I recently found a sleepy Florida isle snoozing between the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay; one that rarely makes national news with the exception of 9/11/2001. President Bush was on island when the tragedy broke. Another story slipped onto the pages of USA Today naming the Mar Vista Restaurant as a top ten place to meet a millionaire husband. No surprise really, the average price of the 75+ private island homes stands at $827,000.
Longboat Key rests in Southwest Florida, 20 minutes from Sarasota, surrounded by Caribbean blue water, miles of unspoiled beaches and yes, upscale lifestyle. But, fortunately you don’t have to be a millionaire to visit. I arrived at the Sandpiper Inn and found a throw back to days of Old Florida vacationing. The lodgings offer 11 ground-floor studios, one and two bedrooms, with fully equipped kitchens and individual patios; all rooms are non-smoking. The Sandpiper snuggles a barbeque area amidst tropical gardens, yet sits close enough to the shoreline for ocean waves to be heard all night.
At daybreak, I merely stepped outside my room and started a beach walk. I huffed along as ribbons of lilac slipped into dawn and sand pressed between my toes. I exercised alone with my thoughts, a few shore birds and a blue heron. Late sleepers, I guess; no one appeared during the hour.
Had I turned in the opposite direction toward the main thoroughfare, I could have fallen in the entrance to Euphemia Haye. The famed restaurant holds such a superior reputation that people drive 60 miles from Tampa for dinner. Being curious, I popped in their intimate upstairs bar one evening; found a cozy room with a masterful mixologist, comfortable seating, and seductive, live jazz. First class, indeed.
Harry’s Restaurant lies further down the street, a tasty laid-back spot for breakfast, lunch or dinner or Harry’s gourmet take out (See previous post: I’m Just Wild About Harry.) Steps away stands the Backyard Bike Shop, providing rental bikes by the hour, day or week. Cycling remains the easiest way to get around the ten-mile long haven. Bike lanes are available on both sides of newly repaved main drive, which runs straight down the Key.
The Sandpiper Inn is not a B & B, they have an even better arrangement with the nearby Blue Dolphin Cafe. Guests receive a $25 voucher to spend on breakfast which is available any time of the day. Everything served at this locals hangout is prepared on premises by Culinary Institute graduates. The muffins alone are worth the trip.
One of barrier island’s highlights is The Mote Marine Laboratory, a non-profit institution dedicated to marine research and conservation. Workers actively involved themselves with rescue and rehabilitation of animals during the recent Gulf disaster.
Shawn Garner ranks among the country’s top seahorse scientists and raises the species for other aquariums, zoos and science institutions. He explained, “Only when you learn about seahorses can you fully comprehend their beauty and uniqueness and why we need to protect them.”
Mote also farms sturgeon for the marketplace and fine restaurants. Historically, the fish prized for its caviar was depleted in the wild. Mote developed the ability to clean and re-use water efficiently while raising the seafood.
The renown Mar Vista Dockside Restaurant was built in 1912 with rusticated concrete blocks made onsite. The original house section is considered one of the twelve oldest surviving structures on Longboat Key. Guests arrive by car or boat, tying-up at the pier. They dine at water’s edge outdoor tables below gnarly old Buttonwood trees or on a covered deck. The bayside pier glows in the evening with gorgeous underwater lights. Seafood and steamer pots containing Snow crab, Dungeness crab, shrimp, mussels, and Maine lobster tails are the house specialty. Must say, my margarita rated top-shelf honors.
Sarasota considers herself the cultural capital of Florida and little Longboat Key has its own Center for the Arts. Here, residents and tourists find classes and concerts plus a lecture series in conjunction with the Historical Society.
Tom Aposporos , President of the Chamber of Commerce had reason to beam about a recent award. He said, “In 2010, Conde Nast Traveler magazine readers ranked Longboat Key number two for best island destinations in North American.” Okay, that’s a mouthful but just think, the isle beat out Vancouver Island in Canada, Key West and Nantucket. In case you are wondering, Kiawah Island, SC took the top spot.
By the time I left the Key, I was more than satiated from irresistible restaurant offerings. I eased into total relaxation; found getting around easy and the sea air intoxicating. LBK is an ideal place to kick off your shoes and savor the sunshine. More adventurous can kayak through canals and mangroves, bike in safety, tennis, golf or fish. Little wonder most guests stay a week and snowbirds return year after year. I can’t wait to go back myself, and I’m a Floridian.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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