The ABCs of the Caribbean Islands

Caribbean Islands

Shira Levine, AOL

Choosing an island getaway shouldn't be dictated by whatever sweet deals the airlines happen to be plugging. There are a whopping 28 island nations and 7,000 individual islands that comprise the Caribbean, and their personalities differ dramatically.

Rainforest toucans and monkeys aren't found in desert destinations. Soft, pink sandy beach time can't happen on an isle where waves crash against a rocky coast. And it's definitely tough to use Spanish on an island that speaks French, Dutch and the tongue-twisting...Papiamento? Climate, topography, and colonial history give each island a distinct character and flavor. To help the brainstorming process, here are five islands to explore beyond the popular and oft too touristy old faithfuls.

Saba: Bare Bones and Au Natural
Caribbean Islands

Cees Timmers Photography

Some might find a Caribbean island that lacks a beach to lounge and frolic along unappealing, but that's actually what makes Saba special. At just five square miles, Saba is accessible only by plane and ferry from nearby St. Martin. Opt for the twelve-minute Winair flight over cruising on the 1.5 hour, frequently nauseating "The Edge" or "Dawn II" ferries. (Although flying also requires a bit of a strong stomach because Saba has the shortest commercial runway in the world - just 1,300 feet - and built on a cliff!) With fewer than 1,500 residents spread through four major villages, Saba is for those who want something decidedly less developed and low-key. As a result, the island's been able to hold strong to its reputation as "the unspoiled queen" thanks to a well-protected, bio-diverse ecosystem.

So with no beaches what do tourists come to Saba to do? Divers come for the pinnacle and seawall dives. Hikers come to climb the well-marked trails that don't require a guide, including the physically-challenging Mt. Scenery. Request Crocodile James from the Conservation Foundation to guide the only unmarked hike: the North Coast trail. Those inclined to enjoy more leisurely jaunts take in the island's Dutch colonial history, reflected in the quaint architecture with white siding, red roofs and green shutters.

There's little nightlife, no casinos, big cruise ships, and fast food chains on Saba. In lieu of the all-too-common all-inclusives that litter the Caribbean, guesthouses decorate the island. El Momo Cottages in Windwardside has a pool to make up for the absence of beach and hammocks for those gentle sunny and shaded naps. Cottages are priced from $50 for a single with a shared bathroom, to $105 for a double with a kitchenette.

With so few people living on Saba, Swinging Doors Restaurant is the island's very own Cheers. Visitors fast become regulars and heartily devour the all-you-can-eat BBQ for less than $15. Charm substitutes luxury here so life on Saba is less expensive than on most other islands.

St. Lucia: The Tropical Island Trifecta
Caribbean Islands

The Residences at Sugar Beach

This little island packs a big, tropical punch with it's lush, foliage-covered mountains, a winding rainforest terrain, and a dormant yet geothermally active volcano. (The brave can drive right up to it!) The northern part of the island is dryer, less green, and home to cruise ship docks which release throngs of tourists. But the southern and western portion is all metaphor and tranquility with the epic Pitons - two volcanic mountains flanked with vibrant greenery and fed by short, daily rain spells that leave behind vivid rainbows.

Jalousie Plantation Resort
rests between the twin peaks and overlooks the beach. This kind of relaxing doesn't come cheap, though: The Grand Luxury Villas average $850 a night. Some packages throw in a treatment from the new Rainforest Spa, an Amer-Indian-inspired, post-modern-chic, Swiss Family Robinson collection of treehouses created by Caribbean starchitect Lane Pettigrew. The addition of The Sugar Beach Residences ups the cachet and preciousness. (Sugar Beach maintains that as a UNESCO Heritage site, over development and additional building is closely monitored.) Plus, with prices $2.4-$9 million, the number of people who can afford a second home here est petit. Pierce Brosnan is a fan.

In St. Lucia, most tourists are content staying on-resort, but Soufriere a town near to the Pitons is worth a visit to explore the Qualibou volcano. There's also the sulphur baths, a cacao plantation, and the Diamond and Enbas Saut Falls located within the rainforest. On Friday nights, head out with the locals to a fish fry, an outdoor block party in the town of Anse Le Raye. (Try the local delicacy: barracuda!) Another Friday regular event is the "jump up" in Gros Islet, a musical block party where locals and tourists unite to let loose.

Note: With gas prices high, when taking the pricey taxis, beware of drivers who fill their tanks up with half gas, half water, as you might be pushing your ride home from the "jump up" or to one of the two airports. (A quicker alternative to and from the airport if staying in the south and flying out of the Hewanorra International airport with direct flights to the U.S., is by speed boat. However, it's risky if it rains.)

St. Martin: Good Food and Beaches Twice Over

Caribbean Islands

St. Martin Tourist Office

This island's bipolar identity crisis is more relaxing than anxiety-causing. There are distinctly Dutch and French sides of the island - it's the smallest land mass in the world to be divided between two governments - which hold strong to their colonial heritage and means juggling two cultures, languages and cuisines. (Really it's five languages as American English, French Creole and Dutch Papiamento are used too.)

The French side is inarguably the better half. It's notably more laidback, less developed and sophisticated, but also has a nude beach where the shapeless shamelessly let it all hang out. The French side has also been dubbed the "culinary capital of the Caribbean," yet with such good grub, the prices get steep. The tasting menu at Le Cottage, a restaurant in the Grand Case block of international gourmet fare defines haute cuisine, but can easily result in a $200 bill for two.

The Dutch side is more lively and festive (though some might also describe it as "the tacky side") with bright lights, casinos, and nightclubs. Philipsburg is the island's commercial center. The main shopping area, Front Street, is lined with jewelry shops owned by Indian families who sell high quality gems and gold for very competitive prices.

An island saying is certainly applicable: "Party on the Dutch side, and sleep on the French side if you want to stay out of trouble." Le Petit Hotel in Grand Case is a favorite sleep spot. Off-season prices hover between $265 and $375 per night. La Sammana is famously tops for its decadent food and spa menus and the heavenly Infinity pool overlooking the beach. Prices through the end of the year average $445/night.

Note: The beach by the Princess Juliana International Airport is the loudest, but also possibly the island's most visually exciting. Located walking distance from the international terminal, and steps from a rowdy bar with a sign listing flight updates, last call beach lovers can feel the breeze of landing planes as they zoom overhead - seemingly within arm's reach.

Aruba: A true desert island and the best beaches

Caribbean Islands

Aruba Tourism Office

Flat and arid, Aruba is Arizonian in feel with sand, cacti and the local divi divi tree. Arubans share their land with donkeys, goats and iguanas. This island's sand is soft and white, the water is warm, and the sandbars extend out far for wading far from shore.

Aruba's waters are perfect for snorkeling and scuba. In addition to Finding Nemo-esque brightly-colored fish, scope out the fascinating underwater tragedy that was The Antilla, a German freighter shipwreck. With Viator, a boat cruise and snorkel prices around $50.

Designer outlets and bargain prices lure people from the hot sun into air conditioned malls and boutiques. In Aruba, prices can drop as much as 35% lower than those in the United States. There are seven serious shopping centers to hit up: Royal Plaza, Renaissance Mall, Renaissance Marketplace, Paseo Herencia, Palm Beach Plaza, The Village and South Beach Mall, which carry everything from Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Mango, to local shops Baci da Roma, Moda & Stile and Kapricho.

Aruba dominates in the family resort category. The Occidental Grand Aruba has a daily kids club that offers free programming for little ones 4 to 12 years. There's also a "Fun Club" option for the entire family to choose from day activities and night action. Rooms average at $418/night.

For non-sun worshippers (or the very burned), visit the Aruba Aloe Museum & Factory where the history and production of the healing plant is explained and the gift shop carries a bevy of aloe products for pre- and post sun protection.

Head to one of Aruba's sister islands for a day trip: Bonaire is the Aruba of yesteryear and noted for its excellent diving. Curacao is the posher European island. Jaunt to Bonaire via a short shuttle flight on Tiara Air and to Curacao through Dutch Antilles Express, Insel Air and Tiara Air. Flights typically depart early and late in the day.

Cuba: The Unknown Jewel of El Caribe

Caribbean Islands

Shira Levine, AOL

The combination of photography, cinema, and wild tales has created a tremendous curiosity about Cuba for the Americans who fantasize about the forbidden island a mere 228 miles from Miami. Although the embargo is over 50 years strong, plenty of American travelers have slipped onto Cuba's shores either indirectly through other countries, or by dropping significant dollars on U.S. government-approved humanitarian aid trips.

Old Havana can't be missed if not for the atmosphere alone. At almost 500 years old there's understandably much to take in: the peeling paint and weather-worn facades of the tropical Baroque buildings, the 1950s American automobiles and 1970s Russian rides cruising along el malecon, and the packs of people sitting outside playing backgammon, talking and laughing until it grows dark because they're avoiding their air-conditionless homes.

Head to the cafes Ernest Hemingway frequented, like La Bodeguita del Medio and Bar Floridita. Hit up worthy tourist spots like the Plaza de Armas, Plaza de la Catedral and Plaza Vieja that help make the country such a curious place. Rent a bike for Havana, and a car for sightseeing outside of the capital city.

Renting a car is expensive but the best way time-wise to explore the country. Carry a stack of single dollar bills - American credit cards can't be used in Cuba and it's tough for an outsider or extranjero to score some Cuban pesos. While driving along the autopista check out the vintage propaganda billboards and signage in support of the revolution, Fidel Castro, Che Guevarra and a stronger Cuba. Try to only drive during the day as cars share the road with people, horses, carts and cars without any nighttime lights.

In Old Havana there are old world hotels like the Hotel Santa Isabel. The Baroque-style boutique hotel has scored visits from stars including Jack Nicholson, Bruce Willis, Jimmy Carter, and Pedro Almodovar. Some tourists opt for the even more authentic with a casa particular (the private home of a Cuban, an illegal, off-the-books yet popular choice). This is a cheaper option and the room rate goes to the host, not the government.
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