I had occasion to consider the lesson of the doll again more recently, when another cruise took us to Dominica*. Our cabin was port-side and we enjoyed a long view of the place as the ship glided slowly to anchor. First impressions of harbor and port city are usually telling and Roseau was no exception. Rusty industrial infrastructure gave way to yards of blue plastic tarp, providing shelter for merchants setting up their displays. A string of drab low-rise buildings, faded and worn, extended inland.

Cute cafes, quaint shops and beachfront umbrellas were notably missing from the picture. In fact, there was no beach in sight. “Ut-oh,” I thought, “We should have booked a tour.” Winging it suddenly seemed rather foolish. My Mister scooted off to the excursion desk to sign us up for something, anything; there wouldn’t be much left to choose from.

Dominica is an island of steep hills swathed in innumerable shades of green and thick vegetation obscuring three active volcanoes. Crumbling, narrow roads climb almost straight uphill (or down) and switchback alarmingly, at least to the uninitiated. I was sure the gears were going to give out on Father, the driver navigating a worn out mini-van to Trafalgar Falls. Somehow, he managed and our guide, Georgi, didn’t seem the least bit concerned.

Georgi was eager to share her knowledge as our small group tripped along a winding, root-studded trail. Every turn elicited enthusiastic insights to native flora and fauna, local history sprinkled in throughout. It wasn’t long before we reached the platform overlooking the falls. This is where most of the group realized we were not going to immerse in the falls. Big sighs ensued but we late-comers could hardly complain.

A few moments later we were on our way to the next stop. The entire venture replicated our first thirty minutes: up, down, around and … we’re off again! Sulfur springs, boiling out of the ground and stinking to high heaven. Botanical gardens, of a sparse sort. Cemetery, of a curiously dilapidated sort. (“Dead center the city,” Georgi giggled at her own joke.) We stopped at a small collection of roadside stands selling coconut products, sulfur soaps, and other local goods purportedly beneficial to your health.

Along the way we heard about thirteen varieties of bananas (two of which are exported). “A banana a day keeps the doctor away!” Georgi exclaimed. She proudly noted the recent passing of a 128-year-old native as proof that Dominicans enjoy impressive longevity, largely due to a diet based upon coconuts, she assured us. (Life span seems actually on par with neighboring countries.) Finally, we tumbled out at an overlook of the capital city and harbor; the grand finale was a photo op.

Initially, I was just so relieved that the end of our tour was in sight, the Serenade of the Seas now in clear view. But something else was niggling at me as we stood there, looking down from on high at Morne Bruce. That is when I remembered the lesson of the doll.

It might have been a disappointment — a long, hot drive amounting to … not much but distant views and limited access. But it wasn’t. There was nothing but good will and generosity in this exchange. Our hosts had offered us their best, extending a warm and proud welcome to Dominica. Georgi shared a mountain of knowledge, hardly taking a breath. Father managed steep, washed-out roads safely and an aging gearshift with skill. We got exactly what we paid for. (Reading between the lines of a tour description is a refined art.) And we experienced something of a place, on a personal level, that we could describe as no less than gracious. What more could we ask? Not much.

Except, maybe next time, the Champagne reef. Dominica is billed as “the nature island” for a reason.

~René Morley

*Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic.

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