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It’s safe to say that every Caribbean island is swimming with souvenirs — everything from bright T-shirts and emblazoned shot glasses to kitschy key rings. The problem is, much of what’s for sale isn’t even made in the Caribbean. Instead, it’s hammered, stitched and painted in China and then shipped to the islands.
While it may take some extra effort, it’s worth seeking out an island’s signature crafts for an authentic keepsake of a Caribbean vacation. Bonus points if your clients come across the actual craftsperson at work, since they’ll also have the memory of the personal encounter to take home with them.
Cayman Islands: Tortuga Rum CakesNot all signature souvenirs are steeped in history; some are soaked in rum. Tortuga Rum Cake Company has been making rum cakes since the 1980s. They come in several sizes: 4 ounces, 16 ounces and 32 ounces. I’ve been bringing these home for years, and they’re always a hit.
Tip: Not to worry if clients were slow to score their share of Tortuga Rum Cakes while on vacation; they can always buy them at the Grand Cayman airport just before departure.
Dominican Republic: Faceless DollsWhile some signature crafts have roots going back hundreds of years, faceless dolls (known as “Munecas Lime”) have only been around since the 1980s. They were first created by Dominican artist Liliana Mera Lime. Legend has it that she left the dolls faceless to reflect the ethnic and racial melting pot that is the Dominican Republic. The dolls are now created by a wide range of artisans and can be found throughout the country. Usually made of red clay, munecas most often wear traditional Dominican dresses and carry a bouquet of flowers.
Tip: Advise clients to purchase a unique handmade doll — not one mass-produced in a factory.
Grenada: SpicesGrenada, the “Isle of Spice,” made it its reputation for the quality of its turmeric, nutmeg, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger, pimento, cloves and more. Travelers will find evidence of this practically everywhere they shop for souvenirs, with pure spices used for cooking sharing the shelves with seed jewelry or spice-scented soaps.
Tip: If your Grenada-bound clients are excited about shopping for spices, point them toward St. George’s Market Square on a Saturday morning. They’ll find a large selection at attractive prices, with the added benefit of enjoying a huge heaping of local color.
Haiti: Paintings and SculptureHaiti has been gifted with an amazing visual arts scene, especially its variety of first-rate paintings and sculptures. Galleries and street artists abound in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, and the city’s Iron Market is a wonderland of handcrafted art objects, from Vodou flags to spirit bottles. Dedicated art lovers will want to make an excursion to Village Artistique de Noailles; located only a few miles east of Port-au-Prince, the town is lined with metal art workshops where it’s possible to meet the artists and strike a bargain over reasonably priced creations.
Tip: If clients are confirmed light travelers who never check luggage, they can still find room in their carry-ons for lightweight metal sculptures that are flat and designed to hang on the wall.
Jamaica: Wood CarvingsJamaican wood carving has its roots in West and Central Africa, born through the efforts of African slaves in Jamaica who carried on their wood-carving traditions using island woods such as Spanish elm, dogwood, cedar and mahogany. Subjects for carvings vary from animals such as cats and horses to fanciful depictions of Rastafarians with flowing dreadlocks.
Tip: If you fall in love with the bright green color of a carving in fresh bamboo, realize that once you get home, the bamboo will fade to brown. (I learned this the hard way.)
St. Lucia: MadrasBright-checkered Creole dress is the signature look of St. Lucia. Called a “madras” (like the name of the cloth), it can be as simple as a scarf or a complete five-piece outfit. The cloth dates back to the colonial era, when slaves would dress up on feast days. Madras is still worn during holidays and festivals and is often part of the garb worn by workers in restaurants and resorts.
Tip: If clients are intent on hiring a local seamstress to make a custom garment, make sure they make the initial contact early in their trip. Seamstresses are often overbooked preparing garments for local holidays and festivals.