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Life's A Beach

by Brent Betit

An Informal, Biased Guide to Some Caribbean Beaches

Huge numbers of cruise passengers visit the Caribbean every year. I don't even know the correct number. If there was a McDonald's sign up at some mythical point where travelers entered the Caribbean, it would say "Zillions of Cruisers Delighted."

The Caribbean is the single most popular cruise destination area on the face of the earth. There are many reasons why this is so: it is relatively close to the United States (still the leader in cruise passenger counts). It has ample competition among lines, and therefore offers extremely competitive vacations. It combines, in a reasonably small area, a myriad of cultures, countries, and landscapes that allow travelers to enjoy a broad spectrum of experiences in a short period of time for a reasonable amount of money.

But who am I trying to kid? What people really go to the Caribbean for is to get away from cold weather, and to get to some of the best beaches on the planet. What follows is a totally biased, incomplete, and highly opinionated guide to Caribbean beaches. I love most of them, even though one tried to kill me once (more on that later). The list is incomplete because there are literally thousands of beaches in the Caribbean, and though I wouldn't mind visiting every one, I have this strange activity I participate in far too much called a job that prevents me from engaging often enough in that basic human need to lounge around on hot sand while turquoise surf crashes a few feet away and attentive wait staff shuttle out tropical drinks.

This, then, is the workman's guide to beaches -- incomplete and perhaps a bit wistful because of that, arranged in no particular order of preference. I hope you get to enjoy every one of these someday, and a few more that maybe aren't even named yet.

ST. THOMAS

Morningstar Beach is close enough to a hotel (the Frenchman's Reef Hotel), to provide you with everything you need to enjoy a good day at the beach: a towel, a place to change, a place to "freshen up" when needed, and a source of refreshments.

Magens Bay is the best family beach in the universe. (It was also named one of the world's ten most beautiful beaches by National Geographic, but I don't agree with them on that.) The bay is shaped like an elongated horseshoe, which keeps large waves away, and it is quite shallow, dropping off very gradually, therefore perfect for little ones. Because it is run by the National Park Service, it is clean, and has showers and dressing rooms -- and, of course, a restaurant and bar (have you noticed a pattern in my favorite beaches yet?) One downside: there's a small admissions charge.

Sapphire Beach provides a vista on the British Virgin Islands. There is a dive shop nearby, and you can snorkel at an adjacent reef, windsurf, or just beach yourself like a whale and melt. Oh, yes, and there's a restaurant at hand as well.

ST. JOHN

St. John is the most beautiful of all the Caribbean islands, probably because the majority of it is undeveloped national parkland. Sometimes we tourists "love things to death," and as they are developed to please us, they decline. Not so with St. John, which is protected to large degree by its status as parkland.

Hawksnest Bay is long, white, and gorgeous. You can snorkel or snore as you please.

Trunk Bay is overrated, usually crowded, and the well-known snorkeling trail is a disappointment. Visit it anyway, because it is beautiful, but consider spreading your towel elsewhere.

Cinnamon Bay is bigger than Trunk Bay and has more facilities. It's worth a trip.

Watermelon Cay, Leinster Bay, Maho Bay, and Francis Bay are good swimming sites. Make sure you wear your swimsuit if you visit Francis Bay, as it does not have changing facilities. The others all do.

ST LUCIA

Vigie Beach and Choc Bay are both found north of Castries Harbour. All of St. Lucia's beaches are on its leeward side (the side which is not facing the prevailing winds). Don't bother, therefore, with your sailboard.

Try to make it to the black-sand beach at Soufriere. Bring your own beverages.

ST. KITTS

St. Kitts retains a British flavor and why shouldn't it? The British settled it initially, and developed it. Because it was a kind of "way station" for English and French colonists on their way to other islands, it is still called the Mother Colony of the West Indies. It's a bit sleepy, but absolutely beautiful -- or at least it looks that way in photographs. You see, St. Kitts is a place you might find Robin Leach filming one of his "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" episodes, so it's not a place you're likely to find an unknown travel writer with a hole in his wallet. I'm including a list of beaches anyway, because maybe some of you might make it there, someday.

Cockleshell Bay and Banana Bay are on the southern tip of the southeast peninsula. They are both (reportedly) absolutely stunning.

Dieppe Bay is located in the north, and offers wonderful snorkeling (so they say) due to the reefs nearby.

MARTINIQUE

Of course you must visit Anse Turin, even though everybody else will probably have the same idea. But who could resist lounging around where Gauguin painted when he visited Martinique? If it doesn't resemble his paintings, relax: it never did. Nobody ever saw anything before or since in quite the way Gauguin did.

Now head south from Fort-de-France, stopping somewhere in the middle of Trois-Ilets and Les Salines.

Sainte-Anne is delightful and resembles an Impressionistic painting. Rather strange, don't you think?

Diamant Beach isn't deserted, but there's room enough to feel slightly lonesome if you try really hard. This is a rare thing on many Caribbean beaches, so enjoy it.

ARUBA

Aruba is that mythical thing, the desert island, and so you might be forgiven if you assumed it had a lot of sand. You're absolutely right, it does. You might then make a logical leap and surmise that it's got a lot of beaches. Again, you're right. I really don't like it anyway.

Call me contrary and grumpy (really, go ahead, my wife does all the time) but I was unimpressed with Aruba during my one visit. Even though its Turquoise Coast -- seven miles of top-rated beaches -- has the requisite sand, surf, and ample, available refreshments, I still didn't like it. Maybe it's because there's too much of a good thing down there. Those seven miles of beaches are decorated with seven miles of hotels, you see, and though I like my creature comforts I'll forgo them for the sake of a little peace and quiet and the occasional natural landscape. Don't bother looking for any in Aruba -- but if you do go, visit these:

Palm Beach and Eagle Beach are perhaps the best-known beaches on the Turquoise coast. If you hear lots of dinging bells and the cascading sounds of coins filling the air, don't worry. It's not your imagination, it's the nearby casinos.

Manchebo Beach and Druif Beach are right next to each other on the strip. More of the unimpressive same, if you will.

Want to windsurf? Get thyself to Bachelor's Beach or Palm Beach. Don't ask me why it's called Bachelor's Beach. I didn't see any there.

And finally, there is a pretty nice beach on this island in the Seroe Colorado. If I tell you where it is, promise not to build a casino nearby. Baby Beach is great for families and snorkelers because it's on a very calm, sheltered lagoon (Baby Lagoon, strangely enough) with coral growing underneath the sapphire waves.

CURACAO

Whoa, there! If you hadn't slowed up, you'd have smashed your ship right into Venezuela. Just 35 miles north of that country, Curacao has a great national park system and some of the most outstanding snorkeling I've ever seen. Does it have a beach? I don't know. I spent all my time snorkeling.

ST. MAARTEN

St. Maarten / St. Martin is a unique experience. In the north, you'll find French St. Martin; in the south, Dutch St. Maarten. There is an interesting story about how the island was divided. The story involves a Frenchman, a Dutchman, a bottle of wine, and an unfortunately timed nap, and it is too long to tell here. If you visit, however, most any tour guide will relate it to you.

You will dock in Phillipsburg, the capital of Dutch St. Maarten. If you're like me, you will immediately find the fastest transportation possible to take you to St. Martin. If you don't do this, you'll still have fun, and here is what you will find:

Cupecoy Beach is backed up by craggy sandstone cliffs and even some caves. The far end is "clothing optional," a term you will hear often on this island, usually with fondness.

Great Bay: okay, you couldn't find transportation, so you walked the 200 feet from Frontstreet to this very passable beach.

Guana Bay: heavy surf, and no guana, lucky for you. Be very careful if you attempt a swim.

ST. MARTIN

Ah, the French side of the island, St. Martin. There is far more sand, and far less clothing. I only go there for the surf, however.

Orient Beach offers the best body surfing I've ever had in the Caribbean -- though this depends entirely on the weather, and I've had days there when the waves were lacking. One of its more powerful waves once slammed me into the sand on my shoulder and neck (the famous murder attempt earlier alluded to). I love it despite its murderous intent. Yes, it has hotels, but they're far enough way not to be obtrusive.

Baie Rouge has a reputation as the most beautiful French beach on the island.

Grand Case Beach has some great snorkeling by Crede Rock, which is at the northerly part of the beach. Though they should have called this "Narrow Case Beach" (you'll see why), it's still pretty grand.

Long Bay is, well, kind of long, so might be a good place to stretch your legs for a jog or a romantic walk.

This list is subject to change at every vacation (and I therefore sure hope it does soon). On the practical side, remember to wear a hat, bring sunblock, and consume plenty of fluids while you are out enjoying the beach. While I may have insulted some of your favorite stretches of Caribbean real estate, remember that I warned you before you even started reading. And if you believe in relativity, I think it's fair to say that relatively speaking, the worst Caribbean beach probably beats the best day at work.

Happy cruising.

Line

Brent BetitBrent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children.

Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Brent Betit" as your search phrase.

Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.


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