A travel piece by Carol Sottili for the Toronto Sun.
Expand your horizons to find the sunspot that fits you best
Think “Caribbean,” and images of palm trees, aquamarine seas and fruity drinks with umbrellas come to mind. But scratch the surface, and you’ll find distinctly different vibes, landscapes, and attractions defining the region’s more than 7,000 individual islands. Consider that Trinidad is some 2,400 km south of Grand Bahama Island — slightly farther than the distance between Toronto and Miami. Six official languages, plus dozens of local ones, are spoken across the Caribbean. And while the climate is universally tropical, weather can vary tremendously from island to island. During the winter, Canadians migrate to the Caribbean in huge numbers with Mexico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic being our top hotspots. So here are some suggestions for anyone looking for a more exotic warm locale this year but aren’t sure how to pick the right spot.
SNORKELLER OR DIVER
— Bonaire: The B in the “ABC islands,” Bonaire is surrounded by coral reefs that are easily accessible from shore for snorkelling and diving. Bonaire National Marine Park, which surrounds the island, has 86 public dive sites and is home to 57 species of coral, 350 recorded fish species, three species of sea turtles and a host of other sea creatures. Popular shore dives include Salt Pier, which attracts large schools of fish, sea turtles and other marine life, and the Hilma Hooker, a now coral-covered cargo ship that sank in 1984. — Grand Cayman: Largest of the three Cayman Islands, Grand Cayman is known for its surrounding coral reefs and diveable shipwrecks. Many of the best snorkelling sites are near the shore along Seven Mile Beach: The Wreck of the Cali site, for example, just 46 metres offshore, can be accessed by all, including novices. Stingray City, full of rays, is perhaps the best known spot. For divers, the island’s underwater walls are a big draw: The North Wall is a favourite for deep dives.
— Dominica: With “Apres Bondie C’est La Ter” (After God, the Earth) as its motto, Dominica is serious about preserving its environment. More than 480 km of hiking trails — including the 185-km-long Waitukubuli National Trail — traverse the island, heading through lush rain forests and gorges, past rivers and waterfalls. Dominica has three national parks, including Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO site. — St. John: About 60% of this island, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is protected as the Virgin Islands National Park, with the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument protecting its offshore waters. The 2,833-hectare park offers ranger-guided hikes, where visitors may see 140 species of birds, 302 species of fish, seven species of amphibians, 22 species of mammals and 740 species of plants. There are resorts, but camping is a top choice among nature enthusiasts. — Tobago: Tobago is the more nature-oriented island of the Trinidad and Tobago nation. Known for its low-key vibe, waterfall-laden rain forests and outside-the-hurricane-belt location, Tobago is popular with birders and hikers. Turtle Beach is a good spot to spy hatching sea turtles, and Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve, the oldest protected rain forest in the Western Hemisphere, features more than 200 species of birds.
— Turks and Caicos: While these islands do not border the Caribbean Sea, for our purposes, we’re lumping it in with the official Caribbean islands. Providenciales — aka Provo — is the most populated of this nation’s eight inhabited islands. It’s home to Grace Bay Beach, a long stretch of powdery sand and clear turquoise waters protected by an offshore reef. For families with small children, the south coast offers protected beaches, including Taylor Bay and Sapodilla Bay. Grand Turk has beautiful beaches. Governor’s Beach is popular with cruise ship passengers.
— Anguilla: With no cruise ships, casinos or high-rise hotels, this bohemian-upscale island has pristine beaches. Rendezvous Bay, with its calm waters and walkable shoreline, is home to Dune Preserve, a live music spot owned by reggae artist and native son Bankie Banx. Shoal Bay East attracts day trippers from St. Martin. Meads Beach, on the west end, is less crowded and has bigger waves.
— Aruba: Known for wide, white sands and blue waters, Aruba’s beaches come in many flavours. The 3.2-km Palm Beach, in front of a string of high-end resorts, casinos and clubs, offers calm waters for swimming and snorkelling. Quieter Eagle Beach is popular for watersports. On the more remote Arashi Beach, there are free thatched huts. For crashing waves, head to Andicuri Beach.
— St. Maarten/St. Martin: With its busy Dutch side and more relaxed French side, the island has something for everyone. The Dutch side, with its casinos and resorts, is the place to go for nightlife. The French side is more about shopping and fine dining. There are spectacular beaches including clothing optional Orient Beach, aka the Riviera of the Caribbean, and the quieter Long Bay Beach.
— Saba: You won’t find any Marriotts or Starbucks on this 13-sq-km island of less than 2,000 inhabitants. Dominated by towering Mt. Scenery, Saba has several villages defined by quaint red-roofed cottages. Most visitors arrive via St. Martin, either on 15-minute flights or a 90-minute ferry ride. Ecotourism, hiking or diving are bigger draws than nightlife: Many restaurants close by 9 p.m.
— Vieques, Puerto Rico: Just 25 km off the coast of mainland Puerto Rico, this island remains largely undeveloped because of the U.S. navy’s 60-year history there. The former military land is now mostly wildlife refuge, and the island remains free of traffic lights, high-rise hotels and golf courses. Many come to experience the bioluminescent waters of Mosquito Bay.
— Nevis: Known for its laid-back atmosphere, Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace attracts celebrities and other rich folk who would rather look for hatching sea turtles than go clubbing. The luxe Four Seasons Resort is the island’s hub, offering tennis, golf, a beautiful beach and lodging.
— St. Barts: This French-speaking island attracts an international yachting crowd. Party at Nikki Beach, stay at Eden Rock Hotel, shop for an Hermes scarf in Gustavia, and keep an eye out for Justin Bieber, Paul McCartney, Ellen DeGeneres and a bevy of other celebrities known to visit. — Petit St. Vincent: You’ll need a reservation to visit this private island. The 47-hectare enclave offers just 22 one-bedroom cottages and two-bedroom beach villas, and privacy is high on the list of attractions. Nightly rates start at $1,100 US per couple during low season, which includes meals, but not alcohol. Or rent the entire island: $108,800 US for a minimum of four nights and a maximum of 44 guests.