A vacation in the Caribbean is one way to escape the stresses of modern life. That’s why destinations such as Cuba, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are so popular among Canadian travellers. But to truly unwind, why not look beyond the map of these common escapes and consider a visit to one of the lesser known, laid-back sister islands? Trinidad, for example, has Tobago; Grenada has Carriacou; and Antigua has Barbuda (where incidentally actor Robert De Niro recently inked a deal on a $250 million hotel investment).
What these and other smaller sister islands largely share in common is a tranquil vibe and unhurried pace, loads of charm, and deserted beaches, as well as outstanding hotel options that rank among the best in the Caribbean.
Here are a few more islands worth considering:
St. Vincent is one of the prettiest Caribbean islands, though if you’re seeking stunning beaches and upscale accommodation, head for one of the sister islands in the Grenadines. Made up of 32 islands and cays, this area includes Bequia, the epitome of quaint; Mustique a magnet for jetsetters and celebrities; Canouan, home to the luxurious Canouan Resort (and the soon-to-open, ultra-exclusive Pink Sands Club), and even a few private islands such as Petit St. Vincent and Young Island.
On Palm Island, which is managed by Elite Island Resorts, a sign on the beach featuring a cellphone with a line through it says it all. This 54-hectare private island is a place to unplug and relax. Adding to its escapist appeal: It can only be reached by boat (it’s a 10-minute ride from Union Island).
Though day visits are possible (with prior arrangement), those seeking to unwind in a tranquil setting amidst tall, graceful palm trees, opt to stay overnight in one of the villas and suites at this eco-friendly Green Globe property constructed of thatch, bamboo and terracotta. Activities at this adults-only, all-inclusive resort run the gamut from yoga and Pilates classes to hermit crab races and coconut-leaf hat-making lessons.
The island, which boasts five beaches, is mostly flat, so it’s easy to cycle around or walk the nature trails, where you’ll likely encounter the large, indigenous, green iguanas perched on the tops of shrubs and trees. Active travellers can try kite surfing and stand-up paddle boarding, or take an excursion to nearby Tobago Cays and Mayreau, where you can snorkel among the coral reefs and swim with turtles off a pristine white sandy beach. If you’re there on a Sunday afternoon, take in a cricket match. Tuesday nights you can enjoy silent cinema on the beach under the stars.
The culinary experience has recently been enhanced with an on-island greenhouse and herb garden, which supplies the resort kitchen with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, callaloo, mint, cilantro, basil and lemongrass. Another resort initiative involves harvesting some of the island’s 2,000 coconut-bearing trees and incorporating the tropical fruit into a
rotating menu that may include coconut shrimp, macaroons and coconut bread.
As the day winds down, enjoy the sunset from Casuarina Beach, then fall asleep to the sound of waves lapping up on shore.
“Where’s that?” the U.S. customs officer asked when I told him I was going to Nevis. Was he testing me or did he really not know? I concluded it was likely the latter. After all, how many travellers could readily find Nevis on a map, let alone its bigger sister island St. Kitts? (Both are just southeast of St. Martin/St. Maarten, which bustles with tourism by
Lack of name recognition has its benefits, especially on Nevis, an island that measures just 12 kilometres long by nine kilometres wide, and oozes with charm.
That charm quickly reveals itself after the short and pleasant ferry ride from Saint Kitts, when you’re deposited in the historic capital of Charlestown, which was founded in 1660. It’s easy and fun to explore the town on foot, while admiring the eclectic mix of architecture − from the courthouse and library made of stone to the quaint wooden structures with elaborate gingerbread fretwork.
One of the prettiest places on the island is the Nevis Botanical Gardens, where roses, orchids and rare plants thrive against the backdrop of the island’s iconic landmark, Mount Nevis. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of its 985-metre-high peak when the clouds have lifted.
Looking for other options? Soak up the sun on the six-kilometre-long stretch of golden sand that is Pinney’s Beach; snorkel off Newcastle Beach; or see the impressive collection of Horatio Nelson memorabilia in a museum devoted to the British naval hero, who was stationed here and later married a local widow named Fanny Nisbet on March 11, 1787.
If you’re only here for a day, hire a cab or drive yourself around the island and follow the Nevis Heritage Trail road marker signs that cover 25 island sites including Fort Charles and St. Thomas’ Lowland Church, the first Anglican church in the Caribbean and the island’s oldest (it was built in 1643). Or, lace up your sneakers and hike the Upper Round Road Trail a 14-kilometre-long path, first built in the 1600s, that passes through local villages, quaint West Indian houses, ancient ruins, a rainforest, fruit orchards and vegetable gardens.
Nevis is reputed to be the home of the first hotel in the Caribbean. Today the Bath Hotel, built in 1778, houses the Premier’s Ministry, but there’s an abundance of other
accommodation options, many of them upscale.
In fact, it would be a shame not to experience a piece of history by staying overnight at one of the many former sugar plantation estates that have been converted to guesthouses and inns. Among them are Hermitage Plantation Inn, with several West Indian cottages and horseback riding opportunities; the elegant Montpelier Plantation Inn; and Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, billed as “the Caribbean’s only historic plantation inn located on the beach.”
Add to that exclusive resorts, such as the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, which occupies what many consider to be the finest beach on the island; and the new Paradise Beach Nevis, the island’s first boutique villa resort, which is scheduled to open in January 2015, with seven exquisitely designed three-and four-bedroom villas − all inspired by a sophisticated blend of Balinese and Caribbean culture.
On an island that boasts zero traffic lights, and where motorists (few as they are) cheerfully yield to wayward goats, world-class elegance is never far away.
It’s estimated there are just 12 bioluminescent bays in the world and one of the best is in Vieques, an island about 13 kilometres off the coast of Puerto Rico. Rent a kayak or hop on a small tour boat to Puerto Mosquito Bay, where you can dip your feet in the water, stirring up the microorganisms called dinoflagellates, that produce tiny flashes of blue lights that are guaranteed to mesmerize all who witness the spectacle. The best time to see these “undersea shooting stars” and “living lanterns,” as they’ve been called, is on a dark, moonless night.
The bioluminescent bay is not the only reason to visit Vieques, one of the Spanish Virgin Islands, along with Culebra, its smaller neighbouring island to the north. For an off-the-beaten path vacation, Vieques, which measures just 33 kilometres long and six kilometres wide, is hard to top. There are no high-rise buildings, fast food chains, casinos or shopping malls. This is a place where wild horses roam free, gorgeous beaches are often deserted and a wildlife refuge occupies a full two-thirds of the island. There are two small communities; Isabel Segunda, the main town where the ferry docks and the village of Esperanza, with bars and restaurants that line a waterfront promenade. Vieques has a wider variety of accommodation than Culebra, and one of best resorts in the Caribbean: the W Retreat & Spa. If arriving by air (a 20-minute flight from San Juan), you can enjoy a cool drink in the stylish W Airport Lounge, while the bags are loaded onto a van for the five-minute drive to the resort. Here, palm-tree-lined pools and two pristine beaches are just steps from the rooms and suites, all with private patios or balconies.
Freshly squeezed fruit juices await after your sunrise kayak or yoga class, and for dinner, there’s acclaimed chef Alain Ducasse’s signature restaurant on the beach. In the evening, lounge by the fire in one of the huge basket chairs that are big enough for two. An idyllic hideaway for discerning travellers and urban hipsters alike, the best experience here may be to simply do nothing.