Going (Slightly) Off the Beaten Path Gets You Island Vacations for Less.
(MONEY Magazine) – With gray, wintry weather just around the corner, images of white sand beaches and swaying palms are decidedly appealing. Unfortunately, the price tag for peak-season travel can leave you out in the cold. And the most popular hot spots aren't quite as picturesque when packed wall to wall with other tourists.
But if you can do without nightclubs, casinos and the full battery of luxury resort amenities, a peak-season holiday on a stunningly beautiful island can be both affordable and serene. The trick? Pick an island that's off the coast of a popular tropical destination. In many such places, a mere hop on an inexpensive ferry or commuter plane not only takes you far from the maddening crowds--not to mention T-shirt vendors and those tacky swim-up bars--but often saves you considerable expense. What these places specialize in is intimacy, privacy and in some cases personalized attention--innkeepers, for example, who are happy to be your guide to an island's history or hiking trails. Plus, if the impulse strikes, you're near enough to take a sightseeing day trip back to the nearby larger island.
There are some trade-offs involved. Accommodations are generally in small hotels, bed and breakfasts, and privately owned homes. That means there's relatively little in the way of nightlife or haute cuisine. In a few cases, you'll even have to bring provisions from the neighboring island and use in-room kitchenettes for cooking.
That said, we found five island destinations--and two more that will appeal mainly to divers--where such trade-offs seem to us more than worthwhile. We checked air fares in late September for January travel, but they're likely to inch up by the time you read this, so use these numbers as a general guide.
Where is it? The northern-most and second largest (after St. Vincent) of the 30-odd islands that make up the independent nation of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which dots the southern Caribbean near Grenada
What you'll find: Hilly and forested with fruit and nut trees, Bequia (pronounced beck-wee) was once a center for whaling and boat building. It still draws yachts of every size, and boaters come ashore most evenings to dine at the waterfront bar at the Frangipani inn, formerly the home of the country's prime minister and now run by his family.
When you've finished exploring the island's seven square miles, you can take a day sail to neighboring Mustique, an exclusive island frequented by British royalty and celebrities. Also nearby are the Tobago Cays, known for some of the best scuba diving in the Caribbean. A trip from Bequia to the Cays is $75, including snorkeling gear.
Getting there: We priced air fare to St. Vincent from New York City, with a connection in Barbados, at $875. A one-hour ferry ride from there to Bequia costs $7. Small planes fly directly to Bequia from Barbados for about the same total cost but often require a layover in Barbados.
Accommodations: For a rustic experience with few amenities, try the Frangipani (784-458-3255). From Dec. 15 to April 14, you pay $1,050 for seven nights in a garden room for two. During the holidays and the month of February, the rate is $1,225. A former sugar estate manor house now called the Old Fort Country Inn (784-458-3440) is more luxurious, if a little pricier. The stone-walled inn features magnificent hilltop views from its 30 acres of gardens. It charges $170 a night through most of the winter and 25% more at holiday time.
Where is it? About five miles south of Tortola, the largest island in the British Virgin Islands
What you'll find: Only 1 1/2 miles long by half a mile wide, Cooper Island is truly a no-frills place. Apart from one resort run by two Brits and their staff, the island boasts one local family, a handful of private houses--two of which can be rented--and a lot of goats. What it doesn't have are roads, cars, nightclubs, casinos, shopping malls or fast-food joints of any kind. Hair dryers and irons are not allowed because electricity is limited. So what do people do here? Well, you can scuba dive--there's a fully equipped dive shop on the island--and hike, but mostly people just relax. The most popular activities are sunbathing, swimming and--get this--reading. Also popular are day trips by boat (arranged by the resort for $65 per person) to Virgin Gorda, which is famous for its baths and caves formed by gigantic boulders.
Getting there: Air fare from New York City to Tortola, British Virgin Islands, via San Juan, Puerto Rico costs about $600. From Tortola you cross the Sir Francis Drake Channel on a ferry in 35 minutes (the fare for which is included in the hotel package as long as you arrive on Monday, Wednesday or Friday). You can also fly into St. Thomas and take a 45-minute ferry ride to Tortola.
Accommodations: The simply furnished rooms of the Cooper Island Beach Club (800-542-4624) on Manchioneel Bay serve as bedroom, living room and kitchen, and each has a balcony overlooking the ocean. Seven nights, including Continental breakfast, lunch and dinner, snorkeling equipment and half a day of kayaking is $999 per person, double occupancy. Without meals, the package goes for $669. For private house rentals contact Ginny Evans (513-232-4126), who rents her two small cottages for $1,190 a week.
We recommend an overnight stay in Tortola for stocking up on provisions if you decide to do your own cooking. Or you can send a list of provisions to the resort, which will stock your kitchen for a fee of 20% of your grocery bill.
CULEBRA, PUERTO RICO
Where is it? You'll find it approximately 17 miles east of Puerto Rico's main island and 12 miles west of St. Thomas.
What you'll find: Also known as the Spanish Virgin Island, Culebra was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and was under the Spanish Crown until 1898, when it was ceded to the U.S. But in many ways, Culebra is still undiscovered. The island and the surrounding cays of Louis Pena, Cayo Norte and Culebrita are largely undeveloped. About one-third of its 7,000 acres are designated as wildlife reserves by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which explains why one of Culebra's specialties is catering to eco-minded tourists. Among the most popular activities here are turtle watching, sailing, snorkeling, diving, surfing, fishing, sea kayaking and bird watching. Visitors often hike to remote beaches, but even Culebra's best-known spot, white-sand Flamenco Beach, is rarely crowded. The largest town, Dewey, has a handful of small restaurants serving seafood and Puerto Rican dishes.
Getting there: Air fare to San Juan from New York City is $400. And a 1 1/2-hour ferry ride from Fajardo (which is an hour-long drive from San Juan) is $2.25.
Accommodations: Your options here are B&Bs, private houses and villas for rent. On the high end, Club Seabourne, a hotel overlooking Fulladosa Bay, charges $135 a night for two people, including transportation from the ferry or airport and Continental breakfast. Call 787-742-3169. Closer to town, the Villa Boheme offers rooms with kitchens for $831 a week for two guests. Call 787-742-3508. To rent a villa, contact Culebra Island Realty at 787-742-0227. One thing to keep in mind: Except for Club Seabourne, few places offer air conditioning.
To really explore the island, you'll need a car. Jeep rentals are $45 a day.
MOOREA, FRENCH POLYNESIA
Where is it? A few miles northwest of Papeete, Tahiti's capital
What you'll find: To most people, French Polynesia means Tahiti. But many consider the neighboring island of Moorea to be even more beautiful. Discovered by Captain Cook in the 1700s, Moorea boasts white-sand beaches--in contrast to Tahiti's black-sand shores--long deep bays, volcanic peaks and a gorgeous blue-green lagoon.
The island has a few luxury resorts, including a Club Med, but a more traditional Polynesian atmosphere still dominates the island. Indeed, there aren't any towns to speak of; most residents live in small settlements near the coast.
Getting there: Air fare from Los Angeles to Papeete, Tahiti came to around $600. From there you can take a 25-minute ferry ride that costs $10.
Accommodations: A package deal from Discover Wholesale Travel (800-576-7770) costs $1,098 per person, double occupancy, from Jan. 3 to March 31. The rate includes air fare from Los Angeles, one night in Tahiti and five nights in Moorea's upscale Beachcomber Park Royal. Or try the more modest Residence Les Tipaniers, which sits in a coconut grove on the same beach as Club Med. A double costs about $85 a day.
Where is it? Fiji's third largest island, Taveuni (pronounced tah-vee-oo-nee), is near the Somosomo Straits, one of the world's most renowned diving spots.
What you'll find: This six-mile-wide island is split along its 25-mile length by a tall volcanic ridge. The drier--but still lush--western half of the island is where most of the population lives. The spectacular Lake Tagimaucia sits in a volcanic crater at an altitude of 2,700 feet. Off the northern end of Taveuni is a chain of small islands with colorful reefs, stunning beaches and exclusive resorts.
Getting there: Taveuni can be reached by air from Fiji's international airport in Nadi. Air fare from L.A. to Nadi costs about $700 on Air New Zealand; Nadi to Taveuni runs about $200. Keep in mind that in May Fiji experienced a political coup, its third since 1987. Disturbances were limited to the capital, and the new regime is actively promoting tourism--but check the U.S. State Department website, travel.state.gov, for advisories.
Accommodations: Discover Wholesale offers a one-week package for $1,765 per person, double occupancy, until March 31. (Trips must be booked by Feb. 23.) The rate includes round-trip air fare from Los Angeles, six nights in a "bure," or thatched hut, at the high-end Maravu Plantation Resort, all meals and a guided tour of the Bouma waterfalls.