Most people think of the Caribbean as a playground for the rich – luxury resorts, cocktails on the beach, glamorous yachts – and it is, but if you take a dive under the surface you’ll find there’s a lot more going on besides.
The Eastern Caribbean is made up of a 600-mile long sweep of islands known as the Lesser Antilles. Collectively, they’re a mixture of African, European and East Indian influences and it’s possible to island hop between the cultural extremes. It’s a mecca for diving, tropical hikes with steamy craters and epic waterfalls and rich in colonial history. The area is home to many thriving and vibrant cities. It has been shaped by centuries of history and is the birthplace of numerous powerful and distinct cultures, languages and music.
There are five official currencies in the Eastern Caribbean, all with their own exchange rates, which can make things pretty confusing for island-hoppers. Luckily, though, the US dollar can also be used on virtually all of the islands just as easily, so this is certainly the preferable currency to have with you.
Check with your local exchange bureau for up to date conversions.
Nearly three million people reside in the Eastern Caribbean, a third of whom live on the island of Trinidad. The majority of these people are of African ancestry, descendants of the slaves who were brought in to work on the sugar plantations. The native Caribs were almost completely wiped out by the colonists, though around three thousand still live on the island of Dominica.
English is the primary language to be spoken on all of the islands except for the French West Indies; Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Barts and the French side of St Martin, where French is the main language to be used. Most locals speak either French Creole or patois.
The Eastern Caribbean lies in the tropics and consequently the temperature hardly varies all year round. It is hot and humid most of the time, although sea breezes from the east temper the humidity between January and April, making this the peak time to visit. The rainiest time is May to November.
The Eastern Caribbean is, in general, a healthy place. Difficulties you are most likely to come across health-wise are heat related if you are coming from a colder place, so a few days of restful acclimatisation could be advisable, as well as decent protection from the sun.
Part of the charm that the Eastern Caribbean holds comes from its potential variety; there is the opportunity to experience a diversity of cultures and environments in a single trip, as each of the islands has its own history, specialised activities and character.
Divers, hikers, colonial history buffs and sun-worshippers alike will need to choose their destinations carefully, to coincide with their own area of interest. There is a wealth of opportunity here for an active outdoors-type trip, and different islands have their own specialities, activity-wise.
Deep-sea fishing and sailing are popular Eastern Caribbean activities, as is diving. Diving and snorkelling are good throughout most of the Eastern Caribbean, particularly on Saba, Dominica, Tobago and the Grenadines.
Venues for windsurfing can be found mostly on the French islands, and gear can be rented on most of the main beaches in Guadeloupe, St Barts, Martinique, St Martin and Barbados. Barbados is also, uncharacteristically for the Eastern Caribbean, a decent spot for board surfers.
Hiking is very island-specific, and the smaller, low-lying islands have few trails, but higher, rainforested ones can be ideal. On lofty Dominica you can hike to waterfalls, a parrot sanctuary or a volcanic valley with a boiling lake. Guadeloupe and Martinique are similarly good for rainforest hiking, whilst Saba offers a more easy-access approach to hiking.
Apart from sporting activities, the islands of the Eastern Caribbean have a lot to offer. For a taste of what type of thing there is to explore, some of the most popular island locations are:
Trinidad is the Eastern Caribbean’s largest and most heavily populated island, but it is not nearly as touristy as most of the other islands. It does, however, contain a great range of ethnic diversity Moslem mosques and Hindu temples stand beside Anglican and Spanish churches, and the bustly capital, Port of Spain, comes alive as a massive street party during Carnival in March.
A twenty-minute flight north from Trinidad will take you to its sister island, Tobago. Tobago may be a twin island state with Trinidad but it has a completely different atmosphere. Famous for its unspoilt beaches, turquoise waters and laid back lifestyle, Tobago is the perfect post carnival comfort zone.
Tobago became a wealthy British colony through its coconut, sugar and cocoa plantations. When British control ended, though, in 1962, many plantations fell into disrepair whilst others were turned into guest houses.
Measuring only seven by twenty-six miles, Tobago is a tiny oasis with scores of undeveloped beaches, and with its strict building code it is considered to be one of the last unspoilt Caribbean islands. Some say Daniel Defoe used Tobago as the setting for his novel, Robinson Crusoe, and it is easy to see why.
Spanish explorers named Grenada after the city of Grenada in Spain. St George, Grenada’s capital, is thought to be the most beautiful colonial city in the whole of the Caribbean. It is certainly the liveliest place on the island and the fruit market in St George’s is legendary.
In 1979, the Peoples’ Revolutionary Government seized control of Grenada in a coup led by a Grenadian Lawyer called Maurice Bishop. With popular support and assistance from Cuba, Bishop began to reform the country.
In 1983, though, Grenada burst onto the world scene, when Bishop and some of his followers were brutally executed by government hard-liners. The country collapsed into violent upheaval until US and Caribbean forces intervened to restore order. The Cuban planes on local Pearls Air Field stand as a ghostly reminder to those days – days that people on the island cannot easily forget.
One of the least developed destinations in the Caribbean is Dominica. Christopher Columbus came across Dominica on his first voyage to the New World. The day Columbus arrived it was a Sunday, so he named the island Dominica, which means Sunday in Latin.
After Christopher Columbus came back from his second voyage to the New World, the King and Queen of Spain asked him to describe the island of Dominica to them. The story goes that Columbus took a piece of paper, crumpled it up, threw it on the table and said ‘that is Dominica’. What Columbus was referring to, of course, was the sharp mountainous folds which cover the island’s surface.
Barbados is the Easternmost island in the Caribbean and also the most British-influenced and touristy. There is a passion for well-kept gardens, Saturday cricket, Anglican churches and horse racing, but also some of the hottest calypso music and rum shops, showing a contrasting West-Indian flavour. Barbados’ popularity is partly due to its beautiful white-sand beaches and large range of places to stay and to eat.
Guadeloupe is at the centre of the Caribbean’s Creole culture – a blend of French and African influences. It looks like a butterfly and has some amazing topography including rainforest, the Eastern Caribbean’s highest waterfalls and La Soufriere, a smouldering volcano and the island’s highest peak.
St Martin is the world’s smallest land area to be owned by two countries. There is a Dutch side and a French side, with correspondingly different heritages, and around 540,000 holidaymakers a year. The island is quite over-crowded but is a good jumping-off point for visits to other islands.
Planet Food: Cuba
Private: Planet Food