INTERVIEW: the design team behind the boutique guesthouse COCOA COTTAGES in Dominica.

The Treehouse at Cocoa Cottages, Dominica
The Treehouse at Cocoa Cottages, Dominica

Hopping a mere two islands away from Antigua this week, I am very excited to introduce you to Iris, Richard and Liz who have a fabulous story to tell!

Cocoa Cottages is their masterpiece, a boutique guesthouse set in the rainforest of Dominica, the nature island of the Caribbean. I visited last year and spent a weekend in splendid awe at, well, at everything ….. from the size of the leaves in the jungle, the towering views from the treehouse, the funky-exploding-with-colour design of the cottages, the extraordinary food, the homemade chocolate from the cocoa growing on site, in fact – I didn’t really want to leave.

This is inside-outside living at it’s very best, where nature and design collide in the midst of the rainforest and live in perfect harmony through fabric patterns and shapes and clever architecture.

View from the treehouse, Cocoa Cottages, Dominica
View from the treehouse, Cocoa Cottages, Dominica

I distinctly remember arriving before dinner and Iris showing us to the treehouse. We walked down the wooden stairs through the damp air and leaves glistening with freshly fallen rain and I was surprised. Surprised that no walls would lie between us and the great outdoors – just a roof and floor, comfy couches and beds with mosquito nets, a bath with a curtain, natural soap and plenty of clean water to drink and wash with.

Bedroom in the cottage, Cocoa Cottages, Dominica
Bedroom in the cottage, Cocoa Cottages, Dominica
Cottage bedroom, Cocoa Cottages, Dominica
Cottage bedroom, Cocoa Cottages, Dominica

Cocoa Cottages is a delight to the soul. There are 6 rooms in total, including the treehouse, and a central hub where guests take breakfast and dinner on request. The food was extraordinary. Breakfast included local fruits, eggs, oat pancakes, homemade jams and bread and the house-made hot cocoa drink – not to be missed. At dinner one night we had tuna caught that day, served in a coconut milk – and I have to admit that I have been trying to recreate it at home ever since!

The perfect nook to read a book, Cocoa Cottages, Dominica
The perfect nook to read a book, Cocoa Cottages, Dominica

Richard and Liz (photo on the right, when they met and where their journey began) and Iris (photo on the left with her best friend Frida the dog) are the owners, managers and clever designers of this holiday destination on the magical island of Dominica.

 

My family and I stayed in Cocoa Cottages recently and fell in love with the quirky design and unbeatable location. Sleeping in the rainforest is a magical experience. Can you tell us what brought you to Dominica originally and how Cocoa Cottages were born? 

Pure destiny. We kind of got tired of the life style we were living back in the States, having a four plane cargo company meant spending our lives either in the air or on the tarmac breathing jet fuel. Life was good on a material level but that was all, and after 9/11 it felt just right to look for a more peaceful and less restricted place to live. Initially we found an interesting property which was a  bar/restaurant that had possibilities of combining a dive operation and a mooring on the island – that’s how we got to know about Dominica, and it looked like an amazing place . We were in the dive/boating business before so it seemed a good idea to come and check out the place and the island. We were not too excited about the location so we checked a real estate agency.

Cocoa was already a running guest house and a popular place owned by a Rasta guy called Bobby Frederick. It was for sale and a love from the first sight and we decided to check it out and stayed for three nights. 

I remember going down the ravine and starting to fantasize,  how I wanted it to be, what clientele I wanted to attract. 

We had no idea nor experience how to manage a guest house or cook for so many people but it never seem to be an issue to stop us. (- Iris)

Was it always a dream of yours to open a boutique hotel or did the island speak to you first?

Dominica is magical, even after 14 years I’m totally in love with it and as time goes by I can’t see myself living anywhere else. It has everything I’m looking for when it comes to quality of life – fresh waster, clean rivers you can drink from, clean air and good food. 

It is a peaceful place. (- Iris)

A mosquito net hangs to protect you should you need it. The fabrics and colours reflect the rainforest and the cocoa
A mosquito net hangs to protect you should you need it. The fabrics and colours reflect the rainforest and the cocoa.

With 6 guestrooms, including the treehouse, as well as the main dining room and living area, there was a lot to build. How long did it take to complete the project? Have you got a background in architecture / building / design / hospitality?

The main two cottages were there – so all six rooms, but the place was so run down that we had to do a major renovation and we are continuously working on it. Both Richard and I are artists at heart and Liz too (she arrived few years later) so the place is a product of our imagination and the artistic talent. We played with colours and a combination of natural products such as rocks, coral, drift wood, bamboo, sea glass etc … to make it feel organic, natural, at one with nature, keep the vibe of less consumerism. It is really about finding the right balance between everything.   (- Iris)

You have used local art and furniture as much as possible – what supplies were you able to source on the island itself?

Most of what we have is local,  but we imported good mattresses and pillows and other items that make a big difference to guest’s experience and comfort level. Good stuff is hard to find so we import if needed but it is not a ‘must’. ( – Iris)

 

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Locally carved chair, Cocoa Cottages, Dominica

 

Dominica is known as the nature island of the Caribbean and at Cocoa Cottages you really feel like you are part of nature. The design and layout of the treehouse allows guests to live outside whilst enjoying the comfort of a villa. With just a mosquito net between the jungle and you, I was overawed by the experience! It must have been fun designing this?

It is Richard’s design, to build an open plan house that gives you the protection you need but also a total immersion with nature. 

You are one with it, imagine to wake up to your body sensing the change of vibration from night sounds to dawn sounds. This experience is mystical. I am glad you had a chance to stay there. ( – Iris)

The design was created by Hurricane Dean in 2007.  After a large landslide at the back of the Honeymoon Suite, which sits above the Treehouse, I was forced to shore up the land using gabion baskets as retaining walls.  Each basket weighs 15,000 pounds and requires 3 truckloads of rock to fill.  I think we made about 40 baskets in all.  The rocks were dumped in the street and were manhandled to the ravine to be made into the gabion baskets.  While working on this one day, suspended 20′ above the ravine on a platform with a wheelbarrow, the idea came to me to build the Treehouse in that ravine.  The foundation for the Treehouse partly consists of the original ramp made for wheeling the rocks down.  The Treehouse plan was drawn by me on a napkin and built by me and 3 Rastas.  No architect and no engineer ever saw it during construction. ( – Richard)

Cocoa Cottages opened to the first guests in 1997 and you purchased it in 2003. Since then you have been involved in the hospitality side of the business – from advertising to reservations, tour operators, menu planners and hosts. Is it your full-time job now? 

Richard / Liz and I take turns half year each, this year we did a year on / off . It is a full time job if you want to keep standard high and quality of service. But it is good to take long breaks to do other things, to recharge and to learn new things that can be added to what we offer to guests. (- Iris) 

I found the food at Cocoa Cottages to be incredible. From the cocoa tea at breakfast with fresh fruit and oat pancakes, to the tender tuna steaks and an array of salads at dinner, even the children devoured everything! Your food is all locally sourced and seasonal. How did you get accustomed in the beginning, to recipes and preparing food in Dominica?

It was a conscious decision realizing it is not economical to use recipes that need imported products, so no cooking books but using our imagination. The goal was to use local produce as much as possible. For example I cook by combining colours while the pot is my canvas, even the spices and herbs are part of the art work, it tastes good somehow. (- Iris)

The kitchen and dining area
The kitchen and dining area
Reception area at Cocoa Cottages, looking out towards the dining area
Reception area at Cocoa Cottages, looking out towards the dining area on one side and the rainforest on the other

 

Have you got any other exciting design projects that you are working on now?

I’m looking to purchase few acres of land off the beaten path and create a sanctuary for energy studies and a healing place. It is going to be an off grid organic project where you go back to roots & connect with source. The idea is slowly shaping up. (- Iris)

The colours and patterns of Cocoa Cottages
The colour palette and patterns of Cocoa Cottages

I can’t leave you without a mention of the exquisite and heavenly chocolate that you make here at Cocoa Cottages, ‘Cocojazz’. How did you start out making chocolate?

Cocojazz was a fun artistic project. I was not too interested in having a chocolate factory but having home made chocolate seems the right thing to offer guests. To me it was all about the design, the name, slogan, it just happen naturally, organically with no difficulty. If you notice the colours around are the colours of the leaves of the cocoa tree, I even took the young leaves which are beautiful pink / orange to the paint shop to match the colour. I had a lot of fun. When you create you are at your best. (- Iris)

Snug areas to relax
Private snug areas to relax

 Finally, for any visitors to Dominica, what is the island’s best kept secret that you are willing to share?!

The secret is in our heart, if we could only sit still in nature we can learn so much. Dominica has endless shades of green, it took me a long time to realize that green is the colour of the heart chakra – when you let that open, love is what you find. Unconditional, for yourself, for all. This is the secret of Dominica. (- Iris)

NEED TO KNOW:

Rooms at Cocoa Cottages are from US$125 – $250 per night plus VAT and service.

Package deals are available for local trips canyoning or to visit boiling lake, click here for more details.

If you would like to discover more about Cocoa Cottages or make a reservation, visit their website here.

Getting around: renting a car can be arranged through Cocoa Cottages and is the best way to travel around the island.

Things to Do: For more information on all of the incredible things to do in Dominica, visit the tourist office website here or the Lonely Planet guide here.

Getting to Dominica: fly from Antigua, Barbados, St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe and Martinique. LIAT , Winair, Seaborne and Air Antilles offer regular scheduled flights. There is also a catamaran service from Guadeloupe Martinique and St. Lucia with L’Express des Iles. 


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