Chris Beanland picks a vibrant quintet of Caribbean islands designed to appeal to a cross section of clients
Two traits mark out the Caribbean as manna from heaven for the traveler: diversity and beauty. The region’s iconic beaches, forested hills and blue seas mesmerize the visitor from the get go. And within these pristine archipelagos you can find people speaking French, Dutch and Spanish, eating African food and taking tea in the British style; you can feel as if you’re in the US or on the other side of the world — take your pick.
During the first half of 2012, the Dominican Republic continued its charge as the most visited Caribbean destination, with 3.5 million visitors, followed by Cuba, Jamaica then Puerto Rico. In terms of big growers, the US Virgin Islands was up a healthy 12% on the first half of 2011 and continues to attract new holidaymakers. The Netherlands Antilles, meanwhile, are also pushing for additional American visitors — the islands of Curacao, St Maarten and Aruba are all registering healthy growth.
And while October saw the closure of iconic Grenadan all-inclusive LaSource, new resorts such as Buccament Bay, Sandals Emerald Bay, Savannah Beach and the Magdalena Grand have provided new reasons to visit St Vincent & the Grenadines (SVG), the Bahamas, Barbados and Trinidad & Tobago respectively.
Many agents are noting islands with a tie to the US, like Puerto Rico and the USVI are increasingly popular with their clients: “Many brides like the fact the USVI is a US Territory because it makes a wedding or honeymoon there as easy as a mainland one,” says Nancy Barkley of Honeymoons And Get-A-Ways in North Wales, PA.
US clients are also relishing the USVI’s knack for offering exclusive beauty and luxury, adds Barkley: “St John, accessible only by a ferry ride from St Thomas, offers unspoiled beauty with two thirds of the island a national park.”
Cruises continue to sell well with Nassau and the Bahamas in general proving popular ports of call. In 2012 cruise passenger arrivals to the Bahamas topped 2.6 million, a rise of 8.8%, while the Cayman Islands and Aruba remain ever-popular stops.
Airlines, meanwhile, including Delta, United and US Airways, continue to offer convenient connections from many US cities to the Caribbean with new routes from American and JetBlue. American launches new routes from Miami to Pointe a Pitre in Guadeloupe and Fort de France in Martinique in April. JetBlue has added Grand Cayman and Samana in the Dominican Republic to its portfolio of 23 destinations in the Caribbean.
A trend for rising local taxes, however, won’t do much for the perception of the Caribbean being poor value of money. Jamaica introduced a $20 arrival tax on passengers in August, followed by a room occupancy tax calculated on a sliding scale of $1-$4 a night. Meanwhile, Antigua has hiked its airport taxes by $30 per passenger to $93.75.
But with such diversity in its portfolio, the region offers a unique proposition for travelers, not to mention the opportunity to make the most of your spend with a multi-center trip. Read on for our pick of the Caribbean’s highlights.
The Family Favorite – Dominican Republic
Credentials: The Dominican Republic has heavily developed a package tourism industry, offering large family-friendly resorts with kids clubs while keeping prices affordable. Value, fun, frivolity and family-friendly features are all key to the destination’s appeal. This is in contrast to a lot of resorts on other Caribbean islands where couples are the main target market.
Key selling point: The area around La Romana is picturesque and safe. It boasts several large all-inclusive resorts, heavily weighed towards kids, such as Casa de Campo, where the entire Kardashian clan vacationed last year for a TV special of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
What else: Golfers also love the Dominican Republic. There are numerous courses around the island, including two designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr — at Playa Dorada and Playa Grande. Crucially, golf can be played year round, and green fees are economical.
Expert’s View: “For the Dominican Republic, our clients love the beaches, the people and the great hotel choices. There really is something for everyone. We find that both Jamaica and the Dominican Republic appeal to families looking for vacation destinations. We also have many Spring Break travelers choosing the Dominican Republic now as well.” Sandy Anderson, Travel Leaders, Coon Rapids, MN.
Alternative: The Cayman Islands is another family-friendly chain of islands the kids will love. An undersea adventure in the Atlantis Submarine will blow their minds, while resorts like the Marriott Grand Cayman Beach Resort offer many children’s activities from coconut bowling to watersports tuition.
The Romantic Escape – US Virgin Islands
Credentials: The US Virgin Islands comprise a cluster of quiet, picturesque low isles poking up from the azure sea. St Thomas is a tourist hotspot, with well-developed infrastructure and a broad range of branded hotels, while beach lovers are in heaven in St John, where you can stroll along the famous beaches of Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay, or Trunk Bay — all noted for their pristine beauty. Honeymoons and wedding packages are sold by many resorts throughout the USVI.
Key selling point: There’s no need for a passport, traffic drives on the right and US driving licenses are valid here, making a visit as easy as a vacation at home but with the bonus of authentic Caribbean experiences.
What else: Scuba divers relish the 850-acre reef national park on Buck Island, two miles north-east of St Croix. St Croix itself is equipped for such activities as snorkeling, sailing, sport fishing, golf, hiking and horse riding.
Expert’s View: “No two destination weddings or honeymoons are alike in the USVI, which is perfect because each island offers something unique. Right now, brides and honeymooners love St Thomas’s miles of white sand beaches, friendliness, world-famous duty free shopping and nightlife. And with the US dollar as currency and no need for a passport, visiting is a cinch.” Nancy Barkley, Honeymoons and Get-A-Ways, North Wales, PA.
Alternative: Puerto Rico is another destination popular for weddings and honeymoons — again because the US dollar is the currency, no passports are required and the capital San Juan has excellent air links to major US hubs.
The Culture Capital – Jamaica
Credentials: Sugar cane plantations, colonial houses, forts and castles, coffee farms, art galleries, and the homes of legends of literature are all waiting on the island of Jamaica. Jamaica’s other selling point is its distinct cultural output and musical influence around the world, being the home of reggae and Bob Marley.
Key selling point: Oracabessa can’t be missed off any cultural exploration of Jamaica. This is where Ian Fleming built his dream house Goldeneye and where he wrote many of his James Bond books. The luxury resort Goldeneye has grown up around the villa now, offering guests the opportunity to vacation in Fleming’s former home.
What else: Music is at the heart of Jamaican culture. The adventurous can check out the reggae and ragga clubs in Kingston’s edgy Downtown, and for a more chilled experience there’s Nine Mile, the home of Robert Nesta (Bob) Marley.
Expert’s View: “What my clients like about Jamaica is the lush, green, island feel that one only gets in Jamaica. The service at the resorts and the feel of the hot Jamaican sun is just invigorating — and that’s what sells. All inclusive resorts are especially popular.” Elena S. Pelsinger, Travel Leaders, Houston, TX.
Alternative: Guadeloupe isn’t on many American tourists’ radars, but perhaps it should be. It offers a sublime selection of French food, Caribbean culture, and historic colonial art and architecture in the capital Pointe-a-Pitre. American Airlines now flies there from Miami.
The Wild One – The Bahamas
Credentials: The Bahamas offers all kinds of wild times. Party hard in the clubs and bars of Downtown Nassau, where sweaty dancing abounds. Learn to fly a plane at the city’s airport and swoop over town on a low-level sortie. Swim with dolphins or scuba dive around several of the archipelago’s islands. Go power boating around the Outer Islands, or explore the coral reefs in a submarine. Or how about a shark diving safari?
Key selling point: Nassau — the capital of The Bahamas — offers nightlife, restaurants, history, shopping and on Paradise Island, casinos, top hotels and beaches. It’s little wonder many cruise passengers never leave the city limits.
What else: Gastronomes will be in their element at Nassau’s famous Fish Fry. This run of restaurants on the outskirts of town is a must-visit. Chefs will cook you a flying fish bun or whip up a conch salad — laced with scotch bonnet peppers for that authentic, fiery Bahamian taste. Several restaurants have opened In Downtown Nassau in recent years to cater to lunching cruise passengers with refined palates.
Expert’s View: “The Bahamas is a popular stop for cruise ships and for our clients. The beautiful fine sand beaches, turquoise seas and many water activities all appeal. Most of our clients choose all-inclusive resorts on the islands and find it saves them money in the long run, plus there’s no worries about where to go for meals and activities. Almost everything is included in the price up front this way.” Rhonda Shumway, Terra Mar Travel, Hemet, CA.
Alternative: Grenada is no sleepy backwater — this up-and-coming Caribbean destination is famous for its wild nightlife and exotic vibes. There are also watersports, beautiful waterfalls and jungle, and distinct attractions like chocolate making.
The All Rounder – Barbados
Credentials: Barbados is very popular right now because it’s all things to all travelers. The island boasts luxurious hotels together with more modest accommodations for families, there’s plenty of activities and watersports for the active, and history lovers have several options to keep them occupied in Bridgetown and the inland sugar plantation houses. Added to this are many retreats and venues for couples and wedding parties while the island’s swathe of restaurants and bars keep younger visitors amused.
Key selling point: Safe and beautiful with a well-developed infrastructure and solid choice of places to stay, Barbados also has its own distinct cultural spirit. Sandy Lane and the West Coast are the most famous destinations, lined with luxury hotels and golf courses.
What else: The east coast of Barbados is the real find of 2013. It’s less developed and loved by surfers who value the waves. The rocky cliffs are a stirring backdrop and new boutique boltholes like the Atlantis in St Joseph are shaking up the hotel scene.
Expert’s view: “My clients love so many things about Barbados. The fact the island was erected from a coral reef makes it one of the most unique places in the Caribbean. The coral caves within the island are very cool. Because of the structure of the island, it makes the water one of the purest in the world, second only to the Swiss Alps — no worries about eating and drinking here. And if you want a truly local experience, this is the island for you.” Melissa Gutting, Suntime Travel, River Falls, WN.
Alternative: Antigua also successfully taps into the something-for-everyone style, offering everything from sport, luxury, romance and family fun to a plethora of restaurants, bars, beaches and water sports — one island that also has it all.
PUBLISHED IN THE SPRING 2013 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork