The white-sand beaches are talcum-powder soft. There are some interesting and wonderful places to stay. The trade winds are steady enough to fill the sails of yachts that bound over the sparkling Spanish Main. And the several cultures--French, Dutch, Spanish, Danish, African, East Indian and others--are thriving, each with its own style. But all these attributes of the Caribbean are sometimes difficult to find and enjoy.
An overlay of commercialism threatens the region and, while it has added casinos, jet skis, speed boats and swimming pools the size of small amusement parks, you'll have to cut through the clutter if you're searching for the natural, pressure-free way of life that gave these islands their original--and lasting--appeal.
The political problems of a few years ago, when Marxism and capitalism were sparring on several Caribbean islands, are now mostly just lively conversation. Even in Trinidad, where the kidnaping of government ministers by a small Muslim faction made headlines last July, people are slowly resolving treacherous problems with an almost-bankrupt economy. There's an uncertain vacation climate in Haiti as the country continues to writhe in its own political morass, striving toward elections in December. But that's about it for traumatic island headlines.
Of course, weather made its mark with Hurricane Gilbert ravaging the length of Jamaica in September, 1988, and Hugo doing the same for Montserrat and St. Croix in September '89. But outside interests and local folks worked together in all cases; Jamaica, Montserrat and St. Croix look better than ever.
Island governments have become aware of the need to protect the environment and are working to put programs in place before it's too late. And the resentment of tourists that was obvious a few years ago is being addressed by island-based education programs. The biggest problems this season are sky-high rates for rooms and food and an increasing drug problem akin to that known in many U.S. cities.
The best vacation goal is to find places that deliver what you're paying for in the way of service, surroundings and hospitality. My list includes a few hotels and inns, some luxurious villas and several apartments (where you can control meal costs with sandwiches and homemade breakfasts), and some--but by no means all--of the all-inclusive resorts where one prepaid sum covers everything.
Here are some of the season's best bets, by island:
ANGUILLA (sounds like vanilla ), almost flat and embroidered with some of the Caribbean's most sensational white sand beaches, has hit the big time for big prices. Pace-setting Malliouhana hotel, favored by international film stars and others who want to see and be seen, asks $450 per day for two this winter, room only. Equally palatial Cap Juluca, open while still under construction, begins at $390 with breakfasts. And Coccoloba's rooms start at $360 per day, breakfasts included.
Cove Castles' luxurious villas, on southwest Shoal Bay, begin at $690 per night for a two-person villa, and Sea Grapes, on Mead's Bay, charges $750 for its two-bedroom units. At Carimar, also on Mead's Bay beach, at the foot of Malliouhana, one-bedroom apartments start at $285 per night, while The Mariners, the first resort hotel on the island and still one of the most charming, charges $215 for a room.
My choice for good value is a studio at Easy Corner Villas, for $90, in a hillside cluster overlooking Road Bay and convenient to everything when you rent a car. Anguilla is a seven-minute flight from Dutch Sint Maarten's Juliana Airport, about 20 minutes by bouncing boat from the French St. Martin town of Marigot, and about 30 minutes by plane from San Juan, Puerto Rico.
ANTIGUA-BARBUDA, a nation of two formerly British islands, is known for beaches, sailing and impressive 18th-Century buildings (at English Harbour, Shirley Heights and in the capital of St. Johns). My favorite places to stay include quietly secure Long Bay, with its 195Os-style family hospitality, and small-and-beachless Admirals Inn and the Copper and Lumber Store apartments, both at yacht-filled English Harbour. For other apartments, seek out Sibonney on Dickenson Bay or Trade Winds up the nearby hill.
For big hotels with a lot of activity, Dickenson Bay's Halcyon Cove leads the pack. Jolly Beach, on a beautiful beach, is full of European charter groups. Ramada has taken the over-sized Royal Antiguan under its banner, with good results, and Pineapple Beach, which shares the strand with Long Bay, is a worthy all-inclusive resort. Clublike Curtain Bluff, a south coast enclave, and slightly pretentious Jumby Bay, discrete on its own tiny island (under the path of departing jets), are luxury leaders, at $495 to $545 and $895, respectively, for "everything"--except 17% taxes!