Spring comes on hard and early in the sunny Caribbean, and with springtime comes bargains. Down in the islands, good deals sprout up like flowers as we enter what the Caribbean Travel Association (CTA) calls "Caribbean Bonanza Time."
It's the off-season, in other words, but also an open season on bargains that runs from mid-April to mid-December. All over the Caribbean, hotel and restaurant prices drop with the speed of a falling coconut. And the drop is real as well as fast. Hotel prices, for instance, are slashed an average of 30 to 50 percent.
Bonanza Time is both a promotional and a marketing device for the two-dozen CTA islands and nations, but it also provides stimulus and a framework for a wide range of celebrations, folk festivals and special events.
There is a certain amount of hype in all this, of course, but not as much as you might think. To the sun-loving islanders it's winter that's the real offseason -- the balmy days of summer are the traditional time for doing their thing, whether it be celebrating the sugar cane harvest or jubilantly recalling the abolition of slavery in the last century.
Off-season Caribbean weather is surprisingly pleasant and not all that much hotter in summer than at other times of the year. Temperatures average 80 degrees Fahrenheit most places, rarely varying much more than five degrees from the winter winds, which ensure steady, cooling breezes that make many sun-soaked islands more comfortable in mid-summer than, say, New York or Washington.
Even if you're not into indigenous experiences, an off-season vacation in the islands makes sense and saves dollars. And, quite often, the higher the basic winter price, the more dramatic the discounts offered when the season changes -- which means that the winter playgrounds of the affluent are, during Bonanza Time, suddenly within reach of the budget-minded middle class.
For example, Casa de Camp, the posh Gulf + Western resort in the Dominican Republic, cuts room rates exactly in half, reducing the price of an elegant double to $70.
Reductions of this order are found in all categories all over the islands. The small but comfortable Beachcommer Hotel in Barbados also cuts prices by 50 percent, making a double there only $45 a day. And at the PLM Marina-Pagerie in Matinque, where the off-season reduction if 55 percent, from mid-April on you can get a double with kitchenette for $35. A similar discount if offered by the Aruba Beach Club, which has a Bonanza Time rate of $49 for a double.
Travel costs other than accomodations go down, too. It's a buyers market in restaurants and boutiques, at tennis and golf clubs. A sale is likely to be in progress, discounting is often the order of the day and there are even some giveaways. Car rental agencies in the Caymans, for example, drop some rates by 25 percent, and many large resort hotels don't charge for tennis or water sports in summer. And there is usually no waiting time in line.
Special package programs with a lot of built-in discounts, unavailable in winter, are trundled out come spring to lure visitors down to specific destinations. Among them: "Free Spree" in the Dutch Islands, "Best of Barbados" and "Fete Francaise Tours" in the French West Indies. With the latter program, a week-long package -- eight days and seven nights -- at the Air France-owned Meridien in Guadeloupe costs $312 per person.
Bahamian and Caribbean folk no longer enjoy exclusive occupancy of their islands in spring and summer, but they still act like they do -- and are never more themselves than when the sun is highest and warmest.
This is exuberantly apparent in the various fetes, festivals and fiestas that dot Caribbean Bonanza Time calendars of events, most of which involve a lot of cheerful noisemaking and uninhabited dancing in the streets. It's great fun to see and to be part of -- and it's almost always free.
Special events are held on sea as well as land.
On May 12, the Dutch Island of Curacao opens the current session of its legislative assembly, the "Staten," with Old World pomp.
There are patriots in the old British West Indies, too, and St. Kitts observes Queen Elizabeth's birthday on June 14 with parades, parties and picnics.
For two weeks, from June 14 to July 6, Barbados gives itself over to celebration as part of the carnival-like "Crop Over" festival -- a traditional event that marks completion of the sugar cane harvest. In mid-June, Puerto Rico sees the start of the annual Pablo Casals Festival. mNamed for the famed cellist who long made his home on the island, it is an important international musical event that attracts top-ranking musicians from around the world.
Early in June, Jamaica salutes its own distinctive music with "Reggae Sunsplash," a series of concerts and contests that provide a showcase for top local musicians. In the Dominican Republic, where the national dance is the meringue, the annnual Meringue Festival will be held July 24 to Aug. 4. The event includes concerts, exhibitions, ballets, musical parades -- and, of course, nonstop al fresco meringue dancing.
The events continue on into the autumn. The Cayman Islands are known for their laid-back atmosphere, but the otherwise easygoing populace is fiercely proud of the islands' history as a private haven. So the local equivalent of Mardi Gras is Pirate Week, Oct. 24-31, when smiling pirates row ashore to take part in parades and dances, including a grand "Pirates Ball." The Caymans offer superb skin diving, and among the special Pirate Week events are underwater treasure hunts.
Columbus Day, Oct. 12, is really big stuff on many islands -- particularly those discovered by Christopher himself. The Dominican Republic is proud of the fact that Columbus landed on its soil in 1492 -- and even prouder of the fact that he's still there, buried in the cathedral in Santo Domingo, the Dominican capital. Columbus Day is a state occasion.
Modern tourists should be grateful, too: It was, after all, Columbus who packaged the first Caribbean tour.