Caribbean for Lovers

by Paris Permenter & John Bigley

You feel the sweet, slight intoxication which has little to do with rum, but rather with the thrill of new beginnings. Yes, you say, we have come to the right place.

Powdery beaches, aquamarine waters, and balmy tropical breezes. For honeymooners, the Caribbean is a fertile region, sultry and rich, where love blooms and flourishes. Couples feel the pulse of life beat strongly here, dancing in crowded discos or arm-in-arm on secluded moonlight beaches. Inhibitions are artfully soothed away by languid island rhythms, the sea gently lapping at your toes, the sing-song of patois, the ardent piping of tree frogs in the night. You feel the sweet, slight intoxication which has little to do with rum, but rather with the thrill of new beginnings.

Yes, you say, we have come to the right place.

Just about every honeymooner searches for the perfect beach, the ultimate stretch of sand where the two of you can bask under towering palms and feel the delicious glow of shared love beneath a tropical sun. Beaches, like the islands themselves, vary in shape and sizes, with something to please just about every traveler.

Some Caribbean beaches are legendary, prized by travelers and locals alike for their beauty, their location, or for the feelings they evoke. On St. Thomas, Magens Bay is often cited as one of the top beaches in the world, its distinctive horseshoe shape etched by chalk white sand against azure waters. Renown for its hedonistic ambience, Seven Mile Beach stretches along the western edge of Negril, Jamaica. Embraced by luxurious resorts and seaside restaurants, it's a lively place to see and be seen. On Grand Cayman lies another famous Seven Mile Beach. It's a perfect place for a barefoot stroll hand-in-hand beneath shady casuarina trees. Orient Beach, in French St. Martin, home of many excellent seaside restaurants and innumerable watersports operators, is best known for its clothing-optional stretch visited by those looking to come home without tan lines.

Popular beaches guarantee fun in the sun, but if you yearn for seclusion, the chance to make the only two sets of footprints in the sand, look to an island off the beaten path. Here the only sound you hear may be lapping surf and the only other faces you see may be on fish as colorful as a candy store window.

The Turks and Caicos (pronounced kay-cos), an archipelago of nearly 40 islands, gives honeymooners a chance to enjoy the beach in sandy solitude. Several resorts will even make arrangements to drop the two of you with a picnic basket on an uninhabited cay for an afternoon of uninterrupted pleasure. Aboard a breezy catamaran you might have the opportunity to see (and even swim with) JoJo, a wild dolphin who has been declared a national treasure. JoJo often follows boats and frolics with swimmers in these turquoise waters.

Another favorite destination of nature lovers are the cluster of islands called "Nature's Little Secrets," the British Virgin Islands. Thanks to countless secluded beaches and coves, honeymooners feel like they've stumbled upon a secret hideaway in the BVI. From the largest, 21-square-mile island of Tortola, to tiny islands accessible only by boat, the British Virgin Islands offers couples some of the Caribbean's most beautiful beaches. Couples visiting Virgin Gorda should save a day for a visit to The Baths, one of the most unique beaches in the Caribbean. Here the shoreline is scattered with massive granite boulders as smooth as riverbed stones. They form the perfect trysting spots, secret grottos where the splashing surf is lit by muted sunlight filtering through the gaps above.

But maybe the two of you may be looking for more lively fun, perhaps a chance to combine those days on the beach with some duty-free shopping, party with a little nightlife, or take your chances with Lady Luck at a casino. If so, look to islands like Puerto Rico, rich with the history of the conquistadors, Curaçao and Aruba, which combine their Dutch atmosphere with a desert beauty to create unique getaways, and Dutch Sint Maarten, where days are often spent sailing followed by nights at one of the many casinos.

Dutch Sint Maarten shares an island with French St. Martin, a unique arrangement that's indicative of the many cultures that have come together in the Caribbean to present travelers with an array of cuisines, languages, histories, and atmospheres. Although every island boasts a rollicking Caribbean spirit, their cultures also borrow heavily from their founding fathers. Aromas of fine French food fills the air of Martinique, St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, and Guadeloupe. Dutch architecture creates picturesque waterfront communities in Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Maarten, and Sint Eustatius. A rich Spanish atmosphere pervades the islands of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. And Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, the Cayman Islands, and the Turks and Caicos still operate as British dependencies. In the former British colonies of the Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and Jamaica, the British influence is still strongly felt, with driving on the left side of the road and the Royal family smiling back from postage stamps.

The Caribbean spirit combined with comfortable familiarity helps make the US Virgin Islands one of the most popular island destinations, as does its terrific duty-free shopping. St. Thomas' frenzied Charlotte Amalie tempts the two of you with store after store offering gold, gems, fine china, perfumes, electronics and other wares. For a more sedate shopping experience , St. Croix's Christiansted offers many of the same bargains in stores housed in picturesque Danish structures. Other favorite shopping destinations are St. Martin/Sint Maarten, the Bahamas, and Grand Cayman.

Just as the islands vary, so do the resorts and hotels the two of you will call home for a few special days. For some couples, the ideal honeymoon haven is a sprawling resort offering all the comforts of home plus many more. Picture the two of you enjoying watersports, taking scuba lessons, enjoying fine dining, and dancing the night away at an all-inclusive resort where one price pays for everything.

If you're looking for seclusion and privacy, consider one of the Caribbean's unique hotels and inns. Honeymooners desiring to immerse themselves in lush Caribbean ambience will appreciate St. Lucia's Anse Chastanet. This hillside resort rises from a quiet bay and palm-lined beach to offer views of St. Lucia's spectacular twin Piton mountains. Many of the rooms feature open-air showers, some are built around trees and others boast open walls where views are uninterrupted by windows or screens. Don't be surprised to find yourself sharing your room with a flitting hummingbird or a colorful bananaquit begging for a little sugar treat.

Or imagine a country inn where rooms brim with antiques and are cooled by a gentle breeze off a wide porch. On the tiny island of Nevis, population 9,000, you'll find many plantation inns, elegant bed-and-breakfast accommodations which are especially popular with European vacationers and with Americans looking to experience a slice of the Caribbean "the way it used to be." Don't look for reggae lessons, limbo contests or mixology classes at these properties; instead, expect a sophisticated atmosphere where the emphasis is on enabling independent travelers to make their own way. Nature lovers will especially enjoy the island's Golden Rock Estate. Run by a fifth-generation Nevisian, this resort emphasizes local culture, history, and nature studies. On an afternoon walk, the two of you might spot the playful green vervet monkeys who roam this 96-acre rainforest preserve located on the flank of Mount Nevis. After a day of beach fun or nature walks, the two of you can retire to an 1815 sugar mill, converted to one of the Caribbean's most romantic guest rooms.

When planning your Caribbean honeymoon, there are some seasonal considerations to take into account. Room rates are at their highest from mid-December through mid-April (and at all-time highs during the holiday weeks), and generally fall about 40-50% during low season. Resorts that seem out of reach in the winter months may be right in your price range during the summer.

Balmy trade winds keep the islands temperate in the summer and warm in the winter, although the Bahamas, technically not part of the Caribbean, is occasionally affected by cold fronts during the winter months. Hurricane season runs from June through November, peaking in September. Remember, though, that the Caribbean is a vast region and storms in one area may have no effect on other islands. Several islands fall south of the hurricane belt, below the usual path of these summer storms. Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao are generally south of the storm region and are good bets for blissful weather.

Whatever time you visit the Caribbean, chances are good that an island festival of some sort will be in progress, offering you the chance to take part in local celebrations of life. Carnival is the biggest bash in the islands and is held in January in Trinidad (the biggest blow-out in the Caribbean), April in St. Thomas, and February in St. Martin.

After the stress of your own wedding, some comic relief may be in order. Tobago's Old Time Wedding is a special event during July's Tobago Heritage Festival. This hilarious reenactment of 19th century nuptials is filled with traditional Tobagonian touches: a bride's trousseau trunk balances on the head of one guest, another transports a wedding cake safely tucked beneath mosquito netting. After the "wedding" (and a surprise visit by the pregnant "girlfriend" who has the locals roaring and the visitors turning to islanders for an interpretation of the local patois), a grand party follows. The crowd shuffle dances down the street, later joining in traditional dances such as the reel and jig or the quadrille.

No matter when you visit, most Caribbean days draw to a close with a thrilling blaze of tropical colors. Enjoying sunset is an island obsession, so pick your spot with care (and try to arrive early). In St. Thomas, high above Charlotte Amalie, a peak called Paradise Point and a place named, appropriately enough, The Bar offers romantic sunset viewing. Below in the city where shoppers hustle to pick up a few last bargains before the boutiques close their doors, the lights trickle on one by one, competing with a deepening sunset the color of a blooming hibiscus. On the western reaches of Jamaica, lovers end their day in Negril at Rick's, one of the most famous sunset bars and restaurants in the Caribbean. Nearby, divers plunge off the cliffs to hearty cheers from onlookers. When the sun dips low, however, the crowd turns its attention to the west and to a blaze of color that marks the end of another day in paradise.

Photo by Lauren Bigley