Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

WESTJET FLYFREE CONTEST: Island Time

The Caribbean and Bermuda offer sun, sand and cultural diversity

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It covers only a small patch of the planet but with more than 7,000 islands, the Caribbean is a potpourri of languages, cultures and activities. Some islands are mountainous, such as St. Lucia and St. Martin, while others, such as the Bahamas, are flat stretches of sand and scrub grass. You can hear locals speaking English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Portuguese-based Creole, or a host of regional dialects. And the cultures on the islands reflect their histories: African-influenced fabrics and music carried over from early slaves to English architecture and government and French and Dutch food.

A visitor's pursuits can be just as diverse. You can choose to go bonefishing on the salt flats in the Bahamas or trim the sails in Barbados. Vacationing in the Caribbean or on the subtropical island of Bermuda to the north can be as soothing and unhurried as simply lying on a fantastic white sand beach or as exciting as diving with sharks and playing the odds in a world-class casino.

With so much to see and do, here's a short list of what not to miss on several of the key islands:

Barbados

Little England, as Barbados was once known, retains its British character, although it has been an independent state since 1966. Cricket is the main sport, many businessmen still wear jackets and ties, and swimsuits are only considered appropriate attire at the beach.

But that doesn't mean residents don't know how to kick back and relax on this island, the most developed in the Caribbean. At only 34 kilometres long by 23 km wide, it's fairly easy to navigate and there's plenty to see: Its so-called seven wonders are Harrison's Cave with its stalactites, the restored Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill, a 17th-century Jewish synagogue, a huge baobab tree, the world's rarest collection of 17th-century English cannons, two Jacobean mansions and the place where the world's first grapefruit was produced.

Being so well-developed, the island sports many large hotels, lovely boutique inns and great restaurants. Be sure to go off the beaten path to experience the local side of life. The people here are among the friendliest in the Caribbean.

St. Lucia

Like many spots in the Caribbean, this picture-postcard island has changed hands many times. The French and British fought over the territory and elements of both are evident in its place names, food and culture. One of the most famous aspects of St. Lucia bears a French name -- the Pitons, two peaks that tower over this mountainous and jungle-covered country. This is a destination for ecotourists keen to enjoy mountain biking, zip-lining, hiking and a 7,689-hectare rainforest.

One main road circles the island, hugging the coastline most of the way. Most of the development is also along the coast and there are four distinct areas: Cap Estate in the northern tip, where most of the private luxury villas are found; the beaches and hotels between there and the capital city, Castries; the tiny hidden jewel of Marigot Bay; and the southern tip, where the airport is located.

In addition to taking in the gorgeous beaches, visit a plantation to see how bananas, coconuts, coffee and cocoa beans are grown and harvested. Also take a trip to the island's simmering volcano, where you can watch mud pits bubble and boil from the intense heat below.

Another can't-miss on this island is the pirate ship day trip down the west coast. The Brig Unicorn is the same ship used in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and the family version includes face painting, pirate gear and full-fledged water fights. Kids -- of all ages -- will have a blast.

Nassau (Bahamas)

Where St. Lucia has mountains, the Bahamas are flat. You can literally see for miles along many of its white or pink sand beaches.

Nassau is the capital of the country, which includes 29 islands, 661 cays and 2,387 islets. But most vacationers focus on Nassau, where you can choose to go low-key at a few family hotels and condos close to the airport, hit Cable Beach with its abundance of highrise hotels and bars, go old-school at the Hilton or the venerable downtown Graycliff, or really make a splash at one of the posh resorts on Paradise Island.

Paradise is not so much an island as a private enclave across the bridge from the port and downtown. The world-famous Atlantis resort is here; its amazing water park offers river rides, waterslides through shark tanks and myriad play zones.

With so much competition for tourism dollars these days, Nassau is going all out to spruce up its downtown. Historic buildings are getting facelifts and the waterfront is being redesigned into a bustling promenade with restaurants, nightclubs and shopping, including a new building to house as many as 600 craft vendors.

Nassau was already special, but it will definitely be worth another visit to witness its renewal.

St. Martin / Sint Maarten

Half French, half Dutch, the main industry of this island is tourism, so it knows how to treat its visitors. Bargains are everywhere as the island is duty-free and tax-free, so shop to your heart's content.

The northern French half is 33 square kilometres, compared with the 26-square-kilometre Dutch territory. A quaint story says the boundary was decided during a drunken foot race between a wine-guzzling Frenchman and a gin-soaked Dutchman. The two countries have managed to coexist peacefully for 350 years.

The northern portion is quintessentially French -- bistros, brasseries and sidewalk cafés with pastries and baguettes are everywhere. It is both relaxed and sophisticated and features secluded resorts, fine dining and yachts in the harbour.

The Dutch side is lively with casinos, shopping and historical sites and is home to both the bustling duty-free port of Philipsburg and the main resort area of Maho Bay.

The border between the two is basically non-existent and you can cross as you like. And unlike Bermuda, where there is no rental-car service, this is one island where it's almost a necessity to drive. The landscape is mountainous with towns and villages spread along the coast. You could spend your days at a resort, but then you'd miss the chance to explore such quiet bays and beaches as Orient Bay, Mullet Bay and Dawn Beach. Don't miss Seaside Nature Park on the Dutch side, where you can horseback ride down to the ocean and live out a dream of riding a beautiful animal through the tranquil water.

Bermuda

One of the most affluent islands in the North Atlantic Ocean, Bermuda is famous for its offshore finance sector, as well as some fancy shorts and a mysterious triangle that allegedly sucks in ships and airplanes. It draws many of its tourists from the eastern shores of New England, North Carolina and Florida.

Bermuda is not one of the Caribbean islands but it has much in common with its southern neighbours. It's a great sun-and-sand destination with gorgeous pink beaches and spectacular diving. There are shipwrecks scattered around the 180 islands and its reefs offer unlimited visibility.

If you're a water enthusiast, take in the Royal Naval Dockyard (which includes the Maritime Museum, Dolphin Quest, Snorkel Park and the Glass Blowing & Rum Cake Factory), the Crystal Caves, the Lili Bermuda Perfumery (make your own scent) and the Goslings Rum Ltd. Factory. This summer, intact bottles of wine and cologne from the 1850s were discovered in the shipwreck of the American Civil War blockade runner the Mary Celestia.

The prestigious Newport-Bermuda Yacht Race has been running for more than 100 years and remains a major draw.

The only drawback for some tourists is they are not allowed to rent or drive cars on Bermuda. Despite being just 34 square kilometres in size, the island has one of the highest vehicle densities in the world (more than 48,000 vehicles) and the government is trying to keep it from burgeoning further. You can rent scooters, however, and there are frequent buses and ferries.

-- Postmedia News

DID YOU KNOW?

-- In 1536, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to land in Barbados, but they decided against settling there. They determined they might return at a later date, however, so they released wild hogs on the island to ensure a plentiful food supply.

-- St. Lucia is home to two Nobel laureates: economist Arthur Lewis and writer Derek Walcott.

-- The only language spoken in Bermuda other than English is Portuguese.

-- There was controversy in 2009 when Bermuda agreed during secret negotiations with the U.S. to accept four men of Chinese origin detained at Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. didn't want to send them back to China, fearing human rights abuses, and no one else would take them. Britain was angry it wasn't consulted on the matter.

-- The euro is the main currency in St. Martin, although the U.S. dollar is widely accepted.

-- The Bahamas is the third-richest country in the Americas in terms of gross domestic product per capita, behind the U.S. and Canada.

If you go: There's more information on Caribbean packages at westjetvacations.com; if you purchase a package holiday this month, you'll receive a 50 per cent discount on a future WestJet flight.

ENTER TO WIN
This fall, you can win one of six $10,000 travel prizes from WestJet and WestJet vacations. To win, find the Fly Free game board in the newspaper each week from now until Oct. 28, and then collect daily game pieces from the paper.

For more information, go to winnipegfreepress.com/flyfree

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 8, 2011 D6

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