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The Uncharted Caribbean: A Guide to the Caribbean's Best-Kept Secrets

July 15, 2011 By: Joe Pike Travel Agent



Small islands such as Dominica afford opportunities for genuine Caribbean experiences.


It’s no secret that travelers love off-the-beaten-path vacations. To find such hidden treasures in the Caribbean, a region Americans have been flocking to for decades, Travel Agent had to dig deep. But we were rewarded with some exciting finds—some of which have been flying under the radar for years.

Samana, a province in the northeast of the Dominican Republic, has a population of around 100,000. It is an area of immigrants from all over the Caribbean and who belong to various religious groups, including African Methodists, Wesleyans and Catholics.

Notable Hotels: Balcones del Atlantico, A RockResort opened just a week before we arrived there in April. Of its 87 units, 35 are operational and the rest are expected to open to visitors at the end of the year. The design of the rooms is modern chic with a lot of blacks and whites, in contrast to the traditional bright Caribbean colors. The Viva Residence brand consists of both sales and rentals divisions at two different properties. Viva Residence Bahía Estela, with Victorian-inspired design, has 42 apartments set on a beautiful beachfront, each with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, living and dining area, complete kitchen, and balcony or terrace looking out on fantastic views of the ocean or gardens. Viva Residence Las Terrenas comprises 24 villas with one or two bedrooms on first or second level and independent access, and 52 apartments with one or two bedrooms in a three-level building with elevators. El Portillo Beach Club will be open to its owners this year. Although most of its 156 apartments will be entered in a rental pool, they are not expected to be ready for booking until 2014—something still worth keeping on your radar.


Samana provides an alternative to the Dominican Republic’s more heavily developed vacation areas.


Notable Attractions: Samana is one of the breeding areas of the humpback whale. Thousands of humpback whales come to the waters off Samana from January to March.

Who to Pitch it to: The destination has already drawn wealthy Dominicans, Europeans and Canadians, but it is now starting to look toward attracting Americans. We suggest pitching Samana to younger, adventurous couples who won’t mind a connecting flight and a short bus ride to get there.

Getting There: JetBlue Airways is expected to operate the first direct flights from JFK in New York to the four-year-old Juan Bosch Airport in Samana by the end of the year. For now, clients will have to fly to Puerto Plata and take a short 20-minute connection. Clients can opt to stay over one or two nights in Puerto Plata.


Bonaire abounds with natural attractions, most notably its astounding underwater vistas.


Culebra, in eastern Puerto Rico, has a population of about 3,000. It is a domestic tourism hot spot which is also popular among travel gurus and celebrities from around the world. Culebra’s appeal is its seclusion, along with its tranquil beaches and incredible wildlife. The Culebra National Wildlife Refuge is called Ultima Virgen (Last Virgin) for its virtually untouched natural wonders and underwater vistas. Its reefs are a diver’s paradise. Flamenco Beach has figured in The Travel Channel’s list of world’s best beaches.

Notable Hotels: Palmetto House is a five-room garden guesthouse just up the road from the airport and close to the ferry dock, town and beach. Bahia Marina Condo Resort has 16 one-bedroom, two-bathroom suites and 12 brand-new two-bedroom, two-bathroom villas. The site borders a 100-acre nature reserve and the Caribbean Sea.

Agent Advice

“I would say all of these islands are for the people who think they’ve been everywhere in the Caribbean,” says Susan Shevlin of Tzell Travel New York. “The unknown, smaller islands are always difficult to get to and a lot of people hate connecting flights these days. But once you get there, the payoff is that there usually aren’t too many people. If you are older and perhaps traveling with your family, it may be difficult. If you are young, ambitious and in love, these smaller islands are perfect. You really have to know all of these islands if you want to be a successful Caribbean specialist. If a client asks you for something different in the Caribbean, as a specialist, I won’t look good if I can’t accommodate them.”


Notable Attractions: Long beaches, scuba diving and other water-based activities aside, Culebra also offers historical attractions. President Theodore Roosevelt established a bird refuge on Culebra in February 1909, making it one of the oldest refuges in the U.S. system. Since then much of the island and the surrounding 23 islets, including Culebrita, have been protected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a nature preserve. It boasts one of only two nesting sites for giant sea turtles in the United States.

Who to Pitch it to: Culebra suits Americans who are seeking a quieter Caribbean getaway. Its serene setting offers an escape from the hustle and bustle of the cities and makes for a truly relaxing beach getaway.


Rosalie Bay Resort
Rosalie Bay Resort is one of two new, charming properties on Dominica.


Getting There: Clients can fly to Culebra from San Juan Airport or take a ferry from the town of Fajardo. (In heavy traffic, Fajardo is about a 90-minute drive from San Juan International Airport.) The 45-minute ferry ride from Fajardo costs $4.50 roundtrip. Clients can also take a 10-minute flight from Ceiba Airport for $35 one way.

Bonaire, the most eastern of the Leeward Islands, is 50 miles north of Venezuela and 38 miles east of Curacao. It has a population of roughly 15,000.

Bonaire continues to be recognized as one of the top destinations worldwide for sustainable tourism and has been among the top diving destinations in the Atlantic/Caribbean for nine consecutive years in Scuba Diving magazine’s Reader’s Choice Awards.


Emerald Pool
Emerald Pool epitomizes Dominica’s get-awayfrom-it-all appeal.

Notable Hotels: Some of the larger resorts on island include the Buddy Dive Resort, which is made up of one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments, hotel rooms and studios; the 129-room Divi Flamingo Beach Resort & Casino, offering Divi Dive Bonaire—a PADI five-star dive operation with custom dive boats, equipment, and experienced dive crew; Captain Don’s Habitat Bonaire, where more than 50 species of birds draw the visitors’ attention skyward when they take a break from diving; and the luxury hotel Harbour Village, where we recommend booking a beachfront suite that comes with a wet bar and sits steps away from the beach.

Notable Attractions: Washington Slagbaai National Park covers the northwest corner of the island, an area of 13,500 acres. The park is home to 189 species of birds and endless cliffs, valleys, beaches and cactus-lined pathways. Tell clients about Bonaire National Marine Park: The waters surrounding Bonaire and the uninhabited Klein Bonaire (aka Little Bonaire)—from the high-water mark to a depth of 200 feet—were designated a marine park in 1979. To the south, the enormous salt flats are the island’s largest flamingo nesting grounds. Farther down the coast is the island’s oldest lighthouse, Willemstoren, built in 1837. The landlocked Lac Bay offers excellent windsurfing, while visitors explore mangroves on guided kayak excursions in Lac Cai.

Who to Pitch it to: Bonaire attracts a variety of visitors, including divers, eco-adventurers, baby boomers, couples and families.

Getting There: Dutch airline Arkefly, Continental, Delta and KLM operate scheduled flights to Bonaire’s Flamingo International Airport.

Dominica lies south of Guadeloupe and north of Martinique in the Eastern Caribbean. Around 70,000 people live here. The island is home to the Kalinago Indians, the last of the indigenous people of the Caribbean. The Kalinago Barana Aute (Carib Model Village) provides a unique experience to appreciate and learn about the customs, practices and heritage of the Kalinago (Carib) people. Among the highlights of the village are an herbal medicine garden, hiking trails, scenic view points, the Crayfish River and Isulukati Falls.


Cotton House Resort
The five-star Cotton House Resort is the only hotel on Mustique.


Notable Hotels: Rosalie Bay Resort is a new 28-room resort with a combination of traditional Caribbean cottages and contemporary-style construction fused with warm Caribbean and African themes. Also new, Secret Bay opened in May. Secret Bay has villas and bungalows for rent or purchase. This property, set on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, boasts two secluded swimming beaches and a sea cave. It offers a slew of adventures from scuba diving and hiking to whale-watching and birding and serves fresh local organic food. Fort Young Hotel is a 71-room hotel that just completed a $555,000 refurbishment project. Enhancements include redesigned guest rooms, a new entrance and reception area with a sitting area and library, and Wi-Fi throughout the hotel.

Notable Attractions: Dominica is the only Caribbean island with a walking trail that extends over the isle's length. The Waitukubuli National Trail (Waitukubuli being the Carib Indian name for Dominica) is 115 miles long and is divided into 14 continuous segments that can take an experienced hiker nearly two weeks to complete.

Who to Pitch it to: Dominica is a haven for adventure travelers seeking a unique vacation that includes hiking and adventure, cultural events/festivals, diving and water sports, whale/dolphin watching and canyoning.

Getting There: There are no direct flights to the destination. Clients will have to fly to San Juan and connect via American Eagle Airlines to Dominica’s Melville Hall Airport (DOM).

Water Island lies in the Charlotte Amalie harbor, to the south of Saint Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. The fourth and most recently acquired island in the USVI, it has a population of about 200 people.


Seclusion is easy to find on tiny, lightly populated Mustique.


Notable Hotels: Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it—the 500-acre island does not have any hotels. But there is campground called Virgin Islands Campground, Inc..

Getting There: Fly into St. Thomas and take a five-minute, $4 water taxi ride to the island.

Notable Attractions: Water Island is home to the beautiful Honeymoon Beach where Brad Pitt filmed the hurricane scene in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Heidi’s Honeymoon Grill is a hip little beach hangout where you can grab a cold one or a bite. Water Island Adventures operates a bike tour; it costs about $60 for a five-mile ride. Give owners Susan Mille and Agnes Rampino a call at 340-714-2186 if your clients are interested.

Who to Pitch it to: Water Island is not a place for clients to spend their entire vacation since they may get bored after a day or two. This island hideaway is best positioned as an excellent day trip for vacationers staying on St. Thomas and looking to escape the tourist scene for a bit.

Mustique is in the West Indies and a part of the Grenadines. It is a private island owned by shareholders of the Mustique Company, representing 17 countries. Apart from the 1,200 people living on the island, Mustique hosts a maximum of 500 guests at any given time. With this small population sharing nine impressive beaches and 1,400 acres, seclusion is not hard to come by.

Notable Hotels: The Cotton House Resort is the island’s only hotel, but it’s a bona fide five-star property. It has 17 rooms, all suites, most of which feature private plunge pools facing the ocean. But if your clients are truly interested in a real Mustique vacation, a villa is the way to go. There are 72 villas on the island, ranging from two- to nine-bedroom accommodations. (Even Mick Jagger’s and Bryan Adams’ villas are included in the rental pool.)

Notable Attractions: The beach that lies in front of the Cotton House plantation is popular for a variety of water activities.

Who to Pitch it to: Mustique attracts affluent couples or larger groups, mostly from the U.S. and the UK, both of which contribute 35 percent of the total number of visitors annually. The remaining visitors come mainly from other European nations. In addition to Jagger and Adams, other celebrities who have jetted down to Mustique include David Bowie and Tommy Hilfiger.

Getting There: Clients should fly into either Barbados or St. Lucia and then take an hour-long hop to Mustique via Mustique Airways.

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About the Author

Joe Pike
Joe Pike is Travel Agent's senior editor covering the Caribbean, Bahamas & Bermuda; Hawaii; Central & South America. Previously, Pike was a newspaper reporter for The Asbury Park...

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