Beauty draws you in, but stay to find the depth

The archipelago’s ‘Na­ture Is­land’ pro­vides a chance to in­ter­act with rel­a­tively un­crowded, un­spoiled ter­rain

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY STEPHEN NASH Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

Most trav­el­ers hit on Do­minica—or Waitu ku bu li, in the is­land’ s na­tive Kalina go lan­guage —dur­ing a half-day shore ex­cur­sion on a cruise.

Of course, cruis­ing’s the equiv­a­lent of speed­dat­ing the Caribbean is­lands. They’re gor­geous or hand­some by turns, th­ese palmy ports of call, but they can be­gin to seem alike to vis­i­tors who don’t have time to be­come more in­ti­mately in­volved. In a longer visit, even a few days, the dis­tinc­tively nat­u­ral char­ac­ter of Do­minica (doe-min-EE-ka) — half­way be­tween Guade­loupe and Mar­tinique, and smaller than either — emerges.

It’s de­fined partly by what the is­land is not. (It is not the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic, for starters.) It’s easy to get to, but the air­port is not large enough for a com­mer­cial jet. There’s no wall of West in, Hil­ton, Ritz-Carl­ton; no Hy­att, no high rise ho­tels on th­ese shore sat all. No golf cour­ses, even! The lack of ho­mog­e­niz­ing re­sor­ti­fi­ca­tion is be­cause of Do­minica’s coast­line, which is nearly all big round rocks or sheer cliffs — very few sand beaches.

All to the good, my wife, Linda, and I found — be­cause Do­minica’s self-de­scrip­tion as “the Na­ture Is­land” turns out to be more than just an ad­ver­tis­ing slo­gan. A quar­ter of its ex­quis­ite land­scapes are pro­tected as na­tional parks. Thor­oughly, and in some cases trag­i­cally, banged up by Trop­i­cal Storm Erika in Au­gust, most of Do­minica’s best lodg­ing and des­ti­na­tions have re­opened, or will soon.

Vis­i­tors come here for small-scale re­sorts in quiet flo­ral set­tings, and plan­tain chips served en plein air with grilled fresh mahi on a ba­nana leaf. Some might even come be­cause they’ve heard this billed as one of the world’s 10 best eth­i­cal travel des­ti­na­tions, an an­nual list com­piled by the non­profit group Eth­i­cal Trav­eler.

Even more, they come for bet­ter odds of en­gage­ment with the place it­self, in­stead of pool decks and pas­siv­ity.

Many of those kinds of op­por­tu­ni­ties are found in the vol­canic in­te­rior, whose steep ridges and ravines lie un­der a nearly un­in­ter­rupted blan­ket of rich, dense rain for­est. Along more than 300 rivers you can visit a se­ries of cas­cades and grot­toes. There are chal­leng­ing treks, like the 115mile Waitukubuli Na­tional Trail, which spans the is­land’s north-south axis. Al­ter­na­tively, many eas­ier and shorter hikes lead to dra­matic wa­ter­falls, too.

The is­land’s al­ready small pop­u­la­tion of about 60,000 is shrink­ing as the mar­ket for its agri­cul­tural ex­ports de­clines and Do­mini­cans em­i­grate to find work. So tourism is an eco­nomic life­line. Vis­i­tors are rarely taken for granted.

De­spite the com­par­a­tive lack of high­gloss de­vel­op­ment, liv­ing stan­dards here seem bet­ter than on other, more im­pov­er­ished or so­cially strat­i­fied is­lands. The dispir­it­ing sig­nals of poverty so com­mon along the roads of other is­lands — pan­han­dlers, junk cars, stray dogs and the smell of burn­ing plas­tic, for ex­am­ple — are not per­va­sive here, but there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence of great wealth, either. “We don’t re­ally have an up­per class,” one of our guides told us. “We have poorer peo­ple, and then the ‘af­ford­ables’ — those who can af­ford things.”

We ar­rived af­ter a twisty 50-minute trip from the air­port at the Ros­alie Bay Re­sort, ca­pac­ity 50 guests, which we’d cho­sen partly for its “eco-friendly” as­pi­ra­tions. This is an arena in which the com­pe­ti­tion every­where, even on Do­minica, is in­ten­si­fy­ing, and there are other eco-lodges to con­sider. Ros­alie Bay’s power sup­ply is so­lar pan­els and an el­e­gant white Dan­ish wind tur­bine, poised and twirling like a prima donna on a nearby hill.

The re­sort’s se­cluded, for­est-fringed black-sand beach is a nest­ing area for three kinds of sea tur­tles, all en­dan­gered, and dur­ing the right sea­son, you can be awak­ened af­ter mid­night to be guided out to watch them lay their eggs. The owner is an Amer­i­can ex­pat, Bev­erly Deikel, who cam­paigned for le­gal pro­tec­tion for the tur­tles on Do­minica. They are now some­thing of an icon; so is she.

The most cel­e­brated of the charis­matic en­dan­gered species on this is­land is por­trayed on the na­tional flag: the darkly im­pe­ri­ous Sis­serou par­rot, found nowhere else on the planet. A pre­car­i­ous 300 of them are thought to per­sist in the wet, dense, re­mote up­lands. On our first full day, we went look­ing for them.

Not un­aided, though. Not in a left-lane, stick-shift na­tion whose corkscrew­ing, pot-holed roads in­vite poor choices. Any­way, we are sub-am­a­teur bird­ers, al­though we do know which end of the binoc­u­lars to peer through. We asked for a guide.

And — per­haps be­cause Do­minica is not over­run with vis­i­tors — our guide hap­pened to be Bertrand Jno Bap­tiste. We soon learned that he is “Dr. Birdy,” a life­long con­ser­va­tion­ist and a co-author of “Do­minica’s Birds.” He had a spot­ting scope the size of a bazooka and trained it on dis­tant prey with unerring skill.

Dur­ing in­tro­duc­tions, I joked lamely that I hoped to take at least three par­rots home with me. “Yes,” he said, “and if you try, I can guar­an­tee that you will spend a lot longer on this is­land than you had planned for.”

In short or­der, we took in the An­til­lean crested hum­ming­bird, the trem­bler, the mag­no­lia cuckoo, the ubiq­ui­tous ba­nanaquit and many other col­or­ful avians. We watched the rau­cous Jaco par­rot, which bears a spec­trum of loud col­ors, at very close quar­ters as it evis­cer­ated an orange.

We even heard — but never saw — the elu­sive Sis­serou par­rot, whose sonorous call had us scan­ning the tree line from un­der the shel­ter of a ba­nana leaf dur­ing a long down­pour.

Bertrand was also a sharply can­did guide to the his­tory, cul­ture and pol­i­tics of Do­minica as we ma­neu­vered to 18th-cen­tury Fort Shirley and then to a row­boat ex­pe­di­tion up the ti­dal In­dian River. We fig­ured it was blind good luck that we had Dr. Birdy for the day.

That con­clu­sion shifted later on: It wasn’t luck, it was a pat­tern. Our next out­ing was a half-day hike along Seg­ment Five of the Waitukubuli Na­tional Trail, the equiv­a­lent of the Ap­palachian or the Pa­cific Crest trail in the United States.

Our guide could have been any com­pe­tent per­son, but turned out to be Pros­per Paris.

Paris is a Kali­nago — a mem­ber of the in­dig­i­neous peo­ple, for­merly known as Caribs, who have lived on Do­minica and other Caribbean is­lands since around 3000 B.C. — whose cul­tural ex­per­tise qual­i­fied him to help with the in­stal­la­tion of an ex­hibit fea­tur­ing the tribe in the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Mu­seum of the Amer­i­can In­dian. He has con­sulted on ar­chae­o­log­i­cal digs in the Caribbean and is the founder and leader of a long­time cul­tural dance troupe. With his wife, he is the co-author of a Kali­nago cook­book.

The Waitukubuli Trail is a mag­nif­i­cent achieve­ment for a small na­tion, tes­ti­mony to its com­mit­ment to main­tain its bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity. De­fend­ing the trail will be a strug­gle as time passes: On one leg of our hike — a nar­row rem­nant track from colo­nial times, paved with stones — we emerged abruptly from the rain for­est onto a broad dirt road freshly blasted into the side of a hill along the route where the Na­tional Trail used to be. Hmmm.

This gave way where the skinny, slip­pery, side-slanted trail re­sumed. But it was now hemmed in on the down­hill side for per­haps half a mile by five ugly and quite haz­ardous strands of new barbed wire, in­stalled by an in­dus­tri­ous and heed­less cof­fee and ca­cao farmer.

Our visit was dur­ing the dry sea­son, which al­legedly ex­tends from Fe­bru­ary through Au­gust, but rain threat­ened. We didn’t want that. Thick mats of roots, the sinews of the rain for­est canopy, ex­tended out over the trail from mas­sive fi­cus, gom­mier and cab­bage palm trees. Ices­lick rocks made fords and de­scents cau­tious work.

Rain forests such as this one were the do­main of the “ma­wons” — Africans who re­belled and es­caped from French sugar plan­ta­tions on which they were en­slaved in the 1700s, and learned to sur­vive and hide, raid and fight. They were also the realm of the Kali­nago, who were dec­i­mated by dis­ease, slav­ery and war­fare dur­ing the Euro­pean in­flux that fol­lowed Colum­bus. The last Kali­nago rem­nants com­bined on Do­minica, and fought on un­til 1903, when they were granted a reser­va­tion by the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment — the nu­cleus of what is now the Kali­nago Ter­ri­tory.

Paris is a repos­i­tory of the his­tory and folk­lore of his peo­ple, which we learned much more of along the trail. When I tried to im­i­tate the spooky song of birds we were hear­ing, called moun­tain whistlers, he warned me of my ig­no­rant mis­take. “Don’t im­i­tate the moun­tain whistler,” he cau­tioned, as the wind picked up and the sun dis­ap­peared. “You’ll make it rain re­ally hard.”

He ex­e­cuted a few wig­gle-dance steps to coun­ter­act my er­ror, prob­a­bly in jest, and the rain never came.

We paused to rest at a cab­bage palm, whose bunched roots are a vivid scar­let. When the Kali­nago were in hid­ing, Paris told us, they ate the palm fruit at the top of the tree and used those roots as har­nesses and straps. They bashed the bark with stones to re­lease sap, and that at­tracted bee­tle s whose lar­vae were edi­ble. We ended the day with a visit to the tribe’ s cul­tural cen­ter and model vil­lage.

The Kali­nago re­serve and our re­sort are on the wind­blown At­lantic side of Do­minica, and the crash­ing surf was a wel­come 24-hour sound­track at our cot­tage. The east­ern side faces the far calmer Caribbean, where the ebb and flow of cruise ship day-trip­pers and their buses can crowd some des­ti­na­tions. Ask your guide to chore­og­ra­phy­our day to avoid the swarm, and you will of­ten have places like the eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble Emer­ald Pool, with its grotto and tran­quil water­fall, all to your­self.

Scotts Head was one of the fi­nal day trips near the end of our week on Do­minica: a pic­turesque high promon­tory at the south­ern end of the is­land. A 10-minute climb on an easy path leads up to a serene panorama.

Turn, and there’s the long curve of Soufriere Bay, its scat­ter of palms and fish­ing boats, and the line of coast that leads north, even­tu­ally to Fort Shirley. Look seaward and you can al­most make out the line where the At­lantic and Caribbean meet.

And this is also where the Waitukubuli Na­tional Trail be­gins. We could see it climb over a ridge to­ward the cen­tral high­lands, past many of the places we’d vis­ited and to­ward the dense, green cen­tral high­lands, where, some­where, a Sis­serou par­rot was wait­ing to be found.

LINDA NEL­SON NASH

PHO­TOS BY LINDA NEL­SON NASH

Clock­wise from top: The view from the sum­mit of Scotts Head, look­ing upon its name­sake vil­lage; in Do­minica’s vol­canic rain forests, hun­dreds of streams gather and cre­ate wa­ter­falls; cer­e­mo­nial face carv­ings at a Kali­nago vil­lage mu­seum.

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