The Eastern Caribbean Is Calling

Nov 11, 2013 Avatar Wendy Carlson Wendy Carlson

I don’t often find the time to jet off to Europe but with my favorite Caribbean isles just an 8-hour flight from Los Angeles, it’s easy to find myself in a different world. I can poke around old forts, swim in turquoise waters, buy hand-made baskets, and taste my way through island cuisine. It’s an intoxicating cocktail of European, African, West Indian, and native Arawak and Taino flavors that I just can’t resist. While resort-based vacations abound, I am partial to visiting the islands on a luxury cruise ship. A relaxing week- long cruise to 3 or 4 of my favorite islands is an easy pick. I prefer an itinerary that starts with a day at sea so I can settle in to the laid-back rhythm of shipboard life. A hot stone massage, a deckchair and a book, a sunset stroll and a star-filled night—these pleasures take me far from my everyday routine. And when morning comes, I am raring to dive into island adventure.

The best of the Eastern Caribbean. If I can drag myself away from the sparkling pool, inviting beach cabanas and frosty drinks at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, I find plenty to keep me busy on Grand Turk in the Caicos Islands. This secluded, isle lures snorkelers, divers and sport fishers with its crystal-clear waters and fascinating reef architecture.

For me, I will stick with snorkeling.

As many times as I have dragged my snorkel equipment, I’m always so happy I did.

I will never tire of the fantastic colors and sea life in this spectacular world. National Trust tours wind past centuries old buildings, cannons, windmills, and a picturesque 150-year-old lighthouse. You can catch a glimpse of the endangered pink flamingos and brown pelicans that forage through the Salinas Salt Ponds. I love paddling a glass bottom kayak through mangrove lagoons or frolicking with stingrays that eat right from my hand!

Cockburn, Grand Turk: Head to the Conch Graveyard (a stretch of beach near the Cruise Center) where conch shells are free for the taking. My favorite haunt for conch fritters is the highly-rated Barbie’s Restaurant & Bar. And don’t forget a tall glass of Turk’s Head Beer.

You can saddle up for a horseback ride through the surf, visit the replica of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 Mercury capsule which landed here in 1962 or, like me, get a kick out of the Turk’s Cap Cactus that gives the island its name—it wears a funny little hat that is said to resemble a Turkish fez!

Step back in time in Old San Juan. The El Morro fortress guards a maze of cobbled streets lined with Spanish colonial architecture where tree-shaded plazas lead the way to timeless cathedrals.

I can’t resist the open-air cantinas and I really don’t want to leave after lingering over a drink made with Puerto Rican rum. If you’re a nature lover, please make a point to take the El Yunque National Rainforest tour. You have to experience it personally to really appreciate nature at its best. When I’m feeling energetic, I like to take a guided hike and then cool off with a short swim at the base of one of the forest’s most beautiful waterfalls.

For all you Foodies, check out the famous mofongo—a must-try for an authentic taste of the cocina criolla (Creole kitchen). Mmmm just the thought of Mofongo makes my mouth water. This traditional Puerto Rican dish of hand-mashed plantains is flavored with crispy pork skins, stuffed with chicken or seafood and ladled with a creamy herb-garlic sauce. With a frosty local-rum mojito—delicioso!

And for a truly unique custom travel experience, I recommend a night-time kayak tour of Laguna Grande of Fajardo. As you paddle, tiny bio-luminescent organisms streak the water with a starry blue green glow.

St. Thomas is the place to shop til you drop!

And yes, this is a stop I truly enjoy from the upscale yacht Haven Grande to the eclectic Vendor’s Plaza. The waterfront warehouses of Charlotte Amalie host the Caribbean’s top treasure trove of duty-free goods.

Don’t forget, every U.S. resident, 21 and older, can bring home 5 liters of alcohol, 1 carton of cigarettes, 100 non-Cuban cigars or $1,600 in local wares. Definitely visit Magen’s Bay, truly one of the Caribbean’s loveliest beaches plus another one of my must-snorkel spots—Coki Beach.

Although I’m a little afraid of heights, the aerial tram to Paradise Point is well worth it for the panoramic views. If you want to stay in town for lunch, head to the culinary mecca of Frenchtown at the edge of downtown Charlotte Amalie. Cuzzin’s Caribbean restaurant on Back Street serves up curries, stews and other native dishes. “Cuzzin Nemo” is a popular mélange of shrimp, lobster, conch and scallops over pasta. Then, for the perfect way to top off the day— a champagne-sunset cruise to the enchanted island of St. John!

Bluebeard’s Castle, St. Thomas: I recommend coming here for happy hour. You can sip a Mango Bellini while nibbling on appetizers and pondering 400-year-old tales of pirate romance.

And the views overlooking Charlotte Amalie and the harbor are out of this world!