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Eco Trip
In Dominica, between bird-watching, waterfall dips and rain-forest hikes, you'll barely have time for the beach.

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 29, 2004; Page P01

The bananaquit was first up. Strutting across the table outside my cabana as if it were a catwalk, the tiny tropical bird inched almost close enough for me to touch its lemon yellow belly, then glided off.

Anne Jean-Baptiste, co-owner and chief botanist at the Papillote Wilderness Retreat, dropped her spade with the look of someone who had witnessed this ritual before. "Ah," she said, smiling. "Your own personal fashion show has started."

And so it had. A blue-headed hummingbird fluttered by next, followed by a ringed kingfisher with a rust-colored stomach and a peacock spreading its magnificent span of blue, green, turquoise and brown feathers. Then came the butterflies, fluttering in a sweep of deep blues, oranges and yellows. The backdrop of plant life -- from white and pink orchids to heliconias, begonias, elephant ears and jade vine, with its extraordinary aquamarine flowers -- was a spectacle all its own.

I had come to Dominica for this. With more than half of its 289.5-square-mile surface covered by rain forest -- including the lush 22,000-acre Northern Forest Preserve, 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park, and more than 350 rivers and streams -- the Caribbean island offers a smooth entry into the natural bounty of the tropics.

So what if Picard Beach, recommended by locals as the finest swimming spot on the island, turned out to be a basic stretch of gray sand and palm trees. And who cared that one of the hottest after-dark scenes on the island is Wednesday Quiz Night at the Cornerhouse Cafe in the capital city of Roseau. Nor did I mind that this isolated outpost, perched between Martinique and Guadeloupe, took two flights and a ferry to reach from Washington. (A short plane ride is also possible for the last leg.) I had seen my share of Caribbean beaches and up-all-night soca and reggae parties.

And so one day last month my friend Michel and I hopped aboard L'Express Des Iles in Point-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, for the two-hour ferry ride. Our plan was to spend five days hiking and exploring the natural wonders of Dominica.

The French outpost of Guadeloupe had provided us an easy landing in the seductively lush ecology of the Caribbean. Our base was Trois Rivieres, a seaside village in the shadows of La Soufriere, Guadeloupe's 4,813-foot volcano. Nearly every cottage had a garden of banana trees, pink and orange flamboyants and other flora.

We stayed with friends, and their hillside home had the kind of view that winter-weary East Coasters close their eyes and dream about. The regal blue Caribbean was broken only by the occasional ripple of soft white waves. The intimate island of Les Saintes, covered with green, seemed near enough to swim to.

With the aroma of flowers in the air, and locals strolling past clutching baguettes and chattering in French, it struck me at first like a village in southern France.

"No, it's not really a good comparison," said Therese Pusos, who retired and moved here with her husband, Raymond, from Paris three years ago. "They have sun for three months a year and we have it for twelve. I will show you the difference it makes."

They next day she did. Piling us into her car, she drove us around Basse Terre, the fertile, mountainous wing of the butterfly-shaped island. As we rode along the coast, fields of banana trees, coconut palms and other plants stretched far. We wound our way through Guadeloupe National Park, a 74,000-acre rain forest. UNESCO has declared it a Biosphere Reserve, and when we stopped by, it was easy to see why. It is home to more than 300 species of trees and bushes, including towering ferns, lianas and palms, as well as wild pineapples and white orchids.

That night at dinner, Therese showed us another advantage of living in this bountiful region: A cocktail of locally made rum mixed with lime was followed by a mouthwatering tart of pumpkins, onions and fish yanked from the ocean earlier that day. For dessert there were fresh papayas from a neighbor's garden.

As hard as it was to leave, I wanted to go deeper into the unspoiled Caribbean. So now we were en route to Dominica.

Even from the ferry's top deck, the island's allure was clear. The 4,672-foot Morne Trois Pitons, a three-headed peak, rose grandly from the center of the isle. Tiny fishing villages -- the main population strongholds for the island's 71,500 residents -- dotted the coast. Covering the whole place was a thick blanket of trees, in more hues of green than I could count, from emerald to kelly, mint, lime and pastel.

Christopher Columbus discovered the island in 1493; settled mostly by Carib Indians, it was colonized by the French in the 1720s. After a protracted back and forth between the French and British, London claimed it in 1805. In 1979, the Commonwealth of Dominica received its independence.

After our arrival at the small port in Roseau and a 20-minute uphill chug in a van, we arrived at our hotel. The Papillote is a cluster of simple stone buildings transformed into a four-acre enclave of exotica by plants, birds and butterflies. Twenty-eight species of birds and 18 kinds of butterflies have been spotted here. Three fountains gush warm spring water into outdoor pools, available for bathing. A stream bubbled just downhill. Our room, one of seven, was basic, with a private bath and comfortable bed. But never mind. We had come to immerse ourselves in the outdoors.

After a lunch of goat stew, we did just that. Our first stop was Trafalgar Falls, only 20 minutes away by foot. The walk was easy, over a flat, well-groomed path. We stopped at a platform that offers a magnificent view of the twin falls crashing 200 feet down a rock face. Slowly we made our way across a shaft of rocks to the pond at the base of the falls. In the afternoon heat, the water was irresistible. And so in we went for a refreshing splash. Only on the way back did it hit us that, save for three other sightseers, we had had one of the most stunning attractions in all of Dominica to ourselves.

The next day I mentioned casually to a cafe vendor in the town of Trafalgar, a short walk from the hotel, that I wanted to see more of the island. Within 20 minutes, a local guide named Basil appeared in a black van and negotiated a price, and we were off. It didn't take long for me to see why the guidebooks suggest that visitors hire a car rather than drive on their own. For one thing, the road circling the island wove along curves that made my stomach jump. For another, there was way too much to see -- from towering gommier trees to vistas overlooking deep gorges -- to concentrate on the road.

Our destination was the Emerald Pool, in Morne Trois Pitons National Park. After passing the town of Pont Casse, we stopped at a trail. After an easy 10- minute walk, we were peering into a small lake with a 20-foot waterfall at one end. The water was surrounded by a thick cluster of trees and reflected the deep green shrubbery. In the afternoon sunlight, the green shimmered.

On our third morning, we were up for more of a challenge and so joined Andy, the hotel's cook and nature guide, for a four-hour group hike to Middleham Falls. After a 20-minute jeep ride up and down hills, past cottages lined with red and orange bougainvillea and other tropical flowers, we arrived at the village of Providence, where the trail started.

We moved at a breezy pace, over a small stream, up a hilly but well-kept path and then through dense forest. Andy pointed out the foliage along the way, including palms, gommier trees, wild anthurium and leafy bromeliads. As we descended toward the falls, the trail turned into rocks and roots. Maneuvering took a bit of footwork, but never generated more than moderate huffing.

After 45 minutes we caught sight of Middleham majestically crashing 280 feet down the side of a mountain into a steel-blue pond. One of the island's highest falls, it was an impressive sight. The others in the group dove in, but it was a bit too frosty for me. Gary Mueller, a Boston entrepreneur who had joined the hike with his wife, Karen Weltchek, smiled all the way back. "For nature lovers like us," he said, "this could hardly be more perfect."

For a change of pace, we decided to stay in Roseau one night. After a brief van ride downhill we arrived at the Sutton Place, a small, elegantly furnished hotel in central Roseau. Straightaway, we set off for a stroll around town, a throwback to the Caribbean of the 1950s. A few blocks of low-rise buildings were bunched close together -- small gingerbread houses with peeling gray and pink paint, concrete bank buildings, hardware stores. Near the port, vendors hawked T-shirts, wood carvings and rum punch. The sun and the locals' easy manner seemed to slow time down to a pleasant crawl.

After a lunch of fish cakes and stew and a glass of fresh sorrel juice at Marloe's Snackette on Cork Street, we stopped in at the Cellar Bar, where bartender Gavin enticed us with his stock of more than 30 rums, including brands from nearly all the Caribbean islands. He recommended a taste of each. After a shot of Mount Gay from Barbados, Appleton from Jamaica and, of course, Dominica's own Macoucherie, I lost count.

The next afternoon, we returned to Papillote. A rain shower had swept through, leaving the blood-colored ginger lilies, dark green elephant ears and purple orchids glistening. Two bright green hummingbirds were catching a nip of nectar in the last gasp of sunlight. The soothing warm waters of one of the natural springs splattered in an outdoor bath.

I recalled the pronouncement that Mr. Rochester, a character in Dominican-born writer Jean Rhys's novel "Wide Sargasso Sea," delivered about the island. "Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near."

To that I would add, too short. Five days on this island was way too short.

Details: Dominica

GETTING THERE: There is no direct service to Dominica from D.C., and many itineraries have two connections, such as US Airways's $683 round-trip flight from Dulles, via Charlotte, N.C., and St. Maarten. I flew American from Dulles to Gaudeloupe, via San Juan, for $590, then took a ferry from Guadeloupe for $80 each way.

WHERE TO STAY: The Papillote Wilderness Retreat (767-448-2287, http://www.papillote.dm/), above the Roseau River Valley about five miles from Roseau, has one of the lushest gardens I've seen in the Caribbean. The rooms could use an overhaul but are worth the $95 double rate. Meal plans, including breakfast and dinner, are $35 a day extra. The Sutton Place Hotel (25 Old St., 767-449- 8700, www.avirtualdominica.com/sutton.htm; $95) is an elegantly furnished boutique hotel in Roseau.

Budget travelers who want the full-tilt nature experience should try the 3 Rivers Dominica (767-446-1886, http://www.3riversdominica.com/), near Rosalie. Rates for ecologically friendly cottages start at $70.

In Guadeloupe, La Case A Miel (011-590-590-929-266) offers one- and two-bedroom cabins in Trois Rivieres. The basic units have kitchenettes and great sea views, and a lovely shop sells honey products next door. Rates from about $40 a night.

WHERE TO EAT: Celebrate a special occasion at the Sutton Grille, in the Sutton Place Hotel in Roseau, where a dinner of grilled fish or chicken, calloloo soup and rum punch goes for around $70 for two. For more basic fare, try World of Food, inside Vena's Guest House (48 Cork St., Roseau). For lunch, a grilled fish sandwich and orange juice cost around $4.

INFO: Dominica Tourist Office, 888-645-5637, http://www.dominica.dm/. Or see http://www.avirtualdominica.com/, a private tourism Web site. -- Gary Lee

2004 The Washington Post Company