Why Visit the Caribbean Islands?

They are all the Same - Aren't They?

One of the things I love most about travelling is that you see things with your own eyes.  As the long, cold, dark Winter months begin to draw in in the UK, I am curled up on the sofa flicking through marketing brochures and wishing I was sunbathing on a deserted, powdery white, coconut palm fringed Caribbean beach – rum punch in hand – with the sea gently lapping onto the shore beside me.  

Souvenir Tea Towel Les Saintes Guadeloupe Caribbean Islands
Souvenir Tea Towel Les Saintes - Guadeloupe

In my mind’s eye, I had an idyllic picture of what the Caribbean Islands would be like.  Maybe I have been watching too much Death in Paradise?!  I’m not sure where it came from or how it painted itself, but it felt so real to me that I just longed to go out and touch it.  It is one thing to sit and dream, but quite another thing to actually go there and experience a place for yourself.  It was time to make my Caribbean Islands dream a reality …

I once had a friend who visited the Caribbean Islands on a Cruise Ship and only got off twice in a whole fortnight.  “I didn’t bother after that, because all the islands are the same?”  This December, I was on a mission to find out if she was right – or not.

The Caribbean Islands - Map
https://geology.com/world/caribbean-satellite-image.shtml

Just How Many Caribbean Islands Are There?

The first thing that surprised me about the Caribbean Islands is that there are so many of them.  I think it would make a good quiz question – How many Caribbean Islands can you name?

Starting from the North and working your way around 1,500 miles to the islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao off the coast of Venezuela, you could count up to 26 – but some of these are actually groups of smaller islands:

  • Cuba
  • Jamaica
  • Haiti
  • Dominica/Dominican Republic
  • Puerto Rico
  • British Virgin Islands
  • US Virgin Islands
  • Anguilla
  • St. Maarten/St. Martin
  • St.-Barthélemy
  • St. Kitts and Nevis
  • Antigua and Barbuda
  • Montserrat
  • Guadeloupe
  • Dominica
  • Martinique
  • St. Lucia
  • St. Vincent and the Grenadines
  • Barbados
  • Grenada
  • Tobago
  • Trinidad
  • Aruba
  • Curaçao
  • Caribbean Netherlands:  Bonaire, St. Eustatius. Saba
  • Turks and Caicos Islands

The Caribbean Islands - My Journey

I had 9 days to spend and wanted to explore as many of the islands as I could in that time.  I managed to visit 8:  Puerto Rico, St. Maarten/St. Martin, Guadeloupe (Les Saintes), Antigua, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines (Bequia) and Barbados.

Whether visiting 8 islands in 9 days is enough of a sample to answer the question “Why Visit the Caribbean Islands – They are all the same – Aren’t They?” I don’t know.  I am sure there will be many who will say I should have visited different islands, many who will say I should have stayed longer or explored further, but life is too short for shoulds and oughtas, so my opinion is based solely on what I saw with my own eyes during my own little trip.  I remain open to persuasion on my conclusions – indeed, it would be an interesting discussion – and one I would enjoy.

The Caribbean Islands - In a Nutshell

I love this photo – taken in Evita Henderson-Arrundell’s studio in St. Maarten. It shows one of the Titah Frock sculptures they make there.  Titah was the name little children would call their sister when they were unable to pronounce the word Sister.  In days gone by, women in the community who sewed for the wealthy would save the fabric scraps and use them to make wonderful frocks for themselves, so patchwork became the focus of the Titah Frock sculptures, aimed at keeping local traditions and culture alive.

Titah Frock Sculpture - Evita Henderson-Arrundell’s studio -St. Maarten - Caribbean Islands

For me, the photo sums up the Caribbean Islands in a nutshell.  It is a good metaphor for a colourful patchwork of islands each constructed from a fabric just a little different from its neighbour but co-ordinating perfectly with each other, so that when joined together, they may be regarded almost as a seamless entity.

The Caribbean Islands - Sharing a Common History

The original island dwellers – the Arawaks/Amerindians – have been described as a peaceful people, skilled at making a living from cultivating crops in their fertile volcanic soil and harvesting an abundant supply of fish and seafood from the bountiful blue seas that surrounded them.  Blessed by a sunny climate and no lack of water, there was maybe a good reason to be peaceful?

Amerindians - the indigenous Caribbean people. Painting in Fort Napoleon des Saintes - Guadeloupe - Caribbean Islands
Amerindians - the indigenous Caribbean people. Painting in Fort Napoleon des Saintes - Guadeloupe

Imagine what a colourful and chaotic confusion the land must have looked like way back then:  Tall banana, plantain, mango, breadfruit and paw paw trees providing shade from the hot sun enabling a huge variety of crops to thrive beneath them in the fertile soil.  Sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins, water melons, red & yellow peppers, corn, peas, beans, figs, limes, plantains, artichokes, avocados and pomegranates would all have been there – planted haphazardly, intertwined with passion flowers and convolvulus and fruiting quickly in the favourable warm, sunny climate.

The Carib People. Painting in Fort Napoleon des Saintes - Guadeloupe
The Carib People. Painting in Fort Napoleon des Saintes - Guadeloupe

In around 1200 BC, the peaceful scene was disturbed somewhat by the Caribs, who came in their canoes from the Northwest Amazon and have the reputation of being considerably fiercer than the original settlers.  Worse was still to come though.

Just as the Titah Frock sculptures are made up of scraps from wealthy people’s clothes, so the Caribbean islands share a common history of being torn apart over many years by colonial powers from all over Europe.  Portugal, Spain, Britain, France, and Holland all came to the Caribbean islands greedy for gold (but not finding it) and often fighting between themselves to retain dominance and power during their stay.  

Over the best part of 300 years (until the abolition of slavery in 1838), they used/abused the labour of some 17 million African slaves to grow cash crops such as sugar cane, tobacco and bananas.  They also brought with them smallpox, syphilis and the common cold, to which the natives had no immunity.  On the other hand, the islands I visited did all have good education and medical services which may not have existed if the history of these islands had played out differently?

English Harbour Antigua - Caribbean Islands
English Harbour Antigua - Caribbean Islands
Fort - San Juan - Puerto Rico - Caribbean Islands
Fort - San Juan - Puerto Rico

Although the colonial period is more than a whole generation in the past now, the Caribbean islands I visited were all still very much dominated by the relics and remnants of their colonial past.  Their defensive forts remain prominent features on the coastlines.  The language spoken is that of the colonisers and the houses look as though they have been transported from their countries too (although growing sadly rather shabby on their journey?).  St. Maarten/St. Martin was one of the most interesting islands – divided into two with a Dutch side and a French side – each with different languages, currencies and even petrol prices.

French Town Hall - Guadeloupe - Caribbean Islands
French Town Hall - Guadeloupe - Caribbean Islands

So – you can’t say that the Caribbean islands are all the same – they speak different languages for a start!  Somehow though, the common history that unites the majority of these islands gave rise to a familiar feeling the more I travelled through them.  The colonisers may have come from several different countries, but their impact on these sun and rum soaked islands has been much the same?   The islands do have their own identities, but there are so many similarities that it is kind of hard to claim that each is unique?

What About the Food - Do the Caribbean Islands Each Have their Own Culinary Identity?

What about the food, I hear you ask – do the Caribbean Islands each have their own culinary identity?

Interestingly, the colonisers found that – given their great skills as crop farmers – it was often more economical to let the African slaves feed themselves than to import expensive foodstuffs for them.  Plots of land were allocated and slaves were allowed to sell surplus crops at the market on Sundays – their only day off.

Market Day - Painting by Dame Ruby Bute - Silk Cotton Grove Art Studio - St. Martin - Caribbean Islands
Market Day - Painting by Dame Ruby Bute

These days, although crops were still being grown in the islands I visited, most food is now imported.  If Market Days do still happen, I didn’t see any evidence of them on my trip. Instead, I saw plenty of cheap souvenir stands in the islands’ small capitals and tiny rural villages, catering for the influx of more than 25 million tourists per annum – all I guess lured by the same Caribbean dream that had imprinted itself in my own mind back in the mists of time somewhere.

San Juan - Puerto Rico - Caribbean Islands
San Juan - Puerto Rico - Caribbean Islands

In the French side of St. Martin, I visited the Silk Cotton Grove Art Studio of artist and folk poet Dame Ruby Bute.  Now an elderly lady and a pillar of her community, she writes her poetry with a constructive nostalgia for the past, focussing positively on how we can use the past as a guiding light to find solutions for the future. 

Dame Ruby Bute - Silk Cotton Grove Art Studio - St. Martin - Caribbean Islands
Dame Ruby Bute - Silk Cotton Grove Art Studio - St. Martin

For some deep down reason I may never completely understand, her passionate reading of her own poem “Market Day” brought a tear to my eye.  She squeezed my hand as she signed her book “Golden Voices of S’Maatin” for me and said with a big wide smile – “I like to write about HAPPY people!”

MARKET DAY

It’s Market Day,
that’s when everybody go down to the bay,
to buy provision and yams,
to pick out the potatoes and fish.
In the Market we meet all the various faces and races,
chatting, greeting
and don’t forget the latest melee.

The well-experienced housewives seriously peer at the fish,
Taking them up
Putting them down,
taking them up again
and turning them around.
That’s the way to buy fish!

The young men,
hopeully looking at the women passing by,
They all want a wife.
The older fellows slamming dominoes
and swearing among themselves,
Look at that, the changes of life.

The fishing boats
so colourful in a row
while the waves playfully slap against them,
My God, what a pretty day!
It is Saturday morning,
So, child, let me go down and admire the people,
the food
and the Bay.

Market Day – From Golden Voices of S’Maatin by Dame Ruby Bute

Market Day - Painting by Dame Ruby Bute - Silk Cotton Grove Art Studio - St. Martin - Caribbean Islands
Market Day - Painting by Dame Ruby Bute
Happy People - Painting by Dame Ruby Bute - Silk Cotton Grove Art Studio - St. Martin - Caribbean Islands
Silk Cotton Grove Art Studio - St. Martin
Painting by Dame Ruby Bute - Silk Cotton Grove Art Studio - St. Martin - Caribbean Islands
Happy People

It’s not quite the same to read the poem without seeing Ruby’s sparkling eyes, her wide smile and her immaculate timing and intonation, but I invite you to imagine …?

Bus - St. Lucia - Caribbean Islands
Bus - St. Lucia - Caribbean Islands

Whilst I didn’t see the bustling markets that I would have liked to find on any of the islands I visited, I did find some local delicacies that are worthy of note:

  • Mofongo in Puerto Rico:  mashed plantains sculpted into bowl and stuffed with your choice of protein – eg chicken in creamy garlic sauce.
  • Small green sweet bananas in the Grenadines (Bequia).
  • Bajan salt cod fish cakes and fried plantains in Barbados.
  • Guavaberry rum in St. Maarten/St. Martin: a bittersweet spiced taste.
  • Iced Mojito, made from crushed mint and locally distilled rum – available everywhere.
  • Hot Sauce – Each island makes it with their own twist
Coconut Fish - Les Saintes - Guadeloupe - Caribbean Islands
Coconut Fish - Les Saintes - Guadeloupe
Colourful Hot Sauce Bottles - Les Saintes - Guadeloupe - Caribbean Islands
Colourful Hot Sauce Bottles

I would really like to be able to write that I found a rich melting pot of cuisine merging the best of Indian, African and European skills and flavours in the Caribbean Islands and that each island has specialist delicacies all of its own to discover-  but that just would not be true.  

Canaree Cooking Pot - Caribbean Islands
Canaree Cooking Pot on Traditional Madras Fabric - Caribbean Islands

I did find a few people who would – when prompted – talk with nostalgia about the signature Caribbean pepper pot soup.  This hearty meat stew was once central to the cuisine on the islands.  The essential ingredient is cassava root which contains a poisonous juice which has to be wrung out from the root and boiled until it yields a thick black treacle like substance called cassareep – a long and arduous process. 

Many centuries ago, the clever Indians had learned that – once extracted – cassareep can be used to preserve fresh meat dropped into it.  They found that you could keep adding more meat and reboiling the pot every day – so your pepper pot soup would always be there waiting for you when you got back home. 

“The grand plantation houses would be regularly called upon to feed travellers who had to stay overnight, so a constant supply of ready food was necessary. The canaree, an enormous earthenware pot blackened with age, was wrapped with fresh white napkins and magnificently placed on the great mahogany sideboards each day at luncheon. From its steaming savoury depths could be drawn a delicious miscellany of stewed meats.”

Mackie, Cristine. Life and Food in the Caribbean. New Amsterdam Books

It is very unlikely that you will find pepper pot stew on the menu today though.  It is a dish designed to keep many hungry people economically fed, while building up the island plantation estates to produce the ‘white gold’ – sugar cane.  These days, the islands make their money mostly from tourism and most tourists don’t want to eat pepper pot stew.  So – despite my best efforts – I never got to try it either.

A gift that the Caribbean Islands did give to the world though that is still very much in evidence today is the barbecue – originating from the Taino word barbacoa (meaning grilling on a raised wooden grate).  Meat and fish barbecues – often spiked with an island’s own favourite version of a hot and spicy barbecue sauce – range from basic roadside firepits to sophisticated seaside restaurants.  A Fish Fry is always a fun way to eat with the locals.  As a tourist, you certainly won’t go hungry in the Caribbean!

Caribbean Islands - Fish Fry

The Caribbean Islands are all the Same - Aren’t They?

Just like a patchwork made up of many colourful scraps of fabric -the Caribbean islands (perhaps with the exception of the islands where the US has intervened (e.g. Cuba, Haiti and Puerto Rico) have so many similarities that – in my view – my conclusion was that the differences are barely discernible.

The Caribbean Islands - Why Go There?

Though the scars of colonialism are still very much in evidence in the Caribbean islands, those days are long gone now.  Since 1926, when the first Caribbean cruise ship called in, the Caribbean Islands have been relying more or les solely on mass tourism to survive.  You can see why – they have a lot to offer the average tourist looking for a dose of relaxation:

Anse La Raye Bay - Bequia - St. Lucia - Caribbean Islands
Anse La Raye Bay - Bequia - St. Lucia - Caribbean Islands
Anse La Raye Bay - St. Lucia - Caribbean Islands
Anse La Raye Bay - St. Lucia
  • Sunshine – but come between December and May to avoid heavy rain – and hurricanes
  • Beaches – but many are volcanic black beaches and those on the Atlantic side of the islands are not safe for swimming
  • Lush rainforests – but a skilled local guide may well be necessary to find your way – and steer clear of snakes
  • Tropical Gardens – I can especially recommend Diamond Botanical Gardens  – St. Lucia and Flower Forest Barbados 
  • Coral Reef Snorkelling – especially in St. Lucia, Guadeloupe, Barbados and Antigua. I would have loved to visit the tiny island of Saba though – the Caribbean’s “Unspoiled Queen.  Reachable from St. Martin and home to a National Marine Park, I imagine – and hope –  that the snorkelling experience is at its most rewarding there?
Torch Ginger - Diamond Botanical Gardens St. Lucia - Caribbean Islands
Torch Ginger
Diamond Botanical Gardens St. Lucia
Diamond Botanical Gardens St. Lucia

You can imagine the devastation that Covid-19 brought to this tourism dependent area still trying to recover from the massive blow that Hurricanes Irma and Maria dealt them in 2017, when the island of Barbuda was completely wiped out.  We saw several hotels which had been damaged beyond repair – and never rebuilt.

The Caribbean Islands - What Does the Future Hold?

“Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.” — Bertolt Brecht

At the end of my 9 day trip to the Caribbean Islands, I am left wondering – if my grandchildren were to visit in 20 years time or so what they will find there?  What does the future hold for this part of the world?

Atlantic Coastline - Barbados
Atlantic Coastline - Barbados - What Does the Future hold for the Caribbean Islands?

Judging by what I saw, it is hard to imagine that the future will be bright if the heavy dependence on mass tourism continues – unless quality does eventually begin to reign over quantity.  Some of the islands are developing more diverse economies with alternative industries such as manufacturing, mining, technology, financial and professional services – maybe that is the way forward?  Maybe harnessing the power of the sun and investing in solar energy might be a plan – but that would take time and money – who would actually take the initiative to make that happen? 

Maybe a climate providing the ideal conditions for growing the marijuana that has long been associated with the Caribbean lifestyle will be part of the islands’ future?   Jamaican born King of Reggae Bob Marley had a pro-marijuana stance after all and the benefits of medical marijuana are being increasingly debated?  In the wrong hands though, this could be disastrous.

Cannabis Gummies - Photo by Elsa Olofsson on Unsplash
Cannabis Gummies - Photo by Elsa Olofsson on Unsplash

I will give the last word to Derek Walcott – a Saint Lucian poet and winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature,  He speaks movingly about the fragility of his island home increasingly threatened by “progress” in the form of mass tourism and rampant development.  When accepting his Nobel Prize, he said:

“How quickly it could all disappear!  And how it is beginning to drive us further into where we hope are impenetrable places, green secrets at the end of bad roads, headlands where the next view is not of a hotel but of some long beach without a figure and the hanging question of some fisherman’s smoke at its far end.”

Where Else Could I Go Then?

If you are looking for Winter sun but prefer eco-friendly tourism to mass tourism, I would suggest a trip to Costa Rica in preference to the Caribbean Islands any day.  With some fantastic “once in a lifetime” accommodation choices available, Costa Rica  also has hugely diverse wildlife watching opportunities too.  By contrast, the Caribbean has little more than iguanas and rainforest birdsong. 

Lapa Rios Eco Lodge Costa Rica Room with a View
Lapas Rios Eco Lodge - Costa Rica
Salut Manatus! Three toed sloth (and baby!) America
Three Toed Sloth - Tortugero National Park - Costa Rica

If history is your thing, then a trip to the Deep South of America will tell you all you ever needed to know about the Slave Trade and take your mind of the horrors of it all by entertaining you with it’s rich and varied musical history en route – and an exciting range of cocktails too.

Morning Sunshines Deep South USA Deep South USA New Orleans - in full Swing America
New Orleans Jazz Festival
Deep South USA Cocktail Trail Mint Julep - Monmouth Historic Inn, Natchez
Deep South USA - Cocktail Trail

Wherever you choose to wander, I wish you safe and happy travels!

  • Post category:Caribbean