Part Two Totally Tropical
Unravel your scarf and slip into your sarong. Kick off your winter boots and sink your toes into crushed coral sands. Step off the wet, grey pavements into warm, turquoise seas. Cast off your winter coat and adorn your summer hat, as you sip cocktails by the pool.
The only winter blues we’re interested in are the shades of the Caribbean Sea and part two of our complete guide to its islands will make it even easier for you to find your personal paradise.
The Free Spirit
When someone says something often enough, you start to believe it. So, after hearing time and time again that Bequia (pronounced Bekway) is the Caribbean’s most perfect island, you can’t help but think that they might just be right.
There’s little to this S-shaped outpost of the Grenadines, just a few miles away from St. Vincent, but there’s something about those seven square miles that draws people here and makes it hard for them to leave. An equal mix of locals and expats make up a population of less than 5,000 people, making for a friendly vibe and the feeling that everyone knows everyone, and that everyone knows how lucky they are to call Bequia home.
It is easy to see why so many sailed into the idyllic harbour of Admiralty Bay and never left, trading their bright white yachts for crayon-coloured villas high up in hills of cedar and pine. There’s no hustle or bustle here, no all-inclusive resorts luring you with modern luxuries and, for the most part, no Wi-Fi to distract your attention from real life in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Life is simple and the living is easy on Bequia.
Port Elizabeth is the island’s only town, nestled into Admiralty Bay, but you’ll find no souvenir shops or diamond dealers here. The most famous store here is Sargeant Brothers Model Boat Shop, where the yachts that bob in the harbour outside are brought to life in miniature form by a handful of men on benches, half-finished models hung above their heads to dry.
If you’re looking for the colourful and crazy Caribbean, this isn’t it. You’ll find no water slides dipping into these gin-clear waters and you’re more likely to imbibe the local Hairoun beer than a frozen margarita. But there’s a reason yachters have headed here for years and a reason why they’re so keen to keep the island to themselves. The warm air and lapping waves can slip you into a meditative state quicker than any yoga position ever could, and there’s something about standing atop the aptly-named Mount Pleasant, Bequia’s highest point with views overlooking the Grenadines, that makes you cross your fingers for that lottery win. This is one of the hardest spots to reach in the Caribbean and we can see why they’re so keen to keep it that way.
The Wild One
Dominica is for those of us who can’t think of anything worse than decamping to the beach for hours upon end, with little more than the cocktail list of a beachfront resort on hand to distract your attention.
Whilst some Caribbean islands have a beach for every day of the year, Dominica has an annual supply of rivers and a daily supply of adventure.
Thanks to the highest annual rainfall in the Caribbean, ‘the nature island’ is, as its name suggests, a true natural beauty, overflowing at the brim with wild rainforest, roaring waterfalls, deep gorges and simmering crater lakes. There are beaches here of course, but unleashing your inner Indiana Jones comes far more naturally in Dominica, than slipping into your swimsuit; to laze away your days seems a waste when Morne Trois Pitons National Park’s 17,000 acres are waiting. It is here that you’ll find many of the island’s star attractions, its fern-shaded trails guiding the way to the impressive Trafalgar Falls, the ethereal green waters of the Emerald Pool and the hidden grottos of Titou Gorge.
The Indian River is but one of 365 on Dominica, yet it stands out for many as one of the island’s must-sees. The rainbow boats of guides carve an eerily quiet path through waters thick with mangrove roots, where the only thing breaking the silence is the soft vibration of a hummingbird’s wing or the sweet song of a yellow warbler. Until recently, the furthest stretches of the Indian River were home to a small settlement of the Caribbean’s last remaining Carib Indians, the Kalinago, but hurricane damage has since forced their relocation to the main Kalinago territory on the island’s east coast. The Kalinago people were here long before Christopher Columbus arrived on a Sunday afternoon in 1493 and an insight into their way of life can be gleaned at Kalinago Barana Autê, a model village of sorts but one which is more authentic than you might expect.
Dominica is known as the whale watching capital of the Caribbean, with 22 of the 33 whale species in the region often spotted in deep sheltered bays along the island’s coast. It is also the only place in the world where sperm whales socialise, mate and calve, residing all year round.
The Laissez-Faire One
Martinique could have been crafted in the imagination of a rain-soaked Parisian on an especially grey Saturday afternoon. This is effectively France, in the Caribbean. The high-end boutiques in downtown Fort-de-France mirror those on Paris’s 8th Arrondissement and the supermarket shelves are lined with wine, cheese, pastries and freshly-baked baguettes, something unheard of almost anywhere else in the Caribbean.
Despite the French connection, Martinique’s sunshine and scenery is a glorious reminder that you are still in the Caribbean. The apartments in Fort-de-France are typically tropical, with a law demanding they must be repainted in their rainbow hues every five years. Le Grand Marché Couvert is a riot of colour too, its stalls overflowing with red peppers, ochre spices, ripe green guava and Creole crafts.
The island’s tropical terrain is equally vibrant, its lush interior filled with flora and rainforest foliage. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more serene afternoon slumber than one spent post-lunch at Habitation Céron, a sugar plantation dating back to 1658. The buildings of this former plantation are scattered along the banks of the Céron River, in the shadow of Mount Pelée, and its nature trails snake through the jungle to the foot of a 300-year old Zamana tree, under which many afternoons have been lost to the land of nod.
If it is beaches that you want, Martinique has plenty. Grand Anse des Salines is the one you see in the brochures, its palm trees reaching out in a stretch from the sands to the ocean. The island’s volcanic landscape means both black and white sands, with both found beside each other at Les Anses-d’Arlet on the southwest of the island. Anse Noire is the wilder of the two, its black sands contrasting against the emerald palms, whilst the golden sands of Anse Dufour provide the picture postcard image of a perfect Caribbean beach. The beach remains a fishing spot for locals, so don’t be too surprised if you find yourself sharing the idyllic bay with a friendly fisherman and the odd pelican or two.
The 32 islands of St. Vincent and the Grenadines are scattered like a string of freshwater pearls at the foot of the Caribbean, some of them inhabited, others left wild and untouched. St Vincent is the largest and most populated of them all, despite measuring little more than 18 miles long and 11 miles wide, and stands proud at the top of the island chain.
This isn’t the quietest island in the Caribbean, in fact it is one of the most populated with around 100,000 residents, but that only makes for a riot of colour and character in its south-coast capital, Kingstown. The cobbled streets here are a bustling hub for the island’s locals, its markets raucous with the chatter of traders pedalling exotic fruit and vegetables. Once you have soaked up the atmosphere, take a taxi from downtown to the St. Vincent Botanical Gardens, the oldest in the Western Hemisphere. The scent of flowers permeates the warm air here, instantly soothing the soul like only the Caribbean knows how. The island’s rare St. Vincent parrots are one of the garden’s star attractions, as are the trees said to be over 200 years old.
St. Vincent’s island landscape is one of the region’s most diverse, gifting its visitors with the jungle paths of the Vermont Nature Trails, to the golden sands of Villa Beach, the beautifully remote Falls of Baleine and the flora-filled Mesopotamia Valley. And then there is La Soufriere, the active volcano which looms 4,000ft above the island and dominates the skyline in dramatic fashion.
For many, the beauty of St. Vincent is that it sits in the midst of some of the Caribbean’s most secluded and idyllic smaller islands. Mustique is a playground for rock stars and royalty, its sprawling villas demanding stratospheric weekly rents. Fortunately excursions from St. Vincent will allow you a taste of the high life without the need for a high net worth, in both Mustique and neighbouring Bequia.
The Colonial Charmer
Our love affair with St. Kitts started early, with the island and neighbouring Nevis amongst the first in the Caribbean to be settled by the Europeans in the 1600s.
Upon discovering St. Kitts, Christopher Columbus was so impressed that he gave the island his name, an act which surely serves as the ultimate seal of approval from a man who had travelled the globe. Today, the island remains every bit as impressive.
There’s everything you’d expect from a Caribbean hideaway here: warm blue seas, sticky rainforest, colourful towns and characterful locals. But there’s a hefty dose of history too, with reminders left behind from a time when St. Kitts was the oldest and wealthiest of all British colonies. The island is strewn with 17th and 18th century forts, once charged with protecting the British Empire’s most precious overseas commodity, but today providing visitors with an insight into the island’s tumultuous past. Brimstone Hill Fortress is the most notable of them all, its 38-acre compound commanding an imposing spot on a volcanic hill on the west coast. The World Heritage-listed fortifications are up there with the best in the Caribbean, engineered by the British military and built with incredible skill by African slaves. A visit to the museum is a must, as is a stop off at nearby Sandy Point, where you’ll find the Amazing Grace Experience. The exhibition tells the story of slave trader John Newton, who went on to write the hymn ‘Amazing Grace’, and explores the history of the song and its connection with not only St. Kitts, but also the once rife slave trade.
Sugar production didn’t cease in St. Kitts until 2005 and one of the legacies it left behind departs daily from the charmingly named Needs Must Train Station. When the afternoon heat reaches its peak, the air-conditioned carriages of the St. Kitts Scenic Railway are hard to resist. The Sugar Train trundles along an 18-mile track on the Atlantic coast, its resident a cappella choir entertaining passengers as they pass through sugar cane estates, thick rainforest and tiny coastal villages. Watching local children wave and chase the train as it passes through is one of those experiences that cannot help but raise a smile.
St. Kitts rainforest already blankets over a quarter of the island and, unlike many of the world’s rainforests, is said to be continually expanding. Like everything in St. Kitts, hikes tend to take on a lazier approach, with sightings of lizards, hummingbirds and vervet monkeys – there are more of them here than humans – rewarding your semi-strenuous strolls.
The Beach Babe
It isn’t unusual to spot the odd wild donkey or horse roaming the beaches of Grand Turk, so laid-back is the only cruise port in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Traffic remains sparse here, fortunately for those donkeys, and less than 5,000 people call the island home. That isn’t to say that Grand Turk hasn’t welcomed its fair share of famous faces; Christopher Columbus is said to have landed here during his discovery of the New World in 1492 and astronaut John Glenn spent some time here more recently, having landed just off the coast shortly after becoming the first American to orbit Earth in 1962.
Nowadays, visitors arrive via the Grand Turk Cruise Centre, a sprawling 18-acre facility featuring everything from duty-free shopping, private beaches and an enormous swimming pool, to the Caribbean’s largest branch of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. This Carnival Corporation facility alone is enough to make Grand Turk a great choice for families.
Those who dare to venture beyond the cruise port are rewarded with surprisingly desolate beaches. Governor’s Beach is the best on the island but the entire west coast is one long stretch of glorious white sand and crystal-clear waters. The Turks and Caicos Islands sit atop one of the world’s largest reefs and its most stunning coral wall is easily reached directly from the beach. Pillory Beach is considered to be the best snorkelling site on the island and is the perfect place to spot nurse sharks, rainbow shoals of fish and schools of squid amongst the colourful sponges and corals.
Each winter, thousands of North Atlantic humpback whales migrate through the shallow waters between Grand Turk and Salt Cay, on their way to the Dominican Republic. The whales can be heard around the island and seen just metres from the shore. Whilst whale watching excursions are offered, snorkelers and divers have been known to have surprise encounters with these gentle whales – and even their young – whilst going about their planned dives on the island’s reefs.
Bonaire is the Caribbean island with a conscience. Sustainable travel and ecotourism may be the buzzwords of the moment, but this tiny picturesque isle some 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela has been praised for its conservation efforts since long before the term became fashionable.
The island’s dedication to conservation begins in its world-famous waters, which some suggest to be the sole reason for over 80% of visits to the island. Bonaire joins a long list of Carribean locales claiming to be ‘one of the world’s top dive destinations’ but when an island embellishes its number plates with proclamations of ‘Diver’s Paradise’, you start to realise just how seriously they take their sea life. Thanks to its position away from the Caribbean’s traditional hurricane belt, Bonaire’s waters and reefs are pristine and they intend to keep them that way. The island has aggressively protected its reefs since the 1970s, when scuba diving became its most popular tourist attraction, establishing the Bonaire National Marine Park in 1979 and imposing a ‘Nature Fee’ on everyone entering the waters. The result of such diligence is a reef which thrives and is home to over 57 species of coral and more than 350 recorded fish species, making for what may well be the most amazing underwater world you’ll see in your lifetime.
Bonaire’s ecotourism efforts extend to its wildlife and you’ll find no shortage of sanctuaries around the island, from the donkey sanctuary set up by the Dutch expats who fell for the island and could never bring themselves to leave, to others designed to protect natural colonies at arm’s length. The coral-hued Caribbean flamingo is the shy and retiring type, but you’ll find the blue skies, ice-white salt mounds and pink shrimp-filled pools of Bonaire’s salt flats provide the perfect backdrop for seeing tens of thousands of these creatures from afar at Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary.
Bonaire is the Caribbean in technicolour. Its seas are bluer, its marine life more vivid and its towns somehow more colourful than your average paint box port of call.
The Party Animal
Pop the cap on your Red Stripe and catch a lime, setting your watch to Jamaican time, because every little thing is gonna be alright.
The Caribbean’s coolest island doesn’t take itself too seriously and it makes it difficult for its visitors to either. Every other catamaran has Cool Runnings scrawled chaotically on its hull and every other restaurant goes a little OTT with the chillies in its jerk chicken. Taxi drivers rarely remove their hands from the horn and reggae blares from every speaker in a place where Bob Marley is worshipped in God-like fashion.
Fast and frenetic island life meets all-out luxury in Montego Bay on Jamaica’s northwest coast. This is where the big names build their all-inclusive resorts and it’s the starting point for excursions to the island’s many attractions, from the Rose Hall former sugar plantation and its resident white witch Annie Palmer, to the Dunn’s River Falls and one of the world’s four bioluminescent lagoons, formed where the Martha Brae River meets the ocean. The problem with days in Montego Bay is that, even on island time, they’re never quite as long as you’d like them to be. There are enough championship golf courses to see you tee off until the sun goes down, enough beaches for you to feel the sand beneath your toes for miles upon end and enough jerk shacks to ensure you never go a minute without that sweet, spicy smoked chicken, rice and peas. The seas are so blue that it’s hard to resist taking a dip and the rivers snake through the Jamaican jungle in a way which makes it hard to turn down their invitation of adventures on rafts and rapids.
Downtown, you only head to Gloucester Avenue – or Hip Strip to the locals – when you have your heart set on pure, unadulterated fun in the sun. It is here that Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville brings Crayola-coloured inflatables and a giant water slide to the Atlantic, with revellers rocking up straight from the ship for margaritas mixed from 10am. Also on the Hip Strip, the Jamaican Bobsled Café is a must for fans of 90’s movie classic Cool Runnings and The Pork Pit has slowly built a reputation for dishing up MoBay’s best authentic Jamaican jerk.
The Trend Setter
When most people think of Curaçao, they think of Handelskade, the vibrant waterfront reminder of the island’s Dutch heritage. But, just like its siblings Aruba and Bonaire, which make up the ABC Islands, there is more to Curaçao than first meets the eye.
This is one of the Caribbean’s most cosmopolitan islands and certainly its most multi-cultural, with more than 50 nationalities sharing its soil. It doesn’t take you long in Curaçao to realise that its attractions are almost as eclectic as its population, from its 35 beaches and numerous national parks, to its famously-bright capital, Willemstad.
The UNESCO World Heritage listed Willemstad is where most people’s introductions to Curaçao begin, its Dutch and Portuguese-inspired structures offering the most colourful of welcomes.
St. Anna Bay divides the capital into two sides, Punda and Otrabanda, and the bridge which conjoins the two districts is one of Curaçao’s star attractions. The Queen Emma Bridge floats to one side several times each day in order to let ships pass, its entire length stretching across the water often for just a few minutes. The spectacle has become something of a tourist attraction in its own right, with bridge guards even known to allow onlookers to stay on the bridge if it is to open for just a short time.
Aside from the Queen Emma Bridge, an accidental star of the show so to speak, one of Willemstad’s true attractions is the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel; the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere. Visitors to this 350-year-old house of worship are often surprised to find the floor deep in Dead Sea sand, something which is said to pay homage to Curaçao’s early Jewish settlers and the way they would attempt to muffle their footsteps when meeting in secret during the Spanish Inquisition.
Beyond its capital, Curaçao has natural beauty in spades. Its beaches range from secluded bays to more lengthy stretches, their waters clear and calm. Daaibooi and Playa Lagun are prime sunbathing spots, as is Playa Porto Mari, where the money shot for photography fiends is the endless pier stretching into the azure waters. If you prefer scuba to sand, head off the beaten path to Shete Boka National Park. It’s hard to do Shete Boka justice with words but the park, whose name comes from the seven natural inlets carved into its craggy coast, should be top of the list for those who prefer their holidays active.
The Water Baby
If you’re of the belief that there’s no air fresher than that which flows from a luminous yellow dive cylinder, the chances are that Cozumel is already on your radar. The Caribbean island, which sits just off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, is relatively new to holidaymakers but has spent many years under the spotlight of a scuba diver’s head torch.
The Cozumel Reefs Marine National Park runs around the coast of Punta Sur on the southern tip of the island and is home to some of the most beautiful coral reef and marine life in the world. Venture southwest and you will find yourself at what many consider to be the holy grail of Cozumel dive sites. Palancar is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest in the world after the Great Barrier Reef, and promises an underwater paradise for all those who slip on their scuba gear. This hardcore diver’s favourite is also within easy reach of the island’s colourful port city and largest town, San Miguel.
The Yucatán Peninsula stood at the heart of Mayan civilisation and whilst it’ll take a ferry across to the Mexican mainland if you’re to visit the ancient monuments of Chichen Itza or Tulum, Cozumel is home to its own examples. The ruins of San Gervasio once stood as temples and statues dedicated to Ix Chel, the Mayan goddess of fertility, and whilst they may be smaller than the better known sites over the water, it means they have a tendency to be wonderfully devoid of crowds.
Of course, Cozumel has plenty going for it aside from world-class dive sites and ancient Mayan ruins. The Yucatán Peninsula boasts some of the best beaches you’re ever likely to see, all crushed coral sands and cerulean seas, and the colourful Plaza del Sol in the town of San Miguel is a hive of activity at all hours. For such a small island, Cozumel serves up a treat when it comes to cuisine. Yucatecán food merges indigenous Mayan and Aztec cuisine with Spanish influences, and food tours of the island see you enjoy classic Mexican quesadillas and tamales, alongside traditional Yucatán recipes served in unassuming ‘cocina economica’ diners. An ice-cold Corona is obligatory, of course.