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Volume No. 1 Issue No. 90 - Friday February 16, 2007
The Greenest Island
Reprinted from the Telegraph UK

The Caribbean island of Dominica is leading the way in setting environmental standards for tourism. But, as Liz Gill discovers, certificates for good practice are far from the only thing this delightful place has to offer.

It's not called the Valley of Desolation for nothing. On the way down we have been pretty insouciant, laughing at the descriptions of this 12-mile walk as "strenuous" and positively gambolling over rocks and streams.

On the climb back up, though, we are if not exactly broken then certainly bowed. Every inch of ascent seems a yard, each ridge a hope-dashing false summit. There is a great deal of stopping "to admire the view".

The difference is that in between we have clocked up several gruelling miles and climbed to Boiling Lake, bathing deliciously, but energy-sappingly, in its sulphur springs. We are also now sporting what feels like half a ton of volcanic mud, mud which we are told will make us look 10 years younger when we wash it off at the end of the hike. That's if we're not dead, of course.

We do make it back in reasonably respectable time (seven hours), pulled by the carrot of our guide Kelvin's promise of swimming beneath waterfalls and pushed by the stick of not letting the young Russian couple who are our fellow walkers put we Brits completely to shame.

In Titou Gorge we rinse off the sweat and the mud facepacks and feel extremely proud of ourselves for completing this ultimate Dominican experience.

The 200-foot-wide Boiling Lake, in the heart of Morne Trois Pitons National Park, is what vulcanologists term a flooded fumarole, a crack in the earth's surface through which gases escape from the molten lava below and heat collected rain and stream water.

The bubbling vat of blue-grey water shrouded in vapour is, however, only one manifestation - albeit the most dramatic - of a volcanic history that has shaped the entire island.

It is this geology that has given the Windward isle (29 miles long by 16 wide) its 5,000ft peaks, deep green valleys, hot springs, silvery black beaches and soil so fertile it's said that if you pause too long with your walking stick, it'll begin to sprout.

It is a land not just surrounded by water but running with it: 360 inches fall annually in the rainforest, washing down into a dozen major waterfalls and 365 rivers, a different one for every day of the year.

"I'm always aware of the living vibe of this place," says Jem Winston, creator of the Three Rivers Eco Lodge. "You feel as if it's been constantly changing shape, what with its earthquakes and hurricanes and mad mudslides." Jem fell in love with Dominica when he arrived as a travelling 21-year-old. So smitten was he that he returned to Southend, gave up his job in a bank to become a cabbie, saved £50,000, persuaded his brother Kal to match it and returned to hew his dream from the jungle.

Today, 17 years on, the lodge is a model of sustainability: solar- and wind-powered, totally organic and biodegradable (even its truck runs off recycled vegetable oil from the island's restaurants). Guests can sleep in cottages or treehouses in the forest and the project has won a clutch of eco-awards, including the prestigious Green Globe 21 certification.

The Green Globe standard was established after the 1992 Rio Summit, when the travel industry came under fire for contributing to environmental problems. It measures best practice in sustainable tourism and can be awarded to accommodation, attractions and communities.

Dominica is already punching above its weight in this field. Not only have hotels and attractions been given certification, but the entire island has applied for it under the "communities" category. It has become the first island in the world to complete the first stage of benchmarking, where figures have to be compiled showing improved performance in such categories as energy consumption and waste management.

All this might sound a bit dry, but it does translate into real effects. For a start, it cuts through what's become known as "green-washing" where places claim eco-credentials that do not bear scrutiny.

Proper certification means that visitors can know where they can have a genuinely guilt-free trip. More specifically, it means that the Dominican government spends money on eliminating litter and similar environmental campaigns, and adds impetus to the tourist board's marketing of Dominica as "Nature Island".

The natural assets are certainly impressive. The land is covered with exotic vegetation and dazzling flowers - there are more than 1,200 different plant species - and filled with fascinating but benign wildlife, including four kinds of snake, various iguanas and lizards, possums and getting on for 200 species of birds.

You can explore on foot and horseback, in all-terrain vehicles, or, as we did one day, on an aerial tram which runs through the forest mostly at 60ft above the ground, but which at one point crosses the Breakfast River 300 feet beneath.

The sea can similarly be explored from above or below. We took a whale-watching trip (no whales, but a 200-strong school of frolicking dolphins and flying fish skittering in all directions) and snorkelled in "Champagne Bay", so called because geothermal springs fill the water with endless warm bubbles.

It's said that nobody goes hungry in Dominica because the land is so productive, and indeed there is a higher than average percentage of centenarians, their longevity probably due to a combination of good diet, herbal remedies and lack of stress.

There is, however, much poverty, and some rural communities still exist in a virtually cash-free barter economy. It is perhaps inevitable, then, that over the next few years the island will be walking a tightrope, poised between the need for the jobs and dollars of an expanded tourist industry which might stop its young people leaving, and the need to preserve its pristine beauty.

Developers are already sniffing around, and a 200-room hotel is planned for Woodford Hill Bay, the island's only white sand beach, rather undermining its green credentials.

One heartening aspect, however, is the fierce protective passion that the place inspires. It's found in ex-pats such as American Anne Jno Baptiste, who came here more than 40 years ago and has created a renowned tropical garden around her Papillote hotel.

And in professionals like Bernard Wiltshire, who returned home after a career in law and politics in England to become Attorney General and who is now chairman of the Waitukubuli Ecological Foundation. (Waitukubuli is the original Amerindian name for Dominica, which is still home to more than 3,000 indigenous Caribs or Kalinagos.)

But it's found, perhaps most touchingly, in the island's guides, people such as Neolise, who has taught herself the Latin names of the plants along the aerial-tram route and can tell you which cure headaches and which are aphrodisiacs.

And in Margel, our taxi driver, who knows everything about the island and everybody on it. Or in Kelvin, who took us to the Boiling Lake, caught us when we stumbled, cheered us when we wearied, showed us how to give ourselves "tattoos" from fern leaves, write our names in the crystals that covered the rocks and how to swing through the trees on aerial roots like would-be Tarzans and Janes.

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Volume No. 1 Issue No. 94
Chavez visits Dominica
History of Zouk
Carnival Fire
My wayward friend
The greenest island

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