There’s the vida loca and there’s the vida local, and you can find a little of both on the islands of the Caribbean. From the wildest carnival street celebrations to the most tranquil luxury villas, whatever you want when ever you want is how it rolls in the Caribbean.
Bottoms Up In The Leewards
With a smile as wide as the sea, Elizabeth Attidore Cheryl lords over the Pool Bar at the Sonesta Maho in St. Maarten as if it were her own living room. “I knew just one person when I arrived 20 years ago from Dominica,” she says, pouring a frosty beer for a thirsty tourist. “I came for romance but fell in love with the island and dumped the guy after six days.”
The self-proclaimed Master of the Margarita, Cheryl has little time for modesty. “I’m part-psychiatrist and part-bartender,” she quips. “I offer a shoulder to cry on and an icy margarita that packs a punch.” Affectionately dubbed ‘Dr. Cheryl’, she also knows how to cure a hangover like nobody’s business.
“My advice is to drink in the morning what you had the night before,” she explains, flitting about the bar like a butterfly. “And if that doesn’t work, a shot of crème de menthe is the ultimate cure-all.” www.sonesta.com.
Ask Laurent Fanget anything about French St. Martin and you’ll get an earful about the fabulous sandy beaches, croissants hot from the baker’s oven and his icy café glace perfect on a sunny afternoon. At the Sunset Café at the Grand Case Beach Club, the server extraordinaire knows what each guest will enjoy. “A bowl of chilled gazpacho would go very well with the iced coffee,” he tells a tourist from Montreal with his charming ooh-la-la French accent. www.grandcasebeachclub.com.
A seashell away from St. Maarten/St. Martin, the allure of Anguilla is in her villas that snuggle the sapphire blue ocean. Aptly named, Ultimacy is the ultimate super villa with eight bedrooms, three living rooms, recreation room with a classic Wurlitzer jukebox, Butler Ryan who caters to every whim and Chef Shane whose omelettes are island-famous. “With our unsurpassed amenities,” smiles Sherille Hughes, co-owner, “there is no need to leave the property.” www.ultimacyvilla.com/.
Jamaica Is Gold
If you’ve ever sampled chicken from a roadside vendor who had a barrel propped up and cut open, you’ve enjoyed Jamaican drum pan chicken. Served in aluminum foil without utensils, the smoky flavour distinguishes pan from the better-known jerk style of grilling. Saluting the island’s pan chicken chefs, the Caribbean Broilers Pan Chicken Festival is for connoisseurs of pan and those who cook it. Staged on the waterfront in historic downtown Kingston for the first time, the tasty fete includes a series of regional competitions that lead up to the grand finale on Sunday, November 18, one of a wide array of events celebrating the island’s golden anniversary.
Applauding 50 years of independence from Britain this year, Jamaica is abuzz with, cultural events, reggae marathons, street jams and yes, chicken competitions. “Canadians are experiential travellers who want to engage in authentic activities while on the island,” said John Lynch, director tourism. “Jamaica offers plenty of unexpected and off-the-beaten-track things for a visitor to experience; from biking tours through the Blue Mountains to untouched white sand beaches and hidden waterfalls.” www.jamaica50.com.
For Marley fans, a pulsating pilgrimage aboard a Zion Bus Line Tour to the village of Nine Mile, where the reggae superstar penned some of his most iconic tunes, is a must-do. Guides share all kinds of Marley trivia while a soundtrack of his greatest hits and shots of potent rum punch keep the party going as the bus snakes along the winding roads of St. Ann. www.islandroutes.com/. And for music lovers who like to run, Reggae Marathon on December 1 is a staple on the international road race calendar. Now in its 12th year, runners opt for a full race, shorter ten-kilometre run or a curbside perch for cheering on the winners. www.reggaemarathon.com.
Heart Of The Art In Barbados
Working in his studio on a picturesque hillside overlooking Bridgetown, Reggie Medford is one of the island’s national treasures. His gallery, aptly named Medford Craft World, showcases the unique sculptures he crafts from mahogany wood found in Barbados. “Historically, all the plantation houses in Barbados would use this type of wood for their furnishing,” he said polishing one of his masterpieces. “When I entered this trade I found myself using only mahogany and have used it for the past 36 years with absolutely no regret”.
A labour of love for the gracious sculptor, he was once a student of the sciences but followed his heart to the world of art. “During my last year of school, I was getting prepared for exams when I realized that I would rather work for myself because too many people are not doing what they really want to do.”
Inspired by the coconut palms growing in the yard where he grew up, his passion turned to art and the rest is island history. “I wanted to find something that I will grow to love. At that point, I had no idea what that was, I was drifting until I started to fiddle around with coconut shells, hacksaw, varnish and sandpaper,” he smiles. Fiddle he did by cutting the shell in half and then crafting exquisite pieces of jewelry from earrings and bracelets to distinctive necklaces that he still makes today.
Reggie Medford has carved out a life and a legacy and is delighted to share his vision with visitors to Barbados. “Travellers should be able to see unique sites, eat unique foods and purchase unique gifts,” he adds proudly. “And that is just what they do when they visit my shop.” http://medfordcraftworld.com/.
Dominican Republic Tourism Board
The Soul of Santo Domingo
There is no country in the world that produces as many Major League baseball players as the Dominican Republic. For sports fans, nothing beats watching Santo Domingo’s two home teams play ball every weekend at the Estadio Quisqueya ballpark. Away from the tourist meccas of Punta Cana and Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo is the Caribbean's most populous city and the real deal in the DR with dozens of museums, vibrant arts scene, spirited bars, historic sites like the Columbus Lighthouse where the explorer’s remains are said to be buried and parks where wannabe ball players practice their pitch.
For art shows, merengue concerts, watching old timers show off their handmade sombreros and snapping photos of the last speck of sun as it sinks behind the horizon,The Malecón is the place to go. The charming sea-fronting boulevard where time seems to stand still, at least for a sunny afternoon, is the Dominican road less travelled.
Dominican Republic Tourism Board
At the historical heart of the walled city is the Ciudad Colonial or Zona Colonial where strolling unhurried down cobblestone streets that conquistadors once walked centuries ago or dining in a gourmet restaurant buried in a cave once used by pirates is part of its charm. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1992, the city is a charming hybrid of the old and the new with fancy sports cars parked next to well-worn scooters and street vendors who dish up traditional la bandera dominicana, a scrumptious platter of chicken, rice and beans with a side of plantains. And for a seaside respite, an hour east of Santo Domingo is Boca Chica beach with a coral reef-protected lagoon, shallow surf and snow-white sand that is lapped by turquoise water. www.godominicanrepublic.com.
Cuba Tourist Board
The Cayos of Villa Clara are Cuba’s newest tourist destination. These cays, located 300 kilometres east of Havana, have become hugely popular with Canadians. Just as this area was a refuge for pirates in the 16th century, today they are a refuge for tourists, who, like Ernest Hemingway in the 50s, find it a perfect place to unwind.
The beaches? Spectacular! Resort guests rave about the kilometres of white, sugar-fine beaches and crystal clear calm waters. This is the beach I dream about in February.
But wait, there’s more! The 90-minute transfer itself is like a tour, a fascinating journey through the city of Remedios, a glimpse of yesterday with oxen plowing the fields, fabulous old cars, a look at today with some new homes, and others sporting a fresh coat of paint.
Cuba Tourist Board
I love the reasonable excursions. Havana, for instance, is heavily booked. Guests can do an overnight or a day trip. Perfect if you want a beach holiday AND some culture. There are also day trips to Trinidad and Santa Clara. Hiking, bird watching, cycling tours, sport fishing, 4X4 wildlife expeditions are just some of the ecotourism choices.
Right next door to Memories Paraiso Beach Resort is a tourist village called La Estrella. A large spa, bowling alley, shops featuring the increasingly attractive handicrafts, a night club and restaurants makes this a popular outing, with the added pleasure of the hotel pickup by a painted trolley.
New on Cayo Las Brujas is a dolphinarium where there are numerous choices for a fun day, and an excellent restaurant. The catamaran tour is a fantastic day.
Big plans are afoot for this area, including a golf course, and many new hotels that will join those already there.
Did I mention the beach?
Antigua & Barbuda Tourist Office
Antigua & Barbuda
Three hundred and sixty five beaches surrounded by translucent turquoise sea offer peace and tranquility with just that gentle touch of sophistication. Antigua is the largest of the English-speaking Leeward Islands and includes largely-undeveloped Barbuda and Redonda, an uninhabited island nature preserve.
Top Attraction: 365 beaches, St. John’s Saturday Morning Market, Nelson’s Dockyard National Park, touring a former sugar cane plantation like Betty’s Hope in St. Peter parish, nightlife around Falmouth and English harbours.
Hot Plate: The national dish, known as ‘fungi and pepperpot’, a thick vegetable stew made with yam, squash, okra, eggplant, dasheen leaves (similar to spinach), plantains, and pumpkin, served with salted meat and fried cornmeal dumplings.
Hot Buy: Cavalier Muscovado Rum and Wadadli, a pale lager named after the Antiguan word for beer.
Info: 1-800-547-3055, www.antigua-barbuda.ca.
Aruba claims near-perfect weather, natural wonders, historic sites and museums.
Top Attraction: Arikok National Park’s rugged and wild interior offers a wide variety of biking, walking and hiking trails through more than 52 square kilometres of wild flora and fauna, as well as impressive cave and rock formations and swimming at the Natural Pool.
What’s New: The Caribbean’s Longest Linear Park is being constructed along the island’s south side which will include pedestrian areas and bike paths, restaurant terraces and outdoor dining, walkways to connect museums/cultural attractions and outdoor areas to showcase local Aruban art.
Hot Plate: Keshi Yena, a spicy mixture of chicken and peppers, capers, olives and tomatoes traditionally baked in a Gouda cheese shell.
Hot Buy: Aruba Aloe.
Info: 1-800-TO-ARUBA, www.Aruba.com.
Bahamas Tourist Office
Visitors revel in a variety of water activities and fun on land. Paradise and Grand Bahama Islands are the main islands, but the hidden gems of The Outer Islands beckon to the more adventurous traveller. Check out the “People-to-People Experience”, where visitors spend time with locals.
Top Attraction: Pirates of Nassau, an interactive museum, pub and gift shop, depicts the Bahamas’ storied past as home to the world’s most famous pirates.
Hot Plate: Conch fritters.
Hot Buy: Straw hats and baskets.
Info: 1-800-667-3777, www.bahamas.com.
Located just under three hours from Toronto, this mid-Atlantic jewel is an enticing year-round destination. The island is home to more golf courses per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world, a vibrant arts scene, close to 400 wreck dives, and spa treatments.
Top Attraction: Walking tours of St. George, PGA Grand Slam of Golf October 22-24 and the Royal Naval Dockyard.
What’s New: The Bermuda Corporate Games will take place October 25-28, offering an array of athletic activities. The Endless Summer promotion provides an extra night free for bookings made through October 30 at participating hotels. Travellers can reserve tee times through the web, e-mail or iPhone mobile app at six of the island’s top courses at www.golfnow.com/Bermuda.
Hot Plate: Fish Chowder.
Hot Buy: Rum Cakes.
Info: 1-800-Bermuda, www.GoToBermuda.com.
BVI Tourist Board
British Virgin Islands
Sixty islands, tranquil beaches and outstanding sailing and diving conditions have earned the BVI a reputation for natural Caribbean charm and hassle-free hospitality.
Top Attractions: The Wreck of the Rhone, the most famous dive site in the Caribbean, and the Baths, an other-worldly seascape where gigantic boulders are scattered around the beach and in the water.
What’s New: Scrub Island Resort, Spa & Marina joined the Marriott International’s Autograph Collection, making it the first Autograph Collection hotel in the Caribbean; the BVI VIP Club has a new website where repeat visitors to the BVI can apply to join online (www.bvivipclub.com).
Hot Plate: Anegada spiny lobster.
Hot Buy: Works from talented local artisans such as pottery, painting, prints, photographs and baskets.
Info: 1-800-835-8530, www.bvitourism.com.
Cayman Islands Dept Tourism
This trio of islands – Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman – is a premier destination for discerning travellers, honeymooners and families. World renowned for its beaches and diving spots, the Cayman Islands are also referred to as the “Culinary Capital of the Caribbean”.
Top Attraction: Stingray City allows visitors to interact with Atlantic southern stingrays in their natural habitat.
Hot Plate: Conch fritters and fresh fish served Cayman-style (prepared in a spicy tomato sauce with sweet peppers and onions).
Hot Buy: Bring home a bottle of Seven Fathoms Rum which is aged in oak barrels underwater or head to the Town Centre at Camana Bay for a wide variety of shops selling unique housewares and fashion.
Info: (416) 485-1550/1-800-263-5805, www.caymanislands.ky.
Curacao Tourist Board
Curaçao boasts 38 exquisite beaches, more than 60 world-class diving sites, and is located on the outer fringes of the hurricane belt, making it the perfect year-round destination. The historic downtown area of Willemstad features more than 750 sites and monuments, including Mikvé Israël-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western Hemisphere.
Top Attractions: Carnival!, Curaçao North Sea Jazz Festival, the colourful Handelskade in downtown Willemstad, diving, LGBT community offerings.
What’s New: Curasub at Substation Curaçao, a mini-sub that can travel to depths that divers are unable to reach.
Hot Plate: Keshi Yena, a mixture of chicken and peppers, capers, olives and tomatoes traditionally baked in a Gouda cheese shell.
Hot Buy: Blue Curacao Liqueur, made from the peel of special laraha oranges.
Info: 1-800-3-CURACAO, www.curacao.com.
Grenada Board of Tourism
Grenada bills itself as the ‘Spice of the Caribbean’, with good reason – cinnamon, allspice, cocoa and nutmeg scent the air of this three-island country. Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique offer beaches, sailing, hiking and 300 years of history and culture. Grenada is an eco-conscious destination, protecting the nesting habitats of the leatherback turtle and is also famous for its diving.
Top Attraction: From May to September, hundreds of leatherback turtles trudge on to Levera Beach to lay their eggs.
What’s New: Caribbean Airlines now offers twice weekly direct flights to Grenada (year-round). (www.caribbean-airlines.com)
Hot Plate: Grenada’s national dish, Oil Down, is a one-pot meal, cooked slowly over a fire.
Hot Buy: Grenada is one of the world’s largest producers of nutmeg.
Info: (416) 595-1339, www.grenadagrenadines.com.
Puerto Rico Tourism Company
In Puerto Rico there is something for everyone, from the history and culture of Old San Juan to the wonders of the El Yunque Rainforest. For golf aficionados, Puerto Rico offers 25 courses – more than any other island in the Caribbean.
Top Attraction: Old San Juan, the only walled city in the Caribbean.
What’s New: Toro Verde, a zipline park, the W Retreat and Spa on Vieques Island and the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort – Rio Grande. The Condado Vanderbilt Hotel opens Fall 2012; and the Dorado Beach, A Ritz Carlton Reserve opens in December.
Hot Plate: Puerto Rico’s official dish is Asopao, a hearty soup made with chicken, rice, sofrito (a zesty seasoning popular in Latin cuisine) and vegetables.
Hot Buy: Rum and coffee.
Info: 1-800-866-7827 or 1-800-981-7575, www.seepuertorico.com.
St Kitts Tourism Authority
Spotted by Columbus in 1493, the island’s heritage is traced to the arrival of the British in 1624 and the sugar trade. Tours in St. Kitts take in lava formations, tropical forests, lagoons and an historic sugar train, the only scenic passenger train in the Caribbean.
Top Attraction: Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What’s New: Carambola Beach Club, a fine dining venue set right on the beach; Fairview Great House and Botanical Garden, a meeting and special event venue with its onsite Nirvana Restaurant; Sky Safari St. Kitts, Ziplining Tours; Beaumont Park horse and greyhound-racing facility; St. Kitts Destination Specialist Program for agents with Travel Agent University.
Hot Plate: Stewed salt fish, spicy plantains, coconut dumplings and seasoned breadfruit.
Hot Buy: Handmade batik products.
Info: (416) 368-6707/1-888-395-4887, www.stkittstourism.kn
St. Lucia boasts lush and dramatic scenery, like the famous Pitons (twin volcanic peaks and the region’s only drive-in volcano) and a vast rainforest interior, complemented by spectacular waterfalls, breathtaking views and friendly locals. Although St. Lucia is a renowned romance destination, families are welcome too.
Top Attraction: Pigeon Island National Park is a popular day trip for north shore vacationers. The island also houses Fort Rodney, an old British military base and the site of many of St. Lucia’s festivals, like the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival.
Hot Plate: Green Fig (green bananas) and Salt fish.
Hot Buy: Chocolates, spices, hot sauces and rum.
Info: 1-800-869-0377, www.stlucianow.ca.
SVG Tourist Office
St. Vincent & The Grenadines
Vincent and The Grenadines is a collection of 32 unspoiled islands and cays in the secluded Southern Caribbean. Families, couples and adventurous explorers find a qualified line-up of tour operators, charter companies and dive shops ready to help coordinate itineraries.
Top Attraction: The Tobago Cays, a protected wildlife reserve of five islets bordered by a giant horseshoe reef, is a renowned sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving mecca.
What’s New: SVG’s first international airport is scheduled to open in late 2013; Buccament Bay Resort, the largest in St. Vincent; free iTunes mobile app (Discover St. Vincent and the Grenadines) continuously updated to provide in-depth information on SVG.
Hot Plate: Roasted breadfruit with stuffed Jack Fish, cooked by oven or open flame.
Hot Buy: Hairoun beer, Sunset rum or hand-crafted model sailing boats.
Info: (416) 630-9292, www.discoversvg.com.
Trinidad & Tobago
Lively Trinidad boasts a bustling capital city, Port of Spain, with galleries, restaurants and museums, gorgeous beaches along the north shore and lush interior forests. Serene Tobago has quiet beaches on its north coast while its eastern side is home to the oldest protected forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere.
Top Attraction: The excitement, fun and drama of making mas in Trinidad and Tobago at Carnival.
Hot Plate: Doubles.
Hot Buy: Angostura Rums/bitters.
Info: (212) 529 8484, www.gotrinidadandtobago.com.
Turks & Caicos Tourist Board
Turks & Caicos
The Turks and Caicos Islands offer world-class resorts, spas and restaurants, historical laid-back culture and tranquil nature-based islands. The Islands provide some of the world’s best scuba diving and snorkeling in the world.
Top Attraction: Grace Bay Beach – voted #1 Beach in the World by Condé Nast and Trip Advisor.
What’s New: New ownerships: Comfort Suites is now Ports of Call Resort; Turks & Caicos Club is now the Beach Club Resort.
Hot Plate: Conch – prepared in so many different ways. Plan to visit for the annual Conch Festival – November 24 and 25 or visit the world’s only Conch Farm anytime.
Hot Buy: Local Bambarra Rum, conch shells or locally made straw hats, purses and baskets
Info: (416) 642-9771, www.turksandcaicostourism.com.
U.S. Virgin Islands
St. Croix is one of the few places where you can dive a reef, a wall, a wreck and a pier in one day. St. Thomas is the best known, with its cruise ship terminal and fabulous shopping in Charlotte Amalie, while St. John, the smallest, sits within the Virgin Islands National Park.
Top Attraction: Relive the past at Whim Plantation on St. Croix, shop ‘til you drop on St. Thomas and experience nature at its best in the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John.
What’s New: Daily flights to St. Thomas and St. Croix are now available through WestJet in conjunction with their code share agreement with American Airlines.
Hot Plate: Fish and fungi – boiled fish along with a delicious cornmeal mixture with butter, salt and pepper.
Hot Buy: Electronics, cameras, linens, fashions
Info: (905) 235-9091, www.visitUSVI.com.