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It is as hard to say why you love a place as it is a person. After all, it’s not likely that you fell in love with your husband because of his quirky eyebrows but the fact that he has quirky eyebrows makes you love him that little bit more. Dominica has lots of very lovable quirks.
We first visited in 1996, because we have family here. In 1932 my aunt came here with her husband and three children. The two daughters both married here and had children and so there are lots of cousins.
All my life I had heard about Dominica. Originally from my aunt who made trips back to London and talked about it. Then her children came with their children and they told us tales of this small green island, oceans away. It always sounded extremely exciting and exotic.
It must have felt like a very brave, adventurous decision for my aunt to move away from England to somewhere so far away, but with a climate that would be kinder to her asthmatic husband. But female adventurers run in the family and in spite of innumerable difficulties, she came with her children and put down deep roots. She loved and served Dominica, and her descendants who still live here love and serve it too.
So it was because of this family connection that sent Desmond, my husband (with the quirky eyebrows) me and our three children off on our first long haul flight. We changed at Antigua onto the Liat flight. I was terrified of being on such a small plane to Dominica until I saw the flight attendant looking very bored – she’d made this journey many, many times. When we arrived, we were greeted by five cousins and a minibus. It was pretty much love at first sight. We all fell in love with the island, became instant friends with our cousins and a holiday unlike any other was begun.
Two years ago we all came back, this time with our children’s spouses and our grandchildren for a twenty year anniversary visit. (Although Desmond and I had been back a few times in the intervening years.) We won’t forget that trip either. It felt like a trip to paradise and I hope the children will always remember it.
So what are the main reasons for falling in love with this island? It is the scenery that first hits you. It is mountainous, in-your-face, Technicolor dramatic. The Carib (Kalinago) name for Dominica is ‘Tall is her body” and you can see why. Chasms with vegetation spilling down like green paint, mountains with palm trees ranged along the tops like giants waving. Apart from the drama there are forest walks, steep waterfalls and gentle rivers, secret beaches, clusters of houses at the end of long and steep twisting tracks. Everything one expects from a Caribbean island and a lot of what you didn’t expect.
I love the people. They are good looking, a bit bossy (they are very quick to tell you if you drive down a one-way street in Roseau, the capital) but it’s always for your own good (you do want to know if you’re driving the wrong way, after all.) They are kind – we asked how to get somewhere from one man who drove quite a long way out of his own way to guide us to our holiday home. They will always tell you which way to go to way if you ask them, they never shrug and say that they’re not from round here. They are quick witted and can be very charming. They are proud of their island. The man at immigration gave us a special smile because we had several Dominica stamps in our passports. They have been owned by the French and the British, changing from one to the other many times but somehow their independence makes you feel they were never owned by anyone.
The stars here are amazing and the frequent rainbows are so bright they look almost artificial. Everywhere seems to have its own micro climate so if you feel a bit hot, move up the hill, if you want the sun, leave the rain forest and head for the coast. The water is so soft a shower feels like a beauty treatment and the moist air means people don’t age here in the same way other people do. (Unfortunately this affect doesn’t last after you’ve gone home.) My hair loves it here which is almost enough of a reason for me to love it all on its own.
So what about the quirks? There are many. The place names are a mixture of French, English and Creole. Trafalgar and Wooton Waven, Du Blanc, Delices, Calibishi, Colihaut, Pagua Bay and while I should be used to it, I’m always surprised to find a place called Antrim somewhere so exotic.
Little birds might try and share your breakfast (and might succeed too). There might be a family of frogs in your toilet cistern and the honey comes in rum bottles. The sooner you relax into island time, the happier you will be. I love being here because it makes me slow down. I will stare at views for ages in a way I never do at home. It is only here that I fully experience being ‘in the moment’.
I find this a very creative place. I love to write here, and there is a fine literary tradition. My aunt wrote (try the Papilotte Press for her books, Black and White Sands being a good one.) Anthony Trollope came here (sadly not to write, but to sort out the postal service, but as apparently he wrote first thing every morning I expect he wrote as well.) Jean Rhys was born here and many writers have visited since. Patrick Leigh-Fermor, Alec Waugh, Somerset Maugham. Many of them ended up on my aunt’s veranda and much more recently the writers end up in my cousin’s white pick-up.
It is an island steeped in history. The cousin with the pick-up, Lennox Honychurch has written many books about it and is the Dominica expert. All his books are fascinating. And the history is very near the surface - it doesn’t seem like a long time ago that these amazing, startling things happened. You feel you might easily stumble on a time warp that will send you back to a momentous battle or band of runaway slaves. History is just there, in the lush undergrowth, waiting to be discovered.
It has its secrets. Is ‘the Emerald drop’ or ‘green flash’ – when the sun sets down below the horizon and shows a flash of green a real thing? One cousin says it is, definitely. And even I think I saw it once, on a ship with my husband but in spite of looking for it numerous times I have never seen it since. But did Josephine Bonaparte have an illegitimate child here before she met Napoleon? It’s possible. You can see the house where she might have had it. It has an atmosphere that makes you think you might meet Napoleon’s lover or a group of pirates at any moment. The Pirates of the Caribbean “Dead man’s Chest” was filmed here and it’s easy to see why.
This trip was our first since the devastating Hurricane Maria and we were worried about what we might see. Of course the scenery has changed, a great many trees were cut down by the wind and mountains that were once green are now grey from trees with almost no foliage. As we flew in I looked anxiously at the trees (wishing, frankly, that I couldn’t see them a quite such close quarters) but while they were less bushy, green was everywhere. It hasn’t happened yet but the island will recover.
This is not to trivialise the enormity of this tragic natural disaster. It was truly devastating and no one who went through it will ever forget what happened. Personally I am hoping that as many people as possible write their hurricane story. I’d like those who aren’t so good with a pen or a computer, to be able to dictate it into a microphone. Their descendants will want to know what it was like. There are so many stories of heroic behaviour, they must not be forgotten. As for the rest of us, we must all pay attention to Global Warming and hope that there is never another Hurricane Maria. People can pick themselves up and dust themselves off and completely rebuild their lives once, but could they do it again?
Dominica is not the same as the island we came to two years ago. It suffered more than we will witness. But there a few bright spots of joy in among the destruction. Green parrots can now be seen from my cousin’s house in Trafalgar. I have never seen them here before. Some new roads have replaced those that were a bit ropey before the hurricane. New views have been created. People have rebuild their houses and like them better the new way. While it is easy for the visitor to see the positives, it must be very different for the inhabitants.
And it still has a lot to offer the traveller. Apart from the fact they need visitors, there is so much here to love especially if you are one who relishes things that are different and enjoys finding that actually you can have a whole new comfort zone and Dominica could be it. The construction lorries mending the roads, sorting out the infrastructure, bare the slogan ‘Dominica Strong’. I would add ‘Dominica Beautiful.’
Love Katie x