The Caribbean isn’t all just yachts and cruise ports (or souvenir hassle). Here are a handful of the region’s great experiences that don’t get as much press, but deliver unbeatable trips.
Dominica’s Boiling Lake
One of the Caribbean’s best destinations for rugged adventures, mountainous Dominica sports an incredible hike. It's a tough six-mile path clinging to narrow ridges of the 'Valley of Desolation.' The destination? Boiling Lake. The 207-foot-wide lake is veiled in steam, with bubbly burps on its grayish surface. The valley is the remnants of an 1880 volcanic eruption. Expect to get dirty.
The 'Caribbean Pompeis'
In 1995, after 400 years of silence, a volcano in the Soufriere Hills blew its top and obliterated Montserrat's capital Plymouth in a sea of ash. (Another eruption two years later claimed 19 lives.) Eventually all the island's 11,000 inhabitants relocated. Today, visitors can visit, with a 4WD vehicle, the surreal scene of abandoned mansions around Olde Town and get an eerie view from Garibaldi Hill.
Meanwhile, Martinique’s ex capital had a similar fate. St-Pierre was wrecked by an eruption in 1902, killing all of the city’s 30,000 inhabitants but three; today, you can see blackened ruins, including a mostly destroyed 18th-century theater.
Puerto Rican Christmas Carols
Those wanting to give up the cold at Christmas, but keep the Yuletide on 10, can spend it in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, where you’ll find a month-long sing-songy celebration. Churches conduct dawn masses rich with aguinaldos (Puerto Rican Christmas carols), while exuberant groups of carolers travel house to house and make merry. Along the market-lined Paseo de la Princesa, pick up wooden santos figurines (saints carvings) for Christmas souvenirs.
Cycling in Guantánamo
At Cuba’s east end – near the notorious Guantánamo Bay – lies one of the country’s greatest engineering marvels (OK, it’s not a long list). The 55km La Farola, finished by revolutionaries in 1964, is a rugged, rollercoaster-style road that reaches one of Cuba’s weirdest town, Baracoa. Relatively isolated since its 1511 birth, Baracoa is known for haunted legends, a hike up the flat-top mountain El Yunque, and really really good coconuts, which appear in cucuruchu (grated coconut mixed with sugar, honey and guava, wrapped in a palm frond).
Haitian 'Vodou Rock'
At the Hotel Oloffson in chaotic Port-au-Prince, made famous by Graham Greene’s The Comedians, you can watch weekly 'Voudou rock' concerts of the band RAM (named for hotel owner Richard A Morse), featuring rara horns, guitar and keyboards. Morse, who says he bought the hotel after it was offered to him from a loungan (Vodou priest) for $20, says they 'take African roots as a starting point.' It’s a real juke joint experience, he says, 'I can’t believe I’m in the middle of it.'
Flying off Saba’s cliff
Saba’s Juancho e Yrausquin Airport has the world’s shortest runway (400m). When departing, planes don’t technically lift off the ground; instead, the runway suddenly stops and the pilot literally drives the aircraft off the edge of a cliff. It’s an equally butt-clenching experience to land here. Check www.fly-winair.com for flights to Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius and St Kitts. And yes, there’s a cocktail lounge in the departure area.
Hidden Beach in the DR
Bávaro and Punta Cana, in southeastern Dominican Republic, may be the epicenter of beach travel here. But there are ways to escape the hordes. Take the lovely Hwy 104 west through mountains to Playa Limón, a two-mile, isolated beach lined with coconut trees. You’re likely to have the spot to yourself most of the day and the drive alone justifies the trip.
Trinidad and Tobago is excluded from many Caribbean birding books, partly because the sheer number of species here – about 430 – overwhelm their editors. (Another reason, perhaps, is that the nation is removed from the normal 'Caribbean route.') Non-birders will be considering a new hobby after visiting Trinidad’s Asa Wright Nature Center, one of the world’s great birding outposts, with all-inclusive lodges in the Northern Range rainforest. It’s a 90-minute drive from the capital, Port of Spain.
Captain Jack Sparrow’s 'Black Pearl'
On Union Island in the Grenadines, you can sail the ship used by Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. Call 784-584-8418 to arrange a day trip to the Tobago Cays.
The 'James Bond Hotel'
It’s not officially the '007,' but Jamaica's Goldeneye Resort – easily one of the Caribbean’s most glamorous destinations – is the former estate of Ian Fleming, who hatched up the Bond concept in the 1950s and '60s while entertaining a stream of A-list celebs. These days it’s run by Island Records’ owner Chris Blackwell, but the stars keep coming (Johnny Depp, Bono, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson).