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GREAT VACATIONS

The Perfect Caribbean Island

We've scoured the azure sea and discovered nine gems for the '90s

Although there are 26 territories, countries, or commonwealths in the Caribbean, there are hundreds of individual islands, some of them spectacular. The bad news for sun worshippers and pleasure seekers is there are very few islands left that are "undiscovered." The good news is times change--governments are overthrown, new resorts are built, airlines add new routes. Beaches once occupied by fully armed U.S. Marines are now filled with sunbathers carrying weapons no more lethal than sunblock. And the new beauty spots aren't hard to find. A veritable army of travel writers is constantly on the lookout for the poshest, cheapest, most environmentally correct, most decadent--or whatever else--spot.

With this in mind, we set out to find the "hot" islands of the Caribbean by meticulously tracking everything that has been written about this vacationer's paradise. What emerges is a startling consensus about where the sybarite of the '90s will find the most sun and fun. We've shied away from bigger, more commercial islands such as Jamaica, Barbados, St. Martin, and Aruba, looking instead for places off the beaten track. Here's what we discovered:

Price Guide
Per person per day, double occupancy:
$ = $70 to $150 per night
$$ = $150 to $250
$$$ = $250 to $350
$$$$ = $350 to $450
$$$$$ = $450 and up


Anguilla

Anguilla is considered by many to be the new St. Barts, the super-expensive Francophone hangout that's been the glitterati's island of choice. Like St. Barts, Anguilla is small, just 16 miles long and 3.4 miles wide, and has probably the best beaches in the Caribbean. The island is long and completely flat, resembling a finger. Its tone is somewhat less intimidating than St. Barts. There still are reasonably priced places to stay and eat, and there is a significantly large local population, which means you are just as likely to share your table with a Rastafarian as with a movie star.

Best Beaches: There are over 30 white sandy stretches. Highlights among them: Shoal, Rendezvous Bay, Maunday's, and Meads. The best coral reef for snorkeling is at Sandy Isle, just offshore from Sandy Ground. Sandy Island Enterprises, a boat service, can get you there, 809-497-5643.

Hot Spot: Johnnos is a beachfront restaurant with a great view of the sailboat races, picnic tables, grilled lobster, and beer.

Best trek: Journey to Windward Point, at the eastern tip of the island; walk through the former Katouche Plantation at Crocus Bay and around the 100-acre salt pond at Sandy Ground.

Best Places to Stay:

$$$$ Mailiouhana, the island's most highly touted resort, is situated on a cliff overlooking Meads Bay. Formal and chic, it has two staffers for every guest. 800-835-0796

$ Rendezvous Bay, with 47 beach cottages sprawled over 60 wild acres, is the island's first seaside resort. There is no room service, however. 800-274-4893


Bequia

This tiny 7-square-mile island has been popular with yachters because of its laid-back ambience and picturesque, hill- sheltered harbor. The island's casual pace was threatened by the recent construction of an airport, but the place hasn't changed much; it's just easier to get to. The island is refreshingly unglitzy and a great bargain.

Best Beaches: Lower Bay, a classic Caribbean beach with white sand, palm trees, and a five-minute swim to the island's most accessible snorkeling reef.

Hot Spot: De Reef, the Lower Bay beach bar, is popular with locals who go for the island's home brew, Hairoun beer.

Best Place to Stay:

$ Frangipani is a century-old West-Indies-style family inn nestled into a hill overlooking the harbor. The best rooms have private baths and face the garden. 809-458-3255


Dominica

The largest of the windward islands, Dominica shoots up from the sea in a series of formerly volcanic peaks and slopes. It has no white beaches, no serious resorts, and no night life. Though it has long been a haven for divers and hikers, ecotravelers have tried to keep quiet about the wonders of a vacation on Dominica. Three-quarters of the island consists of untillable slopes rising steeply from low-lying rain forests, making for some of the most scenic hiking in the Caribbean. Waterfalls and hot springs abound. Underwater are some of the healthiest and most dramatic reefs left in the islands.

Best Treks: Boiling Lake is a huge bubbling cauldron of extremely hot sulfur water in the southeast corner of the island. One of the natural wonders of the Caribbean, it can be reached by a challenging six- to eight- hour hike through the Valley of Desolation. Be sure to go with a guide. The 140-foot Trafalgar Falls is northeast of Roseau, just outside of Morne Trois Pitons National Park. Half the falls are icy cold while the other half spring from a volcanic source at a consistent 104 degrees. Middleham Falls, within Dominican National Park, is spectacular but difficult to reach.

Best Place to Stay:

$ Papillote is a unique guest house nestled into a steep canyon that is super low key, informal, and eco-sensitive. The hot water is fed from a real hot spring. Rooms are spare but comfortable; the food is traditional Caribbean. 809-448-2287


Grenada

For many Americans, this island still conjures images of U.S. troops landing on its beaches. That's kept its prices somewhat lower than on many other islands, but all the important amenities are there.

Best Beach: Grand Anse.

Hot Spot: The open-air market, on Saturdays in Grenada's capital, St. George's, is a colorful mélange of tropical fruits and island crafts.

Best Treks: Grand Etang, a 3,800-acre park about 20 minutes from St. George's, has at its center Grand Etang Lake. The lake is the crater of an extinct volcano and is surrounded by mountains that are prime bird-watching territory. Seven Sisters Waterfalls has seven cascades, each with deep, cool pools, but should be toured with a guide.

Best Place to Stay:

$$$ La Source is one of the few real spas in the Caribbean. It offers individually designed menus and a range of spa treatments including mud baths, seaweed wraps, massages, yoga, meditation, and stress management. 800-544-2883


Montserrat

Before Hurricane Hugo destroyed the most famous recording studio (Air Studios) in the Caribbean, Montserrat was the habitat of Mick Jagger, Elton John, and Stevie Wonder. Known as the emerald island of the Caribbean because of its rich, green landscape, the tiny island is 11 miles long by 7 miles wide. The topography is volcanic and mountainous, with one peak reaching 3,000 feet. Striking views abound.

Best Beach: There are few beaches, but there is one nice white sand crescent: Rendezvous Bay, an excellent place to rent a villa, as there are few hotels.

Hot Spot: Rootsman, a beach bar on Carr's Bay that serves the local "Bush" rum.

Best Trek: Mount Chance, a 3,002-foot volcanic peak, is accessible by a strenuous natural trail of steps from the road south of Plymouth. The hike takes about an hour and a half and offers stunning views. Galway's Soufrière no longer spouts lava, but the still-active volcano bubbles springs and sulfur. A hike to the Soufrière from the village of St. Patrick's takes about two hours by road and trail. A guide is required. The Great Alps Falls drops into a 70-foot gorge. A 45-minute hike starts in St. Patrick's, and winds uphill about a mile. There is a small, swimmable pool at the bottom. Guides are recommended for all trips. Tours can be arranged by the Montserrat Tour Guides Association, 809-491-3160.

Best Place to Stay:

$$ The Vue Point Hotel has 28 individual cottages sloping down the hill above Old Road Bay. 800-235-0709


Mustique

The popularity of this island, whose name means "mosquito," stems from the fabulously wealthy and famous people who own houses on it, among them: Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and Princess Margaret.

Best Beach: Macaroni Beach.

Hot Spot: Basil's Bar, an upscale but casual bar. Check out the Wednesday night "jump-up" (buffet) with reggae band and jam. For celebrity watching, try the tiny Anglican church on Easter and Christmas.

Best Place to Stay:

$$$$ The Cotton House, a former 18th- century plantation house, is the island's only hotel. 809-456-4777


Nevis

Just two miles away from St. Kitts and a 50-minute charter flight from St. Barts, Nevis is more laid back than either. The Four Seasons opened a fantastically expensive resort here in 1991 with a Robert Trent Jones golf course, but the rest of the island is still relatively poor, sleepy, and charming. For people looking for a more old-fashioned Caribbean experience sans condos, night life, and duty-free shops, Nevis is a good choice. The former plantation houses are the best places to stay.

Best Beaches: Pinney's, a 6-mile stretch of sand, and Newcastle Bay beach are great for snorkeling. All the beaches on the island are white sand.

Hot Spot: The 25-mile main road that circumnavigates the island. The circuit takes two hours to complete.

Best trek: Nevis Peak, a 3,232-foot-high mountain, sits in the island's center. Hamilton Trail, a popular two-and-a-half hour hike to its peak, traverses part of a rain forest and leads to spectacular views of surrounding islands. Guides can be found through the Nevis Historical and Conservation Society. 809-469-5786

Best Places to Stay:

$$$ Montpelier Plantation Inn is a large stone house with eight ocean-view bungalows, a lap pool, and a shuttle to Pinney's Beach. Princess Di recently pitched up for some rest and relaxation. 809-469-3462

$$$ The Hermitage, built in 1780, is the oldest building on Nevis. Among its amenities: a stable of eight thoroughbred horses ready for guests to ride. 809-469-3477


St. Barts

The choicest of the Caribbean islands, because of its French flavor, beautiful beaches, swanky gourmet restaurants, and extremely high ratio of celebrities. The island also has the most hair-raising airplane landing and the highest prices in the Caribbean.

Best Beaches: Gouverneur Beach, Colombière Beach, Grand Saline Beach, and Flamands Beach (in that order). Colombière Beach on the northwest coast can only be reached by boat or trail. The trail starts at Flamands Beach, at the west end, and is about a 20-minute hike. Bring food and drink as the beach is totally uninhabited. A word to the prudish: bathing suits (top and bottom) are optional on the island.

Hot Spot: Chez Maya, a très chic beachside restaurant in Gustavia with Vietnamese and Caribbean cuisine. A celebrity hangout.

Best Places to Stay:

$$$$ Guanahani is far from the airport and Gustavia, the main town, but it boasts a gorgeous beach, 16 pools, and is good for families. 011-590-27-6660

$ Hostellerie des Trois Forces is a small inn nestled in the eastern slope of Morne du Vitet. 011-590-27-6125


St. Lucia

This sleepy island looks more like Hawai'i than it does most of the Caribbean. Two cone-shaped mountains, Gros Piton and Petit Piton, are perched right next to each other on the southwestern coast, dominating the landscape.

Best Beaches: Divers should check out Anse Chastanet's Beach. For sunbathing, try instead Reduit Beach on the northern end of the island.

Hot Spot: Grosislet, a neighborhood on the northern end of the island, holds a street fair and jump-up (dance) on Friday nights. Local vendors and restaurateurs sell their best dishes while tourists and locals mingle, eat, and dance. When you're there, be sure to try the very tasty St. Lucian lager, Piton beer.

Best Treks: Gros Piton has a 2,619-foot climb to the summit, which should be taken with a guide. The St. Lucia National Trust, 809-452-5005, can arrange for tours. Frigate Islands Nature Preserve, off St. Lucia's eastern coast, is home to the frigate--the magnificent bird that can be seen nesting and roosting from May to July. It is also the home to the boa constrictor, among other exotic creatures. There's another small preserve on the Maria Islands: Sulfur Springs, located in Soufrière at the southwestern part of the island, is a 7-acre site of volcanic craters filled with bubbling, sulfurous steam.

Best Places to Stay

$$$$ Jalousie Plantation is a relatively new and controversial resort located between the Pitons. Environmentalists did not want the area between the two mountains developed. The luxurious individual cottages have their own plunge pool and all the modern amenities. 800-392-2007

$$-$$$ Anse Chastenet, facing the Pitons, has a more casual atmosphere. Rooms don't have modern amenities such as TVs, telephones, or air-conditioning--but they do have incredible views. 800 223-1108


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