Package vacations to the Caribbean are popping up like bougainvillea, offering such good bargains that it makes sense for even the most individualistic of travelers bound for the islands to consider booking one.
A decent deal on a package vacation to the region of rum and reggae should run 10 to 20 percent less than booking on your own. But sometimes even bigger discounts appear here and there. Just because the trips come in packages doesn't mean that they must be bland, overly restrictive or part of a group excursion. Package trips can include air fare, hotels and meals, or any combination thereof. Most permit you to spend your time however you wish. And they can often be arranged at hotels or resorts of the traveler's choosing.
Package organizers can afford to offer good discounts either because they buy airline seats and rooms in blocks or because they negotiated special arrangements with hoteliers and carriers. The packages are generally marketed to travel agencies; an industrious reservationist should be able to come up with something to suit just about any taste or budget.
Package promoters are offering some decently priced excursions in the shoulder travel season (typically beginning after Easter in the Caribbean), when the flow of U.S. visitors to the islands slows. In particular, lodging in mid-priced hotels, which have suffered a reservations slump during this mild winter, should be available at a bigger than usual discount, according to the collective wisdom of the Caribbean travel specialists I interviewed.
American Airlines Vacations (1-800-321-2121), one of the Caribbean's biggest tour operators, is featuring some tempting air/land packages. I tried to book a five-night mid-April trip to San Juan for two on my own, for example, and found that it would cost about $1,300 per person, including round-trip air fare on American from Washington and a double room at the Ritz-Carlton San Juan, plus taxes and transfers. AA Vacations was offering the same hotel and air arrangement for $1,062 per person, a savings of nearly 20 percent. Five nights at the El San Juan Towers (slightly less luxurious than the Ritz but still regal), plus air fare, would cost $875 per person during the same period.
For those who prefer all-inclusive packages, AA Vacations can do a five-night stay for two at the Jack Tar Village in Montego Bay for $1,014 per person. That's the shoulder-season rate, and it includes air, room, all meals and drinks. If I had booked the unpackaged parts of the trip on my own, the air, all-inclusive accommodations and transfer costs would have run about $1,300 per person.
Brendan Tours, a California company that usually sponsors trips to Europe and other destinations, has entered the Caribbean market with a range of packages, including three-night getaways to 31 islands. One land-only option to the tres chic Sofitel Le Bakoura on the French island of Martinique is going for $576 for three nights, a good value at a property where rooms can cost $250 a night. A couple of other possibilities under the three-night plan are the Grand Case Beach Club on St. Martin or the all-inclusive Sandals Resort in St. Lucia. Extra nights can be added. Brendan Tours must be booked through travel agents.
A scratch beneath the surface revealed all kinds of other Caribbean packages out there. When I called Air Aruba Holidays (1-800-677-7888), the best deal it offered for the second week of April was seven nights at the all-inclusive Allegro Resorts, including round-trip air fare from BWI, for $1,907 a person. Surfing the Net, I ran across a package to the Hilton on the out-of-the-way island of Margarita. The cost for seven nights, including air fare (from New York) and breakfast, was $724 a person. For Margarita packages, contact Moment's Notice (718-234-6295). One deal that looked particularly good was at Drake's Anchorage, a resort set on a private 125-acre island in the British Virgins. For March and April it is featuring a package including lodging, three meals a day and use of all water sports equipment for $150 a night per person for a five-night minimum stay. For further information, contact 1-617-969-9913.
There are, of course, a few disadvantages to packages. For one thing, with few exceptions, they're more often available at larger, centrally located hotels rather than quaint, off-the-beaten-path guest houses. For another, the rates usually are geared to double occupancy, forcing solo travelers to pay a supplement.
Caribbean-bound travelers who are Internet facile can use the Web to help find package deals most suitable for their needs. A handful of decent sites focus on the islands; one that I have found useful is www.IslandConnoisseur.com. It has more than 3,500 pages on the various islands, including a travel service section allowing users to look at packages and book them online.
Tying the Knot Easier, Cheaper
The Caribbean has long been a favored wedding destination, but it's likely to become more so as a result of the recent relaxation of restrictions on several islands.
One reason couples opt for Caribbean weddings is that, travel costs aside, they tend to be cheaper, in large part because fewer guests can attend. Another reason is that the wedding and honeymoon can then be arranged in one swoop. After the guests depart, the newlyweds can just stay on the island for the honeymoon.
Dutch St. Maarten, known for its rum-soaked nightlife, has revised its civil code to allow foreigners to perform nuptials. The idyllic beaches at Cupecoy and Maho have become the trendiest venues for tying the knot. Couples planning a St. Maarten wedding must supply authorities with photocopies of passports and birth certificates at least a month in advance. The fees total $300 (U.S.), but St. Maarten wedding consultant Joan Bethune (telephone 011-5995-32067) can take care of the paperwork and other planning details for $425. For further information, contact the Civil Registry, Sualiouga Rd., No. 6, Philipsburg, St. Maarten, N.A.; telephone 011-5995-22457.
Tobago has also become a more popular wedding destination since the government of Trinidad and Tobago's recent passage of laws making it easier for foreigners to marry there. According to the new laws, couples must be resident in Trinidad and Tobago for only three days before they can apply to be married. The license and other paperwork cost a total of 375 Trinidadian dollars, or about $65 (U.S). Most Tobago hotels are willing to take care of all of the details, including finding a minister. One recommendable wedding venue is the Grand Courlan Resort & Spa (868-639-9667). For more information, contact the tourism office in Tobago at 868-639-4333.
Closer to home--indeed, technically part of home--the U.S. Virgin Islands are also promoting themselves as a wedding destination. Couples must first file for a marriage license with the clerk of the Territorial Court of the Virgin Islands, which has offices in both St. Croix (340-778-9750) and St. Thomas (340--774-6680). After an eight-day waiting period, a time and date are arranged for an appearance before the clerk to pick up the license. Hotels on either of the islands are happy to take care of the details. One company that designs ceremonies and handles the paperwork is Weddings the Island Way (1-800-582-4784, www.st-thomas.com/wed). For a wedding packet, contact the local U.S. Virgin Islands tourism office at 202-624-3590.
Almost any of the Caribbean islands would make a suitable site for a wedding. Some highly favored wedding venues include Anguilla (for super-luxe nuptials), St. Lucia (for dramatic backdrops) and St. Barts (for Hollywood-style chic).
Individual resorts on various islands also offer a wide range of wedding packages. For couples who have already tied the knot but want to relive the thrill, the Radisson Cable Beach Resort (1-800-333-3333) in Nassau, Bahamas, has a Vow Renewal Package for $185. It includes a cake, champagne, minister and a tropical gazebo to hold the ceremony. Cable is also featuring a midweek, all-inclusive deal for $195 a person, double occupancy.
Around the Islands
Caribbean travelers who like to stay abreast of the latest happenings should make plans to check out the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. This protected historical sector, one of the three best examples of colonial architecture in the Caribbean (after Old San Juan and Havana), is undergoing a massive government-sponsored overhaul. The facades of many buildings will be cleaned, while other structures will be refurbished. And, for the first time, some of the buildings will be made available for private ownership. City planners hope the project will give a new vibrance to the sector, which has begun to show signs of decay in recent years. Tourism officials say the area should begin to show signs of improvement by next winter.
Travelers more interested in the hottest and newest should check in to the Atlantis Hotel and Resort in the Bahamas or the Divi Carina hotel on the island of St. Croix.
The Atlantis (1-800-ATLANTIS), in Nassau, is a theme park dedicated to the fabled city that is said to have sunk into the ocean. Water is all around, including a waterfall in the lobby and water views from each room. The tanks surrounding the facility are stocked with 100,000 sea creatures, including jellyfish, barracuda and sharks. Some tanks are available for guests to splash right in and swim next to the sea life. The sprawling resort, which has 1,202 rooms, also boasts 40 restaurants or other eating or entertainment venues and the Caribbean's biggest casino. Spectacles like this don't come cheap. Rates for double rooms start at $350 a night.
On St. Croix, the Divi Carina (1-800-367-3484) is set to open in May or June. Located at the island's eastern end, it will be the first casino in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
On Aruba, the Marriott Aruba Ocean Club (1-800-845-5279) opened in January. A grand opening special makes one bedroom ocean villas available for $299 a night.
Finally, travelers who want to brush up on or learn French can book an education-cum-holiday package to the island of Martinique. A 20-hour course at the Martinique Chamber of Commerce School in the capital city of Fort de France costs about $1,000 for a week. Accomodations with a host family can be arranged at $42 a day, including breakfast. Contact EMI International (718-631-0096) for reservations or further details.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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