For those who have never been – or for those who go to the same island, year in, year out – there is only one Caribbean: a substantial thatched resort, combed white-sand beaches, a marina or two filled with expensive yachts, a hammock strung between palm trees, soft calypso music, mildly spicy, coconut-scented fish dishes, and the polite sounds of a cricket match, somewhere over there. To access this classic experience, a direct flight to Antigua or Barbados will do the trick, or, if we’re feeling daring, Montego Bay and a transfer to one of Jamaica’s gated camps.
In fact, there are many kinds of Caribbean holiday. Even British Airways – long the purveyor of post-colonial routes and tried-and-tested, somewhat tame, experiences – has woken up to this. As of March 2023, the airline will fly from London Gatwick to Aruba.
An established favourite among Latin America’s middle-classes and US residents fleeing winter, the former Dutch colony – now “a constituent country” of the Netherlands – is a bit bigger than Liechtenstein and famous for wreck diving, as well as snorkelling. Usually, only experienced divers get to explore wrecks but on Aruba snorkellers can take a boat out to the SS Antilla – one of the largest shipwreck dive in the Caribbean – and float about while admiring the coral formations, sea turtles, tropical fish and orange anemones.
Many package tourists to Aruba traditionally opt for all-inclusive resorts, but there are B&Bs, villas and small hotels in the compact capital, Oranjestad. From there it’s easy to arrange visits to cactus-filled scrublands, limestone peaks, caves and cliffs, and historic sites like Fort Zoutman, an 18th-century port built to keep pirates at bay.
In the same month, BA is also launching flights to Georgetown in Guyana – a route not available since BOAC’s 707 service back in the 1960s. This former British colony offers an altogether different kind of Caribbean – and not simply because it’s not an island. Sure, there’s cricket, rum and Red Stripe, but the capital is a bustling mish-mash of modern and plantation architecture, plus an Anglican cathedral, a city park with manatees and botanical gardens. The name of Stabroek Market alludes to the old Dutch colony of Demerara; the river of that name flows beneath the market’s wooden decking.
But Guyana really comes alive away from the city, with pristine rainforest covering 80 per cent of the country’s territory, more than 900 bird species as well as tapir, giant otter, armadillos, and large rodents like the paca and agouti. Immense tabletop mountains called tepuis dominate the western border with Venezuela, and Kaieteur Falls is one of the world’s most impressive single-drop waterfalls. Jungle lodges and canopy walks open up the edges of the wilderness, but serious birders and wildlife-spotters will want to plunge deep into the forested uplands.
BA is hedging its bets. The Aruba flight will make a stop at Antigua, the Guyana service at St Lucia. Those who can’t clamber out of the familiar hammock can get off before anything new happens to them – but the smart money will perhaps be on twin-destination holidays. A new direct flight to Port of Spain in Trinidad is also launching on March 26, sadly too late for the island’s famous carnival, but still a new direct destination that will be welcome to UK-based Trinibagonians as well as holidaymakers.
All of the above is good news for Latin America, too, after more than two years of disruption. But it’s high time British travellers took a fresh look at the whole Caribbean region. After all, this was the part of the world where the Spanish adventure in Latin America began, and the island groups are rich in history and culture. Belize – easily arrived at via a two-and-a-half-hour flight from Miami – is another undersold Caribbean country.
Home to the second-largest reef system in the world and with a uniquely multi-ethnic population, made up of Mayans, Garifuna, Creole, East Indian, Mennonite and mestizo groups. The mainland has beaches and montane forests and several of the offshore cayes offer high-end accommodation. There are also smart beach resorts on Roatan off the coast of Honduras and all along the Yucatan peninsula’s Caribbean shoreline.
Dominica – named by Spain, colonised by the French and then the British, free since 1978 – is an oft-overlooked island that is popular with walkers due to its verdant – and dormant – volcanoes. The 115-mile Waitukubuli Trail is a kind of Pennine Way through paradise, with high-drop waterfalls, thermal springs and beaches en route. It’s split into 14 sections so people can pick and choose, and mix hikes up with other activities. River tubing, and snorkelling and diving, are also popular, or people can take it easy and admire the parrots, hummingbirds and orchids.
South America has a Caribbean seaboard beyond Guyana too. The FCDO advises against “all but essential travel” to Venezuela – which has the longest stretch of it, including the once-popular island of Margarita – but Cartagena de Indias on Colombia’s Caribbean coast is one of the most romantic and historically rich cities in the Americas, well worth more than a cruise stop. It will be hosting the Hay festival again in January 2023. It’s also the gateway to the islands of San Andrés, a favourite with the Medellin and Bogotá monied classes, and tiny Providencia – formerly Providence Island, established by English puritans in 1630 and a key hideaway for English privateers targeting galleons carrying silver from Spain’s imperial mines.
The most exciting news of all is that, from December 2023, AmaWaterways – in association with respected local tour firm Metropolitan Touring – will bring luxury river cruising to Colombia’s Magdalena River. A purpose-built, 80-passenger, all-suite, eco-friendly ship will link the Caribbean to the unexplored hinterlands – familiar to anyone who has read (or seen the film adaptation of) Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. Hitherto, only intrepid backpackers and travel writers – such as the late, great Michael Jacobs – have explored this storied river. Now it has the potential to become a really magical bucket-list winter break.
How to do it
British Airways (ba.com) will operate two flights per week to Guyana via St. Lucia, from £524 return, and two flights per week to Aruba via Antigua, from £595 return. Flights to Trinidad will be direct, three times per week, from £500. All depart from London Gatwick.
To fly to Colombia, the quickest route for London and the southeast is the direct Avianca (avianca.com) flight from London Heathrow to Bogotá; returns from around £770. For other travellers, Delta (delta.com) flights via Atlanta could be speedier and cheaper.