Symphony in green: a guide to Dominica

If Christopher Columbus could return to the Caribbean now, Dominica might well be the only island he'd recognise. "Unspoiled" is the most abused adjective in Caribbean tourism, but Dominica gives it new meaning. And the "Nature Island" has much more to offer, too, with its rich cultural life, underwater wonders and warm people. Simon Lee reports

  • Anemones and tiny shrimp. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Middleham Falls. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Carib man weaving. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Spotted eel. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Turtle Bay. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Children of the Carib Territory. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Downtown Roseau. Photograph by Roger Neckles
  • Aerial view of Roseau, Dominica's capital. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Pineapple farm. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Undersea Dominica: Christmas tree worms and brain coral. Photograph by Eric Young
  • Whale-watching is becoming increasingly popular as these giants of the sea, as well as dolphins and porpoises, are frequent visitors to Dominican waters. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • View from Galleon. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Aerial view of the Boiling Lake. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Valley of Desolation. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Soufriere Bay and village. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Cabrits National Park in Portsmouth. Photograph by Roxan Kinas
  • River at Trafalgar, one of hundreds that run through Dominica. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Carnival Corner's Election Melee won the Carnival 2000 Band of the Year title. Photograph by Edmund Toulon
  • Mauaw, a traditional masquerade band from Colihaut. Photograph by Edmund Toulon
  • Boukman Eksperyans, Haiti's leading voodoo roots band, performs at the World Creole Festival in Roseau. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Mauaw, a traditional masquerade band from Colihaut. Photograph by Edmund Toulon
  • Jing ping band performing at Creole Day festivities. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Gutter Village jing ping band. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Architecture reflects the island's heritage, a mixture of the old world and the new. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • The Carib dugout canoe Gli Gli sails through the Grenadines in 1997. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Altar made from a traditional Carib dugout canoe, Carib Territory. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • The Carbet Community Centre, Carib Territory. Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Photograph by Simon Lee
  • -
  • Roman Catholic seminary. Photograph by Mark Meredith
  • Terrace at Fort Young Hotel. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Photograph by Simon Lee
  • Concorde Valley. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle
  • Ascending Scotts Head, looking down at Scotts Head village, with the Caribbean Sea on the left and the Atlantic Ocean on the right. Photograph by Roxan Kinas
  • Heliconia. Photograph by Clem Johnson/ Freestyle

From the air, this northern Windward island is a mass of densely forested mountains, scored by river valleys. On the ground, it overwhelms you with the richness of its luxuriant vegetation: giant rain forest trees and ferns, wild heliconias, orchids, ginger lilies, poinsettias, calabash-size grapefruit and thick bunches of bananas, the staple crop. It’s as though some divine hand has reached down with a palette of fertility, stippling and streaking the ever-shifting background of greens and blues with vivid colour. Appropriately, the national motto is “Apres Bondie C’est La Ter” – after God, the land.

Everywhere you hear the music of water: the percussion of rain on forest leaves; the roar of waterfalls or Atlantic rollers; the rush of rivers through mountain gorges; the sputtering of fumaroles and sulphur springs; the gentle music of streams trickling down rock faces. The air is rich with spices, citrus, a potpourri of wild flower fragrances and the eternal dampness of the forest.

The first written description of the island – “Dominica is remarkable for the beauty of its mountains … and must be seen to be believed” – still holds good 500 years later. The rugged, incredibly fertile volcanic terrain, watered in some parts by over 300 inches of rain annually, defines the island and its unique Amerindian, African, Creole culture.

Dominica is the Caribbean destination with a difference. Its rivers and rain forests, soaring mountains and black volcanic beaches, defy the stereotypical sun, sea and sand package. In many ways it’s a natural bastion, a magnificent and sobering reminder of what much of the region must have looked like before colonisation and deforestation.

Although small, 29 miles long by 16 wide, its rugged topography (which Columbus described by crumpling a piece of paper) makes it seem much bigger. To the Caribs who made it one of their last strongholds, it was Wai’tukubuli – “Tall is her body”.

For adventure, culture and eco- tourisrn, Dominica is unsurpassed in the English Caribbean. There are over 1,000 species of flowering plants (including 74 orchids and 200 ferns). The stunning scenery of the Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a World Heritage Site, with its Boiling Lake (the largest of its kind in the world) and stark Valley of Desolation, is matched below the water by the seascape of the Soufriere and Scotts Head Marine Reserve with its submerged crater, sheer coral reefs, lava pinnacles and the thermally-heated bubbling water of the Champagne Reef.

With fewer than 900 hotel rooms and no large resorts, the emphasis is on small-scale, eco- and- people friendly tourism. You won’t find a casino or a glitzy shopping mall, but you will find mountain lodges, small eco-resorts and family-run guest houses. And you’ll find the Dominicans some of the most welcoming, humorous, hardy and musical people in the Caribbean. If you travel to the east coast you’ll meet descendants of the region’s indigenous people on the Carib Territory, the only Carib reserve in the Caribbean.

I first visited Dominica on the run from an overdose of the good life in Martinique. Only an hour by express ferry from the Parisian styles of Fort-de-France, I was greeted by the sleepy charm of Roseau, the small-town capital. I dawdled down cobbled streets, revelling in the miniature wood and stone buildings, with their fretworked overhanging verandahs, jalousie louvres and heavy shutters. I lingered in the old market square, on the seafront where slave auctions, executions and political meetings had been held, now transformed into a craft market in the courtyard of the Dominica Museum.

On Cork Street I checked out the birthplace of Jean Rhys, whose haunting novel Wide Sargasso Sea so vividly expresses her island’s inescapable beauty. The humble building now serves as mmmkk Vena’s Guesthouse.l checked into the even older Cherry Lodge Hotel on Kennedy Avenue, with its hurricane-resistant three-feet-thick stone walls and well-worn wooden floors.

At sunset I watched a family washing clothes in the Roseau River, a mere 100 yards from the sea. They paused to wave. After the metropolitan pace and blase manners of Fort-de-France, Roseau seemed positively provincial, 19th-century in spirit, and welcoming.

Wandering the empty streets after nightfall I heard the beat of a distinctly African drum. I tracked down the drummer, a statuesque Rastafarian. Ras Mo proudly introduced himself as a performance poet and invited me to a reading at the Dominica Writers’ Guild. We tumbled into the vibrant, packed atmosphere of the small Caribana art gallery and craft shop run by Carla Armour, the lively daughter of one of the island’s old families.

While Ras Mo declaimed over the lapo kabwit (goatskin) drums “Dis balance o’ payments ting killin’ we … “, I plunged into discussions with young and not-so-young poets as we partook of the island’s locally-brewed Kubuli beer. A diminutive firebrand, Christobel La Ronde (who claimed to be the granddaughter of Phyllis Shand Allfrey, author of the novel The Orchid House, which brilliantly captures Dominica’s social history between the two World Wars), gave an impassioned performance, chanting in Creole to her own accomplished drumming. By the end of the night I’d made a galleryful of Dominican friends.

Next morning, while the streets flooded with schoolchildren in carefully pressed uniforms, farmers and vendors from the country, I stopped off for coffee in the restaurant of a small hotel. I was served a large jug. By the end of the first cup I was ecstatic. I’m hopelessly addicted to Cuban coffee, served espresso thick and sweet, but this was something else. After demolishing the jug, I called the waitress over to get the recipe. What had been added? Maybe some Dominican spice I’d never heard of? No, she assured me, it was just locally-grown coffee, no secret ingredients.

I took my coffee high to a fascinating interview with Lennox Honychurch, surely one of the most brilliant and charming men in the region. Island historian, broadcaster, environmentalist, ethnographer, amateur poet and painter, Honychurch is a New Age Renaissance man who while still young served in the House of Assembly and took part in the independence negotiations of 1978.

We met in the Dominica Museum, which he’d set up the year before in the old post office. Throughout the interview he would jump up to greet visiting students and explain the displays of cultural history and geology. When our talk turned to films shot in Dominica, he grinned, pointing out, “Dominica is the star. Actors are always given hot competition by the landscape itself.”

Soon I was headed for the subject of much of Honychurch’s research: the Caribs. The ride was exhilarating, the minibus careering round bends as the trans insular road snaked up into the mountains, then uncoiled down to Castle Bruce and L’Escalier Tete Chien, on the east coast. This rock staircase marks both the spot where the dog-headed serpent of Carib mythology emerged from the sea, and the beginning of the Carib Territory.

The 3,782-acre reservation, originally established by the British colonial administrator Hesketh Bell in 1903, is now home to some 3,400 Caribs, the Amerindian tribe which gave the region its name. Although the only time you’re likely to see them dressed in traditional costume is when a cultural group performs, their ancient crafts of basket-weaving, using the larouma reed, and building dugout canoes from the giant gommier tree, are still practised.

In 1997, a 35-foot dugout, the Gli Gli, the largest built in living memory, sailed from the Territory on a historic voyage down the islands and back to the ancestral homelands in northwest Guyana, proving that boat-building and navigational skills have survived, even if the Carib language has not. Despite intermarriage, there are still pure Caribs on the Territory, with the short stature, high cheekbones and straight black hair of their Mongolian ancestors.

Salybia is the administrative centre of the eight hamlets in the Territory. As Charles Williams of the Carib Territory Guest House puts it, “Life begins and ends at Salybia.” Down a track which leads to the sea is the Roman Catholic church with its altar made from a dugout canoe and painted with scenes from Carib myths. Here children are christened, marriages and funerals conducted. On the same compound stands the primary school and health centre. Within earshot of the Atlantic waves crashing on the rocks lies the cemetery.

I nearly missed Salybia as the minibus flashed through, but after clambering up a track from the road, I found myself face to face with a short shy man with jet black hair and classic Amerindian features, Hilary Frederick, then chief of the Caribs. [The current chief is Garnet Joseph.] He waved me towards a small two-room wooden cabin, his temporary home since a hurricane had recently removed the roof of his modern concrete house.

Chief Hilary, a farmer like most on the Territory, voiced the concerns of any Caribbean rural leader: unemployment, hurricane damage to the banana crop, access to transport, education. But he was most concerned with the youth and their exodus from the Territory “seeking greener pastures”. He was hoping that a projected model village “depicting the lifestyle of the Caribs 500 years ago” would not only provide employment for “craftsmen, the youth, farmers and fishermen” but restore pride in Carib identity and ensure its survival in the age of gobalisation. As you read, construction on the model village should have started.

I spent the night with the chiefs father, surrounded by laughing, curious children. In the morning, after a lesson in basket-making, I left this outpost of the old Caribbean. On my journey back to the future, I toyed with a woven reed cache doudou or finger trap which the Caribs used to lead women and children along forest tracks, knowing I’d fallen under Dominica’s spell.

Thanks to a happy combination of geography and history, Wai’tukubuli is an ecological and cultural gem. First settled by Stone Age tribes from the Orinoco delta some 3,000 years ago, followed by the Arawak-speaking Igneri and then by the Kalinago (as the island Caribs called themselves) who controlled the Windward Islands from 1400 to 1700, the island was able to resist colonisation longer than any other in the Caribbean because of its impenetrable mountain interior.

After Columbus’s visit, the Kalinago repulsed both French and English attacks, and the island was declared neutral by a treaty of 1686. They were still in control when the first French settlers began arriving soon after. Depleted by wars with the Europeans and disease, cut off from their hunting and fishing grounds, the Kalinago withdrew to the inaccessible east coast.

Although the island was ceded to the British by the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the French (or rather French Creole) influence is still pervasive, starting with the dominant Roman Catholic religion and the Breton provincial style of some of Roseau’s older buildings. It is immediately noticeable the moment a Dominican opens his mouth. The official language may be English, but virtually everyone speaks “Kweyol” the French Creole patois which evolved as a means of communication between French settlers throughout the Caribbean and their African slaves. Even when a Dominican speaks English, it’s with a pronounced Kweyol accent and intonation. Just listen to a Dominican say “braff” for “broth”.

Its position between the two French “departments” of Martinique and Guadeloupe has strengthened Dominica’s Kweyol ties, while its affiliation with the English-speaking islands has made it a unique cultural crossroads in the Caribbean. Kweyol language and culture have played an increasingly important role in defining island identity since independence from Britain in 1978.

Creole Day at the end of October is as important a cultural event as carnival. Schoolchildren and adults dressed in Creole national costume (white lace-embroidered blouses and aprons with highly coloured chequered madras skirts and headpieces for the women, black pants and white shirts with madras sashes, waistbands and waistcoats for the men) gather on the narrow streets of Roseau where only the cadences of Kweyol can be heard.

On street corners and in restaurants, jing ping folk music bands perform. Their infectious syncopated rhythms are led by romping accordion, accompanied by a shallow tambou drum (resembling a large tambourine minus bells), the metal “gwaj” or scraper, and the “boom boom” bass, a length of bamboo which is blown down. Sometimes the shac shac (maracas), a violin, banjo or guitar may be added. Jing ping is characteristic of Dominica’s uniqueness: nowhere else in the musically diverse Caribbean is it found, although you’ll find bamboos being blown in Haiti’s rara music, and the accordion still leads traditional merengue in the Dominican Republic.

Essentially the jing ping band is a folk dance band which plays creolised versions of European formal dances like the quadrille, the mazurka, polka and waltz, introduced by the colonisers and then appropriated by the African slaves and their descendants. Cyril Harve, the tambou player in the island’s most famous band from Giraudel Village, explains: “When de crowd hot, dat is de best an everybody dancin’. Den you feel you playin’.” Even Trinidad’s calypso king The Mighty Sparrow was seduced by jing ping. As Cyril recalls: “He heard us at Canefield airport and he dance till dey call him away.”

Just as Cuba’s isolation over the last 40 years has preserved an incredible diversity of music, so Dominica’s inaccessibility has resulted in the survival of pockets of undisturbed musical culture. African-derived dances like the bele are still performed by cultural groups, and other African retentions survive in work and play songs.

Music is as abundant and rich here as the land, and Dominican bands can be found playing as far afield as Paris, New York, Toronto and parts of Africa. Because of the Kweyol connection Dominica is the only island in the Anglophone Caribbean whose musicians are truly conversant with the musical forms of the francophone Caribbean. They handle zouk and konpa as easily as soca and reggae, and even Latin forms like salsa and merengue. Among the rising stars on the world reggae scene are two Dominicans – Nelly Stharre and Nasio Fontaine.

The annual World Creole Music Festival, inaugurated in 1997, showcases music from the French Creole-speaking world – Haitian konpa and voodoo roots, Antillean zouk, Louisiana zydeco and West African soukous. But most importantly, it highlights Dominican music: from traditional forms like bele and jing ping to cadence-lypso (the 1970s fusion of konpa and calypso which influenced early zouk and soca) and bouyon, the 90s fusion which combines elements of traditional music with cadence, zouk and soca. For three nights in the run-up to Independence Day at the beginning of November, Festival City on the edge of Roseau becomes the site of a marathon musical party. Dominicans have stamina to match their mountains, and the concerts which begin at 9 p.m. are still rampaging long after dawn.

Island favourites Exile One, Grammacks, Swinging Stars, Midnight Groovers, WCK and First Serenade, and Dominica’s first lady of song, Ophelia, join with international acts like Kassav, Tabou Combo, Boukman Eksperyans, Sakis and Buckwheat Zydeco for a musical feast which can be as fulfilling and exhausting as the hike to the Boiling Lake.

For Dominicans the major festival is Carnival in February or March, depending on the date Lent begins. Like other islands with a French legacy, costuming, song and dance are essential. Among the Carnival costumes is the sensay, a direct descendant of West African festivals. This frightening masked and horned figure is covered in cloth strips, banana leaves or even rope, paper or plastic, and may brandish a pickaxe handle to round off the ferocious image.

The music of Carnival begins with the lapo kabwit (goatskin) drums of J’Ouvert, although nowadays the skins are often stretched over plastic and metal bodies rather than the traditional hollowed tree trunks. Another African tradition, songs of ridicule, survived in the chante mas songs composed in villages and performed in town, which were a major feature of Carnival until calypso took over in the 1950s. These scandalous, satirical or historical songs were led by a female chantuelle who danced backwards facing the band, which responded with the lavway or chorus.

Calypso, imported from Trinidad in the late 1940s, is now an integral part of Dominica’s Carnival, as I discovered on a recent trip. One night I attended an enthusiastic calypso tent on the outskirts of Roseau. Next morning in the centre of town on Independence Street, I heard the distinctive sound of calypso emerging from a vendor’s stall. It was Sister May, “Dominica’s first female calypsonian”, singing her latest composition Policeman in Jail.

She sang me her hit from last year, A Man and his Fowl, complete with additional verses of political commentary on the upcoming general election. As we chatted, I realised this buxom mother of two well- known musicians was not only a calypsonian but the epitome of the Caribbean self-made woman, the huckster or small-island trader who raises her family, often singlehandedly, and contributes invaluably to the informal economy. Sister May had worked as a hairdresser in the neighbouring Guadeloupean island of Marie Galante since she was 17, and had now built her own beauty salon there. Back in her north coast Dominican village of Calibishie she runs a small guest house and juggles minding her stall in Roseau with composing poetry and calypsos.

Besides major events like World Creole Music and Carnival, there are numerous village feasts or saint’s days, offering visitors unique insights into traditional community life. On a larger scale is the Portsmouth Marine Festival in April (featuring watersports and boat racing); the Giraudel Flower Festival, the Mill Festival and the International Sport Fishing Tournament in May; July’s Dive Fest and Carib Week celebrations in September.

But beyond all these activities, we always come back to the land. Dominica’s greatest attractions are not
man-made. Its rugged nature has defied development and, fortunately, the relatively recent advent of tourism has been undertaken in the spirit of preserving and protecting Dominica’s stunning natural resources. Having already established its reputation as “the nature island of the Caribbean”, Dominica’s plan is to be “a model eco-tourism destination”.

Green Globe, the international eco-tourism body, has already designated Dominica the “Caribbean’s Green destination”, and when the Morne Trois Pitons National Park was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1998, the island officially rose to the rank of world eco-destination.

All the raw materials are in place. In addition to Morne Trois Pitons, large tracts of land and areas of sea are already protected: Morne Diablotin National Park, Cabrits National Park (which is a combined marine and terrestrial park), and the Soufriere/Scotts Head Marine Reserve. Other protected areas include the Indian River National Park and the Soufriere Sulphur Spring reserve area.

For the casual or dedicated hiker or biker, the professional botanist or naturalist, the diver, sport fisherman or yachting enthusiast, Dominica is the real Treasure Island.

With four mountain peaks over 4,000 feet (Morne Diablotin the highest at 4,747 feet; Morne Trois Pitons 4,672 feet, Morne Mictrin 4,006 feet, Morne Watt 4,017 feet); more natural vegetation than any other island in the Lesser Antilles; forests ranging from lowland to rain forest, montane and elfin; rivers (some say 365), waterfalls and lakes, there’s enough to keep you busy for years. Even homegrown experts like Lennox Honychurch admit they haven’t seen it all.

In the first flush of my own love affair with “Domnik”, I was determined to conquer the trail to the Boiling Lake, jewel in the crown of the Morne Trois Pitons National Park in the south. I set out early on a blazingly bright May morning from Laudat Village with my young guide, Stanley Dequental, full of bravado which wasn’t dimmed by the sign warning of the “strenuous hike” ahead. We passed Titou Gorge, where warm water thundered 100 feet below.

Ascending into the rain forest to the rusty-gate-swinging song of a mountain whistler, I kept my eyes glued to Stanley’s heels flashing ahead through the red and white mange trees. Within an hour, sulphur fumes from the Boiling Lake had displaced the pleasant spicy aroma of the lower slopes and I was grateful to reach the cold refreshing waters of Breakfast River. The view from the 3,000-foot high Shark’s Tooth Peak on Morne Nicholls, with toy-town Roseau far below against a shimmering Caribbean Sea, was the inspiration I needed for the tortuous climb down into the Valley of Desolation.

After the lush mountain slopes, the oxidised valley floor with its eerie chemical colours (pale luminous green, iron grey, orange), the hot vents, bubbling pools of boiling grey mud and the mineral- coloured streams of black, orange, blue and yellow, combined with the sulphur fumes to completely disorient me. Stanley matter-of-factly pointed out the pool he usually poached eggs in. A short scramble brought us to the Boiling Lake itself, an almost perfect circular crater wreathed in steam, which would momentarily clear to reveal the opaque blue-grey cauldron churning 60 feet below the sheer walls of the crater.

I was delighted I’d made it, but I hadn’t taken into account the return trip. I stretched out above the seething fumarole, removed my steamed-over glasses and watched Stanley put away a hefty meal of fish and pumpkin, “strength for the climb back down”. I should have listened. Climbing out of the Valley of Desolation in the heavy mud I felt like a Battle of the Somme veteran. When we finally made it back to Titou Gorge where a party of chic Martiniquans were bathing by the dam, I was plastered from head to toe in mud, but muddily triumphant.

Since that unforgettable excursion, I’ve tried the far more leisurely Syndicate forest trail. In this cathedral of trees I encountered the massive 500-year-old web-footed Chatagnier Ti Feuille tree, “the grandfather of the forest”, and eavesdropped on an incredibly raucous debate of Sisserou parrots (the national bird). High above the Picard River I watched a pair of red-necked Jacquot parrots glide toward the forest canopy, a moving study in fidelity. “They mate for life,” my guide explained.

I’ve glided up Indian River where barracudas swim and herons fish; wandered among the Georgian ruins of Fort Shirley, overlooking the Cabrits National Park and marine reserve, and walked by full moonlight along the deserted road through the Carib Territory, with only the shadows of waving palms as company.

After the land, the sea, both above and below the waterline, extends Dominica’s eco scene. Different species of whale, including sperm and humpback, as well as a variety of dolphins, are regularly sighted offshore, and whale-watching is a rapidly- growing tourist attraction.

Divers are discovering the spectacular beauty below Dominica’s waters. Unlike many other Caribbean dive sites with their sloping reefs, here reefs plunge dramatically to depths of 1,000 feet, and besides the diversity of coral, there are rare sea creatures, including frogfish, batfish, electric rays, sea horses, snakes and urchins. The submerged volcanic crater at Scotts Head is the most popular site, but there are many others along the sheltered west coast and some particularly exciting sites for experienced divers only in the Martinique Channel.

And what is the future of this unique island with its population of only 71,000? The problem facing any government in this small island, whose economy had relied heavily on the banana crop until the fairly recent introduction of eco- tourism, is to diversify the economy while maintaining environmental integrity. Rosie Douglas’s Labour Party, elected at the end of January, has a serious commitment to maintaining and developing Dominica both as the “Nature Island” of the Caribbean and as a model eco-destination.

Atherton Martin, the new Minister of Planning, Environment and Agriculture, is a well-known conservationist and proprietor of the Exotica eco-resort, who in the past has campaigned vigorously against development plans he felt threatened Dominica’s green image. So while Dominica would obviously like to see a rise in the number of stay-over visitors (currently 68,000 annually) as against cruise ship arrivals (193,000), Martin insists that all new tourist projects will have to be assessed for environmental impact in the interest “of making Dominica more eco-friendly and building on our nature island image.”

Besides tourism, economic diversification will focus on agri- business, light manufacturing and services like information technology, ship and aircraft registration, and offshore banking, which is already proving successful.

The banana industry, which has become part of Dominican rural culture, will be diversified as part of the new agribusiness thrust and turned into a “multi-line product” with bananas which don’t make the grade as organically grown being processed to make puree, flake for cereals and dried fruit, flour, wine and even stout.

Whatever plans mere mortals have for The Commonwealth of Dominica (impossible to confuse with the Dominican Republic in Hispaniola to the north) the land itself rises above all, a thrilling work of nature and a constant reminder of our place in the scheme of things. “Dornnik” truly must be seen to be believed and, once seen, never forgotten. Apres Bondie C’est La Ter.•

Dominica at a glance

Official Name: Commonwealth of Dominica

No direct international flights; fly BWIA to Antigua, St Maarten or St Lucia, then transfer to a local carrier such as Air Guadeloupe, American Eagle, HelenAir, LlAT or EC Express

Melville Hall airport is in the north-east of Dominica, a long 36-mile drive from Roseau. The smaller Canefield airport is 3 miles north of Roseau

Departure tax: EC$30 and Environmental Levy EC$4 (total US$12)
Passports are required from all visitors except US and Canadian citizens (who can enter with proof of identity showing photo) and French citizens (who can enter for two weeks with a Carte d’ldentite). Onward tickets are also required

290 sq. miles (750 sq. km), about four times the size of the District of Columbia; 29 miles long and 16 wide. Roseau, the capital, is on the south-west coast; Portsmouth, the second town, is on the north-west coast. Most of the island is mountainous, with four peaks over 4,000 ft., and many rivers, lakes and waterfalls; 60% is forested

Tropical, with plentiful rainfall, especially in the mountains (up to 340 inches a year; Roseau has 85 inches). Average temperature 27°C (80°F)

East Caribbean dollar (EC$), worth about 2.60 to the US$. US dollars and French francs are also in use

Morne Diablotin (4,747 ft./ 1,524m)

English, French-based patois (Creole)

US$ 1,040 (1997)


Predominantly Roman Catholic, with some Protestant denominations and US fundamentalist sects

5% hotel occupancy, 3% sales tax, 10% service charge

Atlantic Standard Time (EST +l, GMT-4)

Electricity: 220/240v, 50 cycles (European-style 3-prong outlets)
Telecommunications: country code 767; modern services including cellular phones, phone cards, credit card calls, USA Direct, Cybercafe (Roseau)


Dominica Division of Tourism

National Development Corporation, Valley Road, PO Box 293, Roseau; tel. 448-2045, fax 448-5840 email

Tourist offices at both airports and the Bay Front, Roseau

Europe: KPMG AXE Consultants, 12 rue de la Madrid, 75008 Paris, France; tel. 53-424100, fax 43- 873285

UK: Dominica High Commission, 1 Collingham Gardens, London SW7 OHW, England; tel. 0207 835- 1937, fax 0207 373-8743; Morris Kevan International, Mitre House, 66 Abbey Road, Bush Hill Park, Enfield, Middlesex EN1 2RQ, England; 0181 350-1000, fax 0181 350-1011, e-mail

US: Dominica Tourist Office, 10 East 21st Street, New York, NY10010, USA; tel. 212-475-7542, fax 212- 475-9728, e-mail

Dominica Hotel and Tourism Association

PO Box 384, Roseau; tel. 448- 6565, fax 448-0299, e-mail


New Year’s Day (1st)

Carnival (held on the Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday), is one of the biggest events of the year, with street parades, calypso, “Iapo kabwit” bands (goat-skin drums), vivid costuming and limitless partying

Good Friday, Easter
Monday (this year: 21st and 24th)
Earth Day (22nd)

May Day (1st)
International Game Fishing Tournament (5th-7th)
Old Mill Arts Festival (5th- 7th)

Whit Monday (12th)
Dive Fest (opens 30th)

Dive Fest (scuba and snorkelling, cruises, parties) (to 8th)

World Domino Championships (14th-26th)

Emancipation 2000 (28th-August 6th)

August Monday (Emancipation Day) (7th)

Regional Mathematics, Science and Technology Fair (18th-25th)

Carib Week (17th-24th)

Creole Day (27th)
World Creole Music Festival (27th-29th)

Independence Day (3rd)
Day of Community Service (4th)

[Christmas Day and Boxing Day (25th, 26th)


First settled by Carib and Arawak Amerindians, who called the island Wai’tukubuli (“tall is her body”)

Visited by Christopher Columbus 1493; he named the island Dominica, because it was a Sunday

Fought over by the British and French during the 17th and 18th centuries, finally becoming British in 1805

However, French influence remained strong, fed by Dominica’s position between the two French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique; many French names survive

Transferred from Leewards group to Windward Islands Federation, 1939

Separate status and constitution, 1960

Internal autonomy, 1967

Independence, 1978, as a republic within the Commonwealth; parliament consists of a single house, with 21 elected members, 9 members appointed by the President, and the Attorney-General. The Prime Minister is head of government

Post-independence politics dominated by the Dominica Freedom Party under Eugenia Charles 1980-1995, then by United Workers Party under Edison James

The Dominica Labour Party won the general elections held on January 31, 2000, in a coalition government with the Freedom Party. Rosie Douglas, leader of the DLP, is the current Prime Minister


The economy grew 1.8% in 1997 and 3.4% in 1998

Only a quarter of the mountainous terrain can be cultivated; agriculture contributes 20% of GDP – bananas (nearly half the total labour force, but damaged by storms, Latin American competition and international wrangling over trade rules), coconuts (used for soaps and oils), fruit and vegetables, fishing, aquaculture, root crops, coffee, cocoa

A small manufacturing sector produces soaps, garments, cleaners and disinfectants, candles, plastic items, pasta, paints, cigarettes and shoes; there are electronic assembly and data processing operations

Tourism: Dominica is primarily an eco-tourism destination, with about 70,000 visitors a year plus about 200,000 day visitors from cruise ships

Offshore financial services are being developed – banking, insurance, ship registration, trusts, international business corporations

Investors are offered a stable environment with low inflation, duty and tax concessions, no capital gains tax, repatriation of profits, exemption from withholding tax, factory space and industrial estate facilities

Trade is primarily with the Caribbean, the US, Canada, the UK, Taiwan and China. Dominica benefits from trade treaties with much of the Caribbean, the US (CBI), Canada (Caribcan) and the EU (Lome Convention)

Dominica Association of Industry and Commerce, PO Box 85, Roseau, tel. 448-2874, fax 448-6868; Dominica Export Import Agency (DEXIA), PO Box 173, Roseau, tel. 448-2780, fax 448-6308, National Development Corporation, PO Box 293, Roseau; tel. 448-2045, fax 448-5840, email



Try Scotts Head, in the south; Macousheri Bay and Coconut Beach (near Portsmouth); Turtle Beach, Pointe Baptiste, Hampstead or Woodford Hill in the north-east (but beware of swells, currents and waves); Mero, Prince Rupert Bay, Douglas Bay and Toucari in the west. Being dramatically volcanic, Dominica is not a classic beach island – much of the sand is black – but there is some good river bathing

At several hotels, including Ambassador, Fort Young, Garraway and Layou River

On the left. There is a 20 mph speed limit in towns. A local driving permit (valid for 1 month) costs EC$30, if you have a current home or international permit and two years’ driving experience. There are several auto rental agencies

Dominica is the Caribbean’s “Nature Island” and this is its prime attraction

In addition to its dramatic volcanic mountains, much of the island is forested, and there is an extensive system of National Parks. The 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park is a World Heritage Site, the only one in the Eastern Caribbean. The Morne Diablotin National Park occupies much of the northern half of the island, and the historic Cabrits peninsula in the northeast is also a 1, 313-acre National Park which includes distinctive marshland and the 18th-century Fort Shirley

There are 172 recorded bird species, over 1,000 flowering plants (including 74 different orchids), and some outstanding gardens. The birds include the endangered Sisserou (Imperial) and Jacquot (Red-Necked) Parrots. Mammals include agouti, manicou, wild pigs and bats. There are 55 butterfly species, five snakes (all non-poisonous), sea turtles, iguana and “mountain chicken” (distinctive frogs)

Good local food is widely available in Dominica, especially seafood, home-grown fruit and vegetables, “mountain chicken”, root vegetables (“provision”), sea-moss (cordial), fresh fruit juices, and popular dishes like flying fish and bake, roti, buljow (shredded saltfish with onion, tomato and spices), manicou and crab-back. The island produces its own excellent beer, Kubuli

January 1 (most of the island take the day off also on January 2, a business holiday), Carnival (business holiday), Good Friday, Easter Monday, first Monday in May, Whit Monday, first Monday in August, November 3 and 4, Christmas Day and Boxing Day


  • In Roseau: Fort Young, Garraway, Sutton Place. Smaller establishments include Cherry Lodge, Continental Inn, ltassi Cottages, Kent Anthony Guest House, Vena’s Guest House
  • South of Roseau: Anchorage Dive Centre, Castle Comfort Lodge, Evergreen Hotel, Exotica Eco Resort, Reigate Hall
  • Roseau Valley: Chez Ophelia Cottage Apartments, End of Eden Guest House, Roseau Valley Hotel
  • Around Canefield: Ambassador, Hummingbird Inn, Springfield Plantation, Sunset Guest House, Wesleeann Hotel & Suites
  • Around Trafalgar Falls: D’Auchamps (cottages), Falls View Guest House, Papillotte Wilderness Retreat and Nature Sanctuary, Roxy’s Mountain Lodge, Syme lees Villa
  • South coast: Castille Apartment, Herche’s Place, Hillfrance Cottage, Ocean View Apartments, Zandoli Inn
  • West coast: Castaways Beach Hotel, Lauro Club, Sunset Bay Club
  • Around Portsmouth: Anse a Laine Lodge and Dive Centre, Casa Ropa, Coconut Beach, Douglas Guest House, Mayo Bay Hotel, Picard Beach Cottage Resort, Portsmouth Beach Hotel, Purple Turtle
  • North: Blenheim Plantation House, Ocean View Cottage, Red Rock Haven, Sea Cliff Cottages, Veranda View, Windswept Guesthouse
  • Inland: Floral Gardens, Layou River, Layou Valley Inn, Olive’s Guest House
  • Carib Territory: Carib Territory Guesthouse, Bionics Guesthouse

Many thanks to Exotica Eco Resort at Morne Anglais, Continental Inn, Roseau, and The Carib Territory Guesthouse, Crayfish River, for assistance with accommodation during preparation of this profile of Dominica

The Chronicle, The Independent, The Tropical Star, The Sun, Voice of the People

Radio: Kairi FM, DBS (AM and FM), Voice of Life religious channel

MARPIN TV, ATV, Video-1, US cable

Music bouyon, cadence, jing ping, calypso, lapo kabwit, zouk, konpa, soukous, reggae, jazz, pan, rock, disco, dancehall

  • Performance: Arawak House of Culture, Roseau; Old Mill Cultural Centre, Canefield (theatre, music, dance)
  • Hotel entertainment: Fort Young; Cellars Bar (Wednesdays); Syme Zees (Thursday jazz)
  • Disco: Insomnia at Dominica Club (Roseau), Warehouse (Canefield), Scorpio (Morne Daniel), Riva’s Disco (Portsmouth), Sundown Disco (Marigot), Doubles International (Sylvania)


  • Artists: Carla Amour, Alwin Bully, Darius David, Earl Etienne, Kelo Royer, Arnold Toulon
    Song: Ophelia Marie
    Writers: Jean Rhys (1894-1979, Wide Sargasso Sea); Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1908-1986, The Orchid House)


  • Roseau: Callaloo (448-3386, creole); Cartwheel (448-5353, cafe); Cornerhouse (449-9000, snacks, music, books/magazines, Internet cafe); Green Parrot (creole); Guiyave Restaurant and Patisserie (448-2930, creole); La Robe Creole (448- 2896, creole and European); Laughing Lobster 449-9372, seafood); Mousehole Cafe; Pearl’s Cuisine (448-8707, creole); Perky’s Pizza (448-1628); Restaurant Paiho (448-8999, Chinese), Ti Caz (French)
  • Roseau Valley: Papillotte Wilderness Retreat (448-2287)
  • Soufriere: Forest Bistro (448-7105, seafood)
  • Castaways Hotel: Ocean Terrace Restaurant
  • Portsmouth: Coconut Beach (445-5393); La Salle Jojo; Purple Turtle (445-5296, snacks and meals, local and international)
  • Scotts Head: Sundowner Cafe (Herche’s Place, seafood)
  • Calibishie: La Guingette (445-7783, contemporary French)


  • Good buys: straw goods, bay rum, soaps, herbal tea, coffee, toiletries, spices, chocolate, candles, pepper sauce
  • Art: The Iris Dangleben Gallery, Caribana
  • Craft: Craft Market (Old Market, Roseau), Caribana (Cork Street, with art gallery), Tropicrafts (Queen Mary Street), Rainforest (Old Street), Dominica Pottery (Bayfront and Kennedy Av.)
  • Books: Cee-Bee’s Bookshop (Cork Street), Paperbacks (King George V Street), Frontline Cooperative Services (Queen Mary Street, also CDs)
  • Batik: Cotton House Batik (Kings Lane)

Basketball, netball: widely played, increasingly popular

Cricket: played all over the island between January and August, especially at the Botanical Gardens and the clifftop Petit Savanne

Cruises: Carib Cruises’ 70ft catamaran; whale and dolphin watching

Diving: Dominica is a highly regarded dive destination, with unpolluted water, wrecks, extensive reefs, underwater hot springs (Toucari Bay, Pointe Ronde, Ausbatou, Pointe Michel), and a wide variety of sites and conditions, as well as excellent snorkelling. The most popular areas are south of Roseau, around Soufriere, Scotts Head and Pointe Guignard. Among the top dive sites are Champagne, Coral Gardens, Crater’s Edge, Scotts Head, Scotts Head Pinnacle, Suburban (south); and Maggie’s Point, Rina’s Hole, Rodney’s Rock and Whaleshark Reef (west). There are marine parks around Toucari and Douglas Bays in the north-west, and around Soufriere and Scotts Head. The south and east coasts are challenging, with strong Atlantic currents. Use established dive operators, e.g. Anchorage Dive Centre, Cabrits Dive Centre, Dive Castaways, Dive Dominica, East Carib Dive, Nature Island Dive. The annual Dive Fest is held in June/ July

Football: national sport, played all over the island (July to November)

Hiking: extensive mountain trails; mountain climbing can be arranged through the Forestry Division. Use trail guides. The easiest ascent is Morne Anglais (from Giraudel, 3,683 ft.)

Kayaking: Nature Island Dive, Dive Castaways, Wave Dance

Mountain biking: increasingly popular; challenging mountain roads. Equipment available at Nature Island Dive

Sailing: challenging in Dominica, with strong gusting/ shifting winds. Contact Wave Dancer

Sport fishing: charters available (Game Fishing Dominica, Rainbow Sportfishing). The Game Fishing Festival is held in May

Squash: Dominica Club

Tennis: Dominica Club, Reigate Hall, Castaways

Public transport is mainly by bus and minibus. Private taxis and private car rentals are available. There is a ferry service (L’Express des lies) to Martinique, Guadeloupe and St Lucia

Roseau is a small, friendly capital, with an attractive waterfront and some charming traditional buildings. The Old Market Place is a pedestrian shopping area. Check the Market, Bayfront, the Dominican Museum, the 40-acre Botanical Gardens (plants, trees, orchid house, bird sanctuary), and the Roman Catholic cathedral (1800-1916). The deepwater harbour is at Woodbridge Bay north of Roseau; there are great views from Morne Bruce behind the town

Within easy reach of Roseau are the Trafalgar Falls (5 miles from town, easy path, eager
guides); D’ Auchamps Gardens (beautifully landscaped family estate); Geneva Estate; and sulphur springs near Soufriere

The west coast road, passing Canefield, Massacre and Mahaut (great views from Warner Road/Layou Valley Road), leads to Portsmouth, with the nearby Indian River (river trips), Prince Rupert Bay and Cabrits peninsula (ruins of Fort Shirley, 1774, with museum) and National Park. There are good hiking trails from Calibishie. The road continues to Marigot and Melville Hall

On the rugged east coast is the 3,700-acre Carib Territory, home to 3,500 descendants of these early settlers with their own elected Chief (use a guide for understanding the Carib culture and sites; a Carib museum is in the pipeline; canoes are made from treetrunks in the traditional way). Other east coast sites include L’Escalier Tete-Chien (rock staircase at Jenny Point), the White River at Savana Mahaut, Victoria Falls (near Delices), and Sari-Sari Falls near La Plaine (150 ft.)

In the hills: Boeri Lake (1.25 miles trail), the Boiling Lake (the largest of its kind in the world, a strenuous 6-mile hike from Laudat via the Valley of Desolation, allow 3-4 hours each way), the Emerald Pool (10 minutes from the road), the Freshwater Lake (a mile from Laudat, at 2,800 ft.), and Middleham Trails (through rain forest, from Sylvania or Cochrane). Morne Diablotin is a tough 3-hour hike. Other hikes: Morne Trois Pitons (4,550 ft.), Titou Gorge, Kent Gilbert Trail (from La Plaice, 4.5 miles), Middleham Falls (200 ft.)


To get married in Dominica, you will need (apart from a prospective spouse) to be staying on the island and to apply for a marriage licence at least two days before the ceremony. You will have to supply proof of citizenship (passport, birth certificate), and proof of marital status if previously married (evidence of divorce, spouse’s death certificate).

Funding provided by the 11th EDF Regional Private Sector Development Programme Direct Support Grants Programme.
The views expressed on this website are those of the the authors and do not reflect those of the Direct Support Grants Programme.