August 22, 2018

Caribbean, Bahamas & Mexico

Head to the tropics for rare wildlife encounters and island relaxation

By Elizabeth Armstrong and Jennifer Davoren

Vacations Magazine: Caribbean, Bahamas & Mexico
Soft Light/Fotolia
Rock on. A passion for music and its memorabilia has been a guiding force of the Hard Rock International brand since its first eatery in London hung a guitar from Eric Clapton on the wall in 1979. Thirty-eight years later, the beat goes on at 164 restaurants and 23 hotels worldwide, including four all-inclusive resorts in Mexico and the Dominican Republic. At these beachfront properties, guests can partake of The Sound of Your Stay, a complimentary program of musical amenities. Borrow a Fender guitar, pocket amp and headphones and make like Jimi Hendrix, or use portable DJ equipment to mix tracks. The all-inclusive pricing means your room, meals and drinks are covered in the upfront rate.

Book a suite atop the sea. Couples-only Sandals Royal Caribbean in Montego Bay, Jamaica, has long been a favorite destination among honeymooners, and now the all-inclusive resort has upped its romance game with the opening of overwater bungalows. Each luxe lodging floats on the aquamarine Caribbean and features a spacious deck with an infinity pool and soaking tub; pockets of glass flooring offer peeks at underwater scenes. You'll also enjoy the perks of a butler -- someone who can unpack your bags or arrange dinner in your suite.

Check into a brand-new resort. Riu Hotels and Resorts recently opened its third all-inclusive in Montego Bay. Riu Reggae occupies an inviting spot where guests can partake of complimentary snorkeling and kayaking in crystalline waters. Sip a pina colada at the swim-up bar, take a scuba diving lesson at the pool or work off buffet meals in the gym. On-site restaurants serve Asian, Italian and steakhouse fare; for an extra charge, have dinner on the beach near the surf.

Enter a volcano. At the eastern edge of the Caribbean, the lush and mountainous island of St. Lucia is home to one of the most active geothermal areas in the Lesser Antilles. Vacationers on a Royal Caribbean International cruise can sign up for an excursion that allows them to walk through the collapsed caldera of Sulphur Springs, said to be the world's only drive-in volcano. Park rangers lead tours past gurgling hot springs and hissing steam vents. Weeklong cruises on the Adventure of the Seas call at St. Lucia and are priced from $509.

Learn to wind- and kitesurf at Hadicurari Beach. Also known as Fisherman's Huts Beach, this stretch of sand is praised for reliable trade winds and calm, shallow seas that create ideal sporting conditions off the northwest coast of Aruba. Surf schools are available for beginners while more experienced athletes turn out for Aruba Hi-Winds, a five-day, gust-catching competition held here each July. Aruba Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino is a short walk south of Hadicurari, with both child-friendly and adults-only pools for added fun in the sun.

Go for an upscale all-inclusive. This type of resort sometimes is accompanied by a rowdy reputation -- must be the free-flowing cocktails and in-room minibars wrapped in the prepaid vacation price. The Iberostar Grand Hotel Bavaro offers a luxurious, adults-only haven with a touch of that playful spirit, from its all-suite accommodations (including swim-up rooms with direct patio-to-pool access) to its enticing nightlife (like a spot for drinks aboard a replica Spanish galleon).

Party with Bacardi. A series of shore excursions from Celebrity Cruises, Chef's Market Discoveries combine far-flung tasting tours and exclusive dining experiences. In the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, for instance, guests dive into Caribbean cuisine with a stop at Casa Bacardi for tips on mojito mixology and a meal at the on-site cantina, Georgina, where dishes often are invigorated by gourmet rums. The culinary lesson continues on the ship with a tour of the galley, followed by a chef's table dinner featuring island ingredients. Prices start at $449 for Celebrity's slate of springtime cruises with stops in Puerto Rico.

Embrace a new destination. With the 2014 re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations -- followed by the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana in 2015 -- travel companies have pounced on the opportunity to design trips for Americans eager to visit the Caribbean island. People-to-people cultural exchanges provide the framework for tours like "Cuba, Face to Face," a nine-day itinerary from Gate 1 Travel. Participants take a cooking class in Havana, walk the cobblestone streets of its old quarter with an architect and meet pottery artists in Trinidad. At a family restaurant known as a paladar, dine on Cuban specialties made from produce supplied by the owner's farm. With departures through December, this trip is priced from $4,449.

Call on the eastern Caribbean. Islands on the far edge of this picturesque sea often are overlooked by larger cruise lines, but the Seabourn Odyssey -- a six-star, all-suite ship with room for just 450 pampered guests -- is better able to maneuver its way to the pristine shores of Anguilla, the Grenadines and beyond. Weeklong itineraries depart Barbados or St. Maarten and, in between peaceful port calls, feature treats from top-deck yoga classes and poolside dance parties to high-end dining accompanied by complimentary wines. Prices start at $2,499 for March departures.

Swim with the pigs of Exuma. Amid the 365 islands that comprise the Bahamian archipelago of Exuma is Big Major Cay, home to about 20 feral but friendly pigs. They aren't native to the isle, and how their forerunners got there remains a mystery; one theory says they were shipwrecked castaways. They cool off in the calm water off Pig Beach and munch on healthy, natural treats (think lettuce and grapes) provided by visitors and the crews of passing yachts. Local outfitters provide outings to see these bathing beauties. Plan your porcine encounter while staying at Grand Isle Resort and Spa on Great Exuma.

Seek Bali in the Bahamas. Drop the kids (and maybe those grown-up kids at heart) at the 141-acre on-site water park and head for Mandara Spa, the therapeutic centerpiece of the Atlantis Paradise Island mega-resort. From bathing rituals and body polishes to deep-tissue massages, services take their cues from traditional Balinese techniques. Secure a day pass to enjoy complimentary use of other Mandara amenities, including hydrotherapy and cold plunge pools, saunas, steam rooms and aromatherapy areas.

Kick back in a cabana. Half Moon Cay, a private Bahamian island used by Carnival Cruise Line and Holland America Line, offers 9 miles of sugary sands and crystal-clear waters for swimming and snorkeling. But this is a private island, after all, and it would be a shame not to capitalize on its exclusivity, so consider retreating to your own personal cabana while docked here for the day. Fresh fruit and veggies, bottled water and soft drinks are provided in the cost of your rental, as are floating mats for stretching out in the surf. Upgrade to butler service and added perks include unlimited cocktails and a picnic lunch.

Burn calories in Cancun. Fitness amenities at Le Blanc Spa Resort challenge even the heartiest of all-inclusive dining menus. Spin class no match for that buttery langoustine you devoured at the on-site French fusion restaurant? Enroll in Le Blanc's heart-pumping aqua spin, with submerged stationary bikes adding more oomph to your workout. Feeling your hard-earned biceps go to waste while plopped next to the resort's infinity pools? Test your strength with a TRX suspension training session or a round of Pilates; guests also can sharpen their golf swing on a Jack Nicklaus signature course.

Greet friendly giants. Forget the protective cage. A swim with whale sharks comes with a no-bite guarantee, as the world's largest fish -- adults often range from 18 to 30 feet in length -- is a toothless filter feeder. Carnival offers a snorkeling excursion off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula in search of these gentle creatures, which gather here between May and September to feed in plankton-rich waters. It's available on select sailings of the Western Caribbean that call on Cozumel, with prices from $189 for four nights.

Center yourself in Los Cabos. These twin cities in Mexico are known for their tequila-fueled nightlife, but peaceful havens also await. At the all-inclusive Pueblo Bonito Pacifica Golf and Spa Resort, yoga is offered both in air-conditioned comfort and on a private beach, with crashing waves providing a soothing soundtrack to your practice. Meditation also is encouraged, as serene spots accented by swaying palms, cactuses and other desert topiary are spread around the property. Other perks of this property include wine-tasting seminars, dance lessons and poolside and oceanfront butler service.

Migrate with the monarchs. These distinctive orange-and-black butterflies flock south each winter, retreating from the U.S. and Canada to seek warmth in the mountainous forests of central Mexico. On G Adventures' 10-day "Mexico Monarch Butterfly Trail" guests receive guided tours of three nature reserves to commune with the tourists of the insect world, which often bunch together in colonies by the millions. Traveling round trip from Mexico City, the tour also makes time for hidden gems like Tzintzuntzan, a pre-Columbian ceremonial site built by enemies of the Aztec Empire. Prices start at $1,599 for three February departures.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in Winter 2017. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 338-4962 for current rates and details.


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