Caribbean travel offers a wide variety of destinations, but they all share the brilliant blue water, powder fine sand beaches, and endless sunshine that sets the region apart
The Caribbean or the West Indies is a group of countries and islands in the Caribbean Sea. These countries or islands are located from the southeastern areas of Mexico to the Northwest of Venezuela in South America. There are at least 7000 islands, islets, reefs and cayes in the region. They are organized into twenty-five territories including sovereign states, overseas departments and dependencies.
A trip to Bermuda, just a quick two-hour flight from New York, is the perfect place for an island escape without leaving the comforts of civilization behind. With its strong British heritage and growing reputation as an international financial center, Bermuda offers resorts with beautiful pink beaches and great golf courses, but also a bustling capital city with fine dining, nightlife, and of course, great pubs with delicious British ales.
WHERE TO STAY: The Fairmont Hamilton Princess (76 Pitts Bay Road, Hamilton, tel: 441-295-3000) is a favorite of visiting insurance executives but is also a great choice for vacationers, offering the convenience of being just a five minute walk to Front Street’s shops, restaurants and pubs. Guests can choose between relaxing at the hotel’s two beautiful pools and lovely gardens overlooking Hamilton Harbor or taking a free ferry service to enjoy the beach at its sister hotel, the Fairmont Southampton. Ferries are the best way to get around the island, since rental cars are not allowed and the other alternative, renting a moped, is not for the faint of heart given Bermuda’s narrow roads.
The Fairmont Hamilton Princess is one of Bermuda’s most historic hotels and the oldest hotel in the Fairmont chain. The hotel opened in 1885 and was named in honor of one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, Princess Louise, who had put Bermuda on the map as an international vacation destination with her visit two years earlier. Princess Louise never did get to stay at her namesake, but plenty of other notables did over the years including authors Mark Twain and James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming.
The hotel has undergone multimillion dollar renovations over the last few years to update its rooms and lobby, including the creation of a ‘Hotel within the Hotel’ area called Fairmont Gold. The Fairmont Gold floor in the hotel has rooms and hallways that are tastefully decorated in bright pastel colors. Best of all is a spacious salon where complimentary breakfast and afternoon tea are served. The cheerful Fairmont Gold staff was always eager to be of service, making you feel like visiting royalty.
WHERE TO DINE AND DRINK: With its strong ties to Britain, one would think the island of Bermuda would be a haven for British-style food and beers. But that is not necessarily the case for a number of reasons, one being the balmy climate that tends to discourage many people from drinking heavy ales. Another is the popularity of rum drinks, including the famous Bermuda swizzle and the unofficial national drink, the Dark & Stormy, a delicious combination of Gosling’s black rum and stone ginger beer.
Fortunately there are good British-style craft brews to be found at North Rock Brewing Company (10 South Road, Smith’s Parish, tel: 441-236-6633), Bermuda’s first and only brewpub. A cab ride from Hamilton takes less than 10 minutes and is well worth the trip for the great brews and creative menu.
North Rock was founded in 1997 by David Littlejohn, an avid homebrewer, and his wife Heather, who took over a site that had housed several restaurants over the years. In the main room of their new restaurant, David and Heather added the gleaming copper tanks of brewing system. David is the head brewer and typically has five to seven different beers available.
David’s flagship ale is Somer’s Amber Ale, named for the British sea captain Sir George Somer whose ship, the Sea Venture, was wrecked in a storm off what is now St. George’s Parish in 1609. Unlike Somer’s voyage, this reddish ale is smooth, with a medium body and a crisp, dry finish from the use of noble hops. Other regular brews include two traditional British beers: West India Pale Ale, a classic IPA with enough hops to survive several trips to India, and North Rock Porter, a deep black, London-style porter that is as rich and flavorful as most stouts. On the lighter side, St. David’s Light is billed as a pilsner but is closer in taste and color to a golden ale, and Whale of a Wheat is an American-style wheat beer, with a full-bodied flavor but still light enough to quench a serious thirst.
North Rock’s beers can be enjoyed at its hand carved mahogany bar indoors or on a shaded outdoor patio, which is also a great spot for lunch. North Rock’s extensive menu is highlighted by a range of traditional British and Bermudian dishes, augmented by the use of various North Rock beers. In addition to traditional Bermuda fish chowder, North Rock offers an on onion soup made with Bermuda onions and North Rock porter. Appetizers include clams steamed open in ale and beer-battered Bermuda onion rings. Two mainstays of British pub menus, steak & ale pie and fish & chips, are reinvented here as game & porter pie, with pieces of game and vegetables simmered in North Rock porter, and beer batter used for Fish & Chips a la North Rock. Even the desserts have a beer influence, with North Rock porter paired with chocolate mousse and used in the rich chocolate ale cake.
In the British fashion, beers are served in 12 ounce half pints or 20 ounce imperial pints, with 4 ounce samplers also available. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., and dinner from 6-10 p.m. North Rock typically doesn’t attract much of a late night crowd, so if you’re planning on stopping by after 11 p.m., it makes sense to call ahead to see if the bar is still open.
There are also several fine British pubs with good beer selections in Hamilton, with one of the best being the Hog Penny Pub (5 Burnaby Hill, Hamilton, tel: 441-292-2534), located just off Front Street. The Hog Penny is is a great place to have a lunchtime bowl of Bermuda fish chowder spiced up with black rum and sherry peppers sauce. Beers on draught at the Hog Penny include such British pub staples as Bass and McEwan’s.
Puerto Rico, Jewel of the Caribbean
Puerto Rico is an amazing jewel in the Caribbean, and is a great choice to explore on your own. For starters the road system is as advanced as those you’ll find in the States. Roads are clearly marked, and the main roads that cross the mountains were safe and well maintained. Spanish is the main language, but everyone has English classes in school. Resort employees speak perfect English, and if you wander outside the resorts, the person you are talking to understands you, even if they are too shy to admit it.
This island is pretty big so don’t underestimate how long it takes to get around. There’s a main mountain chain that runs the length of the island, and the drive thru the mountains can add a bit to your drive time.
Standard of living is high compared to most other Caribbean islands, and pretty close to what you’ll find in many US States. Water filtration meets the same US standards. Puerto Ricans are US citizens. Everywhere I went folks were chatty and delightful, and many were well traveled in the States or lived there for a period of time.
Renting a car is easy, and is recommended if you’re visiting the southern or western areas of the island, if you’re planning a multi-destination itinerary, or if you’d like to explore the island on your own. The resorts in the San Juan area generally charge for parking. Away from the San Juan area, some resorts can be pretty far from shops, other restaurants, and the sights.
There’s a lot to see and explore on this island. There are numerous golf courses, and diving is well established. There’s the rain forest in the east, and the dry forest in the west, as well as caves and hikes for the more adventurous. In general, it is a fun island to explore and get to know the history, culture, and people.
Beaches in Puerto Rico are pretty, but don’t quite measure up to Negril or Cancun. The north side of the island is the Atlantic, while the south side is the Caribbean. Sand quality ranges from golden to brown to gray. The better beaches are to be found along the east coast, which is actually Atlantic & the Caribbean, and the best beaches are on Puerto Rico’s islands off the east coast (such as Vieques).
Where to Stay: San Juan is on the northeast end of the island. Here you’ll find most of Puerto Rico’s hotels, inns, and resorts. My personal favorite is the Hyatt Dorado ($150-$350, Highway 693, Dorado, Puerto Rico, Tel: 787 796 1234), about an hour west of the San Juan airport. This 5 star luxury beachfront resort is nestled among well-established palm trees. Rockefeller himself designed the resort (though the original buildings go back further). No building stands taller than the average palm tree, and the beautiful grounds are astounding. The beach is breathtaking, with golden sand, a curving coastline, and breakers along the swimming beach.
The ultra trendy Water Club (2 Calle Tartak, Isla Verde, San Juan, Phone: , $250 to $350), located in San Juan close to the airport receives mixed reviews. I’d guess the mixed reviews is that expectations can be high, what with all the hype. This is an excellent beachfront boutique hotel, great for honeymooners.
There are some great hotel choices along the East coast, and in perfect striking distance to the rain forest. The Wyndham El Conquistador (Av. El Conquistador 1000, Box 70001, Fajardo, Phone: , $250 to Over $350) makes an excellent choice, and has a fantastic ocean view perched along the hilltop.
The all-inclusive concept hasn’t really caught on in Puerto Rico, but that’s okay since this isn’t really a destination where you’d want to be locked in to the resort. The New Paradisus (1 787 809 1770) is Puerto Rico’s first true all-inclusive, but the beach here isn’t the best (I didn’t see it first hand). Some of the other resorts are offering quasi all-inclusive options.
Dining and Nightlife: You can find some excellent dining venues in Puerto Rico, ranging from regional specialties to international dishes. Everything I tasted was fresh and delicious, and the resorts are all justly proud of their restaurants. At dinner, the pace is slower and more typical of Europe. Good dining bets include Bebos Cafe ($8-$27, 1600 Calle Loiza, Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 787/268-5087), Chayote ($10-25, Hotel Olimpo Court, 603 Av. Miramar, 787/722-9385), El Buen Cafe ($8-20, 381 Rte. 2, Km 84, 787/898-3495), and La Casona ($18-35, 609 Calle San Jorge, Santurce, 787/727-2717).
If nightlife is important, stick with San Juan. Here you’ll find the trendier clubs, and some of the best chefs. Fusion cuisine is popular (such as Puerto Rican and Asian). Many of the San Juan resorts offer casinos, and most have a trendy club or two onsite.