How many times have you said, "I'd really like to get away from it all?" If you're looking for destinations where phones, Internet and TVs take a back seat to spun sugar beaches, tropical trade winds and a blessed sense of unplugging, here are three Caribbean islands that might just be what you're looking for.
Legend has it that Robinson Crusoe, abandoned on a tropical isle, discovered that he wasn't alone only after finding footprints not his own on a pristine beach. Some claim that Crusoe's island was Tobago, at the southernmost reaches of the Caribbean.
On my visit, I bested even Defoe's fictional character, who did eventually find Friday. I spent several hours one afternoon on the half moon crescent of sand adjacent to the Blue Haven Hotel, and never encountered another soul (unless you count the hotel barman who appeared out of nowhere with a cold drink just when I thought my parched throat could stand it no longer — my own personal and very much welcomed Friday.)
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Tobago is a sister island of Trinidad and part of the same nation, but the two couldn't be more different. Trinidad bustles; Tobago takes its time. Trinidad shouts; Tobago whispers. Trinidad is cosmopolitan; Tobago, an unspoiled Eden. It's so desirable that from the time it was discovered by Columbus in the 15th century until it was taken over by the British in the 19th century, the island changed hands 31 times. For a peek into this tumultuous history and a panoramic view up the Windward Coast, visit Fort King George.
For the most part, however, forget about history. Instead, play explorer yourself at a number of remote, idyllic sites across the island. Store Bay, on the Caribbean side (there's also an Atlantic side) boasts one of Tobago's most popular beaches. From here, take a glass-bottomed boat for a swim in the Nylon Pool, a secluded lagoon, or to snorkel at Buccoo Reef, one of the Caribbean's most beautiful and unspoiled coral reefs.
At Speyside, a fishing village on the Atlantic coast known for its fantastic diving, you can take a boat to Little Tobago, now a bird sanctuary, or a hike through the lush rainforest to Argyle Falls, a dramatic waterfall under which you can take a refreshing dip. And when you feel the soft ocean breeze ruffle the curtains over your lunch table at Jemma's Tree House (yes, it's actually in a sea-grape tree), you'll forget all about rushing back to catch CNN or check your email. Learn more at Visittobago.gov.tt.
Its name may not be all that romantic (literal translation: fat virgin), but everything else about this laid-back paradise in the British Virgin Islands definitely is. Accessible by boat from the main island of Tortola, Virgin Gorda — like most of the BVIs — has escaped the unchecked tourism of its American counterparts.
Virgin Gorda is a mecca not for mega-cruise ships, but for yachtsmen and sailors who anchor regularly at the Bitter End Yacht Club. Shoppers looking for bargains in duty-free goods won't find much to excite them, but snorkelers looking for underwater splendors will find plenty, particularly among the unusual rock formations known as The Baths. While snorkeling here, I found coral formations of an olive green color that I'd never seen anywhere else.
On Virgin Gorda you won't find a ton of Michelin-starred restaurants, but you will find Saba Rock, literally a slab of granite a half-mile offshore, accessible by boat, whose only structure, other than an 8-bedroom luxury hotel, is a bar/restaurant that rocks on weekends (Virgin Atlantic founder Sir Richard Branson, who owns nearby Necker Island, is a regular).
Accommodations don't come any better than Biras Creek Resort. My days here took on a glorious routine — morning coffee on my veranda with the crashing waves of the Atlantic as background music; a swim in the oceanfront pool; a hike to the private beach for a picnic; an afternoon massage; cocktails and dinner in the open-air restaurant overlooking the bay, whose glorious setting is surpassed only by an even more glorious sunset. It reminded me of a child learning to color by using every crayon in his box — giant scribbles of magenta, orchid, saffron and cobalt. Learn more at BVITourism.com.
I saw it the moment I arrived at the boat dock on neighboring St. Kitts — the solitary cone of its volcano stabbing the sky, and I couldn't help thinking Bali Ha'i really does exist, although it seemed to have switched locations from the South Pacific to the eastern Caribbean.
As I set out on the two-mile boat trip to its shores, I swore I heard it beckoning, "come to me; come to me." By the time I arrived at the Four Seasons Resort's private dock on Nevis, I fully expected to see Bloody Mary herself standing on the beach, crooning Happy Talk to debarking passengers.
One of the smallest of the Leeward Islands, Nevis is a one-hour flight from Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands — one hour by plane, but light years away from these tourist destinations in everything else.
On Nevis, a nightlife tour means accompanying a flashlight-wielding naturalist into the rain forest where he points out bats, frogs, bugs and all manner of nocturnal flora and fauna.
Goats still roam free on the island and there are no stop signs or direction markers. Nevis' tiny capital, Charlestown, looks like a miniature gingerbread village with a distinctly shaped, perpetually cloud-capped mountain peak rising above it.
It does have a world class luxury resort — the 5-Diamond Four Seasons, situated on Pinney's Beach, often referred to as the most beautiful beach in the Caribbean, but some of the island's most popular accommodations are in small inns converted from the great houses of former sugar plantations.
In contrast to today's relaxed pace, Nevis has a colorful and often bloody history. During the 18th and 19th centuries it was one of the richest colonies of Great Britain, sustained by a thriving sugar industry. For a taste of this early lifestyle, visit these beautifully restored plantation great houses, set like precious gems against the green backdrop of the mountains.
Two of the loveliest are Montpelier and the Hermitage, today both reinvented as inns. Stand on the veranda with a cool lemonade in hand, and gaze at the lush landscape and the sparkling sea far below.
Nevis wears its history proudly. In the early 17th century, the British took control of the island from the Spanish, who had wrested it from the original inhabitants, Sibonay, Arawak and Carib Indians. Alexander Hamilton, one of our nation's founding fathers, was born here, and in Charlestown you can visit his birthplace, now the Museum of Nevis History.
Before his dalliance with Lady Hamilton scandalized England, Admiral Horatio Nelson lived in wedded bliss with a Nevisian beauty, Fanny Nisbett. The Nelson Museum displays a well-documented collection of memorabilia on the admiral who was first dispatched to the island to enforce the British Navigation Acts, designed to prevent England's current colony — Nevis — from trading with its former colony, America. Also worth a visit is Fig Tree Anglican Church, displaying Nelson and Fanny's marriage certificate.
Ultimately, it is Nevis' magnificent beaches — each possessing its own character and charm — that draw visitors. The most celebrated is Pinney's, a four-mile stretch that is walkable from the Four Seasons to Charlestown.
But Pinney's isn't the island's only glorious beach. Oualie is an excellent spot for snorkeling; Newcastle Bay has a superb beach surrounded by a typical Nevisian fishing village, and the beach at Nisbett Plantation has a coral reef just offshore.
So, stash that cellphone; unplug your laptop and let your Facebook friends wonder where you are. It's easy to do on these islands. Learn more at Nevisisland.com.