Is there anywhere on the planet more synonymous with paradise than the Caribbean? A tumble of islets and cays between Florida and Venezuela, this beauteous region evokes images of powder-soft sands, absurdly clear waters, good humoured locals and a no-worries vibe. Some of the world’s best thriving reefs are here, not to mention acres of virgin rainforest to swing through and hidden waterfalls to clamber up. You can’t go wrong. But that’s not to say they’re all much of a muchness; behind the rum shacks – a staple of Caribbean life – these palm-fringed idylls each has something unique to offer. Here’s a closer look at four of the destinations on our wish lists.
The Dominican Republic is one of life’s all-rounders, acing just about everything. The second largest island in the Caribbean, it’s bountifully blessed; with rainforests, mangrove swamps, desert and cloud-shrouded mountains transporting visitors to another world. Despite its popularity, its size and diversity make total escapism possible. When you’re bobbing on aquamarine waters watching humpback whales break the surface, you’ll have long banished any concern that you might be sharing your tropical dream with one too many other nirvana-hunters.
As for the digs; if your vision of hotel perfection is more barefoot boutique than big-name resort, you’ll be delighted to know that a ripple of chic small hotels are starting to pop up in some of the most interesting and authentic locations (the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo is a must for a spot of culture). Take the whole family, your adventure-hungry friends or someone you plan to romance the Hispaniola out of – this one’s a safe bet.
Heading east past the parties of Puerto Rico and the sailing boats of the British Virgin Islands, we have compact, character-packed St. Kitts. One half of a dual-island nation, St. Kitts is no stranger to visitors thanks to the cruise ships pulling into bustling Basseterre, but it still manages to retain that small-scale, old-fashioned charm nobody wants to see go. The food has a bold West Indian kick, but if you’re not up for that, the fresh line-caught seafood is as much of a menu staple at smart hotel restaurants and simple eateries alike.
A volcanic isle (long dormant), the beaches range from coal-black to pale and silvery, with the most beautiful wriggling down the edge of the south-eastern peninsula that almost connects neighbouring Nevis. When you’re not wading in the calm sea, hit the road with the local Soca-blaring minibuses to see the historic sugar-cane plantations, dotted with crumbling colonial inns, as well as the stupendous Tracy Island-esque scenery.
Near the tip of the Caribbean’s tail, nutmeg-scented Grenada exudes warmth. Stylish without being at all ritzy (there are no mega-resorts here), it’s the stray-coconut, quiet-cove fantasy where the hospitality is unfailingly friendly. The capital, St George’s, is one of the prettiest towns in the entire archipelago; a hotchpotch of staggered, colourful old buildings overlooking a peaceful, sailboat dotted inlet. Sun-faded and rustic, this is a place to let your shoulders drop as you stroll, a few rums in, from the bar to the beach with a book under your arm.
The most enticing stretch of sand on this verdant island is generally agreed to be Grand Anse, which is conveniently close to St George’s and the airport – ideal if you want to fly and practically flop out of Arrivals into the best locations. From here, you can also venture out on diving trips to nearby reefs and snorkel in warm waters. The classic Caribbean holiday.
The smaller of the two islands that make up the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, this castaway gem isn’t as well-trodden as its neighbours. Pocket-sized Tobago is truly low key, with eccentric tastes, untamed shores and a laid-back spirit. The highlight of the Tobagonian calendar is the goat race – or the boat race, which takes place on the same day – depending on what you’re into. The pinnacle of the week’s social activity is Sunday School – a dancehall-charged street party that might be faintly alarming to anyone who misinterpreted the event. At all other times, this is sleepy-ville, where mornings are better put to use than evenings; but if you know where to look, there are some one-of-a-kind locales that’ll put some Angostura bitters in your soda (Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen is a treehouse restaurant with a quirky, upbeat atmosphere).
Culture aside, the island packs a lot into its 300 square kilometres, with dense rainforest punctuated by waterfalls, plus a vivid blue underworld that’s home to manta rays and giant turtles. Get all that physical exertion out of the way in the first few days, then get back to what it’s all about – the fine art of doing absolutely nothing.
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