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Caribbean Getaways: Something Old, Something New...
by Paris Permenter & John Bigley

For some lovers, a Caribbean getaway means a patch of chalky white sand, a gentle lapping surf, and days spent luxuriating in each other's company beneath a tall palm tree. For other couples, the Caribbean might bring to mind days spent hiking verdant rainforests hand-in-hand, scuba diving in waters as clear as white rum, or dancing the evening away beneath a starlit tropical sky.

When a Caribbean vacation comes to mind, images of sun, sand, and surf arise. While they may all share the powdery sand, the aquamarine waters, and the near-perfect weather, Caribbean destinations can be as different as the seashells found along their beaches. Some islands are large and span hundreds of miles; others can be covered in an afternoon bicycle excursion. Culturally, these islands vary from French to Dutch to English; language and currency differ as well. Political structures range from crown colonies to independent nations.

What these islands do have in common is that each offers the ingredients for a romantic vacation. Lavish resorts. Vibrant scenery. Sensuous sunsets. Smoldering evenings spend dancing to a tropical beat or falling asleep to the sounds of a soothing surf.

SOMETHING OLD

Since the days when these islands were the home of the Arawak and the Carib Indians, a period that lasted until the arrival of the 15th century Spanish conquistadors, the beauty of the Caribbean has not changed. Although they may now be dotted with resort hotels, the islands are still blessed with weather that ranges from the upper 70s in the winter to the lower 80s in the summer. Like a perpetual spring, days may be punctuated with brief showers that usually clear before the two of you can leave the beach.

Those early conquistadors left their mark in the Caribbean with fortresses and lookouts to guard their precious booty. In Puerto Rico's Old San Juan, narrow, ancient streets are rich with the atmosphere of Spanish explorers. Stroll hand-in-hand where lovers have literally walked for centuries. Don't miss a visit to Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, better known as El Morro. This fort, one of the most photographed spots in the Caribbean, was built in 1539 to protect the entrance into San Juan Harbor, a point from which the Spanish monitored their shipping between the Caribbean and Europe. Today it's the perfect spot for lovers to look out on the sea and enjoy the cooling tradewinds.

Former sugar plantations play an important role on the islands of St. Kitts and Nevis, home to many plantation inns that operate as romantic bed-and-breakfasts. Here couples can snuggle in antiques-filled rooms or cozy up in a property shared only by a handful of other guests. In Nevis, stroll from an 18th century greathouse to one of the island's best beaches along a quarter-mile promenade lined with tall coconut palms. Nisbet Beach Club, once the home of the bride of Britain's Admiral Horatio Nelson, is today a charming inn. Guests stay in lemon-tinted bungalows scattered throughout the property and spend their evenings dining by candlelight on the wide, screened veranda of this two-story greathouse.

Or spend your days along a black volcanic sand beach at the Golden Lemon in the shadow of St. Kitts' rainforest-draped Mt. Liamuiga. Owned and managed by former House and Garden decorating editor Arthur Leaman, this 17th century greathouse and contemporary seaside villas are filled with West Indian antiques. For the ultimate in luxury, many of the villas offer private plunge pools where the two of you can steal out for a midnight swim.

SOMETHING NEW

Today many couples come to the Caribbean for a chance to get away from more than just their everyday routines, they're ready to escape the cares of budgets and billfolds as well. All-inclusive resorts have sprung up across the Caribbean and offer their guests the opportunity to vacation without keeping an eye on the pocketbook because, while they're on the property, everything is theirs for the asking.

"Here all our guests are equally rich because you can't spend money while you're here," says John Issa, the man who began Couples, the first totally all-inclusive resort for couples. Today Issa heads SuperClubs, a chain of elegant all-inclusives with properties in Jamaica and the Bahamas.

SuperClubs and couples-only Sandals resorts are part of the all-inclusive market that has blossomed like bougainvillea throughout the Caribbean. Jamaica is home to the majority of the Caribbean's all-inclusive resorts, places where requests are met with the promise of "no problem" rather than a charge slip or bar tab.

SOMETHING BORROWED

Although all these island boast a rollicking Caribbean spirit, their cultures also borrow heavily from their founding fathers. On the exclusive island of St. Barts, a favorite getaway for celebrities from around the globe, couples are enveloped in the atmosphere of French élan. The two of you can hop aboard a rented Mini-Moke, similar to a small dune buggy, and spend the day cruising the hilly streets of Gustavia. Shop for baguettes and croissants to take back to your villa or hotel that evening, or share a European brew or a glass of French wine at a shady streetside café.

St. Barts' neighboring island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten is a unique blend of two cultures on one island. Called "a little bit European and a lot Caribbean," it's a fitting description of a most unusual political situation. The smallest land mass on the globe shared by two nations, it's a peaceful neighboring of French and Dutch that offers vacationers twice the cultural experience. Travel is effortless between the two nations, like crossing a county line back in the States. No passports. No customs. No immigration. Although the border is almost superficial, there are distinctions between the two countries. Mention "St. Martin" and many visitors will immediately think of topless bathing that's de rigeur on the Gallic beaches. On this portion of the island, the atmosphere is definitely French, with plenty of bakeries to enjoy a baguette or crepes. French is heard in the markets and there's no mistaking that this is la partie francaise.The Dutch influence is seen in the architecture on the island's southern reaches. Many of those historic buildings now house some of the best duty-free shopping in the Caribbean. Cameras, electronic goods, perfumes, and fine jewelry are especially good buys in the boutiques of Philipsburg--or bring home a special memento with Delft china from the Netherlands. During the night hours, the Dutch side hops with activity in its glitzy casinos and rocking nightclubs. An even stronger Dutch influence is found in the Southern Caribbean on the islands of Aruba, Bonaire, and especially Curaçao. Just the name Curaçao--derived from the Portuguese word for the heart-- speaks of romance. Add to that an historic capital city with tiny twinkling lights and picturesque European-style structures, fine cuisine from around the globe, and both tranquil beaches and a rugged coastline, and you have all the ingredients for a romantic getaway.

One of Curaçao's southern neighbors is the island of Trinidad, a favorite with nature lovers. This anvil-shaped island bustles with activity in Port of Spain, the capital city that's also a capital in the world of Caribbean commerce. Here you'll hear accents from residents who have relocated from around the world to work in this modern metropolis. The Indian influence is stronger here than anywhere else in the Caribbean, and is seen in the faces of islanders, the architecture, food, and religion of the island, where nearly one quarter of all residents are Hindu.

At some resorts, an imported culture, exotic and alluring, bring to vacationers an atmosphere from halfway around the globe. Wisps of fragrant incense greet couples as they step into the open air lobby of Sonesta Beach Resort Anguilla, a sparkling resort that's distinctly Moroccan that lines a lanky white beach. The two of you will be saying "Play it again, Sam" as you dine to the sounds of a piano in an open-air restaurant decorated with hand-tiled Moorish mosaics and views of the Caribbean framed by Moroccan arches.

SOMETHING BLUE

The true island treasures that every Caribbean nation shares are miles of beaches rimmed with clear, warm water. The activities in these waters are endless: sailing, windsurfing, water-skiing, the list goes on and on.

For some couples, romance means setting their own course for island bliss aboard a chartered yacht. While this may sound like the "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," many honeymooners find that it's comparable in price to a stay at an island resort. "It is one of the least known vacations out here," says Captain Don Chandler, who with his wife and chef Susan operates the charter yacht S/V Sopris out of St. Thomas. "It's an all-inclusive but basically the client is in charge. Or look at it as a bed-and-breakfast with a different view every morning." From St. Thomas as well as the British Virgin Islands and Sint Maarten, many lovers charter yachts for a week spent mooring off secluded beaches accessible only by boat.

If you want to venture beneath the waves, you'll find some of the top dive destinations are the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, and Bonaire. Divers can hand feed sharks on guided dives in the Bahamas or pet sting rays in the Cayman Islands. Or if you're just looking to snorkel hand-in-hand, coral reefs lie scattered just yards from shore throughout this romantic region. Just off the coast of St. Croix lies beautiful Buck Island, where an underwater snorkel trail winds its way along colorful corals and brilliant marine life.

For other lovers, there's nothing more enjoyable than a day spent lying along a stretch of toasty sand, listening to the gentle murmur of the waves. Luscious beaches are found throughout the Caribbean and the Bahamas. They range from secluded strips of sand where the two of you will make the only footprints on islands like the Turks and Caicos and Anguilla to hip-hopping beaches that are the most happening place on the island, spots like Seven Mile Beach in Negril, Jamaica and Orient Beach in St. Martin.

Orient Beach, like most beaches on the French islands, is topless in the true European style. One stretch of this beach is also clothing-optional, a place where the two of you can lose your swimsuits and cares and swim like sleek dolphins in the surf. Jamaica is also home to many resorts with nude beaches, some of which offer a relaxed, private atmosphere, others that bustle with bacchanalian fun such as at Hedonism II and III, where guests come to leave their inhibitions behind, seeking pleasure in the form of buffets to tempt the most devoted calorie counters, bars that remain open until 5 a.m., and nonstop adult fun.

For other couples, naturalist rather than naturist may be the order of the day. There's no better place in the Caribbean to enjoy beachside camping than the US Virgin Island of St. John, a tiny treasure of just 28 square miles. This is the eco-tourism capital of the Caribbean, a place where you and your lover can hike, snorkel, and tour an island where two-thirds of the land is preserved as a national park. And when it's time to take a dip in the Caribbean waters, a cozy cove that's just right for you awaits: Honeymoon Beach.