By Everett Potter
One of my unofficial rules of travel is that anywhere that Mick Jagger has chosen to stay is probably good enough for me. But I had new respect for the septuagenarian Rolling Stone when I check into Papillote Wilderness Retreat on the island of Dominica. This is not a celeb-magnet sort of place. There’s nary a butler in sight and it’s a far cry from a Four Seasons – no Frette sheets and no beach view. In fact, there is no beach — or ocean, for that matter. It’s a simple, hand-crafted retreat on a jungle-clad hillside that has been artfully surrounded by painstakingly created gardens. The view is down the Roseau River Valley, as Edenic a spot as you’ll find on this lush island, and it’s also a short walk to Trafalgar Falls, perhaps the most dramatic waterfall in the Caribbean. Rooms are spare, there’s no air conditioning, mosquito netting is de riguer and furnishings are almost an afterthought. Delicious meals — seafood reigns — are served in a stone building with open walls where you can catch up with the proprietress, 84 year old Anne Jno Baptiste, who has spent half a century in the islands since decamping from a Greenwich Village upbringing.
“I left before the hippies got there,” she told me, in a New York accent that has pretty much died out in her native city. If Bella Abzug had decided to become a hotelier instead of a politician, this might be her, nursing a single rum punch while spreading cheer among her loyal, repeat guests.
“I’m still here because I haven’t been able to replace myself yet,” she added.
There is no TV or radio, though there is WiFi. But resist the urge to upload a day’s worth of dramatic nature photos to Facebook and shut off your devices and listen to the chorus of a million tree frogs and the sound of fat raindrops falling onto leaves outside your widows and breathe deeply. In the morning, you will wake up and see 100 shades of green outside your window, hear a chorus of Bullfinches in full song and watch a mad scramble of lizards on the stone-flagged paths. Jagger spent a couple of weeks here with one his sons, proving that he too has an appreciation for simple, natural, island life, which Dominica offers in spades.
DOMINICA, TIME TRAVEL IN THE CARIBBEAN
It’s been a long time since I was so enchanted by an island. Bereft of major chain hotels, mass tourism and a capable international airport, Dominica (Dom-in-eeka) has been left adrift. From a traveler’s perspective, that’s good news. Just don’t confuse it with the Dominican Republic.
A trip to Dominica is a bit like time-travel to the Caribbean of 50 years ago. Or perhaps longer. The great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor visited in the late 1940’s when he was working on his first book, A Traveler’s Tree, which recounts his peregrinations around the Caribbean. The tale he tells of Columbus describing the island to his patrons – he allegedly took a piece of paper, crumbling it into a rough-edged ball, and tossed it on to a table — is still told today.
For a quick study of Dominica’s topography, it’s a pretty good trick. From the air, and from the land itself, I was struck by the jagged jungle-covered mountains. This rain forest wraps itself around 4,000 foot slumbering volcanoes. Driving means negotiating one hairpin turn after another. It also rains a lot. Depending upon where you are on the island, it seems to be raining off and on throughout the day. But with a strong sun in between, it’s all part of the island life.
Lying between Martinique and Guadeloupe, Dominica has few beaches, no international resorts, and no nightlife. Instead of mass tourism, it offers small hotels, hot springs, black sand beaches and arguably the best hiking in the Caribbean. Offshore lie some of the healthiest coral reefs in the world. It’s also one of the last bastions of the Carib people, after whom the Caribbean was named. For two centuries, the so-called “Nature Island” shifted between French and French occupation. It recently celebrated 35 years of independence.
I kept running into vacationers from other Caribbean islands on Dominica, typically couples in their 30’s and 40’s who worked at resorts on Barbados or Antigua. They were on Dominica, they said, for a real Caribbean vacation. That meant: no glitz, plenty of nature, laid back vibe and relatively affordable lodging. They came to hike and scuba dive, and they came back to the island as often as time allowed. This sort of busman’s holiday was the highest praise these island insiders could bestow.
IT’S NO SECRET
The counterpoint to Papillote was Secret Bay, built on a bluff with a drop dead view north along the coast towards the town of Portsmouth and beyond to Isle de Saintes and Guadeloupe. Gregor Nassief, island-born, created this place in 2011. There are just a handful of villas and bungalows and they offer privacy and privilege, smartly and elegantly designed. It’s a large property, with well-preserved coastal greenery and a very private beach. It’s also designed for couples only, and maximizes space, privacy and views.
The prize villa, Zabuco, was designed by Nassief’s Venezuelan father-in-law, an architect and friend of the great architect Oscar Niemeyer, and indeed, it’s a little touch of Brasilia on the coast.
“You can see whales from the meditation deck here at the right time of year,” Nassief assured me.
A whale sighting would have been nice, but the view was already mesmerizing and the villa was one of the finest I have seen in 30 years of running around the islands.
Secret Bay aside, Dominica feels just civilized enough, with enough creature comforts for most of us. Nightlife, bars and restaurants? Umm, well stargazing is a better bet. It’s an elemental sort of Caribbean here.
RAMBLING IN ROSEAU
Cruise ships dock infrequently in Roseau, the pleasantly ramshackle capital, where the streets are lined with rickety wooden houses with balconies. The architecture is British colonial married to New Orleans, and best glimpsed along King George V Street.
“Those who have an appreciation of history will see Roseau as a treasure,” says Daryl Philip, a local historian and farmer, who gave me a walking tour. “Our language and laws are British, but our customs are French.”
Visit the Dominica Museum (Dame Eugenia Blvd) with its hand-carved Carib canoes and weathered oil painting of Queen Victoria, is a reminder of Colonial times. Nearby is Cartwheel Café (Dame Eugenia Blvd; 767-448-5353), where strong home grown Dominican coffee will keep you going. If there are fishermen in the Roseau River scooping up tiny titiwi fish, stop at Olive’s (no phone; corner Riverbank and Hanover), where the namesake owner fries up tititwi accra, a spicy fish cake. Or sit down at Pearls (50 King George V St; 767) 448-8707 ) for callalloo soup and local Kubuli beer. The cobblestone Old Market square is where you’ll find traditional lightweight baskets woven by indigenous Caribs and the food market a few blocks away has spices and hot sauces. If you’re here for the night, savor sunset with a rum punch made with local Macoucherie rum at the Fort Royal Hotel on the waterfront, a prelude to a seafood dinner at Old Stone Grill (15 Castle Street; 767-440-7549).
TAKE A HIKE
Hiking on Dominica can be arduous, made harder by frequent bursts of rainfall. But the plant life, the waterfalls, the hot springs and the daily rainbows make it more than worthwhile, as does the chance of spotting the indigenous Sisserou parrot. Ken’s Hinterland Adventure Tours (http://www.khattstours.com/) has a range of guided hikes and the three-hour hike through Morne Trois Piton National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to MiddlehamFalls ($35) packs in some of the best of Dominica. The falls drops 280 feet into a natural pool where the cool waters offer a refreshing if chilly swim before you hike back through the humid jungle.
Snorkeling on Champagne Reef, which is about a 10 minute cab ride south of Roseau, offers a look at one of the healthiest coral systems in the world. Champagne Reef Dive & Snorkel offers changing rooms, gear and guide for $19 an hour. In water no more than 30 feet deep is an undersea panorama filled with giant barrel sponges, Flying Guinard, red heart sea urchins, and a steady stream of bubbles from hot springs on the sea bed that that gave the reef its name. A guide like Oscar Etienne can even point out Spanish cannons, encrusted by sea life in the centuries since they were part of wreck along these shores. Head back to Roseau and then out to sea again. The waters around Dominica are the permanent home of female sperm whales and pilot whales, and whale watching trips pretty much guarantee sightings year round. Anchorage HotelWhaleWatch & DiveCenter (anchoragehotel.dm; 767-448-2638) offers 3½-hour tours for $50. The sightings are even more varied in winter, when male sperm whales and humpbacks enter these waters.
WHERE TO STAY
Papillote Wilderness Resort. Doubles from $115 http://www.papillote.dm/
SecretBay Doubles from $430 per night. The Zabuco Villa is $866 per night through December 13, 2013. http://secretbay.dm/