GETTING THERE

Nonstop flights make Caribbean, Bahamas just a hop away

 

While airlines are cutting flights from other parts of the country, South Florida is actually getting new service.

 
This old monastery tops Cat Island's tallest peak at an altitude of 206 feet.
This old monastery tops Cat Island's tallest peak at an altitude of 206 feet.

jclarke@MiamiHerald.com

Getting to the sandy beaches of a Caribbean or Bahamian island is getting easier for South Floridians.

More nonstop flights than ever from Miami and Fort Lauderdale will speed vacationers to their island destinations this fall. While some islands still can only be reached with a change in planes, the days when almost every Caribbean-bound flight went through a hub city are gone.

With the economy in a downturn, airlines have sharply reduced service from other United States cities to the Caribbean, but not from South Florida.

''We are not only holding steady with our Caribbean schedule, but we are increasing it,'' said Martha Pantin, director of corporate communications for American Airlines, the largest carrier to the Caribbean. ``We believe the Caribbean continues to be an attractive destination for U.S. travelers, especially in light of the cost of the euro and pound.''

American is adding new flights from Miami to Antigua in September and to Grenada in November, and is increasing service to St. Kitts to daily on Nov. 3. That means the airline will serve 27 of the 29 nonstop flights to the islands from Miami.

In Fort Lauderdale the story is different. The nonstop count is 24, divided among several airlines. The most destinations are served by Spirit with 11, Continental Connection with 10 and Lynx Air with nine.

Service reductions are few. American has quit flying from Fort Lauderdale to San Juan and Nassau, and Spirit has dropped Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands. But both Spirit and Caribbean Airlines have added service to Trinidad in the past three months, and Zoom Airlines launched twice-weekly Fort Lauderdale-Bermuda nonstop service in June.

As for cost of air travel to the islands, it is impossible to predict what it will be in the months ahead, though the general trend is that fares everywhere are on the rise because of soaring fuel costs. ''We cannot assume anything regarding fares [to the Caribbean] -- some might be lower, some higher and some stable,'' said American's Pantin.

Here are short updates of some of the island destinations you can reach nonstop from South Florida:

BARBADOS

Via American

from Miami

Cricket is the national sport, traffic drives on the left and the literacy rate is the highest in the Caribbean (and higher than the United States). Barbados is the most English of all the Caribbean islands, except that rum, not tea, is the national drink.

Among new features awaiting travelers is the recently reopened Harrison's Cave, the island's most popular attraction; the spruced-up Casuarina Beach Resort, winding up a $30 million expansion; and a renovated Oistins Fish Market, site of a famous weekend fish fry.

Information: Barbados Tourism Authority, 305-442-7471; www.barbados.org.

BERMUDA

Via AA from Miami,

Zoom from Fort Lauderdale

Pink-sand beaches, tony boutiques, classy pink hotels -- these are the hallmarks of Bermuda, the upscale British island in the Atlantic that long has been a favorite haunt of well-to-do vacationers from America's Northeast. Now, with nonstop flights from both Miami and Fort Lauderdale, more South Floridians can enjoy the charms of this temperate isle.

For one, they can don Bermuda Shorts, which were invented here. Sample the national drink, a Dark and Stormy, made of dark rum and ginger beer. Take high tea, offered in many hotels. Walk through a moongate -- a limestone arch that is said to grant everlasting happiness to those who pass through it.

No rental cars are allowed here, but taxis are everywhere and the terrific public bus system gets you all around the island. (Even visiting golfers use it, clubs and all). If you live dangerously, you can rent a scooter.

OK, maybe pink sand is hard to find, but you'll have fun looking for it.

Information: Bermuda Dept. of Tourism, 800-BERMUDA, www.bermudatourism.com.

BIMINI, BAHAMAS

Via Continental Connection and Lynx Air

from Fort Lauderdale

Just 50 miles from South Florida, this funky island features a fascinating history. Rum runners used it as a base for jaunts to Miami during Prohibition. Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote there in the 1930s. Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's presidential bid was derailed when photos of he and model Donna Rice in a cosy pose in Bimini were published.

Hemingway's favored hangout was the Compleat Angler, a hotel whose treasure of Hemingway memorabilia regrettably was lost when it burned to the ground a few years ago.

Bimini today is a favored getaway spot for South Floridians, who find equal pleasure in roaming along Alice Town's funky main street, trolling the surrounding waters for big game fish, and enjoying spectacular diving.

Bimini Bay Resort and Marina, which opened a major resort few years ago in North Bimini, has expanded with a pool, spa and convention center; a casino is in the works.

Information: Bahamas Tourist Office, 800-BAHAMAS; www.bahamas.com.

CAT ISLAND, BAHAMAS

Via Continental Connection and Lynx Air

from Fort Lauderdale

Cat Island, in the central Bahamas, is much less known than other Bahamian tourist centers such as Nassau and Grand Bahama island. But much of the Bahamas' music and folklore originated on the island, which once was a prosperous British colony with numerous cotton plantations.

It also possesses the highest point in the Bahamas chain, a 206-foot hill topped with a monastery that provides a marvelous view of Cat's woodlands and 60 miles of beach.

You won't much of the trappings of mass tourism here -- no huge hotels, traffic jams or hordes of shoppers. This is a place to wind down, to smell the roses, to lay back in pleasant surroundings -- not a bad combination.

Information: Bahamas Tourist Office, 800-BAHAMAS; www.bahamas.com.

GRENADA

Via American from Miami

beginning Nov. 2

They call Grenada the ''Spice Island'' because so many savory seasonings are grown there, but most visitors come for its beaches. In particular they flock to the lovely crescent called Grand Anse. Its sands are golden, the Caribbean waters are clear and gentle, and many of the island's top hotels, understandably, line the shore.

Many new tourist developments, however, are under way here and elsewhere on the island as it works to recover from the terrible beating it took from Hurricane Ivan in 2004. One of them is a 550-acre Four Seasons resort that will become that company's largest. Also under construction are resort homes, some selling for as much as $3.5 million.

Part of Grenada's charm is its lush vegetation, nestled in rivers, waterfalls and rainforests. Nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cacao and cinnamon grow riotously here, and spice plantations tours are on many tourist agendas.

Information: Grenada Board of Tourism, 800-927-9554; www.grenada.mot.gd.

MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA

Via AA and Air Jamaica from Miami,

Air Jamaica and Spirit

from Fort Lauderdale

A new Jamaican playground for tourists is growing in the Rose Hall area of Montego Bay, where several major developments are nearing completion.

Heading for a November opening is Solis, The Palmyra Resort and Spa, a complex that includes a hotel, a resort village with 500 condos and villas, spa and convention center. Opening in November as well in the region is a new 350-room hotel, Phase II of Grupo Iberostar's 950-room all-inclusive development. Also under construction is the Jamaican government's new $51-million, 300,000-square-foot Montego Bay Convention Center, scheduled to open in December of next year.

In Montego Bay itself, the new Hotel RIU Montego Bay will open its doors Aug. 29. The all-inclusive complex will have 681 rooms, all with balconies or terraces.

Information: Jamaica Tourist Board, 305-665-0557; www.visitjamaica.com.

PUNTA CANA, D.R.

Via AA and Lan from Miami,

Spirit from Fort Lauderdale

There seems to be no end to growth of Punta Cana as a favored Caribbean destination. Luxury developments like Roco Ki and Cap Cana are opening this year and Four Seasons, Fairmont, Ritz Carlton and Westin also will be coming on the scene later. New golf courses also on springing up, nudging the Dominican's east coast toward becoming the golf capital of the Caribbean.

And making the getting there easier, the highway from the capital city of Santo Domingo to Punta Cana is undergoing improvements that will cut travel time from 3 ½ hours to just two.

Information: Dominican Republic Tourist Office, 305-444-4592; www.dominicana.com.do.

ST. CROIX, U.S.V.I.

Via American Airlines

from Miami

Sister island St. Thomas gets more attention, but bigger St. Croix is a charmer as well. Christiansted, former capital of the Danish West Indies, wears its heritage well and has dozens of shops offering perfumes, china, crystal and jewelry. Just offshore is Buck Island and its famous underwater marine park. Frederiksted, on the west coast, is also a cruise port and lies close to a rain forest.

Under Danish rule, St. Croix was a rich sugar-producing island and you can still see windmills, beautiful great houses and churches from that period. The island's landscape varies widely, from lush forests to dry plains.

St. Croix has a unique advantage over most other Caribbean islands: It's a U.S. territory, so American travelers don't need passports to visit there.

Information: U.S.Virgin Islands Tourism Office, 305-442-7200; www.usvitourism.vi.

ST. LUCIA

Via American Airlines

from Miami

Easily recognized by its dramatic Piton Mountains -- twin peaks that rise 2,000 feet above the island's southern coast -- St. Lucia is one of the most romantic Caribbean islands. Its lush landscapes, fine beaches and accommodations ranging from luxurious resorts to intimate inns have made it one of the region's most popular islands.

Several new luxury developments are coming on line. On Praslin Bay, the 600-acre Le Paradis Beach, Golf and Marina Resort with a Greg Norman golf course is scheduled to open this fall. Recently opened on Rodney Bay, the five-star Landings at St. Lucia offers 62 suites, a RockResorts spa, yacht harbor and other amenities. Phase II with additional lodgings and facilities will open this fall. Opened just last month was Cap Maison, a boutique hotel and residence complex on the north shore looking across to neighborning Martinique. In the offing next year: A new Ritz-Carlton on Half Moon Bay and a huge Raffles resort.

More adventurous visitors can go zip-lining through the rain forest, walk amid bubbling sulphur pools on Mount Soufriere, the world's only drive-in volcano, go hiking or biking on the island's many trails.

Information: St. Lucia Tourist Board, 212-867-2950; www.stlucia.org.

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