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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in the Caribbean and the Antilles.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in the Caribbean and the Antilles.
What is it that makes for a perfect honeymoon? Heavenly beaches? Tick. Glorious tropical sunsets? Tick. Delicious food? Tick. Divine I suites? Tick. Blue Waters Antigua has all of these —but this is quintessential Caribbean with some fabulously quirky twists.
So it is that heavenly beaches come in the form of sublimely soft sands and gorgeous hidden coves; glorious tropical sunsets can be experienced in private from the cliff-top Spa terrace and infinity pool complete with Champagne and canapes a deux overlooking the Caribbean Sea; three different restaurants all serve delicious cuisine — including healthy options for those on the resorts brand-new wellness retreat by Living Retreats (1 May-31 October 2017) with daily optional activities including yoga core exercise and cookery demonstrations.
Alternatively there are private spots aplenty for romantic picnics from the stunning 17-acre tropical gardens to the resorts private boat Monterrey Blue. After which what better than a traditional rum punch — or any other cocktail you care to ask Carolyn, Antiguas famed mixologist to conjure up by the beach pool.
As for divine suites Blue Water’s Cove Suites takes divine to a whole new level. Wake up to the sound of the sea just metres from your over-sized bed, pad through your breeze-filled living area for breakfast on your whitewashed balcony and spend your days sauntering down to the beach or taking a dip in the infinity pool — reserved exclusively for Cove Suite guests. Or, for the ultimate honeymoon hideaway book the two to five bedroom Rock Cottage —set on its own headland complete with private infinity pool and plunge pool and even your own chef for unadulterated luxurious romance.
A Carribbean specialist, with first-hand knowledge of all featured, hotel and destinations, the family-run Turquoise Holiday Company puts the passion and imagination back into the honeymoon travel experience. Enjoy seven nights at Blue Waters in a Cove Suite (complimentary upgrade from a Hilside Junior Suite subject to availability) on a bed & breakfast basis, from £2,499 per person, including international flights and private transfers. Honeymooners will also receive VIP check-in and welcome gifts, a romantic nightly turndown service, a champagne breakfast, a “Sunset Champagne” experience, a one hour couple’s massage and a private gazebo dinner for two.
It’s no surprise this sun-drenched, candy-bright Caribbean paradise is renowned as a classic honeymoon haven: with palm-fringed, peaceful bays and warm turquoise seas, this place is bliss for beach lovers. However with a huge array of luxe hotels, a melting pot of colour culture, incredible food and historic sites, there’s so much more to these super cool Caribbean isles.
After an easy seven-and-a-half hour flight from the UK you land in the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda. The captivating thing about the vibrant island of Antigua is that it heaves with intriguing things to see and do at every turn. Wind your way along the roads and wonder at the luscious tropical flora spilling out onto the twisty lanes. The sweet-hued houses that dot the hillside come in every shade from pretty pastel pink to zingy yellow — all a perfect contrast to the brilliant green landscape. Native and unique to the island, are the fields of miniature Antigua black pineapples — if you’re lucky you’ll pass a friendly local selling them roadside.
Make sure you try some — they are totally scrumptious. Through jungly palms and banana trees laden with fruit, you’ll chance upon a 19th-century grey stone church, turn the next corner and find a tumbledown 17th-century sugar mill — this place is steeped in fascinating history.
A visit to English Harbour (within the UNESCO World Heritage Site area) is a must: a naval yard for warships in the 18th century and home to Nelson’s Dockyard (named after the infamous Horatio Nelson who was stationed here in 1784) — it’s an enthralling snapshot into Georgian navy life and the heritage of the island. On Friday night, the Fish Fry is obligatory — foodies will love the crab cakes, coconut shrimp and conch fritters.
Food really is epic here: be sure to pop to Turners Bar for a toes-in-sand picnic feast of curried lobster and whole red snapper. For a jolly steel-drum-spectacle, head to Shirley Heights on Sunday evenings. From 4pm, on a little ridge high above English Harbour the Lookout Bar hosts a fun-filled evening of steelpan and reggae bands with a barbeque serving all sorts of delicious jerk marinated meat, washed down with oodles of local rum and coconut water. The atmosphere’s electric, views are magical and the impossibly clear night sky twinkles with a zillion stars.
Antigua offers some of the best sailing in the Caribbean. Come April, the world’s mega yachts descend upon English Harbour for the Caribbean’s famous Sailing Week and boat lovers should charter a yacht to “chase the race” for a fully-loaded must-see sailing marvel. It’s a big year for anniversaries in 2017 with the 30th Classic Yacht Regatta in July and the 50th Anniversary Sailing Week in April — May plus back on the island, the much anticipated Antigua Carnival in July — August will celebrate 60 years.
And there’s so much to do on dry land: hike the trail to Boggy Point and gape at the awe-inspiring views. Shoppers will love Heritage Quay’s arcade at St John’s — the island’s capital. Redcliffe Quay complete with restored townhouses, brightly painted shutters and a myriad of local cafes is worth a visit too.
Yes, Antigua is charmingly laid back, but there’s also luxury in abundance and heaps of fabulous places to stay. Sitting alongside a peaceful cove, you’ll find the seriously stylish Carlisle Bay —the suites are gorgeous and the food fantastic. Hermitage Bay a collection of 17 cute wooden cottages set amid sweet-scented tropical blooms and jaw-dropping views over the butter-soft beach is the perfect spot for romance. Located on its own little island, a seven-minute boat ride from Antigua, you’ll find the fancy Jumby Bay: a dreamy little place surrounded by a glittery turquoise lagoon.
The beaches are something special and with a whopping 365 — one for each day of the year — you are quite literally spoilt for choice. From the prettiest hidden bays with water so perfectly clear and shallow, to wild beaches nestled among jagged rocks and roaring oceans; there really is a beach for your every whim.
Dickenson Bay a mile-long stretch of oyster-white sand and delightfully warm water, is wonderfully lively with all sorts of buzzy beach bars and hip hangouts.
For sensational sunset views and dazzling white sand, go to the remote south-west corner of the island where you’ll stumble across Ffrye’s Bay —a hidden gem. But for true seclusion, sister-island Barbuda, fringed with pristine sands is sleepier and well worth a pit-stop.
Bottom: Hobie Cats at Jolly Beach.
This page clockwise from top left: Shirley Heights;
Hummingbird in the trees;
St John’s Downtown the white sands and turquoise waters of Antiguan beaches; a cottage at Cocobay. Centre;
An easy drive along the north coast from Montego Bay, this is the most glamorous of Chris Blackwell’s merry trio of hotels (the founder of Island Records, who made Bob Marley a global superstar, also owns Strawberry Hill and The Caves). The centrepiece here is, of course, the five-bed room villa which was once home to Ian Fleming, and where he wrote his James Bond novels. But put the literacy legacy and Marley music connections aside, what makes this hotel continue to shine is its clever combination of spacious clapboard villas and funky, feel-good Jamaican spirit. It’s a tough choice deciding between the step-onto-the-sand beach villas and those facing the lagoon near the tiny, lemongrass-scented spa.
The look is similar – polished wooden floors, white walls and high ceilings, outdoor showers – but the lagoon-side cottages are more private and come equipped with kayaks. Watersports are the thing at Goldeneye, with stand-up paddle boarding, glass-bottom-boat rides around the bay and morning fishing trips. Or simply laze on the beach and play backgammon at the open-air Bizot bar, where the driftwood shelves are lined with bottles of Blackwell rum. At night, cross the torch-lit wooden bridge to The Gazebo for delicious suppers of curried shrimp with coconut rice. Six years after opening, this gorgeous, laid-back hideaway still has serious groove.
As I sit on deck polishing off a truffle omelette for breakfast, glance around at the private superyachts berthed next to us in St Bart’s harbour, set against a backdrop of lush palm trees and a deep blue sky. It’s easy to forget that I too, am not part of this elite club on my own private yacht. Instead, I’m on the next best thing: Sea Dream II, a 112-passenger yacht owned by Norwegian entrepreneur Atle Brynestad (he also owns Sea Dream I, the ship’s sister vessel), which sails the smaller, more authentic, French Grenadine islands of the Caribbean.
Every island has such individual character, so the best way to tick off a handful is by boat. We tour the beautiful volcanic island of St Bart’s – which was discovered by Columbus in 1493 and named after his brother Bartolomeo – on quad bikes, losing a few stragglers to the lure of Nikki Beach and Hotel Eden Roc, before heading to the effortlessly cool Do Brazil beach bar and restaurant on the more relaxed west coast. Co-owned by French former tennis star and singer Yannick Noah, it’s the ideal place to laze away the day. Laid-back Ibiza-inspired tunes play over the sound system as we feed on mouthwatering ceviche, washed down with glasses of ice-cold rose.
What’s brilliant about this boat is that when anchored, you can jump straight off the back of the deck to swim, or take a turn on the hugely popular jet skis. The daily changing menu is unexpectedly grand, with decadent dishes such as venison Wellington and gold leaf-topped chocolate fondant served up with Downton Abbey-esque service.
This is fine dining at its absolute best so the format at meals is quite formal; afterwards, kick back at the bar where resident mixologists are on hand to whip up cocktails based on your favourite flavours. The cabins themselves are not high spec but weather permitting, it’s fun – for one night at least – to sleep on a daybed on deck. When the skies are clear, there’s something deeply magical about being out under the stars. And it’s another way to dream, just for a while, that this is your very own private yacht.
Even in industrial ports, the sheer grandeur and size of the Celebrity Equinox is staggering – it’s no wonder, the ship carries just under 3,000 passengers and crew – but size does not detract from its elegance. Nor does it mean that there aren’t intimate excursions if you choose wisely. On a market tour in Cozumel where brightly coloured, political-themed street murals mark the social revolution happening in the country, our group of 10 sat on wooden swing seats sipping cacao margaritas at the Mayan Cacao Company, tasted octopus tostadas at local restaurant Jacinta, and watched as executive chef Davide La Rocca chose ingredients for a six-course private dinner that night.
In Cartegena, I ventured off on my own to wander the old town where flowers spill over balconies and horse-drawn carriages clip-clop along the cobbled streets. A traditional Colombian christening, with the entire party dressed in white, was underway. Of course in some ports, the only way to get a true taste of the country you’re in is to venture further afield on organised trips. In Puerto Limon, I booked the Veragua Rainforest excursion, taking a cage-like aerial tram down into a dense jungle canopy and trekking to a waterfall, before standing in a magical butterfly garden as hundreds of the creatures flitted around us. In Colon, a guided tour of the impressive Panama Canal was a chance to buff up on my history.
A perfect ratio of six days docked to four days at sea, the beauty of this Ultimate Caribbean Cruise is that it can be any kind of voyage you desire. The ship boasts a library, two pools, a gym and running
Not only will you get a cabin in the
track that circumnavigates the top deck, a basketball court, casino and Canyon Ranch SpaClub (plus kids clubs to keep toddlers and teens amused). If it’s peace you’re after; then plump for the Aquaclass package.
The other nine restaurants are equally impressive. Lobster is prepared table-side in a flaming skillet at French Murano, while the dish to order at Asian Silk Harvest is shrimp tempura (Rita from guest relations promised it would be life changing – she wasn’t wrong). At each stop it’s worth waking early to watch the ship pull into the dock at sunrise. The view from the balcony-all turquoise ocean and rainforest as far as the eye can see – is a panoramic vista not visible once on land. When 11 nights have passed, you won’t want to sail home.
It’s easy to leave your cares behind when you’re gazing out over pure-white sands, fringed with palms and lapped by the turquoise Caribbean Sea. It’s even easier when you’re doing so from your spacious ocean-view suite at Belmond La Samanna – the most exclusive resort on the beautiful island of St Martin.
Belmond La Samanna is an elegant contemporary resort, perched right on die soft white sands of Baie Longue and set among lush greenery, where everything is designed for pure enjoyment and relaxation. From the moment you check in to your luxuriously appointed room or suite, many with sea views and private balconies, you’ll know you’ve arrived somewhere special.
That’s a feeling you’ll become familiar with at Belmond Samanna, from the year-round warm sea – where you can kick back in a cabana, or enjoy complimentary watersports – to the stellar lineup of fantastic restaurants and bars, which range from the formal to the relaxed.
Begin the day with a lavish breakfast at Interlude, then head to the Beach Bar for lunch, where you can dine on grilled fish and light bites right at the foot of the ocean. Later, try Trellis for locally caught lobster in an elegant bistro setting, with wine from the private cellar – it houses more than 20,000 bottles. For a special occasion, you can even dine in the cellar’s private dining room.
If laid-back dining and pristine beaches aren’t relaxing enough, the decadent Elysée Spa will soon have you in a blissfully tranquil state. Choose from a first-class selection of massages and treatments, using products by Sisley and Pure Altitude. Or just pull up a lounger by the infinity pool and soak up the Caribbean sun – then watch the spectacular sunset at the end of the day, with a signature cocktail in your hand.
Beyond Belmond La Samanna itself, there’s the whole of beautiful St Martin to explore, from the quieter French side (on which the resort sits) to the popular Dutch half. There are more than 450 restaurants to seek out, plus bars, nightclubs, casinos and outstanding beaches.
But you’ll find the very best of St Martin at Belmond La Samanna. It’s paradise, with added luxury.
Leap down waterfalls into turquoise pools, then unwind with barbecue food and rum cocktails
Deep in the untamed. Damajagua jungle, Augusto Bonilla is preparing for the day’s big moment, patchy sunlight illuminating the pool below him. Watching his guests with an experienced eye, he tightens the helmet’s chin-strap, his sandals squelching on the precipitous rock ledge. ‘Have no fear,’ Augusto tells them, as he shuffles an inch closer to the waterfall’s foaming lip, his eyes fixed on the horizon. ‘Just close your eyes and jump.’ Without another moment’s pause, he launches himself, like a human cannonball, out into a hazy abyss of mist.
Seconds later, Augusto resurfaces in the river’s natural punchbowl. With a broad grin, he scans the backcountry surroundings. Above him, buffpalmchats (the national bird of the Dominican Republic) chirrup unseen in the cocoa and mango trees, while sage-green creepers and vines dangle over the eroded clay banks.
He lifts his head skyward, coaxing the band of nervous canyoners eight metres up to follow. ‘Viva hoy y orar por la manana,’ he shouts: live for today, only pray for tomorrow. Soon after, they too take the leap of faith, flapping their arms as if in flight.
From Puerto Plata to Cabarete, the north coast of the Dominican Republic is awash with tanned kiteboarders and surfers, but a trip inland offers an alternative exhilarating way to embrace the water and explore the jungle landscape. Of all the guides who take adventurers into the hinterlands of the Saltos de la Damajagua, Augusto is one of the most experienced. Having spent the past 24 years in Damajagua’s natural swimming holes, he knows the chute network better than most. There are dozens of others to jump off, he says, some that form curtains of milky-white ribbon and swishing bridal veils, others that fan into gigantic clouds of spray. There are so many tributaries, he jokes, locals keep discovering new bathtubs.
Back in Cabarete, kiteboarders, surfers and canyoners converge again on dry land to unwind after the day’s adventures. Everyone heads to their favourite shack to swap stories, the bars fill up and the beaches are slowly abandoned, the skies mellowing from vivid blue to smoky pink. Farther east at the mo utli of the Yasica River, a short pontoon ride across the delta, a more rustic option is on offer. This is the way to Wilson’s Bar, a breezy beachfront shack, haphazardly built out of items (palm fronds, fallen trees, a broken surfboard) left behind in the aftermath of a tropical storm.
At its bamboo counter, owner Wilson Zapete is cutting up coconuts. To a lilting soundtrack of reggaeton and salsa, he scoops out their flesh and fills the shell with crushed ice and rum. The kitchen is firing up a barbecue and muscular blue swimmer crabs are hauled straight from buckets in the lagoon into a blackened pot, reappearing moments later on a platter as a jumble of ruddy-red claws, with prawns and fresh grilled fish. This, says Wilson, pointing to the lagoon, is the only market he needs.
It is after nightfall when the diners have finished, the tinkling seashells suspended from the palm-leaf roof announcing the arrival of a brewing storm – and perhaps an impromptu refit for Wilson’s shack. ‘I first came here 10 years ago,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen so many changes, but only great ones.’ And with that he raises a toast to good times before disappearing back into the kitchen.
Built in 1890, the reservoir’s Victorian-industrial terraces — in full view as they’re bone-dry — are a testament to more abundant times. But despite the drought that’s been plaguing Antigua and other islands in the region for several years, this verdant pocket is surprisingly lush. The canopy is a mix of 40 tree species, including mahogany, Spanish oak, Dominican kidney mango, hog plum, soursop and wild passion fruit. Beyond that, a fragrant field of lemon grass bends in the breeze atop the island’s thin layer of volcanic soil. The view reminds me of New Zealand, minus the wayward sheep.
Antigua’s 108 square miles of rolling hills and pocketed coastline sprawl around us. On a clearer day, neighboring Montserrat and Guadeloupe are easy to spot. The only thing absent are the waterfalls and rushing rivers typical on islands like Jamaica and Dominica. What’s not missing: that beloved border of sand and sea.
The tiny island nation of Antigua and Barbuda counts 365 beaches (some of which are “two-steppers,” says local guide Cleo Henry) along its combined coastline. So, with the mercury rising and beach towel packed, I set off on a road trip along coastal routes to hit as many of them as possible.
Most visitors arrive and promptly plop into a beach chair to Zen out on the sapphire view.
But in trekking from strand to strand, it’s clear the island has other stories to tell. Carlisle Bay is an 82-suite hotel at the southern end of Fig Tree Drive, Antigua’s most scenic route that cuts through the southern rainforest.
After a couple hours relaxing by Carlisle Bay lagoon, I meander down to Fig Tree Studio Art Gallery. Here, Antiguan Dasa Spencer and his British painter wife, Sallie Harker, sell their own works, as well as art by other Caribbean artists, from a gallery surrounded by flowering fruit trees.
“[Antigua has] the sweetest fruits — sugar apple, guava and sugar cane,” says Spencer. “They’re smaller and more condensed .” Having just sampled a mango found on the side of the road (an islander’s bonus, a mainlander’s treasure), I know what he means.
“I n the good years, we plant a lot so that we have more in the dry years. But the island’s new crop is houses,” says Spencer, referring to Antigua’s rush of development. Tourism first started here in the 1960s, when Antigua was a playground for English aristocrats. Today, it’s positively booming, with a wave of new resorts, a brand-new airport and new nonstop flights from the U.S.
Many of the beaches on the island’s desertlike east coast are cliff-lined or rocky. But at Half Moon Bay on the southeast shore, I meet a Guyanese family playing cricket on a crescent of sand where a new all- inclusive resort will rise next year. The abandoned hotel was shuttered in 1995 when it was destroyed during Hurricane Luis, which devastated the island.
The family’s patriarch tells me he doesn’t expect the resort’s arrival to change the ambience too much on the quiet easternmost end of his favorite beach, which he predicts will continue to draw mostly locals for Sunday outings.
Another day, during stops at Hawksbill Bay and Darkwood Beach on Antigua’s sandier west coast, I have the aquarium-like water almost entirely to myself.
With such splendid anchorages to explore, Antigua has long been a sailor’s island. And during the winter sailing season and annual Antigua Sailing Week in late April and early May, yachties arrive from all over the world.
“It’s one of the hardest places in the Caribbean to sail to, coming from the East Coast of the U.S., but you’re golden once you get here,” says German Capt. Christian Koch of charter operator Cruise and Chill Sailing. We depart Jolly Harbour aboard his 44-foot sailboat, Camelot.
We cruise near a shallow shipwreck in the clear waters of Deep Bay. Koch’s favorite beach, Pinching Bay, is within reach, but there’s no time to stop. I ask him what made a sailor who’s called into nearly every port in the Caribbean drop anchor here. “I can’t explain it,” he says, “Antigua is just my speed.”
Indeed, the island has a sort of indefinable casualness enlivened with quintessential Caribbean and international influences that set it apart from the mass resort coasts of Jamaica and uber-exclusive enclaves a la St. Barth. My accommodations at St. James’s Club & Villas, on a secluded bay on the east side, only underscore the casual vibe.
On the south coast, my search for strands is abandoned. Instead, I follow the scent of frying fish to Copper and Lumber Store Hotel at Nelson’s Dockyard. The colonial courtyard fronting the harbor is crowded with locals sitting at long tables, digging into whole fried snapper, coconut shrimp, peppery conch water and copious rum punches.
I’ve been told over and over that a Sunday-evening visit to the overlook at Shirley Heights is a must. It’s like a giant outdoor concert, with a handful of staff directing cars to park on a huge grass lawn as tourists and locals file in.
Just past a sign that says “Do not stand beyond this point,” crowds pick their ways across the rocks, angling their selfie sticks for the best view of English Harbour, approximately 500 feet below. A steel-drum band plays ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” and the scent of jerk chicken fills the air.
On my last day on island, I tackle another must-do, a snorkel at Stingray City. (Yes, it’s modeled after the original on Grand Cayman.) Back at the hotel, I do the math: I’ve ticked off only 2 percent of the 365 beaches. Henry, my guide, has one more stop before departure. “I’ll take you somewhere you surely haven’t been,” she says. t becomes clear that for this outing, I’m leaving my bikini on the hotel railing to dry.
Narrow lanes lead to the small community of Parham. Antigua’s oldest town and once a bustling seaport, it’s fronted by shallow reefs and islands that make anchoring treacherous. When Antigua became independent from British rule in 1981, nearby St. John’s, with its protected natural harbor, was chosen as the capital. We park at the doorstep of St. Peter’s Anglican Church.
“It’s the only structure of its kind in the Caribbean,” Henry tells me as we admire the eight-sided structure with large windows, encircled with ballast stones from England. “I see mangoes in a hat,” she says. “Someone must be inside.” A secret island signal revealed.
The church’s towering ceiling is a beamed masterpiece so nautical in design it could only be the work of a 19th-century shipbuilder. But that’s only a guess. The church’s caretaker, he of the mango hat, tells us it was built in 1840, and that’s all that’s known.
A strong wind rises, shaking the leaves off the mango trees outside. A fierce rain unleashes a symphony on the wooden roof of the old church.
Surely the people on Antigua’s 365 beaches were scattering in surprise. After all, the drought has meant far more sunny days than anyone anticipated. However, it has also forced locals to install rainwater tanks. Dominica has even offered to sell some of its abundant drinking water supply.
In that moment, as the downpour lashes the stone floors and air shoots through the arched windows, I hope the rain never stops.
WHEN TO GO
For the coolest and driest weather, December through April is the best time to visit, but expect crowds and high-season prices. The annual Antigua Sailing Week, the Caribbean’s largest regatta, takes place April 29-May 5 in 2017, with the Antigua Classic Yacht Regatta just before. Carnival, at the end of July, also packs in the visitors. During the rest of summer (hurricane season), you’ll have most of the beaches to yourself.
HOW TO GET HERE
American Airlines offers one daily nonstop from Miami and New York (JFK), and a weekly nonstop from Charlotte to V.C. Bird International Airport (ANU). United Airlines has 10 weekly nonstop flights from Newark. Delta flies from Atlanta once per week. JetBlue has three weekly non- stops from JFK.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Antigua and Barbuda’s official currency is the East Caribbean dollar (EC), but U.S. dollars are widely accepted (expect change in EC). Carry small EC bills for fruit stands, tips and admission. Some gas stations only accept cash. Restaurants, shops and hotels generally take major credit cards. If you plan to rent a car, it’s left-side driving, and you’ll have to pay $20 for the mandatory temporary driving permit, available at all car-rental agencies.
Carlisle Bay. At this all-suite hotel, doubles start at $575, with a 10-night minimum stay during the holiday season. Hobie Cats, kayaks and paddle boards are free for guest use.
ST. JAMES’S CLUB & VILLAS
This secluded property has rooms overlooking the ocean; private villas come with full kitchens. Doubles start at $390 per night, all-inclusive, with a three-night minimum stay.
THE VERANDAH RESORT & SPA
Located close to Stingray City, this all-inclusive offers suites and two-bedroom villas with private terraces, most of which overlook the ocean. Doubles start at $366 per night, all-inclusive, with a minimum stay of three nights.
Port Antonio used to be one of the most popular destinations among the Hollywood glam set, but with the rise of cruise-ship ports and all-inclusives in other areas of the island, it was forgotten. Now its making a comeback — and you can be one of the first to know.
There’s no better way to feel uncool in Jamaica than to show up early for the Thursday-night Roadblock Party, which is exactly what we’ve done. Killing time, my friend and I saunter over to buy a shot of rum from a dreadlocked gentleman who appears to have sampled too much of his homebrew. He entertains us by explaining, at length, that having dreadlocks does not mean you are Rasta. Being Rasta is a way of life that requires purity of mind, spirit and body, not just a hairdo.
Eventually, the music booms extravagantly, and local revelers — men with gleaming muscles, women wearing sparkling miniskirts — drift up the road. An enormous man wearing a headscarf and medallion necklace strides over and clasps my friend in a bro-hug; he remembers him from a past visit. This party is infamous in Port Antonio, a forgotten slice of northeastern Jamaica that has it all: welcoming locals, gorgeous beaches, cultural authenticity — and, recently, a quiet revival.
Port Antonio has a long history of receiving Americans. Legend has it that in 1946, a storm hit the coast of Jamaica, and Zaca, the opulent schooner of movie heartthrob Errol Flynn, was forced ashore in Port Antonio for repairs. Until that point, the area’s claim to fame was being the banana capital of the world, made so by wealthy Boston businessman Lorenzo Dow Baker in the late 1800s. A consummate wheeler-dealer, Baker cleverly broadcast this verdant stretch of Jamaica as an untrammeled paradise, filling his empty banana boats with hardy tourists from America’s Eastern Seaboard. Port Antonio became a retreat for a few nature lovers who reveled in the jungle and beaches surrounding the town.
But when Flynn — reputedly a decadent bon vivant — arrived, everything changed. He was enamored with the place, so he bought land, imported champagne by the crate, invited Hollywood’s glamour set and put the tiny town on the map. Villas shot up behind wrought-iron gates, hotels appeared, Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor arrived in heels and oversize-hats. The Aga Khan built a villa, and Baroness Elizabeth von Thyssen built a Gatsby-esque “castle.” For decades to come, Port Antonio, the formerly sleepy seaside town, was abuzz with music, laughter, beautiful people and the pop of champagne corks.
Then in the late 1980s, Gilbert, Ivan and Dennis arrived and trashed the joint. All three hurricanes of enormous ferocity, they tore apart the infrastructure so thoroughly that, to this day, it has not fully recovered. Once-luxury resorts above perfect coves sat abandoned and smashed, the iron-gated villas were left for the jungle to reclaim, the baroness’ castle fell into disrepair. The glitterati stopped coming.
“Port Antonio, a forgotten slice of northeastern Jamaica, has it alb welcoming locals, gorgeous beaches and cultural authenticity. ”
But within the last decade, revitalization has been slowly building, and the celebrities — without as much fanfare — are now returning. The castle has reopened as the Trident Castle, an eccentric and huge rental where bands come to film edgy music videos on the black-and-white checkerboard floor, and models host their weddings.
A derelict oceanfront hotel had an expensive face-lift and has morphed into the hip, St. Barth-worthy Trident Hotel.
Outside of town, glass-front villas are going up on hillsides overlooking the Caribbean Sea. What’s more, the likes of Beyonce, Alicia Keys and Grace Jones visit frequently to record in the state-of-the-art music studio inside the discreetly jet-set Geejam hotel, owned by British music executive Jon Baker (no relation to Lorenzo).
Baker, who has been here for 30 years and was the first to open a hip hotel, is very much a part of the “Renaissance of Port Antonio,” as he calls it. “Portie [as it’s affectionately known] is the safest part of Jamaica,” he tells me. “Crime here is virtually unknown and limited to petty theft.” There are fewer tourists, no cruise ships, no chain hotels or restaurants and better beaches. And the locals are friendly to outsiders. “This is the kind of place people visit and end up moving to,” Baker elaborates. “It’s a real draw for creatives because of its relaxed vibe.”
A two-hour drive from Kingston or a four-hour drive east of Montego Bay, Portie is not for the visitor who wants the all-inclusive with the swim-up bar or shops selling stylish bikinis and sun hats. It’s for the person who wants to hike up a spectacular river, listen to traditional Jamaican music, eat jerk and drink white rum with the locals. In other words, it’s not the Jamaica most people know.
Baker was here in 1986, drawn by the beauty and seclusion. In 1990, he opened the recording studio, where the likes of Amy Winehouse, Bjork, Drake, Katy Perry and Florence and the Machine have since recorded. In 2007, he built more cabanas and opened the doors to the public. Keeping the Geejam hotel open was a slog — at first.
“A little-known artist called Banksy came to stay,” says Baker. “He stenciled some art on the walls of one of the villas [Sanwood — still there today] and left us with a painting as a thank- you.
We sold that painting just to keep open.” Now the Geejam is so booked up that Baker is adding 15 cabanas (more affordable than those there now) and has refurbished two sprawling, more high-end villas above the hotel for those who want to come with a family or an entourage and remain private.
At the three-bedroom Panorama Villa, so named for its 180-degree view of the sapphire Caribbean, ocean breezes waft between the orange designer chairs, and pop art dots the walls. It comes with a pool, a chef and a staff of its own.
But not all sides of Portie’s renaissance involve glitz, celebrity and money. Locals are also bringing back excellence, and a great example is Soldier Camp restaurant. To get there takes navigating the dirt backstreets of the town, but it’s worth the search to end up in Everold Daley’s backyard restaurant, sitting on bamboo benches, eating crayfish or shrimp cooked in fresh coconut. “I came home from serving in the U.S. military and was sad at what had happened to Jamaican food,” Daley says. “I couldn’t find meals like my grandmother made; everything was cooked with oil and MSG.
And so I built some tables out back and use recipes from the old-timers. The freshest meat, seafood, fruit and vegetables. That’s all it takes.” A meal for two cost us $45 (with several rum cocktails) and was the best meal I had in Jamaica.
East of Portie is Boston Bay, the itty-bitty town that claims to be the original home of jerk spice. There’s a cluster of colorful, cobbled-together roadside jerk shacks serving chicken, pork, sausage and homemade white rum at rickety wooden tables.
All Jamaican guidebooks will insist you eat here, but pay heed: The persuasive vendors are smooth, and it’s easy to forget to inquire about pricing and portion sizes — and be oversold and overcharged. (We didn’t ask, and the lunch cost more than $100.)
Another tourist staple is the Blue Lagoon, known as the backdrop for movies like Cocktail, Club Paradise and, you guessed it, The Blue Lagoon.
But a more genuine experience is driving east to Reach Falls, wearing a bathing suit and running shoes that you don’t mind getting wet. Hire a guide and hike up a spilling waterfall with a series of swimming holes and underwater tunnels.
Unlike the Blue Lagoon, where the touts are ferocious, the infrastructure here is earnestly government run (part of the new money arriving with revitalization), and no touts are allowed. It’s a verdant tropical setting, like you can imagine all of Jamaica once was.
“This is the kind of place people visit and end up moving to. It’s a real draw for creatives because of its relaxed vibe.”
Returning from the waterfall, head to the Bushbar at Geejam for some celebrity spotting and, on a Friday night, to hear the newly reassembled Jolly Boys, a mento band named by Errol Flynn himself, back in the day when they played at his private parties.
This group of septuagenarians is, as lead singer Albert Minott says, “bringing back the glamour to Port Antonio. We made Errol Flynn jolly, and now we’re going to do it again.” Having lived through the heyday and the collapse, no one better represents the spirit of this place than these four men. “We’ve waited a long time for Portie to come back to life,” Johnny Henry, the grinning 78-year-old mento-box player, says.
He’s just in time.
HOW TO GET THERE
There is no airport in Port Antonio, which is part of its charm. Fly to Kingston (KIN)and drive north for two hours through the Blue Mountains. Or fly to Montego Bay (MBJ) and drive four very curvy, but pretty, hours.
When you see one of the colorfully painted roadside-shack bars, screech to a halt. Each neighborhood has one, and they’re busy at all hours. This is where the real cultural discovery goes down over Red Stripes, along with a chaser of someone’s uncle’s homemade 80-proof white rum.
WHEN TO GO
Port Antonio gets more rain than most of Jamaica, which is how it stays so lush. The best time to visit is January through April, when the days are relatively dry and the temps are manageable. Plan your trip in November and you’ll probably get a few more showers, but prices are more reasonable, and you’ll get the waterfall to yourself.
WHAT TO BRING
If you’re staying at the Trident Hotel or Geejam, pack a floaty caftan and hang out with the beautiful people by the pool. Remember to bring some old tennis shoes for the waterfall hike, and a rash guard never hurts in the stinging sun (when it appears). Even if you’re not staying at the Trident, make sure you stop by for a cocktail and to soak in the stellar art collection and modern interior design.
DOLLARS AND CENTS
The currency is the Jamaican dollar ($1 USD = $126 JMD). There’s no reliable ATM in Port Antonio, so be sure to get cash at the airport. In a pinch, most locals will accept USD. Hotels will accept credit cards.
This winter, travellers visiting the Cayman Islands can trade the holiday season’s twinkling pine trees for swaying palms on the destination’s award-winning seven mile beach. This one-of-a-kind luxury island trio comprised of Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman caters to all ages and lifestyles and offers a relaxing winter escape like no other with seasonal events, unforgettable culinary festivals and countless opportunities to experience a Cayman holiday under the sun.
Visitors will feel right at home for the holidays while staying on the Caribbean’s friendliest set of islands – renowned for its warm “Caymankind” hospitality which embodies the destination’s inviting local culture and kindhearted people.
Further adding to its appeal, reaching Grand Cayman is even more convenient this season with nonstop flights available from several U.S cities including New York, Miami, Chicago, Dallas and more via American Airlines, Cayman Airways, Delta, JetBlue and United.
Visitors can look forward to a number of holiday activities like Grand Cayman’s annual Christmas tree lighting event on November 19 in Camana Bay featuring a Christmas craft market, visit from Santa Claus and inspirational carolers.
On December 3, visitors can join locals and guests at the Camana Bay harbour and watch the night come to life as beautifully adorned yachts and boats sail through the glistening water with vibrant fireworks as the backdrop.
Travellers can also celebrate Christmas in Cayman with a visit from Santa Claus and enjoy a decadent Christmas Day lunch at one of Grand Cayman’s iconic restaurants like Grand Old House, Agua and even Tukka, a restaurant featuring Australian fusion delights.
Visitors staying through the New Year can ring in 2017 with electrifying fireworks displays on the beach and in Camana Bay.
In November, guests can also experience the Kimpton Hotels’ first Caribbean property – the 266-room Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa. The design-driven property features views of the brilliant turquoise water from most windows and areas of the property and is home to six restaurants and bars, two pools, a full-service spa and more.
Travellers can also enjoy accommodations at a number of Grand Cayman’s unmatched hotels and resorts from the luxurious Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman to the upscale Caribbean Club featuring unsurpassed suite accommodations.
On December 4, wellness-minded travellers can participate in the “Kindest” Marathon in the world, the Intertrust Marathon featuring a full marathon and half run and walk on a flat and looped course. Ideal for active visitors, the marathon is the only one in the world where you can run alongside Seven Mile Beach in the morning and swim with gentle stingrays in the afternoon. It is also a qualifier race for the New York City Marathon and the Boston Marathon.
Visitors seeking an early 2017 winter escape can plan a vacation around the Caribbean’s premier epicurean event, Cayman Cookout, which takes place 12 -15 January, 2017 and celebrates the destination’s diverse food and wine scene.
Now in its ninth year, the annual gastronomic celebration held in January at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman is hosted by Chef Eric Ripert alongside Anthony Bourdain and Jose Andres along with a number of other acclaimed celebrity chefs and tastemakers. The weekend-long culinary event features unique mixology classes, private dinners and demonstrations set along Seven Mile Beach.
Offering an abundance of seasonal events and celebrations along with unparalleled accommodations and luxurious indulgences, the Cayman Islands provides the ultimate holiday escape.