By David Swanson, Special to Tribune Newspapers
7:39 PM EDT, October 9, 2012
As winter looms and travelers line up for a Caribbean holiday, sorting through all the island options for the best values can be a challenge.
Four destinations rise to the top of the list when it comes to bang for your buck in the form of modest airfares, bargain hotels and solid dining.
Port Antonio, Jamaica
A bohemian aura still pervades lush Port Antonio, the rustic backwater at Jamaica's east end. Admittedly, some hotels are frayed at the edges and downtown is charismatically dilapidated, but the area oozes charm and authenticity. Hideaway beaches such as Winifred and Long Bay recall the laid-back Negril of the 1970s. Jerk cooking was born here, served on paper plates from shacks lining the road at Boston Bay. Bamboo raft trips provide Port Antonio's irresistibly recumbent signature tourist attraction.
What's new: While the hotel's glory days have long passed, the new beach restaurant at Frenchman's Cove resort, Le Pirate Cafe (876-993-7270), which overlooks the resplendent cove, is an appealing retreat for grilled lobster and burgers. The resort charges a beach access fee of $8 per person.
Tried and true: At Goblin Hill Villas (876-925-8108, goblinhillvillas.com), one- and two-bedroom apartment-style units overlook gin-clear San San Bay. Doubles are $150 and up and include the services of a cook/housekeeper (all rates are for doubles in low season, which runs through mid-December for most Caribbean hotels).
Logistics: Plentiful airline service makes Jamaica perhaps the region's cheapest target, but reaching Port Antonio takes extra effort. It's a four-hour drive from Montego Bay or 21/2 hours from Kingston. Rent a car for the scenic journey from Island Car Rentals (866-978- 5335, islandcarrentals.com); rates start at $33 per day.
Beyond the Forts, Puerto Rico
Step off the plane and you can feel Puerto Rico's heat. No, not the tropical heat (though you'll feel that too). Arrival into San Juan plunges visitors into the piquant sensuality of a modern Latin culture set against the imposing backdrop of Spanish colonial history. But while the city has plenty of night life and dining, the island has long had a love affair with cars, and exploring the hinterlands reveals Puerto Rico's shade-grown coffee-growing heritage. Explore beyond San Juan and you'll find seaside villages, lush rain forests and deserted tawny beaches. In the rain forests of El Yunque, lovers can hike or frolic in lush waterfalls. In Rincon, on the west coast, playful surfing beaches await.
What's new: Zip lines have sprung up across the Caribbean, but one billed as the world's highest and second-longest is found at Toroverde Adventure Park (787-867-7020, toroverdepr.com), where La Bestia sends one almost a mile while reaching 55 mph.
Tried and true: On the south coast, well away from San Juan's hubbub, is Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa (800-468-4553, copamarina.com), a 106-room family-oriented hotel in the seaside town of Guanica. Rooms start at $145, leaving something in the budget for exploring the UNESCO biosphere reserve next door.
Logistics: Puerto Rico is a driving island, and road rules and insurance issues will be familiar. Note that Puerto Rico has three airports, with increasing (and sometimes more economical) service by JetBlue into both Ponce and Aguadilla airports.
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
A busy port for cruise ships and shopping sprees, St. Thomas' historic capital, Charlotte Amalie, boasts an outstanding natural harbor engulfed by muscular mountains and a Danish history that comes alive in evocative passageways paved with cobblestone. Despite the considerable development, natural beauty still makes an appearance, especially as you head to less-busy beaches such as Lindquist or Brewer's Bay, and day trips to lovely (but pricey) St. John are easy. Plentiful air access keeps airfares competitive; discount coupons are common for dining, activities and shops; and pesky surcharges (departure tax, service charges, etc.) are at a minimum. Affordable lodging is found in the hills surrounding Charlotte Amalie.
What's new: Hassel Island is the nearly uninhabited outpost in the middle of St. Thomas Harbor. The island has been incorporated into the Virgin Islands National Park, and rangers now serve as guardians for a signal tower, garrison house, old Navy barracks and the Creque Marine Railway, the oldest and longest-running marine railway in the Western Hemisphere. Explore the maritime history with Virgin Islands Ecotours (877-845-2925, viecotours.com), which offers three-hour kayak tours for $99.
Tried and true: Bellavista Bed & Breakfast (888-333-3063, bellavista-bnb.com) is an immaculate four-room boutique inn with an attentive proprietor who eagerly shares tips about the best of the island. With its beautiful panorama of the St. Thomas Harbor, the pool deck is a fine hangout at dawn and dusk. Doubles from $175 include hot breakfast.
Logistics: Public transportation is slender, so maximize your sightseeing by renting a car for at least part of your stay. You won't need a passport to visit St. Thomas, but leave a little room in your suitcase: The USVI duty-free limit is $1,200 (no sales tax), and you'll find particularly good buys on jewelry.
Most Tulum visitors probably don't imagine that this paradisiacal fortress, an easy day trip from Cancun, could be the backdrop for a quiet off-the-grid vacation. Located about 70 miles south of the Cancun airport, Tulum is the only Mayan city built right on the sea, a rocky ruin that promises to be ground zero for taking in end-of-the-world calamities when the Mayan calendar expires in December. There are dozens of small hotels straddling the superb beach to the south with plenty of bargains, especially for those who don't demand air conditioning, phones and TVs.
What's new: The nonprofit, locally owned Community Tours Sian Ka'an (011-52-984-871-2202, siankaantours.org/en) guides visitors through the 1.6-million-acre Sian Ka'an Biosphere, a national park and UNESCO World Heritage Site flush with jungles, mangrove lagoons and unexcavated ruins.
Tried and true: On a broad, palm-covered property fronting the beach, Amansala Resort (amansalaresort.com) offers bohemian chic, yoga retreats and a Bikini Boot Camp, a program designed to fine-tune mind, body and spirit. Doubles from $120.
Logistics: Despite the distance from the Cancun airport, transfers are easy. Buses depart from the airport every couple hours and take about two hours; the ride is about $2 (ado.com.mx/ado/index.jsp). Or hop in a colectivo (shared van) and make the trip in 90 minutes for about $70 round trip (bestday.com, olympus-tours.com).
David Swanson wrote the "Affordable Caribbean" column for Caribbean Travel & Life magazine for 15 years.
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