A love for sports, strong rum, exotic beautiful women, the incredible deep blue sea and not a care in the world – come experience the Caribbean for a totally different lifestyle. Once the playground of the rich, it’s now more popular with cheap airfares and more hotels catering to variety of budgets.
Many islands, many peoples and many cultures from the Portugese, Spaniards, English, Irish, French, Indians, Danish, Dutch, Chinese, Kongo, Igbo, Akan, Fon, Yoruba, Creole to their many mixed off-shoots have created an environment of co-existence envied amongst the island nations forming the Caribbean Community. The region comprises over 7,000 islands, islets, reefs, and cays. The West Indies islands form island arcs that delineate the eastern and northern edges of the Caribbean Sea.
The name West Indies originates as Christopher Columbus landed there in 1492 and believed he had reached the Indies (in Asia). The Caribbean islands are classified as one of Conservation International's biodiversity hotspots because they support exceptionally diverse ecosystems, ranging from montane cloud forests to cactus scrublands. These ecosystems have been devastated by deforestation and human encroachment. The arrival of the first humans is correlated with extinction of giant owls and dwarf ground sloths. This area has many highly threatened species of birds, mammals and reptiles, examples are the Puerto Rican Amazon, two species of Solenodon (giant shrews) in Cuba and Haiti, and the Cuban crocodile. The varied fauna here is incredibly remarkable.
Just imagine living in a city where because of the country's colonial heritage, the names of towns are derived in roughly equal proportions from English (Chatham, Brighton, Green Hill, St. Mary's, Princes Town, Freeport, New Grant), French (Blanchisseuse, Sans Souci, Pointe-à-Pierre, Basse Terre, Matelot, Petit Bourg), Spanish (San Fernando, Sangre Grande, Rio Claro, San Juan, Las Cuevas, Maracas, Manzanilla, Los Bajos) Indian (Fyzabad, Barrackpore, Indian Walk, Madras Settlement, Penal, Debe) and Amerindian languages (Chaguanas, Tunapuna, Guayaguayare, Carapichaima, Mucurapo, Chaguaramas, Arima, Arouca, Guaico, Oropouche, Aripo. A far cry from our country with a similar heritage but where today the only aim of our political parties seems to be renaming streets and cities as a means of getting more votes!!
Where does one begin and how does one choose which country to write about- each is beautiful, each with its own charm. The first time I went to the Islands was when I took a touring fashion show for my UK based company across five of the islands and fell in love with its peoples. So, let’s talk about Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. We are all familiar with the names of cricketing legends like Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Frank Worrell, Joel Garner and Sir Clyde Walcott. Jamaica was one the venues of 2007 Cricket World Cup and West Indies cricket team is one of the only ten ICC full member teams who participate in international Test Cricket. The Jamaican national cricket team competes regionally, and also provides players for the West Indies. Sabina Park is the only test venue and Greenfield Stadium is also used for cricket. Jamaica has also produced dozens of world class sprinters, most recently Usain Bolt, world record holder in the 100m and 200m for men. Other noteworthy sprinters include Arthur Wint, the first Jamaican Olympic Gold Medalist, Donald Quarrie- Olympic Champion and former 200m world record holder, Merlene Ottey, Shelly-Ann Fraser-World and Olympic 100m Champion, George Rhoden and Deon Hemmings- both Olympic Gold Medalists and former 100m world record holder and Olympic Gold medalist Asafa Powell.
What is enticing about the Caribbean as a whole is that it still retains a lot of its charm. A typical Caribbean town always has a post office, a supermarket, a few churches, a bakery, a bank, a farmers market, a basic primary and secondary school, street vendors, a cricket pitch, a football (soccer) field. Most towns have a town square which is the main bus station and where most street vendors sell their wares. This square is always busy with activity. It also usually has a statue of a famous person who did something great in that town or for the country.
Jamaica is the third largest island and the fourth largest country in the Caribbean. The island is home to the Blue Mountains and is surrounded by a narrow coastal plain. Most major cities are located on the coast - the capital Kingston, Portmore, Spanish Town, Mandeville, Ocho Ríos, Port Antonio, Negril, and Montego Bay. Kingston Harbour is one of the largest natural harbours in the world. There are several tourist attractions scattered across the country, including Dunn's River Falls in St. Ann, YS Falls in St. Elizabeth, the Blue Lagoon in Portland, and Port Royal, which was the site of an earthquake that helped form the island's Palisadoes. The climate in Jamaica is tropical, with hot and humid weather, although higher inland regions are more temperate.
During its first 200 years of British rule, Jamaica became a leading sugar-exporting, slave-dependent nation. Strong economic growth, averaging approximately 6% per annum, marked the first ten years of independence. But like all small states, there was a decline as optimism of the first decade plus a growing sense of inequality and a belief that poor were not equally benefitting led to economic decline into the mid-1980s, exacerbated by closure of the two of the largest alumina producers and a significant reduction in production by Alcan, another large producer. In addition, tourism decreased substantially.
Kingston can be intimidating and in places dangerous but use your street smarts and an open mind, you will be rewarded with a city as unique to the island as it is to the Caribbean. Kingston divides neatly into downtown and uptown; it has a scenic waterfront, a great art museum and most of Kingston’s historic buildings, complemented by an active street-life – most notably on King St or the Parade around William Grant Park, where street preachers and hawkers vie for your attention. Just a few kilometres away, Uptown has the city’s hotels, restaurants and nightlife. In addition, a must see are the Bob Marley Museum and Devon House. The latter is the architectural dream of Jamaica’s first black millionaire George Stiebel who was among three wealthy Jamaicans who constructed elaborate homes during the late 19th century at the corner of Trafalgar Road and Hope Road, which fittingly became known as the Millionaires Corner. The capital’s diplomatic and commercial status ensures uptown a definite cosmopolitan suaveness. The historic city center, where you’ll see the Caribbean’s most extensive variety of Georgian architecture and its great cathedral, (currently in a sad state of repair). Few other places in Jamaica bring to life the historic sweep of centuries like Spanish Town.
Though a small nation, Jamaica is rich in culture and has a strong global presence. The musical genres which evolved here are reggae, ska, mento, rocksteady, dub, and, more recently, dancehall and ragga all from the island's vibrant, popular urban recording industry. Jamaica also played a critical role in the development of punk rock, reggae and ska. Reggae without doubt influenced American rap music as both have African styles of rhythmic music. Rappers such as The Notorious B.I.G. and Heavy D are of Jamaican descent. Internationally known reggae musician Bob Marley was Jamaican.
The Rastafarian movement with over a million Rastafarians, famous for their dreadlock hairstyle, was founded here. They believe Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was God Incarnate, the returned Black Messiah who had come to take the lost Twelve Tribes of Israel. Bob Marley, a believer, spread the message of Rastafari to the world.
Ian Fleming living in Jamaica repeatedly used the island as a setting in his famous James Bond novels - in Live and Let Die, Doctor No, For Your Eyes Only, The Man with the Golden Gun and Octopussy. James Bond uses a Jamaica-based cover in Casino Royale. The only James Bond film adaption to have been set in Jamaica is Doctor No. Filming for the fictional island of San Monique in Live and Let Die. The ‘James Bond Hotel’ is not officially the ‘007,’ but Jamaica’s Goldeneye Resort – easily one of the Caribbean’s most glamorous destinations - is the former estate of Ian Fleming. It’s run by Island Records’ owner Chris Blackwell, but the stars keep coming - Johnny Depp, Bono, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson. It’s worth a visit!
We leave after visiting the Blue Mountain range. Shrouded perpetually by mists which give them their bluish color, they sprawl across the eastern part for 28 miles. They rise steeply and it is possible to drive from the coastal plains to an elevation of over 7,000 feet in less than an hour! Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee is amongst the best gourmet coffees in the world with 90% production exported to Japan. These diverse mountain forests have over 800 plants species, the world’s second largest butterfly, Papilo homerus, 200 species of resident and migrant birds and is one of the largest migratory bird habitats in the Caribbean. It has over 500 species of flowering plants (almost 45% is native to Jamaica) - the most interesting is the Jamaican bamboo Chusquea abietifolia that flowers only once every 33 years. The next flowering will take place in 2017.
The best way to reach Barbados is on a cruise ship. There has never been a better time for cruise deals and discounted cruise packages as the recession is still on in this part of the world. Top cruise lines - Princess, Holland America, Royal Caribbean etc - offer Caribbean cruise packages designed for first timers, seasoned travelers, singles or families. Why should you take a cruise over a vacation at a Caribbean resort or hotel? Well, the value of a vacation on a floating hideaway like a cruise liner is giganormous. Then, more important, the advantage of visiting multiple exciting locations without the need to pack and repack again!
What is the best month to take a Caribbean cruise? The answer depends upon what one considers the most important factors.
· Peak Season: mid-December to April; warm weather time for travelers escaping from the cold Northern American winter. These are the driest months in the islands when one has peak prices and crowds. Book a few months in advance.
· Off Season: July to November; the low season; it varies greatly in the Caribbean depending on where islands fall within the hurricane belt. You may get great hotel bargains but businesses in storm affected locations often close during these months.
· Sweet Spot: the shoulder season - May and June come just before the storm season. This is a good time to take advantage of low prices, fewer passengers on the ships. But be warned, occasional showers are a possibility - depends upon where you are.
Barbados originally known as Ichirouganaim is the easternmost island of Lesser Antilles. “Barbados” means "bearded" but what this refers to is questionable – does it refer to the long, hanging roots of the bearded fig-tree (Ficus citrifolia), indigenous to the island; to the bearded Caribs once inhabiting the island; or to the foam spraying over the outlying reefs giving the impression of a beard ? Citizens are officially called Barbadians; often shortened to Bajans (pronounced: "bay" "jan") which at times sounds like "Bar-bajan".
The capital and largest city of Barbados is Bridgetown, founded 1628, by Charles Wolverstone who named it ‘Indian-Bridge Town’ for the bridge remaining from the island's native inhabitants who left after Spanish rule ended. Walking along Cats Castle and Cheapside leads you to Broad Street, the main street of Bridgetown consisting of banks, department stores and duty free shops. Other shopping areas are in Tudor Street and Swan Street which cross Broad Street or you can go straight towards the Parliament and Cathedral sightseeing the traditional architecture which at times reminded me of the old Portugese style buildings in Fontenas, Panjim (Goa) or a British village square.
Due to its higher levels of development and its favourable location, Barbados has become one of the prime Caribbean tourist destinations. Well known hotel chains offer world-class accommodation. Time-shares, smaller local hotels and private villas have space available if booked in advance. The southern and western coasts of Barbados are popular, with the calm light blue Caribbean Sea and their fine white and pinkish sandy beaches. Along the island's east coast, which faces the Atlantic Ocean, there are tumbling waves which are perfect for light surfing.
Just outside of Bridgetown is the Bayshore Complex, worth a stop for its shopping and historic value. Barbados is now home to two boardwalks. The South Coast 1.2 km boardwalk opened in 2008 runs from Accra Beach to Hastings. Running right alongside the beach this boardwalk is set in concrete fortified by Canadian Nova Scotia granite rocks and planked with Brazilian hardwood. It's very popular with locals and visitors alike. The West Coast boardwalk opened in 2009 is shorter and made entirely of concrete. It runs along Holetown beach.
Finally we end up in the land of Carnival and the birthplace of steelpan, calypso, soca, and limbo – Trinidad - part of the Trinidad and Tobago islands. Be prepared to experience mesmerizing music, super beaches and first-class diving through coral landscapes; a Carnival to end all Carnivals and for the sports inclined, luxuriant rainforests prime for bird-watching, hiking, and cycling. Trinidad (and Tobago) is excluded from many Caribbean birding books, essentially due to the number of species here – about 430. Non-birders will be consider a new hobby after visiting Trinidad’s Asa Wright Nature Center, one of the world’s great birding outposts, with all-inclusive lodges in the Northern Range rainforest. It’s a 90-minute drive from Port of Spain.
Trinidad’s Queens Park, St Clair and New Town cover the main tourist area but take a walk southwards down towards Independence Square and Woodford Square to see another interesting section of the city.
The ethnic composition of Trinidad and Tobago reflects a history of conquest and immigration. Two major ethnic groups, Indo-Trinidadian and Tobagonians and Afro-Trinidadian and Tobagonians, account for almost 80% of the population, while people of mixed race, European, Chinese and Syrian–Lebanese descent make up most of the rest of the population. Trinidadian English, however, is also influenced by French, French Creole, Spanish, and by Bhojpuri/Hindi. There are three major municipalities in Trinidad: Port of Spain, the capital, San Fernando, and Chaguanas.
The most famous recent local persona known to all of us in India and one of the most famous sporting icons in the country is legendary West Indian batsman Brian Lara, world record holder for the most runs scored both in a Test and in a First Class innings. Born in Santa Cruz, he is referred to simply as the Prince.
Walk down any street in any of the islands and what strikes about the Caribbean is the rich, strong and vibrant diversity of its population and cultures. The political heritage and guidelines laid through centuries of rule by Britain, France, Portugal and Spain has ensured that most of these islands remain democratic, economically independent and linked to the rest of the world through tourism, sports, and industry in recent years. What about its cuisine if the society is so multi racial? In Barbados, I entertained a charming Chinese-Negress having Amerindian blood with a tad of European thrown in! I can’t recall what I ate but I had a divine evening. That’s another story ……………..