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Welcome To The Caribbean, Where The Islands Are All Stunning, Distinctly Different And ; Hot! Hot! Hot!
By David Swanson
January 19, 2003
"What one word would you use to describe the Caribbean?"
The question made me think until I realized it couldn't be answered, because every Caribbean island is different. And when you start to explore the islands, the cliches so often used to describe them don't hold up for long. Lush? Beautiful? Romantic? There are a dozen islands that deliver these promises, and at least a dozen more that don't.
Geographical and cultural, natural and historical influences have flavored every island, so each story and style of Aruba, Barbuda and Cuba, for example, is unique.
Still, in deference to the question asked by an editor, I did come up with a word or two that can describe each of several islands that are dream destinations of cold weather residents in winter and of New Orleanians and other Southerners all year long, especially value-minded travelers who are aware that off-season prices from mid- April through mid-December generally drop considerably.
New: Curacao. No, the island didn't suddenly spring up, though you are excused if the only thing you know of Curaao is of the orange- flavored, blue-colored liqueur used in frou-frou drinks. The capital of the Netherlands Antilles, Curaao (Koora-sou) has spent a couple decades out of the limelight, its population employed principally by an oil refinery, its visitors primarily European and Venezuelan.
Two events brought new attention and resources to Curaao. In 1997 the island's capital, Willemstad, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its multicultural history and distinctly Dutch architecture. In 1998, entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker fell in love with the island, and began to renovate a mansion in Willemstad's derelict Otrobanda district. During restoration he discovered that the home was once the hub of the Netherlands' slave-trading business. As Dekker delved into the history, he decided to create an anthropological museum, buying up 65 buildings surrounding the house.
Today, the Museum Kura Hulanda is the single most impressive museum in the region, combining the history, art and culture of Africa to yield a new perspective of a continent most of us know little about (the 4,600-year-old collection of Mesopotamian pottery alone is worth more than $6 million). This year, Dekker opened the 67-room Hotel Kura Hulanda, the most stylish new lodging in the Caribbean in some years, reflecting a European approach to service and amenities in a wonderful historical setting. Doubles from $275 (all prices provided are high season brochure rates; summer prices are 20 to 40 percent lower). Details at (800) 223-6800; wwwkurahulanda.com.
Although the Kura Hulanda project has spurred new interest and investment in Curaao, it's not the only news. International hotel chains such as Marriott and Sheraton have arrived, and the island's first all-inclusive, the 339-room Breezes, also opened this year, with a rock climbing wall, trapeze and casino. Per person rates are $338, but discounts prevail; (800) 467-8737; www.breezescuracao.com.
Curaao is not your traditional tropical vacation. It's desert- like, not forested, and the refinery is an unsightly blemish in the middle of the island. But there are lovely beaches, good diving, casinos, centuries of Jewish history (including the Western Hemisphere's oldest continuously operating synagogue), and fine dining and nightlife that weaves together European, Caribbean and salsa into an invigorating mix.
Old: Nevis. Some islands are better for not changing. And with the exception of a 198-room Four Seasons Resort that debuted in 1991, the island of Nevis (say Nee-vis) hasn't really embraced large- scale tourism.
Appearing much like a verdant coolie hat afloat in the sea, Nevis is anchored by an impressively steep and dozing volcano with a summit that licks the clouds. Tourism is mostly upscale and alluringly countrified, with a particular accent on history.
Although there are water sports, most activities lie inland. A new seven-acre Botanical Garden has 200 palm species plus orchids, cactus, fruit trees and a rain forest conservatory with an incongruous pretend Mayan temple as its centerpiece. Admission is $9; (869) 469-3509.
Top to Bottom is a hiking outfit run by Jim and Nikki Johnson. Among their activities are trips to the summit of Nevis Peak (a difficult four to five hours, round-trip), hikes into the rain forest and a "Starlight and Storytime" beach campfire that's perfect for families. Excursions range from $10 to $40 per person; (869) 469- 9080.
In addition to the Four Seasons, Nevis has five inns that were plantation houses; four lie high on the slopes, away from the beach. None is more charming than The Hermitage, a circa-1740 home thought to be the oldest wooden plantation house extant in the West Indies. Doubles from $325; (869) 469-3477; www.hermitagenevis.com.
Golden Rock Plantation Inn is an 18th-century sugar estate run by the congenial ancestor of the original owner; trails navigate the upper hills where rambunctious vervet monkeys live. Doubles from $210; (869) 469-3346; www.golden-rock.com.
The Hoffman family purchased Montpelier Plantation Inn this year, and is refurbishing the interiors with Asian pieces and Porthault linens; the restaurant at the 17-room inn is staffed by six chefs. Doubles from $350; (869) 469-3462; www.montpeliernevis.com.
The rough road that circles Nevis finally was resurfaced, and the airport terminal was rebuilt. But you still won't find tour buses; the runway isn't long enough for jets; and the occasional cruise ship visit is limited to smaller vessels.
Forbidden: Cuba. Will 2003 be the year that Americans join the flood of visitors to Cuba?
Actually, we're already touring the island in droves. The independent, New York-based U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council (www.cubatrade.org) estimates that 176,000 Americans traveled to Cuba in 2001. But many of them visited without proper authorization from the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (the department responsible for enforcing the ban on spending money; details available at www.treas.gov/offices/enforcement/ofac/sanctions/ index.html), by traveling via a third country, such as Mexico or the Bahamas.
The chorus of opposition to the travel ban is growing among both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill, although President Bush, with an eye toward his supporters in the Cuban-American community, says he'll veto any resolution that ends sanctions, and he's already implemented a crackdown on Americans entering Cuba from other countries.
But there are 194 licensed "travel service providers" -- the Office of Foreign Assets Control's term -- who can conduct trips to Cuba, listed on the OFAC Web site. Portland-based Ya'lla Tours organizes custom trips for independent visitors who have obtained OFAC approval; (800) 644-1595; www.yallatours.com. Or go straight to the island for arrangements, though you'll be dealing with companies without an OFAC license. Former CIA agent Philip Agee opened a travel agency in Havana three years ago. Today, CubaLinda sells airline tickets to Havana from gateway cities such as Cancun and Montego Bay, books hotel packages, rents cars and bikes, and organizes day trips from Havana. More information: (011) 537-55-39- 80; www.cubalinda.com.
When the ban is lifted (the ban really is on spending U.S. money in Cuba), watch for the Caribbean tourism industry to undergo a major evolution.
Sleeper: Bonaire. Some islands blissfully fly under the tourist radar. Devoid of cruise ship visits or glitzy resorts, Bonaire is one island that delivers a quieter, more authentic Caribbean experience.
But for those who correlate the tropics with lush flora and dramatic mountains, the 112-square-mile island may be a surprise. About 50 miles off Venezuela, this Dutch territory's rocky, recumbent landscape appears bleak from a distance. Look closer and you'll find Bonaire accented by parrot-infested cactus, oddly- shaped divi divi trees and, at the south end, vast salt pans peppered with 15,000 flamingos that call this exotic landscape home.
Peer underwater and you'll discover the star attraction, diving. Bonaire's underwater scene is rich and diverse: more than 300 species of fish and 84 species of coral benefit from being protected as a marine sanctuary. The diving and snorkeling is easy, in calm water (Bonaire is a terrific place for beginners). Shore dives are a specialty; you can park, wade and dive at more than 50 sites.
There's plenty to see and do top-side. The Washington-Slagbaai National Park is a 13,500-acre wildlife sanctuary laced by dirt roads and scenic trails, including one to Bonaire's high point, 784- foot Branderis Hill. Cycling is a good way to explore the muted terrain, but take plenty of water (the sun can be fierce). Bike rentals are $15 a day through Cycle Bonaire, which also offers half- day guided tours from $70; (011) 599-717-7558; www.discoverbonaire.com. Lac Bay, a shallow east-coast lagoon, is good for kayaking among mangroves, as well as beginner windsurfers. Jibe City offers windsurfing rentals from $20 per hour, and kayak rentals start at $10 for two hours; (011) 599-717-5233; www.jibecity.com.
Most of Bonaire's accommodations are in condo developments, some of which are quite nice. The new, 14-unit Bellafonte Chateau del Mar hosted Prince Willem Alexander and Princess Maxima of the Netherlands in August. Rooms range from studios to oversized one- and two-bedroom apartments, furnished with generously equipped kitchens. Doubles from $150; (011) 599-717-3333; www.belbonaire.com. Lion's Dive Resort has one of the island's friendliest dive shops, Bon Bini Divers, perfect for neophytes or advanced divers. All rooms have kitchens and at least a partial sea view. Doubles from $165; (888) 546-6734 or (011) 599-717-5580; www.lionsdivebonaire.com.
Adventurous: Martinique. The Caribbean's most infamous volcano is Mt. Pelee, thanks to its highly efficient obliteration of Martinique's St-Pierre, a town of 29,000 that was buried in searing ash and rock in 1902. The 4,584-foot summit is reached by a well- trod trail that begins high on the southern flanks; allow six hours round-trip to ascend and circuit the impressive crater.
Although the hike to the summit heads the list of activities, there are other adventures on this lush, green island. Martinique's rain forest canopy of towering tree ferns and enormous mahogany, flush with bromeliads and wild ginger that burst from their flanks, is visible from a spindly mountain road through the island's Parc Naturel. A full tank of gas is the ticket.
Or you can immerse yourself in canyoning; Aventures Tropicales does half-day excursions down the narrow gorge of the Riviere Dumauze. A hard hat and harness is provided for clambering down a water course guarded by feisty bright orange crabs just larger than a franc. On the descent, the canyon narrows to a slot, requiring dogged plunges into cool pools and rappels over granite lips. Yes, you'll get wet. The half-day trip costs $46; (011) 596-596-75-24- 24; www.aventures-tropicales.com.
This decidedly French island also seduces visitors with its dining scene that ranges from Creole to gourmet. But take a phrase book. Outside the main tourist areas to the south, most of the Martiniquaise speak limited English.
Accessible: St. Thomas. Fortunately, the region is waking up to welcome disabled visitors. Cruise ships are the easiest way for limited-mobility travelers to explore the Caribbean, and the number of wheelchair accessible cabins on cruise ships has reached 1,076, a growth of 60 percent in three years, according to the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (www.sath.org).
Thanks in part to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and also to its prominence on the cruise ship circuit, St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, has done the most to welcome disabled visitors. Dial-a-Ride, with vehicles that can handle electric wheelchairs, offers transportation and private tours; a three-hour island tour is $94 for a guest with attendant; (340) 776-1277. The latest operator is Accessible Adventures, which uses an open-air trolley that can take three wheelchairs and 12 seated passengers on two-hour island tours ($32 a person); it also has a floating wheelchair for a three- hour visit ($55) to Magen's Bay . Shore excursions are sold on all Princess, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity cruises. (866) 282-7223; www.accessvi.com.
Carl Moore, owner of the St. Thomas dive shop Aqua Action, was trained by the Handicapped Scuba Association and does open water dives for persons with physical disabilities, "even for quadriplegics, as long as they're not vent-dependent," he says. His Discover Scuba program, which takes novice divers out on a reef 25 feet down, is priced $65; (340) 775-6285; www.aadivers.com.
Unspoiled: Bequia. Other islands have longer beaches, flashier resorts and more productive shopping sprees, but none has the backwater appeal of sweet little Bequia, the first Grenadine island south of St. Vincent. The six-square-mile outpost is blessed by sandy coves and yachting harbors, and a small but loyal fan club. Repeat visitors come for the simple and uncommercial ambiance.
For such a bantam settlement, Bequia offers an array of activities: snorkeling and diving, hiking, almost nightly jump-ups (parties) and sailing day trips through the Grenadines aboard the Friendship Rose, a former mail boat ($60-$80, with lunch); (784) 458- 3661. There are few rental cars, so most people explore the lightly trafficked island on foot. The one drawback is that reaching Bequia (usually via Barbados or on a ferry from St. Vincent) is neither cheap nor fast. But once on island, dining and lodging costs are reasonable by Caribbean standards.
The 28-room Friendship Bay Beach Resort is a refreshingly low- key beachfront operation run by a Swedish family (many guests are European) with rooms decorated with local art, lively colors and island trinkets. Blossom, a horse, can be hired for beach rides. Doubles from $165; (784) 458-3222.
Or stay at the Frangipani, originally a 1920s-era sea captain's home, today a classic West Indian guesthouse and social hub. Five waterfront rooms have creaking floorboards, shared cold-water bathrooms and mahogany antiques and rent for $55 a night. Ten newer stone and wood units on the hillside are more deluxe, with sun decks and Admiralty Bay views -- and prices that begin at $150. (784) 458-3255; www.frangipanibequia.com.
Emerging: St. Kitts. Islands wash in and out of favor like waves on a beach, and it's easy to predict the visitor experience on St. Kitts is about to be remade.
The new Marriott Royal Beach Resort, a sprawling hotel, has 471 rooms and is double the size of the next largest hotel on St. Kitts. A five-story complex with a spa, casino, three swimming pools and a conference center, its Royal St. Kitts golf course has been redesigned for Marriott. Doubles from $315 (check into introductory discounts); (800) 223-6388; www.offshoreresorts.com.
Also newsworthy is the transformation of the island's wonderfully dilapidated "sugar train." St. Kitts' unprofitable but handsome fields of sugar cane are being slowly phased out of production. But the narrow gauge railway, built in 1912 to haul harvested cane to the factory, has been restored. The three-hour Scenic Railway Tour transports 280 visitors along a 30-mile circuit that crosses 23 bridges, passing Brimstone Hill Fortress, and rolling beneath the forest canopy. It's $89.50 for adults, $44.75 for children; (869) 465-7263.
One of the island's chief assets has been its natural beauty; above mountain slopes robed with sugar cane is a burgeoning rain forest. Historically, tourist development has been concentrated into a relatively small area. Although St. Kitts' transition from a largely agrarian economy to one focused on tourism has been in the works for years, time will tell if the government has the finesse to balance the beauty with the buck.
San Diego-based freelance writer David Swanson is author of "Fielding's Caribbean" guidebook and writes the "Affordable Caribbean" column for Caribbean Travel & Life magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com
IF YOU GO TO THE CARIBBEAN . . .
The Caribbean Tourism Organization publishes an annual full- color guide to the islands. It can be obtained free: (800) 356-9999 ext. 912; www.doitcaribbean.com. Tourism departments for the various islands can supply more specific vacation information and brochures:
(800) 553-4939; www.anguilla-vacation.com
Antigua and Barbuda:
(888) 268-4227; www.antigua-barbuda.org
(800) 862-7822; www.aruba.com
(800) 221-9831; www.barbados.org
(784) 458-3286; www.bequiatourism.com
(800) 266-2473; www.infobonaire.com
British Virgin Islands:
(800) 835-8530; www.bvitouristboard.com
(800) 346-3313; www.caymanislands.ky
(800) 328-7222; www.curacao-tourism.com
(212) 949-1711; www.dominica.dm
(888) 374-6361; www.dominicanrepublic.com/tourism
(800) 927-9554; www.grenadagrenadines.com
(800) JAMAICA; www.jamaicatravel.com
(800) 391-4909; www.martinique.org
(664) 491-2230; www.visitmontserrat.com
(866) 556-3847; www.nevisisland.com
(800) 866-7827; www.gotopuertorico.com
(011-599) 416-2231; www.sabatourism.com
(410) 286-8310; www.st-barths.com
(011-599) 318-2433; www.turq.com/statia
(800) 582-6208; www.stkitts-tourism.com
(800) 456-3984; www.stlucia.org
Dutch side of the island. (800) 786-2278; www.st-maarten.com
French side of the island. (877) 956-1234; www.st-martin.org
St. Vincent and the Grenadines:
(800) 729-1726; www.svgtourism.com
Trinidad and Tobago:
(888) 595-4868; www.visittnt.com
U.S. Virgin Islands:
(800) 372-USVI; www.usvitourism.vi