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By Lena Katz

Thinking about planning a Caribbean vacation for the holidays? With hotels opening all over the islands, increased flights to popular destinations, and a slew of promos and specials designed for tighter budgets, the Caribbean is as tempting as ever … and possibly not as out-of-range as you think.

Caribbean vacation Right in time for Christmas crowds, St. Lucia’s Calabash Cove opens with a Far East-inspired flourish. Eschewing typical Caribbean décor for an exotic Indonesian aesthetic, this property shoots right to the top of our list because of its “Swim Up” suites — not over-ocean as you’d see in the Maldives, but instead poolside, which is more prosaic but a whole lot safer in the hurricane-prone Caribbean. Big spenders can separate themselves from the splish-splash of the common pool area by booking a cottage suite with its own private pool.

As always, much to report on new developments in all-inclusive resorts: This fall couples-only Sandals Resorts debutedSandals Resorts PGA Golf School in Jamaica, plus over-the-top Millionaire Suites at Sandals Regency La Toc in St. Lucia. At Beaches Turks & Caicos Resort, classic Mediterranean glamour meets Caribbean chic — guests can photo-op it up at the Italian Village, a newly unveiled $125 million addition, and then splash down at the expanded Pirate’s Island Waterpark.

Grenada’s lovely LaSource has all sorts of sophisticated soirees and festivities on the holiday calendar for its grownup (age 16+)  clientele. Practically every day from December 21 onward brings a special program. Christmas morning kicks off with an eggnog party on the beach (only in the Caribbean!), and December 31 sees out the old year with a cocktail party, a poolside gala, fireworks and live music.

The Riu Palace Tropical Bay, an impressive reinvention of a classic all-inclusive Negril resort, opens in early December after a $25 million renovation that took four months to complete. Also in Jamaica, Couples Tower Isle (formerly Couples Ocho Rios) has deferred its original December 2008 reopening date to March 2009…but, to keep the anticipation level high, has revealed that property enhancements include a spa with 10 treatment rooms, a floating dock, two new swimming pools (one with a swim-up bar), and a new juice bar.

The Dominican Republic will attain true “Golfers’ Paradise” status when the Golden Bear Lodge & Spa opens in early December. Inspired and helmed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus, this property overlooks the Las Iguanas and Punta Espada golf courses. And to entice its greens-minded guests, it’s offering 2-for-1 greens fees at Punta Espada with a five-night stay. Book by December 15.

The Westin Rôco Ki Beach & Golf Resort is slated to open in early 2009. This luxe Starwood development sits on its own 4-mile strip of beach in Punta Macao. Stay in a jungle bungalow or classic condo-style guest units,  play at the Nick Faldo-designed Campo Alto Verde golf course, and rejuve island-style at the 18,000 square foot destination spa. Half a dozen dining and drinking options include Italian trattoria Amarti and poshie Anacaona Steakhouse.

Aruba hotels Practically the whole of Barbados seems to be revamped for the 2008-2009 season. Legendary Sandy Lane debuts a major makeover including guest room revamps, a new menu for and aesthetic tweaks to signature Bajan Blue restaurant, expanded spa facilities, and a brand-new cocktail lounge. The Sugar Cane Club Hotel & Spa unveils an overhaul that took two years to complete… and clearly, someone’s been busy all that time. Two pool areas, an art gallery, a squash court and a spa are only some of the property additions. The Coral Reef Club proudly announced the opening of a destination spa set on 12 acres of lush resort gardens. Indoor-outdoor architecture and locally inspired natural treatments imbue this newcomer with distinctive Bajan flair. Rounding out the island-wide renovation roll call: luxe boutique properties Treasure Beach Hotel and Cobblers Cove.

Up in the skies, Cayman Airways traces more direct routes from big-city stress to beachside bliss. In mid-December the national carrier of the Cayman Islands will begin twice-weekly nonstop flights from Washington, DC to Grand Cayman…and also will bring back its twice-a-week Chicago-Grand Cayman service. This is a beautiful and timely thing: Between the Presidential inauguration and the ongoing stock market drama, Chicago and DC’s overworked white-collar contingent will be in serious need of an inexpensive, easy-access island to maroon themselves on over the next few months.

The Aruba Marriott Resort is the latest big property to experiment with the hotel-within-a-hotel concept. Its Tradewinds Club combines the boutique hotel experience with the energy and variety of a big, busy, self-contained resort. Technically Tradewinds is not at the center of it all, but at the top: it’s located on the uppermost floor of the just-renovated highrise hotel. Guests get all kinds of little luxe perks, from personalized check-in service to a private lounge serving complimentary food and drink …but the Stellaris Casino, Mandara Spa, Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse and waterfall-adorned pool complex are just an elevator ride away.

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Lena Katz lives on the Left Coast and writes about tropical islands, beach clubs and ski resorts, but her heart belongs to NYC.

Tagged: Caribbean, Family time

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