There was a time when the Caribbean was the exclusive playground of royalty, Wall Street and Hollywood. Princess Margaret and the Stones mixed it up in the Grenadines, while the Duke of Windsor and Mrs. Simpson decamped to the Bahamas for an interlude of sundowners and tuxedos in the trade winds. Even today, the island of St. Bart’s hosts a New Year’s Eve gala where million-dollar mega yachts and visiting A-listers almost outnumber locals.
The Caribbean, though, is no longer a luxury for most people. Partly because of competition from newer exclusive resorts in places such as Polynesia and the Maldives, and partly because of an onslaught in hotel development during the last decade, the region no longer sits beyond the radar of the modest family budget.
The cheapest option to explore the Caribbean at leisure without breaking the bank is to take a cruise. The region is still the most popular cruise destination in the world and furious competition keeps prices down throughout the year. Cruises range from a quick long-weekend trip from South Florida to the Bahamas, to week-long Eastern Caribbean or Western Caribbean jaunts. The former takes in the string of picturesque Leeward Islands famous for their duty-free shops, while the latter hurtles across the Caribbean Sea to the Central American coastal ports notable for their diving and Mayan ruins. With all food and entertainment onboard provided as part of the package, visitors can see a handful of islands for just a fistful of dollars. These cruises provide a great introduction to the islands and are perfect for families with children.
The second option is to plunder the all-inclusive resorts strung out along the pristine coastlines of the major vacation islands: Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. Rates in some of these megaresorts put US hotels to shame. Come in off-season and the tariffs are slashed dramatically. The hurricane season runs from June to the end of November and prices during this period can be a fraction of peak winter season rates. Admittedly, the heat and humidity can be stifling and the range of entertainment and dining options reduced, but without the crowds, visitors get more of the Caribbean to themselves.
By contrast, the concept of budget independent travel hasn’t really made any headway in the Caribbean. Vacationers hoping to arrive with a backpack and pick up a guest house will find themselves at a disadvantage. Firstly, booking online with the big resorts is the only way to secure last-minute deals and the possibility of a valuable extra, such as a free car rental. Secondly, traveling around the Caribbean is expensive, with some of the highest air fares per mile in the world between the islands and not many options other than pricey taxis between the towns. Unofficially too, the standard of guest houses in some islands can range from grim to ghastly, with little in the way of government regulation to keep things shipshape.
Budget airlines such as Jet Blue and major carriers such as Air Canada, American Airlines and Delta all have regular flights from Florida and the East Coast to the islands, which in most cases is only a two- or three-hour flight away. Pick the right time or be prepared to travel out of season, and that weekend trip to take in the green flash at sunset could work out cheaper than a US city break.
by Nick Marshall