The names of the Caribbean islands hover hazily in the minds of most people. Barbados, Antigua, Grenada, will be familiar for sure. But are we sure where some of the others are ( Anguilla ? St Maarten?) or even if they really exist (Redonda? La Désirade?). And Barbuda might almost be some mystic combination of Barbados and Bermuda.
They are surprisingly different from one another. There are volcanic colossi and low-lying coral blips, large and developed islands, others that are laid back to the point of sedation. And there are Spanish-speaking and French islands, even Dutch ones. There is variety among the old British West Indies, too – Grenada feels and looks as different from Barbados as St Lucia does from the British Virgin Islands .
All of which makes a two or even three-centre trip a pleasure – the idea then, was to find three islands as different as possible, but easily accessible from one another. I headed for Antigua to start with. Historically it was a linchpin in the Royal Navy’s Barbados-Antigua- Jamaica chain, and it is still one of the main access points to the north-eastern Caribbean. We arrived in one of the Caribbean’s infrequent but savage rainstorms. The pilot took three attempts to land, but by the time we left the terminal, the sun was out again.
Antigua is a classic outcrop, an ancient volcano now clad in coral. Its beaches, hidden among its many meandering coves, are magnificent. The 365 that the tourist brochures refer to is nonsense, of course, but you don’t need that many for a week’s stay. And there’s a good chance of staying on one, too. I arrived at Galley Bay Resort and wandered down to the sand – straight on to the beach of the cliché, five or six hundred yards of sumptuous blond sand backed by palms and sea-grape trees.
It’s a particular type of tropical beauty, this, and if your aim is to unwind, ideal. The view from my veranda was close to perfection – a jade and turquoise sea hatched with the trunks of palms. In the soporific midday, I could feel their fronds drooping, exhausted in the heat, but by evening the tree frogs were singing shrill with excitement on the breeze.
And always there was a background of breaking waves, quite large waves as it happened – the sea’s expression of the localised trough in which we landed. A whole drama was played out – waves piggybacking and roaring, bounding forth in acres of galloping foam, or undercut by one another, collapsing on to the sand with a disappointed flump. Some gave a clap and a hiss, others crackled like thunder and reverberated the length of the beach.
It’s partially the waves that create the sand, of course, through erosion of the coral reefs. (Parrot fish also contribute, by eating coral and then passing the limestone out as sand – something unexpected to consider when you’re next sunbathing.)
If you’re going to tear yourself away from the beach, then Antigua’s most worthwhile sight is historical, Nelson’s Dockyard, the only working Georgian dockyard remaining in the world. Its work is rather different nowadays – in place of the whistles and drum-rolls of naval urgency you hear bandsaws, and the chatter in bars and aboard yachts and superyachts moored against the dock. But the dockyard is atmospheric, with restored brick and timber buildings containing restaurants and bars, a museum and immigration facilities.
And so, from Antigua to where? The former British islands are served by LIAT a few times a day, the French and the Dutch islands have their own services, and there is a multiplicity of smaller airlines to link you to small islands such as the Grenadines, the British Virgin Islands and St Barts. A few islands that work well as a foil to one another are linked by ferry. A new alternative is that British Airways permits passengers to make the internal Caribbean links on their “two-destination” routes. From Antigua, there are two options on different days of the week – St Kitts and Tobago . So, which one? In the end I visited them both. First up was St Kitts. Although just 65 miles away, the difference is visible in an instant – while Antigua lies supine in yellow-brown curves, St Kitts soars. Its convex slopes are smothered in greenery and marked with “ghauts”, ravines resembling volcanic stretch marks. The island sits in the line of volcanoes (about 15 million years old – largely inactive in St Kitts’ case) that marks the breaking point of the Caribbean tectonic plate as it pushes east, riding over the Atlantic plate.
Among all this fertility, St Kitts has some lovely plantation-style hotels, so I stayed at Ottley’s Plantation Inn, which centres on a traditional great house high on the hillside. Here you spend your time in contemplation of a different tropical beauty. My veranda at Ottley’s had a vast view of the Atlantic, through lawned gardens and ancient trees, with all the grace and elegance of an older Caribbean age. It is mesmerisingly beautiful.
If Antigua was a seat of naval power, St Kitts had its moment, too, as the “Gibraltar of the West Indies”, when Brimstone Hill Fortress was in its prime. This acreage of stonework, named after the occasional whiff of sulphur that vents from the volcanic underworld, literally squats on a hilltop. It was there to defend the empire, which in turn came down to sugar cane, which until recently covered the island.
In St Kitts you’ll eventually find yourself drawn to the beach rather than away from it. The island’s south-eastern peninsula, which points towards sister island Nevis (where there are more excellent plantation hotels), sits in shallow water where the corals have managed to grow, of course, and it consequently has the best beaches – and some classic beach bars.
Heading in the opposite direction from Antigua, one comes to Tobago, lying just off the coast of South America. It is a different geological type again, rubble pushed up as the Caribbean plate grinds east against the South America mainland. Tobago’s shallow western end has also become encrusted with coral over the millennia – and that is where the white-sand beaches and most of the hotels are – but the land rises steadily to the east along a central spine of mountains. Ridges spill off it left and right, culminating in steep-sided coves.
I stayed in a small fishing village, Castara, hidden away on the north shore, where Castara Retreats are a series of cottages on a hillside. The view here was something between the previous two islands, about a hundred yards from the beach and hovering 100ft above it. On the Saturday night Jamaican rhythms sparred with the noise of waves barrelling on to the sand.
But the signature feature at Castara is nature – greenery that creeps, crawls and clambers, encroaching all around. In fact, I was suspended in it. The local birds made free with my veranda as a thoroughfare. Blue-grey tanagers and white-necked Jacobins flitted through. Oropendolas landed with a flash of yellow tail.
Tobago has a different character again, this time affected by its larger sister island Trinidad, the source of so much oil money and whose population is as much Indian as it is African. Tobago is undeveloped compared with most Caribbean islands.
And it’s the natural life that makes Tobago so special. There are hikes in the east, which is home to the oldest forest reserve in the western hemisphere (dating from 1776, unbelievably). However, even a short and simple river walk turned out exceptionally beautiful. I passed through a cleft explosive with greenery, following the chuckle of a stream that led eventually to the hiss and rush of a waterfall and pool.
But in the spirit of unwinding, my chosen spot was my veranda with its spellbinding view, on to the cove where ridges and hillside greenery spill right down to the waterfront, the stereos thump and fishing boats ride on their moorings. Eventually I clocked what makes it so different. In among the thousand shades of green, the water in the bay stood out in a sparkling and emerald colour.
Caribbean Connections: How to Join the Dots on the Map
In addition to the route mentioned in the main article, British Airways (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com ) also lets you pair St Lucia and Grenada. The former is the most beautiful of the Windward Islands, with dramatic twin conical peaks (the Pitons), lush rainforest and a lively creole culture. Grenada has a gentler beauty, with the amphitheatrical, red-roofed capital St Georges, fantastic fertility, and lovely beaches and hidden coves along its serrated south-western coastline.
Another BA option is to pair St Lucia and Trinidad – from where there are frequent inexpensive hops across to Tobago. Trinidad is a busy, crowded island with a strong culture – of carnival, steel pan and calypso dance music, exceptional bird life, and just a few beach bolt-holes on the north coast.
LIAT ( liat.com ) is the main inter-island carrier between the former British territories, and it connects most of the islands between Trinidad in the south and the Dominican Republic in the north. The link between Trinidad and Tobago is made on Caribbean Airlines. The French islands share Air Antilles and the Dutch islands have Winair.
The smaller island groups also tend to have local airlines that offer charter and sometimes a “share charter” service – SVG Air and Mustique Airways in the Grenadines, ABM for Antigua, Barbuda and Montserrat, St Barth Commuter for St Barts, Air BVI in the British Virgin Islands and Tradewind Aviation across the north-eastern Caribbean.
Ferries link several islands that work well as a foil to one another. Services between the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe also touch Dominica and continue to St Lucia. Trinidad is linked with Tobago. From St Maarten it is possible to reach Anguilla (British), St Barts (French) and Saba (Dutch). The Virgin Islands have ferries to outer islands, and the Grenadines are linked by mail boat from St Vincent, as is nearby Carriacou from Grenada.
James Henderson flew out to Antigua and back from Trinidad courtesy of British Airways (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com ), which offers flights to a dozen Caribbean destinations, some on “double destination” routes that enable a hop in between.
This article was written by James Henderson from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.