EIGHT GREAT AFFORDABLE CARIBBEAN GETAWAYS
(MONEY Magazine) – Still stroking those old Caribbean photographs, wishing you had the time and money to return to fantasy island? It's not too late. You can still dive into one of the 162,000 hotel rooms dotting the Caribbean from Jamaica to Trinidad. In fact, the consumer craze for shorter trips (two-night hops are now the rage), not to mention a 23% rise in available rooms since 1990, will smooth your last-minute landing--even now during high season, when prices run 40% higher than in spring or summer.
"Peak-season values can still be had if you know where to look," says Kathie Dyson, a veteran island hopper and editor of the newsletter Travel Savvy ($19.95 for six issues annually; 203-431-4117). She notes that by booking the right package you can easily save 20% or more. After canvassing agents and packagers, we found eight of the best-value Caribbean escapes that you can book from now through April--high season. Prices are per person, double occupancy, and include all hotel and service taxes.
Outsize fun. If your kind of trip includes bright lights, nightlife and dining options, call the 950-room El Conquistador Resort & Country Club, set in the fishing village of Las Crobas in northeastern Puerto Rico. This theme park of a resort, spread over 500 acres, offers an 18-hole golf course, seven tennis courts, a disco, casino gambling, nine restaurants and five pools that--no kidding--cover a two-acre area. Book a five-night stay by having your travel agent call Go Go Tours (201-934-3801) for $1,088 (air and land, round trip from New York City). That's roughly $500 less than the resort's standard rate, without air and taxes.
Beach special. On French and Dutch St. Maarten, the chic crowd stays at $600-a-night hostelries like La Sammana. But you can join the celeb crowd for a song by bunking at the simply comfortable 62-room Laguna Beach Hotel, which offers a full-size pool, a French Creole restaurant, free shuttle service to casinos and the island's world-famous duty-free shops. (Stay on the French side for the best prices.) USAir Vacations (800-455-0123) has a seven-night, $839 package that includes air fare (round trip from New York City) and a few extras, like free passes to the St. Maarten Zoo.
Slowly returning to favor since the 1983 American invasion and known for its fragrant nutmeg and clove crops, Grenada appeals to the wallet as well as the senses. The island's only large luxury resort, the low-rise, 186-room Grenada Renaissance Resort, is located on Grande Anse Beach and spans 20 acres, with two restaurants, a fitness center and two tennis courts for day and evening play. For $600, Island Resort Tours (212-251-1770) floats you away for seven nights (land only).
The sporting crowd. With greens fees and equipment rentals running upwards of $100 a day at some top resorts, it pays to book a sports package. Scuba divers can get acquainted with Bonaire's rich underworld by staying at the 70-room Harbour Village Beach Resort (800-424-0004) for a land-only $757 (five nights) or $1,062 (seven nights). You'll get unlimited shore dives and five boat or night dives to explore the world-famous coral reefs where thousands of sea creatures thrive. Guests also score daily American breakfast, free use of sailboats and kayaks, plus a car rental for a one-day island excursion.
Set on a 400-acre Jamaica sugar plantation on Montego Bay is the 508-room Wyndham Rose Hall (800-996-3426), where the 18-hole golf course, one of the island's finest, winds through the mountains to the shore. Other distractions include four restaurants serving local and Continental cuisine, a maze of three interconnecting pools and a full complement of free (nonmotorized) water sports. Rates are $714 for a five-night package or $904 for a week (land only), including breakfast buffet and unlimited time on the golf course (greens fees, cart and caddie included).
Total bang for the buck. Ten years ago, only Club Med, Sandals and a few others marketed the everything-included concept. Now, over a quarter of all Carib- bean properties have morphed into all- or semi-inclusive resorts.
One of the top deals for families can be found at Jamaica's 76-suite Franklyn D. Resort, where parents will appreciate that tots to 14-year-olds stay, play and eat for free. Located on Runaway Bay, FDR wows kids with shell hunting, mountain picnics and a video arcade. Activities are arranged through the club's free kiddie camp or--get this--a personal nanny, whose cooking and babysitting services are included in the price. For adults, there's tennis, a fitness center and all water sports. Travel with Vacation Depot (800-493-3768 or ask your travel agent), and you'll pay $1,699 per adult, including round-trip air from the East Coast.
The 283-room, low-rise Renaissance Capella Beach Resort (800-468-3571) in Villas del Mar in the Dominican Republic offers an appealing seven-night semi-inclusive getaway. Set on almost 18 beachfront acres, you can choose among tennis, billiards and a full roster of water sports from snorkeling to kayaking. Or you can zone out at one of two freeform pools with swim-up bars. The $813 land-only package gets you breakfast buffet and dinner (no drinks) plus a one-day island tour featuring Santo Domingo's historic Colonial Zone (worth $40).
A-list rentals. Join glam villa vets like Princesses Di and Caroline by renting your own castle in the sun. Creative Leisure (800-413-1000), the Petaluma, Calif.-based tour packager, offers a variety of rental deals that also include discount air fares for 96 one- to five-bedroom villas in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Most villas come with private pools, terraces and spectacular views. For an extra $270 to $345 per week, you can also arrange for a chef, maid and daily babysitter. Sample: For a week, six adults can share a cushy three-bedroom, cliffside villa in St. Thomas, paying $959 each, round trip from Chicago, or $856 per person from New York City.
Before you pack. However last-minute your trip, remember these tips:
Every bundled vacation package should include your hotel rate and taxes. This is key because island hotel levies can add a sea-sickening 23% to your bill. The price should also cover round-trip airport-hotel transfers and any fees for baggage handling--even without air fare.
Paying by credit card will allow you to challenge charges upon your return in case you run into trouble in paradise.
If possible, book Wednesday to Wednesday for seven-night stays. You'll have a 50% better chance of getting a reservation and a plane seat than you would by booking weekend to weekend.
Relying on an experienced travel agent can knock $50 to $100 off package rates. But before dealing with a pro, ask if you'll have to pay for their expertise. Recently, some travel agents have begun charging fees of up to $100 for services that used to be free to all travelers.