Yeah, sure, the economy is bouncing back and we’re feeling flush, primed for a five-star tropical escape.
Or maybe the dividends of a rebounding stock market haven’t trickled down to your pocketbook quite yet? Perhaps a frugal vacation profile still makes sense? You’ll get no argument from me. But as winter looms on the horizon and travelers line up for Caribbean holidays, sorting through all the island options for the best values can be a challenge.
Five Caribbean destinations rise to the top of the list when it comes to bang for your buck — modest airfares, bargain hotels and solid dining that won’t decimate your wallet.
PORT ANTONIO, JAMAICA
A bohemian aura still pervades lush Port Antonio, the rustic backwater of Jamaica’s east end. Admittedly, some of the hotels are frayed at the edges and downtown is charismatically dilapidated, but the area oozes charm and authenticity — it’s Jamaica before the mega-hotels and cruise ships. Hideaway beaches like Winifred and Long Bay recall the laid-back Negril of the 1970s. Jerk cooking was born here — chicken, ribs and fish bathed in fiery scotch bonnet peppers and spices and slow-grilled over pimento wood and served on paper plates from humble shacks lining the road at Boston Bay. Bamboo raft journeys, originally used to transport bananas from field to port, 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 Café (876-993-7270), is an appealing retreat for grilled lobster and burgers, overlooking the resplendent cove. The resort charges a beach access fee of $8 per person.
Tried and True: At Goblin Hill Villas (www.goblinhillvillas.com; 876-925-8108), 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 hotel rates are for doubles in low season).
Logistics: Plentiful airline service makes Jamaica perhaps the region’s cheapest target, but reaching Port Antonio takes extra effort — the town is a four-hour drive from Montego Bay or 2 1/2 hours from Kingston. Rent a car for the scenic journey from Island Car Rentals (866-978-5335 or 876-929-4429; www.islandcarrentals.com); rates online start at $33 per day.
PUNTA CANA, DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
With more than 4.3 million visitors in 2011, the Dominican Republic is the Caribbean’s top tourism destination. The country’s pursuit of tourist dollars began in the 1970s with the development of European-owned all-inclusive hotels, and for many years the vast majority of visitors were budget-conscious Canadians and Europeans. Today Americans lead the charge, most of them aiming for the shores of Punta Cana and adjoining Bávaro. Here the palm-lined sandscape stretches, almost unbroken, for more than 40 miles, with sprawling all-inclusive resorts lining the shore.
What’s New: The 822-room Now Larimar Punta Cana (www.nowresorts.com; 877-669-9953) is a family-friendly all-inclusive that opened last year. The resort is set on a good stretch of beach and has three pools, seven restaurants and live music daily. Through Dec. 22, a rate of $145 per person is available, including taxes and gratuities and a $200 resort credit (ask for the Triple Play promotion).