The Caribbean's Finest
Our panel of travel experts pick their favorite destinations across the region, and the best hotels, restaurants and golf courses on each island
From the Print Edition:
Ernie Els, November/December 2012
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This makes the biggest problem in planning a Caribbean vacation deciding where to go—and the problem keeps getting more complicated as excellent new properties open. While we cannot stop progress, we can do the homework for you. By polling our experts, we have narrowed down the very best the Caribbean has to offer (we also threw in the popular Bahamas). As always in our uniquely critical travel surveys, we take a different tact than most magazine polls: we do not rely on unknown voters who may or may not have actually been where they say, or employees of the properties, and we do not cater to advertisers. Instead, we have assembled a panel of renowned travel experts, including some of the world’s best travel agents, the ones that celebrities and top executives use to plan their vacations, plus journalists, specialists and industry veterans, all of whom vote only on the places they know.
Because the Caribbean is composed of so many islands, cultures and economies, it is dynamic and always changing, and our poll reflects this. Perhaps the biggest story our experts told was the resurgence of Puerto Rico—on every front. Newer luxury resorts like the St. Regis Bahia Beach and W Retreat Vieques have proven immensely popular, while venerable properties have kept pace. Everyone in the travel business is eagerly anticipating the Ritz-Carlton Reserve at Dorado Beach (opening 12/12/12), which was called the next big thing, not just in the Caribbean but in the world, by several of our panelists.
Puerto Rico is also booming on the golf front, with Bahia Beach and Trump International joining the highest tier of Caribbean courses, while the island’s grand dame, Dorado Beach East, was just revamped and is better than ever. The brand new Links at Royal Isabela, so new almost no one has been there yet, may end up stealing the show. “This rediscovered island is getting the attention it deserves with multiple new and exciting properties and investment in the area. San Juan is becoming a Caribbean hotspot again, and Puerto Rico is a great destination with the rain forest for eco-tours, kayaking on bioluminescent bays, and so much more for the adventure seeker. I am packing my bags already!” says Anne Scully, industry legend and President of McCabe World Travel, annually ranked as one of the nation’s top 10 travel agents.
One thing that quickly becomes evident is how strong the Caribbean is with small luxury resorts and hotels. On some islands there is no line between “large and small,” and since the Caribbean has relatively few luxury properties that would be considered large in other vacation destinations, the focus here is on intimate. Nowhere was this as evident as on tiny St. Barths, where virtually every top hotel—and there are lot of them—was named in both size categories by panelists, forcing us to abandon size as a criteria for that island altogether. After all, even the “biggest” hotel on St. Barths would be a boutique anywhere else. We saw similar confusion on Anguilla, where Cap Juluca and CuisinArt, with 95 and 93 rooms respectively, both got votes for best large—and best small—hotel.
There were a few things our panelists agreed on, and when it came to unanimity, the Four Seasons Nevis could not be beat: it got the most votes of any property and every vote cast for the Federation of St. Kitts & Nevis (and yes, there are other hotels). It also swept all the votes for best golf (yes, there is another high-profile golf course). Rosewood’s Little Dix Bay, British Virgin Islands, also won “best large resort” unanimously. On Grand Cayman, the hidden gem Cotton Tree proved not so hidden in sweeping every vote in the boutique category, and Ritz-Carlton’s Blue took every vote as best restaurant. While not quite unanimous, other landslide winners that bowled over all comers included Sandy Lane on Barbados, Casa de Campo in the Dominican Republic and La Samanna on St. Martin. On other islands and in other categories, the results were much closer and harder fought, and our panelists even locked up for a couple of ties, which just shows how prolific the Caribbean is when it comes to hospitality.
Our biggest surprise came through an act of omission. Because there are so many possible destinations, we limited the poll to the most popular and developed islands, and some less-visited ones had to be left out, including Dominica, Saba and Grenada. One place left off our list was the largely undeveloped Turks & Caicos Islands. Though not technically part of the Caribbean, our panelists did not care and did not hesitate to exercise their write-in option. As Michael Holtz, a top-tier luxury travel agent and founder of SmartFlyer exclaimed, “You left out Turks! It really is a MUST with Parrot Cay & Amanyara there.” Amazingly, the archipelago made a strong showing in several categories—as a write-in. The sands of Grace Bay tied for first in the best beach category for the entire Caribbean and yoga-centric Parrott Cay, a famed celebrity haunt, showed up in best resort and best spa categories.
Our panel proved to be as opinionated as ever when it came to Caribbean travel, and this is what they loved.
Best Large Resort or Hotel, Caribbean
TIE: St. Regis, Bahia Beach, Puerto Rico
Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic
Sandy Lane, Barbados
This category was hotly fought, but these three winners have one thing in common: they are all “complete” resorts, with golf courses, lavish spas, multiple restaurants, other amenities and a wide range of lodging choices including villas. “Casa de Campo remains the Caribbean’s most complete and satisfying retreat…indulge in an incredible array of activities ranging from tennis—with ball boys—to shooting, horseback riding and even polo,” says Golf Odyssey publisher David Baum. Super-agent Scully is one of many fans of the St. Regis, “The resort is exquisite with two miles of private beach and 18-holes designed by Robert Trent Jones. Pamper yourself at the Remède Spa, dine at Fern, a signature restaurant of Jean-Georges Vongerichten.” As for Sandy Lane, “Since 1961 this Palladian-style beach resort has been setting standards in the Caribbean for elegance and grace. How does it stay fresh? With three premium golf courses, a 7,000-square-foot pool, state-of-the-art spa and tennis facilities and museum-grade art. It’s simply Barbados’ most luxurious resort,” notes USA Today travel editor Veronica Stoddart.
Honorable Mention: TIE Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman; Viceroy Anguilla.
Both of these luxury resorts easily won this category for their islands.
Best Small Resort or Hotel, Caribbean
Jade Mountain, St. Lucia
No newcomer to our list, Jade Mountain successfully defended its Caribbean title from our 2010 World’s Best Hotels Poll. Why? This fantasy brought to life by its architect owner features 24 “infinity pool sanctuaries,” or suites on steroids, all with cantilevered infinity pools, one wall opens to some of the most stunning views on earth, and each is connected to the main house by elaborate bridges, set high on a mountain peak. With true private butler service and everything included, even room service, it’s no surprise some couples don’t leave their “sanctuary” for days at a time. “People come for the stunning views of the Piton mountains, but are seduced by the resort’s warm service, delicious food and ultimate exclusivity,” notes honeymoon specialist Carrie Wallace of MoonRings.
Honorable Mention: TIE Parrot Cay, Turks & Caicos; Le Toiny, St. Barths.
“Management’s deft touch and willingness to cater to every need, however unique, makes Le Toiny a go-to for the demanding Caribbean traveler,” notes Wallace. Parrot Cay, a favored private-island celebrity escape and home away from home for Bruce Willis, Donna Karan and Keith Richards surged as a write-in, since Turks & Caicos was not on the ballot.
Best All-Inclusive Resort, Caribbean
The BodyHoliday LeSport, St. Lucia
The all-inclusive category is huge in the Caribbean, but this one rose to the top with panelists from every niche, be it romance, luxury travel or spa lovers. Luxury travel guru Becca Hensley explains the appeal: “As elegant as it gets, this hardly feels like an all-inclusive until you get the bill and nothing additional has been charged. Included in the price you’ll find daily spa treatments, golf lessons, scuba, pool stewards, meals and premium cocktails. Ooolala.” At BodyHoliday the focus is equal parts wellness, with a vast array of yoga and fitness classes, and decadence, with first-rate cuisine and cocktails.
Best Private Island, Caribbean
Peter Island, British Virgin Islands
There are two types of “private islands”: resorts occupying their own island and those allowing just one group at a time for private takeovers. Peter Island is both, a small resort on an 1800-acre paradise that is often taken in its entirety but does not have to be. There are three villas and 50 rooms and suites, a 10,000-square-foot spa, four restaurants and bars, and a full-service yacht club with charters, crewed sailing and dive shop. “Truly a private island resort, this intimate, family-owned resort hotel manages to be fancy and earthy at once…with excellent food and gorgeous beaches,” says pampered journalist Hensley. Fodor’s Travel Editor Arabella Bowen and luxury travel writer Kelly E. Carter were among Peter Island’s many vocal proponents.
Honorable Mention: TIE Necker Island, British Virgin Islands; Musha Cay, Bahamas.
This was a battle of celebrity owners, with Sir Richard Branson’s Necker Island, a longtime favorite of our panel, against the newcomer, magician David Copperfield’s Musha Cay. As top-tier travel agent Anne Sully explains, “I love Necker Island but Musha Cay is giving Sir Richard Branson heavy competition—you win whichever you choose.”
Best Restaurant, Caribbean
Blue By Eric Ripert, Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman
Our experts could not find enough good things to say about this sole Caribbean outpost by the chef of New York’s Le Bernardin, acclaimed for his wizardry with all things seafood. “Some of the best seafood in the Caribbean—actually in the world,” notes travel journalist Lynn Seldon, while travel agent to the stars Anne Scully quickly adds, “I am fortunate enough to have been invited to many of the great tables around the world and this was truly one of the best!” Blue showcases locally caught and responsibly fished seafood, with three-, four- and seven-course tasting menus. With over 800 selections, Blue has won Wine Spectator’s Award of Excellence annually since 2008.
Honorable Mention: The Cliff, Barbados.
As its name implies, it occupies a gorgeous cliff-edge setting in St. James and features fresh seafood and other dishes with a Pacific Rim twist.
Best Spa, Caribbean
TIE: Parrot Cay, Turks & Caicos
The BodyHoliday LeSport, St. Lucia La Prairie Spa at Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman Spas are high on the list of must-do activities in the Caribbean and just about every top resort large and small has one, but these three stood out. Spa fanatic Becca Hensley describes Parrot Cay as “the most paradisiacal sanctuary. Deeply spiritual, airy and ethereal.” BodyHoliday also won our best all-inclusive in large part because of its spa treatments and fitness classes, while La Prairie was just another winning touch for the oft acclaimed Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman, which panelists ranked among the best for overall facilities.
Best Golf, Caribbean
Casa de Campo, Dominican Republic
Considering how much excellent golf there is in the Caribbean, on so many different islands—including the rest of the Dominican Republic—what is astounding was the scale of Casa de Campo’s runaway victory. As our resident golf guru, Baum explains, “There’s still no beating Casa de Campo. With its four Pete Dye courses, the resort could be christened the ‘Kohler of the Caribbean,’ but with year-round unbeatable weather. Dye has designed many world-class layouts, but Teeth of the Dog remains his absolute favorite. Enough said.” The other three courses, including the excellent Dye Fore, don’t hurt the resort’s position as the Caribbean’s king of golf.
Honorable Mention: Green Monkey, Sandy Lane, Barbados. While Casa de Campo was heralded for its collection of layouts, our experts were blown away by the Tom Fazio–designed and very exclusive Green Monkey as a single course. “It’s not just the best course in the Caribbean, it’s one of the best in the world,” said Larry Olmsted.
Best Beach, Caribbean
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