Travel: Champagne islands (on a beer budget)

  • Article by: DAVID SWANSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 19, 2009 - 12:29 AM

At five of the Caribbean's most luxurious destinations, low season means sunny deals.

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St. Bart's

Photo: David Swanson, Special to the Star Tribune

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Today's travel non-news: Cheap destinations are in vogue. We all know why, and Caribbean outposts like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Mexico with their abundant good deals and all-inclusive options deserve this moment in the sun.

But before you settle for a bargain-basement package at a resort where the swim-up pool bar is the star amenity, consider this: Mid-April marks the start of the Caribbean's low season, when value comes out to play, even on the most expensive islands. Until mid-December, when high season rates kick in again, you'll find hotel deals region-wide.

Sure, it helps to pack a well-endowed wallet when you land on St. Bart's in February. But you don't have to in low season. Just follow our advice.

Here are five of the Caribbean's most expensive destinations, and for each a "sensible" hotel option priced under $120 a night this summer and a "splurge" priced $230 and under.

Anguilla

Mile after mile of silky white sand rings this slumbery isle, one of the smallest outposts of the British Empire. What you won't find is a surfeit of attractions and activities -- there's little in the way of shopping, gambling or colorful island culture to distract you from a pursuit of sun, sea and sand. But the island has a fleet of swank resorts that set the pace to an investment banker's whims -- what Travel & Leisure calls "arguably the Caribbean's highest concentration of luxury properties." Is there room at the inn for the rest of us?

Strategies: Fortunately, Anguilla's best attraction is free: the beaches. Plan your visit for low season and you'll find most hotels drop rates 40 percent or more. If airline prices direct to Anguilla seem high, consider flying in to nearby St. Maarten -- a $20 taxi transfer takes you to the Marigot port and a 20-minute ferry hop to Anguilla costs $15 per person. There are great (and pricey) restaurants, but you can keep the tab moderate by investing in accommodations with a kitchen. Check into takeout from Fat Cat Gourmet (www.fatcat.ai), where sandwiches and salads by the pound are priced under $10.

Sensible: A short walk from Anguilla's dock, Ferryboat Inn has seven units that sit close to an excellent, uncrowded beach facing St. Martin. Accommodations include two spacious one-bedroom apartments plus a quartet of 1,200-square-foot one-bedroom apartments in a two-story building (with two bathrooms each, these larger units are suitable for four people). The apartments are $99 to $115 in summer plus 20 percent tax/service (www.ferryboatinn.ai).

Splurge: One of Anguilla's most splendid strands is Meads Bay, but you don't have to sell off your firstborn to stay at 24-unit Carimar Beach Club, where individually owned condos are snuggled around a tended garden. The one- and two-bedroom units have full kitchens; all have a view of the sea. One-bedroom units start at $200, plus 20 percent tax/service (1-800-235-8667; www.carimar.com).

You won't find a warmer welcome than the Bajan one, from the island that represents the Caribbean's most irrefutable link to the spirit of England. Toss in miles of velvety white sand beaches, a flourishing restaurant scene, an array of museums and sightseeing opportunities, and Barbados is revealed as one of the region's most well-rounded objectives.

Strategies: Despite some name-drop crowds, Barbados reaches out to visitors of all budgets, with affordable lodging concentrated along the south coast, just east of Bridgetown, the capital. Good beaches, watersports, moderately priced dining and nightlife options are found along the two-mile stretch surrounding pedestrian-friendly St. Lawrence Gap. The island also has extensive bus transportation, so you can get by without renting a car or jumping into a pricey taxi every day -- the fare is just 75 cents per trip. In low season obtain the free Barbados Gourmet Card for a 25 percent discount at more than 20 restaurants (www.barbadosgourmetcard.com).

Sensible: Situated across the street from one of the island's most popular beaches, Southern Surf Beach Apartments is a four-story property facing busy Rockley Beach. The 12 rooms have been renovated in the past two years and feature air conditioning and sea-facing balconies. There's no elevator, so request a lower floor if stairs are an issue. There's a pool but no other facilities on-site; watersports operators and food vendors are usually in full force along the beach. Doubles are $120 to $130, including tax/service (www.southernsurfbarbados.com).

Splurge: A short walk from St. Lawrence Gap in the Worthing neighborhood, Blue Orchids Hotel is a three-story building that hugs the sand, with 31 rooms -- each with an ocean view -- ranging from studios with kitchens to one- and two-bedroom apartments. There's a small pool, a gym and a restaurant. Doubles start at $123 plus 17.5 percent tax/service, but check the hotel website for specials (www.blue orchidsbarbados.com).

Grand Cayman is famous for first-rate diving on plunging walls, a flock of stingrays tame enough to eat from your hands, and gleaming Seven Mile Beach.

Strategies: Although many of the island's restaurants are pricey, there are affordable options (hint: I've found the ex-pat staff working in hotels and dive shops can be a wealth of insider tips on how to dine inexpensively). You'll find public bus transportation along the island's main roads, for just $1.50 a trip. Also check out the family-friendly Cayman Summer Splash promotion that runs June 1 through Sept. 7: Kids fly free on Cayman Airways and at participating venues kids are admitted free to island attractions, ages 12-17 dive for free, and younger tikes eat from the children's menu free; plus the fifth night is complimentary at most island hotels.

Sensible: Located just north of George Town, the family-run Harbour View Apartments is the island's best buy. The 12 units range from studios with kitchenette to apartments with full kitchen facilities. Each room has a modicum of charm and at least a partial sea view, and the on-site owners are attentive. The shore in front is rocky, but a pier provides access for swimmers, and the grounds are sandy enough for sunning and socializing; town is a 10-minute walk. Doubles range from $89 to $125 (www. harbourviewapartments.com).

Splurge: While the tourism focus has long been on Seven Mile Beach, development of Grand Cayman's remote east end has increased. The 152-room Reef Resort is a well-run "mixed-use" property -- that is, privately-owned condos, timeshare and hotel rooms. Studios, the least expensive units, have a full kitchen, patio or balcony, and a view spanning the quarter-mile-wide beachfront. Slightly larger deluxe studios, plus one- and two-bedroom units are also available. Swimming at the beach can be a bit tumbled when the wind is up, and you'll want a rental car for island explorations (there's little within walking distance), but the Reef Resort offers a healthy dollop of tranquility for those looking to escape the fray of Seven Mile Beach. Doubles from $230 plus 10 percent tax (1-888-232-0541; www.thereef.com).

Blessed with a clutch of picture-perfect beaches, the Caribbean's best dining, and shopping that sizzles with Parisian haute couture, St. Bart's is the region's jet-settiest landing. While doing the island on the cheap may not be fashionable, it is possible. In the past year the dollar has gained ground against the euro, St. Bart's operative currency, so dollar-toting Americans will find prices almost 20 percent lower than a year ago.

Strategies: Renting a car is costly, but this is a petite isle, so a central location like St. Jean will allow you to walk to the beach and restaurants, St. Bart's principal lures. The cute Italian deli Kiki-é Mo charges $11 for delicious panini, while the seafood pizza at the Hideaway (aka Chez Andy) runs $17. The port town of Gustavia is another good base of operation.

Sensible: Located in Gustavia, Sunset Hotel overlooks the scenic harbor. There are 10 simply adorned rooms; try for one of the three facing the view (the others have only transom windows along the hallway). Loads of restaurants and shops are nearby, Shell Beach is a 10-minute walk, and the ferry from St. Martin docks right in front. Doubles are $95 to $103 plus 5 percent tax, with discounts for weeklong stays (www.saint-barths.com/sunset-hotel).

Splurge: Stay within shouting distance of the island's daytime social hub without breaking the bank at Village St. Jean, one of St. Bart's most endearing inns. The hillside location offers 25 rooms in stone and wood cottages above St. Jean Bay. Rooms range from six standard hotel units with twin beds and a mini-fridge to one- and two-bedroom cottages with full kitchens; all are adorned in bright colors and tiles. A pool and moderately priced restaurant round out the facilities. The bustling beach is a 10-minute walk down the hill. Doubles start at $176 including continental breakfast, plus 5 percent tax (www.villagestjeanhotel.com).

The French side has the lion's share of gourmet restaurants and a more elegant lifestyle; the Dutch side has more beaches, duty-free shopping and a dozen casinos. But no matter how one divvies up St. Martin -- the smallest territory in the world shared by two sovereign states -- anyone can take the best of both to create one memorable vacation.

Strategies: A mountain of infrastructure has emerged for the half-million overnight visitors the island receives annually, but because most come during high season, the island slashes rates during summer. One example is with car rental: In winter you can expect to pay $50 a day and up; in low season I head to car rental desks and routinely negotiate rates below $25 a day.

Island dining guides are flush with restaurant coupons and some French-side venues match euro pricing in dollars (about a 25 percent savings). In Grand Case, the Caribbean's ultimate restaurant row, you'll find lolos -- barbecue stands with chicken, ribs and more for under $10 a plate.

Sensible: Sandwiched between a long and uncrowded beach and the Dutch-side airstrip, Mary's Boon is a 36-room inn with a devoted following that doesn't mind the occasional roar of jets overhead midday. Least expensive rooms are lower-level studios that offer little view, but are spacious. Other units have balconies and great beach views. Cheerful plantation-theme decor and kitchenette are standard throughout. The pool is small but the beach is superb. Doubles start at $115 in May-July and drop to $75 in August-September, plus 20 percent tax/service (www.marysboon.com).

Splurge: Situated on a hillside behind Orient Beach -- the Caribbean's most colorful sun-and-sand scene -- Hotel La Plantation is an unpretentious, carefully landscaped French-side villa colony. The 17 gingerbread-fringed villas each have three units: two are studios with kitchenette, one is a suite with full kitchen. The beach is a seven- to 10-minute walk, and there's a restaurant serving dinner. The studios are $200 as a double including buffet breakfast, plus 5 percent tax; through August the fifth night is free (www. la-plantation.com).

San Diego-based freelance writer David Swanson is a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler and writes the "Affordable Caribbean" column for Caribbean Travel & Life magazine.

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