The earliest known community on this site, at the mouth of the Roseau River, was a Kalinago (or Carib) village called Sairi. Long overlooked by European colonising powers, the island of Dominica was permanently settled by the French in 1690, who chose the Kalinago village as their headquarters, and renamed it for the reeds growing along the river. Under French and, after 1763, British control, Roseau was laid out in a neat grid of streets, with the Old Market as the original centre.
Though the city’s built-up area has spread into nearby suburbs — like Newtown to the south and Goodwill to the north — Roseau remains relatively compact, sandwiched between the Caribbean Sea and the foothills of Dominica’s dramatic mountainous interior.
Near the Roseau waterfront, the eccentric Ruins Rock Café is definitely not your typical bar or rumshop. First of all, the location: literally in the ruins of a burned-out historic building, now roofed against the elements. Then there’s the drinks: not just the usual tropical cocktails, but a hair-raising, palate-bracing menu of locally distilled bush rums, with flavours ranging from the relatively straightforward — cinnamon, ginger — to exotics like sea grape, to others that sound like you should drink them only on a serious dare: grasshopper, centipede, snake. Safer, but in its own way no less deadly, is the famous rum punch.
French Creole influence dominates Roseau’s traditional architecture — steep-pitched roofs, intricate wooden fretwork, shuttered jalousie windows, shady verandahs and arcades. A handful of British Georgian-inspired buildings are also scattered throughout the historic centre, alongside modern structures of all descriptions, some borrowing traditional decorative elements. Though central Roseau is laid out on a more or less regular grid, the narrow streets and tiny blocks can give the impression of a labyrinth, with surprises round every corner. It is notoriously easy for visitors to get lost, especially in the area known as the French Quarter. The Old Market, now a pedestrianised square, is still the city’s central point, marked by a red-painted cross.
Just west of central Roseau, the dense warren of streets gives way to the Botanical Gardens, founded in 1890, and long considered one of the Caribbean’s finest. Apart from the collection of trees and other plants from across the tropical world, this is the headquarters for the conservation programme protecting Dominica’s two rare endemic parrot species, the sisserou and the jacko.
As befits the capital of the Caribbean’s “Nature Isle”, Roseau is surrounded by green — a backdrop of precipitous hills and mountains. Less than five miles from the centre of the city are the twin Trafalgar Falls, with cold and hot cascades (the latter volcanically heated) plunging side by side. There’s a hiking trail, a viewing platform for photos, and natural rock pools for swimming and splashing.
Or, heading south instead of west, a five-mile drive will take you to the village of Scotts Head, near Dominica’s southern tip — gateway to the Soufrière–Scotts Head Marine Reserve, one of the Caribbean’s most famous dive sites. A dive, snorkel, or swim over Champagne Reef is one of Dominica’s unmissable experiences. Vents in the sea floor release a continuous fizz of volcanic gases, heating the water to bathtub temperature and creating a natural Jacuzzi effect.
The Rhys tour
The writer Jean Rhys — born Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams — may be Dominica’s most celebrated child of the soil, even though she left the island at the age of seventeen and spent her life elsewhere. Her childhood Roseau home, a wooden house on the corner of Independence Street and Cork Street, still stands, slightly battered-looking. Elsewhere in the city, you can visit St George’s Anglican Church, where Rhys was christened, and the site of the convent school near the Roman Catholic cathedral which Rhys attended (and described in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea).
15.3º N 61.4º W
Caribbean Airlines operates regular flights to V.C. Bird International Airport in Antigua, with connections on other airlines to Dominica