Crumpled up in green – Glass visits Dominica: where chocolate grows on trees

We all carry in our mental luggage certain images of particular holiday destinations and bring them with us when we travel somewhere new. This is certainly the case with the Caribbean – exclusive beach resorts, reggae and rum, holiday homes for celebrities and the super-rich, private yachts … the list goes on – but with Dominica this is excess baggage and should be left in the hallway before departing for the airport.

Christopher Columbus gave the name Dominica to an island he sighted on his second voyage in 1493 and one story goes that when he returned to the Old World the Queen asked him to describe the new island he had “discovered”. Lost for adjectives, he crumpled up a piece of paper and dropped it on the table and said: “That is Dominica.”

Morne Trois PitonsMorne Trois Pitons

You’ll know what he meant when flying here from Barbados or Antiqua (there are no direct flights from outside the Caribbean): those two islands are flat, characterised more by beaches dotted around the edges than anything inland, whereas Dominica has a crumpled landscape of dormant and dead volcanoes blanketed in more shades of green than you ever thought existed. Rivers, waterfalls and hot springs abound and it is called Nature Island for good reason. It’s lusciously  beautiful.

sunset at Picard Beach CottagesSunset at Picard Beach Cottages

Dominica is a small island, 29 miles long and 16 wide, and best explored in a hired car although it would not be difficult to get around using buses and taxis. Driving requires regular beeping of the horn because the roads are bendy and you’re expected to announce your presence going around curves; journeys, though, are always going to be short ones and motorists are careful so driving is not stressful or dangerous. From the airport, it is less than 10 miles to the tranquil village of Calibishie on the north-east coast; anyone in urgent need of escaping the discontents of life need travel no further.

Cocoa CottagesCocoa Cottages, Roseau, Dominica

Resorts or brand-name hotels are not to be found but accommodation is plentiful in the form of brightly painted bungalows and small lodging houses with balconies for gorgeous views across a cerulean sea to Guadaloupe and breakfasts with fresh guava and mango. A shop, good restaurant, bar, beaches and bus connections complete the idyllic scene and there is even a small chocolate factory close by at Pointe Babtiste. The white sand beach at Pointe Babtiste would be reason enough to idle away an afternoon here, before watching the sun go down over the strange formation of red rocks along the coastline, but there is also a black sand beach to discover.

Sisserou ParrotA Sisserou Parrot

The chocolate factory is part of an estate which now belongs to a grandson of Elma and Lennox Napier, an upper-class couple who were more at home shopping in Harrods than surviving on an island with no electricity and few roads. Yet, dropping out of London society, they settled here in 1932 and never left. Elma’s account of her life in Dominica, Black and White Sands  makes for a suitable read on beach or balcony while nibbling small bars of chocolate containing nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves (or ginger, or tangerine or lemongrass).

Chocolate grows on trees all over Dominica and if you’d like to sleep close to some then spend a night  at Cocoa Cottages, a five-minute drive from the island’s capital, Roseau. Delightfully whacky, surrounded by trees bearing huge breadfruit as well as cacao trees carrying petite pods filled with seeds – cocoa beans – without which there would be no chocolate in the world and civilization would be imperilled. Cocoa Cottages makes chocolate for sale, best enjoyed from the lazy comfort of a hammock on the verandha of a cottage while sipping freshly squeezed mango juice or a rum punch.

Roseau’s abiding attractions are visual: strange-looking produce – ackee, barbadine, canep, dasheen, tannia – at the Saturday-morning fruit and vegetable market; colourful jalousie windows of old buildings, some jazzed up in brightly coloured paint and enlivened with verandas overflowing with flowers.

barracoon  where slaves were housed before being auctionedThe barracoon – where slaves were housed before being auctioned

The only sombre note resides in the still-standing barracoon, where slaves were barracked before being sold outside, testimony to the slave trade that flourished in Dominica when the island was under British rule.

horseriding on the beach with Rainforest Riding 2Horseriding on the beach with Rainforest Riding

Roseau is good for shopping for locally produced consumables – pepper sauce, rum, coffee, honey, soaps, herbal oils and creole seasonings – and figure-hugging fashion outfits at small boutiques around the waterfront.

The capital boasts one of the island’s best hotels, Fort Young – snag one of the ocean-view rooms and bag a balcony table at the restaurant Palisades for panoramic views across an open sea. For laid-back drinking and dining, the Old Stone Bar & Grill is just around the corner but for the finest food experience on the island head to the north of the island and the Flambeau restaurant The chef, Paul, is of Dominican descent but his life in Paris is helping create a new standard for cuisine on the island, mixing local food and creole favourites with Continental and some American influences.

Trafalgar FallsThe Trafalgar Falls

The menu – its range and prices – is the most tempting one you will find on the island and, rest assured, the food is darned good. The ocean-facing rooms at the adjoining Picard Beach Cottages, shaded by coconut and almond trees and named after honchos who stayed here for the filming of the Pirates of the Caribbean movie, are perfect for a few days (the mini-kitchens are a plus). The beach is on your doorstep and there’s a long pier by the Flambeau restaurant for sipping cocktails while watching the sun go down.

There’s a moral to this story: lighten up –  this is not the usual Caribbean caper – and enjoy a piece of the party on a small and beautiful island that defies the stereotypes.

by Sean Sheehan

Getting there: British Airways  flies direct from London to Barbados (up to 10-12 weekly) and Antigua (daily) and there are local flights from both islands to Dominica (

For more information, please visit the island’s tourist authority and Bradt’s Dominica travel guide