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Calgary Herald

Island Hopping: Backpacking Through The Intriguing Caribbean Takes Careful Planning

By Theresa Schadeck-Storm

November 8, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Calgary Herald. All rights reserved.

"Backpacking through the Caribbean?

I've never heard of anyone doing that."

This is what I hear time and again, at home and on frequent business trips to the West Indies.

Although I am sure others have island-hopped on the cheap, I have not met a soul who has done what I did almost nine years ago -- explored 15 Eastern Caribbean islands from St. Kitts to Grenada in four months.

Along the way, I met folks who sought less-pricey accommodations or who were holidaying on two or three isles. But none who strapped on a pack determined to take in many countries, much the same as trekking through Europe or Asia.

While "inexpensive" and "Caribbean" are certainly not synonymous, it is possible to explore the region on a budget (though not nearly as cheaply as Asia or other traditional backpacker destinations).

So, whether you are aching to island-hop for an extended time or take a winter holiday on a sun-drenched, tropical isle or two without cleaning out the bank, read on.

Why the Caribbean?

For me, it was because the travel bug chomped me, but good, 11 years ago on my first trip to the region.

A week in Grenada and a week cruising the Southern Isles whetted my appetite for the West Indian flavour I wanted to savour.

Two years later, I had the opportunity to take a leave of absence from work and seized it. I was determined to spend the winter in the Caribbean, but I couldn't afford to.

I discovered it's possible to travel the isles on a budget and there are many reasons to recommend it. The overwhelming reason: the Caribbean, which many think of singularly, is a vast and diverse region comprised of hundreds of islands in the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea between Florida and South America (the Bahamas archipelago alone has more than 600 islands).

Distinct cultures are shaped by centuries of history: some are English, Dutch, Spanish or French. Some islands are independent; some are colonies of Britain, France or Holland. And some, such as Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, are part of the United States. The language, currency, racial mix, music, food and customs vary.

Topographically, the isles also differ. Some are flat, coral mounds with stunning, white-sand beaches. Others are volcanic, with towering mountains and dense rainforests. Some are blessed with both.

Flora and fauna also varies with topography, rainfall and the island's distance to its nearest neighbour and proximity to a continental landmass. Trinidad and Tobago, just a few kilometres from Venezuela, boast the greatest diversity, with many species found on the South American mainland.

As for lifestyle, some isles are cosmopolitan, while others are quiet backwaters where folks live much as they did a hundred years ago. In Trinidad, you'll find women in chic suits working in many occupations and in politics. But on smaller Tobago, you'll see mainly female market vendors, often wearing traditional cotton dresses and headscarves.

On the cost scale, some islands are geared to high-end tourists, while others are reasonable for budget travellers. For example, although Barbados has five-star hotels, it also has a terrific selection of mid- and low-priced options. Be prepared for a range.

Although it took time to catch on to the nuances, getting off the resort track is eye-opening and enriching.

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