A report by Miranda Seymour for The Guardian.
There’s a Caribbean paradise that we all know about: coconut palms; sand soft as white silk; blue seas veiling a coral underworld. And then there’s Dominica. It’s one of the slender necklace of green and mountainous islands – Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Lucia – that bewitched the young travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor when he visited them in the 1950s. Named by Columbus because it was on a Sunday that the mariner spotted the tiny island’s rearing cliffs, Dominica’s enchantment lies in a combination of unspoilt beauty – hikers adore its hidden lakes, cascading rivers and almost impenetrable forest trails – and a sense of having stepped back in time.
I came to Dominica in search of Jean Rhys, the celebrated Celtic-Creole novelist who was born here in 1890. I fell in love with her childhood Eden from the moment the local aeroplane from Antigua – no major companies yet fly there direct – touched down in the majestic shadow of Morne Diablotins. Awaiting me was the island’s most erudite tour guide. Affectionately known as “the Oracle”, Dr Lennox Honychurch had volunteered to show me the Dominica immortalised in Rhys’s novels.
Less Rhys-obsessed visitors can share a taxi for the 90-minute journey from Douglas-Charles airport to Roseau. I spent a happy two days in the island’s capital at the renovated Charlotte Estate B&B. Set above Roseau’s sparkling bay, this bewitching little hotel offers Creole cooking with a decidedly French twist served on a plantation-style veranda. Far off, you can hear the conch shell horns, announcing the return of the fishing fleet.
Roseau is tiny. It took me five minutes to stroll from the hotel up to the town’s Botanic Gardens, created in 1890 in collaboration with Kew. Was it under the gardens’ vast banyan tree – nowadays a favourite spot for selfies – that Rhys painfully recalled having been “mentally seduced” by a certain “Mr Howard”, an elderly Englishman who fantasised about turning a wide-eyed 14-year-old girl into his sex slave? Or did this strange episode take place in the more formal garden that encloses the clifftop Roseau library? (I knew that this was where Rhys first read Jane Eyre, the book that inspired her best-known novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.)
Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017, carried off the library’s roof. Its effects are still visible today, but I found the luxuriant mango tree described in Rhys’s memoir Smile Please, still spreading its green canopy above the wooden shell of her parents’ once elegant townhouse on Cork Street. Literary homes aren’t a priority on an island that is still rebuilding entire villages after the hurricane. Rhys’s Roseau home may even have to be demolished.
Dominica haunts all of Rhys’s fiction. I wondered whether Roseau’s market would still smell of frangipani, lime juice, cinnamon and cloves? (Yes, although the market has moved location from where slaves were once auctioned, out to the edge of town.) Would I find her remembered world of blue mountains and plunging ravines? A world, she wrote, where “everything is green, everything is growing…” Reader, I did.
Pointe Baptiste – the Napier family’s beautiful home and neighbouring cottages – is hugely popular with visitors, so book ahead. It is a plantation-style house on Dominica’s north coast, which Rhys visited on her sole return to the island in 1936. Lennox and I arrived when the midday sun was glittering off the sea. Author Patrick Leigh Fermor remembered drinks being served with “almost Babylonian splendour”. I admired the Atlantic view, while savouring a bar of home-produced chocolate. (You can also buy Alan Napier’s chocolate products at Petit Paris, Roseau’s favourite waterside coffee shop.)
I knew that the tiny inland estates purchased by Rhys’s father (Amelia and Bona Vista) had long since been swallowed up by rampant vegetation so I asked Lennox to take me to Geneva, where Rhys’s Creole mother grew up. Here, too, we were greeted by a green plateau of tangled vines, enclosed – as always on this most mountainous of islands – by the soaring peaks, the names of which Rhys could recite in her sleep. Along the way, Lennox and I talked about Rhys’s writings and the magnetic personality of their creator, a recluse whose works are haunted by the memory of her Caribbean childhood.
I learned that the house at Geneva was destroyed in the 1930s. The rusty wheels and crushers of the old sugar mill remain, reminders of an uglier age. Below us nestled Stowe, the modest shoreside house where Rhys’s mother and her twin welcomed Jean’s seafaring father to his first medical practice on the island. “Stowe hasn’t changed at all,” Lennox proudly told me – and I began to understand that Dominica’s landscapes could teach me more about Rhys than her vanishing homes ever could.
Back at Roseau, I visited the travel desk at the town’s largest hotel, Fort Young. Shane, who works for Ken’s Hinterland Adventure Tours, drove me south along the coast to Scotts Head. There, standing on a narrow isthmus of sand and pebbles, I’d been told that I would hear precisely where the Atlantic’s roar, thundering down from a sea of white breakers, meets the Caribbean’s sleepy sigh. Twist left to hear the sigh; twist right, for the roar. Shane, used to showing off Dominica’s twin-sea miracle, smiled at my excitement.
A few final treats still lay ahead. Deep in the Roseau valley, at the foot of the majestic Trafalgar Falls, were the gardens of Papillote. Nearby, Wotten Waven offered outdoor sulphur springs, mud baths and inexpensive hospitality at the friendly Petit Paris (perfect for another delicious creole lunch). Heading north again, I took a leisurely trip down Indian River (Pirates of the Caribbean territory) before spending a night at the island’s most imaginative resort. The spacious verandas of Secret Bay’s spacious guano-wood “tree-houses” offer panoramic views of Dominica’s smouldering sunsets and mountain-vaulting rainbows. How could Rhys ever forget an island of such unparalleled beauty? I knew I never would.
Way to go
British Airways flies regularly from Gatwick to Antigua (£410 return) or Barbados (from £414 return); LIAT daily local flights connect to Douglas-Charles airport. Charlotte Estate B&B has rooms from £105. Pointe Baptistehas four rooms and costs £210 a night. Dr Lennox Honychurch organises tours for up to eight people, also try Ken’s Hinterland Adventure Tours