They're supposed to be timeless and unchanging, these islands in the Caribbean, and yet every time you go back there seems to be something new. Someone finds a pristine beach and builds yet another small resort on it; someone revives a forgotten getaway; a legend is stripped to the ground, enlarged, reborn; a century-old townhouse finds new life as a bistro; tracts of virgin land are sculpted into a golf course. Some of these creations are not worth the land they're built on, so we've weeded out the clutter to bring you this roundup of the most satisfying new hotels, resorts, and restaurants from Jamaica to Tobago—and a few sneak previews of what's to come.
If you plan a trip this spring, you'll find not only rooms available at many first-rate hotels and resorts that would ordinarily be booked months in advance, but unusually low rates as well. (The Water Club in San Juan, for example, is more upscale than its modest tariffs might imply.) Also, some of these places may be posting special packages—many of them likely to be exceptional values—on their Web sites.
ORIENTATION The northernmost islands in this guide are Jamaica and Puerto Rico. East of them fall the British Virgin Islands and the French West Indies. Farther south, toward Venezuela, lie Barbados, Grenada, and Tobago (just northeast of Trinidad), informally known as the Queen's Windwards, since each was under British rule at one point or another.
PRICES In U.S. dollars.
RATES Rooms prices are based on double occupancy, from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite, excluding tax (about 18 percent). Rates are for low season (mid-April to mid-December); for next winter, add anywhere from 20 to 50 percent. Restaurant prices are for a three-course dinner for two, without wine or service.
AREA CODES Barbados, 246; British Virgin Islands, 284; Grenada, 473; Jamaica, 876; Puerto Rico, 787; St. Barths, 590; Tobago, 868.
LOCAL TIME One hour ahead of EST.
CURRENCY Barbados, St. Barths, Grenada, Jamaica, and Tobago have local currencies but accept U.S. dollars; Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands use U.S. dollars only.
WHEN TO VISIT Pretty much anytime, as temperatures range from the low 70s to the high 80s throughout the year. November through February, it tends to be cooler and a bit less humid. Hurricane season starts in the summer and peaks in September and October.
CAR RENTAL Major companies such as Avis (800-230-4898), Budget (800-527-0700), and Hertz (800-654-3001) operate in most hub cities. With the exception of Puerto Rico and St. Barths, driving is on the left.
Hotel/resort is a member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas. Accommodations must be booked through PTS or CTS to obtain benefit.
PLATINUM CARD TRAVEL SERVICE (PTS) or Centurion Member Services (CMS). For assistance with travel to the Caribbean, or any other destination in this issue, call 800-443-7672 (PTS) or 877-877-0987 (CTS). From abroad, call 623-492-5000 collect.
BLUE HAVEN HOTEL, TOBAGO Back in the 1950s, Blue Haven, on Trinidad's chicer little sister island, was popular with movie stars, in part because a few golden oldies were filmed there—remember Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and Fire Down Below? After a stint as a private estate, the hotel has reopened, rejuvenated and all spiffed up. If, however, former guests like Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth were to visit today, they'd find the same (now century-old) palms lining the driveway and the same coral-and-white, '50s-ish facade—although the kooky, angular double roof above a new wing might give them pause.
The original octagonal lobby, topped by a dome, still opens onto a broad deck that looks a bit like the prow of a cruise ship, with a swimming pool one level down. To one side of the deck is Bacolet Bay beach, where Robinson Crusoe supposedly washed ashore in 1659. Wander around and you'll spot the remnants of an old fortress, complete with flanking cannons. The 54 white-on-white guestrooms have been improved with contemporary touches like a window between bathtub and bedroom, traditional teak-and-cane daybeds for watching TV, and eye-catching panels of nautical blue canvas between balconies or patios.
Presiding over the Shutters on the Bay dining room (named for its three walls of louvered shutters), is Richard Goetzendorfer, an Austrian who honed his craft at European hotels. His continental recipes enlivened with Trinidadian vegetables and curries make this one of the most interesting restaurants on Tobago.
By day, Blue Haven makes a great base for exploring the island. Or you can stick around and kayak, sail, snorkel, play tennis, work out in the fitness room, enjoy a massage, or simply sack out, Crusoe-like, on the sand within hailing distance of the No Problem beach bar. The staff, still unseasoned on a recent visit, are eager to help. Let them know when you're arriving, and they'll send one of their drivers to meet you—usually in a '60s pastel-colored Caddy or Chevy. Cabbie Cecil Lyons is a reservoir of offbeat local lore: "Robert Mitchum, he a man who like to move de hands fast, especially when someone talk to his woman." Rooms, $181-$270. Bacolet Bay, Tobago; 868-660-7400; fax 868-660-7900; www.bluehavenhotel.com.
EDEN ROCK, ST. BARTHELEMY Quelle transformation! Few inns on any island have such an idyllic setting: a cluster of little red-roofed, gray stone cottages strewn over a basalt outcropping above picture-perfect St. Jean Bay (the one in all the photographs). Eden Rock has been around since the '50s (Greta Garbo and Howard Hughes stayed there when this French West Indian island was really hard to get to), but in recent years it showed its age. Now, behold—it has been reinvented with both Gallic charm and English whimsy by a British family.
Traditional mahogany beds and chairs sit cheek by jowl with brightly patterned fabrics and British antiques—even World War II searchlights and ships' running lamps look perfectly at home here. The 16 rooms and suites are all different and all bewitching, so it won't be easy to choose a favorite (the best, though, are on the rock; the ones on the shore are fairly conventional).
Given the setting and stunning beach, Eden Rock has always been a popular spot for day-trippers, so the owners have added a couple of beachside restaurants to take the pressure off the two enchanting hilltop venues (our favorite: On the Rocks, a tapas bar notched into the side of the hill). All the restaurants are pricey, of course, but no other hotel on the island gives you a choice of four first-rate dining spots without even getting into your car—and dining, after all, is what this island is all about. The Eden Rock has just been selected for membership in Relais & Châteaux. Rooms, $275-$1,200, including a splendid breakfast. St. Jean, St. Barthélemy; 877-563-7105, 590-590-29-79-99; fax 590-590-27-88-37; www.edenrockhotel.com.
LALUNA, GRENADA Laluna, 16 thatch-roofed, Asian-style cottages dotted like large flowering shrubs on a steep hillside above a half-moon beach, is more of a secluded retreat than a bouncy resort. Located in the southeast corner of the islandnear Grande Anse beach, the place has a certain funky charm, a sexy flair akin to St. Barths'. Its multicultural style could be called Caribalitali: Caribbean (the colors, the staff) by way of Bali (the architecture, the decor) and Italy (the owners, the name, the chef, the soaps from "a monastery in the Italian Alps").
Design details are meticulous. Pigments, for instance, were applied to the cottages while the cement was still wet, giving the walls, outdoors and indoors, weathered colors perfectly suited to this castaway setting: pumpkin, dusky plum, faded terra cotta. It is the sort of place where young lovers can step out of a private (but not that private) 38-square-foot plunge pool, walk across a wood-plank veranda, and enter a cool interior dominated by a big Balinese fourposter enmeshed in clouds of white netting. Gabriella Giuntoli (who designed a home for Giorgio Armani on the Italian island of Pantelleria) has created refined, minimalist interiors: padded banquettes, full-length mirrors propped against walls, ceiling fans, and bathrooms that open to alfresco shower stalls on the patio.
Laluna's centerpiece is the thatched clubhouse and beachside restaurant, open to the breeze, with a ceiling of Vietnamese rushes and walls of bamboo blinds. (But the food is so-so, and anyone spending more than a few days here will probably be grateful for the Beach House Restaurant, a five-minute stroll down the beach.) Balinese opium beds and teak lounges ring a freshwater swimming pool that shimmers and sparkles at the center of a wooden deck, all just a hop and skip from the sailboats and windsurfers.
But since most of Laluna's ten acres are almost perpendicular (only one of the cottages is on the beach), the walk back to your Balinese bed is likely to be less hop-and-skip and more huff-and-puff. Rooms, $290. Morne Rouge, Grenada; 866-452-5862, 473-439-0001; www.laluna.com.
PETER ISLAND RESORT This British Virgin Islands resort has been around for more than 30 years, but after a double whammy of hurricanes it was completely revamped, the final touches going in last November. The stone-and-cedar beachfront junior suites, for instance, were restyled and upgraded (at a cost of more than $300,000 each), including smart new tropical furniture, Spanish tiles, and new oversized bathrooms with Jacuzzi tubs and walk-in showers.
The first thing a returning visitor will notice is the walkway between the dock and the lobby—once a barren tract of sun-blanched concrete, now an arbor of palm trees and bougainvillea. Also, the new lobby lounge is more inviting; the main dining room, Tradewinds, now has views of the Sir Francis Drake Channel; and the two-story A-frame rooms on the breakwater are perkier and more spacious. What's always made this 1,200-acre private island so special—a glorious sense of space and a wide variety of bays and beaches—hasn't changed. The redone suites face one of the loveliest seascapes in the Virgins, but if you prefer total solitude, slip off to Honeymoon Beach (just big enough for two, with an unwritten bylaw that four's a crowd). Or spend the day on the sands of White Bay and have the staff bring you a picnic lunch, complete with linens and china. Takeout was never this romantic. Rooms, $515-$915, including all meals. Peter Island; 800-346-4451, 284-495-2000; fax 284-495-2500; www.peterisland.com.
THE RITZ-CARLTON ROSE HALL, JAMAICA With five floors and 427 balconied rooms and suites, this palace just outside Montego Bay almost overwhelms its landscaped beachside surroundings. But for those seeking wall-to-wall luxury and service, all the Ritz-Carlton touches are here, plus a few more bells and whistles. While you may not have many occasions to use a technology butler, golf concierge, engagement concierge, or bath butler (with special bath menu), it's nice to to know they're on call.
The 8,000-square-foot spa and fitness center has state-of-the-art equipment and 12 private rooms for treatments featuring local plants like star apple, allspice, and aloe. Children have the widely acclaimed Ritz Kids club, swimmers a big freshwater pool, and golfers two courses (see Island Golf). But since the Ritz-Carlton has only two tennis courts, serious players might be better off next door at the 13-court Half Moon Golf, Tennis and Beach Club. The hotel's five restaurants serve everything from American and European fare to the chef's inventive "Jasian" cuisine, including dishes like coconut-milk soup served in a coconut shell—just to remind you that this is the Caribbean. Rooms, $205-$495. St. James, Jamaica; 800-241-3333, 876-953-2800; fax 876-953-2501; www.ritzcarlton.com.
THE VILLAS AT STONEHAVEN, TOBAGO With their mansard roofs, dormer windows, and porticoes, these two-story villas could be mini-manoirs in the Dordogne, but their interiors are distinctly Caribbean: lots of louvers, mahogany fourposters, tile floors, and living rooms that open onto covered verandas 50 feet wide. Each of the 14 villas measures 3,700 square feet, with three bedrooms, four baths, and a private infinity pool. The designer kitchens come with wine refrigerators, and since the dining table seats eight, there's eight of everything in the cabinets.
Step into the estate's Pavilion Clubhouse, and you might think you are at the Cotton House on Mustique (that island's longtime design guru, the late Arne Hasselqvist, was the architect and designer for Stonehaven). It's an inviting spot for lunch, cocktails, or dinner—but since service is the name of the game in a place like this, why not have your housekeeper rustle up lunch? Or perhaps have a cook sent over to prepare a private dinner on your candlelit veranda. The villas are a short stroll from the beach and next door to a 200-acre bird sanctuary with delightful walking trails—but that infinity pool is so attractive you might never leave the veranda. Villas, $350 a night for up to seven guests. Stonehaven Bay, Tobago; 800-633-7411, 868-639-0361; fax 868-639-0102; www.stonehavenvillas.com.
THE WATER CLUB, PUERTO RICO South Beach meets San Juan. The owners like to refer to The Water Club as "the only beachfront boutique hotel in Puerto Rico," and it would be hard to dispute such a claim for an 84-room hotel that has not just one but three watering holes (named Wet, Liquid, and Moist), etched-glass doors, billowing curtains, and waterfalls in the elevators. There are touches of whimsy everywhere you turn: lissome mannequin legs with flippers in the hallways and, in each room, tongue-in-cheek do-not-disturb signs that read DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT and notice boards headlined DESIRES for jotting down instructions to your maid.
The guestrooms are dainty but stylish and soothing, done in neutral colors and featuring custom-made beds angled to face the floor-to-ceiling windows and the sea. There are six-foot-high magazine racks propped against the wall as well as entertainment centers, but the closets here are no more than niches shared by the minibar and glasses (leave the gowns at home). And, despite The Water Club's location, only six of the rooms have balconies. On the roof, 11 floors above the beach, are an open-air bar with a Brazilian fossil-tile floorand pillowed futons, a fitness center beneath a canvas awning, and a massage room in a turret.
The Water Club is in the Isla Verde section of town, a short walk along the beach (but worlds apart) from the decidedly un-boutiquey Ritz-Carlton, Inter-Continental, and Wyndham El San Juan resorts. They're all lively spots, but The Water Club aims to be the high-energy hive for fashionable Sanjuaneros, so we can't guarantee peace and quiet at all hours. But you'll find the three Bs—beach, bars, and buzz. Rooms, $169-$695. At 2 Tartak St., San Juan, Puerto Rico; 800-337-4685, 787-728-3666; fax 787-728-3610; www.designhotels.com.
St. Barths had better look to its laurels, because in its own quiet way Old San Juan is fast becoming something of a culinary capital, with some 40 restaurants within eight city blocks. The newest bistro capturing the hearts and palates of Puerto Rico's foodies is BARU (Calle San Sebastian; 787-977-7107), situated in a 100-year-old restored townhouse one block from the 16th-century Church of San Jose. The interior, with its tile floors, beamed ceilings, arches, and patio, makes an engaging backdrop for chef Zelma Parra's bountiful tapas dishes. Try the almond-encrusted goat cheese with Jamaican jerk-mango dip or the pan-seared scallops in coconut curry sauce. Dinner, $75.
Not only does San Juan's new MUSEO DE ARTE DE PUERTO RICO, or MAPR, as it's known, feature more exhibition space than any other museum in the Caribbean; it also has one of the island's most admired restaurants. Opened last summer in the bustling shopping district of Santurce, MAPR welcomes visitors with an imposing Neoclassical facade leading to 18 galleries and a three-story atrium dominated by windows of oxidized glass. Paintings and sculptures by Puerto Rican artists past and present are highlighted, and there are seminars, hands-on workshops, a computer lab, and a five-acre garden adorned with sculptures.For art-loving gourmets, the good news is that PIKAYO (Avenida de Diego; 787-721-6194; fax 787-724-8280), the highly acclaimed restaurant of Wilo Benet—pioneer of refined Caribbean cuisine and one of the island's most innovative chefs—has now relocated to MAPR, and stays open for dinner after the museum closes up for the night. Dinner, $125.
One of the joys of Caribbean dining is a breezy beachfront restaurant, where your feet are almost in the sea and the casual air requires only a coverup after your morning in the sun. One of the most elegant is on (surprise) St. Barths: LA CASE DE ISLES at Hotel St. Barth Ile de France (Baie des Flamanes; 590-27-61-81; fax 590-27-86-83), a 24-seat pavilion beside the beach and pool. A new chef, Bruce Domain, who honed his skills at various Michelin-starred European restaurants (including Alain Ducasse's Louis XV in Monaco), is currently wowing fussy islanders with dishes like truffle risotto with shrimp and vegetables, roasted sea bass fillet with sautéed new potatoes and beet-root wafer, and pêche du jour dans sa simplicité, the "daily catch by Jean-Marie and Clébert, our fishermen." Dinner, $160.
If you build it, they will come—or so island innkeepers are finding. Everyone, it seems, wants deluxe suites, and adding a few to a property actually increases the demand for them rather than satisfying it. This happened a few years ago at CURTAIN BLUFF on Antigua, and now owner Howard Hulford is adding 24 more suites, including two 3,000-square-foot penthouses with terraces the size of dance floors. Suites (to open in October), $1,055-$1,810. Old Road, Antigua; 888-289-9898, 268-462-8400, 212-289-8888; fax 268-462-8409; www.curtainbluff.com.
At HORNED DORSET PRIMAVERA in Puerto Rico, the freestanding Mirador Suite and its private plunge pool have been so popular that the adjoining hillside is about to sprout 22 more deluxe duplex suites, each measuring 1,400 square feet and decorated with imported hardwoods and marbles—and each, of course, with a private plunge pool. Rooms, $280-$650. Rincon, Puerto Rico; 800-633-1857; fax 203-602-2265; www.horneddorset.com.
None of those suites, however, quite matches the champ in over-the-top luxury: the recently completed, exquisitely decorated owner's penthouse at POINT GRACE on the Turks & Caicos island of Providenciales. Known as the Nonsuch Suite, it includes, in its 4,600-square-foot single-floor configuration, a master bedroom, a library and study, massage room, dining room, kitchen and (why not?) a separate washing-up kitchen, plus two roof terraces, one with a Balinese canopy bed. Electronically controlled awnings open or close depending on the sun's rays and trade winds' knots. Families can tack on the suite on the floor below for a four-bedroom duplex spread with private elevator. Rates, $4,000 for the single floor, $5,600 for the whole shebang. Grace Bay, Providenciales; 649-946-5096; www.pointgrace.com.
Coming up: three butler-serviced villas scheduled to open this year at Anguilla's TEMENOS (264-498-9000), and 24 new suites at the RITZ-CARLTON, ST. THOMAS (800-241-3333; fax 340-775-4444; www.ritzcarlton.com), which has also broken ground for 80 two- and three-bedroom residence suites in a projected Ritz-Carlton Club.
Most vacationers think of the islands as places for water sports, but now mountain bikers are flying off to St. Lucia and the 49-room ANSE CHASTANET RESORT (800-223-1108, 758-459-7000; fax 310-440-4420; www.ansechastanet.com) to try their skills at jungle biking. A new outfit called Bike St. Lucia rents Team Volvo-Cannondale 800s and maintains the trails carved out of the resort's grounds. These rides wind through wild orchids and coconut palms, past a natural swimming hole and the remains of an 18th-century plantation, then up to an elevation of about 1,000 feet, where the view, like the ride up, is breathtaking.
Jamaica's HALF MOON GOLF, TENNIS AND BEACH CLUB, near Montego Bay, is offering a—shall we say?—unique service this spring: cosmetic procedures by Manhattan plastic surgeon Z. Paul Lorenc at the resort's MoBay Hope Medical Center. Guests can set up appointments before leaving home (876-953-3649), then recuperate in the privacy of a five-bedroom villa that's staffed by a butler, housekeeper, and cook—and all the while your friends will think that you've simply gone off to Jamaica for a few days of sun. Rose Hall, Montego Bay, Jamaica; 876-953-2211; fax 876-953-2731; www.halfmoonjamaica.com.
NEVIS just got itself a new airport terminal: 24,000 square feet of air-conditioned architecture filled with x-ray devices for baggage screening, closed-circuit monitoring—and one of the island's two elevators. All that and a new 4,020-foot runway. Those who have known lovely, charmed Nevis over the years may be wondering why anyone would want to replace the nice but ramshackle hut that encouraged a sense of camaraderie between passengers, staff, and taxi drivers. One answer may be the much-lauded Four Seasons Nevis Resort, which attracts an influential clientele, rich and celebrated enough to fly in on private aircraft. A local official, however, claims that the new terminal will give visitors "the impression that this is a country moving forward in the 21st century." Of course, most of Nevis' visitors were happy to watch it dawdle along in the 19th century, but it's reassuring that this little island can leap ahead of much larger airports and do x-ray scans even on checked baggage.
Who would have thought that these water-challenged islands could produce 90 new golf holes in one year? Five, yes, five new courses—that's a lot of irrigating. Even Curaçao, with its landscape of cactus and scrub, inaugurated a course: the new BLUE BAY GOLF RESORT (www.bluebay-golf.com), sister to the highly acclaimed Tierra del Sol course on neighboring Aruba. Blue Bay's par-72, 6,735-yard layout weaves around a lake, lagoons, and coastline. The ocean holes demand accurate shots over pounding surf to tight fairways.
TOBAGO PLANTATIONS GOLF COURSE (www.golftobagoplantations.com) is part of a resort development anchored by the two-year-old Hilton Tobago near the main town, Scarborough. This par-72, 7,005-yarder meanders across relatively flat terrain; there's even an on-site, video-equipped golf academy if you can't figure out how to avoid the old sugar mill or the mangrove swamp. You might, however, want to wait another year for this course to mature.
The Caribbean's most impressive new course scrambles up the hillsides behind the new Ritz-Carlton Rose Hall (www.ritzcarlton.com), near Jamaica's Montego Bay. It's the WHITE WITCH, 600 acres of inclines, dazzling water views, and chasms that gobble up balls: a Robert von Hagge-Rick Baril design measuring 6,718 yards for a challenging par 71. (The 18 holes at nearby Wyndham Rose Hall have been redesigned and are now known as the THREE PALMSOCEAN COURSE.)
But the biggest news of all is at Barbados' Sandy Lane (www.sandylane.com), where the resort's COUNTRY CLUB layout has been relandscaped by Tom Fazio and now plays at 7,060 yards, par 74. Fazio is also working on another Sandy Lane course that promises to be a true masterpiece: THE GREEN MONKEY is scheduled to open in late 2002 on hilly terrain that incorporates scenic man-made lagoons and dramatic holes within towering limestone quarries (don't worry about finding your way out—the carts are equipped with GPS trackers). Both courses are served by a brand-new, 55,000-square-foot clubhouse, but The Green Monkey will be reserved exclusively for guests of the resort.
The other Fazio, Jim, is hard at work on nearby Canouan in the Grenadines, where he is expanding the ingeniously designed course at Rosewood's CARENAGE BAY RESORT (www.carenagebay.com) from its original 12-fairway, 18-hole mishmash to a full 18 championship fairways (6,300 yards, par 72). Canouan is one of those places where most homes still don't have running water, so how does it—and the nearby islands—cope with all that irrigating? Most of the resorts recycle gray water for use in gardens and golf courses, but at spare-no-expense Sandy Lane (see The $400 Million Renovation), they've built their own water-desalination plant: two million gallons a day, probably enough to supply the homes on Canouan.
Ian Keown, who writes for magazines and newspapers, is the author of Caribbean Hideaways (Frommer's, 2001).
SANDY LANE IN BARBADOS, in the West Indies, is one of those fabled resorts of the Caribbean built during its golden age, when every woman under the sun wanted to look like Babe Paley. Alas, time did wither and custom stale both beauties, but three years ago Sandy Lane was rescued by a consortium of Irish investors. Like some bejeweled phoenix, a new Sandy Lane—part old, much more of it new—rose from the ashes of memory, myth, and $400 million.
The results are mixed. Not having visited the original, we won't even go there, except to say the location is exactly the same. The exterior of the new SL (the initials are everywhere) resembles a new-money country club: high, thick, cream-colored walls, neo-Palladian-style buildings, iron gates, bubbling fountains, manicured grounds.
Although there are only 112 rooms, Sandy Lane feels anything but intime. Perhaps it's the enormity of the property—there are, after all, two 18-hole golf courses (one is still under construction), and a spa with a solid reputation and impressive facilities, which we visited but did not try. Or maybe it's that so many curious "outsiders" from other hotels on the island seem to be wandering the property, buying bibelots like SL scented candles (in the gift shop off the lobby) and polo shirts (from Gatsby's downstairs), or chowing down at the $75 per person Sunday buffet, where tables overflow with suckling pig, macaroni and cheese, grilled flying-fish, Yorkshire pudding, and tiramisu.
Still, the location is right on the beach, and the rooms are very well done (though all feed off long, impersonal corridors). One suite, in the Dolphin Wing, has a spectacular layout: An elegant riff on blue and white, it has two bedrooms at opposite ends of a large living-dining room, perfect for a family; marble baths the size of limousines, with sit-down showers and Penhaligon's products. Amenities include flat-screen Panasonic TVs and DVDs, walk-in closets, and beachfront terraces. Rooms, $600-$3,700. St. James, Barbados; 246-444-2000; www.sandylane.com.
—RICHARD DAVID STORY
Disclaimer: The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication in March 2002, but we suggest you confirm all details with the service establishments before making travel plans.