Oh, the Caribbean. The very word dances on the tip of your tongue like liquid honey. What images it conjures up, and how it makes the adrenaline flow. For neophytes dreaming of that first trip, it can seem like the approach to paradise. For veterans returning to those same hallowed shores, the sense of anticipation is almost electric.
It often seems as if there are two Caribbeans; the brochure images of powder white beaches, calypso and swaying palms is still there to be sure. But there is also another Caribbean; one where thousands of cruise ship passengers flood like a human tidal wave across islands struggling to stay afloat under the weight of this mass disgorging of modern day pirates. One where the differences between mosquitoes and beach hawkers is increasingly difficult to distinguish. A place where the traffic can be every bit as frustrating as in London or Los Angeles.
Broadly speaking, the islands in the west, such as Grand Cayman and Cozumel, have brilliant, blinding white beaches, but not much in the way of outstanding scenery. They are also more susceptible to warm trade winds, which can often kick up quite a bit.
Those to the east, such as Saint Thomas, Tortola and Saint Lucia, tend to be typically more verdant, greener, and much more mountainous. Again, they are blessed with wonderful beaches, and arrayed so closely to each other that they resemble nothing so much as a string of exotic stepping stones, flung at random across the sparkling, azure hue of the ocean.
Those points duly noted, let me try and give you some pointers for cruising round this fabled, idyllic playground.
In either direction, the busiest season is invariably November through until March. This is when the weather is usually guaranteed to be at its best. With hurricane season gone, the allure of eschewing leaden winter days at home for adventuring around a string of sun splashed islands is irresistible for many Americans and Canadians. Europeans too are drawn here in droves during winter. The entire region acts like some surreal, sublime magnet.
The downside is that, in winter, the Caribbean is almost awash with giant cruise ships that have fled from colder climes to these far more welcoming waters. One memorable December day a few years ago, I watched in disbelief as no less than fifteen cruise ships- average capacity around 2500 passengers each- tried to find their way into Cozumel. They were stacked up like flights over Heathrow.
This makes for a far greater strain on an island’s infrastructure- taxis, tourist coaches and private guides have all got their work cut out for them. Pier space is often limited, so local towns can often find themselves awash with podgy, sun burnt tourists seeking shade, sustenance and the odd margarita, as they try to get to and from their ships. This congestion- both human and mechanical- can be maddening to the unsuspecting, as well as quite bewildering.
Beaches are often overrun by these human tidal waves, making the unspoiled seclusion promised by glossy brochure shots an interesting notion at best.
On the other hand, the duty free shopping scene on some of the islands has mushroomed; often to such an extent that some of them resemble vast, reggae suffused shopping malls. They ingest staggering volumes of revenue into an island’s coffers each and every week during the lucrative winter season.
In the summer months, hurricane season can bring its own, obvious perils. The bulk of the winter fleet sails off to Alaska and Europe, leaving a much reduced rump of ships to sail the week long cruises around the islands.
The result is a calmer, more sedate Caribbean experience, albeit one with much higher humidity. And there is always a chance that a hurricane might whip up. No cruise ship captain would ever dream of ploughing full tilt into such an appalling natural maelstrom; that in turn might result in the cancellation of one or more ports of call in favour of more comfortably achieved alternatives. So, if you are going to the Caribbean to see a specific set of ports, there is always the off chance that, owing to the weather, you might not get there. No cruise line will play Russian roulette with passengers’ lives merely for the sake of it.
So, those are some of the pros and cons. Now, many will tell you that the islands are all the same- identikit pictures of each other. And yes, to some extent they do kind of blur into each other, in a dreamy, smiley kind of way. And, while many of them do have much in common, each one is as individual as a human fingerprint.
During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the major European powers- England, France, Holland and Spain in particular- embarked on a phase of aggressive colonising in the Caribbean. The Spanish built massive fortifications on occupied islands such as San Juan, mainly to offer shelter and succour to the fleets bringing plundered Aztec and Mayan gold back to Spain. English privateers took an avowed interest in diverting that same gold into the coffers of Good Queen Bess, and thus a slow burning powder keg was lit.
Saint Lucia, for example, changed hands no less than thirteen times between England and France. Later, pirates such as Blackbeard and Anne Bonney turned these same waters into a devil’s playground of looted, pillaged shipping; a violently bloody slaughter ground enlivened with bouts of rum sodden roistering ashore. Often as not, these ended abruptly on some English or Spanish gallows at dawn.
Not that this deterred the pirates from seeking out the lucrative treasures that had to pass through here, en route back to Europe. To say nothing of the appalling barbarity of the slave trade, imposed by those same, ‘civilised’ European nations, as their owners raised vast plantation houses for themselves, and treated their human cargo to such appalling inhumanity that they died in agonised droves. Many of these plantation houses can still be seen on Barbados and Jamaica to this day.
And yet… the islands still have the most amazing, vibrant aspect right to this day. Almost perfectly clear. electric blue waters kissing vast carpets of honey coloured sand, fringed by serried tiers of idly waving palm trees, many with hammocks slung between them at crazy angles. The permanent, languid lilt of reggae that is heard almost everywhere. The smell of spicy nutmeg and cooked jerk chicken. Tracts of gorgeous hibiscus and oleander….
Forests full of chattering birds and bright, multi coloured butterflies. An Iguana strutting fearlessly from out behind a red painted, clapboard bar as it saunters back into the undergrowth. Para gliders dotting the sky like exquisite butterflies. Jet skis tearing a thin white trail across a seascape sprinkled with small yachts, scuba divers, pedalos and canoes…
Frosty margaritas, daiquiris and pina coladas. The simple pleasure of sipping an ice cold Carib beer on a beach as the warm water kisses your feet. Soft, sultry sand between your toes…..
Sunrises that fill the heart with wonder, and spellbinding sunsets that engender a deep, mellow sense of contentment are also in the mix. Warm nights of dining and dancing under the stars. The anticipation of arrival in the next , exalted landfall. All laid out in one rich, appealing package. Compelling stuff, indeed. Powerful magic.
The Caribbean is not perfect. But then, neither is anywhere else. The overall pace of life- and that lifestyle itself- is as invigorating as it is sporadically relaxing.
If I am certain of one thing, it is that one visit will never be enough. You may, indeed, leave the islands. But the islands never truly leave you. At times, the urge to return is overwhelming and, oh my, return you surely will.
You might run into me at Magen’s Bay on Saint Thomas. At Stanley’s bar on Cane Garden Bay in Tortola. Or at Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman.
Whatever, wherever- mine is always a margarita. What’s yours?