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Caribbean Tourist Guide

Caribbean

The islands of the Caribbean are a diverse collection of former colonies that have moved with the times to become exotic vacation hideaways and sun-drenched playgrounds in easy reach of the United States and through the growth in airline traffic, Europe too. Most major Caribbean islands have an airport but the preferred mode of transportation is by ship, whether a cruise liner, an inter-island ferry boat or a private yacht. Several continental countries have Caribbean coastlines and islands, notably Belize, Colombia, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, but the development of facilities for vacation visitors is greatest on the islands that form an arc from the Florida peninsula to the tip of South America.

The region has over 7,000 islands, reefs and cays organised in numerous nations, states and territories all influenced by their colonial past since Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. The culture and lifestyle of the peoples of the Caribbean vary with their ancestral heritage - French, English, Spanish, Dutch, Danish and most of all, African.

All the islands have been colonies of European countries which continue to be trading partners and markets for their traditional products such as sugar, rum and bananas but in modern times for off-shore banking and financial services and tourism. Visitors are welcome as a matter of local pride and government policy - the revenues from tourism and hospitality are vital for the national economies of all the states in the region and mean business for local fishermen, farmers, craft workers and other suppliers to the hotel and entertainment industries.

The pristine beaches, coral reefs, agreeable sunny climate and the ease of access by cruise ship and airline make the Caribbean a top regional destination for vacation visitors especially from Europe and North America. The tourists of the 19th century were wealthy visitors from Europe lured by the health benefits of sea bathing in a warm climate. The growth of affordable mass tourism has put the Caribbean within the reach of anyone looking for an exotic location for a vacation, wedding or honeymoon, where there are few language barriers and year-round sunshine.

Jamaica is the icon of the Caribbean, famed for Montego Bay and its water sports, sailing, scuba diving, jet skiing, parasailing and glass-bottom boat excursions around the coral reefs. Ocho Rios is the main port for cruise ships and inland there are numerous examples of the sugar plantation heritage - great houses and rum distilleries. Treat yourself to a Tia Maria, the coffee-flavour liqueur, at its source.

The Bahamas alone account for 700 islands of the Caribbean - many with deserted beaches and fabulous opportunities for fishing and snorkelling.

Barbados is heavenly for windsurfers - the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea converge on its southern shore - and music lovers. Barbados has festivals and carnivals all through the year with jazz, opera and calypso performances at various island venues.

Cuba is still a no-go area for US citizens but a delight for European visitors, like stepping back in time to the 1950s but with the benefit of some 21st century hotel facilities.

Trinidad and Tobago are neighbours but couldn't be so different. Trinidad throbs with the calypso beat while Tobago is sleepy, cozy and a haven for anyone seeking a quiet retreat.

The Dominican Republic occupies half of Hispaniola, the second-largest island in the Caribbean after Cuba and has the region's highest mountain. The range of tropical wildlife and vegetation is amazing and there are dozens of national parks and nature reserves around the country.

Nearby, in the Turks and Caicos islands, big game fishing and whale watching are big draw. The numerous inland lakes are home to flocks of heron and flamingos.

The Virgin Islands are divided for administrative purposes between the USA and the United Kingdom but share a section of the Caribbean Sea east of Puerto Rico, within easy reach of mainland USA. St Thomas in the USVI and its cruise port, Charlotte Amelie, is a hot spot for shopping - there's no sales tax. The British Virgin Islands or BVI are known as a yachting paradise and for divers there are the attractions of over 200 shipwrecks to explore.

St Martin is a tiny island of just 37 square miles but it is two countries, the French-speaking St Martin and Dutch Sint Maarten and the two communities have lived in laid-back harmony for over 350 years when the colonial rulers signed a treaty of cooperation. There's little sign of a border but the difference in lifestyles on the two sides of the island is staggering.

Shallow waters around St Vincent and the Grenadines attract divers and snorkelers in huge numbers especially for the coral reefs around Tobago Cays. Intrepid hikers can get a close-up view of the Mount Soufrière volcano  on the main island of St Vincent.

The Cayman Islands, well-known as an off-shore tax haven, is a popular family vacation destination with duty-free shopping and interactive marine parks where you can see turtles and feed stingrays. The world-class dining and hospitality has made Cayman a great place for a wedding or honeymoon.

Grenada's forests are fragrant with cinnamon, nutmeg, cocoa and spices. The island has the Caribbean's only water mill still operating at a rum distillery.

Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao have a sophisticated Dutch feel about them. Aruba has a cruise terminal, miles of beaches and fine dining. Bonaire has art galleries, fine restaurants and excellent accessible dive sites. Curaçao is classy, mellow and laid-back and hosts jazz, gospel and food festivals through the year.

The tropical climate of the region is moderated by moist tradewinds blowing from the Atlantic and creating a mix of rainforest and scrubland depending on the landscape. Some islands are relatively flat, others have mountain ranges  - some volcanic. The result is a richly diverse ecosystem where dozens of threatened species of birds, mammals and reptiles compete to survive with human development. Of course parts of the Caribbean are battered by the occasional hurricane in the tropical storm season that runs from September to November, but generally it's sun, sea and sand with the rhythms of jazz and calypso all year round.

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