Melanie Reffes

Classically Caribbean and uniquely American, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands are tropical playgrounds where radio stations play American oldies and Caribbean calypso, holidays are toasted with a shot of rum and a Chili Cook Off is as coveted as a Caribbean Food Fair.

With Air Canada’s direct nonstop flights from Toronto to St. Thomas and a plethora of flights to San Juan, Puerto Rico from many of the hub airports in the US, it’s never been easier to enjoy a winter respite in the American Caribbean.

“The Canadian traveller is key to the development of tourism in our islands,” said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner, tourism, USVI. “It is encouraging to note the positive response to the new Air Canada flights and we look forward to deepening our relationship with Air Canada and the Canadian travel agent community. Together, we will welcome many more Canadian visitors throughout the year.”

Pretty In Puerto Rico

Celebrating a banner year in 2011 with room nights sold reaching more than three million, Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) is maintaining the momentum this year with innovative advertising and marketing initiatives. “The Puerto Rico Does It Better campaign has been instrumental in reshaping how the island does business,” said Mario González-Lafuente, executive director, PRTC.

Sassy In San Juan

San Juan Water ClubSJWater ClubSweet on the beach, 80-room San Juan Water and Beach Club, known simply as The Water Club, is designed in sapphire-blue to match the waves of the Atlantic Ocean. “Think intimate beachfront wedding with a rooftop reception that turns into the bash of the year, catered to perfection by Chef Raúl Correa while the hottest DJs spin the tunes,” smiles José Torres, general manager. “All the bride needs to do is look gorgeous!” Nightly rates range from US $199 to US $359, based on double occupancy. “Our Canadian visitors just need a valid passport, no visa required. It’s a destination wedding your guests will love you for,” adds Torres, general manager.

Five Hilton Worldwide properties have hired “Bride Whisperers” to plan weddings from soup to nuts and everything in between. “The wedding planning process can be daunting, which often puts unnecessary strain on couples at what should be one of the most exciting times in their lives,” said Jessica Sierra, area director of sales. Properties participating include the Waldorf Astoria El Conquistador with the Coquí Water Park and seven tennis courts, and Las Casitas Village with 24-hour butler service.

Meat & Greet

In Guavate, suckling pig is to Puerto Rico what barbecue is to Memphis. In the Sierra de Cayey Mountains, Ruta Del Lechon or Route of Pork dishes up the tastiest pork this side of Tennessee. Spit-fired until the skin is a caramel crisp and served with arroz con gandulas or rice with pigeon peas is the real deal as salsa bands morph the spirited restaurant into one grand street fiesta.

Foodies load up on aromatic herbs, artisanal cheeses and local goodies like empanadas stuffed with hearts of palm at the Mercado in front of the El Museo de San Juan. A delicious invitation to visit one of the Caribbean’s top art museums, vendors hawk their delectable eats in the courtyard every Saturday.

USVI Beach Bonanza

St John – Trunk BayUSVI DOTFour of the finest have been awarded the prestigious Blue Flag certification for superb water quality and impeccable safety by the Foundation for Environmental Education. The winning beaches include Lindbergh Bay and Great Bay on St. Thomas; Trunk Bay on St. John and Pelican Cove on St. Croix. “We wave these Blue Flags as testaments to the outstanding quality of our beaches and the sanctuary they provide travelers in search of an inimitable island escape,” said Beverly Nicholson-Doty, commissioner, tourism.

Beds For Heads

Fresh from a US $48 million facelift, Marriott Frenchman’s Reef and adjacent Morning Star Beach are picturesque icons and the largest hotel spread in St. Thomas. “For the last 40 years, the resort has been the place to go for a meal, a meeting or a vacation,” said Rob Steigerwald, chief operating officer, southern regional Americas, Marriott International. “With 302 rooms and suites, Frenchman’s is a stunning showpiece of architectural splendour with sweeping vistas of Charlotte Amalie, one of the Caribbean’s most majestic yacht harbours. “My recommendation for the most romantic room is #5124,” said Jose Gonzalez, general manager. “The view from the balcony is spectacular and at night, the waves are a lovely romantic lullaby.” Next door, the Morning Star impresses with a sandy beach and funky restaurant facing the waves. Both properties share restaurant and sports facilities and with shuttle service between the two, the complex is a one-stop-shopping vacation.

Savour The Spread 

The divine medley of upscale Latin-fusion at Havana Blue in St. Thomas aims to please with a Dirty Chica cocktail fired up with jalapeno-soaked onions and hot pepper-infused olives. Fabulous mains include a chili-blackened snapper with a lick of lemon butter and a perfectly grilled steak with cilantro mash.

In St. Croix, no one does herb-seared tuna with lemon caper butter better than Angry Nate.

A carnival of Caribbean flavours invite in Morgan’s Mango in St. John with specialties like Calamares Fritos from Cuba and Jamaican Poppas Pickapeppa Steak. The drink menu is sipping nirvana with margaritas and mojitos to beat the band.

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