Dominica: A Pirate’s Delight
While many have experienced the pleasures of the Caribbean, not all are familiar with Dominica. This nature island’s captivating beauty, gorgeous greenery and sparkling beaches has served as the backdrop for adventure films, including the popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
The Commonwealth of Dominica (pronounced DOM-E-NEE-KA) is an island nation in the Lesser Antilles region of the Caribbean Sea, which is south-southeast of Guadeloupe and northwest of Martinique. Encompassing 290 square miles, the Commonwealth of Dominica has a population of approximately 71,000, and the mountain of Morne Diablotins marks the country’s highest point (an elevation of 4,747 feet).
Dominica has been rarely utilized by film and television productions over the years. Besides the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the island has hosted only a handful of productions, such Once Upon a Sunday, The Seventh Sign, Wide Sargasso, The Orchid House and the Pirates if the Caribbean films. This is surprising, as the entire island is literally a backlot filled with the most astonishingly picturesque locales, all within easy access from just about anywhere in the world. Dominica also offers a supportive government and some of the friendliest locals you’ll ever meet, who will bend over backwards to ensure that you’re satisfied (without expecting anything in return). Plus, you would be hard-pressed to find a spot in the Caribbean where it would cost less to shoot. “As a result of filming activity of both Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest as well as ‘Pirate Master,’ we have a pool of trained people,” reports Dominica Film Commissioner Anita Bully. “We also have some hardworking, resourceful and skilled local persons with some artistic talents, as well as a pool of Kalinago Indians.”
Kalinago/Carib tribes were actually cast in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and can be seen chasing Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow on a beach in a memorable scene. The film was shot in an area known as Cabana Beach on Londonderry Bay, which is joined by a river that was also used the movie. The Pirates production went to Dominica in search of two hard-to-find locations and ended up discovering nine locales on various parts of the island. “First, it was considered no-can-do because of the infrastructure, road situation and access to sites,” recalls Paul Toulon, a managing partner at Digital Design Ltd. + A&P Solutions. “Thanks to [Director] Gore Verbinski, [who] had decided that this place is beautiful, we [found] a way.” A&P Solutions worked with the Pirates crew and local engineers to create solutions to access some of Dominica’s rough terrain — and everything worked out in a “cost-effective” manner.
One difficult location is Titou Gorge, which is in the south center of the island and features lush, mountainous rainforests and many rare plant, animal and bird species. The area is prone to heavy rainfall, and the gorge consists of a very narrow river with a steep ravine. This made access to the location exceptionally difficult, but trips were made possible with the help of a series of four-wheel-drive trucks. “We put gravel in the river to make it possible to cross,” explains Toulon. “That site was used because Gore Verbinski asked, ‘I want some sites that nobody has seen, nobody has used. Can you guys make it possible?’” Other locations used in the film include the Indian River located at Portsmouth, which was used for scenes of an eerie boat trip. Companies like Cobra Tours & Yacht Services Ltd. helped to coordinate the river scenes and currently offer boats with trained guides to take visitors along the windy river.
Dominica is divided into 10 parishes that are all comprised of unique villages with distinct looks. Large productions seeking a Caribbean waterfront area would benefit from the capital city of Roseau, which offers a lengthy Bay Front promenade that would be easy to control. The town also has a colorfully picturesque assortment of ramshackle West Indian colonial houses. Dominica’s architecture dates back to the 18th century, and one notable locale is Fort Shirley, a modernized English colonial fort that’s perfect for commercials stills and fashion photography. The fort sits amid the ruins in the Cabrits Historical and Marine Park, which preserves remnants from the island’s tumultuous history.
Dominica is also home to Boiling Lake and Trafalgar Falls, which offers two staggering waterfalls on the western edge of Morne Trois Pitons National Park. These twin falls cross the Titou Gorge before plunging down a 200-foot rock face. “Dominica has many waterfalls, springs and rivers,” says Clem Johnson, managing director of Island Locations. “It’s one of the finest examples of oceanic rainforest that you’ll find anywhere in the world. [For] anyone looking for rainforest, this is the place to come, and [there’s] nothing to worry about within those rainforest: no poisonous snakes [or] dangerous plants, which is a big production issue. [And] the quality of the water is excellent. Dominica is basically the entire Caribbean on one island, [with] unspoiled beaches on the northeast of the island [as well as] rainforest, red rock, black sand [and an] incredible underwater environment.” There are also more than 40 dive sites located around the island.
Johnson is no stranger to working in production, as Island Locations has serviced the entertainment community for 16 years, providing production services that include production and location management for film, television and still shoots throughout the Caribbean. The company’s office and dive shop is located in the Champagne area near a tabletop reef with lots of marine life. One of the premier snorkeling and dive spots in the Caribbean, Champagne Reef got its name from the geothermal spring that provides hot bubbles rising from the sea floor.
Dominica has two airports, and both are available for filming. Canefield Airport is a quaint airport located three miles northeast of Roseau, and its runway borders the Caribbean Sea. And Melville Hall Airport, located amid lush, green hills on the northeast coast of Dominica, serves as the island’s main airport. In 1979, Dominica was hit directly by Category 5 Hurricane David, which caused extreme widespread damage that severely set the island back by limiting the tourism opportunities. Dominica has since rebounded and now welcomes visitors to several high-end resorts. The Fort Young Hotel in Roseau is built around a historic fort and offers 71 rooms with old-world charm. The Jungle Bay Resort & Spa along the Atlantic Ocean has a rainforest setting and quality, nature-based comforts, while the Papillote Wilderness Retreat is perched on a steep rainforest/mountain slope and offers 14 acres of tropical gardens, trails, waterfalls and natural volcanic hot springs. And the newly developed Rosalie Bay Resort is nestled at the foothills of the Morne Trois Pitons on Dominica’s southeast coast. Its 22 acres sit at the intersection of the Atlantic Ocean and Rosalie River.
Some other factors that visiting filmmakers should consider:
Low Cost. Dominica is an extremely inexpensive location for filming. “With the experience of Pirates of the Caribbean and ‘Pirates Master,’ people understand the industry and the rates,” says Bully. “[Shooting] is quite inexpensive and easy to do.”
Easy Accessibility. There are daily flights from the U.S. to Dominica, and access from Europe and other countries is available through ports like Antigua, Barbados, Martinique and Guadalupe.
Government Support. Filming on Dominica can be simple. The Dominica Film Office will help to facilitate productions from the first scout to the final wrap. It can assist with permits and customs to ensure that equipment arrives and is cleared in a timely manner. “This is a very unique island,” notes Toulon. “This is a land with great support, a welcoming community. And, most important, we have a government that is pro movie [production]. We’ll work with you in a mutual way to help you make your movie a reality.”
As Dominica’s film commissioner, Bully invites the film and television industry to consider her island: “Dominica is a wonderful location with film-friendly people, so we’d like to invite the industry to come down and look at the wonderful locations we have and [meet] the team of people that would love to help you with your projects.”