Category Archives: Island Destinations

France in North America: Saint Pierre & Miquelon

Text as appeared in Business Jet Traveler Magazine,October/November 2011

A Taste of France in North America

Even many of the world’s savviest travelers have yet to discover pristine Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, two sleepy but thoroughly enchanting islands 15 miles south of Newfoundland. They swirl in fog and mystery and boast the anomaly of being France’s last foothold in North America. Don’t confuse these isles with neighboring Canada–residents on these shores carry the euro, use 220 voltage and savor Brie, baguettes and Bordeaux.

Visitors come to this charming maritime province to slow down and escape, and savor an authentic taste of France. You’ll drive alongside Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots, hear French spoken, see lace curtains hanging in windows and, perhaps best of all, enjoy the aroma of oven-fresh French bread and pastries.

Relative inaccessibility deters most tourists from even contemplating a visit to these isles. A ferry runs from Fortune in southern Newfoundland, although the journey by water often includes choppy and rough seas. Flights on Air St. Pierre connect from St. John’s, Newfoundland, as well as Halifax and Montreal, but schedules are erratic. However, aircraft owners can land at the modern airport, which can accommodate large business jets. It stands just a few miles from downtown Saint-Pierre–by far the archipelago’s most densely populated settlement as well as the capital. A five-minute taxi drive skirts past colorful frame homes reminiscent of those in Burano, Italy; some are painted in neon crayon hues that look exceptionally radiant on foggy days.

Downtown Saint-Pierre nestles against the banks of the harbor like a European village on a San Francisco incline. Cobbled brick lanes, alleys and street lanterns evoke the French Quarter of New Orleans. Canadian Dale Fuga, who vacationed here with his wife Cynthia, said, “We did not need to rent a car, as we were able to walk to all of the restaurants, shops and other attractions.”

Place de Gaulle, the town square, is near the wharf, ferry ­terminal and the post office, which is topped with a gabled ­tower. Decorative Saint-Pierre and Miquelon postage stamps attract fervent collectors who make the post office their first stop.

Thirty Paris-trained gendarmes patrol the crime-free environment. They readily volunteer for two-year stints, claiming the quaint atmosphere suits family life.

A must-do walking tour includes the red- and white-striped Point Aux Canons Lighthouse and three sentinel canons, which were formerly used to guard the harbor from British attacks. Nearby rests a poignant memorial dedicated to island sailors lost at sea. Hundreds of shipwrecks lie scattered around the treacherous rocky shores. A Catholic cathedral built in 1906 from rocks quarried on Saint-Pierre lies behind the memorial. Adorning the sanctuary are two stained-glass windows brought by President Charles de Gaulle when he visited in 1967.

Memorial to those lost at sea.

Feel like a Francophile and follow your nose to the bakery and several gourmet food and wine shops up the street. Browse over bottles of French wines and champagne at European Union prices, a real bargain for many tourists. A glass cabinet displays fine chocolates and shelves are lined with imported foodstuffs such as haricot verts, escargot, white asparagus and jellies and jams. The selection of croissants and fromage is fantastic. And, don’t miss the foie gras made in Miquelon–it’s scrumptious enough for export to Parisian cafes.


Portuguese explorer Joa Alvarez Fa­gundes discovered the islands in 1520. On Cartier’s 1536 voyage, he claimed the territory for the king of France. For the next few centuries, the British and French squabbled over the holdings. France eventually lost its North American empire but the tiny islands were conceded by the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Since then, the French have celebrated Bastille Day on these shores.

The archipelago, which includes eight smaller islands, totals 93 square miles–about the size of Martha’s Vineyard. Miquelon, the largest in area, supports a petite village with one main street. The population of only 500 includes numerous Acadian ­descendants who were driven from Canada’s provinces by the British during the 18th century. Langland, another of the tiny islets, remains the most wild and green. A seven-mile-long strip of sand connects it to Miquelon–drivable depending on sea conditions. Langland serves as a summertime getaway for by about 400 Saint-Pierre residents.

The islands remain important fishing grounds due to their proximity to the legendary Grand Banks. While the French government continues to dispute the territorial fishing zone, it has no intention of abandoning the outpost. Today, the colony’s infrastructure and 6,000 residents are highly subsidized. Cod fishing copiously sustained the economy until 1992, when a ban on cod dried up the time-honored occupation. A majority of citizens now work at government-related jobs. Tourism is beginning to emerge, however, with the arrival of cruise ships that offer curious passengers a chance to touch French soil.

Be sure to visit the Heritage Museum, which showcases the island’s history. The highly visual exhibits offset the sparse English signage. Displays showcase the early 17th century Catholic immigrants and their religious practices. You’ll see models of sailing ships, old marine tools and gadgets, photographs, bottles of bootlegged alcohol and an amusing array of ’40s, ’50s and ’60s household appliances.

L’Arche, a public museum, features the infamous guillotine used to behead a murderer in 1889, the only one ever employed in North America. L’Arche also houses the territorial archives and displays the monumental canvas by Gaston Roullet for the 1900 Paris Exposition depicting cod fishing and drying on Saint-Pierre.

A few entrepreneurs offer guided driving tours to Pointe de Savoyard, the fringes of Saint-Pierre where horses roam free. Both humble cottages and several large homes dot the sparsely inhabited hills and bogs while ponderous surf crashes against the rocky coastline and beaches–reminiscent of coastal Maine. The view could easily be a movie set for a Scottish or English seacoast saga. As the oversized crustaceans caught by fishermen suggest, it is an excellent locale for lobster pots. Stiff Atlantic breezes blast the inland water, making Savoyard Pond a popular windsurfing spot.

Fresh Lobster

During Prohibition, when alcohol was forbidden in the U.S., it was perfectly legal to import liquor to the French-owned Saint-Pierre. Thus, the island became a warehousing shop for huge stocks of Canadian whiskey. Al Capone ran a major smuggling operation, employing residents to repack 300,000 cases of alcohol each month. The noisy uncrating process was too risky state-side so workers wrapped the bottles in straw and packed them into jute sacks. Rumrunners would secret the contraband into the U.S. while locals seized the emptied cases to fuel stoves and build houses. Life truly roared on Saint-Pierre in the years before the U.S. repealed Prohibition in 1933.

Historic photo taken during Prohibition

Be sure to search for the Cutty Sark House, built from wooden whiskey crates hidden among overgrown scrubby brush in the Savoyard area. Local lore says bootlegging persists and formidable old warehouses remain by the harbor, but no one offered inside tours. Another legend claims that Capone once slept ashore and St. Pierrais, as the people call themselves, seem to enjoy keeping that story alive.

Isabelle Lafargue-Ruge handpaints porcelain.

An authentic and lovely souvenir awaits you in Isabelle Lafargue-Ruel’s studio, La Butte. She hand-paints china in the traditional French Limoges fashion, a technique that requires several 16-hour firings. Born on Saint-Pierre, Isabelle left to study in France and returned in 2006 to manage her studio, which houses intricately designed and signed porcelain pieces.

A short Zodiac (schooner) journey to Ile aux Marins, Sailor’s Island, whisks you to the desolate property sans cars, streets and full-time residents. The island–formerly dubbed Dog Island because of plentiful dogfish–was once home to 700 seafarers. Now, only a picturesque church and old fishing shacks remain.

Ile aux Marins

 

Food beckons many to this unspoiled French fantasyland. Awaken for a breakfast of cafe au lait and petit pain au chocolat, or enjoy a mid-morning meal at a sidewalk cafe. Dinnertime begins around 8 o’clock and adheres to the French custom of unrushed enjoyment over multiple courses. Why hurry when a cozy Basque bistro, Ongi Etorri, sends out piping hot escargots swimming in melted Roquefort cheese, encased by fried bread crumbs? Choose from a variety of fish such as Coquilles St. Jacques, halibut (a local favorite), or lobster and snow crab. Menus also include juicy beef entrees. Desserts look sinfully delicious, but mon Dieu, it is difficult to indulge in a peach melba or crème brulée after all those croissants!

Joie de vivre and the French lifestyle abound on Saint-Pierre with its amiable partial-English speaking residents. Sojourners relax and slow down to island time with a French twist. So, why not fly over and collect one of the least-seen passport stamps available. Afterwards, you can say, “I had lunch in France.”

Debi along the blustery shores of Saint Pierre

Traveler Fast Facts:

What It Is:
A territory of France in North America, including two inhabited islands: Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are located near the shores of Newfoundland, roughly 800 miles northeast of Boston. American visitors will need a valid US passport. The official language is French, currency is the euro and most major credit cards are accepted. Clocks are two hours ahead of Eastern standard-time. Canadian dollars are accepted but change is given in euros.  www.tourisme-saint-pierre-et-miquelon.com

Climate:
June and July are typically wet and foggy, August is clearer and September offers the best weather. Very cold winters with an average annual snowfall of 118 inches and rainfall often exceeds 40 inches.

Getting There:
The Saint-Pierre airport (FSP) can handle small jets up to a Boeing 737 or Airbus A319/320. Miquelon also maintains a regional airport (MQC) with a 1,000-meter runway for turboprop and small jet aircraft.

Air Saint-Pierre

The territory’s official carrier, Air Saint-Pierre, operates flights from the Canadian cities of St. John’s, Newfoundland; Halifax, Nova Scotia; Moncton, New Brunswick; and Montreal. The only other regularly scheduled transportation is two-hour ferry service from the port of Fortune in southern Newfoundland.

Traveler Report Card

Accommodations (B+)

La Taie n’Art d”Hier, a chic B & B high on the hill overlooking the town; run by the charming husband and wife team. C’est bon. www.lataienartdhier.com Hotel Nuits Saint-Pierre, a gracious boutique style hotel conveniently located downtown. Suitable for a romantic getaway. www.nuitssaintpierre.com Both rate 4 stars.

Restaurants (A+)

Restaurant l’Atelier Gourmand – offers harbor views and inventive French cuisine showcasing seafood. Prix fixe option and English menus available. www.lateliergourmandspm.com
Ongi Etorri, a cozy Basque bistro (the name means welcome in Basque) where owners Dominique and Cecile Hacala personally greet patrons. Reservations are necessary, as they fill every night. Many consider this the best restaurant in town.
www.ongietorrispm.com
Restaurant Creperie de Vieux Port- perfect for lunch.  Crepes, of course.

Les Delices de Josephine offers exquisite baked goods and coffee plus pizza, quiches and baguette sandwiches.
Salon de THE La Ruche- coffee, tea and fresh French pastries.

Activities (B)

Guided Mini-van Tour – Lifelong resident Jean-Claude Fouchard offers group or individual tours with the insider scoop. www.lecailloublanc.fr
L”Arche, the staff of the public museum offer guided museum tours of artifacts and sightseeing tours, usually by appointment. www.arche-musee-et-archives.net
Cathedral St. Pierre – To see the interior, locate the rear side entrance as the front doors, with interesting fish door knobs, remain locked.
Heritage Museum – Take a step through St. Pierre’s history. Worth a visit. Only euros accepted for admission. www.musee-heritage.fr
Miquelon Day-Trip– Leave Saint-Pierre at 8 am and return at 7 pm via a 55- minute ferry ride to Miquelon. You’ll cross a strait known for its strong currents, so motion sickness medicine is suggested.  Why not fly!

Langland- You’ll need a tour guide in the summertime to visit this rugged and sparsely populated island.

Franco Forum- French language immersion school  www.francoforumspm.net

Saint-Pierre Shopping

La Maison de Cadeau – Floor to ceiling French wares: wines, foodstuffs, dinnerware and linens. Also a wonderful selection of historic photos and postcards.

La Tire Bouchon – fine wines and food, gifts and French Quimper ware.  www.letirebouchonspm.com

La Butte- Hand-painted porcelain using the traditional French Limoges technique.  www.labutte.com

Shopping

 

Cumberland Island: Grandeur and Green

Just off Georgia’s coast, this historic isle offers elegant lodging and an escape from modern civilization

Plum Orchard on Cumberland Island, Currently Undergoing Restoration
Plum Orchard

Indians, soldiers and ghosts of Camelot docked upon her marshy shores. Turn-of-the-century multi-millionaires built castles, and commanding women protected their estates.

The history of Cumberland Island reads like steamy, romantic fiction. Its mansions now stand in ruin–wild horses as their guests. Former slaves haunt Stonehenge-like chimneys, aristocratic families’ feud (often with the government) and visitors spin their own tales.

The pristine preserve belongs to Georgia’s Golden Isles, a string of small barrier islands that dollop the Atlantic border. Cumberland, the group’s largest, rests between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, flaunting diversity among three different ecosystems: saltwater marsh, maritime forest and beach. The island, a National Seashore, limits visitors to 300 each day.

“Don’t tell anybody about this place,” whispered the visitor. “It’s total relaxation.”

The elegant Carnegie-built Greyfield Inn offers the only lodging (other than primitive camping) on an isle larger than Manhattan. Overnighters experience 19th century ambiance in a wilderness setting–just seven miles from the mainland, but remote from hustle and bustle. John Kennedy, Jr. chose Cumberland Island as the romantic spot to take his bride and the press never discovered or invaded their privacy.

Greyfield Inn

Visitors to the Southeast are attracted to former blue-blood enclaves–Colonial Coast vacation resorts including Jekyll, Amelia, Sea and St. Simons Islands–to golf, swim, boat and laze. But Cumberland stands apart–her natural splendor remains untouched by modern development. No convenience stores, beach homes, high rises or condominiums; in fact, nothing rests in between; first class or the floor, grandeur or green.

Her first chapter began with the Timucuan tribe, then the Spaniards, followed by Britain’s James Oglethorpe (Savannah’s founder) who built forts and a hunting lodge and re-named the area Cumberland.

Wild Horse on Cumberland Island
Wild Horse on Cumberland Island

After the American Revolution plantations prospered. Stafford Plantation, an 8,000-acre tract, reputed as the most productive–and exploitive with over 350 slaves. The owner William Stafford kindled a clandestine affair with a mulatto, who birthed four daughters and two sons. Today, the only remnants are the chimneys of their rustic cabins- and some say their ghosts.

In 1783, Revolutionary War hero Nathanael Greene and wife Caty moved near Oglethorpe’s lodge. Greene, however, died before they could build on the chosen site– an Indian burial mound. Caty remarried and constructed a four-story, 16-fireplace tabby (coquina) mansion. Her home, Dungeness, and twelve acres of formal gardens became renowned as a luxurious retreat among colonial patricians.

A Trail on Cumberland IslandThe Civil War brought plantation lifestyle to a halt. Freed slaves moved to nearby Amelia Island, but some returned to their birthplace and established The Settlement, on Cumberland’s northern tip. Dungeness deteriorated and was destroyed by fire.

The 1880’s brought a new infatuation. Thomas Carnegie, brother and business partner of millionaire steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, purchased the old Dungeness property and constructed a far grander mansion. Unfortunately he, like Oglethorpe and Greene, suffered a similar fate. Carnegie died soon after the house was finished, further connecting legends of the plagued site to the Indian burial ground.

Nevertheless, Thomas’ wife Lucy and their nine children stayed on in the 59-room Scottish castle with turrets, an indoor pool, squash court, beauty salon, golf course and 40 out buildings.

Guests–including the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers–stayed for a month at a time. Thomas Carnegie’s widow employed 200 servants to take care of any whim.

Guests, like the Astors, Vanderbilts and Rockefellers, stayed at her retreat for a month at a time. They threw lavish soirees, picnicked on the lawn with crystal and fine china, and entertained with shooting, fishing, and beachcombing parties. Lucy employed two hundred servants to take care of any whims. Dungeness danced with merriment and carefree abandon through the Gilded Age.

When the matriarch died in 1916, her trust funds provided enough for upkeep- until inflation struck after WWII- pushing even the wealthy to cut back. Additional property taxes forced the family to close Dungeness. Thirty years later, a fire, apparently started by arson, burned the mansion. Now a highlight of a trip to Cumberland includes viewing the ruins.

The Great Depression and higher taxes further dwindled the Carnegie inheritance. The family held onto acreage and the Greyfield home, eventually opening it in 1962 as an inn. Today, Inn guests find casual elegance—dress for dinner and follow the rules of etiquette, but no phone, TV or WiFi.

In 1968, Hilton Head developer, Charles Fraser, wanted to purchase and develop Cumberland. Landowners–the Carnegies and Candlers (Coco-Cola heirs)–battled to halt commercialization. They met with the National Park Service (NPS) and, in 1972; the government declared Cumberland a National Seashore.

Front Porch Swing at Greyfield Inn
Front Porch Swing at Greyfield Inn

Heated debates over park usage followed. Ten years later, the central tract of forest and beach were designated as “official wilderness–a conservation class that outlaws mechanical devices like cars, bicycles and chains saws.”

The Park Service now controls ninety percent of Cumberland with just 2,000 acres remaining in private hands. Political struggles continue over management and development, historic preservation and driving privileges.

Lucy Carnegie built white-columned Greyfield in 1901 for daughter Retta. The three-story stucco mansion, with a raised basement and 11 bedrooms, sits on 200 acres. A graceful staircase descends from the first floor porch to the lawn.

Retta’s child, Lucy R. Ferguson, opened the house as an inn. Today, Mary Ferguson, wife of Mitty- who is the great-great-grandson of Thomas Carnegie, manages Greyfield, listed among the Historic Hotels in America.

Sitting Room of a Master Suite at Greyfield Inn
Sitting Room of a Master Suite at Greyfield Inn

A stay affords uncommon privacy ands tranquility. Upon arrival– via Greyfield’s own ferry–the staff escort guests through a cathedral high canopy of magnolias and immense southern oaks. A genteel, unhurried lifestyle immediately descends. Greyfield guests may also fly in and land prop planes on a grass strip runway with permission. However, no airport facilities exist.

House tours mention personal touches; staying in the gracious manor feels like a visit to a wealthy aunt, old family photographs line the walls. Look for Uncle Richard’s collection of shark teeth and Margaret’s favorite conch shell. All rooms are decorated with Carnegie originals or antique furnishings. The library contains hundreds of first editions; the old gun room became the bar. Guests pour for themselves on the honor system.

The one-hundred-foot front porch vies as favorite for its sweeping veranda and bookend bed-like swings. Rocking chairs line the front rail and creak on the wooden floorboards. Hummingbird feeders attract a bevy of those tiny, twittering creatures.

Hors d’oeuvres, graciously served in the living room, are typically enjoyed with cocktails on the porch. Jane Walsh, a guest from Palm Beach, calls Cumberland, “a slice of heaven.” She and her husband Michael celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary with a return visit and hope to come back every year.

Michael whispers, “Don’t tell anybody about this place. It’s total relaxation.”

A Parlor at Greyfield Inn
A Parlor at Greyfield Inn

Dinner at 7:30 PM is an elegant affair.  Men must wear jackets. The dining room features one long board, beautifully set with flowers and heirloom silver candlesticks, and two side tables. Honeymooners often sit by themselves, but most prefer chatting with others and discussing the day’s activities.

Blessedly cool, air-conditioned guest rooms on the second or third floor include private baths or shared amenities. Guests may also take advantage of the state-of-the-art bath house behind the Inn. The master suite includes a spacious 15 x 20-foot sitting room, a pineapple-post king bed and views out the front, side and back of the house. A claw foot tub dominates the bath, with shower accommodations.

Complimentary fat-tired bicycles, good on the sand, become a real bonus. A ten-minute pedal to the beach at sunrise makes an ideal start to the day. Cyclists often ride to the Dungeness ruins, via Grand Avenue, a dirt road beneath overhanging trees. Old photos show the gutted frame engulfed in vines. But, the NPS removed the foliage- and some of the mystique, to reinforce the crumbling bricks.

Don’t miss another highlight, an outing with a naturalist. By special permission, Greyfielders ride in open air seating for an exhilarating three-hour adventure. Stops include the salt marsh; the bluff- highest point on the island at 80 feet; the shallow, 83-acre Whitney Lake (home to gators); The Settlement and First African Baptist Church.

Interior of the First African Baptist Church
Interior of the First African Baptist Church

The teensy old slave church with red doors rose to Notre Dame fame following the 1996 Kennedy wedding. Venturing inside uncovers stark, whitewashed walls and windows and rough-hewn pews. Visitors must stretch their imagination to envision candlelight and flashlights used during the hush-hush Kennedy service arranged by Carnegie granddaughter, GoGo Ferguson.

The island tour stops for a peek at Plum Orchard, the Greek revival home of George Carnegie. The NPS recently spent $5.3 million on renovation to the decaying shell and interior. The extravagance of the era crystallizes with the realization that this grandiose home and indoor pool–built in 1898- sits in the enchanting wild, 45 minutes from Georgia’s mainland.

The exotic forest surrounding Plum Orchard feels like a gnome’s sanctuary. Cool, dark, shadowy branches are home to mosses, lichens and emerald green resurrection ferns. The outside world seems shut out except for sounds like yellow-throated warblers or pileated woodpeckers. An afternoon shower presents a squawking chorus, compliments of green tree frogs.

From the dim jungle, you emerge to the blinding flat, sandy beach that stretches as far as the eye can see. There’s not a person, beach towel, umbrella or chair on a shoreline that’s almost 1,000-feet wide at low tide. What can compare?

Thousands of sandpipers, sanderlings and other shorebirds dodge waves. During raptor migration, enthusiasts may see hawks and peregrine falcons. Soaring above the dunes lurk vultures and bald eagles. The entire island is on the Colonial Coast Birding Trail, with more than 277 identified species.

Nesting Loggerhead Turtle

Loggerhead turtles return from May to September creeping just over the dunes’ high-water mark to lay eggs. The NPS attempts to police feral pigs that forage the nests. Non-native wild horses and hogs disrupt and endanger the sea oats and sand dunes.

According to naturalist Fred Whitefield, “sea oats are the most important plant on the island because their deep roots slow dune erosion.” But…the tourists love the beauty of the ponies.

Dusk brings raccoons and armadillos, and a variety of critters whose beady eyes and acute sense of smell make them nocturnal scavengers. Night falls and the place has the magnificent feel of solitude on a remote private island.

A weekend at Greyfield lets you flip back the pages of history and return to the privileged days of Jay Gatsby, or camp like early settlers who slept under the stars. Just slow down like the turtles on her shore, roll with the tides or escape in the thick of her forests. Retreat like the former elite or use your own feet. No matter which adventure you choose, Cumberland is an open book waiting for you to write a chapter.

This article also appears in the February 1, 2010 issue of Business Jet Traveler. View it now on Business Jet Traveler Online.

Surviving Dominica

Beach carin

Rain pings against the metal roof of the treehouse, torrents that rip the hillside and drown the music of the tree frog serenade. Peering out an open window, I watch immense tropical plant leaves fill with water, sag, then douse the already saturated soil.

“No hiking today,” grumbles my husband, in a pre-caffeine stupor.

“Wanna bet?” I reply, eager for our planned trek. We’re part of a small group adventuring to Dominica’s famous Boiling Lake. The volcanic crater sits within 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our six-hour round-trip takes us through the Valley of Desolation, where sulfuric fumes killed most of the vegetation. But, on the return route, we’ll stop to soak our tired muscles in thermal springs.

Dominica, a rather unknown island— just 290 square miles— lies between Guadeloupe and Martinique and is NOT the Dominican Republic. A former British colony, she has governed herself since 1978. The country resembles a preteen, edging toward adolescent experimentation, growth and maturity. But no need for a make-up lesson; the land, sea and people are naturally gorgeous. If only, they stay that way,

Awakened by a few cups of locally grown coffee, husband Jay begrudgingly agrees to the muddy conditions remaining post downpour. We venture to Titou Gorge, starting point for the hike. Foiled again. Security guards, camouflaged as military personnel, turn us away. The forceful watchman claims: “We’re having special operations here. No admittance.”

Frustrated, the dreadlocked guide from our hotel, Moses, argues, “Never seen this closed before.”

A cover-up unfolds, hiding a big secret. The truth, however, appears obvious: hard to disguise cameras and crews filming the CBS Survivor series, “Pirate Master.” The popular theme builds on Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean,” including scenes shot in Dominica for movies II and III.

But we’re not letting those scallywags defeat us; we switch our destination and finally begin ascent. I stumble along, my balance tenuous, like I’m walking the plank with one too many rum punches. I pray I won’t slip on the treacherous stones or into the oozing muck. Moses, our leader to the promised land of waterfalls, reminds us to pause and look up every ten steps. “Don’t miss the beauty of the forest,” he says with equanimity, like a yoga instructor.

“Ha,” I think, like a city slicker, even though dressed as a nerdy camera-toting tourist.

Water, water everywhere–is this how being slimed feels? Moss upholsters the trees and rocks, so plush a princess could sleep on the ground and never feel any bumps. No wonder– the cloud-shrouded rainforest drizzles over 300 inches of precipitation per year and the island boasts 365 rivers.

Giant curly Fern
Giant curly Fern

We ford a gushing stream, soaking our sneakers and socks; but no other route exists. We trudge up and down (the more perilous) across wild terrain, crammed with colorful bird- of-paradise in bloom and enormous curling ferns.

Jay, no Tarzan, loses his footing and frantically windmills his arms. He tries to recover, stepping on soft grass at the path’s edge. Me-Jane hears the rumble–and turns to see him pitching backward. I grab his ankle, just as he starts falling down the 20-foot ravine. Instantly Moses flies over, like a guardian angel, rescuing Jay from harm. The wayward one wrestles up, leveraging against a giant bromeliad, filthy and a bit embarrassed, but not hurt.

The trail marker indicates a short 45-minute hike. “Dominican time,” I think. Locals, who constantly walk the practically vertical countryside, may arrive in three-quarters of an hour, but our group takes almost twice as long. We reach freshwater Borei Lake sweating and hungry. Aah, a blessed repose. (And lest I forget– a great photo op.)

Moses foretells of hidden Middleham Falls, warning we’ll need to scramble for a peek. Another hiker, Kristen, commits us, “sure, we can make it.”

Tree Roots
Tree Roots

The pilgrimage, described in my guide book as “arduous”, is more like ridiculous. The first challenge is a section of gnarly unearthed tree roots. I drop down and crawl to maneuver over them, snarling at this feisty forest.

Then, we hit a series of skyward log steps. No flat, nada downhill, just up, up and up. Whew. As a former fitness instructor, I’m chagrined that my heart rate climbs and my leg muscles burn.

One-by-one, we stagger to a resting point, where our guide notices Jacquot parrots. If we contain our breathlessness, we can hear their muffled trills. Moses mimics the song of another tropical bird, who dutifully answers back. Beautiful.

I hear the dim roar of the falls, we’re getting close. We must hoist ourselves over boulders, carefully finding footholds. Then– one more river and o’er muddy slopes to a platform.

Glorious–glistening liquid crystals bounce 150 feet down the noisy waterfall. Bare vines droop from the rocky crevice, like hemp ropes for climbers (no one dares attempt.) A few brave souls conquer the final descent, ready to swim in the pool, but are forced back by the powerful current.

“Namaste,” I whisper, bowing to the trees. Connecting to this juicy jungle brings a Zen moment, a oneness with nature. However, the following day I must remind myself of that tranquility, because never were my calves this sore, even after running a marathon.

Dominica remains undiscovered by mass tourism, fewer than 85,000 sleep-over per year. Sandy beaches are rare; most are rocks. Driving on the left is terrifying; blind curves on twisty pot-holed roads. Locating restrooms? Next to impossible- except at the hallowed hiking centers. Flight schedules are currently difficult, but a runway extension is underway and they’re installing lights.

Rocky Beach
Rocky Beach

Not a high-rise, chain store or name-brand hotel rests on her jagged coasts and densely foliated peaks, soaring almost 5,000 feet. Water is plentiful, but money is not. Housing remains much like it was a century ago: one-to-two room lumber dwellings, simply hammered together, many still without indoor plumbing.

Nonetheless, the New Economics Foundation rated Dominica as the fourth happiest place on earth to live. http://www.happyplanetindex.org/list.htm

However lovely this unpolished isle, she struggles. Residents need jobs if they wish to move beyond their current economic conditions. Judith Thomas, a mom with four daughters, desires progress. Speaking English instead of her usual Creole, she says, “I want my children to have a promising future, but I can’t offer one.” Her girls must wait for opportunities to come to the island, or leave to get ahead.

And sadly, that happens all too often. Many young people go off, creating a gap in the population.

Poverty escalated in the 1990’s, when banana growers succumbed to over-supply, competition and cheaper prices from Latin America. A fair-trade act helped restore local farmers, and the government began restructuring the economy in 2003, but agriculture remains vitally critical.

The terrain proves difficult to work, except for easy-to-grow taro root, the potato of the tropics, and acres of banana palms. Many trees hang with bunches wrapped in bright blue plastic bags. While this sheathing keeps the produce bug- and bird-free for export, the view reminds me of art work from Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who dressed Central Park in orange cloth gates.

How will tourism benefit the country? A look at Jungle Bay, our hotel, provides a fine example. Sam Raphael, the proud Dominican owner, said, “The resort was 100 % built by local residents, with the exception of an electrician and plumber from Antigua, who led the team. Woodworkers from Guyana also came to train locals in construction techniques”

The eco-friendly site hugs a steep slope, edging the ocean. Raphael claims he purchased the property for a reasonable sum, because it was considered waste land, unusable due to the incline. But that location makes an ideal spot for treehouses on stilts.

Jungle Bay Treehouse Cottage
Jungle Bay Treehouse Cottage

The rustic, luxuriously appointed guest quarters come close to five-star accommodations with private verandas umbrellaed by the forest. The Swiss Family Robinson would be jealous: rooms boast coffee makers, enclosed showers- open to the starry heavens, but no TV.

Yoga classes, mountain-side spa suites and the white noise of repetitive rolling surf provide relaxation. Local guides lead adventurers and transport guests to Tarzan-worthy swimming holes.

Holistic Jungle Bay runs with 95% Dominican staff, learning first, and now earning good wages. Currently, the management is a family affair, but they hope to expand and promote residents.

Progress has its price, however. I worry that the island’s natural riches will be overly commercialized. I swam through tiny champagne bubbles, like diamonds rising from the bottom of the sea, and snorkeled undamaged coral reefs. “Scuba Diving” magazine rated Dominica second in the Caribbean’s top dive destinations–for her dramatic drop-offs, caves and wrecks.

Whale watching enthusiasts find seven species living and breeding nearby and sport fishermen are attracted by Yellowfin tuna, barracuda and marlin.

Cruise ships are already stopping, allowing passengers to ride the aerial tram, which, I suspect, was built to attract their business. But these visitors only stay a few hours, benefiting just a small segment of the work force.

Even more alarming is what these liners carry. In 2003, the government built a sewage treatment plant near Roseau, the capital. Small Islands Global Forum reports that cruise ships dispose of their garbage on the island.

And there’s talk of an oil refinery on the eastern part, of this, often called “Nature Island of the Caribbean.”

Postcard Pretty Dominica
Postcard Pretty Dominica

Dominica, the naive pubescent, is developing with growth-hormone surges, pushing rapid maturation. A 2007 report on the economy stated, “The problem remains of balancing the need for increased tourism with the protection of the island’s unique and vulnerable eco-system.”

I just hope she wins immunity and remains a survivor.

*****

If you go:

Turbo-prop planes land at Melville Airport on the island’s northeastern stretch. American Airlines offer connections, only through Puerto Rico. Car and mobile phone rental are available at the airport. Ferries service Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia.

Roseau, the capital, on the southwestern coast, features a farmers’ market every Saturday and the 40-acre Botanical Gardens, founded in 1891, include flora, fauna and a parrot aviary.

The Caribe Cultural Village-Kalinago Barana Aute lies on the Crayfish River in the Carib Territory. About 3,000 descendants of the Kalinago (often called “Caribs”) live in eight villages over 3,700 acres -the only indigenous people’s reserve in the Caribbean. A guide escorts visitors through the museum and around the trails, presenting history, hands-on demonstrations, and Kalinago traditions. $10 per person, www.kalinagobaranaaute.dm

World Creole Music Festival- lively jammin’ over the last weekend in October. www.dominica.dm/festivals

Jungle Bay Resort–in Delices, a tropical hideaway on the ocean’s edge, includes 35 tree-cottages, a restaurant, yoga center and health spa. Adventure packages include guided outings and transportation. www.junglebaydominica.com

Beau Rive–a small boutique hotel, offers eight ocean-view guest rooms. Owner Mark Steele welcomes visitors to impeccable over-sized rooms with verandas, near Castle Bruce. Gourmet meals served on the patio, overlooking Wakaman Point. www.BeauRive.com

3 Rivers Eco-Lodge — in Rosalie. Green Globe certified camping, dormitory, tree house or cottages, restaurant and environmental education workshops. www.3riversdominica.com

For further information on Dominica see www.discoverdominica.com