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The Lowdown | The Caribbean

The Caribbean Lowdown: Where to Go and Why Now Words by James Henderson

Where  The Caribbean Sea

Quick Quote $650 per day

Best Season Winter and Spring

Thinking of Snorkeling, swimming, lounging

Best Portrayed in James Bond, Reggae beats, The Pirates of the Caribbean

Tropical but easily accessible, exotic and yet not too unfamiliar, the Caribbean makes for superb holiday territory––whether you plan to lie on a beach, skim the water on a kite surfer, taste the freedom of sailing between islands, or spot hummingbirds, corals and angel fish. There are soaring volcanic islands, cays and sandy blips that almost disappear at high tide: Spanish, French Creole, former British and Dutch. The variety is exceptional. And there is limitless choice of accommodation: iconic hotels, independent beach resorts and all inclusives, inns with funky island charm, villa resorts and private villas. Somewhere there’s an island and a place to stay that’s perfectly suited to you.

Barbados––Why Go?

Because Barbados is a trusty tropical escape. It stands apart, east of the tall, volcanic Windward Islands, with gentler contours, and skirted with superb coral-sand strands rather than secluded coves. Its climate is notable even for the Caribbean – an annual 3000 hours of sunshine. It is different in other ways too. Barbados is still covered with cane, the source of its famous rums, and has superb gardens. Uninvaded before Independence in 1966, it retains the strongest ‘British’ character in the region. The Bajans, ever gracious, seem almost a little reserved.

“I have travelled in the Caribbean for 30 years now, and love the islands for their beaches and physical beauty of course, but also for their people, who are welcoming, fun and always happy to share a rum. Oh, there are moments, of course, but the Caribbean has a charm unlike anywhere in the world.”

Tourism is well developed in the island. The glitzy West Coast is dotted with top hotels and magnificent villas, and some of the Caribbean’s finest restaurants. The rumbustious south coast sees more package trips, though it too has good restaurants and nightlife, and similarly, plenty to keep you busy by day, with watersports and land activities. The Atlantic coast is unexpectedly wild and dramatic.

Where to Stay: The Coral Reef Club for a quintessentially British Caribbean experience, old colonial refinement at the heart of the West Coast. Lower key, and with idiosyncratic charm, is Little Arches, a lovely retreat above the beach in Holetown.

Don’t miss: a picnic under the cliffs in one of the southeast beaches––Harrismith, Foul or Bottom Beach.

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Words by James Henderson The Caribbean Editor

Travel writer James Henderson has written features since 1990 for the UK national press, often the Financial Times and its magazine How to Spend it, Caribbean guide books (Cadogan, AA Explorer) and online, as founder/writer of Definitive Caribbean (300,000 words of practical and cultural Caribbean information). Once an endurance sportsman, in the Marathon des Sables and Eco-Challenge, he keeps up to date through his website A Life of Adventure.

Anguilla––Why Go?

Because Anguilla has the Caribbean’s finest beaches – surreal blue sea lapping onto blinding white sand so sumptuous that simple walking becomes exhausting. Find a lounger and relax… Just sixteen miles by three, this British, coral blip in the north-eastern Caribbean is low key elegance incarnate. Days are spent snorkeling, scuba diving or sailing to an offshore island (Prickly Pear or Sandy Cay), playing golf or prostrate once more in the spa. Finally, Anguilla has unexpectedly good restaurants, so by day it’s the beach bars, by night shorefront gastronomy.

Tourism is top notch and pretty expensive in Anguilla. There are some stalwart Caribbean hotels, known for their architectural flights of fancy––Mediterranean, faux-Moroccan and even stark, white modernist - and some of the most extravagant private villas in the region.

Where to Stay: At Cap Juluca, one the Caribbean’s best loved resorts, which reopens in December 2018 after a huge refurbishment by Belmond, back with new restaurants, more villas and a spa. Maillouhana is a one-of-a-kind gem with a prime cliffside location, Malliouhana has sweeping views and a kind of quiet glamour, and with only 44 rooms, this recently revamped Auberge Resort, is an ideal romantic escape.

Less expensive, but right on Meads Bay’s magnificent sand, is Carimar Beach Club, a series of 1 and 2-bedroom apartments. Very low key, very friendly.

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Why Choose St. Bart’s…

Because it is unquestionably the Caribbean’s chicest island, a tiny corner of the South of France (it feels more French than French Caribbean) in the tropics. There are lovely beaches and coves, some with watersports and beach bars, but you are as likely to linger in Gustavia, shopping and sitting in the bars that overlook the yachts in harbor. And in the restaurants, which are excellent, offer both top French cuisine and international fare from Italian to sushi.

St Bart’s, now [almost] restored since Hurricane Maria, is expensive and you can find the best of everything there. At Christmas and the New Year, it is all glitz and glamour, but outside the season, the island’s lower key, local character returns. St Bart’s has excellent small hotels (none above 70 rooms), but many people choose to stay in villas, many of which have spectacular settings.

Where to Stay: Eden Rock (re-opening December 2018), has pride of place at the heart of St Jean beach and the island’s social whirl, elegant and expensive. For something lower key, if higher up the hill, try Villa Marie, which uses the best of traditional Caribbean features and island views.Located on the quiet, windswept side of St. Bart’s called the Côte Sauvage, Le Toiny features 22 villas spread across 42 acres of land. This is where you can escape from everything. Each of the rooms has its own private plunge pool.

Don’t miss: St Bart’s superb and surprisingly undeveloped beaches––Salines, Gouverneur and, visited by boat, Colombier.

Why choose Jamaica…

Because Jamaica is the Caribbean’s most compelling island… Jamaica is large, loud, always lively and exceptionally beautiful – it assaults the senses in so many ways. There are all the activities you could imagine, from plantation and distillery tours to zip-lining, scuba and swimming with dolphins. But there is a strong local life and culture too, some of it audible in a backdrop of reggae. You can hide away in plantation comfort or immerse yourself in the culturally vibrant capital Kingston.

Jamaica’s tourism is highly developed, particularly around the north shore resort towns Negril, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, but beyond here independent travelers can find quieter spots in Treasure Beach, Port Antonio and the Blue Mountains. And secluded between the humming all-inclusives are ice-cool and funky hideaways as well as traditional, elegant hotels.

Where to Stay: To cloister yourself away in old-colonial elegance, go to Round Hill, which has been offering low-key luxury for decades. For something younger and funkier, try Country Country, right on the sunset-facing sands of Negril Beach.

Don’t miss: rafting, a wonderfully calm and relaxing experience. Best is the Rio Grande in Port Antonio, if you can. In the west it’s the Martha Brae or the Great River.

Why the Dominican Republic?

Because after so many years as a mid-range destination––all bus-borne tours and all-inclusive hotels––the Dominican Republic is ripe for independent and luxury travel too. It is great to explore, a large and extremely lively Latin island, with a backdrop of merengue and bachata, energetic island rhythms. Beyond the beach are kite-surfing, canyoning, whale-watching and on land there is chocolate, rum, cigars and baseball––and excellent national parks. All visits should include the capital though, Santo Domingo, the oldest Spanish city in the New World. Its newly restored Old City is home to the Americas’ first Cathedral and Columbus’s (reconstructed) vice-regal palace, as well as a lively nightlife.

A layer of top notch accommodation has appeared on the beaches, both with good style and, for the Caribbean, good levels of service. And Santo Domingo itself now has some attractive hotels, set in restored palacios and family homes.

Where to Stay: Eden Roc Cap Cana overlooks a pretty cove in the island’s south-eastern corner, luxury space above the sand and a lagoon inland. In Santo Domingo, the Billini, a stylish and striking refurbishment of an ancient convent and armory, will put you at the heart of Old City life.

Don’t miss: the karst (limestone) stacks of the Los Haitises national park in the north-east.

Why go to the BVI’s?

Because the British Virgin Islands (aka BVI), is the Caribbean’s finest sailing grounds––a hundred volcanic islands, coral outcrops and sandy cays scattered over a stretch of superb deep blue and turquoise sea. The anchorages are calm and close and there are more beach bars than you can shake a lanyard at. The BVI have superb beaches too, some strands, others secluded coves, and there are reefs to snorkel. All in all, to visit without spending time on the water somehow misses the point of the BVI.

Tortola is the liveliest island, base of all the sailing fleets––and the offshore finance business––and the good bars and restaurants. Virgin Gorda is much quieter.  Anegada and lovely Jost van Dyke are comatose, as the Caribbean used to be. There are a few hotels, some on their own island, and there are many good quality villas.

Where to Stay: Little Dix Bay is a classic Caribbean escape, elegance on a spectacularly beautiful cove—but not opening until late 2019. For something closer to the action, near the west end of Tortola, try Sugar Mill, with its excellent dining room surrounded by pretty cottages on the hillside. To cast yourself away in splendid seclusion, try Guana Island––just a few very comfortable cottages are scattered around this private island.

Don’t miss: The Baths in Virgin Gorda, a series of lovely coves of sand hemmed by a giant’s playground of boulders through which you clamber in luminescent green caves.

Why choose St Lucia…

Because it is the most beautiful of the Windwards, and arguably the most romantic island in the Caribbean. Volcanic St Lucia soars from the sea, flanks mantled in greenery and culminating, in the south, in its distinctive twin peaks, the incisor-shaped Pitons. The island is well organized for visitors, with zip-lines and hikes for the moments when you venture beyond the beach. But St Lucia also has a vibrant French creole life––you will hear the language spoken and taste creole food.

Much of St Lucia’s tourism is in the north, on its white, coral-sand beaches. There is a range of resort and independent style hotels. However, don’t forget Marigot Bay and the ‘South’, where there are excellent small hotels in incredibly spectacular settings, particularly around the Pitons and the town of Soufriere. There are good villas in both locations.

Where to Stay: Cap Maison is the most elegant hotel, and it sits above the lovely Smuggler’s Cove beach near the island’s northern tip. But for the full drama of the Pitons, try Ladera, which perches at 1100 feet. A lovely creole feel and plenty of wood.

Don’t miss: a sailing or motorboat trip down the coast until the Pitons rage above you.

Why go to Grenada…

Because Grenada, the southernmost island in the Eastern Caribbean chain, has so much gentle, small island charm. It is a typical Windward Island, rising from the water like a Titan, volcanic and extremely green, with beautiful views both offshore and on land. And it is extremely fertile––Grenada produces some of the world’s finest nutmeg and cocoa and its gardens are lovely––and the Grenadians are friendly and easy going. Visitors tend to stick to the south-western corner, with its good beaches, restaurants and many of the island’s attractions, though it is fun (and easy and safe) to explore the island’s north. Also its dependent island, Carriacou, is the Caribbean of 50 years ago, with perfect sand and near-comatose charm.

Where to Stay: Most of the hotels, inns and the many good private villas, are in the island’s southwestern corner, on or behind Grand Anse, and in the jagged coves of the southern coastline.

Stay at the Spice Island Beach Club for extreme comfort on a lovely stretch of the island’s most spectacular beach. True Blue Bay has a lovely Caribbean ambience, all jangling colors and an easy air. Very friendly.

Don’t miss: a day lingering in one of the beach bars of the southeastern peninsula.

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