Romantic mansions recall the colonial days under Spain, France and Britain, but the beat of the music comes from black Africa, and immigrants from India have thrown their fiery spices into the cooking pots. Every island has a landscape of its own, and island hopping is a world tour in miniature.
Reggae and joie-de-vivre, perfect beaches, golf courses, the Blue Mountains and coffee - that's Jamaica. At the same time, Kingston struggles with the problems of an overflowing metropolis. Barbados, the most British of all, is unconventional enough to move its carnival to the summer to avoid competition from Trinidad, whose carnival is an unbeatable spectacle. Saint Lucia and Grenada tempt you with bizarre volcanoes and spice plantations; Antigua and Barbuda offer fine beaches and the spectacular Sailing Week. Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao are outstanding diving venues.
Guadeloupe and Martinique have a very French feel, with excellent food to complement the beaches and the beauties of the natural world. There's one Caribbean phrase you learn right from the beginning: "soon come" means "take it easy".
Sun, sound and good vibrations, nearly constant sunshine, Caribbean rhythms and the ever-changing colors of the sea are only parts of the jigsaw puzzle that makes up this island's beauty. Visitors to Jamaica can choose between luxurious all-inclusive resorts and magical private villas, between perfect beaches and the solitude of the Blue Mountains, where nature in the raw offers spectacular prospects to walkers and mountain bikers alike - at no extra charge. "Laid back" is the best way to describe Jamaica, and if you're lucky, maybe you can take home a little "cool running" as a wonderful souvenir.
Negril, one-time capital of flower power, has kept its reputation as an alternative paradise, even though the hippies have long since blended into the establishment. Beach life and reggae still set the tone for this town on the west side of the island. Its heart beats in Kingston, with its luxury and poverty, distinctive art and crass commercialism side by side. Music fans make their pilgrimage to the Bob Marley Museum to pay homage to the legendary musician. Most of the big concerts take place in Montego Bay - but anyone looking for some peace and quiet can visit the mysterious mountains of Cockpit Country.
Lava-black beaches, every shade of green in the world, mighty waterfalls in the lush rainforest, and picturesque creole villages are all part of the magic that is Guadeloupe. In the capital Pointe-a-Pitre, whose eccentric charm is worth exploring, seductive markets tempt the senses. In the East is Pointe des Chateaux, an Eldorado for surfers, who can ride the waves back and forth between the Atlantic and the Caribbean. The underwater world around Guadeloupe is fascinating and full of mystery, reflecting the grace and charm of the island itself.
The Route de la Traversée in the irresistibly beautiful Parc Naturel de la Guadeloupe offers a world of adventure. Spectacular views, strolls with raccoons or physically demanding trips to the crater of La Soufriere - the wilderness fascinates young and old alike. Le Gosier offers high life under the palms: over a glass of Ti-Punch, the national drink, you can get even closer to the Caribbean spirit. The far-from-morbid cemetery of Morne à l'Eau is a veritable city of the dead. Also dedicated to the past is the Musée Archéologique Edgar Clerc, which preserves a colorful record of the island's colonial days. The cultural highlight of this party-loving island is the "Fête des Cuisinieres" in August, when the cooks parade through the town in their finest costumes.
French cuisine and savoir-vivre, Caribbean climate and nature, mixed with a dash of African culture - voilà Martinique. Slavery and natural disasters have marked the island's history, but beaches out of the Caribbean picture book, a lush rainforest with positively extravagant vegetation and the lively capital Fort-de-France, with its smart shops, are part of the picture too.
From Fort-de-France, the Route de la Trace, the most beautiful road in Martinique, heads North into the mountains. Nobody with a penchant for unusual architecture should miss the Bibiliothèque Schoelcher, before making for the fascinating highlands outside the town. "All about bananas" could be the slogan of the banana museum on the east coast, on the former sugar plantation known as the Habitation Limbé. The cultural history of the yellow fruit is documented here, from cultivation to shipment. Picturesque coastal roads lead toward the south, where magical coves and sleepy fishing villages appear around every bend in the road.
Even today, the island has a very British feel, and not just because of the lovely green hills and rugged Atlantic coast so reminiscent of the Old World. The architecture also recalls English villages, and the penchant for plants and the strict observance of tea time owe less to the laid-back Caribbean than to the British way of life. Only the climate is 100% Caribbean, making Barbados a year-round dream destination - and not only for honeymooners.
An excursion in the footsteps of Robinson Crusoe along the east coast is magnificent. Bridgetown, the capital, is thrilling - not for its office complexes but rather for the peaceful co-existence between modernity and tradition. In the middle of it all is the synagogue, the oldest Jewish place of worship in the New World, lovingly restored by the National Trust. The whole spectrum of exotic tropical plants is assembled in the Botanical Garden. Not far from this idyll is Bathsheba, once a fishing village but now known mainly for Soup Bowl beach, a mecca for surfers who come here to measure themselves against the ocean.
Trinidad and Tobago
The mixture is the thing! Two islands, one state, and the differences could not be greater. The colorful interplay of the various peoples and religions, particularly West Africans and Indians, thrown together in this little world off the coast of Venezuela, is absolutely captivating. In Trinidad, people abandon themselves to the carnival; nowhere are the revelers more crazy, the costumes more original and the mood more exhilarating. Every February, steel bands work two million people into a state of ecstasy.
Introspection and nature are the keynotes on Tobago. Divers flock to Buccoo Reef, one of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world and home to countless tropical fish - a masterpiece of nature. In the enchanting Englishman's Bay, time seems to have stood still. Here, you can easily give in to the illusion that palm trees, sandy beaches and waves constitute perfect happiness. Guided tours are organized by the Asa-Wright Nature Center in Trinidad, a former plantation of incomparable beauty right in the heart of the rainforest.
The epitome of Caribbean beauty is this small island at the center of the archipelago, and the word has gotten around. Like a stage set, the little sugar loaves of the Pitons rise proudly into the blue picture-book sky. The eruptions of these two volcanoes are the reason the island rejoices in beaches of every shade from white to black. Apart from tourists seeking solitude, turtles also love the picturesque coasts, where they come to lay their eggs in early summer. The interior of the island, on the other hand, is all green; here, the lush splendor of the rainforest predominates, and many Forest Reserves exist to ensure that it stays that way.
The trip to Soufriere is an experience in itself, and the little town is a perfect gem - pure Caribbean. There is sulphur in the air as you approach Sulphur Springs crater, jokingly described as a drive-in volcano, bubbling away quietly to itself. Everyday island life can be experienced in Castries, where the small farmers bring their colorful produce to the covered market on the weekends - a feast for the senses!
Antigua and Barbuda
Nobody knows exactly how many beaches these two Caribbean jewels have competing for the title of the most beautiful. More than enough, certainly; and if you want solitude, you can always find it. Sailors love Antigua for its picturesque anchorages, divers relish the enchanted atmosphere of the coral atoll of Barbuda, and dreamers can enjoy the fine sandy beaches against a backdrop of pure paradise.
A magnet for tourists is the Nelson's Dockyard National Park in Antigua, a unique naval base turned into a living museum. It's a treasure trove for anyone fascinated by the turbulent history of the island and its seafaring past. A must for sailors is the Antigua Sailing Week in early summer, one of the most spectacular regattas in the world. More contemplative, but no less impressive, is a tour to the Nature Reserve of the Frigate Bird on Barbuda, where thousands of these great birds nest - and turn a beady eye on their visitors.
Of course, Grenada also claims the most beautiful beaches, the most picturesque bays and the bluest sea, but that does not set the little island apart from the rest of the Caribbean archipelago. Its trump card is its capital, St. George's. Nestled gracefully on the edge of a volcanic crater, it can only be described as enchanting. Lush green rainforest, mighty waterfalls, and mountains that reward walkers with spectacular views are drawing more and more people to this rather introspective island.
The mighty tree ferns in the Grand Etang National Park are positively eerie, with splendid orchids blazing forth beneath them. Mona monkeys are friendly companions, and grandiose bird songs are a constant accompaniment. No wonder then that strange legends surround the crater lake. The island's gold is in its nutmeg forests, whose fruits are processed mainly in the fishing port of Gouyave - where you can watch and admire. In September 2004, Hurricane Ivan raged across the island and left a trail of devastation. Work soon started to repair the damage, but the process could take some time.
The appeal is in the unspectacular. Small and exclusive, the finest beaches, hotels that could not be more luxurious, but few actual attractions make these little islands a paradise of peace and seclusion. You won't find mass tourism or rainforests, but top beaches at Shoal Bay East and Rendezvous Bay offer something for both romantics and sailors to savor. Architecture is in short supply, because tropical hurricanes wreak such regular havoc; only the number of churches is unusual, which may be due to the fact that there are 36 denominations represented on the island.
One of the few sights is Wallblake House, the oldest plantation house on the island, now owned by the Catholic Church. The art and culture of the colonial period are documented in the National Museum, an initiative of the Anguilla National Trust. Anguilla has been a bastion of shipbuilding since the 18th century. Even today, colorful wooden boats bear witness to the artistry of the locals, and no festival is complete without an exciting regatta.
This island is something special among the pearls of the Caribbean, with its strong American flavour mixed with easy-going Latin-American elegance. Culture fans can stroll through the preserved old town of San Juan, while sun-worshippers can give themselves up to the Caribbean sun on countless beaches, and the more sporting can enjoy the immense and varied range of water sports and other activities on offer on the shimmering turquoise ocean. Those in search of night-life can salsa from bar to bar and experience what everyone on the island knows as "pura vida".
El Yunque on the Eastern side of the island, one of the most accessible rainforests in the world, offers wonderful walks with spectacular sights right by the path, an unforgettable adventure guaranteed. At Parguera, the sparkling Bahìa Fosforescente surpasses any full moon, as tiny micro-organisms light up the night. Especially charming too is Ponce with its old shrines, attractive old town and fantastic views over mountains and ocean.
It would not be quite accurate to call the island pretty - the landscape is quite austere and even desert-like, with big cacti in the east. Then you suddenly find yourself standing on top of steep cliffs, hypnotized by the raging surf. Divers are in their element: the sea is crystal-clear and the coral reefs are extraordinarily beautiful, even for this region. You can explore the mountains on horseback or by car - or even on foot, and the Christoffel National Park offers a wealth of flora and fauna.
Neat and proper with its colorful gable-houses, but nonetheless thoroughly Caribbean, the island capital of Willemstad takes visitors straight to its heart. Its wonderfully preserved architecture from colonial times has earned it a place on UNESCO's list of world cultural sites. One magnificent experience is the floating market, particularly on a Saturday, when traders from nearby Venezuela offer their produce on old wooden barges. All the creatures of the sea can be viewed in the Curaçao Underwater Park - feeding allowed!
The landscape on Aruba is bare and desert-like. In fact, the island is anything but a paradise. That is, if it were not for the beaches, which stretch for miles along the coats, promising idyllic days by the turquoise ocean. That is the trump card for the island's tourist industry, which has made a name for itself with extremely good hotel facilities set in luxurious holiday parks, and spectacular nightlife.
Away from the really entrancing sandy beaches, there are a couple of little gems well worth an excursion. In the caves of Fontain and Guadirikiri, Indians have left traces of themselves that are still not completely understood. In Sabana Besora, Italian builders in the beginning of the last century decorated some apartment houses with pretty ornaments. Another adventure is a dive to the ghost ship Antilla, which has lain off the northwest coast of Aruba for sixty years, and is now home to iridescent fish and gaudy corals.© Berlitz Publishing/Apa Publications GmbH & Co KG, Singapore Branch, Singapore
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