Every possible shade of green

Simon Calder meanders through Dominica's vibrant rainforests in the company of parrots and hummingbirds

You can tell a place has become a big new destination when travel agency staff start abbreviating the name - as they have just started to do with the Dom Rep. Visitors love the place, and the locals love the visitors. It is one of the greatest tourism success stories in the Caribbean, enjoying a boom in arrivals as news spreads of miraculous beaches and minuscule prices.

All of which is highly unfortunate for the island I have just visited, Dominica. These lines refer to an entirely different destination. Touristically, the Dominican Republic is doing splendidly well - while anyone who has anything to do with tourism in Dominica is probably looking at this page in trepidation; on the last occasion there was a story on the lesser Antilles, a helpful map was included, showing full details of the Dom Rep. No: this is Dominica.

"No" is the word that recurs among the gracious, gentle islanders when they speak to visitors. And talk they do, with relish, emphasising all that is positive about Dominica.

No, we have no significant violent crime, I was told shortly before Christmas. In the same week, the number of murders on the island of Jamaica exceeded the 1995 total, with an average of two deaths per day.

No, we have not sold out to tourism. If you want mile upon mile of high- rise hotels lined up along a beach, try somewhere else. And there is a very good reason for that: No, we have no beaches.

That, you discover eventually, is not quite correct. But the few patches of sand, mostly volcanic, are nothing to write postcards about. The only swim I enjoyed was from a river beach, where families picnic beneath benignly sprawling rainforest. Dominica has nothing to do with palm-fringed golden sands (of the kind you might find in, say, the Dom Rep). It is instead a heroic crumple of stone that erupted from a fragile patch of the Earth's crust. Today it seems frozen in mid-ascent, a jumble of rifts and peaks aiming for the grey Caribbean sky.

Grey is not a colour that the travel industry promotes, particularly in the context of skies. But on Dominica it is a regular reality - a consequence of the collision between Atlantic air, heavy with moisture, and the highest mountains in the eastern Caribbean.

Yet you will search in vain for evidence of gloom. The colours on Dominica are as intense as the most frantic afternoon downpour. The furious rainfall - four times as heavy as in Britain - conspires with the rich, red soil to invent startling tones of yellow, garnished with abrupt flashes of scarlet. All this takes place against a background that explores every possible shade of green.

Echoes of this anarchic colour scheme appear on every street in the capital, Roseau. The city - if that is not too bold a term to use for somewhere so motley - is rambling towards dilapidation. So the pinks and blues applied randomly to spare surfaces in Roseau are washed to a pale pastel.

Dominica's national institutions are crammed into awkward new concrete blocks and elegant old villas. To pick up a copy of the only good map of the island, for example, you must seek out the Department of Lands and Surveys. This ministry resides in a freshly painted clapperboard office that sprouts from a field on the fringe of Roseau. While you wait for your change, an official explains that this was originally part of the Rose's estate.

Rose's grew on the lavish lime plantations that clung to the terraced foothills. In the days when Dominica was one of the British Empire's more irrelevant appendages, its prime function was to supply lime juice for the Navy. Eventually, better nutrition and artificial substitutes meant that the industry was eradicated as surely as scurvy. So limes went the way of vanilla, another one-crop wonder.

For reassurance that the island can coax a living from the rumpled terrain, follow the citizens to the Saturday morning market in Roseau. Barrows are heaped high with fruits of little labour: bananas and coconuts, passion fruit and paw-paw, even the odd recalcitrant lime.

The energetic faces of the traders and shoppers testify to the extravagant ethnic mix of the Dominicans. If you wondered how the Caribbean got its name, the answer is in the bright eyes and sharp features of the people of Carib descent. When Europeans overran the region and began to exploit it, the Caribs retreated to Dominica. A few thousand of them have endured disease and decline to survive in a corner of the island, and their blood has spread widely across the population. Added to the cultural cocktail are several generous measures of Africa, plus dashes of old colonials and Irish adventurers; there is a lot more red hair than you would expect, dancing through the market.

Given the good-natured crush in the aisles, you judge that the rest of this isle of 70,000 souls must be empty.

It isn't, of course, though solitude is an easy commodity to procure hereabouts. What really gets you when you escape the crowds is the silence: there isn't any. If you're after peace and tranquillity, you're in the wrong place. Yattering parrots bicker with shrill hummingbirds to see who can deafen the visitor most adroitly. Breezes swish through the impossibly tall palms, and with persistence bring coconuts crashing down. Fortunately, the fall is more often interrupted by succulent vegetation than by a tourist's head.

That's because there are so few of us. While the inhabitants of nearby Antigua are outnumbered seven to one by the annual number of visitors, in Dominica the residents are firmly in the majority. One reason is the airport: that patch of Tarmac just north of the capital isn't a car park, but the landing strip for Canefield airport. The biggest plane you can arrive in holds 30 people.

The island is on the cruiseship circuit, and from next May it will be a port of call for Thomson holidaymakers. But a day trip is almost a disservice to an island whose soul resides high in the hills or hidden beneath thick undergrowth in one of the 365 rivers that (allegedly) irrigate the island. You, and Dominica, deserve better than a few snatched hours together.

You deserve to experience the air in idle isolation. I wish I could share it with you - feeling, smelling, tasting each sweet, warm breath, heavy with the moisture from a million trees.

On an island little larger than the Isle of Wight, choosing a highlight is like selecting a gem from a sackful of diamonds. But on a warm and steamy island, the jewel has to be a hot and humid hike to the Boiling Lake.

My inclination for any such jaunt is to take the bus (in Dominica's case, a battered old minibus) as far along the way as possible. Yet this drops you five miles from your destination - with the large matter of a 3,000-ft mountain, plus a connivance of thick, sticky mud to impede your progress.

Nature opens her bid with a dense rainforest canopy, where flora writhes for light. Then, with altitude, you see why some call Dominica "a tropical Scotland" - rugged mountainsides splashed with tenacious grasses and modest moss.

Then signs of life are, literally, dissolved. The Valley of Desolation is fearsomely appropriate in its name, a seething vale where sulphurous waters and vapours bleed constantly from the earth.

This is merely a warning salvo for the day adventurer. Another hour of aching muscles lifts you to a window on the centre of the world. The ground suddenly vanishes, and you almost topple into a cauldron that looks a darn sight bigger than the airport. Two things will stop you from resting here: the harsh steam that marches across the surface, concealing the simmering more often than not; and the urgency to descend, or meet your end in the mountains in the dark.

Darkness doesn't simply sidle into Dominica; like an uninvited guest at a Christmas party, the night slams, clumsily, into the existence you were enjoying. So you slip into a decaying old hotel for a drink. Over a hogmanay-sized dose of Dominican rum, I got talking to the proprietor. There's trouble with the Dom Rep, he mourned. The country is threatening to change its name: to Dominicana.

The closest convenient big airport to Dominica is Antigua, which has regular flights from Gatwick. From Antigua, LIAT flies several times daily to Canefield airport.

Simon Calder's report from Dominica for a `Travel Show Caribbean special', is to be shown on 1 January on BBC2 at 8pm. The programme also features the actress Amanda Redman in Puerto Rico and the comedian Arthur Smith in Antigua.

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