The “real Caribbean”—that’s the trend these days, as more and more visitors seek “authentic experiences” as well as sun, surf and sand. They want to go beyond their resorts’ gates and explore the countryside, attend village jump-ups, meet the locals, visit historic sites, and get up-close and personal with the resident marine life.
Of course, no trend appeals to everyone—lest we forget, some of us fought the good fight against the Macarena—so there are still plenty of traditional and all-inclusive hotels on the islands where clients who want to stay put for all their meals, activities and entertainment can have a good time without ever leaving resort grounds. But for those who want more of a cultural, historical, or eco-oriented holiday, the options are now greater than ever.
Where to begin? We recommend English-speaking Grenada or French-speaking Martinique, each of which offers insights into a unique heritage, natural environment and culture. To be sure, Grenada and Martinique also have resorts where folks who just need to chill (an unfortunate word for the Caribbean) in a chaise longue can do exactly that. But if it’s the romance and beauty of the islands themselves that a client wants, these two places open doors to the real Caribbean.
grenada: the spice island adds new flavors
Once upon a time, when people talked about the great dive destinations of the Caribbean region, places like the Cayman Islands, ABC islands, Bahamas, and, while we’re at it, Cozumel and Ambergris Caye were at the top of the list. To be sure, these destinations haven’t lost a step. Or fin. But you have to admire Grenada, a country that includes Carriacou and Petite Martinique as well as the island of Grenada, for having muscled its way into this exclusive crowd. In 2012, Scuba Diving magazine singled out Grenada for both the “Best Wreck Diving” and the “Best Advanced Diving” in the Caribbean.
How did Grenada manage that? Its surrounding waters were long home to intriguing wrecks, a collection that includes the Bianca C, a 600-ft. passenger ship that’s the largest diveable wreck in the entire region. Nicknamed “The Titanic of the Deep,” it attracts not just divers, but myriad fish and sea turtles. What’s more, in 2006, sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor created the world’s first underwater sculpture garden, the Moliniere, and it continues to add new sculptures that include Sienna, based on a short story about the betrayal of a local girl, and a dramatic Christ of the Deep. The sculpture garden, which National Geographic named one of the “Top 25 Wonders of the World,” is in shallow waters that can be enjoyed by snorkelers as well as divers. What with that, the wrecks, and improved protection of the marine environment, more licensed dive operations have opened and expanded; companies like Eco Dive Grenada offer PADI courses, dive and snorkeling trips, and supervision by marine biologists. Eco Dive pays commissions to agents, too.
Back on terra firma, Grenada’s leaders were smart enough to turn swaths of seashore and the interior into national parks. Grand Etang National Park, for one, attracts nature-loving visitors with its hiking trails, a spectacular crater lake, waterfalls, hawks, hummingbirds, and monkeys. Grenada’s leaders were also lucky enough to have citizens who never gave up on agriculture, as happened on many other islands, so agritourism is a natural here.
estates, hotels, and chocolate
In 2004 and 2005, hurricanes wiped out many of the nutmeg/mace trees, so the locals planted more cacao. Today, visitors can not only tour the historic Belmont and Dougaldston estates, where they can see (and just as pleasurable, smell) how nutmeg/mace, cinnamon, clove, bay leaf, and ginger crops are grown and dried, but they can also engage in what we’ll call chocolatourism. Belmont now offers cacao demonstrations (the raw beans taste surprisingly lemony), while in a 2-story roadside house the solar-powered Grenada Chocolate Company sells sublime dark chocolate. Soon L.A. Burdick will open a factory in Grenada, too. Meanwhile, 2012 saw the debut of the 175 Proof Hike Tour, for folks who like both agritourism (or, at least, its products) and a walk on the wild side. Convinced that Grenada’s visitors want to really explore their island, the government is also encouraging more festivals and events in the villages. And at last count, Grenada had five ziplines.
Grenada has always been more about small hotels than sprawling resorts. The all-suite Spice Island Beach Resort on Grand Anse Beach—Caribbean Journal just named Grand Anse to its top 10 beaches list—is arguably the best known hotel and the only true all-inclusive in the country, yet it has a mere 64 units. (Off-season rates from $946 dbl.)
Laluna is a less-familiar product. This Italian-owned, 16-suite beachfront spa resort just completed the first of seven 4- and 5-bedroom villas that will reflect Laluna’s rustic-chic, Tuscan/Buddhist look. Target clients: urbane adults who demand designer flair and northern Italian cuisine with their beach (off-season rates start at $395, but also see accompanying sidebar).
Speaking of villas, the recently relaunched Villa Beachcliff doubles as a boutique hotel, and we do mean boutique, with a total of four artful, wickerful suites and no restaurant in a sprawling, neo-Spanish colonial (from $495, off-season). And in December 2013, the long-dormant LaSource on Pink Gin Beach will reopen as a 200-unit Sandals resort, the first in Grenada.
martinique: olde charm, new flights
Is Martinique terra incognita to most Americans because (a) it’s not an English-speaking island, or (b) there haven’t been any scheduled, nonstop flights from U.S. gateways since 2008? Judging by the success of Cancun and the Dominican Republic, the answer is probably “b.” We’ll soon know that for sure, too, because starting this month, American Airlines begins weekly nonstop flights between Miami and Fort de France. “These new flights represent a major step in Martinique’s development into a primary Caribbean vacation destination for U.S. travelers,” says Karine Roy-Camille, commissioner of the Martinique Tourism Authority. “Interest in Martinique has been growing among U.S. travelers…and now, with American Airlines offering convenient direct service, Martinique stands poised to charm U.S. travelers.” In fact, the island is so determined to expand its presence in North America that it will host CTO’s 2013 State of the Industry meeting.
Like Grenada, Martinique offers plenty to love beyond its beaches. This is another one of those islands where the population still farms and fishes, and where the lush, mountainous interior provides a stunning setting for hikers and nature-lovers; not for nothing is Martinique known as the “Island of Flowers.” The most famous hike is the climb to Mount Pelee, a live volcano in Martinique National Park, but the 12.4-mile trail between Le Precheur, the northernmost town on the Caribbean coast, and Grand Riviere, a fishing village on the island’s northernmost Atlantic tip, is a classic, because it passes by various vegetation zones, rivers, undeveloped beaches, and yes, flowers.
Like Burgundy or Brittany, Martinique is an official Region of France, so it has excellent medical facilities, drinking water, and cultural institutions. In fact, those cultural institutions, combined with a rich history, makes this one of the best sightseeing destinations in the Caribbean. Clients can visit the house where the future Empress Josephine lived (Museum Pagerie at Les Trois Ilets), a plantation home from the 1700s with period furniture and a display of some unexpectedly passionate love letters by Napoleon. And where else but on Martinique can people visit the ruins of a Caribbean Pompeii: St. Pierre, the former capital city, which was destroyed in minutes when Mount Pelee exploded in 1902.
In Fort de France visitors can see Les Grands Ballets Martiniquais, two splendid cathedrals, a magnificent tiled library (Bibliotheque Schoelcher), the Museum of Archeology and Prehistoric Martinique, countless New Orleans-style historic buildings, and multiple forts. As you’d expect of a French Region, the restaurants are first-rate, too, with many serving fine French wines. Beyond wine, visitors can sample what is indisputably the best rum on earth. The Saint-James Distillery offers tastings and a rum museum, while in the south, Musee Rhum Clement occupies an 18th century plantation house and, in addition to estate-bottled rhum, offers splendid art exhibitions and gardens.
Except for the family-friendly Hotel Carayou and Club Med Buccaneer’s Creek, each with about 200 rooms, most Martinique hotels have fewer than 100 rooms. The Club Med is unusual, too, insofar as it is an all-inclusive and it generally wraps air from Atlanta into its rates, which start at $3,918 for a week for two, off-season. Many of Martinique’s hotels, including the Carayou, are in Pointe du Bout and Les Trois-Ilets, at the south end of the large, west coast bay shared by Fort de France. This neighborhood boasts a marina, restaurants, tennis courts, a casino, and golf—only one course, but it’s a Robert Trent Jones, Sr.
The three-star Hotel Carayou has a small beach, 207 units in several 3-story buildings, and good children’s programs. Studios with kitchenettes from about $120, low season. Hotel Bakoua Martinique – MGallery Collection also features accommodations in several low-rise buildings, meticulous landscaping, and a beach, but this hotel is favored by business as well as leisure travelers. Off-season rates start at about $230 a night.
The premier hotel in Martinique is the five-star, couples-friendly Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa, on the east side of the island. A Relais & Chateaux property with 50 suites in 18 villas, Cap Est Lagoon is chic to the max, with a pretty beach where women can be as topless as men. Off-season rates from about $400 a night, including breakfast for two.
In keeping with the new flights, there are new hotels, as well. The five-star, 17-suite Hotel French Coco is opening this summer. Located next to a protected reserve on the Caravelle Peninsular, it will offer world-class service, design (hint: lots of pure white), and cuisine. Introductory rates start at about $400, including breakfast.
P.S. As part of Martinique’s renewed determination to woo American visitors, expect some announcements of FAMs in the coming months.
New: An Agent Assist for Getting Intimate?
Classic Vacations has two new programs for 2013: One is Intimate Escapes, packages featuring luxury boutique properties with fewer than 55 rooms; the other is a new online service center for travel agents called Classic Assist.
Since boutique properties are, to a great extent, what Grenada and Martinique are all about, they are both featured in Intimate Escapes. But there are other reasons, too, why Classic Vacations picked resorts on these islands. “Grenada is blessed with incredibly lush vegetation, and it offers a pristine and unspoiled setting,” says Federico Moreno-Nickerson, director, Caribbean & Mexico product development. “Martinique, the flower of the Caribbean, has the best infrastructure in the region, with an airport, roads, and medical services just as you would find in France,” continues Moreno-Nickerson. “In Martinique you find exceptional culinary experiences,” he adds. “The rhum has earned Denomination of Origin (DOM) status, and waiters are truly knowledgeable about wines.”
Intimate Escapes packages are good for travel through Dec. 15, and their added-value features include a romantic dinner worthy of the oyster scene in Albert Finney’s movie “Tom Jones”—but with better food. Much better food. In Grenada the program features Laluna, which certainly fulfills the boutique luxury criteria; in fact, London’s Sunday Times recently named Laluna one of the top 100 hotels in the world. In Martinique the program includes chic, sophisticated Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa.
“Classic Assist is a one-stop resource to find everything travel agents need to help grow their businesses,” explains Elizabeth Rojo, manager, marketing communications. “It includes…e-brochures that agents can customize with their own logos and contact information. They can share the e-brochure through their social media networks.” Classic Assist also includes customizable itinerary tools, webinars, a new global concierge service, a host of how-to guides, and print-on-demand lifestyle brochure. As always, she adds, “Classic Vacations’ Royalty rewards lets travel agents earn points for every qualified booking that can be redeemed for fabulous travel awards.” (800) 221-3949; classicvacations.com or classicvacations.com/travel-agent/login
Cap Est Lagoon Resort & Spa: capest.com
Club Med Buccaneer’s Creek: (888) 932-2582; clubmed.com or clubmedta.com (travel agent login)
Eco Dive Grenada: ecodiveandtrek.com
Grenada Tourism Board: (800) 927-9554; grenadagrenadines.com or grenadagrenadines.com/media-travel-center/travel-professionals
Hotel Bakoua Martinique – MGallery Collection: (800) 221-4542; mgallery.com
Hotel Carayou: hotel-carayou.com/anglais.php
Hotel French Coco: hotelfrenchcoco.com
Laluna: (866) 452-5862; laluna.com
Martinique Tourism Board: (212) 838-6887; martinique.org
Spice Island Beach Resort: (800) 501-8603; spiceislandbeachresort.com
Villa Beachcliff: (473) 456-4323; grenadavillabeachcliff.com