There are still some hidden gems in the Caribbean. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Visitors can enjoy barefoot luxury in Anguilla’s casual atmosphere. // © 2016 iStock
As the bow of my kayak glided toward a sea cave carved into a jagged rock face, I dipped my paddle deep into blue water, attempting to find the perfect balance between getting sucked into the gaping crevasse and drifting close enough to hear the squeaks of hundreds of bats. Below me, a thriving coral reef teemed with colorful marine life. While exploring the pristine waters of Little Bay, Montserrat, I found it hard to believe that this island paradise was off-limits until recently, due to the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano.
Montserrat is one of a handful of under-the-radar Caribbean islands still relatively untouched by mass tourism. From sunbathing on a secluded offshore cay on Anguilla to plunging beneath a 175-foot waterfall on Tobago, the islands listed here offer experiences that will appeal to those looking for seclusion, adventure or both. But hurry — these blissful spots won’t stay undiscovered for long.
Named by Christopher Columbus in 1493 after the famous monastery in Spain, the island of Montserrat in the British West Indies is fast emerging as a top destination for eco-adventurers. Today’s lush landscape of bamboo thickets, small streams and forested hills is vastly different from the scene just a few decades ago. Following a double whammy of natural disasters — first Hurricane Hugo in 1989, then the devastating eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano, a pyroclastic blast of superheated gas, rock and ash that began in 1995 — the population fled, and tourism plummeted. Now, after a sustained period of volcanic stability, people are returning, forests are recovering and populations of harbinger species such as fruit bats are on the rebound.
Although eco-adventures such as snorkeling, cave diving and hiking are popular, volcano tourism is the island’s most unique draw. Lookout spots including Jack Point Hill and Montserrat Volcano Observatory offer views of the eruption’s brute impact. The Exclusion Zone — the southern part of the island where eerie remains of the former capital city of Plymouth lie buried under a lunarscape of volcanic ash — looks like a modern-day Pompeii.
Where to Stay and Eat: The best way to soak up Montserrat’s unique vibe is to stay in one of the island’s guesthouses. Music fans won’t want to miss Olveston House, a six-bedroom cottage owned by the late George Martin, the producer often referred to as the “fifth Beatle.” His Air Studios Montserrat recorded stars such as Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones and The Police in the 1970s. The historic guesthouse features original photography by Linda McCartney, gold records and other music memorabilia. For something more upscale, luxury villas are a bargain compared to those on other Caribbean islands.
Why Go Now: In 2016, Windstar Cruises will include Little Bay as a port of call. The first large-scale tours of the Exclusion Zone have already begun.
Fun Fact: Known as the “Emerald Isle,” Montserrat has a rich Irish heritage and is the only country outside Ireland that recognizes St. Patrick’s Day as an official holiday. Visitors even get a shamrock stamp in their passports.
Martinique, an overseas department of France located in the Lesser Antilles island chain, is a feast for the eyes, ears and taste buds. Its food is a blend of French haute cuisine and Creole traditions drawn from a mix of Indian, African and Caribbean influences.
In between exploring the black volcanic beaches of the north and the sunny southern coast, visitors can sample accras (codfish fritters) served with ti punch, a traditional drink made with sugarcane rum, lime and cane sugar. Guy Ferdinand, one of the island’s most spirited chefs, presides over Le Petibonum, a Creole restaurant in the beachside village of Le Carbet. Here, a bowl brimming with ouassou (freshwater crayfish) comes paired with Veuve Clicquot champagne, the ultimate in barefoot luxury.
Other diversions include Martinique’s rum trail, a collection of historic distilleries. Martinique’s rum is produced directly from sugarcane rather than molasses and comes with an Appellation d’Origine Controlee — the same designation of quality that is applied to French cheeses and wines. Each distillery offers a unique experience, as well as opportunities to sip and savor.
Where to Stay and Eat: At Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa, Martinique’s only Relais & Chateaux property, guests can dream the night away in spacious Asian-inspired suites that feel more like villas than rooms in a hotel. A top fine-dining option is Le Chateaubriand, Hotel Bakoua’s restaurant that features an eclectic array of dishes such as sea urchin served with grilled medallions of marlin.
Why Go Now: Norwegian Airlines, one of Europe’s top low-cost carriers, just launched direct flights to Martinique from New York, Boston and the Baltimore/Washington area.
Fun Fact: Sip a rum punch at Josephine’s Bath, a pool of warm, shallow water surrounded by white-sand shoals in the middle of the ocean. Local lore claims Empress Josephine of Napoleon Bonaparte fame bathed here as a child.
Languid beach days and warm tropical nights with reggae drifting through the breeze represent the pace of life on Anguilla, a British Overseas Territory located next to St. Martin. Although it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that this skinny island is undiscovered (Justin Bieber, Charlize Theron and Jon Bon Jovi are just a few of the celebs who have recently vacationed here), Anguilla is still paparazzi-free and blissfully lacking crowds.
Beyond lazing on its 33 white-sand beaches, visitors can go gallery-hopping or explore the Fountain Cavern historical site, a subterranean cave filled with artifacts from the ancient Arawak people.
Where to Stay and Eat: Despite Anguilla’s A-list visitors, nightlife on the island is more about relaxed cocktails than glitzy casinos. A top spot to soak in this laid-back vibe is Dune Preserve, owned by reggae musician Bankie Banx, where sipping rum punch and listening to live music continues late into the night.
For the ultimate castaway experience, head to Scilly Cay, a speck of an offshore island where dining means indulging in a platter of spiny lobster drenched in delicate curry butter and then plunging into azure waters to rinse off. For a ritzy overnight, stay at Viceroy Anguilla, an art-filled contemporary luxury resort with fantastic views overlooking two of the island’s best beaches.
Why Go Now: New boutique hotel Zemi Beach House on Shoal Bay beach is opening up in the formerly sleepy East End area of Anguilla.
Fun Fact: Boat racing is the island’s national sport. During racing season, visitors are encouraged to join throngs of boisterous spectators, known as “landracers,” on the beaches to cheer on their favorite boats while celebrating with barbecue parties, plenty of drinks and dancing into the night.
With its endless views of pitons, sapphire waters and jade rainforests, the mountainous island of Saba in the Dutch West Indies might be in the running to become the next St. Lucia. Ringed by coral reef, it rises sharply from the sea, with the aptly named Mount Scenery — the highest point in the Netherlands — as its misty peak.
Eco-adventures include hiking rainforest trails or touring the island’s winding roads through villages dotted with white and green Saban cottages. There aren’t any beaches, which may be what has kept crowds away, but oceanside tidal pools offer warm water ideal for swimming alongside starfish, sea urchins and minnows. Or, there’s prime scuba diving in Saba Marine Park, a pristine nature reserve recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its flourishing sea life and underwater lava tunnels.
Where to Stay and Eat: From its cliffside perch in Troy Hill overlooking the village known as The Bottom, Queen’s Gardens Resort & Spa offers 12 luxury suites. Each has a Jacuzzi and dazzling views, plus the property features a breezy spa and the opportunity to dine on sweet Saban lobster in a treehouse surrounded by mango trees. In the town of Windwardside, don’t miss Brigadoon restaurant, helmed by chef-owner Tjeerd “T.J.” Abma, a French-trained Dutch chef who serves a tastefully tropical lionfish you’ll remember for months.
Why Go Now: A new departures terminal at St. Martin’s Princess Juliana International Airport means it’s now even easier to make the five-minute flight to Saba via Winair Airlines.
Fun Fact: The original 1933 movie “King Kong” featured Saba’s mountainous silhouette as the backdrop for Skull Island. Today, hardy travelers can make the cardio-busting 90-minute hike through a fern-strewn cloud forest to the 2,877-foot-high summit of Mount Scenery.
To experience the Caribbean the way it was before mega-resort development, head to the island of Tobago off the coast of Venezuela. Just a 20-minute flight from Trinidad, it’s small in size but rich with pristine beaches, old-growth rainforest and coral reefs that seem custom-made for snorkeling.
A first stop should be the crystalline waters of Pigeon Point Heritage Park, where a beach bar offers toes-in-the-sand relaxation as well as Trinidadian dishes such as pelau, a savory one-pot rice dish made with caramelized chicken. Those feeling energetic can go diving in Buccoo Reef, a protected habitat where star coral, elkhorn coral and brain coral thrive.
To fully experience the island’s diversity, head inland to Argyle Falls, Tobago’s highest waterfall. It’s located in Main Ridge Forest Reserve, a hilly backbone that covers 60 percent of the island, is the oldest protected rainforest in the Western Hemisphere and provides a habitat for 250 species of birds, including the raucous cocrico, Tobago’s national bird.
Where to Stay and Eat: A haven set within virgin mangroves and tropical gardens, Magdalena Grand Beach & Golf Resort offers a breezy take on plantation design with shutters, intricate wooden lacework and vaulted ceilings. Rooms overlook the wild Atlantic coast, where giant leatherback turtles come to nest on a long expanse of empty beach.
Why Go Now: Interest is growing in this small island. Word has it Sandals Resorts is eyeing the destination, and Tobago Great House Resort and Spa is slated to open within the 260-acre Grafton Caledonian Wildlife Sanctuary this year.
Fun Fact: Tobago is the birthplace of goat racing, a sport that began in 1925 as the poor man’s alternative to horse racing but has since become a beloved event. The Buccoo Goat Race Festival is a top draw in Tobago, with cash prizes, a goat parade and bystanders donning fancy derby attire — not to mention the unique sight of jockeys running behind the competing goats.