Only on These Islands, 5 Unforgettable Experiences

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Intimate Secret Bay in Dominica.
Intimate Secret Bay in Dominica.

“The average couple staying for one week at a Sandals Resort will take three Island Routes tours.” That insider’s comment at JAPEX is Exhibit A for making the case that Caribbean beach holidays have changed. Sure, even the most active and inquisitive travelers still lounge around the pool, but they also want to do things, see things. Following are five experiential activities that are hot—and are best booked in advance.

The “America’s Cup” 12-Metre Challenge, St. Maarten
Hitching a ride on a bona fide America’s Cup yacht would give you bragging rights enough, but 12-Metre Challenge goes a step further. This company has five of these impossibly fast, expensive sloops, including Dennis Connor’s Stars & Stripes ‘86 and Stars & Stripes ‘87, sailboat racing’s equivalent to Secretariat. What’s more, tourists don’t just hitch a ride on them; they get to race them. Seabourn Cruise Line calls this opportunity one of the “top excursions in the entire world,” and that’s not hype.

No experience is necessary, but because performance boats often heel to one side, this adventure is for reasonably agile grown-ups. Two reminders for your clients: (1) They’ll want sunblock (long-sleeve shirts aren’t a terrible idea, either), sunglasses, and hats that will stay put on their heads in strong breezes. (2) Each race takes about three hours, but there’s no toilet on board, as befits yachts built for the most famous boat race on earth.
Rate is $79 pp.

The Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa occupies one of the best beaches on the island. Each of the 310 guestrooms and 15 suites has French doors leading to a balcony, and there are four restaurants and lounges, a spa and fitness center, and a casino. No, there aren’t paddleboats, tennis courts, or the free-flowing drinks you’d find at an all-inclusive, but who wants them? St. Maarten/Martin is ideal for dining out, visiting other beaches, and generally experiencing the island. Book your clients a car for at least part of the vacation? Good idea.

Off-season rates start at about $200, but we recommend a nonsmoking king room facing the sea, which would start at about $255.

Cooking Classes at Secret Bay, Dominica
The Nature Island is known for its green terrain crossed by hiking trails and thriving marine life, but all this lush life also makes for superb local ingredients, so chef Eric Subin at luxury ecolodge Secret Bay offers guests cooking classes that are a locavore’s dream. An environmentalist’s dream, too, because one of the options includes cooking lionfish, an introduced species that is threatening native reef fish.

The optional prelude to the real cooking is a chance to go spearfishing for lionfish. This is done with snorkeling gear, so no diving equipment or experience is necessary. There is also no limit on the catch with these alien critters and (this is a welcome exception to the normal rules for such experiences) no minimum number of participants needed to make the session happen; one couple will do the trick.

Back in the kitchen, what to do with it? “One of chef Eric’s favorite ways to cook lionfish is crispy skinned served with roasted pumpkin puree, lime beurre blanc, and topped with crispy potato strings,” says Ayeola L. George, Secret Bay’s sales and marketing coordinator. “Another lunchtime favorite is in a Kubuli beer batter with curry remoulade and local provision fries.” Of course, both recipes are adaptable to fish available back in North America. Combined cost for the spearfishing and the cooking experiences is $240 per couple.

Secret Bay, which hugs the crescent that is Secret Beach, is a sustainable ecolodge with six luxury bungalows and villas, an excellent restaurant, massages, yoga, watersports, night snorkeling, and an encyclopedic menu of offsite eco-adventures. Accommodations, which start at approximately $650 plus 15 percent tax, feature natural wood, unnaturally strong WiFi signals, and Edenic views.

Whale Watching and Horseback Riding, Dominican Republic
From early January into late March, more than 4,000 humpback whales from the north Atlantic migrate to the Bay of Samana to breed in its warm waters. These are big whales, not mere orcas; they average 66,000 pounds each and 39-50 ft. long, and they put on a show with plenty of breaching and blowing. Since the authorities only allow each boat 45 minutes of whale time, travelers staying in Punta Cana might wonder if the day-trip (by plane) to Samana is really worth doing. It is.

Aside from the spectacular whale-watching itself, something you can’t experience on just any Caribbean island, there is Samana itself, a lush, mountainous peninsula that’s radically different from flatter, drier Punta Cana. Viator has a local tour operator who picks up participants at the airport at 6:30 or 7 a.m. and flies them to Samana (less than one hour by air) for a whale-watching boat ride led by a naturalist. In addition to the giant whales, passengers often see newborn calves as well. Lunch is a copious buffet on Cayo Levantado, followed by a swim and a cocktail or two. Then it’s inland for a horseback ride through the jungle to 165-ft. Limon Waterfall and a dip in the pool at its base. Available four days a week, and the whales are there Jan. 15-March 15. Cost, including roundtrip transfers, is $295 pp, commissionable.

This excursion is especially good for people staying at Cap Cana because they are so close to the Punta Cana airport. Sanctuary Cap Cana by AlSol, now serving adults only, resembles a centuries-old village, castle and all, and offers a wide range of settings and accommodations, all-inclusive. Although I’m quoting the lowest rates for other resorts in this story, rates here are for February, because that’s prime whale-watching time: from about $475 per night.

Book high net worth clients into Eden Roc at Cap Cana, a Relais & Chateaux a la carte beauty with European sophistication. It’s not actually on the beach, but the food, accommodations, spa, Eden Roc Beach Club, and access to famed Punta Espada and two other Jack Nicklaus golf courses make this a primo getaway. From about $820.

Red Sunset—from Birds—in Trinidad
The gathering of 15,000 scarlet ibis each evening in one small part of Trinidad’s Caroni Swamp is one of the most spectacular sights in this hemisphere. These are big birds, and unlike “robin red breast,” they really are Crayola red. And the swamp? It deserves a more attractive name. The tour, approximately from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., is in a long, wide, stable, hand-crafted and motorized wooden boat. A naturalist guides the boat through meandering waterways lined by lush trees where snowy egrets, blue herons, green kingfishers, bicolored conebills, and other tropical birds watch the bipeds float by. Why so many birds? Trinidad, unlike the rest of the Caribbean, was once part of South America, so hundreds of creatures you’d expect to see in Venezuela’s jungles are concentrated on this one island. That includes caimans and boa constrictors; I’ve seen them both in Caroni.

At around 5:30 p.m. the long boats cross a wide-open lake and do a 180. Suddenly, a field of red crosses the sky overhead and lands upon branches on the other side of the lake. Then another field of red, this time to the right. Then a third, a fourth…until the sky is splashed with scarlet missiles and the trees on which they’re landing seem to turn red. Birders, amateurs, and even the guide, who sees this every day, return to the dock in a silent mood of awe.

Banwari Experience, which offers all sorts of nature- and culture-oriented excursions, charges $65 pp for couples, $50 pp for groups of four or more, and that includes transfers from the hotel. This is commissionable. For those seeking an even more in-depth experience, Banwari also offers kayaking in the reserve for an additional price.

The Hyatt Regency Trinidad provides high international standards of hospitality in a waterfront hotel less than a mile by foot from Queen’s Park Savannah. This Hyatt Regency has a contemporary design, a professionally run spa, a rooftop infinity pool overlooking the bay, and complimentary WiFi in all rooms. Rooms start at $190, or $205 for a water view, plus 21 percent taxes and service fees.

New Tour of Kingston, Jamaica
Island Routes Caribbean Adventures’ brand-new Let’s Go Native tour of Kingston from Montego Bay and Ocho Rios wouldn’t be possible without Highway 2000, which has dramatically cut drive time across the Blue Mountains so that the ride from MoBay to the capital takes about two hours, and from Ocho Rios, even less. Of course, the current fascination with Jamaican culture helps, too, and this excursion, available from both of
the north coast’s major resort centers, serves that need well.

The tour includes the National Gallery, which is the largest publicly owned art museum in the entire English-speaking Caribbean; beautiful Emancipation Park; the Bob Marley Museum in the reggae star’s original recording studio; the cathedral or synagogue; and the Devon House Heritage site, a grand estate built by Jamaica’s first black millionaire that is now a showcase of upper class life in the late 1800s. Devon House is also home to the Devon House I-Scream snack bar, which serves such delicious ice cream that Britons pay top dollar to import it. (This tour is not to be confused with the Bob Marley and Kingston Highlight [sic] Tour, which is only available from Ocho Rios and features Tuff Gong International Studio, the Marley Museum, lunch at the One Love Cafe, and a critical stop for Devon House ice cream.) The price was not yet determined at press time, but $150 pp is a good ballpark figure.

The Let’s Go Native tour will be available at all the Sandals resorts in the area, including Montego Bay’s Sandals Royal Caribbean, with its private island and, soon to come, the islands’ first over-the-water suites; the flagship Sandals Montego Bay, on an exceptional white sand beach; Sandals Carlyle, an intimate 52-room resort whose guests have privileges at nearby Sandals properties; and Sandals Ochi, with its great variety of rooms, settings, and restaurants as well as quick access to major attractions. Rates start at about $475 at Royal Caribbean; $400 a night at Sandals Ochi.

Contact Information
12-Metre Challenge:
Banwari Experience:
Eden Roc at Cap Cana:
Hyatt Regency Trinidad:
Sanctuary Cap Cana by AlSol:
Sandals Resorts:;
Secret Bay:
Viator (whale-watching):
The Westin Dawn Beach Resort & Spa: