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Made by members

Caribbean holidays

29 Feb 2024 | Written by By Roger Davies
The Joy Club member Roger Davies shares his top tips for getting away to a Carribean destiniation in the colder months…

I am sitting looking out of my office window, there is a totally grey sky, the temperature has risen to a dismal 4°c. Too cold to be pleasant and too warm for a nice crisp frost. It was dark at 08:15 and it will be dark again soon. It is at times like this that the adverts, that are everywhere I look, become very tempting. I need some sunshine. The advertisers know how I feel because we all feel the same in the cold months. But where to book? That is the question. In my mind to guarantee warm sunshine I want to go back to the Caribbean Islands, each so different, but all with the same laid-back vibe.

But when is the best time to go? I think the answer is it all depends on what you want out of the trip. Year round the temperatures do not vary that much. A daytime high between 28°c in winter and 32°c in summer can be expected, but you will need an airconditioned room though as temperatures at night never drop much below 20°c. There is a “dry” season which runs from roughly Dec to May and the “rainy” from June to Nov. But in my experience, it can rain at any time. And when I say it rains, I mean it RAINS. The trade winds travel for thousands of miles across the Atlantic, collecting moisture. They hit the Islands and rise over the hills. The moisture turns into heavy wet clouds and down it comes. Thunderous, torrential, and heavy. The good news is it is usually a short sharp downpour, out comes the sun and it all steams away. As one local told me it is not rain, it is liquid sunshine.

Talking about weather you cannot ignore the hurricane season which runs roughly from June to November, but as most storms turn right and head north before they reach the Islands, you would be very very unlucky to get caught up in one.

How to get there, nowadays it is a very rare Caribbean Island that does not have an international airport. And those that don’t, will have an island-hopping plane across from one of the others. In 1969, I once flew from Porto Rico to St Lucia on a little Caribbean Airlines prop plane, an interesting experience, more like a bus ride than an international flight. People in the front row of seats got to chat with the pilot. From the UK there are cheapish flights available from £500 return. (Virgin airways, Manchester to Bridgetown Barbados.) But beware, as you all already know there may be unavoidable extras to pay.

One other thing to remember about flights to the Caribbean, it is just over 9 hours on a direct flight. This can be a long time in a packed aircraft. The front cabins can be spacious, but they are very expensive. Cattle class may be cheaper, but even though it is better than short haul flights, you will be packed in fairly tightly. An alternative for those with a little more time on their hands would be a 25-to-30-day cruise out of Liverpool or Southampton.

Where to stay, there are literally thousands of hotels and Airbnb’s of all classes available. It is also possible to book into one of the many all-inclusive complexes on any of the islands and never leave. In the resort there will be restaurants, shops, and bars. There will be pools large enough to fight a naval battle in. Though a German friend of mine did say that he couldn’t get a sun lounger because all the Brits had claimed them with towels. But if you do stay in one you may miss out on the local culture and cuisine.

We once stayed in a complex on Margarita, a Venezuelan Caribbean Island, and the steaks in the local bar were to die for. Huge, South American style, man sized hunks of beef, cooked over hot coals. They were seared till they were scorched and charred on the outside, and blood drippingly rare inside. They were served with chips as a vegetable. In the Dominican Republic the contrast between the All-Inclusive resorts and the local population was a real extreme. In the gated, guarded complex there was every luxury imaginable. From the onsite Casino to the swim-out to bar in the middle of the pool. The choice of five, always open, restaurants to the midnight international cabaret. Most people never left the complex. But outside, in the local villages shoeless children would follow you with their hands out for coins.

If you have booked on a cruise, then of course your hotel moves around the islands with you. This is great if you want to sample many different places in one go. But if you want to have a more in-depth exploration of a particular Island then a cruise is probably not the way to go.

For me the geography of these islands is fascinating. The main Islands run in a northerly arc, east to west from the coast of South America to the Florida Keys. This line of islands follows the junction of two tectonic plates, The Caribbean and the South American. The movement of these plates has caused the formation of Volcanoes, which as they have risen from the seabed, have in turn made the Islands. Please note that although some of the volcanoes are classed as active, there have only been a few eruptions over the last three hundred years. The most recent being 2021 (St Vincent); 1997 (Dominica); 1995 (Monserrat); 1971 (Guadeloupe) and the biggest recent eruption was in 1902 (Martinique). In the main though, the islands have been sitting in the sunshine, gently eroding down into the places we see today. Some Islands were created millions of years ago and have now eroded back down almost to sea level and around them are the scenic coral reefs that you can snorkel or scuba dive down to.

Then there are the beautiful beaches that we love to go and lie on. These can come complete with your own parasols and sunbeds, for an extra $10 to $15 you can get a bucket of ice-cold beers to chillout with. These beaches have been created by geological processes. The darker coloured, coarser sands are formed from the eroded volcanic deposits, but the gorgeous, white, fine talc like sands that we so adore are a more complex process. The coral reefs around many of the islands are home to untold multitudes of Parrot Fish. These graze on the corals, using their specially adapted mouths and teeth to grind off mouthfuls of coral. They extract the living polyps as food and crush the calcic debris left behind into a fine powder which they excrete. Over the millennia this powder has been washed ashore and the fine sandy beaches are entirely made up of it. Next time you are lying, in the sunshine running the fine sand through your fingers, reflect on this, you are lying on a pile of fish poo!

While you are on the islands don’t miss out on their fascinating history. The first recorded people to inhabit the islands, were the Arawaks followed by the Caribs. (Christophor Columbus did not discover the Caribbean, his expedition was just the first European one to arrive there) There is now evidence that some tribes were inhabiting the Islands up to 6000 years ago. Then came the Europeans, and what we cannot ignore, the slave trade. From sugar to bananas through coffee and tobacco, various monocultures have been tried, in the plantations over the years. Mainly using slave or cheap manual labour. The remains of these enterprises are still to be seen and are available to visit on island tours.

Because of the economic value of the islands, they were fought over by the British, French, Spanish and Dutch for hundreds of years. The remains of the military strongholds are also still there for the discerning visitor to go and see on yet more tours. There are classics, like Nelson’s Dockyard on Antigua and the home of Josephine Bonaparte on Martinique, as well dozens of plantation houses and forts scattered across most islands just waiting to be explored.

 

Nelson’s Dockyard Antigua

 

Josaphine’s House Martinique

One more item to try, is that ubiquitous event on any Caribbean tour, the rum tasting. A byproduct of the sugar cane industry, rum became a staple of plantation life. From the oldest distillery in Barbados, the Mount Gay, to the delicious French variations in Martinique, the good quality rums are not to be missed. You can still get the traditional Royal Navy rum, “Pussers” in the Pusser’s Outpost. A bar in Roadtown in Tortola. (Once a real pirate of the Caribbean hangout.)

 

Rum tasting

To sum up the Caribbean is a magnificent destination to beat the winter blues and to grab some sunshine. But it is more than just a resort or beach holiday, get out of your comfort zone and into the real heart of the islands. Go on a trip, see the sights, and meet the wonderfully friendly people.

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