When I quit my job last year and people asked me about my plans, I half-joked that Sandra and I were going to live in the Caribbean, sit on a beach and enjoy life. Well, we have been fortunate to experience a number of islands as we hopped through the Caribbean, and we sat on many beaches. While we loved travelling around the Caribbean and experiencing the warm hospitality on the different islands, we don’t have one favourite spot that would make us drop everything and live there. We do have quite a few favourite (and some less favourite) experiences, which we are happy to share with you.
We acknowledge that there is lots more to see and experience in the Caribbean (and we will definitely be back to explore some more). So as you read below, please keep in mind that our Awards can only apply to our experiences and the type of travellers that we are.
Many airports in the Caribbean we travelled through were of the smaller variety, servicing mostly ATR (and smaller) aircraft. One airport though surprised us: Barbados’ Grantley Adams International Airport. Not only can it handle Being 747s, it used to be the only airport in the Caribbean (and only one of five worldwide) with regular Concorde flights. When the Concorde was retired in 2003, Barbados received one of the planes. It can be visited in an aircraft hangar next to the airport. While there was no flight simulation at the Concorde Experience, it was still pretty cool sitting in one and learning about this part of aviation history.
Playa Porto Mari is a beach on the island of Curaçao, located about 20km west of the airport, near the village of Sint Willibrordus. We found this white sand beach to be more chilled than some of the more touristy ones further up the coast. The water is crystal clear, and some structures submerged just offshore were teeming with colourful fish and coral. Sandra even managed to encounter an octopus. The beach has a small bar and restaurant which serves surprisingly tasty food, and there is plenty of shade. The entrance fee is about USD3 per person which includes the use of the bathrooms, showers and changing rooms (but not the use of the sun loungers on the beach).
This is easy as we only attended one. But in all honesty, it was great fun. While in Port of Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago, we were fortunate to score tickets for the West Indies vs Pakistan T20 game. It was a pretty cool experience to witness the atmosphere before, during and after the game, and watch a very close match (Pakistan won by 7 wickets).
This was a hard one as we did so many day tours. Out of the few organised tours, however, we enjoyed the sail around the Southern Grenadine islands of Mayreau, the Tobago Cays and Palm Island (part of St Vincent and the Grenadines) onboard the old schooner Scaramouche the most. Gliding through the crystal clear waters, only hearing the sea breeze, the creaking of the wood as the wind caught the sails and the occasional seabird was a feeling of true bliss. Equally amazing was being able to see green sea turtles close up as they fed on the seagrass around the Tobago Cays. At USD95 per person, this was certainly not the cheapest experience but worth every penny.
Guave is a tropical fruit cultivated and enjoyed in many of the countries we visited in the Caribbean. One day, an elderly guy approached us as we browsed a small supermarket on the island of Carriacou (part of Grenada) with a few bags of fruit in his hands. The fruit smelled divine, so we bought a bag from him. Since we never had them before, we had to google how to determine which ones are ripe and how to prepare them. But once we tasted them, we would buy them whenever we could. They were such a nice treat for breakfast.
Choosing a favourite among all the great hikes we did, was a difficult one. In the end, the most famous of Dominica’s trails, the Boiling Lake hike in the UNESCO World Heritage Morne Trois Pitons National Park, won this category. It is the second-largest hot lake in the world (after Frying Pan Lake near Rotorua in New Zealand). It is not a crater lake but a flooded fumarole. The 11km long, category 4-5 hike is everything but a walk in the park. It takes about four hours (one-way) from the village of Laudat and will test your abilities (especially if you’re not 20 anymore like us). The effort though is absolutely worth it, not only for the cauldron of bubbling and steaming greyish-blue water that awaits you at the halfway point but also for the geothermal features you get to experience along the way.
This one goes to the neighbourhood tour around Trenchtown, one of the most neglected suburbs in Kingston, Jamaica. It is here where many of Jamaica’s Reggae greats started, including The Wailers, Peter Tosh and Bob Marley himself. It is sadly also a place caught in many years of war between rival gangs… raw, neglected, its people in despair, yet fiercely proud and amazingly resourceful. Trenchtown left a deep mark on us. The tour is one of three offered by the Culture Yard Museum.
This one goes to Louisette, wife of Irvince Auguiste, Chief of the indigenous Kalinago people of Dominica from 1984 to 1994. Former guests had raved about her cooking in their reviews on the short-term rental accommodation platforms, and we were looking forward to it. The meals were always freshly prepared, using local ingredients. Yummmmmm.
Hunte’s Gardens were an unexpected surprise in the middle of the island of Barbados. The gardens are set in a sinkhole-like gully. The garden paths lead you into and around the gully, past countless little terraces and nooks to relax. You are surrounded by the most colourful display of plants, and the sound of birds and classical music. The entry is not cheap (USD15 per person) but you can easily while away a few hours there, maybe even bring along a picnic basket and relax at one of the terraces (which all have garden furniture).
One of the greatest things about the Caribbean (and one we are missing already) are the fresh juices you can buy everywhere. We first tasted soursop as a fruit salad in the Galapagos Islands – we didn’t know what it was and we didn’t like it in a fruit salad. Then one day, we visited the local fruit and veggie market in Bequia (one of the islands of St Vincent and the Grenadines), and one of the stall owners opened a juicy ripe soursop fruit for us to try. We ended up buying fruit, and since we happened to have a blender at our accommodation, made it into juice. As a fruit, it has a weird texture (almost rubbery) but as a juice, it is very refreshing, especially on a hot day. Its favour is difficult to describe… A mixture of strawberry, pineapple and coconut might be closest to it.
Movie set experience
When you travel around the Caribbean, you are bound to come across locations where scenes of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed. One of these is gorgeous Wallilabou Bay, about 20km north of St Vincent and the Grenadines’ capital Kingstown. While most of the movie set has sadly crumbled into the sea, you can still explore remnants of the set and look at paraphernalia left behind by the actors and crew.
This one goes to the Kura Hulanda Museum in Willemstad, Curaçao. In this anthropological museum, you can not only learn more about the African slave trade for which Curaçao was one of the main hubs in the Caribbean. It also covers topics like the origin of mankind and the origin of the main religions we know today.
Non-Hostel / Hotel accommodation
Of the 23 short-term rental accommodations we stayed at in the Caribbean, Jenny and David Leacock’s property in Sheraton Park, Barbados won out hands down. Both are proud Bajans who have travelled a fair bit, so they know what guests need and want. Staying with Jenny and David felt like staying with old friends. They really made our experience in Barbados that much more special.
Indian food is surprisingly popular throughout the Caribbean. But with almost 40% of the population of Trinidad and Tobago of Indian descent, it is even more popular in this Eastern Caribbean island nation. Japia Roti Diner in Mount Pleasant on the island of Tobago came highly recommended by our hosts, and they were right about it being the best. We went back three times, trying different versions. The rotis we tried were super tasty. The portions were large and very affordable. The diner is only open from 1100h to 1600h. Be prepared to queue as locals line up from 1045h.
Carriacou is part of the island state of Grenada and about two hours by boat north-east of the island that gave the country its name. With only 8,000 people living on the island, it seems everyone knows and cares about each other. A friendly local stopped to help us find our accommodation. A minivan driver tracked down the owner of a bag of groceries left behind in his van and returned it to its owner. It’s that sort of community. While it would be too small for us to live on, we could easily see ourselves come back and spend three months there.
You can’t visit the Caribbean without going at least once (fully or partially) underwater. We prefer snorkelling over diving, and our favourite was snorkelling the Champagne Reef on the south-west coast of Dominica. Bubbles released from fumaroles on the seabed give an impression as if you swim in a champagne glass. As you swim along the reef away from the fumaroles, you are surrounded by more and more colourful fish and coral of all shapes and sizes. The experience is truly one of a kind.
While biologically not a vegetable (like the tomato), this one goes to the breadfruit. We had never had breadfruit before, even though it originates in the South Pacific. With the rice and beans that are served with so many meals around the Caribbean, having provisions with our meals was always a nice treat. These starchy vegetables often included breadfruit, which has a potato-like texture and flavour. None other than Captain William Bligh of the HMS Bounty (of mutiny fame), brought the first breadfruit plants from the South Pacific to the Caribbean. The sucker from one of these plants still stands in the Botanic Garden in Kingstown, St Vincent and the Grenadines. Breadfruit not only tastes yummy, but it is also incredibly healthy thanks to its high content of Vitamin C, Potassium and fibre.
Tiny house accommodation
We stayed in a variety of accommodation throughout the Caribbean. Many of them would classify as a tiny house, being smaller than 500 square feet (or 46 square metres). Our favourite tiny house was a cabin in the village of Trafalgar, in the hills of Dominica. It was the size of a 20 feet shipping container. It had a double bed, a small kitchen with a single burner and a small fridge, a desk, a chair, an armchair, and a wall shelf for our clothes. The toilet, shower and sink were outside, covered by a tin roof. We also had a small veranda, where we enjoyed our meals overlooking the garden. You realise that you don’t need much to have everything you need and be happy.
Vehicle hire experience
We hired vehicles on pretty much all of the islands (just not in St Lucia), so we got quite experienced with the traffic conditions. The smaller islands were great to explore by scooter, and our two-day scooter-hire on the island of Grenada (provided by Maitland Scooter Rentals) turned out to be the coolest out of all the vehicle hires we did around the Caribbean.
With so many beautiful waterfalls to choose from in the Caribbean, this was another difficult one. In the end, we awarded this category to La Tille Waterfall on the east coast of St Lucia. The waterfall itself is only mid-sized, cascading about seven metres into a cool pool, before turning into a stream that feeds several other pools further along. What makes it such a great experience is its setting in a beautiful, organic garden property that is off-grid and off the beaten tourist track, about 2.5 kilometres inland from the main road that circumnavigates the island. We spent a good few hours there, swimming in the natural pool, enjoying a hydro jet massage under the waterfall – with no one else around – and chatting to John, the Rastafarian owner.
Befitting the Nature Island of the Caribbean, we had a little lizard (no longer than Sandra’s hand) join us for every meal in Trafalgar, Dominica. We would sit at the table on our veranda, and the same lizard (we recognised him on the little red dot on one of his cheeks) would turn up watching us. First, he would keep his distance, but in the end, he would come within centimetres of our plates and salvage any fruit that had made its way onto the table.
The most expensive ATM withdrawal
Though First Caribbean Bank (FCIB) is not far behind, our most expensive ATM withdrawals were in Cuba. Cuban ATMs always charge 3% of the withdrawal amount. On top of that, our own bank charges AUD4 per withdrawal. With an average withdrawal of USD400, this is a whopping USD15 per withdrawal. Ouch.
Most over-rated beach
This would have to be Playa Ancon near Trinidad in Cuba. We have been to Cuba several times over the years, and only this time, we thought we’d check out one of its beaches. Our verdict: Not worth it. We keep visiting Cuba because of its people, its history and it’s unique atmosphere… not its beaches.
Boat tour rip-off
This is a joint one between the following two:
The boat trip offered at the Blue Lagoon near Port Antonio in Jamaica – We paid a guy JMD3,000 (USD23) to skipper us around the bay for 15min before dropping us in the lagoon. When he ‘forgot’ to pick us up, we learned that you can visit the lagoon without paying a cent.
Island with the most mosquitoes
Sadly, this was Curaçao, and we couldn’t work out why. Is it its vicinity to Venezuela? But then, there would be heaps of mosquitoes in Trinidad and Tobago too. Definitely, bring a repellent with a high percentage of DEET. We tried a few different ones and only once we were above 10% DEET did the mozzies start to avoid us.
The most overrated cave experience
Harrison’s Cave in the centre of Barbados is not a bad cave. However, if you have visited the Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia or Western Australia’s Jewel Cave (as we have) you may be disappointed. Harrison’s Cave also feels way too developed and touristy, and at USD30 per person, it is too expensive for what you get.
Scariest boat ride
Before we set out on our trip around the Caribbean, we thought that ferries between the islands would be common. But as it turned out, they aren’t. We found an operator that travels twice a week with a converted fishing boat (the MV Lady JJ) the 10km between Carriacou (part of Grenada) and Union Island (part of St Vincent and the Grenadines). Not only was the ride quite bumpy (I took refuge in the middle of the boat when I got soaked by the waves). Paul and another passenger injured themselves when they boarded as the boat was bobbing so much in the waves. The scariest thing though were the boxes of frozen chicken parts (originating in Brazil) that travelled with us in the back of the boat. They were not so frozen anymore when we arrived, being exposed to the afternoon sun. The defrosted cartons were so soggy that some of the chicken parts fell out as they unloaded the boat. What did the crew do? Pick them up from the jetty and stuff them back into the cartons. Needless to say, we did not eat any chicken while on the islands.
Scariest public transport experience
This was hands down a minivan ride from Kingstown to our accommodation near the airport of St Vincent. These minivans are always packed to the brim, four (sometimes five) people to a row plus luggage. The minivan sped around sharp corners, overtook at blind turns, all the while blaring deafening soca music. Sandra’s knees were shaking when we got off, and she thanked God for our safe arrival (she is not religious).
Same as five years ago, this one goes to Cuba. This time though, the culprit was a roadside stop between Viñales and Cienfuegos.
The most underfunded wildlife experience
We visited the Grafton Caledonia Bird Sanctuary on Tobago one afternoon to watch the feeding of the birds. The sanctuary was created by Eleanor Alefounder after Hurricane Flora in 1963. Unfortunately, it is a shadow of its former self. It looked abandoned when we arrived: The building welcoming visitors was dilapidated, and the area around the building was overgrown. The feeding did happen though, and it was nice to observe the birds. We saw our first Mot Mot with its striking colours and unique tail feathers at the sanctuary (we would see many more throughout Central America).
Vehicle hire experience
To explore the north coast of Trinidad (and visit the Asa Wright Nature Centre) one day, we had booked a car with Europcar via Expedia. According to Expedia, Europcar had an office at the Hilton in downtown Port of Spain. When Paul arrived though, he found the office unstaffed (even though it was meant to be open). A staff member did turn up in the end and took him to the airport 21km away, as they didn’t have any cars at the downtown office. At the airport, they first couldn’t find the car, then they couldn’t process our credit card. When Paul finally made his way back downtown, we learned that the car had no insurance. So, we ended up driving it back to the Europcar office at the Hilton and left it there. Thanks to this stuff-up, we only got to see Port of Spain. At least we didn’t have to chase Europcar for a refund, as our payment was never processed in the first place.
Paul discovered that he needed a visa for Trinidad and Tobago as our plane approached the airport of Port of Spain. As we went through security, his lack of preparation cost him dearly, as the border official promptly charged him TTD400 (about USD60), double of what the same visa would have cost him normally.
While we had more than our fair share of rain in Dominica and Jamaica (thanks to tropical storm Cindy), a thunderstorm in Havana wins in this category. One afternoon, we checked out the Hotel Habana Libre to see what had changed since our last visit. As we got hungry (it was after 1700h), we left the hotel lobby to look for a restaurant nearby. Only 100m up the road, a massive thunderstorm unleashed itself, turning the roads into rivers within minutes. We sought refuge at yet another hotel entrance but as we shared a small undercover space with about 50 other people, we got totally soaked. It was cool though to experience the force of Mother Nature. And we stumbled upon a cute little restaurant on our way back, which we wouldn’t have found otherwise.