Off-Beach in the Caribbean
Say "Caribbean," and most people think "beach." Long, white, sandy stretches bordered by swaying palms and lapping waves. But this collection of tropical islands offers more than sunshine and turquoise waters. Beyond the peace and lazy tranquillity of the beaches lie a variety of more active pursuits in the inland interiors. If you take time to explore them, you're likely to discover a genuine connection with the inhabitants and experience a variety of terrain ideally suited for outdoor recreation. Here are a few suggestions for those seeking a workout and some interaction with the island environment as well.
Mountain Hikes - Jamaica, Grenada, Puerto Rico
Nearly a mile high and surrounded by thick trees laced with vines and orchids, you reach a clearing and look out on ridge upon ridge. Clouds boil up from the valley below, and high mist teases you with muted glimpses of the peak above. Looking down from the top, you see a city surrounding a harbor, a turquoise sea, and perhaps the shadows of other islands on the horizon.
Hiking in the mountains of the Caribbean islands takes you through layers of ecozonesfrom rainforest to desert to alpine vegetation. The air is fragrant with the sweet smell of ginger lilies and much cooler than in the valleys.
In the Blue Mountains of Jamaica, rows of coffee plants with shiny green leaves cling precariously to steep slopes. Remaining uncleared land has been designated a national park. You can be higher than anyone in Jamaica (reports of ganga aside) by climbing Blue Mountain Peak (7,402 feet) on a moderately steep, but well-marked trail. It's best to start hiking from Wildflower Lodge at 4,500 feet (reached by 4-wheel drive vehicle from Kingston) to have time to climb and descend on the same day.
For other Blue Mountain hikes, you should hire a guide, as trails are not clearly defined and some of them cross private property. On the Gordon Town Trail, for example, you pass by several waterfalls and many gardens. You encounter local people who ask if you are enjoying your walk and brag that theirs is the most beautiful place in Jamaica. On the Fairy Glade Trail, you have to use tree roots as ladders in a few spots and beat your way through stands of ginger lilies that grow over the trail.
While Grenada, the southernmost island in the Windward chain, tops out at only 2,756 feet, it offers big island style hiking in national parks covering 13 percent of the country's territory. You can take short hikes in the parks on your own, but for all-day endeavors deep into the rain forest, it's best to hire a guide.
There are several walks to marvelous waterfalls within Grand Etang National Park. The hike to Seven Sisters Falls is only about an hour each way, wandering through forests thick with vines and ferns on trails that can turn from easy to arduous depending on the recent rains. The all-day hike up Mount Qua Qua rewards those who take the sometimes slippery challenge with views of the Caribbean and Atlantic and hillsides painted in every shade of green.
Puerto Rico boasts the only tropical rainforest within the U.S. National Forest System, the Caribbean National Forest, or as it is popularly called, El Yunque. Only an hour drive from San Juan, El Yunque has thirteen hiking trails covering 23 miles of incredibly varied terrain. Some paths, such as Big Tree Trail, are well-marked nature trails. Others, such as El Toro, are long (6 miles each way) hikes that take you above the treetops to El Toro, El Yunque's highest mountain, at 3,532 feet. Hikers pass through several ecological zones to a rare dwarf forest where trees appear stunted.
Besides El Yunque, Puerto Rico has 14 forest reserves scattered across the island. Some of the best ones for hiking are the Guanica Reserve, a mecca for bird-watchers on the south coast, and the Toro Negro Reserve, which surrounds Puerto Rico's highest peak, Cerro de Punta at 4,390 feet. You do not need a guide for most hikes on the island because trails are marked, but it can be more enjoyable and educational to join a group run by an outfitter.
Mountain Bikes - Anguilla
Two wheels can take you further than two feet. On a bike, you achieve lung-expanding workouts on the uphills and relish the cool thrills of the downhills. Mountain bikes are ideal for exploring the islands, with their rough and often unpaved roads. However, some Caribbean islands are so traffic-clogged that bike riding can be unpleasant, if not unsafe. Two islands that are more bicycle-friendly than most are Anguilla and Montserrat, and both have top-quality mountain bike rentals.
Anguilla has rolling terrain, a friendly population, and outstanding beaches, many of which have escaped development. From your beach resort or guest house, you can take day trips by mountain bike over jeep roads with little traffic through the island's rugged interior. Most often, your destination is an isolated beach you're bound to have to yourself. Take a ride to Captain's Bay on the eastern end of the island by jumping off the paved road to dirt tracks at White Hill and traveling through Junk's Hole (it's the name of the village, not the dump.) Another day, go to Shoal Bay, the island's most popular beach, via a newly cut dirt road through the village of Brimegin. Don't miss Little Bay, reached by dirt roads leading from behind the hospital. You have to climb down a rope to get to the beach, but it's worth the effort. Orange cliffs plunge into the deep turquoise blue, and the snorkeling is superb.
Underground - Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico hides some of its natural beauty beneath the surface. It is honeycombed with caves, hiding nature's secret works of art. Rio Camuy Cave, the third largest underground river and cavern system in the world, has tours for visitors with the initial 200-foot descent into the cave on a comfortable tram.
For a more active underground experience, book a spelunking trip with an adventure tour operator. These outfitters will provide the necessary gear from life jackets to headlamps and the guidance essential for safe caving. Weather conditions (some caves flood after heavy rains) and the group's level of fitness dictate where the guides take you. Perhaps you'll go to Virgin's Cave and descend on ropes into a 250-foot-deep sinkhole, wade across a river, and swim in an underground lake. In "Pajizo" Cave (Spanish for "straw"), you hang onto tree roots to descend into a cavern with thousands of straw-like formations hanging from the ceiling. Boulders littering the floor resemble scoops of coconut ice cream.
Lodging prices are high season (mid-December to mid-April), double occupancy for the least expensive rooms.
Bike rentals, maps, and biking advice are available from Multiscenic Tours (809-497-5810). Rentals are $10 a day; Multiscenic will deliver or pick up the bike to/from your hotel for an additional $5.
Lodging in Anguilla runs from inexpensive guest houses to some of the most expensive resorts in the Caribbean. Since it's a small island, you can stay anywhere and explore by bike without difficulty. Recommended hotels include: La Sirena Resort, $160, (809-497-6827); Rendezvous Bay Hotel, $120, (809-497-6549); Lloyd's Guest House, $80, (809-497-2351); Milly's Inn, $160 (809-497-2465). You can also stay in a private home on Anguilla for as little as $20 a night.
Anguilla Tourism Information (800-553-4939).
Guided hiking: Arnold's Tours (809-440-0531); Henry's Safari Tours (809-444-5313); Telfor Bedeau (809-442-6200).
For the easiest access to Grand Etang National Park, stay in St. George's or Grand Anse Beach. Recommended lodgings include: Blue Horizons Cottage Hotel, $165, (809-444-4316); Coyaba Beach Resort, $165, (809-444-4129); Hibiscus Hotel, $70, (809-444-4233); Windward Sands Inn, $85, (809-444-4238).
Grenada Board of Tourism (800-927-9554; 212-687-9554).
Guided hiking: Linda Lee Burks, Touring Society of Jamaica (809-975-7158); Sense Adventures (809-927-2097); Valley Hikes (809-993-2543); Wildflower Lodge (809-929-5394).
Lodging in or near the Blue Mountains ranges from dormitory style to plantation deluxe. Strawberry Hill, $250, (800-OUTPOST); Hotel Mocking Bird Hill, $140, (809-993-3370); Ivor Guest House, $95, (809-977-0033); Maya Lodge (809-927-2097); Wildflower Lodge (809-929-5394).
Jamaica Tourist Board (800-233-4JTB).
Guided hiking and caving tours: Encantos Ecotours (800-272-7241) and Tropix Wellness Tours (809-268-2173).
Hiking and caving day trips are often arranged with transportation from hotels and inns in San Juan provided by the guides. Recommended lodgings in San Juan include Caribe Hilton, $325, (800-HILTONS); Casa San Jose, $200, (809-723-1212); and Galeria San Juan, $110, (809-722-1808). You can stay in the mountains at Parador Hacienda Gripinas, a restored coffee plantation ($75, 809-721-2884).
Puerto Rico Tourism Company (800-223-6530).
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication