Who doesn’t love aqua water and sugary sand? But you can find that in Florida. On your next Caribbean getaway, step away from the beach blanket and immerse yourself in an island adventure. Go beyond the sun and sand to discover the wild, natural heart that beats within these islands.
HANGING OUT WITH SHARKS AND RAYS
The most challenging thing about diving or snorkeling Shark Ray Alley is simply getting off the boat without landing on a sea creature. Located off the coast of Ambergris Caye in Belize, these shallow waters are full of dark shadows, signifying the presence of nurse sharks, southern stingrays, and sea turtles — everywhere. We looked for a clear spot to dive in, but no luck, there were just too many of them. Finally, we jumped, and instantly felt the velvety wings of rays wrapping around our legs. This experience isn’t for everyone.
For decades, fishermen cleaned their catch in this area. Now the hum of an engine signifies a giant buffet to local denizens of the deep, and they show up in multitudes. (They still get a snack, since some dive masters toss out chum to keep things interesting.) Mostly, you’ll see gentle nurse sharks, about four to six feet long, and southern stingrays with wingspans up to four feet wide. The sharks tend to glide right past divers, but the rays swim directly toward you.
Shark Ray Alley, part of the Hol Chan Marine Reserve, is considered one of the best “animal dives” in the Caribbean. $40, Grumpy & Happy Belize Private Snorkeling Trips,
PITONS OR BUST
Pointy, green, and sloping to the Caribbean Sea, the Pitons, St. Lucia’s twin volcanic spires, and the marine environment that flows around them make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can admire these emerald peaks from a distance, but why not climb one?
The shorter Petit Piton is the more technical climb. Gros Piton is more accessible. It rises to 2,619 feet, and takes you through three climate zones, starting at an elevation of 600 feet.
A bone-rattling ride on a rough road gets you to the trailhead, where you’ll meet your guide (a requirement here). You quickly enter a lush, leafy landscape, and pick your way through an obstacle course of snakelike roots, vines, and volcanic boulders. As the day gets hotter, the hike gets steeper. At last, stunning views of the Caribbean emerge. But this is merely the halfway point. Here, the trail takes a vicious turn: straight up.
Once you’ve reached the summit, St. Lucia, far below, is a patchwork of colorful rooftops surrounded by azure sea. $30 per person for the guided four-mile round-trip route. Guides are usually posted at the entrance of Gros Piton. For organized tours, contact the Forest and Lands Department, 758-450–2231 or 2078. Most hotels can also book a tour.
HELL’S GATE, RARE SNAKES
When it comes to outdoor adventure in Antigua, Eli Fuller is your go-to guy. This former Olympian grew up on the island, and he runs an eco-tour outfit called Adventure Antigua (www.adventureantigua.com). An all-day tour on Fuller’s 52-foot power catamaran reveals the natural glories of this West Indies outpost. Snorkeling, swimming, and hiking are all part of the action. Not only that, but Fuller’s secret recipe for rum punch — served onboard — is legendary.
Each of the 40 islands that surround Antigua is a national park. On this excursion, you’ll stop at Great Bird Island, where the star attraction is a sandy-colored, speckled snake called the Antiguan racer, one of the rarest snakes in the world. After you disembark, you’ll climb up a small hill, surrounded by aqua water and tawny patches of reef. If you’re lucky, you’ll see humpback whales and dolphins, and maybe the Antiguan racer. The island is a sanctuary for this harmless snake, of which there are only about 300 in existence, according to guide Nicola Nash.
Next up: Hell’s Gate, a towering limestone archway sculpted by wind and waves, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean. A short, rocky pathway leads to a small cavern with a cave pool, rusty-red with algae blooms. Full of rushing water, the pool has a small opening that leads to the sea. If you’re a strong swimmer and it’s a calm day, you can swim right through it. Daylong eco-tour, $115 (discounted if booking online),
LOVE THAT SPARKLING WATER
“It’s like floating on fireflies.” “It’s like gliding on a sea of stars.” A nighttime kayak paddle in the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay brings out the poet in everyone.
The magic happens in a small lagoon called Puerto Mosquito on Isla de Vieques in Puerto Rico. The surrounding mangrove trees provide abundant food for microorganisms called Pyrodinium bahamense. When these dinoflagellates come in contact with another organism, or get stirred up, as with a kayak paddle, they produce a burst of blue-green light. After a short paddle through the mangroves, you reach the bay, where the inky water sparkles with a million little diamonds of light, under a sky atwinkle with stars. A dip of a paddle, and you create a swoosh of laser-light on the surface of the water. Unlike some bioluminescent bays, this one glows brightly all year.
Get there soon: Once-sleepy Vieques is becoming a hot destination, due in part to the arrival of a splashy W Hotel. Reachable by ferry from Fajardo, the island is ringed with pristine beaches. But your encounter with the dinoflagellates will be the highlight of your visit. $50 per person, Vieques Adventure Co.,
A DIFFERENT KIND OF PARROT HEAD
For most visitors, Great Abaco Island is all about boating. Guests arrive by yacht, or rent a boat, at the Abaco Beach Resort, and then happily island-hop in search of the next pristine crescent of sugary sand, or the ultimate Goombay Smash at one of the Bahamas beach bars. It’s a Jimmy Buffett fantasy come to life. (Yes, we know the Bahamas aren’t technically in the Caribbean.)
But there’s another side of Great Abaco Island, one with rare birds and blue holes, as opposed to bars and bikinis. To discover it, you hook up with Reggie Patterson, an eighth-generation Bahamian who runs eco-tours into the islands’ interior.
Patterson knows all the best spots to see the Abaco parrot, a green, vocal bird that’s found only on Abaco and Inagua islands and nests in the ground in limestone caves. Besides the parrot, Great Abaco is home to five species of birds seen nowhere else in the world, and more than 200 species total.
Right away, we saw that lime-green bird — and then several parrot pals. As our tour continued, we saw a Lasagra’s flycatcher, heard the calls of a pine warbler and a Bahama yellow throat, and visited a blue hole thought to be 100 feet deep. Part of a cave system under the island, the blue hole is a repository of cool stuff, such as the skeletons of extinct birds and the remains of ancient Cuban crocodiles. It isn’t much of a swimming hole, due to a toxic layer, blind cave fish, and other features that would tempt only a committed cave diver. Half-day tour $200, 242-367-2749,