In fact the Bahamian Sea is the original artist’s palette – colours range from the rich azure of the Gulf Stream and Atlantic and rise through electric turquoise and cerulean blue to jade green and the lightest aquamarine. Currents carve gossamer patterns in the sandy sea floor and the chains of islands swirl like necklaces of tiny emeralds.
And everywhere of course, etched black into the light coral baserock, or perched onto the volcanic flanks of the mountainous islands, there are the rectangular strips of the small airports. The Caribbean islands have plenty of these that are quite long enough to take a private jet – which enables you to take ‘island-hopping’ into a new dimension.
The Out Islands of the Bahamas lie quite close to the Florida coast, but they could not be further away in atmosphere. Guests of the Abaco Club at Winding Bay, which is managed by Ritz Carlton, fly their own planes into Marsh Harbour (actually a commercial airport for the northern island of Abaco) and then taxi across to the private terminal where they pass through Customs and Immigration.
The accommodation is set in natural clapboard cottages, which gives them a fitting, seaside feel – but you don’t have to go without the quality. They are luxurious inside, and in addition to their setting on the beach, they sit on a par-72 golf course, designed by Donald Steel and Tom MacKenzie. Given Bahamian topography and the hotel’s shoreline location, it is called a links course. However, it is rather more tended than the original courses on the coasts of Scotland.
There are so many islands in the Bahamas (700, roughly), that to visit just one would seem like laziness, and the further you get from the Eastern Seaboard of the US, the quieter and dozier they become. Cat Island lies further south east, its back to the Atlantic rollers. Just a few hundred yards away, its leeward side is completely calm, looking onto the Bahama Bank. At 4,980ft, the new strip at Hawk’s Nest at the southwestern tip runs right through the small resort. It is possible to park your aircraft and walk straight over to your room on the beach. It’s as the Caribbean should be.
Here the cottages have a simpler, but more typically Caribbean feel, with colours that jangle, so bright they try to outshine the tropical sun. As you relax on the veranda, looking at the sea from an elevation of just a few feet, the blue of the waves is even more intense (as the tropical sunlight passes through more sea at a flatter angle, causing more refraction).
The main activity – besides prolonged contemplation of the sun over the sea – is fishing, both bone-fishing in the endless shallows, and deep sea fishing in the waters further offshore.
As you fly south, over the last of the Bahamas, deeper sea takes on the richer navy blue. And then the Greater Antilles loom ahead, gradually climbing on the horizon, standing out in a correspondingly richer shade of green. Skip over the eastern end of Cuba and you come to Jamaica, where half way along the north coast you arrive at the new Ian Fleming International Airport, near the town of Boscobel (not far from Ocho Rios). Its tarmac strip is 4,767ft long, capable of taking a small to medium sized private jet. There are Customs and a diminutive zinc luggage carousel.
Within a short drive are two of Jamaica’s finest hotels. Jamaica Inn has been going for half a century and harks harmoniously back to the colonial era, when Jamaica was the most exotic destination in an already romantic region. Flanking Jamaica’s loveliest beach, the rooms are dressed prettily in white and Wedgwood blue, with whole ranks of bottle balustrades. They each have an outdoor living area – something slightly more than a traditional Caribbean veranda – more a drawing room with the elegance of old Jamaica. The calm of the place is exceptional.
The reason that the airstrip carries Ian Fleming’s name is that it was here that the writer kept his house, Goldeneye. And it was here that James Bond was born, on Fleming’s winter holidays – his desk is visible in his original villa, which still stands on the estate. Goldeneye has recently re-opened as a hotel (expanded from the small collection of villas that it was before).
Where Jamaica Inn is a West Indian classic, Goldeneye catches a very modern Caribbean spirit. It is upbeat and very, very cool. When you arrive, preferably in the cool of the Caribbean dusk, you sit in the dining room above the lagoon. The water glows with a rich electric blue and the peep of the tree frogs overlays a pulse of easy reggae.
Here the rooms are variations on a Caribbean natural theme, with hefty island-made furniture that mixes modernism with the tropics, beautifully made teak and traditional serpentine louvres giving onto the view. And you shower in the open air, in a bathroom lined with bamboos and flowering heliconias. One of the Caribbean’s finest views is not far off. Firefly, the home of Noel Coward, (and Henry Morgan, the pirate turned Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica in the late 1600s) sits on a headland just above Oracabessa.
The view stretches east along the north coast for 30 miles, headland after headland fading to grey in the haze. In fact the island of Jamaica itself is worth an overflight. To the west, the Cockpit Country is some of the oddest countryside in the world. It is a dilapidated area of ‘karst’ limestone, which has eroded into unexpectedly regular cones – like a shaggy green egg-box, its compartments three hundred feet high.
In the Eastern Caribbean, the islands of the Lesser Antilles stand like a line of Titans buried to their waists in sea, trying to hold back the advancing Atlantic (literally, in one sense, as the islands are active volcanoes and blow from time to time, under stress from the encroaching Atlantic tectonic plate).
The Grenadines have been calm for centuries – and they are some of the prettiest islands too. Right at the centre of them sits Canouan, whose airstrip is 5,875ft long, large enough to land a commercial passenger aircraft. This makes it accessible, non-stop, from Europe.
The island has some private villas and a hotel, whose rooms stand amphitheatre-like above the beach, looking out towards the windward coast, which is protected by an offshore reef.
There is a championship golf course on Canouan as well – the opposite of a links course. It climbs several hundred feet onto the spine of the island, from where the views are spectacular of course.
But beware Hole 15 on the way down, which has been known to make grown men weep. The green is small and the rough in near vertical. And Hole 16 is interesting too. At 304 yards it is a par 3, and, because it drops 240 vertical feet, it is reckoned to be the longest par 3 in the world.
There is a handful of Caribbean islands on which you may not care to land. The three most ‘exciting’ airstrips are St Barts (extremely short, mountain in the way on approach), Saba (just 400-plus yards long, shorter than most self-respecting aircraft carriers, with a 300ft drop at either end) and Culebra off Puerto Rico (a hill in the way with exceptional windshear).
But it’s a wonderful place to explore and of course, the islands are charming and easy going. You can even eat quite well now in most islands (well…, it’s improving). And of course the views are fantastic.