A half-century ago, a frustrated Miami marine lab researcher craved a more fulfilling lifestyle. "I wanted to be someplace where I could be free to pursue my interests and contribute in a meaningful way," Anne Baptiste told me.
Fast-forward to today: Now in her mid-80s, the New York Jewish native is credited with pioneering eco-tourism on Dominica, an extremely lush, mountainous Caribbean island with few sandy beaches that draws mainly adventure-seekers and nature buffs.
She opened a nature lodge, Papillote Wilderness Retreat, and created a botanic garden with a mind-boggling variety of tropical plant species from scratch that looks sprung from Arthur Conan Doyle's "lost world" that's one of Dominica's main tourist attractions, Papillote Tropical Gardens.
Along the way, Baptiste (nee Winkler) lost a husband, gained a husband, opened a nightclub and closed it, but found her true calling and creative fulfillment in spades — literally.
After researching unspoiled destinations in the world in the library for a year, Anne and her American then-husband, Burl Grey, tried living on the islands of Nevis and St. Kitts. But after spending six months in Dominica — visited by few tourists and no cruise ships at the time, even more pristine than today, which is hard to believe, and still a British colony — they wanted to stay.
The pair purchased land in 1961 over 1,000 feet above the sea, on a steep rainforested slope in an Eden-like wilderness, near the southern tip of Dominica, and planted a garden in 1969.
"Every time I came up the Roseau Valley, I was overwhelmed with its beauty," she recalled. But the island didn't fit her husband's needs, so they divorced. In 1978, she married Cuthbert Jno Baptiste, a Dominican who worked at the island's official Botanic Gardens in Roseau, the nearby capital.
Hurricane David blew their garden away in 1979. But the destruction was, in some respects, a blessing — it forced the Baptistes to totally redesign their garden, previously totally shaded beneath the rainforest canopy, which specialized in ferns and mushrooms.
But since the valley was now carved bare and opened up to more sunlight, the plant selection grew much more diverse.
A snack bar and nightclub were put in, and later, seven rooms were added for guests who wanted to stay the night.
Almost 200 species of bromeliads, over 110 species of begonias, plus heliconias, anthuriums, orchids, gingers and a treasured Jade Vine, whose blue-green blossoms in grape, bunch-like clusters are here.
Asked for her inspiration, Baptiste said she was particularly enthralled by Roberto Burle Marx, Latin America's most famous and influential landscape architect. Noted for his blend of art and horticulture, Marx, a Brazilian who designed Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana Beach sidewalks — colorful stone mosaics in abstract patterns — and who loved to arrange plants by Cubism and Abstract Expressionist principles, considered himself first and foremost a painter.
At dinner in her seven-room inn's Rainforest Restaurant, which overlooks a stunning panorama of the Roseau Valley, I dined with Anne and a bunch of U.S. graduate students also staying at Papillote.
A former University of Miami marine lab researcher, Anne is in her element — and gladly joins in.
She recalled a memorable dinner. "Ten years ago, a couple of young Chasidic rabbis visited Dominica. At the time, the island had about three Jewish residents, including myself, not counting Jewish students attending the American medical school here, Ross University.
"The rabbis came to my restaurant and sang Yiddish chants to me — very intense — to the amusement of the dining guests."
The rabbis are from Lubavitch world headquarters in New York, and periodically visit some Caribbean islands once or twice a year to lead services during the High Holidays and at seders.
To learn more, check out the Papillote Wilderness Retreat online at: www.papillote.dm; Papillote Tropical Gardens at: www.papillotegardens.org; and Discover Dominica Authority at: www.discoverdominica.com.