Nine action-packed island vacations that challenge your body and not your wallet
To some weary souls, a vacation in the Caribbean means baking in the sun and doing scarcely anything at all. To others the goal is the exact opposite-they crave physical activity, challenge, excitement. They come to hike and bike mountains taller than any in the United States, east of the Mississippi (in the Dominican Republic); to dive with an assortment of fish that could rival any aquarium in the world (in Bonaire); to try their luck bonefishing in the waters off Eleuthera, Bahamas. Here are nine of the Caribbean's finest outdoor adventures, all amazingly affordable:
A mere decade ago, this island was known only to scuba enthusiasts; it was a clandestine gem discussed in hushed tones. Now that the secret is out, travelers are learning that nature thrives here both above and below the water. The reef's proximity to the coast is ideal for divers and snorkelers who want to swim with blue and yellow queen angelfish and orange trumpetfish in waters with visibility of 100 feet or more. Bonaire's semi-arid landscape is home to some 200 types of birds, including one of the world's largest colonies of pink flamingos (numbering some 15,000). On the water and managed by American diver Bruce Bowker, the Carib Inn (599/717-8819, www. caribinn.com) offers double rooms starting at $99 a night. Add six boat dives with unlimited air fills for $189 per person, and you and your loved one can be on a seven-night/ six-day dive package for $535.50 apiece.
Just off the coast of Venezuela, the resort island of Margarita is known for trade winds that blow at a steady 15 to 25 miles per hour. Add water that's only waist-deep, and you have a locale that's ideal for novices and experts alike. Vela Windsurf Resorts (800/223-5443, www.velawindsurf.com) has been specializing in windsurfing vacations for more than 15 years. On Margarita, it's located on the south shore of the island, at El Yaque, one of its most popular beaches. Packages start as low as $400 per person for seven nights in a double room at Casa Rita, including all breakfasts and windsurfing rentals. Perched on a small hill overlooking El Yaque, Casa Rita is only a six-minute walk to Vela's windsurfing center. You can try the latest gear in the sport and opt for windsurfing lessons at its renowned school. Five one-hour group lessons cost $175.
MultiSport St. John
Only a few miles east of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John has virtually nothing in common with its overdeveloped neighbor. More than 60 percent of the island and its surrounding waters comprise Virgin Islands National Park, a mecca in the Caribbean for the active traveler. Twenty-two hiking trails weave through the arid and semitropical terrain past some 800 species of plants. On the shore, white-sand beaches lead to coral-covered bays (Trunk and Leinster are two of the best) where snorkelers spend hours mesmerized by the vivid neon fish. Arawak Expeditions (800/238-8687, www.arawak exp.com) takes full advantage of this locale by featuring St. John Adventure Week (consisting of seven nights on the island). During the day, you'll hike, snorkel, sea kayak, mountain bike, and dive St. John. In the evening, you'll be seconds away from the beach at Maho Bay Camps. Maho's owner Stan Selengut has reaped accolades for his eco-sensitive resort, where 114 tent-cottages are woven into the tapestry of the landscape. The cost of the trip is $1,295 per person.
Sea kayaking the Exumas
Stretching more than 100 miles from Beacon Cay in the north to Hog Cay in the south, the Exumas are some of the least-developed islands in the Bahamas. Starfish/The Exuma Adventure Center (877/398-6222, www.kayakbahamas.com), the first outfitter to open in the Exumas, offers seven-day/six-night (three nights camping, three in a hotel) trips through the islands for $875. Spend four guided days paddling in the pale jade waters of the Great Bahama Bank. You'll kayak some three to six hours daily, edging along another half-moon stretch of sand whose blinding whiteness obscures the islands' wild and scraggy interiors-a mix of twisted mangroves, gumbo limbos, and stunted palms. Clearly visible beneath the surface, the reefs are coated with green coral, lavender sea fans, and thronged with marine life such as schools of stingrays. You'll pass several more islands the size of boxing rings before arriving at your beach for the evening. Then spend the next two days on your own, sailing, kayaking, or mountain biking. All trips include food and camping equipment, and the season runs from November to June. No experience is necessary.
Mountain-biking the Dominican Republic
With the highest mountains in the Caribbean, Pico Duarte (10,417 feet) and La Pelona (10,161 feet), you can bet your sore bum that the Dominican Republic is a mountain-biking paradise. On Iguana Mama's (800/849-4720, www.iguana mama.com) nine-day/eight-night Dominican Alps Tour, you'll be zipping through the lush countryside past coffee plantations and cabbage fields, fording rivers where villagers wash their laundry, and climbing through forests to heights of 5,500 feet. All the while, you'll be surrounded by the Caribbean waters in the distance. For breaks, stop at the fruit stands and sample the fresh passion fruit, sweet lemons, and guanabana. The $1,450 price includes all meals, guides, and accommodations in small village inns. Add $150 for mountain bike rental.
The rugged east coast of Barbados is a welcome mat for the Atlantic and its myriad of moods. On any given day, expect swells that break from 2 to 20 feet. This is especially true from September through December, when surfers congregate on the shores and catch the waves at Soup Bowl and Parlers, massive swells that can often break as high as 40 feet. From December to March, the more consistent waves are on the western coast, at Half-Moon Fort. Serving the surfing community for more than 50 years, the Edgewater Inn (246/433-9900, www.edge waterinn.com) is perched on a cliff in a tropical rain forest overlooking the Atlantic. Rooms start at $49 a night in summer and $69 a night in winter.
Over 100 miles long, Eleuthera, one of the Bahamas' Out Islands, barely exceeds two miles in width. Firm white-sand flats and shallow water ring the island, perfect for hooking the elusive bonefish. On a clear day, you can wade knee-deep in the water and spot the shimmering scales of the darting bone. The challenge is getting one of these suckers to take your bait. A little patience, a graceful cast just beyond the reach of the school, and a bonefish just might take that fly and run off some 75 yards of line in a couple of seconds. You'll get the feverish feel of what it's like to be connected to a remarkably fast and furious fish. Britain-based Bonefish Adventure (011-44/1202-474-343, fax /1202-474-261, www.bone fishadventure.com) offers seven nights at the Rainbow Inn, all breakfasts and dinners, a rental car, and two days of guided fly-fishing for $1,173.
Hiking Dominica Something of an anomaly compared to the rest of the Caribbean, Dominica gets visitors for its interior, not its beaches. Tropical rain forest covers much of the mountainous terrain, earning the island a reputation as the most rugged in the West Indies. Ken's Hinterland Adventure Tours (767/448-4850, www.kenshinterland tours.com) is the premier hiking guide on Dominica and, judging from his Web site, is a favorite with celebrities like Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, and Jimmy Buffett. In a weeklong package that includes seven nights' accommodation at the Fort Young Hotel and seven breakfasts, Ken's will take you on five excursions into the wilderness. You'll hike through rain forest in Morne Trois Pitons National Park to visit Ti Tou Gorge, where a waterfall lies hidden on the side of a mountain. You'll also crisscross Sari Sari River, jumping from boulder to boulder, to reach the pool at the bottom of Sari Sari Falls. The cost of this package starts at $690.
Sailing the British Virgin Islands
Sailors know the B.V.I. as legendary (and rather upscale) cruising grounds. Here, in places like Virgin Gorda, Peter Island, and Tortola, you'll find sheltered marinas with good anchorages, shopping, restaurants, and small hotels that are popular with yachters. Even better, you can sail to these various islands without venturing away from the reefs into the open ocean. But you won't have to worry about navigational charts on Madden Enterprises' six-day/five-night cruise around the B.V.I., since a skipper comes with you. Madden's 45-foot catamaran, which sleeps eight guests, has been plying these waters since 1980, so you can rest assured that the crew members will take you to all their favorite haunts. The cost of the trip, including all food, starts at $899. The boat is only available from April 15 through June 10. Call Madden at 800/262-3336 or access www. sailmadden.com.