Caribbean Advice
February 19, 2011 4:30 PM   Subscribe

The Mrs. & I are looking for a 25th anniversary Caribbean vacation in late summer or fall and, never having been, are kind of overwhelmed. Advice? Experiences? See inside...

Were in our 50s, not that that keeps us from doing anything. Not interested in a cruise & prefer no screaming kids, so we're thinking something more adults oriented (but not a bunch of old naked people), or at least where we can get away from the crowds if/when we want. Not excited about Mexico at the moment, but am open for Jamaica, Aruba, Virgin Isles, Puerto Rico, Belize, Costa Rica, others? Am hoping to keep costs around $1000-1500 per or less. Considering all-inclusive resort, primarily because of the one-stop shopping, but game for more intimate vacation rental by owner approach. I KNOW there must be something better out there. Thinking anywhere from 4-7 days. Don't mind the off-beat but am suffering from experiential ignorance. From East Tennessee, but could fly out of either Nashville or Atlanta. Have seen some earlier post recommending Caye Caulker in Belieze, Dominica & Viegues. Would welcome anyone with recent experience, good or bad, to relate or advice on what did/didn't work for them. Thanks!
posted by Pressed Rat to Travel & Transportation (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I like Jamaica, and prefer to be on my own, but they do drive on the left, on roads that are narrow, windy and frequented by goats, and you do have to keep your wits about you at all times, to avoid scammers, pick pockets, and folks used to making a living on tourists. Staying at an all-in-one resort like Sandals eliminates a lot of hassle: you fly into Montego Bay, their shuttle picks you up and deposits you on their property, and you never need leave, if all your interested in doing is lying about on the beach, reading, swimming pool, sleeping, and eating. For a lot of people, it's great, and you can stick to a budget, just by watching your bar bill, and "extras" (like equipment rentals, SCUBA lessons, etc.). You can, if want, arrange reliable tours and day trips, to outside attractions, too, as extras, and for a short 4-7 day first vacation, you could do a lot worse than stay at an all-inclusive.

But to me, that's "parachute tourism." I like getting the lay of new land, the flavor of new food, and mixing it up with local folks wherever I go, so I look for rental housing, and buy groceries locally, and rent a vehicle, and do as I please. I often hire a "day guide," which will be a local man who takes tourists to major points of interest, if I'm going to the interior of the island (or to Kingston or Negril) or who can watch my car at night if I'm going to town for dinner, etc., You can get recommendations for locals to hire from the local housekeepers and rental agents that handle most independent rental cottages. The north side of the island is largely the "tourist area" with a lot flights in and out of Montego Bay, and cruise ships calling frequently at Ocho Rios. Between Montego Bay, and Ocho Rios is a small town called Duncans, in the province of Trelawny, where I've stayed many times at a beach rental housing development called Silver Sands. A lot of the rental cottages there "come" with housekeeper/cook services, meaning a local woman from Duncans will come in to clean house daily, and will make lunch and dinner, and help you with shopping in local stores. You'll pay her, and feed her, and for the most part she's there as much to make sure you do no damage to the house, as to take care of you. The cottages there are a kind of local industry, and the local people expect vacationers to take care of the properties, and not be throwing wild parties, etc.

From Silver Sands, Ocho Rios is about an hour drive along the coast road to the east, and Montego Bay is about 90 minutes to the west. You can ride a bus from the airport in Montego Bay, out to Duncans, but once out there, without a car, your mobility is going to be somewhat limited, unless you're willing to rely on local buses and jitneys, which can be pretty crowded, and always laid back regarding schedule ("Soon come, mon!"). But there are a lot of things to do in around Ocho Rios, including the falls at Dunn's River, The Ruins restaurant, and various shopping areas. Nightlife in Ocho Rios is pretty vibrant, but a lot of clubs get rough, too. Be careful, if you go out drinking in Ocho Rios dance clubs after dark.

About 20 miles further east of Ocho Rios, along the coast road, towards the Blue Mountains, is one of my favorite places in Jamaica, at Port Maria, namely Firefly, Noel Coward's former house, now maintained by the Jamaican Heritage Trust. Great views from the house and grounds, and a lovely place to take some jerk chicken and picnic.

Lotsa luck if you do go to Jamaica, and try it "on your own."
posted by paulsc at 5:48 PM on February 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I’ve been to a few of the islands but I haven’t done an all-inclusive. My parents really liked Sandals in St. Lucia and Jamaica. I think St. Lucia is really beautiful. Most of the islands can get pricy once you get there so an all inclusive is usually a good way to save money and not have to worry about where to eat. St. Maarten seems to be more affordable food wise than most of the islands I’ve visited. It’s a unique and fun island.

If you want peace and quiet, you might look at St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s very secluded. Not much in the way of night life, but if you are looking for beaches, relaxation and quiet I think it’s a great choice. I think there’s just one hotel there, but you might check with Viva Villas for a house. The company was VI Vacations when I used it so I’m not sure if they have new owners or just a new name. St. John is a 20 minute ferry ride from Red Hook in St. Thomas so you can always go over there for touristy stuff.

I also like Barbados. I’ve only stayed at a hotel there, but I had a great time and the people are really nice. It is a long flight but there are tons of great places to eat and things to see. Really wherever you go, you’ll have a great time. Each island has different things but I’ve never been to one where I didn’t have a great time.
posted by iscavenger at 6:36 PM on February 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Costa Rica is nice. There's an newer airport in Liberia, up in the northwest, that's about 45 minutes from the Pacific coast. This as opposed to flying into San Jose and having to drive at least 2 hours to get to anywhere. We stayed there for a week, rented a small SUV and set about various day trips. Tamarindo and the other nearby beaches were nice. Roads were decent and maps reasonably accurate. Traffic was pretty light.

Cayman, Turks and many other islands have gotten really expensive lately.

Can't beat the snorkeling around BVI. We did a catamaran trip there and absolutely loved it. Wake, eat, swim, sail, drink, repeat... Not cheap, via The Moorings, but wonderfully catered travel. I hear their Belize trips are good too.

One tip, the magazine Budget Traveler has a lot of info, along with listings for various deals. I'm sure better deals can be found elsewhere and online. But we've found at least 3 from the magazine and have been happy with the outcomes. That and their 'true stories' section with reports from readers is often quite hilarious.

All inclusives have pros and cons. They're great if you're in a place where local conditions are not to your liking or just plain unsafe (as in, Jamaica). But you do miss on local culture. That and their food can really be hit or miss. Sucks to spend a lot of money to end up with a buffet of mediocre steam table grub.

A long weekend trip to the Cancun area last Spring was totally fine. They put a lot of effort into maintaining a safe tourist experience in the area. You don't see it though (no overt military patrols, etc). Some of the all-inclusives south of there (toward Playa Del Carmen) would certain be worth considering.
posted by wkearney99 at 6:54 PM on February 19, 2011

I agree with iscavenger about St. John, but there are plenty of hotels including some real beauties. Caneel Bay resort is probaby the best and it's fabulous. The Westin resort is also a stunner. My favorite is Estate Lindhlom which is just outside of town and family run -- truly one of the most beautiful places I 've ever been.

I would avoid the other island in the USVI (St. Thomas and St. Croix). The BVI are much nicer and more similar to St. John.

Another alternative would be the French West Indies -- St. Barts is outstanding but expensive. Anguilla and St. Martin are good and have amazing restaurants.

Let me throw out a non-Caribbean option of Bermuda. It is a very adult (as in, for grown-ups) place. Always listed among the most beautiful islands in the world. Extraordinarily convenient. Infrastructure is light years ahead of anything in the Caribbean. Tons of things to do. It may be expensive however since summer is high season for Bermuda, but it's worth checking into.
posted by dzot at 8:59 AM on February 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

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