Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   January 2010

Portsmouth, a Caribbean Jewel

by Ella Rychlewski

Most people will tell you that Portsmouth's claim to fame is being the island of Dominica's second largest city. So start most of the travel descriptions… only to end a few lines later. However, this is to do this social melting pot and natural jewel an injustice.

Portsmouth was briefly the capital of Dominica before the capital was relocated to Roseau. The topography of the area, marshes and volcanic elevations, did not allow for expansion. Now the bustling center of the Northern District, Portsmouth town is located on the shore of a natural harbor, Prince Rupert Bay, which was a port of call for Columbus in 1504 and today attracts yachts, ferries and cruise ships.
Most tourists and some cruisers head straight for Roseau and overlook the north - rich in history, culture, food and natural beauty. Portsmouth is an ideal base to discover a different part of Dominica.
Planned on a grid system, the town of Portsmouth is centered on Bay Street and Burrough Square. Its charm lies in the fact that it is not touristy; it is a working town where Dominicans from the area come to do to business and shop. The area's only hospital and fire station are also in Portsmouth. Locals come to town to run their errands and walk down the street hailing each other, exchanging greetings. Exuberant laughing, expansive gestures, animated arguments - the people make this place come alive.

In town, you can find most necessities in Joe's and Best Buy supermarkets as well as in a few smaller food shops. On market days (Fridays and Saturdays), the market provides a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as meat and fish. Along the main street you will also find a few clothing stores, a couple of internet cafés and most of the snackettes. These are small shacks where you can purchase snack food throughout the day: fried chicken, bakes and sandwiches, as well as Creole plates at lunchtime. The Creole plate is the staple diet of Dominica and includes meat or fish, vegetables, beans and at least two types of carbs (e.g. rice, spaghetti, "fig" pie, macaroni-and-cheese or potato salad). These are ideal places to rest, have lunch and to watch and listen to Dominicans, many of whom will stop in for lunch. Don't forget your local juice; there is nothing better, after all, than fresh juice (orange, grapefruit, tamarind, guava and the list goes on) made with fruit picked from a tree that same morning.   
Portsmouth has the advantage of offering a wide variety of activities within close range. To the north, the beautiful Purple Turtle Beach is just outside Portsmouth, as are several other beaches. Most yachts anchor off this beach or pick up a mooring there. The cruise ship berth is located in nearby Cabrits National Park, which has many short trails to explore as well as Fort Shirley, an 18th century British garrison that is being reconstructed. Further up that side of the island, still heading north, are Toucarie Bay, which has little-known reefs for diving, and Capuchin, another historical site and the start of the picturesque Capuchin- Penville hiking trail. The road back to Portsmouth from Penville, an agricultural Caribbean village with sweeping views towards Marie-Galante, takes you through an active volcano crater with bubbling sulphur springs. The French islands are never far from view in this part of the island.

Portsmouth's southern border is the Indian River. Locals offer boat rides up the beautiful mangrove-framed river to the jungle bar at the end serving Kubuli, the local beer, and its version of rum punch. A little further south is Picard, home to Ross University medical school. For those hankering after some Western fare, you can find everything from bagels and smoothies to pizza, several fast-food chains, as well as a wider selection of food in the several supermarkets. The area's hotels are also mostly located in this area, along the beach. 

If, after those several packed days, you get bored, you can always rent a car and venture farther afield. To the south is the Syndicate Trail where you can see the Syndicate waterfall and hope to catch a glimpse of the indigenous and rare Sisserrou (Amazona imperalis) and Jacquot (Amazona arausiaca) parrots. Heading east you can cross the Kalinago territory, owned by the "Carib Indians", the Kalinago people. They have a model village showcasing their history and lifestyle.

Portsmouth, often unjustly overlooked, offers a mix of an authentic Caribbean experience along with all the pleasure and comforts one wants to find on vacation. There are several clubs offering nightlife mid-week and on weekends as well as some authentic dining experiences. And did I mention the best "cookies and cream" ice cream I've ever had, to be found at Burrough Square?
 Dominica is probably easier to access by boat than by air and Portsmouth offers a perfect place to drop anchor, refuel, restock and enjoy the best of what the Caribbean has to offer. Add to that the uniqueness of Dominica's natural wonders and culture and you have an unmissable stop on your Caribbean excursion. 

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