Insider’s Guide to Caribbean Hot Spots
Writer and Caribbean enthusiast Tracey Teo shares her must-do adventures and how to put your tourism dollars to good use.I go way back and, happily, the islands where I had some of my favorite adventures were unaffected by the storm.
British Virgin Islands
Aboard the Spirit of Juno, a sleek, powerful yacht racing in the BVI Spring Regatta & Sailing Festival, the wind suddenly balloons the spinnaker like an umbrella in a storm, causing it to heel (lean) dramatically to the starboard side.
One minute, I’m cruising peacefully along the clear cobalt blue waters of the Sir Francis Drake Channel, a strait that separates Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, from several smaller ones, and the next, I’m perched high in the sky on this crazy carnival ride. Thrilling!
Skipper Arran Chapman assures me it’s normal to sail at an angle. I’m used to being on the water, but I’ve never sailed in a regatta, and it’s unlike any boating experience I’ve ever had.
“Ready About,” he shouts above the wind and the waves.
“Ready,” comes the reply.
It’s a floating madhouse for a few minutes as an international crew scrambles to tack, or turn, the boat.
A few crew members perch quietly on the rail like a row of birds on a wire, and I wonder why they aren’t in the midst of the action. Seems like an odd time to take a break.
I discover they aren’t just hanging out up there. They are positioning their body weight as far windward as possible to help the vessel pick up speed.
Newbies are often “rail meat.”
You don’t have to own a racing yacht to participate in the regatta. The Pay to Play program offered through a number of BVI charter companies allows anyone to get in on the action. Novice sailors can rent a boat and hire a skipper, or do like I did, and simply hop aboard with a group of strangers that soon become friends.
We didn’t win the Scrub Island Invitational, one of many events that comprise the regatta, but the crew was still in a celebratory mood when we arrived at the 5-star Scrub Island Resort, Spa and Marina for a hearty barbecue lunch with free-flowing beer and cocktails.
The resort has 55 deep-water slips, including five for mega-yachts up to 170 feet long. Accommodations range from a standard hotel room to 6-bedroom villas.
I don’t know what I thought the inside of a cacao pod would look like, but I didn’t expect a sticky, mucous-like goo that was about as appetizing as a football-sized wad of chewed gum. It’s called mucilage and encases dozens of beans.
This is the stuff that becomes indulgent chocolate desserts served at St. Lucia’s Jade Mountain, one of the most magnificent resorts in the Caribbean.
The bean to bar experience takes chocolate lovers to Emerald Estate, the resort’s 40-acre organic farm tucked into the verdant Soufriere hills, and educates them about St. Lucia’s longstanding chocolate trade. The industry declined over the years, but it’s currently undergoing a renaissance. More than 2,000 cacao trees grow on the farm.
My passion for chocolate runs deep, but that’s not what brought me to Jade Mountain. No, it was sheer curiosity about a one-of-a-kind, luxury resort built into dramatic soaring cliffs, an architectural marvel with only 29 open-air rooms called sanctuaries.
When my “majordomo,” or personal butler, first opened the door to the Galaxy Suite, I was greeted with a sweeping panoramic view of the twin mountain peaks of the Pitons and the Caribbean Sea.
Wow. Just, wow.
Like a stage, there’s no fourth wall, so nothing comes between guests and the island’s natural beauty. There is complete privacy, except for the occasional bird.
The most extraordinary feature of my sanctuary was the private infinity pool that provides the illusion of cascading over a cliff and into the turquoise waves below.
The problem with such an opulent chrysalis is that it’s hard to emerge, but I managed to haul myself from a gloriously comfy canopy bed and join the chocolate tour. I’m glad I did, because I learned a lot about my favorite guilty pleasure.
After the cacao pods are harvested, the beans have to be fermented, then dried for at least a week. All that happens at the farm, but the second part of the tour takes place in the Chocolate Lab.
Peter Gabriel, supervisor of chocolate production, was eager to dive right into chocolate making, but my fellow chocolate connoisseurs and I spied an intricately carved chocolate bird and insisted he tell us all about it first. It was a model of a St. Lucia parrot, the national bird, and it took Gabriel two months to make it.
It seems Gabriel not only knows how to make chocolate, but how to use it as an artistic medium for his whimsical creations.
Having satisfied our curiosity, he got down to business, explaining how 300 pounds of beans delivered from Emerald Estate every week are transformed into decadent desserts.
The beans are roasted and then put into a juicer that removes the husks. What’s left are the nibs, the essential ingredient. They are ground for 48 hours until a paste forms, then cocoa butter and sugar are added. The molten river of chocolate is poured into a mold and, voila! You have an organic Emerald Estate chocolate bar.
So, why is this chocolate so much richer than typical grocery store brands in the U.S.?
“Mass-produced chocolate often has less than 30 percent chocolate and ours is 70 percent,” Gabriel said. “Many companies remove the cocoa butter and replace it with cheap oils and add emulsifiers and stabilizers.”
I tried to reconcile the gooey cacao pod guts I had wrinkled my nose at with the delightful sensations on my palate.
One thing is for sure. I’ll never eat another chocolate bar without appreciating the effort that went into creating it.
It’s just another day in Paradise—Nassau Paradise Island, that is. Baha Mar, a mega-resort in the Bahamas with three hotels, sits near the powder white sand of Cable Beach where sunbathers enjoy cocktails and the sea breeze.
The resort boasts nine tennis courts, an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus golf course, a luxurious spa and the largest casino in the Caribbean—all the expected amenities—but what sets it apart is an extensive art program that introduces visitors to Bahamian culture.
Thousands of contemporary paintings and sculptures by accomplished and emerging artists are exhibited in practically every public space, a de facto museum.
At the Current, an on-site art gallery, visitors can purchase an enduring souvenir, or even create their own masterpiece with the guidance of a local artist. www.bahamar.com
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands
It’s not easy to get to St. John, the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands (there’s no airport and no cruise ship docks), but it’s worth the short ferry ride from the Virgin Islands capital of Charlotte Amalie to frolic in this tropical playground, a laid-back antidote to the cacophonous cruise ship-driven tourism of neighboring St. Thomas.
One reason it continues to feel like an undiscovered remote island despite hosting thousands of visitors annually is about two-thirds of it is taken up by Virgin Islands National Park, so it’s protected from development. A park highlight is the Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins that showcase the island’s history as a major sugar producer during the Danish colonial era (1718-1917).
For me, the island’s most captivating wonders are beneath the waves. St. John’s reputation as one of the top snorkeling destinations in the Caribbean is well-deserved.
At Maho Bay, neon yellow and blue queen fish seem to glow from inside as they hover above brain coral and purple sea fans. Not to be outdone, parrotfish dart over to flaunt their own green and pink iridescent splendor.
I’m attempting to photograph a starfish nestled in the seafloor with my underwater camera when a sea turtle swims right up to my snorkeling mask, clearly curious about the interloper. We watch each other for a few seconds until he loses interest and dives down to munch on some seagrass.
It’s moments like this that keep me coming back to the Caribbean year after year.
One of the best ways to help victims of Hurricane Dorian is to visit the Caribbean, putting your tourism dollars toward a good cause.
Many of the resorts unaffected by Hurricane Dorian are lending a helping hand to the worst-hit areas. Grand Bahama and the Abaco Islands were leveled by the category 5 storm, and many hurricane victims are still displaced.
Jade Mountain has partnered with the Caribbean Hotel and Tourism Association to raise funds for school children in impacted areas. The resort is encouraging donations by raffling off a 7-night stay. Every $50 donation is an opportunity to enter the raffle.
Baha Mar asks guests to “Pack with Love” by bringing clothes, books or toys that will be donated to hurricane victims.
Tracey Teo is a writer living in Evansville, Indiana.