For a while now I was longing to visit a home with a strong sense of family ties, full of traditions and life. Recently, we were invited to such a home in Dominica, where family traditions are still very much alive. We arrive at the garden gate and take a first look at the house, situated on a lopsided hill.
Kitchen and dining rooms are on the ground level while the rest of this five-bedroom, five-bathroom house enjoys views from a higher position. floor-to-ceiling, huge sliding doors connect the interior with a big veranda opening up to a mature garden. Nature is welcomed within. Flowering potted plants attract birds which fly freely into the house. The architect exploits the relationship between inside and outside, a recurring theme in projects of all good Caribbean designers, and that’s probably why this house, built in 1972 by the Trinidadian architect Geoffrey MacLean, feels timeless. This inside/outside link is carried throughout the house.
“I’ve always liked open spaces, without too many high walls and tiny corridors, and I wanted the design to reflect that,” says the owner. The kitchen is entirely open to the garden from two sides and has a small open-air atrium—the transitional space between the kitchen and the rest of the house. “I designed this atrium to have a better air flow in the house,” she says. It is amazing how much light and fresh air is coming through such a small opening. Hanging baskets of ferns and bearded iris planted on the ground create a green indoor oasis. The atrium’s glass-louvred windows allow the light to come inside the corridor linking most bedrooms.
All five bedrooms are light and airy, and feature exquisite antique four-poster beds. In fact, the whole house is filled with furniture, paintings, carpets and textiles gathered from all over the world, and family heirloom antiques. “I’m especially attached to this old table on the veranda, which came from my father,” says the lady of the house. “It holds a strong sentimental value for me.”
Not every house is suited for parties and family gatherings, but this one is perfect. At weekends, this house buzzes with family, friends and their offspring. The kitchen, entirely separated from the dining room, is a world on its own. Here, all the physical as well as spiritual nourishment originates. The meal is enjoyed here in the informal setting or is carried into the dining room for bigger family events. Sitting at the long dining table, you can enjoy views of the garden with jacaranda trees in bloom and the azure sea beyond. On the veranda, there are different sitting areas, each emanating a slightly different mood, all comfortable and inviting. “My best memories from the house are children’ s birthday parties and Christmases,” says the owner. “We’ve always loved to celebrate Christmas at home. Our whole family come from near and far away to be together. We used to have big Christmas dinners for 40 people or more, the village choir singing carols. Sometimes, we carried meals to another family home, and we would finish at three o’clock in the morning.’’
Christmas cake is an important tradition. “Everybody has a different recipe handed down from their own families. Everybody thinks their cake is the best. They say, ‘Try mine, mine is better.’ So what you do? You don’t argue, just eat the cake and enjoy!”
Visiting friends and neighbours with food and drink is a Christmas tradition still very much alive in Dominica, as until recently was a tradition of “sewenal’’ musical bands going house to house signing ballads in French Creole. “One of the most iconic Christmas traditions we couldn’t do without is undoubtedly the Christmas tree. When I was a boy, it had to be a real fir tree,” recalls a family member. “The trees came by boat from Canada; sometimes the boat didn’t make it on time and it was such a big disappointment…. Now, we are much more inventive and use bay leaf or bamboo branches.” While finding a real Christmas tree can be tricky in Dominica, beautiful poinsettias grow in many gardens, filling the space with splashes of red leaves.
All cut flowers for the house come from the garden. “We started the garden from scratch,” says the owner. “Just after finishing, this garden won a prestigious Garden Club award for the landscape design, which made us happy.” Flower bouquets add splashes of vibrant colours to the muted palette of the interiors. “Originally, the house was painted white but gradually I added more colour: from light beige and yellow to the more vibrant pea green and even stronger auburn reds. I wanted to use colours that represent tropics but in a way that they are not blown out and make you very comfortable.”
In this home, fabulous meals are served on family china, silverware and old dinnerware, a part of the family heirloom, and each piece tells a story. “I still enjoy using an old Wedgwood porcelain tea set my husband bought when we were married,” says the owner. “I prefer using them all, instead of keeping them closed behind the glass looking pretty. Things should be enjoyed not jealously treasured.” Everywhere you look, you’ll find exquisite objects d’art arranged with panache, and an eclectic collection of artwork by some of the Caribbean’s foremost artists. The effect is not theatrical but comfortable and relaxed.
This prominent family has been instrumental in shaping Dominica history and it still continues doing so. The connection is reflected in their choice of artwork, which include antique maps and prints showing pivotal moments from the island’s history. The house has strong links with the past and family tradition but it also is imbued with friendliness and the artistic interests of its owners. It is a comfortable, almost bohemian residence, soft, gentle and welcoming. “I’m very happy about this house and wouldn’t change a thing,” reflects lady of the house. “But if I had to build a house again no matter if small or large, I would want to bring the outside within even more; living in the tropics is all about that.’’
Over the years, only small changes have been made to the house. Amazingly, it survived well the devastating Hurricane David, which swept the island in 1979. To this day, the house has retained all of its original features. “I lost my family albums because of the flood but structurally the house was intact,” recalls the owner. “Family albums are a loss, but thankfully we all vividly remember and cherish all moments spent here, and all important family moments are imprinted in this house.”