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Top Five: Caribbean Islands

January 15, 2010

Fresh off of a Caribbean cruise, I figured what better topic for Travelverse’s inaugural Top Five list than narrowing down the best Caribbean Islands to visit.  Whether lined with resorts or succumbed to poverty, rich in history or rich in shopping, the seemingly infinite islands of the Caribbean offer a variety of enjoyment and culture – even if only separated by mere miles of ocean.  Granted, I’m no Blackbeard, as I haven’t been to every single dot on the map that’s cluttered between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico; however, I think my island count is somewhere around twenty, which I believe merits me to create the following list…

5) St. Maarten

An island with a split identity, St. Maarten is divided straight across the middle with the French side (Saint-Martin) to the north and the Dutch side (Sint Maarten) to the south – both sides having their own unique identities.

Sunset Beach (Courtesy Matt Coleman)

In Saint-Martin, you can enjoy a latté while people watching out in front of a patisserie.  “Mercí” and “si vous plait” are commonly heard as French (along with English) is the official language on that half of the island.  At the “aéroport”, a daily Air France A340 flight from Paris lands on the world’s shortest international runway, mere stories above onlookers heads at Sunset Beach.  Meanwhile, over in Sint-Maarten, Dutch is the language of choice and there is a surprisingly large number of South Africans, transplanted from a time when the both countries were under Dutch rule.  Though the differences between sides are apparent, colorful Caribbean architecture and looming mansions dotted in the hills are found all over the island overlooking “mega-yachts” anchored in bays owned by the likes of Oprah, P. Diddy and so forth.  French or Dutch, all of St. Maarten has become a destination for  jet setters.

St. Maarten's "Mega-Yachts"

St. Maarten – aside from its obvious beauty – cracks the Top Five because of it’s one of a kind cultural clash.  An island of two worlds (remnants of its colonial past), the only thing keeping St. Maarten from securing a higher spot on this list is its increasingly touristy feel contributed to by its abundance of jewelry shops and duty free stores, which is starting to make the French-Dutch island seem more like the Caribbean’s consumer capital – St. Thomas.

4) Dominica

Often overlooked, Dominica almost appears uninhabited at first glance; however, as this lush, green island grows larger on the horizon, small shanty towns nestled in its hills vaguely become visible.  A throwback to swashbuckling days, Dominica is exactly what you fantasize a Caribbean island being: isolated and desolate – as if a hidden treasure is lost somewhere under the blanket of green felt that coats its densely forested hills.

Dominica (Courtesy of pocruises.com)

Being completely honest, Dominica might not be the best location for casual travelers who prefer their white sand beaches to be butted up next to a five-star resort.  Poverty consumes Dominica; there are no affluent areas, no mega-yachts and no mansion vacation homes.  Rather, there are small buildings and shacks made up of a combination of concrete and scraps of metal.  The island’s residents walk the streets with stern faces, raggedly clothed and sometimes carrying machetes (which are used in cutting off bananas and other fruits from trees).   For a visitor, their first impression of Dominica could be one of hesitation, but muster up the courage to give a simple smile and wave to a curious onlooking local and your initial reluctance will fade away as quickly as a grin erupts on their once expressionless face.

The poverty and conditions of Dominica can be saddening but what the island lacks in resources it makes up for with character.  Unmatched scenary where rainforests flow from mountain peaks to the edge of the shore; locals who – reserved at first – welcome you with warmth and affection; and simplicity, where life moves at a slower pace.  All of which is exactly what a Caribbean vacation should entail.

3) Puerto Rico

I’ve wanted to visit Puerto Rico for years and finally I made my inuagral trip to the unofficial 51st state this past December.  Needless to say, I was definitely not dissapointed.  Not your typical Caribbean island, Puerto Rico is an island rooted in Spanish culture with a dash of Mexico and coated in an American glaze.  Unlike Dominica, American tourists would feel very comfortable here (as Spanish and English are both official languages) and non-American tourists would like the idea of visiting a location that has many American traits without dealing with annoying Yanks.

The Walls of Old San Juan

A good sized island, Puerto Rico has much to offer including El Yunque rainforest and their one of a kind bioluminescent bay; however, Old San Juan itself is reason enough to visit.  Originally built in colonial times by the Spanish to keep out the Brits, Old San Juan is a fortified city, walled off with now-unused lookout posts surveying the surrounding sea.  Within the walls lies shops, restaurants and homes, all lined by cobblestone streets and wrapping around various plazas.  The old buildings – splattered with festive pastel colors and dressed with white window shutters and twisted cast iron railings – are a proudly preserved in their original form, only to be upkept rather than remodeled.

Old San Juan's cobblestone streets

Many would complain that Old San Juan has become too commercial – and those who have seen the area evolve over the last 50 years may have good argument – however, you can still walk its bumpy streets, hearing school children singing Spanish songs as you grab some helado from a street vendor to top off the delicious tacos you just ate at a hole in the wall cantina.  Nothing seems too touristy about that.

2) Barbados

While many Caribbean islands are heavily influenced by their colonial past, Barbados clinches the number two spot for being a country that has truly established its own identity since breaking away from the British rule in 1966.  With their own currency, own language (Bajan) and only 4% European population, the only sign of previous foreign occupation is the left-side of the road driving and the occasional red English phone booth left over from years past.  Barbados is one of the few islands of the Caribbean who have proven they can stand on their own, and with that comes an immense pride that is obvious when you visit.

While it has built itself up, Barbados puts forth an effort to remain small.  There are no tall buildings like in Puerto Rico; in fact, Barbadian law states no building can extend beyond the height of the tree tops, keeping the islands tropical beauty intact.  Beneath these trees the island offers everything possible including resorts, beaches, forests, shopping and nightlife; yet, somehow Barbados does not fall in to the same touristy trap as aforementioned St. Maarten.  Whether its roaming the shops in Bridgetown or hitting the bars in Saint Lawrence Gap, tourists always find themselves side by side with Barbadians – who partake in all the island has to offer just as much as any visitor – which alleviates that touristy, manufactured vibe.

Besides, you can’t not like an island that produced this…

Rihanna (Courtesy GQ Magazine)

1) St. Lucia

Once a hidden gem (and still in many regards), St. Lucia is quickly gaining steam as the best destination in the Caribbean – and rightfully so.  The island has the perfect mix of what one desires in a Caribbean getaway; a vibrant port city surrounded by tall, sweeping, rainforest covered mountains enclosed by a circumference of pinkish-white sand beaches – all of which provides the three necessary elements for an ideal Caribbean island: scenery, culture and relaxation.

Perhaps no other island in the Caribbean looks as magnificent as St. Lucia.  With the highest mountains in the region, the island’s volcanic peaks fade off in to a cloudy mist early in the morning (the best time to explore the rainforest before the day gets too hot), only to reveal themselves later in the day when th fog burns off.  Many zip lines, mountain biking and hiking trails snake through the mountains, where fields of banana trees and waterfall oasis’ can be found throughout.

Cooling off while mountain biking through St. Lucia's rainforest

After spending the first part of the day active in the mountains and taking in the sights, come back down to sea level and explore the more populated towns such as Castries or Marigot Bay, where the St. Lucia’s culture is in display at afternoon markets and bazaars.  Food, trinkets and bric-a-brac a found in abundance, as well as St. Lucian locals living out their daily lives in an atmosphere that makes you feel comfortably at home.

Jalousie Beach (Courtesy Diana)

Lastly, in order to complete the trifecta, it’s time to relax.  St. Lucia offers pristine beaches of multiple variety.  If you prefer a more pampered afternoon there is Reduit Beach, where the neighboring resorts offer beachside service and water spot rentals; however, if you desire a more subdued tanning session, there is is Jalousie Beach, which is nestled at the foot of towering mountains and between the volcanic peaks of the Petit Pitons – whose steep sides extend below water level to create magnificent underwater walls for wanna-be Jacques Cousteau’s explore.  Finish your day off back in town enjoying the sunset with an ice cold Carib beer and your choice of local cuisine – just be sure to top it off with St. Lucia’s own banana ketchup (a sweet twist on french fries’ best friend).

And just like that, you got everything one needs from a Caribbean vacation… and what makes St. Lucia the best over all the other islands is how it does it so effortlessly.

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