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Small is Beautiful

Some of the most attractive propositions in the Caribbean come in discrete packages

A s a continent of islands, the Caribbean is exceptionally beautiful from the air. The eastern Caribbean islands run south in a line, etched green against the royal and navy blue of the ocean. Occasional, smaller clusters – the Grenadines, St Martin, the British Virgin Islands – rise up beneath you into shallow waters of turquoise and jade. And then as you wheel into final approach, there’s always a good view of the outdoor life – the beach activity, cars beetling, children running, rolling hoops along the street.

But on Petit St Vincent you cannot land at all. Measured in acres rather than square miles – there is nowhere for an airstrip. Instead you arrive by boat, to a wooden jetty. No hardship there – and, anyway, islands offer some of the Caribbean’s most secluded escapes.

He holds the pendulum over my head and it rotates wildly. ‘You’ve a lot on your mind,’ he suggests, before using his hands in a sweeping gesture to brush away the negative energy that is occupying my thought processes.

PSV must have the lowest density of rooms of any Caribbean hotel, just 22 of them, set in stone cottages on the beach, cliff-edge and hillside, looking out to sea, but barely visible from one to the next.

The rationale is complete and utter privacy, so if you raise your red flag, nobody, literally nobody, will disturb you (though apparently they did once interrupt a US Army general’s seclusion to inform him that the Gulf War had started).

The hotel had a major refurbishment in 2011 and in 2012 added a new treetop spa, four natural wood treatment rooms built into the trees, with a view through the verdant branches and to the sea.

Some of the airstrips that do exist on these small islands are short, and hard to access. I remember, for example, a particularly interesting landing on Mustique. Moments later, the pilot came up cheerily over the intercom with a: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we have just landed – for the third time – on Mustique. Welcome. I hope you have a nice stay.’

Mustique is mainly about villas. Many remain private, but around 75 are available for rent. New last year – and reputedly the last that will be built on a new plot on the island – is Villa Sienna. The Palladian-style mansion has five bedrooms with plenty of indoor and outdoor entertaining space and two swimming pools. It also has a lovely, breezy setting overlooking Macaroni beach east coast (popular as a family picnic destination).

The new, Palladian-style Villa Sienna on Mustique has five bedrooms with plenty of indoor and outdoor entertaining space, two swimming pools and a lovely setting

As you head north the islands become larger. St Vincent soars from the sea, crumpling into vivid green mountain ranges and valleys that are impossibly fertile. Near the northern tip, you overfly the volcano crater.

Then St Lucia comes into view and soon the two Pitons, signature Caribbean landmarks, rise on the horizon. They are spectacular from the air, twin pointy peaks, the sides of a crumbled volcanic crater, that stand solid like massive incisors.

Actually the best way to see them is via a helicopter tour – you clear the 1,000ft inland ridge and suddenly the whole bay opens up beneath you before you descend, rapidly, in a spiral. The huge black rockface of the Petit Piton is so close that you could almost reach out and touch it.

There has been some activity in the area in recent months. The Hotel Chocolat, which opened in early 2012, sits just behind the Pitons on a cocoa plantation. It’s owned by the chocolate company of the same name and it continues to grow cocoa for its corporate use. Rooms are in traditional St Lucian lodges on the hillside behind the restaurant, Boucan, which has a very modern and stylish deck in several shades of brown wood. Interestingly, though perhaps predictably, the chef uses chocolate in all the courses – starters and mains as well as desserts.

Between the Pitons themselves, where the helicopter descends, lies the former Jalousie Plantation, which has re-emerged this season as Sugar Beach, a Viceroy Resort, after a huge refurbishment. Beneath the massive black rockface of the Petit Piton and the jungle green, the new rooms stand out satisfyingly stark in white. They have traditional Caribbean design – shingle roofs, gingerbread trim, louvered French windows and hardwood floors.

Tiamo has just 10 cottages set in their own gardens and giving onto a magnificent stretch of palm-backed bright white Bahamian sand

Two centuries on from their marine and naval heyday in the late 1700s, the Caribbean islands still see plenty of maritime activity. As you fly north over Antigua, the yachts sprinkle English and Falmouth Harbours, flecked white against the shining blue.

For real privacy, though, you need an offshore island and Jumby Bay, one of the explosion of islands off the north-east coast, is among the Caribbean’s most luxurious.

The rumour runs that jets taking off from Antigua are asked to turn onto their flight path as early as possible, ensuring that guests are undisturbed. The island’s 40 rooms have been refurbished recently, in an urbane tropical style, and the central areas have been revamped to give a delightful Caribbean feel and to take in the best of the island’s superb west-facing beach.

A few islands further north is St Barts – and those who have flown into there know it is an essential Caribbean experience. The airstrip is on the single stretch of flat land even vaguely large enough, and ironically it is called ‘Plain of Torment’. There’s a hill just where you would like the pilot to line up… So, it’s a steep descent – trying not to take off a passing car driver’s hat on approach – and a screech of brakes the moment you land.

Once you’re safely down on the ground, though, you can enjoy the spectacle from St Jean Bay. The tiny planes seem to dangle there on a piece of string dangled by a playful sprite. All flights are obliged to leave before dusk and so you can have a sundowner and watch the activity – from the On the Rocks bar at the Eden Rock hotel. Then you can turn your mind to dinner – orchestrated by executive chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

As the pilot thrums the engines, and you lift off over the Bahamian Sea, it reveals itself in its full majesty

The Bahamas are a continent of islands in themselves – around 3,000 of them if you include the sandbars that appear at low tide – and they look incredible as you fly over them.

In fact they are geographically different from the Caribbean, being the remains of a limestone mountain massif, which has sunk and been uplifted.

One very secluded hotel there is Tiamo, on South Andros. It has no airstrip, but guests can still fly in, by seaplane – after declaring their bodyweight, which comes as something of a novelty to many.

The resort has just 10 cottages set in their own gardens and giving onto a magnificent stretch of palm-backed bright white Bahamian sand. Many people spend their days in active pursuits – scuba-diving, canoeing and bone-fishing – but others find themselves at full stretch in the spa, after which they retire to a sun-lounger to wait for the sunset.

Eventually though, the time comes to leave, and you climb aboard the seaplane again (they don’t usually ask you to declare your weight a second time, even after a week of good meals and inactivity).

As the pilot thrums the engines, and you lift off over the Bahamian Sea, it reveals itself in its full majesty. It is the granulated limestone, the rock that has been worn down by wave action that gives the sand its exceptionally bright colour.

It is seemingly endless. It shifts and settles on the tide, leaving magnificent shapes underwater in mesmerising ripples, ridges and waves, and reflects the sunlight in the most spectacular shades – of jade, aquamarine and translucent turquoise – that, once seen, will never be forgotten.

Words: Staff

This article was originally published in Halcyon magazine in 2013

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