by Fred Mawer from The Telegraph, November 22, 2019
Big all-inclusive hotels, jam-packed beaches, thousands of day trippers disgorging from cruise ships... Many parts of the Caribbean are developed and thoroughly discovered.
But not everywhere. Tranquil and unspoiled idylls await too. In many cases these take the form of islands to which you can’t fly direct, so involve the trouble and additional expense of a short inter-island hop on a small plane after your transatlantic flight to a main island. But popular islands such as Barbados and Jamaica also have very appealing corners that haven’t succumbed to mainstream tourism.
Below, I’ve picked out a selection of these spots. Unless otherwise stated, prices given are per person for seven nights in low season, based on two sharing the cheapest accommodation, and include economy flights and transfers.
This low-lying and arid British Overseas Territory has arguably the Caribbean’s finest beaches. There are 33 of them, many with white sand so powder-soft you sink up to your ankles. Even the most popular beaches, such as Rendezvous Bay and Shoal Bay East, are uncrowded.
Other draws include excellent dining options – everything from high-end restaurants to roadside barbecues – several of the region's best luxury beachfront hotels, notably Belmond Cap Juluca, Four Seasons Anguilla and Malliouhana – and eye-popping villas (see wimco.com). Celebrities flock here in the winter, but the atmosphere is unshowy and there are affordable places to stay.
Getting there: British Airways or Virgin to Antigua, then Trans Anguilla Airways to Anguilla.
More information: ivisitanguilla.com
For an easy-going, character-rich little getaway, this Grenadines island (seven square miles, population 5,000) excels in virtually every way. Verdant and hilly, Bequia is exceptionally pretty – Admiralty Bay, dotted with yachts, is one of the Caribbean’s most pleasing-on-the-eye natural harbours. At its rear, the villagey capital of Port Elizabeth is a friendly, hassle-free place.
Enlivened by regular ferries from St Vincent and the other Grenadines, it normally has just the right amount of bustle, though cruise-ship visits (mostly the smaller, upmarket vessels) are increasing. The island has a good choice of enticing, laid-back bars and restaurants. Some back on to the waterfront Belmont Walkway on the edge of Port Elizabeth – a great place to gather in the evening. Around the island are several lovely, long golden-sand beaches, a few high-quality, small hotels and self-catering to suit all budgets, from lavish villas to simple apartments.
Getting there: BA or Virgin to Barbados, then SVG Air to Bequia.
More information: bequiatourism.com
Little green Nevis has a slow-paced, old-fashioned charm to it. This is evident in Charlestown, the pretty, diminutive capital, with its “skirt and shirt” buildings (stone ground floors, wooden first floors), and in the elegant and utterly relaxing plantation-house hotels that date from the island’s sugar-cane-producing era in the 17th and 18th centuries. The classiest is Montpelier Plantation; Nisbet Plantation Beach Club is by a beach – unusual for a plantation hotel; the rural, antique-filled Hermitage, which dates from 1680, has a homely feel; while Golden Rock Inn has been given a funky, contemporary look by its American artist owners. These hotels are what make Nevis most memorable, though the island does have a lovely long sandy beach (Pinney’s) and a dormant volcano (Nevis Peak) if you fancy a challenging climb.
Getting there: BA to St Kitts, then a 45-minute ferry or quicker water taxi to Nevis.
Sample package: With Caribtours (020 3553 7616; caribtours.co.uk), from £1,569 b&b at Nisbet Plantation Beach Club.
More information: nevisisland.com
Dramatic, mountainous and rainforest-coated Dominica was hit hard by Hurricane Maria in 2017 but has made very significant recovery. It’s somewhere to come to be active. Hike along its trails – the most popular tough trek heads out to the Boiling Lake, a flooded fumarole. Bathe under towering waterfalls, tube down rivers, snorkel over geothermal springs at the Champagne Reef, and go whale watching – sightings of sperm whales off Dominica are common in the winter months. To rest up, there are a number of delightful, nature-oriented guest houses and small hotels. Big cruise ships include Dominica on their itineraries, but it is easy to escape from their crowds.
Getting there: BA or Virgin to Antigua, then Liat to Dominica.
Sample package: With MotMot Travel (01327 359622; motmottravel.com), from £2,295 staying at Wanderlust Caribbean, an adventure travel boutique hotel on the north coast, including breakfasts and dinners and a selection of tours with the owners as guides.
More information: discoverdominica.com
Dry, cactus-covered Bonaire is the sleepiest and least populated of the Dutch Caribbean’s so-called ABC islands that lie outside the hurricane belt off Venezuela (the others being Aruba and Curaçao). Its biggest draw is diving and snorkelling. The entire coastline is protected by the Bonaire National Marine Park – hence the rich diversity of underwater life – and the majority of the 80-plus sites are accessible from the shore, so excellent for beginners. Windsurfing is also first rate for all ages and abilities at shallow, reef-protected Lac Bay, and for a change from watersports, there’s flamingo watching – thousands nest on the island’s lagoons and saltpans.
Getting there: KLM to Bonaire, changing planes in Amsterdam.
Sample package: With Caribbean Fun Travel (01604 882929; caribbeanfuntravel.co.uk), from £1,755 b&b at Harbour Village Beach Club – on one of the island’s few white-sand beaches, and with an on-site dive centre.
More information: tourismbonaire.com
Harbour Island, The Bahamas
Photo by zxvisual/Getty Images via Newscred
The Bahamas offer two very different holiday faces. On the one hand, there are the enormous high-rise resorts, casinos, cruise-ship hordes and party-loving weekenders from Florida on the islands of New Providence (home to the capital Nassau) and Paradise Island. On the other hand, peace, space and pristine beaches set the tone on the Out Islands, the most fashionable of which is three-mile-long Harbour Island. Running along virtually its whole length is famous Pink Sands Beach, composed of powdered coral. Almost as photogenic is neat and chic Dunmore Town, with its colourful old clapboard houses and white picket fences, art galleries and enticing cafés. The preferred means of transport on the island are golf buggies. Hurricane Dorian caused devastation in September 2019 to the Abacos and Grand Bahama Island, but most of the rest of the widespread Bahamian archipelago – including Harbour Island – was largely unaffected and is very much welcoming holidaymakers.
Getting there: BA to Nassau, then onward flight to North Eleuthera Airport, and a 10-minute water taxi to Harbour Island.
Sample package: With Bon Voyage (0800 316 0194; bon-voyage.co.uk), from £2,425 room only for six nights at the fashionable Coral Sands Hotel, right on Pink Sands Beach and a short stroll into Dunmore Town, with a one-night stopover in Nassau.
More information: bahamas.co.uk
Another British Overseas Territory, Montserrat is dominated by the active Soufrière Hills Volcano. Its eruption in the 1990s blanketed Plymouth, the former capital, in debris, and resulted in the emigration of more than half of Montserrat’s 12,000 population. Two-thirds of Montserrat is still an exclusion zone, with life now focused in the north. You can take in the smouldering volcano from safe viewing points, including the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, and venture into the exclusion zone on a guided tour and see buildings half buried in volcanic debris. Other reasons to visit include birdwatching (twitchers revel in the chance to spot the island’s rare national bird, the Montserrat oriole), snorkelling and diving – and the island’s wonderfully unhurried pace.
Getting there: BA or Virgin to Antigua, then Fly Montserrat on to Montserrat.
Sample package: With MotMot Travel (01327 359622; motmottravel.com), from £1,695 b&b staying six nights at Olveston House – set in tropical gardens, the former plantation house was once a home of the late Beatles producer Sir George Martin – plus a one-night stopover on Antigua.
More information: visitmontserrat.com
Away from its bland resorts, Cuba has many special places, none more so than remote Baracoa near the far eastern end of the island. Dating from 1512, it’s Cuba’s oldest settlement, with ancient, brightly-painted clapboard houses on its streets, a casa del chocolate serving drinks made with local cocoa, and an atmospheric casa de la trova (live music venue). The surrounding countryside is Eden-like in its fertility, with banana, cocoa and coconut groves blanketing hillsides. There are quiet dark-and golden-sand beaches nearby and a striking flat-topped mountain – El Yunque – to ascend.
Getting there: Virgin to Havana, then rent a car and drive.
Sample package: With Captivating Cuba (01438 419111; captivatingcuba.com), from £2,099 for a fortnight’s self-driving touring adventure of Cuba, covering flights, car hire and accommodation, including four nights b&b at hilltop El Castillo in Baracoa, a characterful but simple hotel converted from a fort. Outbound flight to Havana; return flights Holguin-Miami-Heathrow.
More information: cubatravel.cu/en
Tourism on Grenada concentrates in the south-west corner, with few visitors making it up to the lush, slow-paced north. Those that do are normally on day trips, heading for Belmont Estate (a good-quality agri-tourism attraction), River Antoine Rum Distillery (possibly the oldest still operating in the Caribbean) and Bathway Beach, a mile of windswept sands with natural rock pools for safe swimming. The only hotel up here is highly recommended Petite Anse. Set above a wild beach (swimming is often not safe), it’s run by a couple from Worcestershire, and has something of the atmosphere of a laid-back English country-house hotel. The owners can arrange guided hikes, and trips with a fisherman to a deserted offshore island.
Getting there: BA or Virgin to Grenada; transfers from the airport to Petite Anse take around 75 minutes.
Sample package: With Just Grenada (01373 814214; justgrenada.co.uk), from £1,295 b&b at Petite Anse.
More information: grenadagrenadines.com
Port Antonio, Jamaica
With jungle-coated hillsides descending to unspoiled beaches, Jamaica’s north-east corner is the most scenic. Port Antonio, its main town, was once a banana port, then became something of a playground for Hollywood stars in the 1950s and 1960s. It is now a snoozy backwater, though has several trendy, low-key places to stay. The most picturesque beach is river-fed Frenchman’s Cove; other attractions include waterfalls with pools in which to swim, gentle river rafting down the Rio Grande, and barbecued food from the roadside “jerk centres” at Boston Bay.
Getting there: BA to Kingston, from where it is a two-hour drive up to Port Antonio.
More information: visitjamaica.com.
East coast Barbados
Just 45 minutes’ drive from the mostly busy and developed west and south coasts, Barbados’s eastern shore is a different world – palm-smothered slopes running down to little villages and empty beaches bashed by Atlantic breakers. Bathsheba, with its eroded, mushroom-shaped rocks, is a beautiful spot: swimming is unsafe, but the waves attract experienced surfers. At the fishing hamlet of Tent Bay, a 10-minute stroll along the coast from Bathsheba, are two excellent places to stay: The Atlantis, dating from the 19th century, and restored with a colonial-chic look; and rustic-casual ECO Lifestyle + Lodge, with hammocks strung up on bedroom verandahs. A walk up the hill brings you to the delightful Andromeda Botanic Gardens.
Getting there: BA or Virgin.
Sample package: With Tropic Breeze (01752 880880; tropicbreeze.co.uk), from £1,440 b&b at The Atlantis; packages available combining stays at The Atlantis with its lovely sister property Little Good Harbour on Barbados’ west coast.
More information: visitbarbados.org.