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Gary Younge

The high life...relaxing in laidback Dominica. Photographer: Corbis/Bob Krist
Windward bound

When I was growing up in Stevenage, my national identity was stuck firmly to my front door. It was a small adhesive Barbadian flag. "Outside you're in England. But once you step foot in here you're in Barbados," my mother, who was born and raised there, would remind us. For the most part, this was not a difficult trade. Despite the fact that my two elder brothers and I were born in England, we were repeatedly told by many, in ways subtle and crude, that we would never really be English.

It was an awful lot of pressure for a small sticky flag. Not least because Barbados, the place, held little meaning for me - I had been there only once as a four year old. But as an identity it provided a refuge from English rejection. Barbados became not a small island in the Caribbean, but a symbol of blackness and resistance.

In time, I would unpick this knotty mess and watch the misconceptions implode under the weight of their own contradiction.

The last to go was the fallacy that Barbados and the Caribbean were synonymous. Of course I knew this wasn't literally true. I'd seen the maps. I wasn't stupid. And yet, from my vantage point whatever differences existed between my mother and her contemporaries from different islands seemed negligible compared with what they had in common.

"It was only in Britain that we became West Indians," the academic, Stuart Hall, once told me.

Bob Marley, Jean Rhys, Caryl Phillips, Gary Sobers, Derek Walcott, Jamaica Kincaid, Bernie Grant, CLR James - we claimed them all. The island distinctions between them - respectively Jamaican, Dominican, Kittitian, Barbadian, St Lucian, Antiguan, Guyanese, Trinidadian - were rooted in atavistic ties that did not bind.

And yet each time I visited a new Caribbean island it would become ever more clear that those ties had meaning. The wealth disparity in Jamaica, the ethnic diversity of Trinidad, the landscape of St Lucia all pointed to a region of small islands and huge diversity. With the new millennium came a resolution to visit every Caribbean country. Which is how I came by Dominica.

No sooner had I left the airport than the differences were clear. I am used to the idea that when you fly into a Caribbean country you are more or less home. To find out if our plane was on time my Bajan relatives would not call the airline but step out on to the veranda, where they could see the plane landing and then set off for the airport in time to catch us coming through customs. For most people

in Dominica, that method wouldn't work. The main airport is stuck on the northeast of the island - almost as far from the capital, Roseau, where roughly a third of the population live, as it could be. When the taxi set off, we saw a sign that said Roseau was 30 miles away. But that is as the crow flies, and it would have to be one hell of a crow to swoop and rise over valleys and mountains between the customs hall and the capital and clock just 30 miles. If you were to straighten out the road as it corkscrews and rollercoasts around the hills it would be more like 60.

Dominica's principal distinction is topographical. When the Caribs floated here from the mouth of the Orinoco river around 1000AD they named the island Waitukubuli or "tall is her body". The landscape is dominated by mountain ranges, capped by Morne Diablotin (which at 4,747ft is the highest in the eastern Caribbean) and Morne Trois Pitons. And a river runs through it. Hundreds of them, in fact.

The other is that the Caribs are still here. With the arrival of Columbus and then other colonialists, the majority of the Caribbean's indigenous people were either exterminated, died from disease or blended in with the predominantly black population. But in Dominica the Kalinago people, (Caribs is what they were called, Kalinago is what they call themselves) were granted a reservation in 1903 by the British, and so managed to preserve something of their way of life.

Today, they number around 3,000, mostly living in eight villages on the eastern part of the island in what is now known as the Carib territory. Many aspects of their Amerindian culture remain - food, dancing, boatmaking, basketweaving and other craftwork - and are showcased in a model Kalinago village where tour guides give an introduction to the history and culture. On some nights they stage dance performances. But were it not for the model village you wouldn't really know you were in the Carib territory unless someone told you - much like in a Native American reservation in the US. The eight villages that comprise the territory do appear poorer than the rest of the island - piped water arrived relatively recently - but not devastatingly so.

The island's beauty is more all-encompassing than awe-inspiring. Unpretentious and never-ending. Wherever you go there is a view. The Papillote Wilderness Retreat, where we stayed, has its own waterfall. Set in luxuriant gardens, it also has a resident peacock and natural hot baths. There are not many hotels in the world that could claim a fraction of that.

The trip from the airport to the Papillote, dipping and swerving through what feels like a huge botanical garden, is a great if lengthy introduction. Lush is not even the half of it. But from a tourist's point of view it is the point of it. Dominica markets itself as the Nature Island, a haven for eco tourists, hikers, divers, bird-watchers and naturalists.

This is just as well since it would struggle to sell itself as anything else. It is not the kind of place you stumble upon by accident. Only small planes can land there, which means no direct flights from the UK or mainland United States. When you get there you'll find few big-name hotels. The only chains I saw were Subway and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And it's not difficult to see why. Most of the things people go to the Caribbean for simply do not exist here. It has little in the way of pretty beaches, boasting instead a wild craggy coastline trimmed mostly with black volcanic sand.

Indeed there are moments when it is not obvious that those involved in the tourist industry even want you there. The park warden at Trafalgar Falls screamed at me to "Go home and play the fool in your own pissing country", after I questioned whether we would have to pay to see the area we were heading to (the hotel told me not, but if the girth of the veins bulging in the warden's neck were anything to go by they were wrong).

But this was an exception. People are friendly. Not "Lilt man" friendly. More like Glasgow friendly. They can take you or leave you. When we arrived at the Papillote after 13 hours of travelling, two plane changes and the 90-minute trip from the airport, we had to carry our own bags, and a 15-month-old baby, up a few flights of steps to our cabin. But they kept the kitchen open for us that night, indulged the baby for a week and generally couldn't have been more helpful.

It's the kind of place where if you ask someone where something is and they don't know they'll stop someone and ask them. If you look lost people will help you. Our cab driver from the airport offered the baby a mango as we waited. When I dropped EC$50 on the floor at Pearl's Cuisine in Roseau a young man with tattoos picked it up and returned it. For a relatively poor island there is almost no hassle and only a modicum of hustle - far less than anywhere else I have been in the Caribbean.

This might have something to do with the population being so small. At around 73,000 there are fewer people in this country than there are in Stevenage. When I asked one woman whether it was small enough that everyone knew everyone else she laughed dismissively. But it was certainly small enough that I would see her again twice that same day.

The food is basic and delicious. There is usually a choice of chicken, beef or goat with a creole sauce or curried, as well as fresh fish. Either way it will come with a generous helping of "provisions" - breadfruit, plantain, rice and so on. Pearl's Cuisine in Roseau does a terrific roti - but get there early. Even going out for creole food isn't straightforward. To eat at one of the many roadside cafes that dot the island you really need to book. Failure to do so could end either in no dinner or a long wait.

That Dominica is not set up for luxury tourism suits me fine. I have never had the opportunity to experience the Caribbean as an exotic location. Mostly it's the place where I watch Cartoon Network and Black Entertainment Television with cousins, drink beer and rum with uncles and eat huge meals prepared by aunts who then tell me I have put on weight.

The fact that it is not geared up for children in the way that we are used to was more of a problem. Roseau is not built for buggies and the restaurants do not have highchairs. There is no dairy on the island, which means no fresh milk. But these inconveniences were more than compensated for by the Dominicans' love of children. It is one of those countries where old men are not embarrassed to cootchie-coo.

Having a 15-month-old baby in tow rules out some of the very best of what Dominica has to offer. Scuba-diving, snorkelling and long hikes are not possible. But that still leaves a lot.

We took short hikes up to Trafalgar Falls, and a jaunt through the forests at Syndicate and by the Emerald Pool. Nothing too taxing. A boat trip up the Indian river is also a delightful way to spend an afternoon. The calm of the lagoon-like tributaries is disturbed only by the jumping red mullet. On the banks huge crabs crawl around thick, rambling tree roots. Bathing in the sulphur springs in Wotton Waven with a lethal rum punch in hand you really couldn't be anywhere else.

Yet as I queued in Astapahan's supermarket a popular calypso tune came on. Everyone from the woman in the line in front of me to the security guard to the women behind the till started to sway their shoulders. Not extravagantly. But enough to let you know that whatever differences there are between the islands in this part of the world, they have far more in common than could ever separate them.

Getting there

BA ( flies from London-Antigua from £644.90 return. Liat ( flies Antigua-Dominica from US$46 each way, plus tax.

Where to stay

I-escape (0117 9428476, offers double rooms at the Papillote Wilderness Retreat nr Roseau from £60 per night room only. A range of packages are available, including a three-night adventure stay for £385pp with four guided adventures, breakfast and dinner.

Car hire

+448 7763, +235 7763,

Further information

Dominican tourist board: 0800 012 1467, Country code: 001 767. Time difference: -4hrs. Flight time: London-Antigua 9hrs; Antigua-Dominica 40mins. £1 = 4.12 East Caribbean dollars.

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