Seeking The Green Antilles: Caribbean Eco Adventures

There’s much more to the Caribbean than our glorious sun, sand and sea. The region is a hotspot of biodiversity, boasting gorgeous natural landscapes

–… and furry. Photograph courtesy the Tourism and Hotel Association of Guyana… but the great expanse of the Rupununi Savannah shows another side of Guyana’s natural beauty. Photograph courtesy the Tourism and Hotel Association of GuyanaA brilliant heliconia lights up the forest of the Main Ridge. Photograph by Alex SmailesAt night, Trinidad’s countryside sings with the piping of thousands of tree frogs. Photograph by Alex SmailesDunn’s River Falls. Photograph by Roberta ParkinDunn’s River Falls. Photograph by Roberta ParkinGrand Étang Lake. Photograph courtesy Grenada Board of TourismGrenada’s lush forests are fed by its rich volcanic soil. Photograph courtesy Grenada Board of TourismGuyana’s interior bristles with wildlife in every direction. Photograph courtesy The Tourism and Hotel Association of GuyanaGuyana’s vast rivers are home to creatures both scaly…Photograph courtesy the Tourism and Hotel Association of GuyanaHumpbacks and sperm whales are regularly spotted off Dominica’s west coast. Photograph by Roberta ParkinLooking down into the Valley of Desolation. Photograph by Roberta ParkinPhotograph courtesy The Tourism and Hotel Association of GuyanaSpotting the elusive jaguar is the goal of many visitors. Photograph courtesy the Tourism and Hotel Association of GuyanaThe Blue Mountains. Photograph by Simon YoungThe Boiling Lake. Photograph by Roberta ParkinThe Boiling Lake. Photograph by Roberta ParkinThe Canje Pheasant or Hoatzin, Guyana’s national bird. Photograph courtesy The Tourism and Hotel Association of GuyanaThe Emperor Butterfly. Photograph by Alex SmailesThe island’s fertility is almost shocking. Photograph by Roberta ParkinThe unbroken forest is nearly the size of Great Britain… Photograph courtesy The Tourism and Hotel Association of GuyanaThe unpolluted sea conceals spectacular beauty. Photograph by Roberta ParkinTiny living treasures wait to be found. Photograph courtesy the Tourism and Hotel Association of GuyanaUnder close observation, unexpected splendor unfolds. Photograph courtesy The Tourism and Hotel Association of  GuyanaWaterfalls roar, and a soft rush echoes from mountain gorges. Photograph by Simon Young

Think of a Caribbean vacation, and the pictures that come to mind are of pristine white sand beaches, clear blue water, shady palm trees, gorgeous coral reefs for your snorkelling pleasure, and friendly locals eager to make you welcome. The islands’ natural beauty and the warmth of our people have long been the major attractions for foreign visitors. Yet, until very recently, Caribbean tourism has often developed at the expense of the region’s natural environment and its fragile societies.

Forests and delicate mangrove eco-systems are cleared to make way for big luxury resorts; coral reefs are trampled by sightseers and traumatised by cruise ship anchors; fishermen’s beaches are appropriated for sunbathing. All-inclusive resorts offer visitors a hassle-free, gated Caribbean fantasy, but some of them contribute little to the local economy. Foreign tour operators and investors are often the main revenue earners, excluding local entrepreneurs. And while cultural shows are featured on most hotel entertainment programmes, guests can be cheated of meaningful interaction with local communities, where they would experience vibrant culture in its authentic setting.

Fortunately, a new model of tourism has been evolving, prompted by a rethinking of environmental issues. A worldwide conservation movement has grown from the fringes into the mainstream. One of the results of this newfound environmental awareness has been the development of eco-tourism, a model far better suited to the sustainable development of the small island states of the Caribbean.

You hear the term being used all over the Caribbean these days — what is eco-tourism exactly? In the first place, it is what it sounds like: travel to destinations where the main attractions are the natural landscape, flora and fauna. Usually this is planned so as to minimise any harmful impact on the environment, and there’s often a strong educational element. Eco-tourists tend to be eager to learn about the places they visit, their natural and human history, and like to know their tourist dollars support conservation efforts. But eco-tourism has also come to focus on indigenous cultures, on meaningful interaction with local communities and their cultural heritage.

Most Caribbean territories are ideally suited to tourism on this model. The region is a hotspot of biodiversity, with hundreds of plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world. Our natural landscapes are extraordinarily varied, from densely forested mountain ranges to mangrove swamps and open grasslands. And our local cultures have a great vibrancy out of proportion to our small populations. So it’s no surprise that in recent years governments and entrepreneurs have paid close attention to the development of sustainable tourism, making the most of the region’s natural wealth. Our visitors are the biggest beneficiaries of these efforts.

Over the following pages you’ll find a convenient guide to some of the Caribbean’s best eco-tourism destinations, with a special focus on two: Dominica, the self-styled “Nature Island”, and Guyana, whose vast interior contains the region’s most dramatic and most untouched terrain.

Dominica – The Caribbean as it once was

“The road climbed upward. On one side the wall of green, on the other a steep drop to the ravine below. We pulled up and looked at the hills, the mountains and the blue-green sea. There was a soft wind blowing, but I understood why the porter had called it a wild place . . . I breathed the sweetness of the air. Cloves I could smell and cinnamon, roses and orange blossom. And an intoxicating freshness as if all this had never been breathed before.”

Nearly 50 years after she left her home island, this is how Jean Rhys remembered Dominica in her novel Wide Sargasso Sea: a wild, beautiful, almost shockingly fertile place, where earth and air and water at their most elemental combine in a ruggedly green landscape. Approaching from the air, you’re astonished by the thickly forested mountain peaks, the mornes, breaking abruptly from the sea and soaring to over 4,000 feet; from here south there is no point this high until the mainland of Venezuela. You marvel that small towns and villages have managed to find seaside footholds in this vertiginous territory.

Once on the ground, it’s the constant sound of water that strikes you: streams whisper and waterfalls roar, a soft rush echoes from mountain gorges, and forest leaves drip with life. Dominica is just 29 miles by 16, but the dramatic terrain, 40 per cent of it still covered by rain forest, makes it seem so much larger. “Tall is her body” — Wai’tukubuli — is what the Caribs called this place. Even today visitors share their sense of awe.

At first glance it’s obvious Dominica is not a typical Caribbean destination. Other islands boast of white sand beaches. Dominica’s are more often volcanic black; locals know how good rivers are for bathing and swimming. There are no direct flights from North America or Europe, and you never have the sense of being overrun by tourists. There are no large all-inclusive resorts, but this doesn’t imply hardship; at intimate boutique venues like the Fort Young Hotel overlooking the Caribbean Sea, or the Roseau Valley Hotel — just outside the capital yet set in unspoiled countryside — guests are treated to far more attentive hospitality than they’d receive at a mammoth establishment. Dominica’s allure is something special, something more rare. It reminds us what the Windward Islands were like thousands of years ago, before man arrived. “The Caribbean’s Nature Island” is no vain title, and eco-tourism is the visitor’s natural choice.

For diversity of wildlife, Dominica is a gem in the midst of the Caribbean’s riches. There are 1,000 species of flowering plants here (including 74 orchids), and 200 different ferns. With 172 bird species, Dominica is also an Eden for bird watchers. The rare Sisserou, or imperial parrot — the national bird — is found nowhere else in the world, as is its relative, the Jacquot, or red-necked parrot. The best place to see these treasured birds, especially during their courting season in April and May, is the protected Syndicate estate on the north-west coast, at the foot of Morne Diablotin. On the Syndicate nature trail, look out also for the 500-year-old Chatagnier Ti Feuille tree, “the grandfather of the forest”, and giant gommiers from whose trunks the Caribs still make their dugout canoes.

Just north of here, round Prince Rupert Bay, the Cabrits Peninsula is a national park. A wetland area separates the peninsula’s twin hills, covered with dry forest, from the rest of the island. This is the site of the Georgian ruins of Fort Shirley, formerly one of the most important military garrisons in the Caribbean, but abandoned since 1854. The woods around the fort buildings are a good place to spot several kinds of land crab, and migrant bird species nest in the nearby marsh.

But Dominica’s greatest natural drama is to be found at the southern end of the island, in the 17,000-acre Morne Trois Pitons National Park, established in 1975, and a World Heritage Site since 1998. Within easy reach of Roseau, the park protects some of the best examples of rain forest, elfin and montane forest in the Lesser Antilles.

Named for the 4,672-foot volcanic massif, which from the west appears to have three peaks, the park has a number of trails and hikes, varying from easy strolls to extremely arduous treks. The three most popular sites are the Emerald Pool, Freshwater Lake, and the Boiling Lake. The trail to the Emerald Pool is the meeting point for rain forest and montane forest, and offers excellent close-ups of ferns, undergrowth shrubs, lianas, epiphytes and massive tree trunks. The pool itself is fed by a cascade dropping off the edge of a fern-covered cliff.

The Morne Macaque peak and the Freshwater and Boeri lakes are relics of one of the largest volcanic explosions in the Caribbean’s geological history, which occurred some 5 million years ago. The crater created by the blast measures a mile and a half across. Micotrin is the surviving cone, while the two lakes rest in the lip of the old saucer-shaped crater. Freshwater Lake is accessible by road; but don’t by any means swim here — the lake supplies Roseau with its drinking water. A 45-minute hike will take you to Boeri, the island’s highest lake and the site of a recent hydroelectric project.

But Morne Trois Pitons also offers an encounter with Dominica’s volcanic present, in the form of the famous Boiling Lake. For those with stamina, a sense of adventure, and strong shoes, the six-mile hike is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. (This expedition in particular should not be tackled without a local guide.) The trail climbs through the surreal sulphur-spring landscape of the Valley of Desolation, with its steaming fumaroles, pools of boiling mud, and mineral streams streaked black, blue, yellow and orange, before you arrive at the bubbling cauldron of the lake itself, wreathed in steam.

Sheer green, orange and brown slopes drop 60 feet from the lip of the crater to the bubbling opaque water below. Every now and then the steam clears to reveal a near-perfect circle, 70 yards across, ringed by narrow pastel green shores. Slightly off-centre, a constant whirlpool swirls and churns turbulently, sometimes spitting up a boiling fount. At the eastern end of the crater the steaming water slips over the lip on its way to the sea, visible far down the valley. To the west rise the mountains, whose lower slopes are sparsely clad with wild pineapple, a thick-leafed grass able to survive the sulphurous atmosphere. Higher up there’s dense green vegetation: tough para grass, mountain cactus, wild star apple, clusters of tree ferns and Christmas ferns.

But Dominica’s attractions don’t end at the seashore. The beaches may not embody the tourist cliché, but divers are rapidly discovering the spectacular beauty in the island’s unpolluted waters — reefs dropping suddenly to nearly 1,000 feet just offshore, an array of corals and sponges, rays, sea horses and fish of every hue. The most popular dive sites are in Soufrière Bay — an ancient submerged volcanic crater — and off nearby Scott’s Head, a marine park where mooring is not allowed. At the “Champagne” site, underwater hot springs make the water bubble and fizz. There are thrilling sites at Dominica’s southern tip, in the Martinique Channel, and on the south-east Atlantic coast, but strong currents limit these to experienced divers only. And whale watching is becoming a popular attraction; sperm whales are regularly sighted off the west coast, as are humpbacks. At the least you’re sure to sight a few spotted and spinner dolphins, abundant in Soufrière Bay.

On the wild Atlantic coast, a little way past the bay at Castle Bruce, is a natural rock staircase climbing out of the sea and up a steep headland. L’Escalier Tête-Chien, named for the dog-headed serpent of Carib mythology, marks the beginning of Dominica’s Carib Territory. Since 1903 this 3,782-acre reservation has been home to the island’s small Carib population, now numbering about 3,500 Caribs. Even after centuries of intermarriage with outsiders, there are still families of pure Carib blood in the Territory, marked by their short stature, high cheekbones and long, straight hair.

The Caribs now live much as Dominica’s other citizens do, though some ancient crafts, such as basket-weaving and the making of dugout canoes, are still practised; and for special cultural performances traditional costumes are still worn. To appreciate the real significance of the Territory a local guide is helpful, and conversation with the Caribs themselves is essential. They are the last survivors of an older Caribbean, of a time when all these islands were as green as Dominica still is. Visitors may feel a particular poignance in their Territory, a sense of something lost forever to time. But for the Caribs themselves, this is simply home; they go about the business of everyday life, facing up to everyday problems and everyday pleasures like everyone else.

It’s the same with Dominica itself. The island’s startling natural beauty can be a rueful reminder of what once was, up and down the Caribbean archipelago. But for Dominica’s people and their privileged visitors, this beauty is ultimately a source of great joy, and great astonishment at its sheer abundant excess.

Imagine an unbroken tropical jungle nearly the size of Great Britain, divided by four great rivers, miles across at their widest; imagine one of the highest waterfalls in the world, hidden in unspoiled forest; miles and miles of mangrove swamps alive with parrots, toucans and ibis; vast rolling savannahs, sheltered by soaring mountain peaks; 1,000 kinds of tree, 450 bird species, nearly 200 different mammals. This sounds like the description of an entire continent, but these and other wonders are all contained within bountiful Guyana, the Caribbean nation on South America’s northern coast.

The Guyanese population, and most industry and agriculture, are confined to a narrow strip along the coast; the interior, stretching hundreds of miles back towards Brazil, remains pristine natural territory, much of it still unexplored. Guyana’s eco-tourism has thus developed on a scale unimaginable in her smaller island neighbours. The interior’s enormous forests and isolated grasslands are not impenetrable; eco-friendly tour operators — such as Wilderness Explorers and Evergreen Adventures — have devised many ways for visitors to experience this awesome natural beauty. There are options for all tastes, from intimate yet luxurious resorts to very basic campsites (for roughing-it enthusiasts).

The Shanklands Rainforest Resort, for instance, though it feels quite cut off from the outside world, is only two hours from Georgetown by jeep and boat, close enough for a day-trip to explore the well-developed nature trails and enjoy a leisurely lunch. But when you catch a glimpse of Shanklands’s charming gingerbread cottages, and the breathtaking view of the Essequibo from their verandahs, you may be tempted to prolong your stay, perhaps for a guided trip along the river, or a few days of bird watching.

At the very heart of Guyana’s interior, a million acres of rain forest (an area almost the size of Trinidad) are protected by the Iwokrama International Centre, where scientists study ways to use forest resources sustainably. Eco-tourism is an important aspect of the programme, and the centre’s researchers are always happy to share their knowledge. It’s possible to drive from the coast to the Field Station at Kurukupari, but it’s a much shorter and far more dramatic trip by air, via Annai, a small village on the edge of the northern savannahs.

At the Field Station, visitors stay in simple cabins; it’s possible to arrange trips to more remote camps deep in the forest. The rustic amenities are more than made up for by the astonishing wildlife literally just outside your door: multitudes of birds, monkeys, peccaries; otters, caimans and turtles along the river; arapaima, the largest freshwater fish in the world, at Stanley Lake; and the real treasure, a glimpse of an elusive wild jaguar.

Don’t miss the chance of an expedition on one of the reserve’s forest trails, perhaps to the summit of Mt Iwokrama itself (a difficult trek, not for the easily daunted), or to Turtle Mountain. The view of the unbroken forest canopy stretching away to the horizon defies description; it is a vision of a world untroubled by time, a revelation of the hugeness and wholeness of nature.

But the single most sublime sight you’re likely to see in Guyana is at a place along the Potaro River about 60 miles from Kurukupari, as the macaw flies: the legendary Kaieteur Falls, five times the height of Niagara, surrounded by verdant forest. As Guyana’s great poet A.J. Seymour wrote, “The swift black waters of Potaro’s race / Pause on the lip, commit themselves to space / And dive the half mile to the rocks beneath.”

The overland trip to Kaieteur is for the intrepid; more modest visitors can fly in from Georgetown (to the small landing strip nearby). There’s a humble rest house — the simplest possible hut — at the top of the falls. Look out here for the magnificent silver fox and the famous cock-of-the-rock. Tiny golden tree frogs hide in bromeliads overhead. Kaiteur swifts roost in the great hollows behind the falls. On a day trip, be sure to take swimming gear. No, your guides won’t let you take a dip in the gorge! But after Kaieteur the plane detours to the far more modest falls at Orinduik, where the Ireng River cascades over layers of multicoloured jasper, and you’re encouraged to have a splash in the chilly waters.

The Rupununi Savannah is another Guyana altogether, a great expanse of dry grassland in the south-west, near the border with Brazil. The undulating landscape is broken by clumps of trees, small creeks, the occasional hill; ranching is the main activity. Don’t be fooled by the apparent sparseness; the Rupununi too teems with wildlife, though many animals are nocturnal and thus harder to encounter. Along waterways and ponds you’re likely to see parrots and macaws, hawks and jabiru storks. At Lethem on the Brazilian frontier there’s a big rodeo every Easter, attended by many rugged vaqueros from both sides of the border.

Several Rupununi ranch houses have been converted to hotels or guesthouses; a couple of them are positively luxurious, with airy bedrooms, private verandahs and landscaped grounds. There’s always a nearby creek good for swimming, but keep an eye out for caimans and freshwater stingrays. Getting around can be tricky; roads are few and rough, and ox-carts are more common than four-wheel drive vehicles. It’s best to make your arrangements in advance; and remember that you generally need a permit from Guyana’s ministry of home affairs to visit Rupununi. And avoid visiting during the May-to-August wet season; many areas of the savannahs are flooded then, with a consequent explosion in mosquito and sandfly hordes.

Though Guyana’s population is concentrated near the sea, north-west of the Pomeroon River settlements dwindle and then disappear; the 100 miles of coast between here and the Venezuelan border are as wild and as isolated as the deepest interior. The road ends 60 miles from Georgetown at the little town of Charity; from here on you travel by boat, to visit the remarkable Shell Beach. This protected area — nearly half Guyana’s entire Atlantic coast — is named for the seashell fragments that form the beaches underfoot.

Four species of sea turtles (leatherbacks, hawksbills, green turtles and olive ridleys) nest here, undisturbed by man. With support from donors abroad, former turtle hunters have been retrained as rangers. Nest sites are mapped using global positioning satellite technology, and the eggs removed to a research station to be hatched in complete safety, greatly increasing the young turtles’ chances for survival. And behind the beaches are great swathes of mangrove forest and mudflats, home to yet more parrots and macaws as well as scarlet ibis, spoonbills and flamingos, manatees and tapirs, and the rare river dolphin.

Visitors stay at the Shell Beach camp, run by an Amerindian family. There are no luxury options: guests sleep in tents clustered around a thatched dining-hut, but the seafood menu is superb, and any slight hardship is far outweighed by the sheer natural splendour of the surroundings. Observing a giant leatherback turtle heaving herself from the sea to dig her nest and lay her eggs is an extraordinarily moving experience; for some visitors, it’s the most emotional encounter they’ll ever have with a truly wild creature.

And that, after all, is what makes a trip through Guyana such an intense experience. So much of this land remains truly wild, truly unchanged through long centuries of human history. There are few other places in the world where ordinary people, not just daredevil explorers, can come so close so easily to the natural world untamed, to the wondrous life-force of our planet.

Jamaica

Eco-essentials: hike in the Blue Mountains; explore the Cockpit Country; see 300 fern species at Fern Gully; go bird watching at Bluefields Bay. Look out for the doctor bird; yellow-billed parrot; black-billed parrot; rare Jamaican iguana

When most visitors think of Jamaica, they think of the north coast resorts of Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril, but there’s more to the island than its spectacular beaches. After all, Jamaica’s Arawak name, Xaymaca, means “land of wood and water.”

Geologically, the island is an outcrop of a submerged mountain range. Hikers will find a mixture of green hilly forests, spectacular cliffs, and meandering rivers. Most dramatic of all is the 200,000-acre Blue Mountains/John Crow National Park overlooking Kingston. The botanical richness of these mountains is extraordinary; of Jamaica’s 3,000 plant species, more than 800 are endemic. For visitors who don’t mind a strenuous hike for the sake of a spectacular vista, the seven-mile climb to Blue Mountain Peak — at 7,402 feet, the island’s highest point — provides stunning views of the Caribbean as far as Cuba.

After the Blue Mountains, Jamaica’s most exciting natural landscape is the Cockpit Country further west, an extensive limestone area with numerous caves, sinkholes, mini-lakes and underground passages. Most of this mysterious region remains relatively unexplored. (Don’t even think of going in without a guide.)

Ornithologists will find much to excite them. Jamaica is home to over 200 bird species, with 25 endemic to the island, including the doctor bird­­ — a long-tailed hummingbird which is the national bird — and yellow-billed and black-billed parrots. And the archaeologically inclined will encounter a startling Arawak treasure trove at the Mountain River Cave near Guanaboa Vale in St Catherine: some 200 pictograph paintings of birds, turtles, lizards, fish, frogs, humans and abstract designs on the cave ceiling, estimated to be between 500 and 1,300 years old.

St. Kitts and Nevis

Eco-essentials: hike up Mt Liamuiga or Nevis Peak; dive at Turtle Reef or Coconut Reef

With relatively few tourists and an abundance of exciting landscapes, these small twin islands, separated by a narrow sea channel, have become a rewarding eco-destination. Rugged mountainscapes, dry woodland, lush tropical rainforests, wetlands, grasslands and salt ponds provide the islands with a variety of terrains for exploration. Some trails are gentle and easy, with wonderful Caribbean views, while others push the limits and are for the more experienced. The arduous all-day trek, with overnight camp, to the dormant crater of Mt Liamuiga (3,792 feet) on St Kitts may well bring out your inner Indiana Jones, as you grab onto vines and roots for support on the climb up and the slide back down.

Thanks to efforts to train community members, guides are usually well informed, particularly when it comes to local lore. Ask about the medicinal qualities of plants like the poinciana (the national flower), wild sage (used in teas to treat colds and chills), and soursop (used to make ice cream and preserves, and as a sedative for children).

The underwater world is truly spectacular; the reefs off St Kitts and Nevis are largely unspoiled, thanks to the small number of visitors. Submerged caves, impressive black coral, and several wrecks are great fare for fans of snorkelling and scuba diving. Dolphin and whale watching trips make a good day out, and are usually successful.

St. Lucia

Eco-essentials: go bird watching at Bois d’Orange swamp; turtle watching on the east coast; soak in spa-like sulphur springs at Diamond Gardens. Look out for the St Lucian parrot, St Lucia oriole, St Lucia wren, St Lucia tree lizard, Maria Island ground lizard, Maria Island grass snake, St Lucian whiptail snake

The spectacular Pitons (twin volcanic peaks), forest reserves to protect the St Lucian parrot and other wildlife, beaches favoured by turtles in nesting season, good offshore diving — St Lucia has all the necessary ingredients for a super eco-vacation.

Ambling sedately along forest trails and enjoying the pristine scenery all around may be first choice for many visitors, but there are other ways to experience the St Lucian interior — on aluminium mountain bikes, or on steely local horses — and you don’t have to stay in the jungle either, not when trails through beautiful old plantations have been carefully plotted and managed so as to preserve their many historical and natural features. The Bois d’Orange swamp, the Piton Flor Reserve and the Fregate Islands Nature Reserve are excellent for bird watching; 165 species have been recorded on the island, including four endemics, and the island is home to several endemic reptiles as well.

If this isn’t enough to keep you going, don’t forget the sailing potential of numerous small harbours and inlets, healing sulphur springs at Diamond Gardens, and watersports like windsurfing, kayaking, waterskiing and deep-sea fishing. The sheltered west coast beaches are excellent for swimming; sea turtles nest on the wilder Atlantic coast, at Grand Anse and Anse Louvet.

St Vincent and the Grenadines

Eco-essentials: hike up La Soufrière; visit the Botanical Gardens in Kingstown; take a boat trip to the Baleine Falls; dive off Bequia; snorkel in the Tobago Cays. Look out for the rare St Vincent parrot, whistling warbler

Green and fertile with magnificent valleys, dramatic mountainous terrain, and a rich cultural history, St Vincent is engagingly picturesque. And with no direct air services to Europe and the United States, it has remained off the beaten track. Special-interest tourism, including sailing, diving, and eco-tourism, has been actively developed. A number of nature trails of varying levels of difficulty have been created, allowing access to the Soufrière volcano, Trinity Falls, and Dark View Falls.

The La Soufrère Volcano Trail is particularly popular. Don’t mind that the strenuous climb to the volcano crater, which rises to 4,000 feet, takes a full day, or that the top is often cloudy, wet and rainy! Other less daunting, yet equally satisfying trails deliver the visitor to canyons with hot springs, great pools for swimming, and excellent bird lookout platforms. The Vermont Nature Trail, steep but well-maintained, is ideal for birders, and can be negotiated without a guide. The Parrot Lookout Platform at 1,450 feet is the place to see the St Vincent parrot and the whistling warbler, both endemic to the island, as well as hummingbirds, caribs, tanagers, and many others.

Heritage tourists will enjoy the Carib and Arawak petroglyphs and rock carvings just north of Layou. There’s also much to be observed at the oldest botanical gardens in the western hemisphere, where the Archaeological Museum of Amerindian Artefacts is well worth a visit.
Out at sea, superb sailing conditions mean St Vincent and the Grenadines has long been a favoured spot on yachting charts. Both bareboat and crewed yachts are available for as long as you require. Scuba diving and snorkelling are very popular. The reefs in the Tobago Cays are spectacular, though sometimes overcrowded with visitors.

Grenada

Eco-essentials: hike in the Grand Étang National Park; go bird and turtle watching at Levera Pond; diving off La Sagesse, Marquis Island and Carriacou. Look out for the Grenada dove, hookbilled kite, Mona monkeys (introduced from Africa 300 years ago)

With its rich volcanic soil, mountainous interior, lush forests, and cascading rivers, it’s hard to find a more fertile island than Grenada. In recent years a system of national parks and protected areas has been established, notably the Grand Étang Lake and Forest Reserve, situated in a water-filled volcanic crater atop the mountainous backbone of the island. Here hikers and nature lovers enjoy trails through a variety of eco-systems all contained within a remarkably small land area. The Mt Qua Qua trail passes Grand Étang Lake before rising to higher altitudes, cooler temperatures, and the elfin montane forests of the upper slopes, while the Lake Circle Trail winds down in the other direction through trees decorated with many varieties of wild orchids.

More advanced hikers will enjoy the Concord Falls trail, passing through the rain forest canopy, over hilltops and rippling streams and finally to the falls. The lowest of the three is good for swimming. The really energetic can continue on the path up to Fedon’s Camp, for a chance to see giant ferns and wonderful birdlife, including the endemic Grenada dove.

Grenada’s most spectacular coastal area is the 450-acre Levera National Park, where sea-turtles lay their eggs on white sand beaches, bird species abound, and a lagoon with an extensive mangrove swamp forms one of the most important wildlife habitats on the island.

Tobago

Eco-essentials: hiking along the Main Ridge; a bird watching trip to Little Tobago; diving and snorkelling at the Buccoo Reef, off Speyside, off the St Giles Islands and in Man O’ War Bay. Look out for the cocrico, blue-crowned mot-mot, red-billed tropicbird, white-tailed sabrewing

Blessed with amazing coral reefs (the diving is superb), the oldest rain forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere, and wonderful wildlife, Tobago is still far enough off the beaten tourist track to offer eco-visitors a sense of discovery.

The island’s terrain — steep mountain ridges, dense forests, unexpected waterfalls, rugged coasts — is ideal for soft adventure activities like hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Stories of tourists getting lost in the forest are plentiful, and there must be some truth to them, so remember to take a guide when venturing into the more remote areas of the island, like the central Main Ridge between Hillsborough and Charlotteville.

With more than 200 species, Tobago is a treat for bird watchers. Oropendolas, mot-mots, jacamars, cocricos and herons will find you before you find them. The Grafton Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary, on the grounds of an old Tobago plantation, is worth a visit around afternoon feeding time. Further afield, the island of Little Tobago off the north-east coast is a rewarding 450-acre bird sanctuary; the 10-minute boat ride from Speyside happens to pass right over some spectacular coral gardens, an added bonus.

Also worthwhile are the trails to any of Tobago’s many waterfalls — such as those at Argyll, Roxborough or King’s Bay — and the magical nine-mile trail between L’Anse Fourmi and Charlotteville, where the forest long ago consumed the paved road, leaving a grassy path into the heart of the virgin jungle. The island is also an important site for nesting sea turtles.

Tobago has a couple of large-scale resort hotels, but more down-to-earth accommodation options include rustic eco-lodges and intimate beachfront hotels like the Blue Waters Inn, tucked away in a secluded bay among 46 acres of lush tropical vegetation.

Trinidad

Eco-essentials: bird watching at the Asa Wright Nature Centre and the Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust; expeditions into the Caroni and Nariva Swamps; turtle watching on the north and east coasts. Look out for the scarlet ibis, pawi, oilbird, blue and yellow macaw, bearded bellbird, purple honeycreeper, West Indian manatee, ocelot, golden tree frog

What will you find on an island attached until just recently (in geological terms) to the South American mainland, yet also on the threshold of the diverse Caribbean region? The short answer is 2,300 species of flowering plants, over 400 migratory and resident bird species, over 600 different butterflies, 70 reptiles and 100 mammals, including monkeys, ocelots, crab-eating racoons, and many different bats — not to mention topography condensing the many landscapes of the continent into a manageably small area.

Trinidad’s best-known eco-spot must be the world-famous Asa Wright Nature Centre, a nature-lodge and bird-watcher’s paradise perched high above the Arima valley in the Northern Range. Here the cacophony of birdsong makes a wonderful “breakfast show” a million miles away from radio stations or city bustle.

The Nariva Swamp, a freshwater wetland on the east coast, is another remarkable site, home to large, slow-moving manatees or “sea cows”, as well as red howler and weeping capuchin monkeys. In the Caroni Swamp, on the other side of the island, visitors can marvel at the mangrove forests and the wildlife they contain. At sunset, flocks of scarlet ibis (the national bird) arrive to roost, tinting the sky a magnificent crimson. And the Pointe-à-Pierre Wild Fowl Trust, near San Fernando in south Trinidad, must be unique in the world, a tranquil bird sanctuary located in the grounds of an oil refinery.

The gem of Trinidad’s gorgeous north coast is the magical village and bay of Grande Rivière. Between March and August it is host to one of the largest leatherback turtle colonies in the world. The Mt Plaisir Estate, an eco-friendly resort located right on the beach, is an enchanting place to stay, not just for turtle lovers but also for visitors looking for a base from which to hike into the rainforests of the Northern Range, or explore small coves down the coast.