Spring Break, Caribbean Style
Planning ahead to get away
January and February in Oklahoma are brutal. Perhaps we will be blessed this year with a delicate snow; one of those wintry fantasies that comes complete with a fireplace, fuzzy socks and hot chocolate (or wine) … perfect for a lackadaisical saunter through your Netflix queue. The reality, though, is that January and February, with their vicious wind and chastising cold, make spring break planning not just an exercise in plotting adventure (or reprieve), but a mental survival tool. On that cold January night that your forecaster of choice suggests you don your parka and head to the store to stock up on enough canned soup to survive an impending death-by-ice apocalypse, it’s nice to know that on the other side of it, there will be sugary sand, a splash of two of rum and bath-warm water as blue as a Thunder jersey. Perhaps … the Caribbean.
Think of a Caribbean vacation, and you’ll probably picture a handful of images: A palm tree hanging gently above an expanse of gleaming sand leading out to water that out-blues the cloudless sky – a vista fit for a screensaver, basically – an all-inclusive hotel or a gaudy cruise ship that goes from island to island; sunsets and seafood buffets; even swimming pigs (the Exumas!) … but to experience it, you’ve got to get there.
The Caribbean is made up of more than 7,000 islands that cover more than a million square miles between North and South America, some barely larger than sandbars and others – Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados and Jamaica, to name a few – their own nations. The term also applies to mainland areas including northern Colombia, Belize, the Florida Keys, Panama’s San Blas Islands and the Yucatán Peninsula, among others. Many inhabitants speak English (British or American), but you’ll also find Dutch, French, Spanish and Creole speakers, and the cultural flair varies from island to island.
Here is a rundown of some of our favorite spots in the Caribbean for you to dream about while our local meteorologists carry on about frigid impending doom.
Aruba is whatever you want it to be: idyllic and secluded, boisterous and kid-friendly, cosmopolitan or a little of each. It’s below the hurricane zone, which is a plus, but that makes it a bit of a haul in terms of hours in the air. It’s a Dutch island, just off the coast of Venezuela, and it’s almost always sunny and windy.
Where to stay depends on what you want to do. For us, snorkeling and peace were the goals, so the tiny boutique hotel Ocean Z, in Noord (which means north), was perfect – beautiful, sophisticated and understated. It’s also across the street from several excellent snorkeling spots, and with a mere 13 rooms, the level of service at the hotel is personal, impeccable and unobtrusive. Aruba does have its more raucous sides, namely the south and west sides of the island. That’s where larger, family-friendly and/or younger person resorts with more nightlife are concentrated.
The goal for our trip was snorkeling, though, so the northern part of Aruba was perfect for us. Malmok Beach is across the street from Ocean Z, and is a great wade-in snorkeling spot, albeit a bit rocky going in. Designated snorkeling areas are filled with sea life, and later in the day, huge pirate ships packed with tourists, who fling themselves seaward via a rope swing attached to the boats’ masts.
Snorkel in the morning to see sea life; snorkel in the afternoon less seriously.
Dining on Aruba is easy and fun, with restaurants of every description and price point. In Oranjestad, where the airport is, we were encouraged to try Yemanja Wood Grill. Our grilled cauliflower steak with chimichurri was a symphony of flavor, as was the South American delicacy called Picanha, which is a prized cut of beef served beautifully grilled. Pro tip: Make reservations in Oranjestad based on when cruise ships are not in port. They can add thousands of people into the city at once, which makes everything more difficult.
Gianni’s, in Palm Beach, is a crowd pleaser. It’s a huge, pretty Italian place, with excellent cocktails, a good wine selection and a menu designed to work for everyone. We needed a hearty, pasta-and-wine comfort meal after days of snorkeling, and Gianni’s was perfect.
Natural wonders, cosmopolitan nightlife and casinos, beautiful beaches and near-perfect weather make Aruba an excellent Spring Break destination.
Named after the wife of King David, who was said to bathe in milk to keep her skin perfect, Bathsheba Beach is a sprawling, rocky marvel of milk-white sand on Barbados’ east coast. Just offshore, you’ll find massive rock formations (which are actually ancient coral) that appear, particularly at low tide, to float just above the water. On any given day, surfers come from all over the world to take advantage of the seismic waves that roll in from the Atlantic.
The small island nation boasts 60 miles of coastline, and is 21 miles across at its widest. It is also the last island of the Caribbean before the balmy tropical waters give way to the cold Atlantic. The Hilton Barbados Resort, situated in the capital city of Bridgetown, has all the comforts of an all-inclusive stay, but is also an ideal spot to serve as a hub as you plan a week of shipwreck scuba diving or island safaris. The Fairmont Royal Pavilion is a half-hour drive from Bridgetown and at the peak of luxury: The newly renovated property, situated on the country’s east coast, offers exclusive golf courses, tennis, snorkeling, sailing and water skiing. Terraced seating and local musicians make dining an event unto itself, and in proper British tradition (this island was originally settled by the British), afternoon tea is available.
A universal travel truth: To optimize your stay, leave the resort. Each island in the Caribbean hums with rich culture, and Barbados is no exception. The country is home to countless rum distilleries, and while the famous Mount Gay offers informative tours and top-notch tastings on its beautiful property, head out into the villages and find the local rum shops to really experience Barbados. At these one-room shops, Barbadians gather to sip rum and talk about life, and they welcome visitors curious to learn about their way of living.
In the small, agrarian Shorey Village in St. Andrew’s parish, just off the Atlantic side of the island, is Nigel Benn’s Auntie Bar. Nigel Benn is a famous British boxer and the bar, as the name suggests, is run by his aunt Lucille Hall – a ropy, sweet woman with mighty hands. She serves one brand of rum, ordered by the bottle, not the drink. There are (thankfully) three different sizes, and each bottle comes with a plastic cup, a handful of ice cubes and a can of cola or soda water. Here, Lucille will not only fill your drink, she’ll share with you her passion for gardening (common in these villages), her family and Barbados.
If all of the rum and Caribbean sun is too much, venture into the darkness by spelunking the tight but transcendent Harrison Cave. A combination of squeezes and squeals await as you check out the island’s treasured underground pools and towering columns. Another way to avoid the sun is by venturing out late into the night – Bridgetown’s St. Lawrence Gap is packed with pubs, restaurants and clubs.
Dining in Barbados is only difficult because there are so many options. Daphne’s, located in the Tamarind Hotel, serves beautiful seafood just steps from the shore. For a trendier dining experience, check out Cin Cin – and if eating cliffside while overlooking the magnificent Caribbean sunset sounds ideal, grab a bite at the Cliff. One of the country’s most famous restaurants, this unforgettable dining experience is built into the hillside.
If you are seeking something a little less posh and want to try a handful of Barbadian staples, macaroni pie and fried flying fish are wildly popular among locals. Cou Cou, the national dish of Barbados, is cornmeal cooked with okra and onion; best enjoyed near water with a cold Banks beer (the local lager) or a rum punch.
Whether you travel in May or December, Isla Mujeres, or “Women Island,” never disappoints. The Mexican island is a pleasant, 8-mile ferry ride from Cancun. It’s a little more than 4 miles long and roughly half a mile wide. Unlike Cancun – and many other Mexican vacation destinations on the Caribbean Sea – Isla Mujeres is quiet and chill.
Playa Norte, or North Beach, provides plenty of options for resorts, hotels and restaurants, and is within walking distance from the ferry station and main/touring shopping district. The white sugar sand and clean beachfronts afford visitors a relaxing atmosphere, with staff ready to tend to their every need.
While there are plenty of all-inclusive options on Isla Mujeres, I recommend taking in all the island has to offer, which can be done in a couple of days. One day, really, if you get going early … but who wants to rush? Rent a golf cart – they’re everywhere, and can be rented by the hour or the day – and take a drive down to the south end of the island, where you can tour the Mayan ruins at El Meco Archaeological Site, then head over to Garrafon Natural Reef Park for zip lining and snorkeling. If you’re an animal lover, the Dolphin Discovery is not to be missed. And be sure to snorkel or scuba through the largest underwater museum in the world at Cancun Underwater Museum. It’s pretty spectacular.
Exceptional restaurants abound on Isla. Mango Café is located in the mid-island area and serves up a breakfast to be envied by all, along with lunch and refreshing micheladas – you’ll want this local favorite on your list of places to visit. North Garden, which is located steps from Playa Norte, offers health nuts numerous inexpensive vegetarian options and craft cocktails (it also has omnivore options). Seating is all outdoors, surrounded by palm trees and a very island-y vibe. The Joint Reggae Bar & Grill is also an outdoor stop offering a full menu, including vegetarian and vegan options, with a hefty bar menu. Be mindful; the drinks can sneak up on you, as they’re somewhat oversized … and there’s nothing wrong with that. The live music is, as the name suggests, reggae, and the atmosphere is thoroughly relaxed – although it can get a little loud, depending on the time of day. This is the place you’ll want to stop while driving your golf cart south near Parque Garrafon toward Punta Sur, or the southern tip of the island. And, of course, a well-known spot for people watching is Jax Bar & Grill, located on the central strip in the bustling tourist area of Playa Norte. It doesn’t exactly have its own vibe, but being on the second-floor rooftop, you can see almost everything – it’s more of an action-central lookout. Get a T-shirt!
I definitely recommend spending some solid time on the sand and in the turquoise-crystal water, where you can see for miles … when you aren’t eating and drinking your way across the lush, green terrain.
Montego Bay, and indeed the entire island of Jamaica, holds a spot in our collective imagination. Exotic, beachy, rum-soaked days and nights spent dancing to reggae music at some out-of-the-way island bar. Does reality measure up to imagination? It does, but Jamaica is more complex than you may think.
Here is an insanely abridged summary of the island nation’s rich history: Christopher Columbus landed there in 1494, and found it inhabited by the Arawak people, believed to be Jamaica’s original inhabitants. Columbus claimed the island for Spain, and the Spanish soon killed the native population for their land. In 1655, England attacked Jamaica and claimed the island, freeing Spanish slaves. Buccaneers and pirates featured heavily in Jamaica during this time, and their lore continues today – having gained political independence from England in 1962, it’s now a constitutional monarchy.
The northern side of the island is home to Montego Bay, which is where many of Jamaica’s resorts are concentrated. The Hilton Rose Hall is an all-inclusive, family-friendly compound, complete with its own mini water park. It’s a moderately priced choice, and an excellent value. An adjacent golf course and well-appointed spa and fitness center, plus nine restaurants and bars, make it easy to never leave the resort grounds and be perfectly content. Our group especially loved the breakfast bar and the actual bar.
Around Montego Bay, should you choose to leave the resort, are adventurous activities such as spelunking, rafting, catamaran day-trips and SCUBA diving excursions. Unlike many Caribbean islands, Jamaica is mountainous – hiking trails with gorgeous views can be accessed from north or south, and atop the highest point in the Blue Mountains, a 7,400-foot elevation gain, hikers are treated to sweeping vistas all the way to the ocean.
Jamaica’s southern coast is home to Kingston, a city perhaps best known for being the home of iconic musician Bob Marley. His home there is now a museum, with its own little café and juice bar. Tours of the home and studio can be bought separately or as a package; plan about an hour and a half for the combo, reserve your time slot in advance and bring water and sunscreen.
Jamaica has a long equestrian history, and consequently, there are lots of excellent opportunities to ride horses on the beach. For about $100 per person, you and your crew can spend an hour and a half riding on the shore and also swimming in the ocean.
Between the rafting, surfing, diving, hiking, horseback riding and cultural attractions, your time in Jamaica can be as full-throttle as you want it to be. For us, though, the true beauty of the island lies in its ability to make time slow down. More of a no-throttle approach.
Which Caribbean destination to choose
For the beach bum: If your ideal vacation includes ambling from your room to the beach, where you read, nap and swim all day, with snacks and drinks delivered as you wish, the Caribbean has got you covered. Try Angilla (35+ beaches, 80+ restaurants), Antigua, which is chockablock with all-inclusive resorts of every description or the Dominican Republic.
For the non-stop snorkeler: If you’d rather be in the water, mask down and snorkel up, your best bets are Andros Island in the Bahamas; The Baths or Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands; or Tobago Cays in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
For the family fan: Taking the whole crew? Some islands are more economical than others, but still offer plenty to do. Try Barbados, Aruba, Jamaica or Turks and Caicos.
For the overachiever, even on vacation: Morning hikes followed by zip lining followed by kayaking sound like heaven to you? First, Lord help you (just kidding), and second, consider Nevis, next door to St. Kitts, Puerto Rico, Granada or Dominica.
For the lover of getting away: If you love the sound of silence, and relish the idea of not seeing a single soul – or at least no one but a cocktail waiter and masseuse – try Anegada, British Virgin Islands; Cayman Brac, Cayman Islands; or Cat Island, The Bahamas.
Aside from being the presumed home of Billy Ocean’s personal sovereign, the Caribbean is an area encompassing the Caribbean Sea and its surrounding islands. It’s north of South America, east of Central America and southeast of North America.
There are three primary groups totaling more than 7,000 full-sized islands, reefs, cays (low islands or reef made of rock, sand or coral) and islets (tiny islands). But like Ocean and his queen, their hearts kind of beat as one. The Caribbean as a region is a beloved tourist destination, and its beauty is breathtaking.
The Greater Antilles: As the name implies, these are some of the largest islands in the Caribbean, such as Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (home to Haiti and the Dominican Republic) and Puerto Rico.
The Lesser Antilles: The smaller islands of the Caribbean, further divided into the Windward Islands and Leeward Islands. The Lesser Antilles starts in the Virgin Islands and continues through the eastern Caribbean all the way down to Trinidad and Tobago. That includes (but is not limited to) Martinique, St. Lucia, Grenada, Barbados and St. Vincent and the Grenadines – all Windward islands – as well as the Virgin Islands, Dominica, Montserrat, Barbuda, St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla, all of which are Leeward.
The Bahamas: There are 700 islands and cays that make up the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. Of those, only about 30 are inhabited. It’s a free and sovereign country, but a member of the British Commonwealth of Nations – its monarch is Queen Elizabeth II, but it also has a prime minister and governor.