Never have we ever needed an island escape as much as we do now. Enough with the “virtual vacations” and the “make a tropical drink and pretend you’re in paradise” nonsense. We need the island we’ve conjured as our “happy place” a bazillion times over the past few months: a palm fringed strip of sand, lapped by azure waters, where the temperature is warm enough to melt the ice in an Old Fashioned.
It’s hard to resist the siren song of tried-and-true destinations like St. Lucia and St. Barths. But right now, the quieter, less-known islands seem the most alluring — those sandy dots that don’t get the buzz, or the “Bachelorette” contestants. Our #lifegoal is to visit every one of the 7,000 islands in the Caribbean chain, but for now, consider these worthy contenders. We’ve cherry-picked the ones that are accepting US visitors, and aren’t making it incredibly complicated to visit, as COVID-19 rages on.
Here’s where folks from Martinique and Guadeloupe go for some peace and quiet
Rebounding from the double-whammy of Tropical Storm Erika and Hurricane Maria, verdant Dominica — one of the world’s blue zones (lots of centenarians) — is back, with a new focus on sustainability and climate resiliency. Two-thirds of the landscape is tropical forest, laced with rivers (as featured in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”), waterfalls, and hiking trails. We’re not saying you’ll live to 100 if you hike a portion of the island’s 115-mile Waitukubuli National Trail, but it sure can’t hurt.
Located near Guadeloupe and Martinique, Dominica is known for its low-key vibe, but some new luxury properties are springing up, including the Cabrits Resort & Spa Kempinski (www.kempinski.com). We’re partial to the rustic-chic serenity of Rosalie Bay Eco-Resort (www.rosaliebaydominica.com), reopened to Zen-like exquisiteness after suffering damage from Hurricane Maria. The beaches here are nothing special, but there are lots of interesting ways to get wet: You can snorkel in champagne-like bubbles rising from geothermal vents at Champagne Reef, swim under a waterfall at Emerald Pool, and soak in the hot springs and mud baths at Wotten Waven. (How can you resist a place with a name like Wotten Waven?)
COVID-19 protocol: Dominica started welcoming travelers from the United States on Aug. 7. Visitors must submit a health questionnaire online at domcovid.19.dominica.gov.dm at least 24 hours before arrival along with negative PCR test results recorded 24 to 72 hours before arrival (for those age 5 and older). Upon arrival, all travelers will have to undergo a free rapid diagnostic test. If those results are negative, they will be allowed to check into a “Safe in Nature” certified property (the places we mention above are included) for a minimum of five days. Those with positive rapid tests will have a PCR test administered and will need to quarantine in a government-approved facility at their own expense until negative results come back.
How to get there: Connect through St. Maarten, Antigua, Barbados, St. Lucia, or San Juan, Puerto Rico. www.discoverdominica.com
All about that beach
Beach-starved souls, rejoice. The tiny twin-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda (not to be confused with Anguilla or Barbados) resumed flights from the United States in June, so they’ve had plenty of time to fine-tune safety protocols. Most tourism businesses have been certified for their health practices and are open for business. But, really, “Everyone is here for the beach,” says CEO of the tourism authority Colin C. James. With 95 miles of coastline along the eastern Caribbean Sea, Antigua claims 365 beaches, “and our beaches have always been uncrowded,” James notes.
But this year, we’re feeling Barbuda, located 27 miles northeast of its bigger sister. Devastated by Hurricane Irma in 2017, the island continues to rebuild, but is welcoming tourists (a major part of the island economy, along with fishing and lobstering). Ringed with 17 miles of pink sand, this low-lying coral outpost (population 1,500) typically hosts more magnificent frigatebirds than tourists. (Barbuda’s frigatebird sanctuary counts 170 species). Most of the attractions here were created by Mother Nature, like Dark Cave, a boulder-hung passage that leads to underground pools teeming with crustacean species found no place else on earth. Indian Cave has chambers that feature Amerindian petroglyphs, while Darby’s Cave has a large sinkhole. Besides cave-hopping and birdwatching, most visitors are happy to swim, snorkel, and wander the peachy-pink sands at Low Bay and Palmetto Point beaches. Tiny pink shells dot the sand from November through April.
The dining and lodging scene is homey and unpretentious: Think snack bars and small restaurants, camping, and guest houses. Among the lodgings certified by the government are Barbuda Belle (www.barbudabelle.com) and Barbuda Cottages (www.barbudacottages.com). Both are situated right on the beach — because where else would you want to be?
COVID-19 protocol: Visitors age 12 and over arriving from the US must have a negative COVID-19 PCR test within seven days of arrival.
How to get there: JetBlue, American, and Delta Airlines offer connecting flights from Boston to Antigua. Barbuda is reachable via 15-minute flight or two-hour ferry ride from Antigua. www.visitantiguabarbuda.com
Anegada da vida, baby
What can you say about an island of 285 souls that is famous for free-flying flamingos and the best-tasting lobsters in the Caribbean? Just say, “Take me there!”
Among the 60-plus isles in the British Virgin Islands, Anegada is far less known than Tortola, its neighbor to the southwest. You’ll need to take a ferry from Tortola to get there, but you’ll be glad you did, especially if you love diving or snorkeling: The only coral island in the chain, Anegada is home to Horseshoe Reef, the third-largest barrier reef in the Caribbean. The reef is a wonderland of mazes, tunnels, and drops, featuring myriad marine life. Or explore the shipwrecks of Spanish galleons, American privateers, and British galleons — more than 300 in all. Sport-fishing and bone fishing are a big deal, too.
Lobster season runs from November through June, perfect for winter escapees. (Local lobster pairs especially well with a Rum Teaser or Wreck Punch, Anegadans report.) The island’s beaches are gorgeous, and largely deserted. There’s also a tour we haven’t seen elsewhere in the Caribbean: an excursion to conch shell mounds with Kelly’s Land & SeaTours. Made up of thousands of conch shells discarded by generations of fisherman, these mounds are humongous — the only mountainous forms on this very flat island. If you like unspoiled and unglitzy, this one’s for you. A beachfront palapa seems like a perfect fit for a place like this, and they’ve got them at Anegada Beach Club (www.anegadabeachclub.com). The resort sections off a part of the beach and restaurant for each quarantined group so visitors can enjoy themselves while quarantining.
COVID-19 protocols: To enter the BVI, visitors need travel insurance that covers COVID-19, and a negative PCR test taken five days prior to departure. Visitors will also be tested upon arrival. Then, visitors must quarantine at their accommodations for four days and get another test on day four; when the result comes back negative, they are free to explore on the fifth day. ($175 fee covers two tests.) For updated details, go to https://www.bvitourism.com/reopening.
How to get here: Several of the major airlines offer connecting flights to Tortola. The easiest way to get to Anegada from Tortola is by ferry from Road Town. www.BVItourism.com
Give me green and gorgeous
They call it the Spice Island, thanks to the nutmeg and mace that grow here. Add the bean-to-bar cocoa plantations and local specialties like oil down and black cake, and it’s easy to focus on Grenada’s vibrant food scene. But these days, when being outdoors is the way to go, this hilly lump of gorgeousness has much to recommend it.
A trip to Grand Etang Rainforest Reserve is a must, but some new operators are offering fun activities that are perfect for social distancing, like Cayaks (www.cayaks.com), fully transparent kayaks that reveal the underwater landscape. And if you want to work off that Grenadian chocolate and black cake, join outfitter Spice Isle Exploration (www.explorespiceisle.com) to explore the coastline of Grenada (and sister islands Carriacou and Petite Martinique) by pedal boat or kayak. Annandale Waterfall is another island classic — visit at night to see these spectacular waterfalls illuminated by colored spotlights. All of these have been vetted as “Pure Safe Travel” approved attractions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 protocol: Visitors must apply for a Pure Safe travel certificate prior to arrival at the airport, along with a negative PCR test result. Then, they’ll transfer to secured accommodations and have the option to “holiday in place” at the resort for the entire stay or choose to have a second PCR test on day four. With a confirmed negative result, provided within one to two working days by the Ministry of Health, visitors may explore outside their property. Two good (approved) hotels to consider: True Blue Bay Boutique Resort (www.truebluebay.com) and SilverSands Grenada (www.silversandsgrenada.com).
How to get there: Grenada is reachable via connecting flights on JetBlue and American Airlines. www.puregrenada.com
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com