by Juliet Rix, The Telegraph, March 13, 2019
Yellow-breasted bananaquits perch chattering in the lush vegetation amid orange, purple and fire-red flowers. Russet-fronted Caribbean bullfinches hop along the balustrade, cocking their heads, alert for any spillage of crumbs, while behind them, across a broad blue bay, rise verdant volcanic slopes.
It is hard to believe that little more than a year ago, all this was devastation. On Sep 18 2017, Hurricane Maria roared through Dominica like nature’s bulldozer, ploughing down walls, whipping away cars, and stripping the forest bare.
“There wasn’t a leaf in sight,” I am told, “just broken trunks and fallen branches – it was all brown.”
Today, Dominica’s nine volcanoes are once again wrapped in rainforest, papayas hang heavy on the trees, the island’s 365 rivers flow unrushed by storm-rapids, and you can once more follow this tiny nation’s many hiking trails (though with minor diversions) to scenic lakes and towering waterfalls.
The Caribbean’s “Nature Island” is getting back to normal.
The brightly painted coastal capital, Roseau, all higgledy-piggledy wooden houses with one large supermarket and a few solid government buildings, is once more open for business.
Homes are re-roofed, windows and doors replaced. Mains water and electricity have been restored island-wide, as has mobile coverage and Wi-Fi. Roads are all passable and hotels are reopening. There are even new resorts on the way, including a five-star Kempinski due to open by the end of the year.
This English-speaking island has just starred on British TV too: Ainsley Harriott has been here cooking plantain on a black-sand beach and visiting one of the island’s impressive waterfalls for a Dominica episode of his new series, Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen, which aired Sunday March 10 on ITV.
There are telltale signs of Maria’s visit, of course – an occasional white tarpaulin prominently inscribed “USAID”, a slightly raggedy-looking patch of palms, and sunlight dappling the once densely shaded forest floor.
But an innocent first-time visitor would not guess at the recent destruction. And let’s be clear, hurricanes are no risk to visitors if you avoid the hurricane season (at its worst in August and September).
Today, all is peaceful as I sit on a soft white sunbed on the terrace of one of the six private villas at Dominica’s top resort, newly reopened after extensive reconstruction.
Secret Bay (secretbay.dm) has been beautifully rebuilt in rich reddish local woods – including sweet-smelling cedar. Each villa has an expansive terrace with full contemporary kitchen, an interior bedroom with oversized in-room double bath tub, and its own plunge pool, all surrounded by replanted gardens growing more abundant by the day.
Secret Bay has done more than rebuild. A new yoga platform (for private classes) and a mini-spa with deep-padded treatment beds, overlook the beach and Prince Rupert Bay (named after Charles I’s general who, having lost the Civil War, took to Caribbean buccaneering), as does the excellent new Zing Zing restaurant.
Here, in an open kitchen behind a counter made from a hurricane-felled mangrove tree, executive chef Grant Lynott and his team rustle up delicious off-menu dishes putting an international twist on that day’s local produce – fresh fish, chicken, coconut, fruit and “ground provisions”, the island’s staple root vegetables, such as yam, sweet potato and dasheen.
I see these growing in tiny fields on the edge of the Morne (Mount) Diablotin National Park, surrounding Dominica’s highest peak (4,747ft) on my way to meet Dr Birdy. As my husband and I head towards the well-signed Syndicate Nature Trail, Dominica’s top bird man (and all-round excellent nature guide) stops and points.
“This bush belongs to a purple-throated carib,” he says – and sure enough, a luminous hummingbird flits and hovers, its metallic-turquoise wings flashing in the sunlight. Birdy finds us all four of Dominica’s dazzling little hummingbirds (including the blue-headed, which lives only on Dominica and Martinique), along with delicious wild raspberries that we pop into our mouths.
“After the hurricane, I left them for the bullfinches,” he says, before adding (to my relief) “but we can eat them now”.
After Hurricane Maria, Birdy was deeply concerned for Dominica’s national bird, the already critically endangered imperial amazon parrot – or sisserou – found only on this island a fifth the size of Suffolk.
He still isn’t sure where it hid, “but it is back,” he says happily. This large, dark-headed parrot can now be quite reliably seen with a bit of patience or by visiting in March – Dominica’s carnival time – when it is easily spotted stuffing itself with the fruit of the magnolia tree.
We don’t manage to see it in the wild, so have to settle for the aviary in Roseau’s Botanic Gardens, but we see plenty of the island’s other endemic parrot. The red-necked Jaco has thrived since Maria.
After the storm, it went in search of food and has never returned to its more restricted range, so this colourful character is now seen – and heard – across the island.
Dominica is rich in bird and reptile life, but astonishingly free of poisonous creatures and predators. A few rarely seen wild pigs roam the island along with cute agouti (like oversized guinea pigs).
“Even in the rainforest, there is nothing that will really hurt you except razor grass,” says hiking guide Marvin Philbert, “and there’s none of that on the path here”.
We are setting off on the Boiling Lake Trail in Morne Trois Pitons (Three Peaks) National Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site, and I remember what Philbert has said with increasing gratitude as the hike progresses.
Of Dominica’s many trails, we have chosen one of the hardest, and as we trek up and down steep mud steps and slippery rocks, I find myself increasingly reliant on unprotected hands as well as booted feet.
The hike starts slowly as we stop to admire filigree tree ferns, striated bois bande bark that flavours local rum (“a natural Viagra”) and frankincense-scented gommier trees used to make canoes by the island’s Amerindians (the Kalinago) who survived in this mountainous forest, unlike on islands more desirable to European planters.
We stand atop the 3,200ft Morne Nicholls admiring panoramic views before, three hours in, we reach the Valley of Desolation.
This eerie volcanic landscape of grey clay and reddish rocks crusted with sulphurous yellow and orange like some strange terrestrial coral, is split by smoking fumaroles and steaming streams.
The terrain only gets more desolate towards the Boiling Lake. Though a metre or so smaller since the hurricane, the lake is likely the second largest of its kind in the world (after one in New Zealand).
Grey water simmers across its 200-230ft diameter while the centre writhes in angry swirls. I am just about to take a photo when thick tropical rain teems down, and we turn to start the long, sodden, trudge-cum-clamber back.
On a hot dry day, the hike is best ended (or replaced) with a dip in Ti Tou (Creole for “small throat”) Gorge – a short stretch of cold water that runs through a narrow cleft in the rock to a bubbling pool beneath a small waterfall.
Today, however, as the sun sets, we head for the village of Wotton Waven, rich in natural thermal waters, and gratefully soak our exhausted muscles in a sulphur-scented hot-pool in the garden of the little Ti Kwen Glo Cho Volcanic Spa.
Coconut rum is equally welcome – sipped on the terrace of the recently opened Wanderlust Caribbean (wanderlustcaribbean.com) to a soundtrack of cicadas and whistling tree frogs. Owners Tom and Sharie are American, but Tom is an honorary Dominican, locals tell me, while Sharie hails originally from Puerto Rico.
Wanderlust opened for its first full season the day before the hurricane. Its new high-spec concrete building survived and it has now reopened, offering five comfortable apartments, cleverly designed to let the outside in – the air, light, and gorgeous coastal views – minus rain and bugs.
Tom and Sharie run their own experience packages, including all the main island activities – hiking, birdwatching, biking, kayaking, diving and snorkelling – but also outings direct from the house that offer a taste of local Dominica.
Waking to sunrise over the sea and a hearty egg, bacon and soursop breakfast, we take a stroll with our hosts through the village of Calibishie, greeting neighbours (both expat and Dominican) and passing rebuilt shops, smallholdings and rum shacks.
At the little green-painted Pointe Baptiste Chocolate Factory, we taste bars made from local cocoa (I recommend the lemon grass flavour), before wandering down tiny paths invisible amid thick vegetation, to the red-rocky coast and a deserted sandy bay where we swim as primordial brown pelicans plummet into the water around us.
In the calm seas of the west coast, I take a short snorkel. The reefs sustained some damage during the hurricane but, like the land forests, are expected to recover. In the meantime, I am intrigued not only by the Nemo-like Caribbean fish, but also single-file streams of tiny concave bubbles rising from thermals beneath the sand. Like the bodies of miniature tentacle-less jellyfish, they catch the light with a mesmeric beauty.
Further out, the sea-bed drops steeply, providing perfect feeding grounds for whales, and making Dominica the whale-watching capital of the Caribbean. It is the only place in the world where sperm whales are seen year-round and we soon hear them chattering in the hydrophones dropped from the side of the Dive Dominica whale-watching boat.
This is soon followed by cries of “There” as blows are spotted, and finally long, grey backs… a mother and calf playing… a youngster breaching… a full-sized whale resting and breathing before arching its back, raising a perfect tail fluke, and sliding smoothly into a deep dive.
As we sit munching plantain chips and sipping tea made from lemon grass which we picked at the side of the road, we reflect that it is Dominica’s natural state – so different from many of its manicured neighbours – that has allowed it to recover so quickly.
It has perhaps been hardest for the humans, but the forest, the birds, the flowers are back – and we, the visitors, should be too.
Juliet Rix was a guest of the Discover Dominica Authority (discoverdominica.com/en).
It is an eight-hour flight from the UK to Antigua or Barbados, followed by a 40 or 60-minute hop (on Caribbean airline LIAT) to Dominica; about £850 return. Virgin Atlantic (virginatlantic.com) and BA (ba.com) can arrange the trip. Happy Car Rentals (happycardominica.com) offers good-value cars, self-drive or with driver.
Secret Bay Villas has doubles from £550 a night; Wanderlust Caribbean apartments (see telegraph.co.uk/tt-wanderlust-caribbean) cost from about £120 a night.
Dominica (bradtguides.com) is very useful, despite having been written before Hurricane Maria. Whale watching trips can be organised via Dive Dominica (divedominica.com/whale-watching); from $69/£53pp.