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Our favorite Caribbean experiences

SmarterTravel

Finding a seafood feast in the rough. Snorkeling beside sea turtles and shipwrecks. Cannonballing down a waterfall. Leaving the landlubbers behind. Our editors don’t just dream of Caribbean adventures, they experience them. Here are some favorite moments from their travels.

Party like a local in St. Lucia

Erica Silverstein, contributing editor

Friday nights in St. Lucia are a series of parties, many of them impromptu affairs at the side of a road featuring a radio and the island’s own Piton beer. For a taste of the local culture, as well as down-home St. Lucian cuisine, I head to Fish Friday in the small fishing village of Anse La Raye.

Every Friday, the fishermen set up tables, chairs, and cooking stations along one of the main streets in town and serve up the day’s catch. My friends and I survey each vendor’s wares before settling on a large tented space where the cooks are preparing lobster and crab. Tourists and St. Lucians sit elbow to elbow at cramped tables, and our resourceful waiter even finds us fish cakes and grilled biscuits when his cooks run out. After dinner, we watch some St. Lucian men playing a heated game of dominoes, and we pass a few brave dancers grooving to the street music.

Often priced less than $10 per person, dinner at the Anse La Raye Fish Friday offers great value to anyone looking for the island’s freshest fish and an authentic St. Lucian night out on the town. Anse La Raye is located just north of Soufriere on the island’s west coast.

Snorkeling with sea turtles in Curacao

Sarah Pascarella, associate editor

I’m just a few inches under the ocean’s surface at the Curacao Sea Aquarium and I’m wearing a belt with a packet of sardines. I take a deep breath through my snorkel and get closer to the giant sea turtles eagerly awaiting a sardine snack from my outstretched hand.

I swim with stingrays and tropical fish in a cordoned-off corner of the ocean protected from the open sea by a natural rock wall. On one side of the pool, separated by a chain-link fence, are giant sea turtles; on the other, sharks. The turtles preen and jockey for my attention, and I supply them with most of my fish. Then, like pruning shears from above, a pelican beak slices through the water and steals a sardine right out of my hand. I squawk in protest and toss an extra sardine across the fence in hopes of distracting the bird so I can make my getaway. Next up: Feeding the sharks.

The Sea Aquarium‘s Animal Encounters experience costs $34 for snorkel gear, sardines, and an hour of snorkeling. Rates are $54 for an hour of diving, gear, and sardines. If you’re a certified diver and want to explore the Aquarium’s natural reef, the outside reef dive is just $26.

Should you decide against the Animal Encounters experience, entrance to the aquarium is $15 for adults or $7.50 for children. Special admission pricing is available for groups.

Sailing the high seas

Toby Streett, BookingBuddy.com senior producer

It’s January and I’m looking for a good hotel in the Virgin Islands, but a friend recommends I consider chartering a yacht instead. I take his advice and book a 54-foot sloop with my wife and two friends for a week’s vacation—and the cost is lower than some of the nearby resorts.

We load an enormous cooler with our favorite goodies, pack the bags, and soon find ourselves onboard the Baer Necessity, a beautiful yacht complete with all the comforts of home (including air conditioning). Leaving St. Thomas, we sail to Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke, St. John, Peter Island, and an assortment of lesser-known islands. This is indeed the way to go.

Not only do we own our itinerary each day, but if we don’t like a particular place, it’s as easy as pulling up anchor and hitting the next island. No matter where we go, “home” is only a few minutes away. Instead of arranging transportation to and from land-based accommodations for every excursion, we literally step over the side to go snorkeling in Cinnamon Bay or swimming in the labyrinth of The Baths. Finally, no lubber restaurant beats dining on deck while riding at anchor in a secluded cove.

The Moorings and Sunsail are two of the top charter companies in the Caribbean. Charter prices run the gamut depending on seasonality, boat selection, the number of people sailing, what crew members (if any) you want, and several other factors. Weekly rates can range from around $1,500 for a 34-foot boat with no crew to upwards of $20,000 for a fully crewed and provisioned 61-foot catamaran.

Island spices on Martinique

Anne Banas, executive editor

Martinique has a reputation for gastronomic delights that combine elements of gourmet French cuisine with the more laid-back Creole flavors of tropical fruits, rum, vanilla, and spices. But why only enjoy these foods while in port? Some travelers, like me, prefer to bring these flavors back home and recreate them at will. When it comes to finding the best souvenir ingredients, the trick is careful shopping, especially in bigger cities like Fort-de-France.

As with many Caribbean ports-of-call, gift shops in Fort-de-France are strategically placed, practically at the end of the gangway. Shopkeepers know cruise passengers have limited time but loads of spending money. Although these shops sell some kitchen-ready goods, their products often lack local authenticity and are sold at inflated prices.

However, just a 10-minute walk from the water at the Covered Market, I find the mother lode of spices and other culinary goodies that are not only cheap but also the real deal. The market is located on the corner of rue Isambert and rue de Blénac.

This isn’t the place for polished, factory packaged products. Instead, I find dark bottles with hand-written labels marked essence de vanilla (vanilla extract in French), or plastic bags stuffed with saffron and curry tied with nothing more than a twisty. Although not your McCormick staple, these homespun spice packs are neatly arranged in colorful madras-covered baskets, some suitcase-ready, wrapped conveniently in cellophane. For just a few Euros, I bring home a modest bundle filled with ginger, vanilla (extract and bean), Colombo (a spice mix similar to curry powder), and saffron. At the shops by the port, I would have spent the same on vanilla alone.

The market itself smells delectable, and the local vendors are friendly and eager. I’m not sure what I enjoy more, wandering through the stalls or the thought of cooking with my spoils once I return home.

Shipwreck snorkeling off Aruba

Christine Sarkis, contributing editor

The Antilla shipwreck off the coast of Aruba is our second of three stops on a half-day snorkeling trip. Like an iceberg in tropical waters, the only surface sign of the 400-foot freighter lying 60 feet below is the small bit of the ship that pokes out of the waves, an understated introduction that in no way prepares me for what I’m about to find.

I’ve only snorkeled above reefs in the past, so the largest things I’ve seen underwater are modest coral formations and the occasional big rock. The ship that comes into view when I peer downward is so enormous that I have to paddle backwards to take it all in.

The leaning masts are covered in sponges, corals, and other creatures. Sixty-five-year-old ropes drift in the current, catching sea grasses and schools of silver fish. The midday sun casts diffused light into the cracked hull, creating a rainbow made entirely of blues and greens.

I can feel the tradewinds on my back, and six stories below me the Antilla rests on the white sand while fish swim through portholes and down stairwells. This memorable experience is followed by lunch, good music, an open bar, and plenty of swimming and sunbathing time, which in my book is not bad for around $50.

I sailed with Red Sail Sports, though many companies run similar tours. Trips that don’t include lunch tend to cost less, and prices vary by company. Most providers offer discounts for children. Adventure seekers take note: The Antilla is also a popular scuba and night-diving spot.

Adventure waterfall cascading in the Dominican Republic

Molly Feltner, associate editor

After climbing up, over, under, and around a dozen cascades, nearly losing my bathing suit top, and swallowing more than a few mouthfuls of water, I’m finally at the top of waterfall number 12 on the Rio Damajagua, my group’s destination. It’s been a challenging but exhilarating haul to get here—at Damajagua you use only your own strength, the occasional rope or vine, and the helping hands of acrobatic guides to get to the top of waterfalls as high 49 feet. But now it’s all downhill. The fastest way down is also the safest: I jump (and sometimes slide) down fall after fall into swirling pools of amber-colored water, finally working my way up to a flying cannonball off waterfall number one. After that, the half-hour hike out on a trail that’s partially obstructed by a loose bull seems mundane.

The Damajagua falls, a series of 27 waterfalls in the forested hills of the Northern Corridor Mountains, is one of the Dominican Republic’s most thrilling and unique adventure destinations. Only recently discovered by outsiders, guides now lead tourists on “cascading” trips through a portion of this serpentine network of narrow canyons, waterfalls, and rippled rock formations. Cascading is similar to canyoning, the sport of climbing canyons, except that cascading is almost completely non-technical. However, cascaders wear life jackets and helmets, and it’s necessary to be a good swimmer and have upper body strength to safely navigate the falls.

Experienced guides are a must. Iguana Mama, the first licensed adventure tour operator in the country, is the only company that regularly leads groups to the top of the 12th fall (others stop at fall number seven). Iguana Mama’s six-hour Damajagua trip costs $60 per person and includes a light breakfast, transportation to the falls, and a tasty Dominican lunch at a local eatery.

Caribbean dreaming, Antigua style

Josh Roberts, managing editor

After arriving in Antigua on Delta’s inaugural flight to the island, my plane is greeted on the runway with free rum-punch for everyone, a live Calypso performance, and the kind of red-carpet pomp and circumstance befitting a new route aimed at attracting more Americans to the former British property. And it works, too—the flight from Atlanta is completely full, and I’ve been lured to the Caribbean for the first time in my life.

I make way to the upscale Curtain Bluff Resort about 30 minutes from the airport. This is another first for me; I’m not used to forced relaxation or the all-inclusive treatment, but the Curtain Bluff changes my perspective. My suite is just seconds from the resort’s private surf-side beach, and the cool breeze that wafts through my room is infused with a sand-and-salt feel that’s uniquely Caribbean. The beach-side wall of my suite is dominated by a giant screened door, and the waves beyond are loud enough to drown out the rest of the world.

I close my eyes and relax on the bed, lulled by the surf and sea air into the calmest sleep I can recall. When I wake hours later, I’ve experienced my own Caribbean dream: instant relaxation, Antigua-style.

The Curtain Bluff Resort is open year-round, even during the region’s low season when many hotels and restaurants close for refurbishing. Rates start at $595 per night for two people ($495 for a single), and include all meals, bar drinks, and recreational sports activities.

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