The Valley of Desolation was rocked by a volcanic eruption in 1880. As for Boiling Lake, a mountain stream cools it to about 198 degrees F, keeping the lake at the constant low boil that gives it its name.
Touch the water, it will sear your flesh. Fall in, you'll likely die.
The small port capital of Roseau (pronounced rose-oh) seemed a setting for a Graham Greene novel, all jalousies and gingerbread and turbaned Creole women selling electric-green dasheen, bananas and scrawny chickens. A perfect-postured policewoman in a kepi and white gloves kept traffic order in the middle of the dusty intersection of Queen Mary and King George V. The aroma of callaloo and good coffee drifted from the little cafes.
Until gaining independence in 1978, Dominica shuttlecocked between French and British authority for centuries, and the island's culture retains influences of both. Luckily, civil administration runs along British bureaucratic patterns, while the cuisine remains decidedly French (an outcome far superior, most agree, to the reverse).
A banner was stretched across Queen Mary Street from a lime-green balcony to a tangerine one, advertising the arrival of Brian Lara and his champion Red Stripe Trinidad-Tobago cricket team. "He is the Michael Jordan of cricket, mon. You must go," a gap-toothed kid in a stretched-out sailor-stripe T-shirt told me as I labored up the dirt road to my hotel.
Dominicans may be cricket fans, but they are not mimics of British culture. Many Dominicans of African descent came here from the neighboring French islands, escaping the onerous Code Noir of colonial days. Dominica was a refuge, the last redoubt of the fierce Carib Indians who ruled much of the Caribbean during the early days of European settlement. They defended Dominica so well that the French and British left the island to them for nearly a century.
The Caribs had a grisly reputation for conquest and cannibalism. An early history stated that "the Caribbeans have tasted of all the nations that frequented them, and affirm that the French are the most delicate, and the Spanish are hardest of digestion."
Three thousand Caribs live on Dominica today, most in the 3,700-acre Carib Territory on the island's eastern side. The lands are held communally; it's the only place on the island where land cannot be bought or sold. The Caribs are mostly amiable these days, more interested in selling their intricate basketry.
Saturine Dodds is the premier basket-weaver of the island, crafting thin reeds into fine umber and cream vessels, some so tightly woven they can hold water. When I visited her thatch-roofed shop overlooking the wild Atlantic, she entered barefoot and quietly showed me basket after basket. She smiled and nodded when I picked out a few, and then returned to her weaving, her small hands re-creating the culture of her people.
All of this undefiled nature and careful development is the result of a dedicated effort. In 1996, the Australian mining giant Broken Hill Proprietary pushed a revised mining law through the Dominican Parliament, making environmental assessments discretionary rather than mandatory.
BHP intended to open a large copper mining operation that would have devoured 10 percent of Dominica's land, most of it immediately upstream from the Carib Indian reservation and threatening the island's ecosystem. BHP's annual revenues were 15 times the gross national product of Dominica.
Led by local agronomist Atherton Martin, a group of activists forged a national consensus to oppose the mine. Despite losing his job and receiving death threats, Martin persevered. When a group of Dominican citizens and schoolchildren demonstrated outside the BHP annual meeting in Australia, waving signs that read "Hands Off Dominica," the island stirred international attention. Faced with international pressure, BHP announced in 1997 it was pulling out of Dominica completely.
In April 1998, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan watched Martin receive the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco, awarded annually to global grass-roots environmentalists who risk all to protect the environment. Today Martin heads the Dominica Conservation Organization and is president of the Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association, where he actively promotes the island's judicious form of eco-tourism.
"We are convinced," he noted, "that Dominica has an important role to play in the difficult task of linking care of the environment to people's well-being. That to me is the underlying significance of what we believe needs to be done about tourism."
Martin's views are echoed throughout the Dominican tourism industry. The commonwealth's tourism plan calls for construction of reception centers throughout the island, to disperse visitors and protect the natural features from overuse. There's also a program designed to attract smaller, upscale cruise ships rather than the mass-market mega-ships that have damaged other islands' cultures, ports and ecologies.
"We have something that is unique here in Dominica," director of tourism Stanton Carter said. "We are protecting our fragile ecology and infrastructure for the long term--for our children's children."
Douglas Wissing is a writer in Bloomington, Ind.
Getting There: There are no direct flights from the United States to Dominica. The easiest way is to fly to San Juan and pick up a connecting flight. American offers connecting service from Washington to Dominica and is quoting a round-trip fare of $549, with restrictions.
Where to Stay: I stayed at Falls View Guest House (Upper Trafalgar, 767-448-0064), a small, family-run place with a little cafe near Trafalgar Falls and Pappillote; it cost about $35 a night.
Roseau has commercial tourist hotels for around $125 per night, but there are a fair number of places that offer clean, basic, budget rooms. I stayed at the Ma Bass Guest House (44 Fields Lane, 767-448-2999), with rooms from $35 to $55 a night.
Dominica also offers a number of eco-lodges. At the high end you'll find Papillote Wilderness Retreat (Trafalgar Falls Road, 767-448-2287), the most developed eco-lodge on the island, featuring landscaped gardens and a high-quality restaurant. Rates run from $85 for a standard double room to $90 for a suite. A two-bedroom, two-bath cottage with a kitchenette near the waterfall can be rented for $180 a night.
Divers tend to stay on the coast at the dive resorts, near Soufrieres and Scot's Head. Among them: Dive Dominica (Castle Comfort, 767-448-2188) and Nature Island Dive (Soufrieres, 767-449-8181).
Information: National Development Corporation Division of Tourism, Roseau, Dominica, 767-448-2045, www.dominica.dm, or the Caribbean Tourism Organization, 212-635-9530, www.caribtourism.com.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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