But that’s a misconception that savvy travelers can easily squash; the Caribbean isn’t just for the rich and fabulous! With affordable flights to Jamaica, St. Maarten, and Puerto Rico on carriers like JetBlue, American Airlines, and AirTran, plus a wealth of low-key accommodations, simple island restaurants, and a never-ending playground of land and water-based sports, it’s easy to imagine sun-tanning and soaking up the sights, tastes, and sounds of this breezy destination. Here are our suggestions for a low-fuss, low-cost Caribbean island holiday…
(P.S. Keep in mind that rates on flights and hotels dip significantly from early to mid-April through the end of May during the start of the low season, too!)
DIVING and SNORKELING
Caye Caulker, Belize
Sitting pretty at the top of the Caribbean’s barrier reef — the second largest in the world — Belize is the ultimate Caribbean destination for enjoying the gifts of the water. Boasting more than 450 islets that shoulder a stunning coral reef, Caye Caulker is the placefor those looking to go easy on their wallet. Book into Caye Caulker Plaza Hotel, located in the center of town and within walking distance of the beach and the Split, a local swim hangout. Rooms start at $55 (with air conditioning!) and the hotel can take care of all your diving needs, especially a trip to the famed Blue Hole, the Caribbean’s ultimate scuba dive. Cheaper still? Check out Yuma's (formerly known as Tina’s) a backpacker hostel that has been renovated by new owners and tops out at around $28.50 for a private room.
Don’t feel like diving? Snorkeling trips can be arranged through EZ Boy Tours, and after a long day of whatever water pleasure you choose, head to the Lazy Lizard for happy hour deals (two-for-one rum punch specials are $2.50) and a killer sunset. Finish the day with cheap eats at Syd's, an indoor/outdoor Belizean restaurant serving home-cooked food with a side of local flavor — just about $4.50 for huge plate of fried chicken and two sides.
Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
The largest of the Cayman Islands, Grand Cayman’s crystalline waters are the stuff of dreams, and its Seven Mile Beach has graced the covers of countless glossy magazines. Known for its underwater coral reefs and sea walls, in addition to a number of shipwrecks, Grand Cayman is the Caribbean hot spot to log some serious time under the sea. For good rates, try Don Foster’s where one-tank dives start at just $50, wreck dives can be found for $65, and two-tanks for as little as $85. In addition to favorites dive sites like the Devil’s Grotto and Stingray City, don’t miss the island’s newest dive attraction: the USS Kittiwake wreck, sunk in January 2011. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/Food Stories)
Best bet for lodging? Sunshine Suites, just off the water on Seven Mile Beach, but half as pricey as the nearby Westin! With respect to making your dollar last when it comes to food, Grand Cayman has a long list of cheap eats. A couple of favorites include Tim-Buc-Tuu-Diner in West Bay that offers all-you-can-eat pancakes for $5 every morning from 8 a.m. to11 a.m., and heaping dinners of chicken, pork, beef, seafood for around $10. For roadside jerk chicken, it’s all about Seymour’s, a local shack where the BBQ pits are made from old metal drums and live chickens roam the area feasting with diners on their less fortunate counterparts.
To bond with nature in the Caribbean, we suggest hitting Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Rainforest, a recent finalist in the New Seven Wonders of the World competition. Located about 25 miles east of San Juan, El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, is worth the trip. There is no entry fee to visit El Yunque, which spans 28,000 acres and reaches 3,624 feet into the sky. Though the various trails and waterfalls are easy for visitors to access on their own, park rangers offer first-come first served guided tours for $5 from the Palo Colorado Information Center and local tour operators feature half- and full-day itineraries for a bit more cash. For mid-hike refuels, head to Muralla, near La Coca Falls, and order the $5 arroz con pollo.
Though big-name hotels line PR-3, Puerto Rico’s main drag connecting eastern cities, the Yunque Mar Beach Hotel is a great alternative. Located just outside Luquillo on a gorgeous stretch of isolated beachfront property, this no-frills joint gives you easy access to the rainforest, as well as Luquillo’s other treasure: the Luquillo kioskos. Numbering around 60, the kioskos are a popular foodie destination selling everything from pastelillos, or Puerto Rican empanadas, to fresh seafood and grilled lobsters. Best bets? The stuffed burgers and loaded fries at El Jefe (number 12), Spanish-style small plates at Tapas 13 (number 13), Peruvian-style ceviches at Ceviche Hut (number 38), and New York-style deli sandwiches at the recently opened FoodSpace (number 37). (Photo courtesy of Marie Elena Martinez)