Sunday, August 2, 2009
One day I will write my book....until then....
Few Caribbean rentals are as atmospheric as Pointe Baptiste. The Dominican home that inspired a Scottish writer has lost none of its 1930s elegance Polly Patullo , Saturday 18 July 2009 Writer's haven ... a white Sand beach near Pointe Baptiste, Dominica. Photograph: Polly Patullo.
Pointe Baptiste reflects the passions of this Scottish-born aristocrat, who was a writer (with a column in the Manchester Guardian describing life on her adopted island), a politician (the first woman to be elected to a Caribbean legislature) and an adventurer. Her memoir, Black and White Sands: a Bohemian Life in the Colonial Caribbean, telling the story of life at Pointe Baptiste and her love affair with the island, then a British colony, has just been published.
Perched on a promontory close to the charming north-coast village of Calibishie, Pointe Baptiste has a casual elegance and intellectual atmosphere that is rarely found in holiday rentals in the Caribbean. Barely changed since Elma's era (although now with electricity and modern plumbing), there are dark glowing antiques, paintings by local artists, a photograph of Gordonstoun school (her childhood home), and shelves of books, among which one visitor found a letter to Elma from Noel Coward.
Dominica is good at seducing outsiders; it is also good at spitting them out again. Elma said that Dominica had a "mysterious charm that has lured some people to stay forever, and from which others have fled without even taking time to unpack". Elma Napier stayed forever, living there until her death in 1973. I have been going to Dominica since the mid-1980s and have been visiting Pointe Baptiste for almost as long, always delighting in the environment that she so loved.
Below the house are two beaches, one of black volcanic sand, the other of pale coral. Elma used to swim on "black beach" in the early morning and "white beach" before lunch. Earlier this year, I did the same. With two of Elma's great-grandchildren, I walked down to the shoreline, only a few minutes' away from the house, through dry forest where the ghostly pink petals of white cedars coated the ground and where lizards, called abòlò in Creole (and once considered a cure for leprosy), scuttled through papery undergrowth.
From black beach, where, as Elma wrote, the sand is "powdered like coal", we clambered up on to a vast amphitheatre of red-ochre rocks "thrusting great paws into the sea", and then walked back through the outskirts of the village to Pointe Baptiste. Sometimes groups of tourists arrive on the rocks to visit the blowhole that regularly emits great spurts of water, but rarely are they anything but empty, backed by trees, battered almost horizontal by the wind like a quiffed haircut.
And then we went to white beach, whose pale sand is a rarity on an island where rainforest, waterfalls, rivers and black-sand beaches are ubiquitous. We swam in the shallows where the waters are protected by a large single rock. Elma would still recognise her white beach although recently a bar has opened, discreetly tucked in among the sea grapes and coconuts. Nearby is the equally gorgeous Woodford Hill beach, also of golden sand and good for snorkelling. Only on public holidays, when Dominicans come out to picnic, are either of these beaches remotely busy.
Indeed it probably has not been so crowded since the time in Elma's day when Fredric March's Christopher Columbus (1949) was filmed there. Nearly 60 years later, scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed on nearby Hampstead beach.
Elma loved to explore, "to see around the next corner", and Dominica is perfect for that. There are endless hikes - take a guide for all but the easiest - such as to the bubbling Boiling Lake, enveloped in a cloud of vapour. Soon a new island-long hiking route, the Waitukubuli National Trail, will open, linking the north with the south in a chain of treks through the extraordinary rainforested interior.
As if Pointe Baptiste were not remote enough, Elma and her family often retreated to a place deep in the rainforest called Chaudiere, where they built their "second home" (now reclaimed by the bush). To get there involved crossing a river six times. Now it's easier. We had a short 20-minute walk from the road beyond the village of Bense down a narrow trail to Chaudiere, a place where two rivers join and waterfalls cascade. We waded across one river and went to swim in a pool enclosed by high rocks, indulging in the Jacuzzi-like qualities of the rushing water, enjoying what Dominicans called "a river bath" and floating on our backs, with the green lace of the forest looming above us.
One of the first things the Napiers did on their arrival in Dominica was to walk to the Carib Territory, home to the Kalinagos, the indigenous people of the Caribbean, to pay their respects to the chief. Nowadays, another leading Kalinago, former chief Irvince Auguiste, welcomes visitors to Concord, the only one of the Kalinago villages to lie inland, away from the jagged Atlantic coast. Elma grieved over the Kalingos' lost culture, but Irvince does his best to keep the flag flying for his people. He takes visitors on a tour of his village, to experience "not how we used to live but how we live now". So you can expect to chat to the cassava-bread maker, learn about the herbs in the yard and get a lesson in basket-making, one of the Kalinagos' surviving traditional crafts.
When the Napiers first announced that they were to give up their fashionable life in London to live in Dominica, one of their friends said it was terrible to think of them sitting on the veranda and drinking rum for the rest of their lives. There waxs time for rum and verandas, but Elma's rich life on the island showed that Dominica offered - and continues to offer - so much more than a hang-out for lotus-eaters.
• Polly Pattullo is the publisher of Black and White Sands: a Bohemian Life in the Colonial Caribbean by Elma Napier (Papillote Press, £10.99).