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Caribbean vacation By Lena Katz

I get out to the Caribbean a fair bit, admittedly. But I haven’t even come close tofully discovering its myriad island nations and tropical hideaways. So when I started compiling this list of hints to help you save money and increase fun factor on your next Caribbean vacation, I turned to my friends and colleagues. And they in turn delivered secret spots and local favorites all over the Caribbean. Check out these budget-friendly and fabulous finds, and you may decide that the tropics can fit into your summer plans after all.

Barbados has released one “wow”-worthy travel deal after another, all year long. Hotel chains from the Divi (Divi Southwinds Beach Resort or Divi Heritage) to the Hilton Barbados to the uber-posh Fairmont Royal Pavillion are currently running great rates on Orbitz. But to eat and drink on the cheap, skip the hotel restaurant and head to a local hangout like Fisherman’s Pub or Oistin's Fish Fry, where a full plate of flyish fish & cou cou (no that is not a typo; it is their national dish) and cold island-brewed Banks beer will run you around $10 US. If you plan to make a grownups' night of it, hit up the James Moore Bar — a full bottle of Mount Gay Rum & Coca-Cola costs about US $5.

Jamaica isn’t an expensive place to begin with, so the issue on-island is not just about finding bargains, it’s about finding the best bang-for-the-buck. My photographer buddy Robert Manella, who constantly hops about the Caribbean doing fashion spreads and whatnot (tough life, right?) had a few tried-and-true picks:  Billy's Roadside Pepper Shrimp, located in Middle Quarters, St. Elizabeth. This place is known as the “Shrimp Capital of Jamaica,” so Billy’s is the standout amidst stellar competition. Robert also recommends  Little Ochi for “the freshest seafood right on the beach.” And if you want to be in the company of true culinary insiders, take the Rio Grande River raft to Miss Betty's. It’s basically a picnic area with a primitive kitchen, and the only way to get there is by raft, but Robert’s one of many insiders who’ve dubbed the food outright “amazing.”

Caribbean-vacation Trinidad is one of those places that seems like it would be idyllic and isolated, but is really quite the booming business capital. However if you get out of Port-of-Spain, the busy capital city, you can find some beautiful beaches. Insiders say Maracas Bay Beach on the north shore is one of the most beautiful beaches on the island. And it, too, has foodie appeal: a dozen or so huts selling the signature Trinidadian fast food known as “shark and bake.” This lunchtime favorite is made of deep-fried shark stuffed in a pocket of deep-fried batter. Travel Channel guru Andrew Zimmerman dubbed it the world’s best fish sandwich, and it’s priced right at about $3 US per order.

I’ve not had the best luck finding shiny happy people on Virgin Gorda, but a friend clued me in about Saba Rock, where 87-year-old Bert Kilbride runs a hotel/marina/boat rental service/restaurant known for its friendly, festive atmosphere and reasonable prices. Kilbride was originally a dive instructor, and he still offers “Kilbride’s Sunchaser Scuba” experience to people who want to check out Virgin Gorda’s world-class underwater scenery.

I’ve never booked a Caribbean vacation in Nevis because it seemed way out of my price range, but island hotels have been offering some great recession-driven deals…and surprisingly, when I inquired further, it turns out that there’s never been a shortage of budget-friendly activities there. My favorite tip was: “Walk into the rainforest above The Hermitage Plantation Inn in the early morning, and see how many Green Vervet monkeys you can count.” Vervet. Is that like velvet? The notion of green velvet monkeys frolicking in the trees is probably the only thing that could get me out of bed at the crack of dawn in the tropics. Get on the local/sustainable/organic bandwagon with a visit to Mansa’s Last Stop organic farm. This is a good way to combat sun-induced dehydration: fresh pineapple and mango juices cost only about $3 US per serving. And on Friday afternoons, apparently the Water Department’s BBQ is the place to be.  “Good food, live entertainment, and no cover charge. You just have to pay for your barbeque chicken or ribs and drinks,” reports a regular. Prices for food range from $3 to $10, and the party runs from 4 p.m. to about 9 p.m.

caribbean vacation Montserrat is nicknamed the “Emerald Isle” of the Caribbean, but in one of nature’s great ironies, the former capital city is now ghostly and deserted, obscured beneath volcanic ash from one of the most intense eruptions/destructions in modern-day history. To me Montserrat’s hyperactive volcano is much more interesting than its lush terrain — which many Caribbean islands have, to some degree. If you agree,  an island expert suggests you view the volcano’s “awesome incandescence” from Jack Boy Hill, one of the few places on island that provides first-rate views (at a safe distance, natch) complete with a viewing platform, concession area, telescope and guest facilities. Oh, and it’s free. The Montserrat Volcano Observatory (MVO) is home base for the volcanologists and seismologists that constantly keep watch over the grumbling, fire-spewing giant. Though this is an active research center, it provides patio telescopes for visitors to do some volcano-viewing, as  well as an interpretive center with video presentations and interactive exhibits. Admission is only $4.

Though Costa Rica is the most famous of the Central American countries, its Caribbean coastline gives it dual status as a Caribbean vacation destination. Its amazing eco-tourism offerings and overall inexpensive prices are moving it to the top of the search lists — enough to merit its own Orbitz column in just a couple weeks, stay tuned… In the meantime, here’s one insider pick to whet your travel appetite: “Tortuguero National Park is host to thousands of sea turtles looking to lay their eggs between June and October,” confides a Costa Rica destination specialist and fellow Wild Kingdom fan. This is not the only place to see baby sea turtles, obviously, but it’s one of the best — apparently the annual spectacle was enough to land Tortuguero a spot in the recently-released documentary Planet Earth. The park can only be reached by plane or boat, but water taxis are fairly reasonable (anywhere from $30-50 US per person, round trip).

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

Tagged: Caribbean, Family time

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