Secluded beaches, unlikely excursions, hidden attractions and under-the-radar restaurants. Discover some delightfully unexpected gems in four Caribbean destinations.
Montego Bay (MoBay to the locals) is Jamaica’s tourist mecca, thanks to a large cluster of hotels situated along eye-popping beaches, and to plenty of tropical sunshine. To get the most out of your journey, venture outside the all-inclusives and open yourself up to the more local side of Jamaica, where you’ll find offbeat historical and cultural gems, dining beyond the buffet table, and a whole new way to look at the ocean.
Meet a Rasta: In popularizing reggae, Bob Marley spread his Rastafari roots worldwide, yet Rastafarianism remains an obscure culture. The Rastafari Indigenous Village is a residential community in MoBay that gives you a peek into what it’s all about. Your guide will introduce you to native plants, show you around a Rasta kitchen and give you a chance to drum and chat with local Rastas.
Try some local fast food: Jamaica’s most famous dish is jerk chicken, and it’s definitely a must-try. But, for more low-key local flavours, be sure to taste a patty. You won’t find one at your hotel. Juici Patties is a popular Jamaican fast-food chain where you’ll see locals from all parts of society. Try the chicken and beef patties, which feature strong notes of curry and are nestled inside hot, flaky dough.
Dive at Runaway Bay: Many of Jamaica’s reefs have suffered from overfishing, but good dive spots do exist. Jamaica Scuba Divers in Runaway Bay, about an hour’s drive from MoBay, can guide you to some of these spots, including the Canyon site, where you’ll dive between two reef walls that drop down to more than 130 feet and likely encounter schooling Bermuda chub.
Chill out: Seek out a “chill spot,” which is a Jamaican term for bar shack. These spots are ubiquitous throughout the island, even inspiring a recent hit song, the aptly named “Chill Spot” by Jamaican artist Christopher Martin. Try the Reggae Bar on MoBay’s popular Hip Strip and order overproof rum with Ting, a citrusy soda, for a classic Jamaican drink.
Hidden gem: Johnny Cash lived in Jamaica for part of each year after he bought a home there, called Cinnamon Hill, in the 1970s. Take a tour of the place—a 20-minute drive from the airport—and see his belongings as he left them before he died. The house sits on the haunted Rose Hall plantation, home of Annie Palmer, a.k.a. the White Witch, whose murderous exploits will be recounted by your guide. —Aileen Torres-Bennett
When it comes to popular sun destinations, Punta Cana is a relatively new kid on the block. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the tourism industry caught on to the fact that the Dominican Republic’s easternmost tip is home to spectacular, virtually untouched beaches. This eventually led to the opening of a fresh crop of contemporary all-inclusives and attractions that offer innovative, out-of-the-ordinary experiences.
Roll cigars: Cigar aficionados regard Dominican stogies as among the best in the world. Many tours visit factories where you can see artistry in action as leaves are cut and deftly shaped into cigars. But, for those who prefer a hands-on approach, a number of resorts (Zoëtry Agua, Paradisus Palma Real and Paradisus Punta Cana) have complimentary cigar-rolling classes for guests.
Taste Dominican chocolate: The Dominican Republic’s tropical climate makes it a perfect spot for producing cocoa beans, the star ingredient in chocolate. At ChocoMuseo in Punta Cana, you can experience it right at the source by rolling up your sleeves for a two-hour workshop, “From Bean to Bar.” It includes oodles of samples to taste and a chance to make your own artisanal chocolates to take home.
Ride easy: You can hike through the world-famous Punta Cana Ecological Reserve, but that might seem like a lot of work. Instead, sign up for a four-hour Segway Eco Tour that hits some of the area’s hot spots like a sugar cane plantation, a bee farm and the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park and Reserve, where you can peel down to your bathing suit and jump into one of 12 freshwater lagoons.
Get juggling: At Club Med, the newly opened CREACTIVE by Cirque du Soleil lets both adults and children tap into their inner performer. This giant interactive playground features more than 30 activities, from flying trapeze and juggling to clowning and tightrope, guided by well-trained staffers. Non-guests of the resort can also join the fun thanks to day passes offering access to the facilities.
Hidden gem: There aren’t too many places in the Caribbean where you can watch a polo match that pits top players from around the world against one another, but that’s just what you’ll find at Casa de Campo resort in La Romana, a 50-minute drive from Punta Cana. The polo season runs from November to April, and the cost of being among the horsey set to see the “sport of kings?” Nada. —Michele Sponagle
Antiguans claim their island country has 365 beaches, one for each day of the year. It’s true that this tiny Lesser Antilles nation, comprised of the two islands of Antigua and Barbuda, is ringed with sandy beaches that could keep you sun-blessed for weeks. But there’s also plenty to explore inland, including old sugar cane plantations and abandoned fortresses from the golden years of British colonialism.
Savour the sunset: With silky sand bookended by a rocky volcanic headland and intertidal pools full of bleached coral and sea urchins, Turner’s Beach, south of Jolly Harbour, is not fronted by a resort hotel and is a prime spot for taking in one of those beautiful Antiguan sunsets. Turner’s Beach Restaurant, meanwhile, serves up delicious catch of the day and other generously portioned items.
Marvel at nature: Devil’s Bridge is a dramatic rock arch on Antigua’s east coast where the warm wind blows and the Atlantic Ocean churns against the rocks. Head to this exposed chunk of topography to truly feel the power of the ocean against a tiny Caribbean island. Every Easter Monday, the sky above Devil’s Bridge fills with colour when locals gather for an annual kite-flying festival.
Party with the locals: Sunday night is party time at Shirley Heights when a weekly barbecue brings Antiguans and tourists together to feast on jerk chicken and lobster, sip a rum cocktail or a cold Wadadli (the island’s signature lager) and dance to the rhythms of the house steel band. From here, you can also spot rocker Eric Clapton’s sprawling estate, which occupies an entire peninsula to the east.
Take a boat tour: For a special tour, choose Sea Escape, a Russian-built hydrofoil. You’ll begin with some snorkelling at Paradise Reef, then move on to Deep Bay, where you can peer through the boat’s glass bottom at the wreck of the Andes, a merchant ship that sank in 1905. Lastly, you’ll go ashore for a beach buffet and then climb up to Fort Barrington, one of the island’s oldest fortresses.
Hidden gem: Located off the beaten track in hill country near the village of Buckleys, Buba’s Hideout is a family-run eatery not to be missed. The friendly spot overlooking lush Body Pond Valley serves up Antiguan soul food like ducana and salt fish and pepperpot. Ask the host to serve you the house specialty, alcohol-free Buba’s Happy Grass, made from lemon grass, mint and other “secret” local ingredients. —Andrew Findlay
Nestled in the warm waters of the southern Caribbean Sea, Aruba is known for its arid climate, windswept fofoti trees and cactus-speckled landscape. Visitors are drawn to its soft, white-sand shores and epic wind and water sports, but there’s much more to this tiny island. From a national park that takes up nearly 20 per cent of the island to a nationally loved sport that takes tennis to the beach, Aruba is a hotbed of hidden gems.
Get zen: Greet the day with a metabolism-boosting Berry-Vocado smoothie at Manchebo Beach Resort & Spa, then drop in for a beachside yoga session at the resort’s airy pavilion, the only one of its kind on the island. Set on the soft, white-sand shores of Eagle Beach, the pavilion is open on all sides, so you can look out over the ocean as the island’s cooling trade winds make each pose a breeze.
Saddle up: On the east side of the island is Rancho Daimari, an eco-resort and dude ranch that sits at the gates to the vast Arikok National Park. Book a guided horseback tour through the park’s scorched rocky landscape, canter along the coastline past Little Aruba (a rock in the shape of the island) and end with a dip in the Conchi natural pool, protected from the rough seas by a circle of rocks.
Dine on the dock: Escape the crowds of the island’s hotel districts and travel south to the historic fishing town of Savaneta. There, take an underwater Seascooter-assisted snorkelling tour with Aruba Bob Snorkeling to see the area’s bounty of coral reef and sea life. Then head to nearby hole-in-the-wall Zeerovers, grab a table on the dock and tuck into a fresh-off-the-boat seafood feast.
Play ball: Beach tennis, a mix of traditional tennis and beach volleyball, is Aruba’s unofficial national pastime, with a league of more than 600 active players. Reserve a court at the Beach Tennis Aruba clubhouse at Tropicana Resort, the largest beach tennis facility in the world, then try your hand at hitting a depressurized tennis ball over the net with an oversized table-tennis paddle.
Hidden gem: Following the introduction of aloe to Aruba, around 1840, the island went on to become the world’s largest aloe exporter. The Aruba Aloe Factory and Museum, on the island’s west side, explores the history of the country’s aloe industry. Take a tour of the factory’s production line to see the plant’s transformation from leaf to lotions, and pick up some souvenirs from the on-site shop. —Diane Bolt
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