The Connoisseur’s Caribbean

Visitors come to the Caribbean for the gorgeous beaches, the spectacular scenery, the amazingly vibrant culture. But discerning travellers come to savour the islands' less common pleasures. There's more to a Caribbean vacation than meets the average tourist's eye

A crucial part to any spa vacation: time at the hands of a skilled masseuseA decadent end to any mealCaribe Hilton, San Juan, Puerto RicoColumbus Heights, Ocho Rios, JamaicaGolden Rock Plantation Inn, NevisMargaritaville, Montego Bay, JamaicaOn the green at the Four Seasons Resort, NevisPatient aging in oak barrels is the secret of the flavourSandy Lane Hotel, BarbadosSeaside SiestaSterling silver bracelets with semi-precious stones, designed by Jamaica-born, Trinidad-resident jeweller Jasmine GirvanThe Copper and Lumber Store, Nelson’s Dockyard, AntiguaThe dining room at the Hermatige Plantation Inn, NevisThe Hermitage Plantation Inn, NevisThe lake house at Royal Westmoreland, BarbadosTobago Plantations Beach and Golf ResortTropical refreshment

Every true wine lover hopes to someday tour France’s Bordeaux region, or California’s Napa Valley. Opera mavens head to Milan for Verdi, Bayreuth for Wagner. Art aficionados dream of the Louvre in Paris, the Met in New York. And what keen amateur naturalist hasn’t wished for a cruise through the Galapagos Islands, a Serengeti safari, or the chance to encounter the weirdly wonderful wildlife of the Australian Outback?

In the same way, people come to the Caribbean to experience the things we’re world-famous for: our incomparable beaches, shimmering visions of paradise; stunning island landscapes; our endless-summer climate; the profoundly infectious beat of our music; and our carnivals and other festivals, offering a free, joyful, hedonistic escape from life’s mundane affairs. But there’s much more to the Caribbean than music and parties, sun and sand, of course — and travellers in the know have always been drawn to the less-publicised delights of life in the Antilles.

Culturally, our riches extend far beyond the celebrated African- and Spanish-influenced rhythms of calypso, reggae, dancehall, salsa, rumba, merengue, or son. A long, complicated history of cultural intermingling has produced fusions and combinations unparalleled elsewhere, alongside the surviving traditions of a dozen different heritages. The Caribbean is also the source of extraordinary products that can be found nowhere else in the world. A glance at the usual posh tourist boutiques might suggest that we import most of our indulgences from other places, but discerning shoppers know where to go and who to ask for little-known luxury goods produced right here, often by hand in family-owned, artisanal operations.
And, naturally, if what you really want from your vacation is full body-and-soul recuperation from the trials of modern life in colder, harder places, you’ve come to the right place. Caribbean people have made an art of taking it easy (some say we do it just a little too well), and have made an industry out of helping our visitors to do the same.

It all comes down to knowing how to make your visit to the Caribbean unique, even more special than the promises of the glossy brochures and travel agents’ posters. Over the next few pages you’ll find a few hints for making your time here a little richer.

Researched and written by Dylan Kerrigan and Nicholas Laughlin

 

History’s soul and the art of the spirit

The recorded history of the Caribbean goes back only 500 years, but these centuries have been busy, boisterous, often bloodthirsty. Idyllic as they may seem today, these islands were often at the centre of the western world’s attention, coveted, fought over, and stolen by rival European powers during the ages of exploration and early imperialism (St Lucia and Tobago both claim to be the island that changed hands the most times during this period). It may sound surprising, but, for a history buff, a tour of the Caribbean offers a sort of potted history of Europe since the Renaissance, as told through the relics and ruins left behind by time’s ceaseless tide.

From the Spanish colonial cities of Santo Domingo, Havana, and San Juan, to the great houses scattered through the countryside of the former English colonies, to the 19th-century gingerbread architecture of the French islands, the ruined sugar mills on what were once slave plantations, and the Hindu temples and Muslim mosques of Trinidad and Guyana, the region’s architecture tells the sometimes thrilling, often horrifying story of the conquest, settlement, and commerce which shaped modern Europe. The impressive military fortifications at Antigua’s English Harbour and Shirley Heights, at Brimstone Hill in St Kitts, St Vincent’s Fort Charlotte, or Henri Christophe’s massive Citadelle in the mountains of Haiti, remind visitors that the threat of violent invasion was for centuries an accepted fact of life here.

For anyone seriously interested in architecture, the Caribbean is a cabinet of curiosities. Styles which evolved on the other side of the Atlantic were transplanted here almost intact, with small modifications to allow for the difference in climate. Barbados’s Codrington College, founded in 1830, looks like an old Oxford college set incongruously amidst stately cabbage palms. Jamaica’s Spanish Town, the island’s former capital, boasts an extraordinary collection of Georgian buildings (many sadly in need of repair) which would be comfortably at home in Bath or London, including the colonnaded monument to Admiral Rodney, and the ruins of the King’s House, once the residence of Jamaica’s colonial governors. And in Trinidad, always known for its easy exuberance, this architectural enthusiasm reached an eccentric height in the so-called Magnificent Seven, a series of grand residences along the western side of Port of Spain’s Savannah, which mingle French, Italian, German, Scottish, and Moorish influences in an extravaganza of turrets, towers, arches, and cupolas.

But not everyone wants to traipse around all day looking at old buildings — when those old buildings happen to be museums, art lovers usually prefer to be inside them. The Caribbean can offer nothing on the scale of the great galleries of Europe and North America (though Havana’s Museo Nacional Palacio de Bellas Artes contains some reputed old masters), but our smaller art collections nonetheless show off the vivid colours and forms of our energetic cultures.

Cuba is the place to see the paintings of Wifredo Lam, the great modernist associate of Picasso. Jamaica’s National Gallery is perhaps the best in the English-speaking Caribbean, with particularly strong holdings of the sculpture of Edna Manley. St Lucia is the place to look out for the delicate watercolours of Derek Walcott (somewhat better known as a poet!), while the cathedral in Castries is decorated with extraordinary murals by Dunstan St Omer, the island’s best-known painter. The National Museum and Art Galley in Port of Spain houses important works by many Trinidadian and Tobagonian artists, and a newly refurbished gallery contains the country’s single best collection of works by the celebrated 19th-century painter Michel Jean Cazabon. East of Port of Spain, CCA7, the exhibition space of Caribbean Contemporary Arts, located in the middle of an industrial estate, has become a major venue for the avant garde in the south Caribbean.

When you’re tired of looking at things, a little listening may be just the refreshment you need. There’s no shortage of places to hear great live music, but if you feel for a change from the usual tropical rhythms you may decide to head across to Barbados in March for the Holders Season, a performing arts festival featuring opera, theatre, and jazz in the grounds of the 17th-century Holders House. In recent years, highlights of the Holders Season have included the world premieres of the specially commissioned musicals Inkle ’n Yarico and Dr Livingstone . . . I Presume, both of which went on to successful British runs; headline performers have included Luciano Pavarotti, accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and the not-yet-superstar Kylie Minogue in a 1999 musical version of The Tempest. And the St Lucia Jazz Festival, 10 days every May of acoustic and fusion jazz with a bit of R&B in the mix, has become an essential fixture on the calendar of globe-hopping jazz enthusiasts — performers like Winton Marsalis, Patti Labelle, Luther Francois, Santana, and Herbie Hancock have all heated up the Pigeon Island stage over the years.

Rum’s rare pleasures

Crack the seal, spill some for the spirits, pour it over smoking ice, and dress with a splash of whatever you fancy. Repeat the process, and, if the night should turn long, be prepared for the hangover to come! That’s how most rum is drunk in the Caribbean. Some people prefer it white, others dark; red is most popular (and remember that “red rum” spelled backwards is “murder” — that’s what the hangover can feel like). The average rum drinker isn’t terribly concerned about the age of the spirit, and the subtleties of aroma and flavour can disappear behind the mask of whatever other ingredients are added to the mix.

But apart from such decent, perfect-for-cocktail varieties, the Caribbean is also home to a select group of premium blends, the equivalent in stature of single-malt whisky or cognac, and no one in his or her right mind would think of mixing such beauties with anything: they’re sipped neat, or perhaps with a splash of cold (preferably spring) water. True rum connoisseurs are not as numerous as whisky connoisseurs or oenophiles, but for the select few the islands of the Caribbean are sacred ground. Sugar-cane derived spirits are distilled in other parts of the world, sometimes under different names, but rum proper was invented in the Caribbean (in Barbados, so they say), and the very finest blends are to be found among the several hundred produced here.

Most islands have at least one distillery, and the larger ones have several; a rum connoisseur’s trip through the Caribbean must surely involve pilgrimages to as many of these as possible. Many distilleries offer tours of their operations, and some conclude with special tasting sessions; sampled blends can usually be purchased on the premises. Good wine and spirits shops usually carry a range of rums from various islands, but there are some exceptional blends that are rarely exported. For the rarest, you may have to go directly to the source.
The English- and Spanish-speaking islands tend to specialise in light- and medium-bodied rums. The very best include blends from Jamaica’s Appleton Estate; Mount Gay Extra Old (from the oldest surviving rum distillery in the world) and Cockspur VSOR from Barbados; the smoky El Dorado Special Reserve blends from Guyana’s lone distillery; Captain Bligh, which you won’t find anywhere but St Vincent; and Angostura 1824 and 1919 from Trinidad. Among rums best suited to mixing, Grenada’s award-winning Clarke’s Court blends are worth looking out for.

Rums from the French islands are usually darker and fuller-bodied. Martinique and Guadeloupe’s rhums agricoles are distilled according to strict specifications from fresh cane juice, usually in small batches; the very best of these are the rhums vieux, aged in small oak barrels for regulated minimum periods. Only a few cases of Martinique’s La Favorite Eight Year Old are bottled annually, and to purchase a bottle requires a special trip to the distillery around September. De Paz Reserve Especial is somewhat easier to get hold of. However, a distillery visit will definitely be required for Bielle Rhum Vieux, from the island of Marie Galante off Guadeloupe. Rich, buttery Barbancourt Five Star is probably Haiti’s best rum offering.

Island gastronomy

Let’s admit it, the Caribbean is not at the top of the average gourmand’s to-visit list. This is not because of any inadequacy in the regional cuisine: it’s simply a matter of ignorance. Many of our characteristic dishes have the humblest of origins, in the need of relatively poor communities to make the most of whatever inexpensive provisions were most readily available. But our fertile, lush climate offers up an extraordinary bounty of raw ingredients, and the culinary heritages of our many cultural tributaries supply a wide range of flavours and styles, combining to create daring, mouth-watering fusions.

Surrounded by the blue Caribbean Sea, it’s not surprising that one of the things we do best is seafood. Whatever island you find yourself on, you can’t go far wrong with some wonderful delicacy plucked from the sea just yards away — snapper, grouper, lobster, shrimp, or dolphin (which is our name for mahi mahi) — briefly grilled and squeezed with lime. Barbados is famous for flying-fish; Bahamian cooks have invented 101 ways to prepare conch, while in Trinidad, where it’s called lambie, currying is favoured. The big exception to the fresher-is-better rule is salted codfish, which for centuries has been imported from the cold North Atlantic, for reasons having to do with historic economics. From this pungently unpromising substance we have made a variety of savoury stews and fritters, and saltfish is one of the Caribbean’s unexpectedly characteristic flavours.

And then there are the plump, fragrant tropical fruits which seem to spring so effortlessly from our soil. In these days of global trade and globe-trotting tastes, it seems you can find the most exotic items in big metropolitan supermarkets, but the produce available in those refrigerated compartments can’t compare with fruit at the peak of bursting ripeness picked fresh from the tree literally outside your window. Caribbean mango connoisseurs argue over which variety is the most luscious. Julie mangoes are universally beloved, but some believe the less common Buxton spice is the real king of the orchard. Cuban grapefruit are reputed to be the best in the world. Bananas grown in small plantations in the Windward Islands put their mass-produced Central American cousins to shame. Fruits like the star-apple, the soursop, the five-finger, the pomerac, the papaya, make a delicate feast for discerning palates.

Of course, each island has its own specialities, most of them proving the evolution of virtue from necessity. Simple ingredients, cosseted by generations of “sweet hands”, combine in dishes that, at their best, can rival the famous cuisine of France or Italy.

Jamaican jerk, Guyanese pepperpot, Barbadian coo-coo, Cuban lechón asada (roast suckling pig), Curaçao’s cactus soup, Trinidad’s callalloo, possess gastronomic subtleties that may not be apparent from their often rough-and-ready recipes. Coconut milk, nutmeg, chadon beni, orange peel, cinnamon, pimento, a dash of rum, a dozen kinds of hot peppers, and who knows what other secret ingredients, all contribute to the rich flavours of these dishes. Trinidad and Guyana, thanks to large East Indian populations, offer an entire cuisine derived from the traditions of the sub-continent: curries, chutneys, pickles, or the infinite possibilities of roti (several varieties of flatbread wrapped around or served alongside curried meat or vegetables).

In most of the islands you can find expensive restaurants with “international” menus, catering to hungry tourists. Every big hotel has at least one restaurant on the premises, where unadventurous diners need not stray far from their accustomed habits. But it’s worth the effort to seek out places that serve dishes with genuine Caribbean flavour. A kind of nouvelle Caribbean cuisine is becoming quite common, especially in the larger islands, blending traditional ingredients with Cordon Bleu techniques to create some marvellous fusion dishes: delicate breadfruit vichyssoise, salad of smoked marlin, rack of lamb spiced with rich, bitter cocoa grown in the nearby hills, crème brûlée with a hint of sea moss (a seaweed delicacy far more delicious than its name suggests).

But to truly appreciate the real taste of the Caribbean, some say it’s essential to sample the inexpensive street food ubiquitous in every city and town. It could be as simple as cold coconut water drunk straight from the nut, followed by the jelly; as complicated as a rich soup of ground provisions (various tubers) flavoured with shreds of salted meat. In Jamaica, try the pan chicken on Red Hill Road. In Trinidad, be sure to try the curried-chickpeas-and-fried-bread snack called doubles, a breakfast favourite for thousands; Trinis firmly believe in the superiority of whichever doubles man they happen to favour, and will drive miles out of their way on a whim to satisfy a craving. The best rule of thumb is simply to do as the locals do: any roadside stall with a large, vigorously chewing crowd gathered round is probably a good bet. Better yet, make friends and get invited to a meal at a private home: a long, elaborate Sunday lunch, followed by a period of drowsy digestion and desultory chat out on the verandah, may well turn out to be the gastronomical highlight of your visit.

Hunting for tropical luxuries

In some of the Caribbean’s ultra-chic tourist spots — St Barts, St Martin, St Thomas — it’s possible to pause for a moment in the plush surroundings of a pricey boutique and believe you’re actually on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue or London’s Bond Street. Crystal, china, perfumes, jewellery, rare European liqueurs, are all readily available, and if your tastes run in this direction it may be worth a tour of the duty-free shops which stock such imported luxury items. But why return from your Caribbean vacation laden with goods you could as easily have bought at home? At the other end of the price scale, every Caribbean city has some kind of handicraft market where you can buy all sorts of woven, carved, sewn, and painted trinkets to adorn your mother-in-law’s mantel. But somewhere between the two extremes, shoppers with an eye for real value and quality can find beautiful luxury goods, hand-made locally and hence available nowhere else in the world, that will remind you long after of the real spirit of the Caribbean.

Highly talented artisans, many of whom have trained abroad, produce exquisite jewellery from indigenous materials juxtaposed against precious metals and stones, worthy of decorating the neck and arms of any high-society lady anywhere. Delicately formed, boldly glazed pottery will introduce a welcome tropical note into your temperate living-room. At galleries in Kingston or Bridgetown or Port of Spain you can often acquire stunning artworks by important local artists for what a frame might cost in a big city elsewhere. Or look for hand-painted or batiked fabrics suitable for wall-hangings and wraps.

Of course, you should be sure to investigate whatever products are local specialities, and remember that the Caribbean is unrivalled when it comes to some luxury goods. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, which many coffee connoisseurs consider the best in the world, can cost you US $40 per pound in North America. In Jamaica itself you can pay less than half that. Grenada produces 40 per cent of the world’s nutmeg supply; unsurprisingly, Grenadians have invented countless ways to use their number-one product, and a nice little pot of nutmeg jelly or syrup might be just the thing to brighten up an otherwise dreary winter breakfast. Trinidad was once the world’s largest producer of cocoa, and the beans grown in the island’s Montserrat Hills are second to none. (In fact, the super-exclusive French chocolatier Valrhona makes a special blend of “vintage tasting chocolate” from cocoa grown only on the San Juan estate, which retails for something like US $25 per pound.) In most Trinidadian groceries you can find thick, rich slabs of drinking chocolate, ready to be brewed into “cocoa tea”, far superior to any powdered cocoa mix.

Indulge yourself

We all know what a money-is-no-object Caribbean dream vacation would look like: private jet to Mustique or the Caymans, secluded villa overlooking the sea, cheerful staff to wait on you hand and foot, five-star meals prepared by in-house chef, movie stars and royalty over for cocktails. But those of us without fortunes in the eight or nine figures need not resign ourselves to roughing it! In almost every island there are luxury resorts and boutique hotels with every facility required to pamper their guests, body and soul, and most offer special seasonal or other packages. They don’t always come cheap, but often the expense is well worth the sheer relaxation and mental tranquillity that a week in the islands can so easily induce.

The best hotels and resorts often have full-service spas on the premises, offering everything from massages to aromatherapy to seaweed wraps; or else knowledgeable concierges will arrange these with independent professionals and practitioners. From tai chi to pilates, there are few wellness techniques that aren’t catered for. Jamaica’s Strawberry Hill resort, 3,000 feet up in the Blue Mountains overlooking Kingston, is where you’ll find the Caribbean’s only Aveda Concept Spa. And the Sandals resort chain offers six Signature Spas located in Jamaica, St Lucia, Antigua, and the Bahamas, consistently voted among the best resort spas in the world.

But apart from such man-made cosseting centres, visitors can also enjoy nature’s own spa facilities, like the mineral baths at St Lucia’s Sulphur Springs. A good soak in the hot water used to be considered just the thing for rheumatism; nowadays people say it’s excellent for the skin. If nothing else, it feels bracingly rejuvenating, and visitors can enjoy the sulphur-rich baths for just a few dollars. Dominica also boasts natural sulphur springs near the Trafalgar Falls, not far out from Roseau. Or make the trek to the famous Healing Hole on Bimini in the northern Bahamas: a freshwater sulphur spring located deep in the saltwater mangrove forest. Some people claim the cold water has mystical healing powers, but more likely it’s the high mineral content that provides any rejuvenating effect. But maybe all you need to rinse away your cares is a good, long immersion in the warm, shockingly blue water off one of our best beaches, or the vigorous massage of a cold waterfall pummeling your shoulders as you perch on the rocks below.

It really comes down to what degree of tender, loving care you prefer in a vacation. There are cheerful big resorts for those seeking poolside deckchairs, waiters bearing frothy drinks, and every desire heartily satisfied. But if all you want is sheer peace and quiet, unscheduled hours for reflection and uncluttered days, the Caribbean offers many opportunities for seclusion, small hotels and guesthouses far from the tourist havens. Because sometimes the ultimate luxury is simply time by yourself.