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With its heady mix of Creole culture and French sophistication, there is more than a pinch of je ne sais quoi in Fort de France. The capital of Martinique, and by far the biggest city in the whole of the French West Indies, if you are looking for Paris in the Caribbean, you’ll find it in Fort de France.
The island has been under French govern since 1638 when the first governor of Martinique Jacques Dyel du Parquet commissioned a fort (from which the city takes its name) to keep out invaders. Not even an unsuccessful attack by the British in 1720, nor the French Revolution in 1789, has been able to shake the French govern of the island and today the city’s French and Creole heritage are impossible to untangle. The colonial past is everywhere, take a stroll down the narrow streets and enjoy the remarkable architecture of the Schœlcher Library, St. Louis Cathedral and the Old Town Hall. Among the many legacies Dyel du Parquet left on the island is sugarcane. A drive through the tropical forests will not only reward you with trees bending under the weight of papayas, mangoes and bananas, but will also afford superb vistas of the elegant plant swaying in the breeze. The arrival and subsequent export of sugar brought the French bourgeoisie in their droves and many of their mansions are still standing. Josephine de Beauharnais, the Napoleonic Empress of “not tonight” fame, hails from the island and those interested will find her childhood home, La Pagerie in nearby Trois Ilets.
Aruba, the smallest of the so-called ABC Islands, lies a mere 15 miles north of Venezuela. Like its sister islands, Bonaire and Curaçao, Aruba has scant vegetation. Its landscape consists mainly of scruffy bits of foliage, including cacti and the curious wind-bent divi-divi trees, huge boulders and interesting caves. The chief attractions are the magnificent beaches, turquoise waters and spectacular marine life, which lure scores of visitors each year to the island. Palm Beach is said to be one of the ten best beaches in the world. Here a string of hotels with glitzy casinos, restaurants and exotic boutiques line several miles of white sand beach. The crystal-clear waters are ideal for swimming and all kinds of watersports. If you prefer to stay dry, you may enjoy Aruba’s exotic underwater world on a submarine excursion.
Gold was discovered on the island in 1825, but by 1916 mining was no longer economical. In 1929 it was oil that brought prosperity to Aruba. A large refinery was built at the island’s eastern end, employing at that time over 8,000 people. When the refinery was closed in 1985, Arubans were forced to look for other sources of income, concentrating their efforts on the development of tourism. Today, education, housing and health care are largely financed by an economy based on tourism. Recognizing this fact, the island’s residents are sincere when they extend to visitors the greeting “Bonbini,” the native Papiamento word for “Welcome.”
Bright and brilliant colours coat the waterfront buildings of Willemstad, gleaming attractively below the generous Caribbean sun. The capital of the Carribean island Curacao, Willemstad is famous for its technicolour UNESCO World Heritage Site city centre, and a narrow channel connects the sea with the Schottegat harbour, which expands inland like a blooming flower. Settled by the Dutch in the 1630s, they brought colourful architecture, lavish red-roofed mansions, and gorgeous European-style waterfront buildings to this beautiful Caribbean island. View less
Watching over the entrance to this luxurious port is Rif Fort – a 19th-century fortress, which looms above the Sint Anna Bay channel. From here, wind your way to the Queen Emma Bridge – a pontoon bridge known as the Swinging Old Lady, which was built in 1888 to connect Otrobanda and Punda. Enjoy the wonderful views of Willemstad’s lavish, pastel-coloured Punda waterfront set before you. Visit the small boats that pull up side by side to sell juicy fruits and vegetables, in a floating market on the waters below. At sunset, the gingerbread stretch bathes in lights, glowing evocatively as the last of the evening’s light ebbs away. Wander Willemstad to discover the lemon-shaded Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, said to be the oldest synagogue in the Americas, see the historic liqueur distillery or head for Queen Wilhelmina Park – where the letters ‘DUSHI’ are spelt out in a standing sign. You’ll hear this word a lot – the island’s favourite way of describing the little things that make life worth living. The beaches of Curacao are certainly ‘dushi’, with tempting sandy curves on practically every corner. Snorkel in the turquoise waves, among dashing fish life and sleek sea turtles.
The steep, spectacular hills that surround St Thomas’s exquisite harbour provide a fitting entry point for this island of overwhelming natural splendour. The jungled-mountains reach up above tempting beaches and scuba diving sites, while Charlotte Amalie – the island’s capital – sprawls down towards the water, bedecked with shops and tasty restaurants. Part of the beautiful U.S. Virgin Islands – together with St John and St Croix – these lands were purchased by the US in 1917. View less
Nowadays, St Thomas is a patchwork of cultures, and a lively welcome to the islands, serving as a gracious host to the many visitors who linger – as well as those who jump on ferries, yachts and catamarans to explore the blessed beaches of the Caribbean’s other retreats. A stunning island of dramatic jungled-scenery, keep your camera close to hand as you swing up the Skyride to Paradise Point, to look down over the natural amphitheatre of the dock and city below. Snap some more postcard-perfect shots at Drake’s Seat – said to be Sir Francis Drake’s lookout point, where he could survey for approaching enemy ships. Nowadays, the views over Magens Bay and the infinite sea are always peaceful, and this is a great spot to catch a fiery Caribbean sunset spilling across the sky. Take catamaran cruises to explore the shining coastline, or seek out the glorious coves and caves that are hidden along the island’s perimeter. Land on the secluded shores of tiny islands, before scuba diving and snorkelling above the twisted boughs of lost ships, reclaimed by the waters and inhabited by curious tropical fish life. Kayak over still lagoon waters, or take the chance to lay back on soft beaches strewn with tiny shells, as St Thomas’s beauty washes over you.
Columbus discovered St. Kitts (short for St. Christopher) and Nevis on his second voyage in 1493. Arawak and Carib Indians who had moved up through the islands from South America already inhabited both islands. While European immigrants massacred many of them, the Caribs continued to stage fierce battles, which became legendary. In 1632, the West Indies’ first British settlement was established on the island, which soon developed into an important colony thanks to its sugar industry.
France and England shared St. Kitts for some time, but the partition ended with the Peace of Utrecht in 1713. After being declared a British colony in 1783, St. Kitts and Nevis, along with Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, were administered as a single colony until 1871 when the Leeward Islands Federation was formed. This continued up to 1957 when St. Kitts and Nevis were granted self-government, with Britain remaining responsible for external affairs and defense. Both islands became an independent state within the Commonwealth in 1983.
Basseterre, St. Kitts’ capital, still shows signs of colonial architecture. However, its setting against the emerald green hills ensures a distinct Caribbean ambiance. Many travelers agree that Basseterre is one of the prettiest of the Caribbean’s small capitals.
Deshaies is a commune in the French overseas region and department of Guadeloupe, in the Lesser Antilles. It is on the northwest coast of Basse-Terre Island. The inhabitants are called Deshaisiens.
Explore a land of vibrant colour, from the tranquil turquoise water that surrounds it, to the verdant green peaks of its famous soaring volcanic plugs – The Pitons; which give this mesmerising island its form. Waterfalls thunder in the jungled interior, should you successfully drag yourself from St Lucia’s gleaming beaches and dive spots – where patchworks of colourful fish dance below the waves. Offering the picturesque island luxury of your wildest dreams, St. Lucia is a cinematic, thrilling Caribbean idyl.
Marigot Bay served as the tropical backdrop for 1967’s Doctor Dolittle film, and the island’s amiable animal life is never too far away – spot flashes of bright red, as parrots zip between palm trees, before catching sight of dolphins splashing playfully offshore. Vigie beach is a charmed spot to lie back and recline in the sun’s glow, watching as overlapping layers of mesmerising blue hues intertwine. St. Lucia’s iconic Pitons mountains deliver as the perfect backdrop to any envy generating photograph – rising up exponentially from the calm waters like sharp shark fins. Castries is this heavenly island’s capital, and while the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception may seem a little humble from the outside, the soft sounds of soulful hymns emanating from within are sure to draw you in. The astonishing interior glows with bright frescoes, lit up by the sunlight that spills inside, and atmospheric rows of flickering candles. There’s more rich Caribbean colour to behold at the ramshackle Castries Market, where you can take handfuls of fragrant spices, like nutmeg and cinnamon, and enjoy the singsong ritual of bartering, as you move between tables heaving under bounties of green bananas and rosy mangos.
An almost mythical utopia of virgin beaches, rustic rum shacks and bays so scenic you feel like you’re intruding – Bequia Island is an island mirage of Caribbean perfection. This is the real, unspoiled experience – and with just 6,000 locals living here, you quickly start to recognise the same smiling faces, welcoming you with outstretched arms. Offering glorious – often deserted – beaches of pure golden sand, and hillside sweeps of forest and almond trees, Bequia Island is an extraordinary feast for the senses.
Unlike some of the flashier Caribbean islands, Bequia – a part of the Grenadines – is a rustic, unassuming and off-the-beaten-path choice. The staggeringly picturesque natural harbour, Admiralty Bay, greets you on arrival, and is peppered with day-tripping yachts bobbing on the gentle waves. The island’s tiny capital, Port Elizabeth, sits behind, with its bustling fruit and vegetable market, turtle sanctuary, and stalls selling hand-crafted model ships. This tiny, pretty island is ridged along the centre, and you can earn your beachside bliss with a gentle hike to the top of Mount Peggy, looking out over views of Grenada and St Vincent. At just seven miles long, you can discover the whole island in a few hours – but that would be to miss the point somewhat. Bequia Island coaxes you in to slow the pace and soothe your soul on blissful beaches, where you can revel in the uncomplicated joys of sitting, reading and swimming in heavenly shallow waters. The royally approved Princess Margaret Beach is one of the finest – an arching band of soft sand and cobalt-blue waters. As evening sets in, you may find you’re beckoned to share with communal barbecues of the day’s fresh catch with the locals, or to indulge in rum-heavy cocktails at beachside bars, lashed together from sea-blanched wooden limbs.
Bridgetown, the captivating capital of Barbados, combines faded colonial history, captivating tradition, and vivid white beaches plucked directly from your richest imagination of Caribbean perfection. Recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, thanks to its beautifully preserved colonial architecture, Bridgetown’s mask of modernity covers a core of complex history and fascinating culture. Sherbet coloured buildings line up to overlook the waterfront of the Constitution River at the ‘The Careenage’ – where gleaming ships bob on the blue water, and peaceful strolls along a wooden boardwalk await.
Stop for a sobering moment at the commemorative plaque honouring the people traded at this spot, when Bridgetown was the British Empire’s most important harbour, and first stop on the Transatlantic Slave Trade crossing. Just five minutes’ stroll from here is Carlisle Bay – a postcard-perfect place where you’ll find crystal-clear, turquoise seawater glowing in the Caribbean sun, and a mile of soft white powder sand. A treasure trove for divers, the shipwrecks scattered below the shallow water’s waves are now inhabited by turtles and swirling, rainbow-coloured tropical fish. Head to the backstreets, where street food vendors serve up spicy chicken soup, barbecued pigtails and thirst-quenching coconut water. There are bargains aplenty to be had on Broad Street, where duty-free malls and souvenir stalls cram together, vying for your attention. Roebuck Street is the spot where one of the Caribbean’s favourite drinks, rum, was discovered – having been created here from the by-products of the island’s booming sugarcane trade. Nowadays, it’s lined with bars splashing every variety of the deliciously spicy dark libation imaginable into glasses. For a touch more culture, visit one of the oldest synagogues in The Americas – Nidhe Israel Synagogue, which was built in 1654. The adjoining museum tells the story of Barbados’ Jewish immigrants, who were instrumental in the island’s development.
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