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Secret Paradise: Forgotten Gems of the Caribbean 12

To many around the world, the Caribbean encapsulates the idea of picture-perfect tropical paradise. Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua and Tobago are all household names and well-beaten tracks in Caribbean travel and with over 7,000 individual islands spread over a total of 28 different nations and territories, there is no shortage of choice for paradise-seekers looking to spend their days in a state of dreamy relaxation, on the beach sipping rum from a coconut or taking a dip in some of the most pristine waters on the planet. In a given year, the Caribbean welcomes upwards of 25 million visitors and while its glitzy resorts are among the most desired travel destinations in the world, the island region has so much more to offer than the standard platinum-sanded beaches, crystalline waters and technicolour coral reefs. Less than ten percent of the region is inhabited, with no two islands being the same and this makes for an astounding and infectious explosion of colour, flavour, cultural fusion and variety which is even more intoxicating than the Caribbean's world famous rum and coconut liqueur. From Providencia to the Grenadines, checking out marching armies of crustaceans, swashbuckling pirate hideouts and rainbows of colourful spice on display in creole markets along the way, we explore some of the Caribbean's most alluring and dreamiest lesser-known gems.

Providencia, Providencia y Santa Catalina, Colombia

Feb 13 2007

Just under eight hundred kilometres northwest of the city of Barranquilla on the Colombian mainland and roughly equidistant between Jamaica and mainland Costa Rica, the island of Providencia is one of the Caribbean's real undiscovered gems. Providencia is virtually on another planet compared to the glitzy package-holiday resorts of Barbados, Jamaica and the Caribbean's other more famous destinations, yet the island still manages to pack in all of the iconic colourful Caribbean culture and scenery with some of the region's best and most pristine beaches, crystalline azure waters and thick interior forest making its claim of being the Caribbean's true paradise all the more convincing. The island is geographically closer to Nicaragua than Columbia and its Creole English-speaking Raizal locals mean that Providencia is more culturally attached to the rest of the Caribbean than the Latin American mainland. What makes Providencia one of the Caribbean's most least-visited destinations is how difficult the island is to access. The tiny El Embrujo Airport provides the only air access to Providencia and the only transportation comes in the form of charter flights or catamaran ride from the larger San Andrés island, ninety kilometres to the south. On Providencia itself, the only local transportation is provided by volunteer drivers, known as 'Los Leonardos', who circle the island in open-air pickup trucks and collect passengers where they need to.

Providencia, Providencia y Santa Catalina, Colombia

Jun 12 2011

Famous for being a hideout for pirates and privateers, the hilltops of the island are studded with rusting and weathered cannons left over from the island's time as a buccaneer stronghold in the seventeenth century and Providencia is connected to the tiny Santa Catalina Island by a colourfully-painted and one hundred-metre long wooden footbridge across a shallow ocean channel. Crab Cay, another of Providencia's minniscule rocky outcrops, is naturally sheltered by the coral reef of the surrounding McBean Lagoon and is accessible only by dinghy trip. The islet is renowned for its mangoes, coconuts and a unique pear-shaped fruit, known as 'Seven Year Apples', and Crab Cay, or Cayo Cengrejo in Spanish, in all likelihood takes its name from some of Providencia's most famous residents. Similar to the annual migration of the Red Crabs of Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean, Providencia has its own army of Black Crabs which make their way from their burrows in the hills down to the sea to lay their eggs during the wet season. Providencia's Black Crabs are the only crustaceans on the planet to have their own official military escort, as the special nighttime 'Crab Watch Division' of the Colombian army steps in to usher crab convoys across the roads to keep them safe from speeding mopeds.

Grote Knip Beach, Curaçao

May 5 2009

1,300 kilometres east of Providencia and sixty five kilometres off the coast of Venezuela, Curaçao is part of both the Dutch Caribbean and the the Lesser Antilles archipelago. The name 'Ilha do Curaçao' was given to the island by Portuguese explorers in the sixteenth century and literally means 'Island of Healing'. The story goes that sailors who had contracted scurvy on the long voyage across the Atlantic were left on the island. The afflicted Portuguese sailors are thought to have gorged themselves on the Vitamin C of Curaçao's vast supplies of tropical fruit and when their fellow sailors returned for them, their scurvy was cured. With a total of 35 stunning tropical beaches and a staggeringly diverse and vibrant heritage which fuses together elements from over fifty different cultures including Creole, Dutch, French and Afro-Caribbean, Curaçao is often said to be the 'Best Kept Secret of the Caribbean'.

Handelskade, Willemstad, Curaçao

Aug 8 2013

Today's Curaçao showcases some of the most colourful and photogenic colonial architecture in the whole of the Caribbean. The island's capital, Willemstad, is home to a historic district made up of four 'quarters' - Punda, Otrobanda, Scharloo and Pietermaai - which combine to form one big historical relic left over from Curaçao's colonial heyday as the headquarters of the Dutch West India Company. Willemstad's Historic District spans the inner city and the Schottegat Harbour and is an architectural melting pot of Dutch-style town-planning and Creole, Caribbean and South American influences as well as being home to the Curaçao Synagogue, the first Jewish religious complex ever established in the New World. Willemstad's most famous snapshot are the rainbow-coloured Dutch colonial housing blocks which sit above the deep water of the Sint Annabaai channel and which were once the residences and offices of Dutch West India Company officials.

Magens Bay, Saint Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Jun 16 2015

Part of the US Virgin Islands archipelago, the paradise isle of Saint Thomas is home to one the most idyllic and dreamy beaches on the planet. Sandwiched between Peterborg Peninsula and Tropaco Point on the island's central coast, just north of the capital and largest settlement of Charlotte Amalie, Magens Bay naturally receives stiff competition from the rest of the beaches in the Caribbean but its pristine white sands and almost milky-blue azure waters mean that it frequently finds itself in top ten lists of the best beaches in the world. So famous is Magens Bay that the it also provided the backdrop to scenes in the Twilight Saga movie series and the beach is renowned across the Caribbean for its conch shell diving and turtle spotting as well as being a mecca for anglers seeking the elusive Tarpon and Bonefish.

Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Jun 10 2011

After the Danish conquered the island in 1666, supplanting the Dutch and establishing the Danish West India Company in the process, Saint Thomas became a sugarcane boom island in the brutal and barbaric Atlantic Slave Trade. The British took control of Saint Thomas in 1807 before it was returned to the Danish in 1815 and the Danish Revolution of 1848 brought with it the official end of slavery on the island. In 1917, Saint Thomas was purchased by the US government for 25 million dollars, which was paid to the Danish in solid gold, and the island's flag as seen today takes its inspiration from the official US presidential seal. Today, stone structures resembling a cross between a castle turret and a honey pot can be found clustered around Saint Thomas' biggest town of Charlotte Amalie. These ex-sugar mills are the last remaining relics and reminders of one of the darker chapters of the Caribbean's history in the slave-dependent West Indian sugarcane trade and in a typically colourful and creative Caribbean twist, some of the inhabitants of Charlotte Amalie have pushed the slave trade further into the past by transforming some of the decaying sugar mills into permanent residences.

Little Trunk Bay, Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands

Dec 14 2005

After Tortola and Anegada, Virgin Gorda is the third largest of the British Virgin Islands and the island's Spanish name is said to have been coined by Christopher Columbus, who upon seeing the it from the deck of the Santa Maria during his first voyage to the New World in 1492, thought that the island resembled an overweight woman lying on her side in the middle of the open ocean. Virgin Gorda is also steeped in the romanticised mythology of piracy and privateering as in 1595, the island acted as the meeting place of Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins as they planned out their strategy for a raid on then-Spanish Puerto Rico. The raid never took place and legend has it that Virgin Gorda is the last place in which Drake stood on land before dying at sea in 1596. Today, Spanish Town is the main commercial and administrative settlement on Virgin Gora and the island is renowned for having some of the Caribbean's best watersport and yachting locations.

The Baths, Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands,

Dec 14 2005

Virgin Gorda is also home to geological feature which is completely unique from the rest of the Caribbean. Between Spring Bay and Devil's Bay in the south of the island, just over one mile south of Spanish Town, The Baths is a beach area studded with humongous granite boulders which were once smouldering pillars of volcanic magma. Volcanic activity is responsible for the vast majority of the geography of the British Virgin Islands and The Baths tell the geological story of Virgin Gorda. Some of the largest boulders seen on the beach today reach up to a colossal forty metres in diameter and over millions of years, natural sea erosion of granite and further volcanic activity have formed the ocean grottoes, tunnels, tidal pools and rock arches which make The Baths one of the premier snorkelling and diving in both the British Virgin Islands as well as the entire of the Caribbean.

Anse du Souffleur Beach, Port-Louis, Guadeloupe

Mar 9 2011

Guadeloupe is one of the the most vibrant and varied archipelagos in the whole of the Caribbean one of the most of evocative stories in the entire region has it that the two main islands, Grande Terre and Basse Terre, as well as the stretch of ocean between them, resemble the spread wings and the body of a butterfly as it hovers over a tropical mangrove swamp. Guadeloupe is an overseas territory of France and before Europeans arrived during the Age of Discovery, the island group was inhabited by South American and Caribbean natives known as the Arawak people who named Guadeloupe 'Karukera', which literally means 'Islands of the Beautiful Waters'. The two main islands highlight Guadeloupe's vibrant and colourful variety, with Grande Terre home to idyllic and dreamy Caribbean resort towns, turquoise waters and pristine beaches and the famously wild and rugged Basse Terre dominated by the emerald green peak of La Soufrière volcano.

Saint-Antoine Market, Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe

Sep 2 2015

On the southwestern coast of Grande Terre, the economic capital and largest settlement of Pointe-à-Pitre is famous for showcasing Guadeloupe's colourful, exotic and unique Creole and French-Caribbean culture and nowhere is this more visible than in the city's central Saint-Antoine Market. Known to the locals of Pointe-à-Pitre as Marché Saint-Antoine, the open-air pavilion is a listed French historical and cultural monument and with its dazzling and mouth-watering array of Caribbean island spices, the market is one of the aromatic and evocative places in the entire region. Pointe-à-Pitre's locals say that of Saint-Antoine Market's wafting scent of cinnamon, vanilla and paprika can be smelt wherever you are in Guadeloupe and the sellers and merchants are known as 'Doudous'. Mostly made up of local women, the doudous can often be seen decked out in their trademark orange dresses and madras headscarves and, in addition to the mind-boggling array of spices, the market is famous for offering wooden handicrafts made using the bark and branches of Bois Bande, a species of tree found in the Caribbean and northern Brazil whose wood is said to be a potent aphrodisiac, hence its playfully tongue-in-cheek nickname of the 'Erection Tree'.

Carriacou, Grenadines

Feb 25 2007

The largest of Grenada's Grenadine Islands, Carriacou is another of the Caribbean's over seven thousand islands which is often forgotten and overlooked. The island is famous for having some of the most extensive and colourful coral reef ecosystems on earth and when native Amerindians from northern South America arrived on the island between 500 and 1000 AD, they christened it 'Kayryouacou', a name which literally translates to 'The Land of the Reefs'. Since then, Carriacou has seen seen piracy and privateering, been the subject of French and British colonial desire in the Seven Years War between 1756 and 1763 and acted as the Caribbean jewel in the imperial crown of King Louis XIV of France, who bought the island from an adventurer named Jacques du Parquet in 1664 for the equivalent of 2340 US Dollars. Today, the beaches of Carriacou, most notably Anse La Roche, Tyrell Bay and Paradise Beach, are some of the best renowned spots in the Caribbean for coral reef diving and turtle watching.

View to Hillsborough, Carriacou

Aug 6 2007

Carriacou's largest settlement, Hillsborough, is located on the central-western coast of the island and the town acts as a colourful and storied mix of West African-inspired festivals, sugar mill ruins and rusting French colonial cannon batteries. With no luxury hotels and none of the glitzy package holiday resorts which can be found elsewhere in the region, Hillsborough is a snapshot of how the Caribbean was before the hotel magnates arrived and accommodation comes in the form of French Caribbean and Creole-style guesthouses on uncrowded and pristine beaches. Hillsborough is the only significant town on the island on Carriacou and the rusting cannons which can be seen in the ridges and hills above town are testament to the island's history of European colonial desire and in 1796, the town acted as the staging point for a British attack on mainland South America, then under the control of the Spanish. Paterson Street, in the centre of Hillsborough, is home to an old cotton-gin mill and Carriacou's history as a notorious rum-running island led to it becoming one of the filming locations for the globally popular Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. Image Credit: Lloyd Morgan (Flickr)

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