The Caribbean Defined

Spices on a table in a market in St. George, Grenada
A typical spice-laden table in St. George, Grenada (Nathan Borchelt)

The allure of a given culture is subjective, more so than any other aspect of the Caribbean we're addressing here. So consider this a mission of enlightenment. The region's long and often brutal history of colonialism has left a cultural melting pot, from the Bahamas to Trinidad. In the spirit of generalizing, we note that the islands of the French West Indies (primarily Guadeloupe, Martinique, St. Martin, and St. Barts) tend to have a more Mediterranean feel—for example, more topless beaches—while the former or current British holdings have a more formal air. Likewise, islands that experienced heavy Dutch influence reflect that Northern European personality. The Big Caveat: Most islands have mixed heritage, including pre-colonial Indian settlements, and every Caribbean destination harbors remnants of its multicultural history.

Curacao is not only the political center of the Dutch Caribbean (try to contain your enthusiasm), it is also home to one of the more ripping party scenes of the islands. Willemstad, Curacao's main city and the capital of the Dutch Antilles, is bisected by St. Anna Bay. A floating pedestrian bridge spans the waterway, affording convenient access to bars, restaurants, shops, and market stalls along both sides of the bay. The dominant look here is tall, blond and, well, Dutch, and when the open-air bars along Mambo beach get thumping—around midnight on most nights—you might think you're at a frat party in Amsterdam, with just enough locals scattered throughout the scene to prove that those from Curacao love live music. The city also boasts the second biggest seaport in the Netherlands (behind Rotterdam). Still, it's possible to get lost in a more subdued Caribbean scene. Point your rental car toward Westpunt and explore any side road you come upon. Better still, time your visit with their annual Carnival celebrations (typically in late February) and join in as the partying swallows downtown Willemstad.

Let's be frank. Jamaica earned its 1990s reputation as a gritty and at times unwelcoming island. But it is also home to one of the most vibrant and authentic cultures in the Caribbean. Descendants of slaves, many of whom resisted oppression by British sugar barons, established communities throughout the island. Many are Rastafarians, who follow a system that combines teachings from the Old and New testaments of the Bible and espouses the ultimate divinity of an Ethiopian emperor. To experience the best of Jamaican culture without the overbearing hawkers, get away from the major beach resorts and explore the smaller towns, both along the coast and the misty Blue Mountains. And, as you'd expect from a country that inspired the steady rhythms of reggae, there's always some sort of soundclashin' music festival or show to see.

While Grenada is part of the British West Indies, it was the French who built St. Georges, the island's capital, in 1650, etching the city into a hillside above a horseshoe-shaped bay. France and Britain fought for control of the island until the Treaty of Versailles awarded Grenada to Britain. Today, the culture reflects those influences, and a heavy dose of African traditions (from the slaves who were imported to provide labor) and Indian customs from the island's original inhabitants. The result is a very laid-back vibe saturated with calypso, reggae, and drum music, along with dance and inventive cuisine—no surprise from an island that's main exports include nutmeg and cacao. Ask for oil-down stew, a concoction of breadfruit, coconut, local vegetables, and (often) fish or pork. Grenada has recovered well after being hammered by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Puerto Rico
It may seem odd to include a U.S. territory in the culture section, but Puerto Rico is far more than just an annex of the U.S. Yes, parts of the island look like Anywhere, USA, but Old San Juan recalls a lively European city—Spanish colonial architecture, sidewalk cafes (and world-class Latin-Asian fusion restaurants), and non-stop nightlife. Old San Juan was Spain's major center of commerce and military power in the West Indies for nearly four centuries and still has hundreds of examples of architecture from that era. Throughout Puerto Rico the dominant theme is diversity. Bits of customs survive from all of the groups who have sought a new home here, including Cuban, Chinese, German, American, French, and, the most recent migrant population, Dominican. Because of Puerto Rico's size—it is the fourth largest Caribbean island—most travelers can find a vibe to suit their mood.

Other Notables:
Guadeloupe (cuisine) and Dominican Republic (Latin-Caribbean insouciance)

Published: 9 Nov 2009 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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