Nothing says you’re overdue for a tropical escape more than the zero degree reading on your garden thermometer. Last month’s “polar vortex” no doubt sent sun seekers in droves looking for ways to escape the frigid blast. As always, the islands of the Caribbean and Atlantic stand out as the perfect destinations in which to flee the cold and just hang on the beach for a few days—a few precious days to “re-group and re-load” and create some sun-soaked memories that will help you get through the rest of the gray-tinged winter ahead. Your activities will include lounging on the beach, lunch, lounging on the beach, happy hour, lounging in your room, then dinner. Repeat. We offer three suggestions for your long weekend in paradise.
Turks and Caicos Islands
The Turks and Caicos comprise more than 40 islands and cays, most of which are uninhabited, at the southeastern end of the Bahamas archipelago. We’re talking real escape here, as in some of the bluest waters and whitest sandy beaches in the world. It’s a deeply serene locale and only 650 miles from Miami.
The Turks and Caicos are surrounded by the world’s third largest coral reef, which sets the stage for amazing snorkeling, diving and fishing. But the beaches define the Turks and Caicos for most traveling snowbirds. Most are just minutes away from the airport, and you’ll rarely have to vie for beach space with anyone else. Tour boats can whisk you to uninhabited cays where you can play Robinson Crusoe for a day. The waters are pristine and diamond-clear, and waves rarely rise above a gentle ripple—perfect for young kids and snorkelers of all ages.
Must-do beaches: Grace Bay on the main island of Providenciales has long been considered one of the world’s best, and its 12-mile-long strand is the pride of the island, so more resorts are being drawn to it, but most tend to be on the small side. There’s still plenty of beach to call your very own. Long Bay, also on Providenciales, is a quiet beach with calm, shallow waters on Provo’s southeastern shore that makes it perfect for young children. Take a horseback ride on the beach here with Provo Ponies. Mudjin Harbor on Middle Caicos is as stunning seen from the limestone cliffs towering above as it is up close. You can explore the wind-swept coves and snorkel in the turquoise shallows below.
U.S. Virgin Islands
The U.S. Virgin Islands is “America’s Caribbean Paradise”—the place to see moko jumbies dance at a Carnival parade, hear the lilting patois of a Creole dialect, or smell the spices in a saltfish paté (all without losing cell phone reception). You could visit either St. Thomas, St. John or St. Croix, but better yet, spend a little time on all three islands. That way you’ll get plenty of pampering, undisturbed nature and colonial history jammed into one vacation. And bonus: you can pay for everything with U.S. dollars and no passport required!
Each island offers something different. Called “Rock City” for its hilly, craggy horizon, St. Thomas is better known for its luxury—from the mega-yachts moored in the harbor to the Gucci, Nicole Miller and Tiffany & Co. storefronts along Main Street. Located a short ferry ride east, St. John intoxicates honeymooners and nature lovers with more than 7,000 acres of dedicated parkland plus its pristine beaches. Way down south in the Caribbean Sea, less-visited St. Croix has sugar cane plantations and rum distilleries that offer a glimpse into both the past and the present of the Virgin Islands.
Must-do: About two miles off St. Croix’s northern coast, Buck Island Reef National Monument is best visited by day trip from Christiansted, St. Croix’s capital. Take a half-day snorkeling trip aboard a 40-foot catamaran, run by Big Beard’s Adventure Tours. 866-733-4482, bigbeards.com
Determining Puerto Rico’s charm is a no-brainer. Less than a three-hour flight from Miami, this island is a U.S. territory. So when you’re shopping in San Juan, you can pay for your souvenirs with American bills. Nevertheless, this isn’t quite a home away from home. It’s a stroll back through time at El Morro fortress in San Juan Bay and an up-close look at the contemporary Calle del Cristo, a haven of restaurants, art galleries and boutiques not that far away. It’s an exhilarating mix of landscapes, from the serpentine jungle of El Yunque to the corkscrew caves of Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy.
San Juan’s main beach, Condado, isn’t as popular as those in the northeast city of Rincón or as the shores on the separate island of Vieques, but visitors like the area for its proximity to shops and restaurants.
And if you want to get away from civilization entirely, you can ferry over to the secluded—not to mention gorgeous—islands of Vieques and Culebra.
When other Caribbean isles put a premium on wintertime at the beach, Puerto Rico offers year-round affordable packages to relax along its blanched sands. And while other regional spots like to advertise exciting nightlife, the capital city of San Juan actually delivers. Follow a pulsating beat to the dance clubs in the Santurce neighborhood, catch some live music in a Ponce lounge, or grab a casual drink at a San Sebastián bar.
Must-do: Walking tour of Old San Juan. Consisting of 400 restored buildings from the 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial period, this area in San Juan is steeped in history with an old-world and romantic European charm. You’ll discover many opportunities for shopping and nightlife as well.
Where to Stay
Sands at Grace Bay – This 114 suite luxury resort nestled on world-famous Grace Bay on Providenciales is an ideal location. Oversized balconies face the sea. From $625/night double.
The West Bay Club – West Bay Club features extravagant appointed ocean-front suites and a boutique range of amenities—all placed directly on the white sands of Turks and Caicos most famous attraction, Grace Bay Beach. 649-946-8550
Hotel 1829 – Built in 1829 by a French sea captain, the 14-room hotel is on St. Thomas’s Charlotte Amalie harbor. From $125/night double. 800-524-2002
Hotel on the Cay – This facility on St. Croix is accessible by a free two-minute water taxi that runs 24 hours. The hotel has its own sandy beach, and each of the 53 rooms boasts an ocean view. From $149/night double.
Marriott San Juan Resort – A full service resort located on San Juan’s Condado Beach. From $229/night double. 1309 Ashford Ave, San Juan
Royal Isabela Golf Resort – Oh yes, they play golf in Puerto Rico and this may be the best golfing on the island. From $599/night. 396 Ave Noel Estrada, Isabela
Where to Dine
Da Conch Shack – Nobody visits Turks and Caicos without a visit to this open-air landmark restaurant where the signature conch salad is considered “the best in the world.” Blue Hills Road. Providenciales, 649-946-8877.
Magnolia – It’s famous for sunset views from the deck as well as for the food. The sesame-crusted rare seared tuna is a favorite. Miramar Resort, Providenciales, 649-941-5108
The Terrace Restaurant – Classic French cuisine in a colonial tropical setting on the waterfront. Fresh oyster happy-hour daily. 3 FA Cruz Bay Quarter, Cruz Bay 00830, St. John. 340-779-8550
Havana Blue – The menu is Nuevo-Cuban with many twists to traditional Cuban culinary dishes in an upscale Miami-style room. 5 Estate Bakkeroe, St. Thomas, 340-715-2583
Restaurarte Vida Ventura – Nestled near the central mountain town of Adjuntas, this venue is Puerto Rico’s answer to the slow-food movement. Chef Ventura Vivoni plans a set menu, which changes daily depending on locally available resources.
Adjuntas, Puerto Rico. 787-829-9096
Parrot Club –This place still sets the standard for Nuevo Latino cuisine anywhere. The menu here combines Puerto Rican and regional classics, drawing on the island’s Spanish, African, Taíno, and American influences. There’s a criolla-styled flank steak and a pan-seared tuna served with a dark rum-orange sauce. Calle Fortaleza, San Juan. 787-725-7370