BY Meredith Blake
DAILY NEWS WRITER
Sunday, May 16th 2010, 4:00 AM
The Caribbean may seem like the destination of choice for laid-back, do-nothing vacations — but there’s a whole lot more to do than just sip pina coladas.
After all, with 115 main islands, plus thousands more tiny cays, and nearly as many different cultures and landscapes, there’s truly something for anyone — whether you’re an adventurer or the more mellow type, a beach bum or a history buff.
1. Gros Piton and Petit Piton, St. Lucia
The natural beauty of St. Lucia is not limited to its powdery beaches. With its verdant rainforests, extinct volcanoes and waterfalls, this small island is a little bit like Hawaii without the long plane ride. Overlooking Soufrière Bay are the two thickly forested peaks known as Gros Piton (nearly 3,000 feet) and Petit Piton. Though it’s taller by about 200 feet, Gros Piton is less steep and therefore more accessible to climbers. The adventurous can climb Gros Piton but must first be approved by the St. Lucia Forest & Lands Department (758-450-2078). If you’re not quite ready for this type of expedition, the island’s dense vegetation is ideal for zip-lining. Rain Forest Trams offer guided canopy tours and zip-line excursions starting at $69 per person.
2. Floyd’s Pelican Bar, Jamaica
The world-famous Pelican Bar gives new meaning to the expression “watering hole.” A ramshackle structure surrounded entirely by water, it’s on a sandbar in Parottee Bay, less than a mile off the southwestern shore of Jamaica. From his watery perch, Delroy (Floyd) Forbes serves up Red Stripe beers, fresh lobster curry and his signature drink, The Pelican Perfection. If you want to make the trek, be sure to call Floyd himself (876-354-4218) ahead of time to make sure there’s space for your party. A number of local tour operators run trips to Pelican Bar; they vary in price, but try Jake’s Island Outpost at $25 a head. (1-800-OUTPOST,
3. Grace Bay Beach, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos
Just a three-hour plane ride from New York, Turks & Caicos is an increasingly popular tourist destination just east of the Bahamas. Though a lot smaller than its neighbor to the west, it can more than hold its own. The most developed of Turks & Caicos’ 40 islands, Providenciales — known affectionately as “Provo” — is also home to one of the world’s most stunning beaches, Grace Bay Beach. A 12-mile arc of powdery white sand and turquoise waters, the beach is home to a number of resorts, both high-end and more affordable. Stop for a drink at any number of beachside bars along the way, then head to local landmark Da Conch Shack (made even more legendary on a recent episode of “The Real Housewives of Orange County“) for super-fresh conch salad — they harvest the conch right in front of you.
4. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
Until someone finally perfects time travel, the closest thing to pre-Castro Havana any of us will be able to experience is Old San Juan. Luckily, all you need is the price of airfare (Jet Blue has several direct flights each day to San Juan). Founded in 1521, San Juan is the oldest city over which the American flag flies, and its famed historic district is a Caribbean must-see. A mere 465 years in age, Old San Juan was originally a military stronghold, but now its winding cobblestone streets and brightly colored Spanish colonial buildings are home to a thriving commercial district. Be sure to check out El Morro, the iconic fort overlooking San Juan Bay, and the trompe l’oeil ceiling at Catedral de San Juan Bautista — which also houses the tomb of explorer Juan Ponce de León.
Legends of Puerto Rico offers a day or nighttime tour for $35 a head.
5. El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico
Twenty-five miles east of San Juan lies the 28,000-acre El Yunque National Forest, full of trails that are clearly marked and easily navigated. In other words, no guides necessary, though it is recommended that you stop by El Portal, the park’s information center, and arm yourself with some maps before heading out. The forest is home to 23 species of trees found nowhere else on the planet. For a romantic stay in the jungle, you can stay in a rustic cabin for a mere $40 a night (
The Caribbean is hardly short of scenic snorkeling places, but the island territory of Bonaire, part of the Netherlands Antilles (aka the islands near South America) is a hot spot for snorkelers and scuba divers. The island bills itself as “Diver’s Paradise,” and it’s not an exaggeration. The calm waters surrounding Bonaire are a protected marine park teeming with coral and 470 species of fish. Many of the best snorkeling sites — marked by yellow stones along the road — are just off shore, so there’s no need to charter an expensive boat. Snorkelers must purchase a $10 nature tag (it’s $25 for dives) before taking the plunge. Visit tourismbonaire.com for a list of snorkeling sites and tour operators. Guided snorkel trips are relatively inexpensive — about $30 per person.
7. Trinidad during Carnival
Anyone who thinks Jamaica is the music capital of the Caribbean, think again. Trinidad, located just off the eastern flank of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean, is home to unique musical sounds that reflect its diverse cultural identity. Calypso originated here, as did the steel drum, made from the discarded barrels used by the booming local oil industry. A newer offshoot of calypso, known as soca, now predominates. The island’s musical tradition truly comes alive during Carnival, two riotous days of partying that precede Ash Wednesday every year. The festival is dominated by a number of musical competitions, including prizes for the best steel band and best soca performer. The next Carnival will take place March 7 and 8, 2011. Check with the Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Board for more information, 888-535-5617.
Whale watching in Boston? Sure. But the Dominican Republic … say what? It might sound strange, but in recent years, Samaná — two hours from Santo Domingo on the northeastern edge of the island of Hispaniola — has become a mecca for whale watchers. From January to March, thousands of enormous humpback whales descend upon Samaná to mate, with hundreds visible at any given time. Think of it as their very own version of spring break in Cancun. A number of companies run affordable whale-watching excursions. Try Whale Samana, (809) 538-2494,
8. Eleuthera, the Bahamas
Tourists and ripoffs are as thick as flies in Nassau, so for a truly laid-back Bahamas experience, try the island of Eleuthera, some 50 miles away. You’ll have to take a small prop plane or ferry to get there, but the brief journey is worth it. Eleuthera is famed for its pink sand beaches, a result of the many crustaceans in the local waters, and for its friendly locals. Stay at the quaint Pineapple Fields near Governor’s Harbour, a collection of charming cottages set in a thicket of gorgeous flowers and palms, and check out the live music while sipping a Kalik (the Budweiser of the Bahamas) at Tippy’s, the famous beachside bar just across the road. Lodging starts at $160 a night, (877) 677-9539.
10. Nassau, the Bahamas
Atlantis is a resort that hardly needs an introduction. The ginormous development includes a 63-slip marina, a 5-million-gallon water park and a dolphin sanctuary, all clearly visible from the plane as you land in Nassau. If you’re planning to visit and not just fly by, the most compelling reason might just be the slots. That’s because Atlantis also is home to the largest casino in the Caribbean. There are 850 slot machines and over 90 gaming tables — including black jack, poker and baccarat — and the main casino is open 24 hours a day. It’s truly an ideal place to indulge your “Casino Royale” fantasies and, let’s face it, part with a few bucks while you’re at it.