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 An online magazine about investing, living, working and relocating to the Caribbean.
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A Caribbean Island with a Difference
Ella Rychlewski

Most people have never heard of Dominica… or they confuse it with the Dominican Republic. Fewer still would know where to look for it on a map. The vast majority of visitors who do go to the country are day-trippers, let off from the cruise ships that berth in the capital, Roseau. Otherwise, they come as students and remain steadfastly attached to the Ross University enclave just outside Portsmouth.

This means that for those people who, like me, get to spend some time on the island, it remains largely un-spoilt, untouched, unchartered territory. My Caribbean Lonely Planet guidebook had only a few pages dedicated to Dominica so I arrived not knowing what to expect. I know of at least two Dominica-dedicated guidebooks in the works and I applaud them for attempting to fill the gap.

Dominica is one of those places that you need to have some idea what you are doing to be able to really get a feel for the place. Signposts are scarce, you can’t visit all the essentials in a day and few people seem to venture beyond the Roseau area sites, which is a shame as they are missing out on what makes Dominica truly unique. Crucially, it is a county that can only be visited with some means of locomotion and most people would find public transport a little baffling. Above all, however, Dominica is a duality of breathtaking landscapes and strong culture. For the latter there are no real shortcuts and it precludes taking the ethnographer’s approach to travelling most are more comfortable with. Dominica requires that you engage with its people but, luckily, I have yet to find any friendlier.

Getting to the county is a trip unto itself as there are few, if any, direct flights, meaning at least one stop on the way. You can fly into the main airport at Melville Hall, diagonally at the opposite end of the island to Roseau, or into Canefield Airport, just outside the capital. There is also the option of taking the ferry from the neighboring islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Lucia. There is a range of decent accommodation and restaurants on the island, guesthouses often being the best option.

Dominica offers a variety of holiday themes: hiking, diving, beach, and sightseeing. There are also the festival periods to take into account: Independence and World Creole Music Festival (early October to early November) and Carnival (usually sometime in February) being the biggest. Those would be the best times to go if you want to see Dominicans out in force. The country, by necessity, is in sync with the cruise ships which come to the island, sometimes up to four or five at a time. While not the best time to visit, this means some attractions only open when they are there so I would definitely recommend planning and booking some parts of your stay in advance.

However, Dominica is not really a holiday destination I would suggest if you tend to prefer the comfort and security of a resort and just want to spend a week or two not doing much. To me that would be a waste of a trip because the county has so much more to offer. Similarly, the nightlife options are somewhat limited though you will usually find an open bar and a cold beer, somewhere. Probably some interesting company as well (they all have their regulars, who get increasingly entertaining as the evening wears on.) It is not a shopper paradise either as most stores, including the tourist-oriented markets, are unfortunately all too often stocked with the ‘best’ of Made in China.

So what do you do in Dominica? Top favorites are the Trafalgar Fall, the Emerald pool and Champagne Beach that are probably the island’s most visited sites. Another must to see and experience, located in the Roseau areas, is Wotten Waven and the hot sulfur springs that are simply heaven on earth. For the more adventurous, I would suggest hiking to Boiling Lake, the Jacko steps and exploring the volcanic peaks at the heart of the island.

Meanwhile, the model Kalinago village in the Carib Territory is a good introduction to the native Indian culture, still strong, on the island. Keep in mind that while these may be the most commonly mentioned Dominican sites there are a multitude of lesser known waterfalls, trails and landscape landmarks. I would recommend finding a guide, preferably area specific. There are quite a few great ones, who will be happy to share their passion for their country.

For the action oriented, besides extensive hiking, the island offers great snorkeling and diving, mainly based in the Roseau area, and various whale and dolphin-watching cruises. Contrary to popular belief, Dominica has some stunning sandy beaches; often so secluded you will have them to yourself. However, Champagne, Mero and Purple Turtle are probably the most frequented, they will get quite crowded on weekends and public holidays, which are dedicated ‘beach days’ for the locals. The Layou and White rivers offer a range of water sports like tubing and canoeing and there are several jungle discovery courses, like the Aerial Tram.


To me, however, the best of Dominica was always its people. I really enjoyed getting to know the communities and culture. There are two main influences, the Native Indian Kalinago or Carib culture, which comes from the original inhabitants of the Caribbean, and the Creole culture that is a mix of African and Colonial. Dominica is one of the few islands where there is still a strong native population and they actually have their own territory, the Carib Territory, as well as several strong cultural groups that still perform the traditional dance and music. The main source of art and crafts is also the Territory and the model village is well worth going to.

Tales of a Peace Corp Volunteer in Dominica (a Series)
Creole culture is found throughout the Caribbean, especially in the French neighboring islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Dominica’s Creole language is a mix of African and French and, despite the British system, there is a strong French colonial cultural flavor. Beyond the language, Creole further expressed through dress and dance. During the Independence Season, a lot of Dominican will proudly sport the Creole Wear, in a dazzling array of shades and styles. The islands has a strong focus on keeping the traditions alive and the annual dancing and music competitions among the nation’s cultural groups are well worth seeking out.

During the rest of the year, I would suggest finding out if the Arawak House of Culture or the Old Mill Cultural Center, both in Roseau, are putting on any shows or activities during your stay. There are some vibrant groups, the Waitukubuli National Dance Theater and the Sisserou Singers among them, who put on performances year round. So keep an ear or an eye open for news and advertising for events.

There is a museum in Roseau and the Old Mill has recently opened another one - and also worth a visit is the Cabrits National Park, just North of Roseau. Being lovingly restored, Fort Shirley, an old colonial garrison, has a small museum giving a good overview of the history of the area but it also offers breathtaking views of Portsmouth Bay as well as some pleasant walks. Also worth a visit in the Portsmouth area is the Indian River where guides will take you on a boat tour of the mangrove-filled river.

Portsmouth, Jewel of the North

Most people will tell you that Portsmouth’s claim to fame is being the island of Dominica’s second largest city. So start most of the travel descriptions… only to end a few lines later. However, this brevity does this social melting pot and natural jewel an injustice. Having been based in the North during my time in Dominica I got to know Portsmouth quite well and it is well worth spending time here.
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The town was briefly the capital of Dominica before the capital was relocated to Roseau. The topography of the area, marshes and volcanic elevations, did not allow for expansion. Now the bustling center of the Northern District, Portsmouth town is located on the shore of a natural harbor, Prince Rupert Bay, which was a port of call for Columbus in 1504 and today attracts yachts, ferries and cruise ships.

Most tourists and some cruisers head straight for Roseau and overlook the north — rich in history, culture, food and natural beauty. Portsmouth is an ideal base to discover a different part of Dominica.

Tales of a Peace Corp Volunteer in Dominica (a Series)
Planned on a grid system, the town of Portsmouth is centered on Bay Street and Burrough Square. Its charm lies in the fact that it is not touristy; it is a working town where Dominicans from the area come to do to business and shop. The area’s only hospital and fire station are also in Portsmouth. Locals come to town to run their errands and walk down the street hailing each other, exchanging greetings. Exuberant laughing, expansive gestures, animated arguments — the people make this place come alive.
In town, you can find most necessities in Joe’s and Best Buy supermarkets as well as in a few smaller food shops. On market days (Fridays and Saturdays), the market provides a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as meat and fish. Along the main street you will also find a few clothing stores, a couple of internet cafés and most of the snackettes. These are small shacks where you can purchase snack food throughout the day: fried chicken, bakes and sandwiches, as well as Creole plates at lunchtime.

The Creole plate is the staple diet of Dominica and includes meat or fish, vegetables, beans and at least two types of carbs (e.g. rice, spaghetti, “fig” pie, macaroni-and-cheese or potato salad). These are ideal places to rest, have lunch and to watch and listen to Dominicans, many of whom will stop in for lunch. Don’t forget your local juice; there is nothing better, after all, than fresh juice (orange, grapefruit, tamarind, guava and the list goes on) made with fruit picked from a tree that same morning.   

Portsmouth has the advantage of offering a wide variety of activities within close range. To the north, the beautiful Purple Turtle Beach is just outside Portsmouth, as are several other beaches. Most yachts anchor off this beach or pick up a mooring there. The cruise ship berth is located in nearby Cabrits National Park, which has many short trails to explore as well as Fort Shirley, an 18th century British garrison that is being reconstructed.

Further up that side of the island, still heading north, are Toucarie Bay, which has little-known reefs for diving, and Capuchin, another historical site and the start of the picturesque Capuchin- Penville hiking trail. The road back to Portsmouth from Penville, an agricultural Caribbean village with sweeping views towards Marie-Galante, takes you through an active volcano crater with bubbling sulphur springs. The French islands are never far from view in this part of the island.
Portsmouth’s southern border is the Indian River. Locals offer boat rides up the beautiful mangrove-framed river to the jungle bar at the end serving Kubuli, the local beer, and its version of rum punch. A little further south is Picard, home to Ross University medical school. For those hankering after some Western fare, you can find everything from bagels and smoothies to pizza, several fast-food chains, as well as a wider selection of food in the several supermarkets. The area’s hotels are also mostly located in this area, along the beach.   
If, after those several packed days, you get bored, you can always rent a car and venture farther afield. To the south is the Syndicate Trail where you can see the Syndicate waterfall and hope to catch a glimpse of the indigenous and rare Sisserrou (Amazona imperalis) and Jacquot (Amazona arausiaca) parrots. Heading east you can cross the Kalinago territory, owned by the “Carib Indians”, the Kalinago people. They have a model village showcasing their history and lifestyle.

Portsmouth, often unjustly overlooked, offers a mix of an authentic Caribbean experience along with all the pleasure and comforts one wants to find on vacation. There are several clubs offering nightlife mid-week and on weekends as well as some authentic dining experiences. And did I mention the best “cookies and cream” ice cream I’ve ever had, to be found at Burrough Square?

These are the top tourist sites in Dominica. The ones you will find on the map. Any self-respecting guide to the country will include these and they are most certainly worth going to. Yet, to me, the charm lies in the communities themselves, in getting lost and driving around and seeing where the road goes.

Which can be daunting when the roads are windy and in more or less bad condition. But do take the time to walk around, stop in the local snackette for a drink or a snack. Go and explore, take the road less taken. I have spent quite a few happy afternoons wandering the backstreets of Portsmouth, making new acquaintances along the way.

I realize that it is different actually living in a country as opposed to just being a visitor but also that what I have said here about Dominica can be said about most places around the globe. They all have their particularities and attractions, things that draw, enchant and really make a place memorable. However, let me put it this way: when I applied to go into the Peace Corps, the Eastern Caribbean was probably near the bottom of my wish list.

I grew up with the delights from Europe in the reasonably sized city of Bordeaux. Therefore, ending up on the unknown island of Dominica could have been quite the chore. Yes, it is an island in the Caribbean but it is quite different and less developed than its neighbors and besides … island living is not for everyone.

Yet, despite the many factors that seemed to preclude me from really appreciating the island, I really fell in love with Dominica. Whether its watching a cultural competition, three all-nighters at Creole Fest, just hanging out in my village and swimming in the sea with the local children, trying to catch the multitude of colorful marine life within reach or walking new trails, time just slows down and it all makes sense there.

Discovering Dominica includes its gorgeous sunsets, breathtaking scenery, good food (from gourmet to homemade) and above all open and friendly people… what more can you ask for?
Author: Ella Rychlewski was a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who lived and worked in her island of assignment, Dominica, the Nature Island of the Caribbean. Ella is currently continuing her work with NGO’s and is on assignment in Africa. 
Email : Ella Rychlewski  
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