The Caribbean 20

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Winter Travel Guide 1996

The Caribbean 20

An all-star list of island sporting resorts, from tented camps to posh plantations

When you plan a vacation in the caribbean, choosing a resort is as important as choosing an island--the overall ambience, not to mention cost, has everything to do with the success of the trip. Which is why we've chosen to focus on 20 of the Caribbean's finest.

Making a winter jaunt affordable is the trick: If possible, go during shoulder season, which runs through late fall until about December 15, and kicks in again after Easter. The sweet spot is from Thanksgiving to December 15, when the weather's blissful, the crowds nominal, and prices their lowest outside of summer.

But even the high season has its relative bargains. Rates generally drop during the first three weeks of January (excluding New Year's), often as much as 30 percent. For example, a week at Club Med Turkoise in the Turks & Caicos will run you $910 before December 14, $1,700 at Christmas, and $1,190 after January 5.

Some islands are simply more expensive than others. Avoid French islands like St. Barts and Guadeloupe, whose economies are pegged to the strong French franc. Your buck goes further in the Dominican Republic, Margarita Island, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico. Hotels should be examined with equal care; the Caribbean is notorious for its nickel-and-dime policies. Many resorts will offer you a deceptively reasonable daily or weekly rate, then charge you every time you go windsurfing or play tennis. Look for package deals that include breakfast, dinner, tennis, watersports, service charges, and taxes. All-inclusive resorts offer all of the above and more, including alcohol, but you can often do just as well at a traditional resort. As for those stunning views, remember that you'll pay more for an oceanfront room, a bit less for an ocean-view room, and even less for a garden-view room. Sure, it faces the wrong way, but the bougainvillea will look pretty enchanting when you're saving 15 or 20 percent.

By Everett Potter

The Big Picture: If going to the biggest resort on the island's most popular beach doesn't sound like a get-away-from-it-all formula, remember--this is Grenada, not Maui. The Grenada Renaissance spreads its 186 rooms among seven colonial-style buildings on 20 acres of tropical gardens. Out the back door is Grand Anse Beach, the one you'd go to even if you were staying elsewhere: two miles of white sand, with a teeming reef just offshore.

Sports On-Site: Sanvics Scuba Watersports is the on-site nexus of all things aquatic: A daily hour of snorkeling is complimentary, and just might become ritual. The local reef harbors parrotfish, French angels, barracudas, and big, mouthy groupers. The PADI-certified shop rents scuba gear, runs certification courses ($350), and will boat you out to other sites, such as the wreck of the Bianca C, an Italian cruise ship that went down in 1961. One-tank dives are $32, plus $10 for the gear. Sunfish sailboats and sailboards (each are $16 per hour; first hour is free) are also available--steady-but-gentle winds mean this is more a place to practice than to shred.

Farther Afield: For $180 you can fly to Union Island--the 25-minute hop in a nine-seater is spectacular--and spend the day sailing by catamaran or double-masted schooner to uninhabited Grenadine islands, combing beaches and snorkeling remote reefs. Trips are run by Trendy Touring (809-444-5757). Grenada's mountainous, rainforest-and-spice-tree interior is lush and rugged, particularly Grand Îtang National Park. In the central mountains are splendid waterfalls that tumble into swimmable pools. Honeymoon, Upper Concord, and Seven Sisters are favorites, each requiring at least two hours of one-way hiking and some scrambling. It's best to go with a guide: Half-day outings to Grand Îtang or the falls with Henry's Safari Tours (444-5313) run $30 to $75 per person.

Price/Reservation Information: A garden-view double room costs $193 December 15-January 3; $188 January 4-April 15 (high season); $129 off-season; a beachfront room is $183-$256. The Discover Grenada Package gets you a beachfront room for five nights plus daily breakfast and three dinners for $723 per person, $525 off-season. Call 809-444-4371.

By Bob Howells

The Big Picture: Think of low-rise, pink bungalows on a mile-long beach of fine, powdery white sand overlooking a turquoise sea and you have Club Med's premier dive and snorkel village. This 70-acre resort is situated on Grace Bay, at the northeast end of the island of Providenciales, or Provo. It's a minimalist's delight, an island of the low, dry, and scrub-pine variety. (Club Med had to import its palm trees from Miami.) In the daytime there's plenty to do, but nobody's blowing a whistle to engage in any of the sillier Club Med group games that the French seem so fond of. At night, there are a theater and a disco.

Sports On-Site: There's a Dedicated Scuba Diving Center where you can earn NAUI or PADI certification. Veterans can dive the 7,000-foot, vertigo-inducing wall that lies a quarter-mile offshore. Reliable breezes make Grace Bay a good place to use a Laser or a windsurfer. Water skiing, aerobics, tennis, volleyball, weight lifting, and water polo are available. There's also an Intensive Circus Workshop, a daily three-hour workout on the trapeze and trampoline.

Farther Afield: The best dive expeditions are off the north shore, where that famed coral wall starts a mere 60 feet below the surface before plunging a mile or so down. Or just grab your snorkel and mask and go offshore to White House Reef. Sightings of rays, turtles, sponge beds, sharks, and a lifetime's worth of tropicals are virtually guaranteed. There's guided bonefishing (half-day, $95) in the gin-clear waters on the island's famous flats. Take a day to go deep-sea fishing (half-day, $125) or board a catamaran for a snorkeling expedition (half-day, $40; full-day, $70).

Price/Reservation Information: Shoulder-season rates of $910 for seven nights run until December 14, jumping to $1,700 a week at Christmas and then falling back to $1,190 in January. Rates are per person, double occupancy, and include all meals, beer, wine, soft drinks, group lessons, and use of equipment. Scuba runs $125 for two dives a day for six days plus a night dive. PADI or NAUI certification programs are $225. Call 800-258-2633.

By B.H.

The Big Picture: Contrasting with the island's party-down atmosphere, Swept Away is slightly reserved, a health-and-fitness-oriented oasis for couples only set in the middle of Negril Beach on the west coast--a seven-mile arc of white sand that's Jamaica's finest. All rooms are suites with verandas in 26 two-story villas scattered about in a 20-acre garden setting. It's a place to buff up in paradise, sans the sophomoric rituals and meat-market overtones of some other all-inclusive resorts.

Sports On-Site: You'll find all the amenities of a chi-chi urban health club in the ten-acre fitness complex/health club, replete with beachfront fruit-and-veggie bar, plus a menu of post-workout indulgences. Sunfishes and Mistral sailboards are at the ready--no high-wind stuff, but with a big sail you can catch the nine-knot afternoon breeze. Nearby are some 30 dive sites, ranging from sunken tugboats and downed drug planes to deep reef dives (room rates include two dives daily for certified divers); certification and resort courses are available.

Farther Afield: The view at sunrise from Blue Mountain Peak (7,402 feet), on the east side of the island above Kingston, may well be Jamaica's most righteous experience. The ritual is to hang at Wildflower Lodge at the base and start the 7.5-mile rainforest hike at 1:30 a.m. Maya Lodge (809-927-2097) takes you for $125-$150 per person, including food, transport, and guide.

Price/Reservation Information: Packages cover all on-site recreation and meals. A one-week stay runs $3,150 to $3,990 per couple from December 24 to March 31; $2,765 to $3,500 off-season. The three-night minimum stay costs $1,500-$1,860 per couple; $1,380-$1,710 off-season. Reservations: 800-545-7937.

By B.H.

The Big Picture: Like some silver-mining boomtown in the American West, the village of El Yaque on the desert island of Margarita exists for only one reason--windsurfing. Here the mother lode will never tap out: From December through June, sideshore winds of 20-30 knots sweep across the flat, warm water with astounding consistency. The Vela center, on the pristinely sandy stoop of El Yaque Beach Hotel, is right on the water.

Sports On-Site: With the wind blowing parallel to a mile of sandy beach and the water shallow to 200 yards out, El Yaque is as attractive to beginners as to experts. If you biff your jibe once too often, just walk to shore and take a break. Beyond that safe zone are ocean swells and nice ramps for advanced sailors. Vela also can boat you out to Coche Island ($20 includes lunch) for some of the fastest flatwater speed-sailing imaginable.

Farther Afield: The hotel can assist in booking a dive/snorkeling charter ($65 for divers, $35 for snorkelers); you're boated out to crystalline water off uninhabited Los Frailes Island. Or take a 20-minute cab ride to La Restinga, where fishermen (for a nominal, negotiable fee) will guide you through mangroves teeming with exotic birds.

Price/Reservation Information: A one-week package includes sailing and breakfast for $615 per person, double-occupancy; $315 for nonsailors. Call 800-223-5443.

By B.H.

The Big Picture: Eighty-nine over-water air miles from the bustle of Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman, Little Cayman has fewer than a hundred residents. Its 11 miles of mangroves, ponds, and waterfowl sanctuary are surrounded by grassy sand beaches and some of the best wall-diving this side of Palau. Pirates Point Resort, on the western tip of the island, has ten bungalow rooms in two-unit cottages on a pebbly white-sand beach. The main entertainment is, of course, the diving; the resort's new 42-foot Newton dive boat takes divers to sites such as Mixing Bowl, with steep undersea walls populated by tiny jawfish, sea horses, groupers, carpets of coral, and the occasional blacktip shark. On the south end, at Patty's Place, a swim-through lets you exit a hole in the wall 100 feet down.

Sports On-Site: Pirates Point takes tube-suckers as seriously as divers, running separate outings for each. Among the draws is the shallow, coral-head-dotted Pirates Reef, just a wade off the resort's own beach, and extensive, juvenile-populated reef systems in three to ten feet of water off Preston Bay. Scuba resort and certification courses are available.

Farther Afield: You'll come through Grand Cayman or Cayman Brac to get here anyhow, so take a layover. On Brac, try the 15-minute hike to the cliffside Brac caves (about a half-hour's drive from the airport). On Grand Cayman, walk the .8-mile trail at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park (admission, $3; 345-947-9462).

Price/Reservation Information: Room rates, including diving and all meals, are $180 per person ($125 without diving) before December 15; $215 per person ($150 for non-divers) in high season. For singles there is a $40-$50 surcharge. Call 345-948-1010.

By Tom Morrisey

The Big Picture: Don't look for white-sand beaches or crashing breakers here; Villa Parguera, an older but well-kept 60-room resort, sits tucked behind mangrove canals on Puerto Rico's southern coast. The tempo here is laid-back, with restaurants serving mufongo relleno (spicy fish casserole), and vendors happy to haggle with you over the price of a handmade hammock. The hotel has easy access to diving and other watersports, and basic but comfy rooms with patios.

Sports On-Site: A two-minute walk from the lobby takes you to Parguera Divers (787-899-4015); book a two-tank charter ($65 per diver, $85 with equipment) to The Wall, a stunning coral-and-sponge-covered drop-off with 80-to-150-foot visibility. Or take a dinghy (haggle with the locals; it'll cost about $10-$20 for a motorized dinghy with driver) through the narrow mangrove canals to snorkel among juvenile marine fish, such as puffers, hiding amid the tree roots. AdvenTours (weekends and occasional weekdays by appointment; $40 per person for day-long tours in groups of six; 832-2016) can take you kayaking into the mangroves, where you'll be able to eavesdrop on shy manatees.

Farther Afield: Visit Phosphorescent Bay, but spurn tour boats that hand around a bucket of glowing water for you to peer into. Instead hire a fishing boat such as Parguera Fishing Charters ($250 per trip for groups of up to ten; 899-4698); they'll let you swim among the microscopic, light-emitting dinoflagellates. Or hike the trails at Guanica State Forest 15 miles east, a 1,600-acre dry forest containing 700 kinds of plants and more than 40 species of birds.

Price/Reservation Information: Standard doubles cost $75 per night Sunday-Friday, $85 on Saturdays. Reservations: 787-721-3975.

By T.M.

The Big Picture: Think small. And tall. Just five square miles in size but rising to nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, Saba is most famous for its sea-pinnacle diving. Willard's of Saba is tiny but luxurious--seven rooms decorated in Caribbean rattan and strung necklacelike up a cliff. From the patio hot tub, your view is a stunning 2,000-foot drop to boiling surf.

Sports On-Site: There's a solar-heated pool and a tennis court, but Saba's main draw is the diving. Hotel staff can book you with Sea Saba (011-599-4-62246) or Saba Deep (4-63347), the island's two dive operators (two-tank dive, $80, including Saba Marine Park use fees); both will dispatch a jitney to fetch you for the 20-minute ride to the harbor. From there, a brief boat ride takes you to seamount pinnacle diving at sites like Eye of the Needle, a skyscraperlike pinnacle topping out at 90 feet. Or circumnavigate Diamond Rock, where you'll see stingrays, garden eels, and a wide variety of reef fish and sponges on an 80-foot dive.

Farther Afield: Hike the uphill trail network to the cloud forest atop 2,900-foot Mount Scenery (a two- to three-hour, three-mile round-trip); look for the endemic Saban gecko and shy Antillean tree frogs along the way.

Price/Reservation Information: Doubles cost $150-$300 per person per night in low season (before December 15 and after April 14), $200-$400 in high season (meal plans available at $47.50 per person per day). Reservations: 011-599-4-62498.

By T.M.

The Big Picture: You can only get to Petit Byahaut by boat, your room's a tent (with queen-size bed), your showers are al fresco, and you'll love it, so long as you favor communion with birds and blossoms over steel-drummy nightlife. The 50-acre retreat rests in the crook of a lush valley and fronts 600 feet of private beach, about a 20-minute boat ride from Kingstown, the capital of St. Vincent. At most, you'll share it with 13 other guests in seven tents, each with roofed wooden deck. Everything's solar-powered, and the food makes use of the local exotica.

Sports On-Site: Just open your tent flap to snorkel or reef dive (they supply the gear). Snarks for sailing and kayaks for paddling are available for exploring the quiet harbor and nearby caves--one cave is an aperture onto another bay; you can swim through and see thousands of bats on the walls. Boat dives are $35-$50, or $325 for ten. Hiking trails on-site are beautiful but limited.

Farther Afield: The resort can set up a number of hikes in St. Vincent's densely vegetated volcanic interior. The Trinity Falls hike requires a trip by four-wheel-drive, then two hours of steep climbing to the accompaniment of squawking parrots unseen in the thick canopy. The trail leads to a crystal-clear river and its three falls and pools--one of which forms a massaging whirlpool. Or, there's the outing to the crown of the island, 4,049-foot La SoufriŠre--an active volcano with a fuming, mile-wide crater. Either trip is $180 for a group of four people, plus $15 for each additional person.

Price/Reservation Information: Rates including meals range from $125 to $145 per night, or five nights for $595-$695 per person, including airport pickup and boat transfer with stays of three or more nights. The resort is open from November 1 to June 30. Reservations: 809-475-7008.

By B.H.

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