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Lost world

ISSUE 7
C
H

Tamara Hinson discovers a wilder, greener side to the Caribbean on the island of Dominica


I'm sitting in a hot, noisy stadium in Dominica watching one of the most bizarre beauty pageants I've ever seen. I'll start with the outfits. In Dominica, there's no place for frilly dresses or ball gowns. Instead, contestants shuffle onstage wearing elaborate contraptions they've made themselves. One appears as an exotic insect, and another, who describes her outfit as 'a tribute to Nelson Mandela', strides out wearing a tent-like green and yellow dress. Seconds before her moment in the spotlight comes to an end, she pulls a concealed lever and a giant replica of Mandela's head pops out from behind her.

 

The talent section is equally confusing, the highlight being the contestant who informs the audience about the importance of maintaining both a tidy home and a beautiful bottom. She then proceeds to demonstrate what she refers to as 'cleanse-ercising', which basically involves mopping the floor while giving the maximus gluteus a thorough workout.

 

Dominica is unlike anywhere I've ever been, but at the same time, it looks, feels and sounds like the real Caribbean, with laid-back locals, long beaches of untouched white sand and bumpy roads surrounded by jungle-like foliage. The island, which covers 289 square miles, forms part of the lesser Antilles region, but is less developed than its neighbours. Although it's a cruise ship stop-off, Dominica has refused to pander to the cruise market by filling its quaysides with designer boutiques.

 

Here, everything really does operate on Caribbean time. When I eat out in the evening, I learn to ask for the bill at the same time as I order dessert, knowing that settling up will quite likely involve the owner running out of the restaurant and returning 20 minutes later with my change.

 

One of the island's newest draws is the recently-completed Waitukubuli trail, a 115-mile path divided into 14 segments. It's the Caribbean's first long distance hiking trail, stretching from Scotts Head in the south to Capuchin in the north. The sections can be explored individually or as part of a longer trek and there's homestay accommodation along the route. I tackle one of the shorter, easier sections, although even these are tough. Our jovial Rastafarian guide, who strides ahead, slicing through the undergrowth with a machete, is a godsend, and with his help we spot hummingbirds and brightly-coloured lizards. He looks about 30 but later tells me he's 50, and cheerfully informs me he's fathered nine children with different Dominican women.

 

molten lava

 

Slightly more strenuous is the hike to Dominica's Boiling Lake, a flooded fumarole in the Roseau Valley. There's a pool of molten lava thousands of metres beneath it and the water seeps through the porous bottom and is heated by the lava. It's a tough, six-hour round trip which should only be attempted with a guide, but the scenery is spectacular - lush, damp rainforest and valleys carpeted with wildflowers, the stench of sulphur hanging in the air.

 

Later, we head to Champagne beach, where it's possible to swim through warm bubbles of volcanic gas seeping up from the seabed. I float through the golden bubbles before clambering back onto the beach under the watchful eye of iguanas.

 

Given Dominica's spectacularly untamed tracts of wilderness, it's easy to understand why the makers of Pirates of the Caribbean chose the island as a location, and later, we visit Indian River, near the town of Portsmouth, where certain scenes were shot. We clamber into a canoe and float along, the thick canopy of trees muffling sound and light. Our guide points out a dilapidated hut between the gnarled tree trunks, and explains that it was built for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. We pull up at a riverbank and he leads us into the forest. At the end of a winding trail we find a small bar, where we sip potent rum cocktails served up by a cheerful Rastafarian. Our guide informs us that our boat has sprung a leak but another canoe should arrive shortly, and I ponder that there could be worst places to spend the day. Or, if Caribbean time is anything to go by, a night or two.

WAY TO GO

MotMot Travel offers a 12 day Dominica Nature Tour showing some of the natural wonders of the island for £2,250 (Tel: 01327 359 622 / motmottravel.com).

 

For information on hiking, diving and local culture, visit the tourist board's website: Discover Dominica Authority (Tel: 020 7326 9880 / dominica.dm).

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