Close encounters on the Caribbean island of Dominica

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A travel piece by Alison Humes for the Wall Street Journal. It features photographs by Marica Honychurch, who I have known since she was about seven years old, so a special shout out to her and to the other friends featured in the piece. Wish I could be there.

I HAVE ALWAYS loved visiting the countries in the Caribbean Sea, but over the years what I look for has changed. I still want to loll and bob in psychedelic blue water and I still want to enjoy the odd rum party drink. But the days when I could get baked in the sun or in the bar are long gone, and now I get my Caribbean kicks another way. I want to meet interesting people, not just other visitors. And I’m not alone.

Community-driven travel, where you actively engage with local residents, has come a long way from the days when you had to pretend you really like bugs or lumpy mattresses. Sophisticated tour operators or luxury hotels increasingly promote such experiences, from in-home cooking classes to school visits. The explosive popularity of Airbnb home rentals is proof that legions of travelers prefer the individual and idiosyncratic over the branded or mass-produced. Now with Airbnb Trips, the company lets you hire a local as a private guide for a day (see “Stranger Things,” link above). For me, the trend has a feel-good aspect, akin to making friends. If my existing friends can’t connect me with locals in my destination, I look for local hoteliers or innkeepers who seem interesting—judging by their aesthetic or their background—and go stay with them.

Recently I found a few wonderful hosts in Dominica, an island nation between Guadeloupe and Martinique that was arguably the model for the Garden of Eden. (One of the translators of the King James Bible, John Layfield traveled to Dominica in 1598 before writing the first eight books of the Old Testament.) I had suspected it would be easy to go local here, and in fact, that’s really all there is. I spent a little more than a week bopping around the island, meeting whomever I could.

Clockwise from top left: local historian Lennox Honychurch; al fresco dining at the Zandoli Inn; Fort Shirley, one Mr. Honychurch’s restoration projects; Jenn Hyland, who runs the Zandoli Inn with her mother Linda; young islanders in the town of Loubiere; Dr. Birdy in the Syndicate rain forest

Clockwise from top left: local historian Lennox Honychurch; al fresco dining at the Zandoli Inn; Fort Shirley, one Mr. Honychurch’s restoration projects; Jenn Hyland, who runs the Zandoli Inn with her mother Linda; young islanders in the town of Loubiere; Dr. Birdy in the Syndicate rain forest PHOTO: MARICA HONYCHURCH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

My first host was Gregor Nassief, who picked me up at the airport to drive me across the island to Secret Bay, a small collection of villas he owns with his Venezuelan wife, Sandra Vivas, and the snazziest place to stay on the island. Even though it’s only about 20 miles from the airport, the drive across the north of Dominica took an hour, up switchbacks and down hills, past rolling breakers on a broad shallow beach, through villages, past people and animals making their way along the road. As Mr. Nassief drove, he waved to practically everyone along the way. We talked about the island’s history—Caribbean history is a passion of mine—and his own. A software engineer, he was born to a Lebanese family that came to Dominica in the 1930s and built a supermarket empire. His wife’s father, a modernist architect, designed the first house at Secret Bay.

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As we arrived, Mr. Nassief offered to introduce me to Lennox Honychurch, the island’s pre-eminent historian and cultural preservationist. Meanwhile, I settled into my villa, an airy wood pavilion with a small kitchen balanced at the edge of a cliff. A local yogini came by to help me get the post-flight kinks out—we spread our mats on the deck by the plunge pool, stretched and meditated while looking out at the sea. Later, Mattie, the assistant assigned to my villa, brought over some yams and fresh shrimp and taught me how to burn curry (to increase its flavor) and bake a yam casserole. Mr. Nassief called to say that Mr. Honychurch would meet me the next day at a fort he was restoring in Cabrits National Park, and added that if I was interested in going up into the rain forest, I should let him introduce me to a mysterious person named “Birdy.” Within hours of arriving, I was set. I had places to go, people to see.

The next day, the tall and erudite Mr. Honychurch showed me around the late 18th-century English garrison at Fort Shirley. We paused on a high promontory with views in almost all directions. The value of the protected harbor in Portsmouth Bay below—coveted by both the French and the English—was immediately clear. We sat down for a chat in a hall that displays reproductions of Agostino Brunias’s 18th-century paintings of Dominicans.

The island’s first residents were the Kalinago (also called Caribs), who arrived from South America sometime in the 13th century. Dominica’s dense interior gave them a natural citadel, and so for a few centuries—despite being one of the earliest Caribbean islands visited by Europeans—it was more or less left alone. The British took over in the 1860s, but since Dominica was not flat like the sugar islands, like Barbados, it proved unsuitable for plantation agriculture. Mr. Honychurch explained that, as a result, slavery in Dominica lasted only a hundred years. Dominica is the only Caribbean country where indigenous people have held on to a piece of land through independence. Kalinago Territory now covers 3,782 acres on the island’s wild Atlantic coast.

I told Mr. Honychurch that I intended to visit the area and stay in the Carib Territory Guest House. “With Mr. Williams!” he exclaimed. “Chief of the Caribs.” Charles Williams, re-elected chief in 2014, runs the place with his wife, Margaret, in the village of Crayfish River.

For me, the quickest way to learn the lay of the land is to rent a car and drive around. I first stopped at the airport for my pal Booboo, who had flown in from Boston, and off we went. In this mountainous country, with more live volcanoes than any other Caribbean nation, and six different kinds of forest, it can be hard to get around. But it’s easy to meet hitchhikers: we picked up a primary-school teacher, a Rasta farmer and three construction workers heading home from a hotel site, chatting with each of them about politics, education and the economy. Our last rider offered to take us out one evening, and he pressed his phone number on us. When I pointed out that I was old enough to be his mother, he said, “The new broom sweeps the floor, but the old broom knows the corners.” We dropped him off, and Booboo and I cackled like grannies. (Later in the week, I met Jenn Hyland, who runs the Zandoli Inn—home to the best restaurant I found on the island—and she scolded me, like an older, wiser sister, for offering rides to anyone but women, children and the elderly.)

When we arrived at the Carib Territory Guest House, I found Charles Williams—a mature gentleman with a trim gray beard—to be courtly, pragmatic and somewhat grumpy. He also turned out to be a deeply knowledgeable guide to Carib culture old and new. After a stop at Escalier Tete Chien, an intimidating zipper-like stretch of rocks that drops down into the Atlantic and plays an important role in Kalinago mythology, he took us hiking up a boulder-covered river. We panted as Mr. Williams marched ahead, but he stopped to show us spots where ancient ancestors ground bowls into the rock. He brought along a coconut that he cracked open as easily as an egg; after giving us a drink he showed us how to lure fish by chewing up some of the coconut’s meat and spitting it into an eddy. At the top of the climb was a fast, heavy and cold waterfall. We followed Mr. Williams’s lead and dunked ourselves under.

Once in the preserve, at a small clearing on the side of a hill, we could see all the way across a valley to the flank of the country’s largest volcano. We were hoping to see one of Dominica’s two endemic species of parrots. I glimpsed some birds for a few seconds as they swept up and down in flight, but spotting them at rest is like playing “Where’s Waldo?” with Mother Nature. Birdy came to the rescue; he set a powerful telescope up on a tripod and brought into view one after another creature—red-necked, electric-green—which he identified as Jaco parrots. Birdy called them and interpreted the squawks they exchanged with one another. He’s warm, relaxed, with a huge store of natural knowledge and stories to tell. I wished I could have spent more time with him.

Later, when I called Mr. Nassief to thank him for our visit, he invited us to come over and take a last swim to Secret Bay’s “secret beach.” Getting there requires wriggling through a small shallow tunnel cut at the water line through a massive rock. Booboo whispered to me, “Did you hear the part about the bats?” Not an angle I chose to pursue. We made it through without incident, and after paddling around for a while, stretched out on an empty beach. Despite knowing I’d have to swim back through the same little rocky tunnel, I felt expansive and unaccountably cheerful and crowed about all my new Dominican friends. Not a single lumpy mattress was required.

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