The Hyperactive's Caribbean

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, December 1995

The Hyperactive's Caribbean

Don't even think of sitting on the beach all week--nine resorts where boredom is not an option
By Bob Howells

With apologies to sloth, a week in the Caribbean dedicated to beach-lounging and rum-sipping can get as tedious as, say, a steady diet of steel-drum music. Who could stand it? You want to roll off your hammock, step down from your veranda, and have serious options, like skippering a Sunfish to an uninhabited isle for an afternoon of snorkeling, rigging a sailboard to nab a 21-knot sideshore breeze, or hiking to a rainforest waterfall that tumbles coolly into a fern-shaded pool. Levels of luxury vary, but the resorts visited here have one thing in common: the impossibility of boredom. With apologies to Bob Marley, Lively up yourself. The rum punch tastes a whole lot better when you're deliriously weary.

Club Med Turkoise
Turks and Caicos
The desert island of Providenciales, aka Provo, is no one's idea of a floral or cultural Eden (a conch farm is the big attraction), so you won't suffer from any I-should-be-sightseeing guilt here--making it the perfect setting for the sociability and one-stop shopping of a Club Med.

Diving here is world-class in drama and variety, the water is calm with 150-foot visibility, and there's a chance of fraternizing with Jojo the bottlenose dolphin (not a captive, just a local). So Turkoise is a good place to learn to dive (PADI or NAUI certification course, $235 per person; six-day resort course, $125). Once you're certified, you'll want to hit The Wall at least once. The 1,000-foot-plus expanse of vertical coral starts at about 60 feet; descend between 70 and 100 feet and you'll see purple tube sponges on the overhangs while all sorts of pelagic commuters cruise by. Just off the resort in Grace Bay are shallower sites with coral pinnacles, a hole teeming with Nassau groupers, and nurse sharks hiding out in coral caves. The nearby bonefishing flats off Northwest Point and Pine Cay are most prolific in winter (half-day trip, $85 per person), and deep-sea runs an hour offshore score tuna, wahoo, and barracuda (half-day trip, $115). Turkoise isn't a high-wind hangout, but Bic sailboards are there for prowling the protected bay, as is a fleet of Lasers and Zumas.

The 70-acre village has all the Club Med signatures: small but comfortable pastel-hued rooms, a buffet-style restaurant and odd-hour dining in The Grill or Pizzeria, a dance floor, a fitness center, a volleyball court, and a pool. And the most compelling stretch on all of Provo is right out your door: a quiet beach on the northeast end that's as white as the snow that's probably falling back home. The weekly rate of $1,135 per person includes everything except mixed drinks and a $125 scuba surcharge (13 dives). Call 800-258-2633.

Anse Chastanet
St. Lucia
The natural landmark of St. Lucia is a pair of sharply pointed twin peaks called the Pitons. Wrapped in rainforest growth and rising from the blue, they're one of those sights you can't take your eyes off. You won't need to at Anse Chastanet, where even your shower is likely to have a Piton view. Anse Chastanet's villas march up a steep effusion of green hillside across the bay and reflect the owner/architect's infatuation with space and views: The huge, high-ceilinged rooms can be opened on three sides.

Undersea and topside sight-seeing are equally compelling. Diving and snorkeling are excellent right off either of the resort's silver-sand beaches (where sailboards and Sunfish are available free of charge), and the on-site Dive St. Lucia (one-tank dive, $30) has a fleet of five dive boats that head off to nearby reefs teeming with electric rays, flying gurnards, and peppermint-stick lobsters. Night dives leave right from the beach, and once a week, boats head for the sponge-covered wreck of the Lesleen M, a 165-foot freighter, and its resident hordes of parrotfish and barracuda.

By land, check out the fuming drive-through volcano, where hot springs cascade into mineral pools, just six miles away, or take a half-day guided rainforest hike in search of a rare parrot right from the resort. Longer treks go to the Malgretoute waterfall and, naturally, to Gros Piton (2,619 feet), where a tough half-day rewards hikers with a view of...Anse Chastanet. Rates start at $360 a day for two, including breakfast and dinner. Call 800-223-1108.

Bitter End Yacht Club
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
You can find plenty to do besides sail at the Bitter End, though it's a little like going to Aspen for the snowshoeing. The resort started life as a hideaway for a sailing family (the name alludes to its being the traditional turnaround point for Caribbean sailors before reaching the rough, open Atlantic). It's still family-run and features an embarrassment of toys for sailors: Among the more than 100 boats are dinghies that a five-year-old can learn to sail, Rhodes 19s, Vanguard 15s, Freedom 30 sloops, Lasers, J-24s, and Hobie Cats. The playground is North Sound, eight square miles protected by reefs and islands but swept by swift trade winds. The deal here is all-inclusive, so you have the pick of the fleet for day trips. Or you can take lessons; the top-notch school is run by former ocean racer Nick Trotter. Or hitch a ride on crewed Paranda, a nimble 48-foot catamaran that jaunts to uninhabited islands.

For boardsailors, North Sound's flat water offers some speed runs blistering enough to draw wintertime Gorge refugees; all the right Mistral hardware is available, and there's a school for novices (lessons, $50 per day). Bonefishing flats are right off the property--you can see the fish tailing as you eat breakfast. Guided scuba and snorkeling trips head to nearby reefs twice a day, or you can putter around in your own Boston whaler or sea kayak. Recover your land legs by hiking the Bitter End's five miles of rainforest trails.

The bunking options are beachfront villas, hillside cottages, and high-up bungalows amid coconut palms and hibiscus, or you can bed down in a Freedom 30 out on the water. The open-air restaurant serves up a big salad buffet and lots of fresh seafood. An eight-day, seven-night all-inclusive package for two is $3,360-$3,990. Add $150 per person for three and a half days of sailing lessons, $160 for a three-day dive package. Call 800-872-2392.

Papillote Wilderness Retreat
If you're ready to be at one with nature at its wettest (Dominica gets 250 inches of rain per year), book one of Papillote's eight simple units at the base of 4,000-foot Morne Macaque: straw mats on the hardwood floors, locally made quilts on the beds, colorfully tiled baths and showers. Co-owner Anne Jean-Baptiste has surrounded the inn with intense collections of her particular passions--begonias, bromeliads, ferns, orchids--but the rushing streams and warm mineral pools are endemic.

When your botany lesson's over, hiking is the thing here. Take the 15-minute walk to Trafalgar Falls, a series of giant cascades that tumble into a 100-degree pool, almost ludicrously paradisiacal. More adventurous, and requiring a Papillote guide, is the six-hour round-trip through the weird, fumarole-ridden Valley of Desolation to Boiling Lake and back. The lake fills a crater and looks like a gurgling pot of hot milk. It's a tough hike, but you can salve your sore spots in warm streams and pools on the way down.

If you're willing to leave the retreat, Papillote can set up day trips for diving at an underwater sulfur vent called Champagne Spring, sea kayaking on Soufrière Bay, or mountain biking. Any way, you'll work up an appetite, and the inn's West Indian chow will sate it. Try the river crayfish and stewed frog in season, the fresh prawns anytime. Double rooms are $70 a night, with a $30 additional charge for breakfast and dinner. Call 809-448-2287.

Bayman Bay Club
Isla Guanaja, Honduras
The Bay Islands, 40 miles off the Honduras coast, are on no one's beaten track--yet. Surrounded by coral reefs, thick with tropical forests and pine-covered mountains, and free of roads and cars, Guanaja is as unspoiled as any inhabited island in the Caribbean. The 17 hillside cottages at the Bayman Bay Club overlook it all. Each comes with a private porch and hammock, and none is more than a five-minute walk from the white-sand beach. But the resort's hangout is a three-story, tree-house-style clubhouse that rises amid mango, papaya, and breadfruit trees to serve up a huge Caribbean view. The second-floor lounge has overstuffed chairs, backgammon boards, and a book and video library (The Poseidon Adventure, Jaws), and everyone gathers in the west-facing wraparound bar for sunset happy hour.

The three-by-11-mile island is laced with hiking trails; hoof to waterfalls or to the 1,400-foot peak that crowns the island. The lee water is gentle enough for kayakers, who also paddle up the Soldado River, and has 80- to 125-foot clarity for divers and snorkelers. The dive shop runs five-day certification courses ($385) and one-day resort courses ($75). The sheltered walls of Guanaja's long fringe reef suit beginners, while drop-offs to 130 feet hold the interest of advanced divers. Guided trips go out to the wreck of the 200-foot Jado Trader and nearby volcanic caverns. Abundant juvenile reef corals and invertebrates make the shore diving unusually good, too. Head out in search of bonefish in the resort's skiff, or sign on with a local guide (about $200 per day). Per-person rates for rooms and three meals are $799 per week ($899 for divers, with two dives per day and unlimited shore dives). Call 800-524-1823.

Swept Away
On an island and beach (Negril) famous for hedonism, Swept Away might seem pretty serious, with its couples-only policy, an elaborate ten-acre fitness complex, a health club, exercise classes, and a fruit-and-veggie bar on the beach. Think of it as a place to buff up in paradise, sans the sophomoric rituals and meat-market overtones of some nearby all-inclusive resorts. The sports complex includes all the right fitness machines, a jogging track, an aerobics room, a lap pool, and courts for hoops, squash, racquetball, and tennis. The afterworkout indulgences include massage, sauna, Jacuzzis, and steam rooms.

Everything here has a relatively low-density feel. The 134 rooms are scattered in clusters on ten acres overlooking gardens and courtyards, and each has a private veranda where you can eat breakfast. Out on the seven-mile arc of Negril Beach are sea kayaks, Sunfish, and Mistral sailboards (there's no high-wind stuff, but with a big sail you can make use of the nine-knot afternoon breeze). Nearby are some 30 diving and snorkeling sites, from sunken tugboats and downed drug-running planes to deep reefs. All-inclusive room rates include two dives daily, and three-day PADI certification courses ($330) and free one-day resort courses are available. Nondivers can opt for a boat ride down the Black River to see alligators and crocodiles ($150 per couple) or a raft trip on the Mountain Valley River ($77 per person). The food is buffet by day, sit-down in the evening. Be sure to schedule one dinner at Rick's Café, on the west end of the beach, to watch the sunset and cliff-diving. Then head to MXIII for reggae. Rates are $3,150-$3,990 per couple for seven nights. Call 800-545-7937.

Cabarete Beach Hotel
Dominican Republic
The water's 75 degrees, the air is 84, and the sideshore wind blows steadily at 21 knots. Even more than the ubiquitous merengue music, these define Cabarete's beat: perfect conditions for world-class boardsailing. Toss in an eight- to ten-foot wave break 600 yards out on the reef, a speed slalom zone straight to the north, and a Carib Bic Center next door, and you'll understand why boardheads gather at this unglitzy hotel and village on a remote seven-mile north-shore beach.

When the wind's not blowing or you're jibed-out, the Carib Bic Center also doles out sea kayaks, Sunfish, bodyboards, surfboards, and snorkeling gear free of charge. In the tiny village, a three-minute walk away, is the Iguana Mama Mountain Bike Center (809-571-0908), with front-suspension Konas and Scotts for $100 per week and guides who know the easy trails and single tracks through lush mountains (half-day off-road trips, $20-$35 per person). The Dolphin Underwater Adventure Dive Center offers four-day certification courses ($350) and guided dives ($35). At night, you can walk to several restaurants and merengue clubs, but the hotel's own Restaurant Mariposa is a good as any for either shish kebab with pineapple sauce or Italian food.

The 24-room Cabarete Beach Hotel is such a bargain (rooms start at $62) that it's worth spending a little extra for a deluxe room with an ocean view and balcony ($92). All rooms are decorated with island art and have either air conditioning or ceiling fans. A special boardsailing package that includes a deluxe room, an advanced board, and full use of all the goodies at the Carib Bic Center is $77 per person; add $18 for two meals daily. Boardsailing lessons are extra (one- to five-hour private instruction, $30-$125; two- to five-hour group lessons, $45-$100). Call the Cabarete Beach Hotel at 809-571-0755, the Carib Bic Center at 809-571-0640.

Maho Bay
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
Maho Bay, the self-aware paradigm of ecologically correct development, is to other Caribbean hotels what a salad bar is to a steak dinner. By week's end, you might be craving the equivalent of a cholesterol blowout, but till then you'll be enchanted by the almost visionary design: cottages that are equal parts tree house and safari tent; bungalows built largely from recycled materials; energy-efficient lights and appliances powered by the sun; water-collecting cisterns and a composting septic system. You'd feel totally connected to the earth here but for the elevated boardwalks that keep your Tevas from trampling Gaia till you reach the beach.

Terraced up a ridge between Maho Bay and Francis Bay on the island's northwest coast are two levels of enviro-friendly comfort amid a tangle of subtropical vegetation: Maho Bay Camps has 114 no-frills, 16-foot-square screened huts on stilts overlooking a white-sand beach (doubles, $95). Harmony Resort is equally principled but more luxurious--the 12 guest houses ($150-$180) are equipped with full kitchens and baths. (Slight drawback: It's a five-story hike down wooden steps to the restaurant and bar and another ten stories down to the beach.) Also part of the resort, but a 25-minute drive from the food and activity nexus of Maho Bay, are "eco tents" ($95) and studios that sleep six ($135-$190) at secluded Estate Concordia. Though Hurricane Marilyn blew off a few canvas and wood-shingle roofs, all should be repaired by Thanksgiving. During high season (December 15-April 30) a minimum stay of seven nights is required.

Since Maho Bay is surrounded by Virgin Islands National Park, the hiking is great right off your veranda. Try the Reef Bay Trail, a three-miler that descends through rainforest into a sere cactus-covered landscape. Take lunch beside some mysterious petroglyphs and then nose around the ruins of an old steam-powered sugar mill. Contact the National Park Service in nearby Cruz Bay (809-776-6201) for free maps and guided walks up the park's 22 trails. The water sports center at the Maho Bay beach hut rents sailboards and sea kayaks ($15 per hour, $45 per day) and runs snorkeling trips that circumnavigate the island ($40 per person). Scuba trips (two-tank dive, $75) head for the famous wreck of the Rhone and to the pinnacles off Flanagan Island.

Every Maho Bay room has a stove, and some have solar ovens, so you can buy supplies from the camp store and cook in. Or eat buffet grub in the open-air restaurant (the hillside view takes in 15 of the Virgin Islands). There's live music one night a week, but forget all-night limbo parties; 10 P.M. is decreed quiet hour. Call 800-392-9004.

Captain Don's Habitat
At this desert island dive lodge, the ubiquitously posted motto is "Diving Freedom." It means that if the depths tempt you at 3 A.M., you pick up your gear from a dockside locker, step off the floodlit Baby Dock, and follow a 90-foot rope out to a magnificent shore reef--with or without a buddy. Crusty Don Stewart, who helped create Sea Hunt for TV and tested for the lead role, is a zealous lover of Bonaire's undersea blessings. He gives you Bonaire, and it's up to you to enjoy it.

You will. The diving and the dive school are superb (so's the snorkeling), and there's deep-sea fishing for marlin, wahoo, sailfish, and blackfin tuna, crewed sailing on the 44-foot Oscarina, and mountain bikes ($9 per day) to ride at Habitat itself, as well as handsome horses and a Mistral boardsailing school 15 minutes away. The binox-and-bermudas set will find thousands of flamingos on the island and hundreds of other bird species flitting among the cacti and divi trees.

Captain Don runs eight dive boats: one dedicated to snorkeling, another for photographers, and the rest setting out twice a day for showy reefs effusive with lettuce nudibranchs, orange-cup corals, and exotic pelagics. Rooms are in Mediterranean-style villas stretched out along a coral bluff above Seven Body Beach. (The name says it: small.) Rum Runners restaurant has a great breakfast buffet, but it's best to spurn meal plans; you'll miss some, eat lightly, or head into nearby Kralendijk for grub. Seven-night/eight-day packages with breakfast cost $791-$1,079 per person, double occupancy, depending on room and number of dives. Call 800-327-6709.

Bob Howells, a frequent contributor to Outside, wrote about unsung national parks in the August issue.

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