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On a shoestring

By DAVID SWANSON

© St. Petersburg Times


Compared with the simple and inexpensive beachfront options readily available in places such as Thailand or Greece, the Caribbean is no backpacker's mecca. Increasingly, the islands court the upscale market with posh resorts and international cuisine. But savvy travelers know at least one big option that shaves a significant amount off the price of a Caribbean vacation: Go in low season.

As with many destinations, there is a high, or peak, season when hotels have little problem filling their rooms. In the Caribbean, it begins mid-December and runs through mid-April. Then, Caribbean hoteliers cut their room rates by 30 percent or more.

For example, winter rates at Long Bay Beach Resort on Tortola were $240 for a hillside double, or $330 for a beachfront cabana. On April 1, spring rates went into effect: the hillside room dropped to $175, the cabana to $225. Summer season began June 1, and the rooms are priced $140 and $195, respectively. These rates are reduced by $60 for singles in summer.

Savings at the toniest resorts can be even more significant. The least expensive rooms at the Four Seasons on Nevis were $575 a night until April 6. These same rooms were $375 per night during the hotel's shoulder season, and are $250 a night between June 1 and Oct. 15, a reduction of more than half off the winter rate.

Low season also brings lower air fares, though the savings aren't quite as significant and it still pays to watch for ticket sales. But there are other ways to scale back the price of a Caribbean vacation. Here are a few more tips that will help leave your bank account intact at the end of a trip:

Consider a package tour. Not a guided tour with a strict itinerary, but a package from a vacation wholesaler -- someone who buys hotel and airline space in bulk and passes a portion of the savings to you.

Packages are appealing because they offer "one-stop shopping" -- air fare, hotel and, perhaps, car rental in one transaction. Additionally, a reputable packager will offer a degree of protection in the event of flight cancellations or other obstacles.

The downside? Occasionally, a package may not be to your advantage, since a wholesaler's room rates and air fare are negotiated long in advance. If a fare war pops into the picture, the wholesaler may be undercut by an airline's sale. Similarly, if a particular hotel is having trouble keeping rooms full, it may offer better rates directly to the public.

Additionally, smaller, boutique inns have traditionally been passed over by wholesalers in favor of the bigger and more expensive hotels.

The Caribbean Tourism Organization provides names of recommended wholesalers: (212) 635-9530.

Be creative about your accommodations. The variety of overnight facilities in the Caribbean continues to diversify. An increasingly popular alternative are villas that can accommodate four or more comfortably -- perfect for two couples willing to share their abode or for families that might otherwise book a second hotel room. Usually, a villa with a private pool will cost less than two rooms in a comparable hotel.

Dining out can be expensive in the Caribbean, and a villa's kitchen allows guests the option of preparing meals at home. When booking a self-contained unit, verify that your accommodations come with a full kitchen with cookware (as opposed to a hot plate perched on a mini-fridge). Then, find out when locals go shopping and partake in the colorful commotion of market day, with its fresh and abundant fish, fruits, produce and spices.

Choose a cheap island. The availability of less expensive rooms varies considerably by island, but other factors, such as transportation, food and local taxes, can also play a big part in the overall cost of a vacation. As a rule, the Caribbean islands that have a nascent tourism infrastructure also tend to have fewer traditional sun-sea-sand components, but most have other attributes to make them appealing.

For instance, mountainous Dominica has ambitious trails into its volcanic innards, and waterfalls that tumble into natural swimming pools. The island is one of the Caribbean's best dive destinations, with steep walls, underwater pinnacles and a mesmerizing array of invertebrate sea life. Dominica's ramshackle capital, Roseau, retains considerable French Creole charm, complete with gingerbread-laced balconies.

Bucolic Tobago has idyllic beaches, fine underwater sights (drift dives are a specialty) and a relaxed atmosphere just on the cusp of tourism, and partner island Trinidad has a number of guest houses for less than $75 a night, inexpensive dining and a dynamic contemporary culture that climaxes in a dizzying Carnival every February. Because these islands were once geologically connected to South America, bird watching is splendid.

Other islands that won't quickly challenge the limit on your charge card include the Dominican Republic, which has plenty of fine beaches, Grenada, St. Vincent and Saba. Two islands where your savings will come via lower air fare are Jamaica and Puerto Rico.

Think like a local. Most islanders would never think of climbing into a taxi to get around -- mile for mile, they're more expensive than ours at home. Yet tourists pile into taxis because hotels tell them that's the way for visitors to travel around their island.

On a recent trip to Barbados, I found that almost every hotel, big or small, had a bus stop within a few hundred feet of its entrance. Fares are less than a dollar to almost anywhere on the island, and the speedy local buses come every two or three minutes. Plus, you'll rub shoulders with amiable Bajans -- the locals -- who share their island proudly with visitors and will help you with directions.

Because food imported to the islands can be costly, restaurants that specialize in French or other non-native cuisines will usually be more expensive. Instead, sample places that feature West Indian dishes, food that is grown or caught within the region. You'll dine on jerk chicken, roti, callalou soup, flying fish and other local specialties.

And you will have really traveled to the Caribbean. Smart lodging on 5 costly islands

Every island has a few reasonably priced gems that provide good value and should please all but the jet-set. Rates provided are low season, generally mid-April through mid-December.

Barbados. The Woodville Beach Hotel is nothing special to look at -- a 36-unit, four-story block of apartment-style buildings -- but the location is great. Lots of restaurants and night life are within walking distance. It sits on a slender beach (better swimming is a few minutes away), and the grounds are buffeted by trade winds. A double is $68, or splurge on a one-bedroom apartment with kitchen for $86. Reservations: (246) 435-6693.

Nevis. On an island long known for historic plantation inns, the Hurricane Cove Bungalows manage to stir charm into 10 wooden hillside cottages overlooking St. Kitts. Rooms are a bit dark, but all have a full kitchen, and a good beach is a two-minute walk down the hill. If you're coming to Nevis, expect things to move at a languid pace. A one-bedroom is $95, and two- and three-bedroom bungalows have a private plunge pool. (869) 469-9462.

St. Barthelemy. Affordable accommodations on St. Barts? Though your daily restaurant bill can easily outpace your room, one delightful find is the Sea Horse Hotel. Savvy Americans enjoy the relaxed environs produced by its young manager, Loic, which include a pool and barbecue terrace. The fair beach at Marigot Bay is a few hundred feet away. Ten nicely appointed units with kitchens run $90 for junior suites and $115 for full suites; an adjacent two-bedroom villa is $140 a night. (800) 742-4276.

St. Martin. On an island where overdevelopment is the rule and seclusion hard to find, Oyster Pond provides calm respite at the end of a rugged dirt road. There are several smaller properties here, but a sweet spot is the bougainvillea-draped Sol Hotel, located on the French side of this twin-nation island. The eight-unit, Creole-style building overlooks a pleasant pool, and lovely Dawn Beach is 20 minutes away. Doubles are $100. (800) 476-5849.

Virgin Gorda. Little Dix and Biras Creek are the tony resorts one usually hears about, but check me in to Guavaberry Spring Bay and I'll be happy. Each of the hexagonal wooden cottages houses a one- or two-bedroom unit, with flowering gardens and giant boulders strewn about the property providing a serene ambience. There's a commissary that sells frozen pizzas and the like for your kitchen, and striking swimming spots are a two-minute walk. One-bedroom doubles are $95. (809) 495-5227. David Swanson is co-author of Fielding's Caribbean.

Originally published June 8, 1997



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