The Caribbean: Islands in the Sun

Geography | Fly or cruise? | Dangers | Top 10 attractions | When to go | Currency | Visas and permits | Getting there and travelling around | Further reading

The first question Australians may ask of the Caribbean is: "is it worth the long journey or should we look closer to home for a tropical island holiday?" Readers of American magazines may believe that the Caribbean Sea has the only tropical islands in the world but we know better - and the Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef offer more relaxing holidays. But if you are looking for somewhere different you'll find the Caribbean surprisingly rewarding.

In reality the Caribbean is much more complex than one imagines. This sweep of more than 30 nations extends over hundreds of islands in an arc from the east coast of Cuba to the shores of Venezuela. Over the centuries there has been a sweep of settlers and colonial powers through here, too. In a few days, you pass through cultures that are, in turn, Spanish, Dutch, British, French and modern American. Some islands are tiny coral cays while others have rugged volcanoes clothed in rainforests. Societies range from Fidel Castro's communist Cuba to the rampant commercialism of the US Virgin Islands.

There's not even a common beat to the Caribbean. Guadeloupe and Martinique both claim to have begun the beguine, Trinidad was the birthplace of the sound of steel bands, and Jamaica gave the world reggae.

Geography

A quick look at a map shows that Cuba lies as a long plug to the Gulf of Mexico; the other big island in the Great Antilles is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic (this is not Christopher Skase's new country - that's the tiny island of Dominica). North of these lies the Bahamas and to the south are the Cayman Islands and Jamaica. Off the north coast of South America are the scattered islands of the Lesser Antilles and Trinidad and Tobago.

The focal point of Caribbean tourism is the crescent of islands extending north from Grenada to Puerto Rico. These are often divided into the Leeward and Windward Islands but many of the names within these awkward groupings are familiar - St Vincent, Martinique, Barbados, Antigua and the Virgin Islands.

Fly or cruise?

The easiest way to visit the Caribbean is on a cruise ship. Most of them operate on one week itineraries from San Juan in Puerto Rico. The advantages of cruising are many - your hotel room moves with you and day tours are scheduled for your arrival at each port. The disadvantages are that you'll arrive at very small islands with up to 2000 close friends and probably see the sights as fleeting glimpses through the window of a tourist coach during your few hours in port.

Obviously, if you've selected one destination for your Caribbean holiday then you can simply fly there and back again. Independent travellers seeking a smorgasbord of islands will be drawn by the air passes offered by Liat and BWIA. The advantages of air travel are that you can tailor your holiday to suit your interests, be in town overnight and see the sights at your own pace and not as part of a herd. The disadvantages are that you'll spend a lot of time packing and unpacking and on your way to and from airports. If you rent cars, you'll have to budget for temporary licences at each destination (about $US10 to $US20 each).

Dangers

Despite the idyllic images portrayed by calypso songs and rum advertisements, there will be times when individual travellers may not feel safe in the Caribbean. It's not just overly forceful traders and buskers - many societies here are inherently violent and tourists are seen as naive and easy sources of cash and valuables. That's particularly true in Jamaica where resorts are fortified and I found that locked doors and wound-up windows were the only ways to avoid hassles every time I stopped or slowed down in my rental car.

Top 10 attractions (not in any particular order)

  1. Listening to a steel band practicing in a "pan yard" in Port of Spain, Trinidad - scores of steel drums in unison produce an unforgettable sound.
  2. Nelsons Dockyard, Antigua - Nelson hated the place but the historic buildings, charming pubs and becalmed yachties create a magical mix.
  3. The Pitons, St Lucia - the most recognised landforms in the Caribbean must be the Pitons, the two jungle-clad volcanic peaks on either side of Maricot Bay at the southwest corner of St Lucia. French driving ensures the drive is a challenge but the view of the Pitons as you descend to the town of Soufriere makes it well worthwhile.
  4. St George's, Grenada - the main town of "the island of spices" is set in a flooded volcanic bowl and looks like a toytown guarded by a comic-opera fort. It's reputation as the prettiest town in the Caribbean is justifed.
  5. Willemstad, Curacao - the main port of the Netherland Antilles has some areas that look like old Amsterdam transported to the tropics and painted in jaunty Caribbean colours.
  6. Cricket - the British colonies throughout the Caribbean maintain an enthusiasm for cricket that is remarkable. Consider the legacy of Sobers, Richards and Worrell, discuss the state of St Vincent's pitch ("the best in the world, mon") or go to watch a match.
  7. Diving - the Cayman Wall or the Bonaire drop-offs are world renowned for the 30 metre-plus visibility and the variety of corals. If you don't dive, Bonaire has a lot of reefs within easy snorkelling distance from the shore and Grand Cayman has Stingray City where you can play with large tame rays close to the surface.
  8. Drinking fruit punch in Barbados - the island has a thriving rum industry and the best beaches in the Caribbean. It's an irresistible combination (as long as someone else is driving).
  9. Dominica rainforest -   the most recent Skase bolt-hole is the most undeveloped island in the Caribbean. Far from being a millionaire's playground, the verdant forests that cover nearly all the island are home to the region's last Carib Indian population.
  10. View from the Bonnie View Hotel, Jamaica - over the banana town of Port Antonio and the island once owned by Errol Flynn.

When to go

The peak tourist season in the Caribbean is between December and April. That's not because this is the perfect time to be in the Caribbean but rather because these are the coldest months in the USA, the season when the tropics look most appealing. Indeed, this is the windiest time in the Caribbean (excluding the autumn hurrican season). By going against the flow and arriving during the Australian winter, you'll see the brilliant flowers in full bloom, the seas will be calmer for sailing, and everything cheaper. To avoid hurricanes remember the rhyme: "June too soon, July stand by, September remember, October all over" then recall that last year Hurricane Mitch continued throughout October.

Currency

Various currencies are used however, the currency universally accepted throughout the Caribbean is the mighty US dollar and that's certainly the cash to take.

Visas and permits

There are so many nations in the Caribbean that it's impossible to generalise about visa requirements. Do a careful check for each destination before you depart so you don't arrive in a country without the proper documentation. Some require Australians to pre-obtain visas. If you intend to drive take an International Driving Permit - it may be needed, even to obtain a local licence.

Getting there and travelling around

The cruise I took was with Celebrity and the organisation was good, the cabin comfortable and the food excellent. Celebrity Cruises' representative in Australia is Discover America Marketing, tel. (1800) 221 625 or (02) 9955 6922. On my recent trip I found the best deal to get there was with Air New Zealand/United Airlines - call Air New Zealand on 132 476 for fares and packages. However, there's a wealth of options for Caribbean travel so the best course is to buy a guide book then start searching the web and talking to travel agents. One agent that specialises in the Caribbean is Moray Travel, tel. 92316899.

Further reading

If you opt for a cruise then you may not need any guidebooks. However, if travelling independently the best guides are Footprint Handbooks' "Caribbean Islands Handbook", Cadogan Books "The Caribbean & the Bahamas" or the more specific Lonely Planet "Eastern Caribbean".

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd