LA ASUNCION, Venezuela — This Margarita's not a person or a drink or a tropical storm. On the contrary, Margarita is a large, gorgeous and unspoiled island in the southern Caribbean off the Venezuela mainland.
In addition to splendorous scenes and magnificent beaches (the usual Caribbean calling cards), Margarita, which along with two smaller islands, Cubagua and Isla de Coche, comprise the Venezuelan state of Nua Esparta, is one of those rare places where gracious dining and luxurious accommodations are inexpensive.
For the best of both, try the Bella Vista, the island's oldest four-star establishment and one of its best. The B.V. features several quality restaurants, a mammoth deep-water swimming pool and panoramic views--for about $15 U.S. per person a night.
Our favorite restaurant, Maria Guevara (named after a local hero), features an outdoor terrace that is almost diving distance from the sea.
In addition to Venezuelan fare the island also boasts French, Italian, Mexican, Peruvian and even Arabian restaurants, many of which come highly recommended.
Lush and Opulent
Margarita isn't like the typical Caribbean resort you can circle in a few hours and say you've seen--it's a lush and opulent island with points of interest beckoning in every direction.
Near the center of the island, L'Asuncion, the capital, is replete with beautiful homes and fine tree-lined streets; to the north, Juan Griego (John the Greek), is a renowned shopping center.
Pampatar, on the island's eastern tip, boasts the castle of San Carlos Borromeo. Built by the Spanish in 1662 to repel attacks by buccaneers, the castle remains a striking example of 17th-Century architecture in the New World.
At Laguna Restinga, for about $5 you can charter a boat and spend a whole afternoon gliding through tunnels that nature carved out of a thick mangrove forest surrounding a primeval lagoon.
Without a doubt, however, the island's prime real estate is in the busy commercial hub of Porlamar. Porlamar, which means "by the sea," has everything that the casual visitor might require, from fine dining and beaches to some of the best shopping values in the world.
Because Margarita is a free port, shops from around the world send an enormous variety of duty-free goods into the island's tranquil harbors, from long-playing records (costing about a third of what one pays in the States) to fine handcrafted Italian leather goods and Austrian Swarovsky crystal.
But Margarita's prime attraction is its beloved pearls. Its nickname, the Pearl of Venezuela, derives from them.
To cruise around the island your best bet is to rent a cab. For about $4 an hour you'll be able to get wherever you want to without having to worry about such petty inconveniences as obtaining insurance or filling the tank with gas.
In addition, because most of the island's drivers are native Margaritanos, if you understand a little Espanol you're likely to find that you will be regaled by an eloquent discourse about your driver's spectacular native home.
Car rentals on the island begin at about $69 a week.
Venezuela has been blessed by a superabundance of oil (it's the only OPEC member in the Western Hemisphere), and has become the wealthiest and most stable nation south of the Rio Grande.
With largess came high prices, not just for Venezuelans, but for Americans as well. As a result, Margarita remained the exclusive haunt of rich locals until 1983. In that year the government, responding to pressure from foreign lending institutions and the oil crisis, allowed the national currency to float freely.
And float freely it did! By mid-1987 the dollar fetched more than four times as many bolivares as it had in 1983. Prices on Margarita rose, but not in kind.
For example, while a night in a first-class hotel might have set its guests back more than $100 in 1982, the same room can now be had for about $30.
Several other Porlamar establishments are well worth a visit. The Casa Blanca (Calle Jesus Maria Patino near Avenida 4 de Mayo) features such savories as "layer pastry stuffed with fish pate" for about $8, and some of the island's best tropical fruit cocktails.
The specialty at El Zultan (Avenida Santiago Marino) is "pargo El Sultan," a lightly breaded fillet of red snapper stuffed with sliced ham and covered with a mushroom cream sauce. La Pimienta (Avenida 4 de Mayo) counts among its specialties a local interpretation of the traditional Spanish favorite, paella.
The Margaritano version features a melange of fresh seafood in a stew that also contains chicken, red peppers, onions, garlic and asparagus. The dish, which is intended to be shared by two, costs about $28.
Variety of Appetizers
La Pimienta also serves a variety of about 50 appetizers, specialty drinks and very rich desserts.