Hidden Caribbean Gems
June 4, 2007
By: Joe Pike
Islands to pitch to clients seeking a unique Caribbean vacation
Let's be honest: booking a Caribbean vacation for someone who has never been there should be a pretty easy task for any experienced agent. But what about the "been-there-and-done-that" traveler who has visited to all major Caribbean islands and is looking for something new?
Like fans of a raw, talented underground rock band that hasn't topped the charts yet but will, travelers cherish the destinations that have potential to be popular vacations but remain undiscovered.
So, Travel Agent spoke to some Caribbean operators, suppliers and agents to find out what hidden gems exist that offer Caribbean enthusiasts the usual island pleasures but still lack a heavy following. It should be noted that new places are popping up all over the Caribbean and the undiscovered treasures of the region aren't limited to the ones we mention, but here are some about which we heard frequent positive feedback.
Surely, agents have had clients who have gotten this sister island to Antigua confused with Bermuda or Barbados. With the increasing popularity of Antigua's Jumby Bay, along with the island's two Sandals properties, it would be a stretch to call Antigua unknown anymore, but Barbuda still is.
Barbuda, says Claire Arrindell of Island Destinations, is strictly for the vacationer who wants to be alone, away from everything. The island is about half the size of Antigua and only about a 20-minute flight away. For nature lovers, Barbuda offers the Frigate Bird Sanctuary, and the reefs offshore provide snorkeling and are home to centuries of shipwrecks. Limited visitors and a simple infrastructure allow this island to remain one of the few untouched Caribbean destinations.
"This is really a place to go if you want to be away from everyone," says Arrindell. "It is much different than Antigua—not as developed and not nearly as populated."
Visitors to Barbuda must first pass through Antigua before taking either a small plane or ferry over to the island. Barbuda can be sold as a great day trip experience, as part of a dual experience (Antigua for a few days, then Barbuda for a few) or as a true escape vacation.
Jody Bear of Valerie Wilson Travel in New York City says that the destination can stand on its own but is definitely for the more experienced Caribbean vacationer.
One of the properties, The Beach House, assists guests with arrangements from Antigua to Barbuda. The Beach House can offer quiet sanctuary but also provides some activities for the soft adventurer including fishing, scuba diving, and horseback riding.
Island Destinations, based in New York, sells many of the unknown islands and is highly recommended for agents looking to sell them. (Of course, the big players in the Caribbean, such as GOGO Worldwide Vacations and Travel Impressions, can accommodate agents booking these destinations as well.)
Island Destinations offers a commission range between 11 and 15 percent, depending on the agency. Call Arrindell at 914-833-3300, ext.108 or write to [email protected].
We hopefully made agents a bit more familiar with this little-known Dutch island spanning only about five square miles in our April 9 issue, but here's a little recap of the place that could make a great detour for clients vacationing on the more popular St. Martin.
How does this destination stand out among other Caribbean spots? For one, it's an island without a beach—but what it lacks in beaches, it makes up for with rainforest, reefs and relaxing atmosphere.
A volcanic island (the volcano is dormant), Saba has dramatic topography that attracts rock climbers and hikers; trails sometimes end at hotels. But its main attraction is diving. Because of the island's unique geology, within half a mile from shore, divers can explore to depths of more than 1,000 feet. Diving enthusiasts get especially excited about its pinnacles—the summits of underwater mountains that begin at around 85 feet and extend to an abyss.
Beth Jansen, owner of Seattle-based Dive Saba Travel, sends about 20 people a month to the island, with about 90 percent of her clients visiting for diving excursions; the remaining 10 percent visit the destination for its eco-tourism.
Dive Saba Travel offers agents 10 percent commission. Operators and consolidators, however, can receive 20 percent commission if they book directly through Jansen's partner company, Sea Saba Dive Center, which packages diving tours with other accommodations.
About 40 percent of Saba's visitors are excursionists, says Glenn Holm, director of tourism. Most divers stay about a week, he says. American visitors to the island in 2005 totaled 9,045, with 8,437 visiting last year. The main reason for the decline, Holm says, was a number of cruise lines (small cruise ships such as Sea Dream Yacht Club) had to cancel some calls due to bad weather.
Because both properties are in prime locations for diving, Jansen recommends staying at either the gingerbread-style cottages at The Cottage Club or at Juliana's, which is in Windwardside, a few minutes walk from Saba's best dive shops and hiking trails. The Cottage Club can be reached at 011 599 416 2486; Juliana's phone number is 599 416 2269.
But Travel Agent also recommends calling Lynn Costenaro, owner of Sea Saba Dive Center at 011 599 416 2246. She organizes packages for most tourists to the island and can provide specific information on the best rooms and best deals in the area.
All travel to Saba connects in St. Martin. The island's small airport, Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, has a runway that is only 1,000 feet long, according to Saba's commissioner of tourism, Will Johnson. Fewer than 25,000 tourists come to Saba each year, all connecting through St. Martin. The journey from St. Martin takes 1 hour and 20 minutes by boat.
Windward Islands Airways (Winair; 800-634-4907 or 011 599 5 454237) makes five or more flights each day to Saba. Via ferry, the 22-seat air-conditioned Dawn II (011 599 416 3671, [email protected]) travels between Fort Bay, Saba and Dock Maarten in Philipsburg, St. Martin three times a week: Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays from Saba at 6:30 a.m. and from Dock Maarten at 5 p.m. A roundtrip ticket is $60.
There's also the 62-passenger The Edge (011 599 544 2640, [email protected]), which travels to Saba from Simpson Bay/Pelican Marina on St. Martin Wednesday through Sunday, departing St. Martin at 9 a.m. and arriving back on St. Martin at 5 p.m. The rate is $65 roundtrip.
The island has only 10 miles of concrete roads. There is taxi service, or clients can rent a car for about $50 a day from Caja's Car Rental (011 599 416 2388, [email protected]). The agent contact is Kennedy Levenstone.
Tortola is the largest and most populated of the British Virgin Islands. Known as the "land of turtle doves," it is a haven for boating, fishing and diving.
Perhaps lesser known than the island itself are some of the properties on it, such as Long Bay Beach Resort, and some of its beaches, such as Cane Garden Bay. Long Bay is on the northwestern coast of Tortola, a 30-minute drive from Road Town, the island's capital. It has 157 rooms and villas; all include private terraces or balconies with ocean views as well as air conditioning, cable TV, wet bars with refrigerators, ceiling fans and hair dryers. Perched on stilts, the rustic Beachfront Cabanas (270 square feet), are preferred. Agents receive a 15 percent commission. For reservations, agents should call Elite Island Resorts at 800-345-0356 or 954-481-8787.
ST. VINCENT AND THE GRENADINES
Travel Agent also recently profiled the island of Mustique, which is considered ultra-luxurious and exclusive and is close to the more popular islands of Barbados and St. Vincent. Mustique is so exclusive, in fact, that it does not work with tour operators. The best way for agents to book clients in Mustique as a side trip from Barbados is to call either of the two hotels on the island—Sanctuare, which offers villas, and the Cotton House hotel.
If clients want to stay for only a few days, the hotel is the way to go, but if they want to stay for a week or more, a villa is a terrific option. Most villas offer a 10 percent commission, while some in the Estate Collection, the pricier of the two categories, as they cost more than $100,000 a week, give a 5 percent commission. To book Sanctuare or for room information, agents should call Shelly McLaughlin at 800-747-9214. For the Cotton House, agents should call Dominique Debay, managing director of GLA Hotels, at 212-752-1416.
Getting to Mustique is a 50-minute flight from Barbados. New airlift from the U.S. into Barbados includes Delta from Atlanta, as well as service on American, Air Jamaica and Caribbean Air from New York and US Airways from Philadelphia. Daily scheduled connections between Barbados and Mustique are available on Grenadines Airways. The airlines also offer private charters on twin-engine aircraft to all Caribbean islands.
For further details and flight reservations, contact Antoinette Gabriel at the Mustique Airport at 784-488-8336, fax 784-488-8346 or write [email protected]. Also the island has a new, enhanced web site, www.mustique-island.com, that showcases all the villas.
Grenada is an island nation in the southeastern Caribbean Sea including the southern Grenadines. It's the second-smallest independent country in the Western Hemisphere (after Saint Kitts and Nevis) and is located north of Trinidad and Tobago, and south of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
"Grenada has, over the last couple of years, really upgraded some of its properties," says Bear, "and it's continuing to gain popularity in the Caribbean. Again, I would only send someone who has been to the Caribbean many times already here."
One property she recommends is Laluna, which has 16 cottages. Laluna offers agents a 10 percent commission but only pays agents a commission after the guest has left. The best room on the property is the Beachfront Cottage Suite, a detached unit that is the only such suite and is right on the beach. The Deluxe Cottage Suites are also detached and are about 50 to 70 feet above the coastline while the Cottage Suites are located 120 feet above the beach line. All rooms are the same; the only difference is location.
Agents should call Christine Nelles, general manager and reservations manager, at 473-439-0001.
Canouan Island is one of the Grenadines Islands belonging to St Vincent. It is very small, spanning roughly 3.5 miles by 1.25 miles. A barrier reef runs along the Atlantic side of the dry Canouan Island. In recent years, Raffles Resort acquired roughly half of the island. Raffles can provide a 25-minute flight from St. Lucia for $395. If clients want private service, the cost can spike to more than $1,000. Barbados is about 45 minutes away.
Raffles Resort offers agents a 10 percent commission and agent should call +1-784-482-21 48 and ask for Frank Pierce, sales and marketing director at the property.
Personality suites, the most luxurious of suites, each feature prime views and private swimming pools, a guest bathroom and kitchenette.
Besides Raffles, Arrindell recommends a small, intimate resort called Young Island. In fact, the property only has two people fielding calls: Scott Tupper in reservations can be reached at 800-223-1108, or ask for Clayton Thomas, reservations manager, also at 800-223-1108. The best room on the property, Tupper says, is the Duvernette suite, a large suite with a private plunge pool. (Five other suites have private plunge pools but the Duvernette Suite is about 50 percent larger, Tupper says.) Young Island offers agents a 10 percent commission.
"Many people I send to Canouan come back and tell me how they can't believe they never heard of it before," says Josette Carrizo from Trips Away Travel in Tenafly, New Jersey.
"These types of vacations are tricky. You want to tell so many people about them, but then again, the best part about going is that not a lot of people know about them."
See more about St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the video below:
• The Dilemma: It's easy to send a new Caribbean client to the popular islands, but what can you offer to veteran travelers who have been there and done that?
• Keep it Fresh: St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Tortola, Saba and Barbuda are hot up-and-comers, say the experts.
• Bottom Line: By staying up to date on the region's little-known hot spots, you'll appeal to savvy travelers and be able to beef up sales and profits.