‘It’s the sand," says one patron on a bar stool overlooking the cay.
"No, it's the colour of the water," says a friend leaning on the bar.
"You're both wrong," argues the bikini-clad member of the trio as we eavesdrop nearby. "What makes the Caribbean the best place to be is a combination of perfect parts. It's the perfect paradise."
Millions of tourists who venture to the region every year, many of them return visitors, would agree. The Caribbean has more than 7,000 islands in a 4,020-kilometre archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. Jamaica, Cuba, and the smaller islands that trickle down to Barbados all offer the same sand, water and sun. But your experience will be totally different on every island.
Jamaica is the heart and soul of the islands. You can feel it as soon as the hot breezes bring the sounds of the islands to your ears. The whole island seems to pulsate with reggae.
Montego Bay, Ocho Rios and Negril are the best places for visitors to find every level of accommodation from cheap and cheery to all-inclusive (Superclubs and Couples,) to over-the-top opulent (Half Moon Resort).
Jamaica is for activities -- day or night. Climbing up the Dunn's River Falls at Ocho Rios is a refreshing jaunt. You can do it by yourself or take the hand of a guide and walk up the travertine rock with ease. Nearby is the Dolphin Cove at Treasure Reef where you get close and personal with our finned friends. There is a chance to swing over the trees at the Grand River Gorge with the Chukka Canopy tour or float lazily down the Martha Brae River on a hand-crafted bamboo raft. When you take a break, enjoy sipping and sampling at the Appleton Rum Estate.
There's more to keep you going well into the night. The action on Montego Bay's Gloucester Avenue, also known as the Hip Strip, starts jamming near midnight. Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville is the hottest place to kick up your heels, and the party pours into the street as the night progresses. Have fun, and be smart to guarantee all your memories are good ones. Keep your head on straight and your wallet deep in your pocket. Use resort shuttles or JUTA-approved cabs when the party rolls into dawn.
The Caribbean's pleasures extend to its much smaller islands. Pint-sized St. Lucia, for instance, boasts lush rainforest-draped volcanoes surrounded by a ribbon of sandy beaches. Although it covers just 620 square kilometres, St. Lucia packs in a wide selection of resorts between its beaches and mountainous terrain. Travellers can hike in a rain forest or pick up the pace and blast through on an all-terrain vehicle. Those who need some extended rest and relaxation can soak in a mineral bath or float in the ocean off a pink or black sand beach. Or, they can get married.
For six of the last 10 years, St. Lucia has been voted the best place for a wedding by the World Travel Awards. Resorts such as the three adult-only Sandals Resorts can handle every detail from flowers to accommodations for friends, or you can check the St. Lucia official website (www.stlucia.org) for a long list of independent wedding co-ordinators.
If a beach "I do" is on your to-do list, also check out the Cayman Islands, south of Cuba. The country just launched a website dedicated to planning your big day (www.caymanvows.ky).
Can't decide where to go? How about a taste of France or the Netherlands in the Caribbean? The 14-km long island of St. Martin/St. Maarten is divided in half by the two European nations. Go north to France's St. Martin for the nude beaches and to the Dutch St. Maarten for the casinos and nightlife. Both sides offer high-end shopping and gourmet food.
Barbados is the farthest east of the Caribbean islands, yet only 500 km north of Venezuela. It takes a little longer to get to but the flight is worth it. Sugar was once the country's economic driver but now tourism is king.
Evidence of 300 years under British rule can be found all around you in Barbados. Just look at the place names: Sam Lord's Castle, Farley Hill National Park, Morgan Lewis Sugar Mill, St. Nicholas Abbey and Sir Frank Hutson Sugar Museum. All the sites are fascinating sources of information and history about the plantations, and how the British ruled here until 1966.
Try renting a Mini Moke and tour the entire island in a day. Stop in at Harrison's Cave for an underground tour or stop to photograph the large waves at Archers Bay on the north shore. If you're there in early December, enter the marathon or the half-marathon or even just the 10-km run. It's guaranteed to be flat and fast.
Barbados has 110 kilometres of beaches that are ideal for surfing, wind surfing, sun bathing, shell hunting and snorkelling. Crane Beach on the southwest coast was rated the sexiest beach in 2008 by www.concierge.com. Sounds like you should forget the museums and check out the beach!
The Dominican Republic is rather grand in comparison to the more diminutive islands in the Caribbean and offers tremendous opportunities for adventure. Most visitors head to the beaches, and considering there are more than 1,400 kilometres of sand, it’s easy to see why. But make a point of taking a trip away from the shores and see what the 19 national parks have to offer. With the country’s mountains sometimes towering over 10,000 feet there is plenty of rock faces to climb, trails to hike and wild species to discover.
If you are a water sports fanatic, don't forget your snorkel or your kiteboard, your fishing rod or your surfboard. Over 14 per cent of the world's coral reefs surround the shoreline, providing plenty of surf and marine life to admire under the water or at the end of your line.
The Turks and Caicos are a string of islands that barely poke above high tide -- an attribute that led to the first European settlements in the 1500s. Salt flats in the shallow waters were ideal for raking in salt for preserving fish. It wasn't until the 1980s when Club Med spied its beaches that the islands became a prime tourist destination.
Today, the best beaches are home to the best hotels and resorts. Close to 120 resorts will provide you with the opportunity to relax or enjoy the abundant ocean life.
If you want a family holiday -- but without having to worry about the kids -- try the Beaches Resort on Providenciales, one of the islands in the Turks and Caicos. It doesn't matter how old your kids are, they are going to dump you like a wet swimsuit at the door. Over the last year the resort splurged on renovations to satisfy the tween and teen members of the family, and by all accounts it's a roaring success.
Teen adventures, teen-only discos, surf machines and pre-consumer releases of X-box games will have your teen out the door before the butler brings the breakfast. Butler? Yes, indeed. White-gloved butlers here are more than willing to chase down the kids for your mother/daughter spa treatment or when the "teens only" nightly bonfire is extinguished.
If you're visiting or re-visiting the Bahamas, try Harbour Island, one of the many Out Islands that's just a quick jaunt in a water taxi from the sparse shores of North Eleuthera. This is definitely the land of plenty -- plenty of personalities that is. Dunmore Town is where the rich and famous relax. The quaint shops and residents are well-maintained with blasts of brilliant-coloured exteriors.
Check out The Sugar Mill to replace a forgotten bikini or for the perfect holiday treasure. It's co-owned by relocated Canadian Linda Griffin who says, "I came for a week holiday 20 years ago but fell in love with the island and my husband. I went back to Mississauga (Ont.) long enough to pack my bags."
-- Canwest News Service
DID YOU KNOW?
* England and France fought over St. Lucia 14 times between 1667 and 1814. In 1979 it became an independent state of the Commonwealth of Nations.
* The name Turks and Caicos derives from the indigenous Turk's Head cactus and the Lucayan term "caya hico", meaning string of islands.
* The golden years of piracy in the Bahamas were the 30 years between 1690 and 1720.
* Barbados was the first country to abolish the slave trade, in 1834.
* If the British had GPS back when, they would have never found Barbados. A miscalculation at sea brought the British to the island.
* A shipwreck off the coast of Jamaica is credited with the growth of the first coconut tree here -- its cargo was coconuts.
* Lake Enriquillo in Dominican Republic is a saltwater lake and is inhabited by crocodiles. Located in a rift valley, the level of the lake is actually below sea level.
IF YOU GO:
Check out these tourism websites to plan your visit:
BARBADOS -- www.visitbarbados.org
JAMAICA -- www.visitjamaica.com
ST. LUCIA -- www.stlucia.org
CAYMAN ISLANDS -- www.caymanislands.ky/canada
DOMINICAN REPUBLIC -- www.godominicanrepublic.com
THE BAHAMAS -- www.bahamas.com
TURKS AND CAICOS -- www.turksandcaicostourism.com