Wednesday, 20 February 2013


Dominica’s Waitukubuli National Trail is the first and only long distance hiking trail in the Caribbean traversing the entire island. I am here to walk the walk , or at least some if it, and I am braving the rain in the rainforest to do so.
In a region saturated by tourism, Dominica remains one of the hidden gems of the Caribbean. It is dubbed the “Nature Island” due to its abundance of natural splendours: 365 rivers, the second largest boiling lake in the world, a lush rainforest, volcanoes, mountains, waterfalls, hot springs, and black and white sand beaches. Much of the island is protected under national parks, one of which has been given UNESCO World Heritage status. Dominica is a paradise for divers, birdwatchers, nature-lovers  and hikers.

Named after the indigenous name for Dominica (meaning “tall is her body”), the Waitukubuli trail runs for 115 miles from the south to the north of the island and is divided into 14 sections. Hikers are able to complete one section per day so in theory it will take two weeks to cover the entire trail. It traverses forest reserves, national parks, old slave routes, ruins of plantations that once processed sugar, coffee and limes, small farms and country villages.
 With  tropical raindrops falling on my head, I’m completing section 10 and 11, Colihaut to Syndicate, which finish in a refreshing and fragrant walk through a banana plantation. The trail is the brainchild of Bernard Wiltshire, a passionate Dominican environmentalist who persuaded the British Development Division to fund studies the trail. He claims to have been inspired by walks across the Pennine Way when he was in the UK, although it is hard to see any similarities. Even the rain smells different.

As a reward to my tired legs,  I am spending the night at Secret Bay, a boutique eco-luxury development of just four villas and bungalows. The secluded accommodations are nestled within the lush rainforest canopy, surrounded by trees with the Cario River, the Caribbean sea, two swimming beaches and a sea cave below.

Secret Bay’s distinctive villas and bungalows were conceptualised by award-winning Latin American architect Fruto Vivas  to minimize the  impact on the environment and bring the outdoors in. Vivas is the father in law of owner Gregor Nassief who used to visit the eponymous Secret Beach as a child.
The one- and two-bedroom villas feature indoor/outdoor living rooms, bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms, outdoor showers, a private pool or Jacuzzi and an expansive veranda with panoramic ocean views. Secret Bay’s two storey bungalows are luxurious tree houses perched in the canopy with floor-to-ceiling glass windows on both levels with stunning views

At Secret Bay, they say ‘the Villa is the Hotel’ and personal yet inconspicuous service is a speciality. There is no reception or restaurant but the  villas are fully-equipped with modern facilities  and staff are on hand if needed to organise massages and yoga classes, or even book a private one-man jazz concert in the villa

The town of Portsmouth is nearby and the capital of Roseau one  hour away.
My stroll around Roseau takes in  the old French quarter, Roseau cathedral and one of the best-preserved collections of 18th century Creole architecture in the Caribbean including former home of author Jean Rhys, whose atmospheric novel Wide Sargasso Sea and many of her other works draw reference from her early life on Dominica

Kalinago Territory
Dominica is the only Caribbean island with a population of indigenous Carib Indians (around 3,000); known locally as the Kalinago – and interested in finding out more about their lifestyle I opted to spend the last night of my visit experiencing the new home stay programme. Designed to provide visitors with an opportunity to experience the unique heritage of Dominica’s first settlers, the scheme also allows the residents of the community to benefit from the tourism sector.
My hostess Regina greets me at the  door of the traditional house she has built herself, where I shall be staying overnight. Farmer Regina  has travelled to London, Canada and the USA as a free trade ambassador for Dominica’s banana business. She tells me about the produce she grows; dasheen, cassava, yams and sweet potatoes and explains the way the Territory works. It is collectively owned with an elected chief and there is a strong sense of community here.
There is no flushing toilet in this house and the facilities are basic, but it is clean, the food is fresh and plentiful and Regina is a fascinating dinner companion.
In the middle of the night I can hear the rain battering on the galvanised roof and I awake at about 5a.m.  to the sounds of local workers chattering in Creole. Regina tells me  the Kalinago language died out because of colonization, but Creole is still widely spoken and even local news programmes are broadcast in the language

Nearby at the  Kalinago Barana Aute , a village built to showcase the Kalinago lifestyle, manager Kevin Dangleben tells me that given a choice of three levels of homestay accomoodation ;  traditional lodging in a hut, simple accommodation such as that at Regina’s, or a home with more modern facilities, few visitors select the modern option. People from other  parts of the Caribbean have been particularly keen to stay here, he explains, attracted perhaps by the simple, relaxed way of life that has largely died out on the islands

I complete my tour with a boat ride down the Indian River, black crabs scuttling along the river banks and iguanas watching me curiously from the trees. The sun comes out at last and a rainbow arches across the Dominican sky.

British Airways offer return flights from London Gatwick to Antigua from £615.76 return including taxes/fees/charges. This is for travel departing up to mid-July and from mid-August onwards.  Visit www. or call 0844 493 0787

LIAT operates a regular daily service to Dominica (Melville hall airport) from Antigua. Flights take about half an hour

Secret bay
rates range from $378 to over $1,000 per night depending on the unit and season.

Homestays with local families and small guest houses are available as an accommodation option on the Waitukubuli trail
For details of Homestay in Kalinago territory see
For information on the island visit

Saturday, 16 February 2013


 The island of Napoleon’s exile is more of a paradise than a prison

In the summer the British head for Tuscany in their thousands, lured by the classic Italian combination of sun, scenery, fine food and wine. But the Italians themselves head for sleepy Elba, ‘Tuscany’s island’ with its 150 spotless beaches, romantic villages and mountains made for hiking and cycling. A National Park of outstanding beauty, tiny Elba is perhaps best known for being the place of Napoleon’s exile. Now it is gearing itself for the crowds who are expected here in 2014, when the 200th anniversary of this event will be celebrated

Deciding to find out for myself what the Little Emperor had to put up with, I have made my way to Elba via Pisa airport where I  pick up a chubby retro  Fiat Cinquecento hire car.   Elba’s capital, Portoferraio, is a ferry ride away. The bustling port town  is home to Napoleon’s former city residence which today is a museum in the throes of renovation for the 2014 celebrations.  Napoleon had his own theatre here too, the pictureseque pink fronted Teatro Vigilante,a gift to his sister and  the only theatre on the island.
Although 19th century cartoonists portrayed Boney perched on an Elban cliff looking sulkily out to sea, it seems he actually had quite a comfortable  time of it here.  He was given the title Emperor of Elba and allowed to rule its 110,000 people as well as live in some rather smart mansions. I found his country villa at San Martino still standing grand and secluded behind wrought iron gates, set in fragrant pine filled grounds and, these days at least, overlooking an exclusive hotel
Napoleon  is rumoured to have left  the heat of the capital to enjoy trysts with a Polish mistress at the picturesque chapel of Madonna Del Monte, close to the town of Marciano. He also favoured the healing waters to be found in this part of the island .I locate the so called Fonte Napoleone pure spring at the foot of Monte del Capanne near the pretty medieval town of Poggio, one of my favourite places on Elba. Poggio is pedestrian and so, abandoning  the CinqueCento, I walk the winding cobbled streets with houses painted the colours of pink and yellow gelati. Stopping for a fresh seafood salad and a cold glass of Tuscan wine for lunch I conclude there are worse places to be in exile.

Poggio and Marciano are a short drive from my Elban base, the 20 room Hotel Ilio. The new boutique hotel is in Capo Sant’Andrea, a seaside hamlet and one of the most fashionable retreats in Elba, located on the north-west coast of the island. Hotel Ilio was founded by Guiseppe Testa in 1959 and is still family run, now being owned by his son Maurizio. Though the main building is 150 years old, the hotel is modern and sophisticated, and Maurizio, a tourism specialist who lectures in the off-season, is an enthusiastic host. Meals are served on the open terrace overlooking Capo Sant’Andrea, with the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below.  Chef Giancarlo Pollidini cooks dinner to a standard that has been widely praised by Italian food critics. Red mullet and ginger pasta, followed by grilled wild Tuscan steak and a side dish of tomato gratin, and finally a plum frangipane tart are washed down with Tuscan  wines come from the Ilio’s own cellar.

Down at the harbour, a group of weekend divers from Florence are  gesticulating around  Il Careno  Dive Centre whose dive master Andreas  is oranising a short boat journey to the steep drop offs and wrecks close to the shore.   Some of the clearest Mediterranean waters are be to found around Elba, so it’s a top destination for snorkellers and SCUBA divers, and smart weekenders from the Tuscan mainland make this a favourite spot.
Away from Sant’Andrea, the tiny Fiat battles valiantly up and down the challenging twists and turns of Elba’s mountainous terrain, taking me from dizzy heights where I pass energetic hikers and cyclists, to the St Tropez-like elegance of Porto Azzuro with its yachts and ritzy restaurants. Elba is an affordable alternative to Sardinia or Corsica, with many of the same attractions (great beaches, climate & food), as well as history, but  tuscany’s island has  a slightly old fashioned, slower  way of life., ideal for those who enjoy the simpler pleasures in life.  Which is probably why Napoleon couldn’t wait to escape.

 For more information on Elba, to book taxi transfers, ferry tickets and car rentals,

Saturday, 2 February 2013


As Shrove Tuesday approaches, major cities in the world are gearing up for carnival. Until last year I was a carnival virgin, but decided to dip my toe in the carnival spirit - quite literally as it transpired - in the Central American country of Panama.
 Like Rio in Brazil, Panama parties like there’s no tomorrow on the days surrounding Shrove Tuesday with dancing in the streets, parades of colourful floats and the crowning of beautiful leggy carnival queens dressed in sequins, fishnets and feathers.
Panama’s carnival dates back to colonial times and is celebrated in several provinces including CoclĂ©, Herrera and Los Santos
But I was right in the thick of it in Panama City. Called la Jumbo Rumba, Carnaval  de la City, the festivities began with the coronation of Queen Stephanie and her two attendant ‘princesses’ who then appeared in various changes of costume throughout the five day celebrations
Over 150,000 people flocked to the City’s coastal strip each day to dance, sing, eat drink and – get soaked. Each morning at 10 the culecos begin as hoses from giant tanker trucks were turned on the crowds.
Drenched but happy, everyone continued to cavort. Children contributed to the chaotic atmosphere by spraying bystanders with water pistols or shaving foam as the scenes became increasingly surreal.
A woman walked by with a tray of toffee apples on her head , swaying between balloon vendors and people dressed as zombies or witches on stilts. Somewhere in the crowd a man was dancing with a blow-up doll
The final night of carnival was celebrated with fireworks and live music provided by Panama’s  favourite singer, Ruben Blades, whose rendition of the song  Patria (Fatherland)which many Panamanians consider their second national anthem, had the crowds in tears.
The Queen and princesses reigned serene (and were among the few onlookers who kept dry) throughout the weeks’ antics

Carnival cuisine
After partying till dawn revellers require a hearty breakfast. The Full Panamanian – desayunos (breakfast) is a plate groaning with cholesterol.
I stopped off at the roadside cafĂ© La Hacienda on the road to Capira  with my bleary eyed fellow carnival animals. First order was for coffee, which in Panama is called Panama Joe. The tortillas were a bit of a surprise, not Mexican-style but deep-fried corn batter topped with eggs and cheese, something akin to huevos rancheros. Hojaldras, deep-fried bread sprinkled with powdered sugar like a Panamanian doughnut, seem to be another common breakfast staple.
There is perhaps no dish more emblematic of Panama than the sancocho, a chicken stew made with a starchy root called name.Sancocho is said to put strength back into your body after a late night out, which describes most nights during carnival time
Panama Canal
A visit to the historic Panama Canal, said to be one of the Wonders of the World, is a must of course. Escaping the madness of carnival, a morning spent watching majestic ships pass through this staggering feat of engineering was strangely calming. The Panama Canal is 80 kilometres long from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and a ship takes about 8 to 10 hours to cross it.
Panama Canal was excavated in one of the narrowest and lowest parts of the mountainous Isthmus of Panama, linking North and South America. Open every day of the year, it is possible to see 5,000,000 ton vessels rise and drop more than 50 feet in the locks as they make their way over the isthmus from one ocean to the other.  The Miraflores Visitors’ Centre is only 15 minutes from downtown Panama City and has interactive exhibits explaining the workings of the canal and its history.
A boat trip from the canal across Gatun Lake provided a glimpse of local flora and fauna including monkeys and crocodiles, and the opportunity to cruise out to visit some indigenous peoples who live here such as the Embera Indians who welcomed us with traditional dances and music.

Portobelo, in Colon, once the greatest Spanish port in the region, is where one can still see the remains of forts which preserve the memory of attacks from famous pirates such as Henry Morgan and Francis Drake, whose is buried beneath the sea here.. I stepped inside the church, Iglesia San Felipe, which now houses the Black Christ statue.  Nobody knows exactly how or when it arrived in the tiny community of Portobelo on the Caribbean coast. Some put the date at around 1658. But the stories of miracles surrounding the eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ are enough to overwhelm the village with tens of thousands of pilgrims every October 21.
 Some walk the 53 miles from Panama City, thousands walk the last 22 miles from Sabanitas, and many crawl the last mile on hands and knees to worship before El Nazareno, one of the names given to the Black Christ by locals.

Back in the city, I gaped at the innovative Frank Gehry-designed Bio Museo, a space celebrating ecological diversity which opened last year. Panama City's new Cinta Costera (Coastal Belt) creates a green stripe of waterfront paths that finishes in Casco Viejo, a stunning historic neighbourhood rebuilt after decades of neglect. The old town vies with old Havana and San Juan for authentic colonial Spanish charm and the architecture of Casco Viejo which was once left to fade and crumble is now attracting artists, writers and former ambassadors who have homes here.