If there’s any complaint about this part-French, part-Dutch island-piled high with nightclubs, restaurants, and resorts—it’s that there’s too much of everything. But in the wake of the global economic downturn, construction has slowed—and even, in a sense, reversed. A string of hurricane-battered structures at Mullet Bay on the Dutch side was torn down (after 15 years) and replaced by a provisional park. On the French side, the 154-acre private nature reserve Loterie Farm continues to grow, adding poolside cabanas to its zip-line course, hiking trails, and other outdoorsy amenities (loteriefarm.com, hiking $7, zip line $48, pool access $28, 10-person cabana $240). And following a 13-year effort, the Man of War Shoal reef earned certification as a marine park, giving divers new reasons to take the plunge.
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There’s a reason Aruba’s luxury hotels, glitzy casinos, and designer boutiques are concentrated along this Dutch island’s western edge: the spectacular sunsets. Yet even a non-morning person might want to sample the sunrise side for its weekly street party called Carubbean Festival (297/582-3777). Every Thursday night, food and drink vendors set up stands to sell regional specialties, primarily to local transplants hungering for a taste of home. This cross-cultural mixer takes place, appropriately enough, in the working-class community of San Nicolas, built to house oil-refinery workers who immigrated here in the 1920s. “Aruba has opened its doors to many other islanders—a lot of Jamaicans, Haitians, Dominicans,” says Ruthlene Flemming, an Aruba native and the event’s coordinator. “It’s our melting pot. And here, you can experience a little bit of the whole Caribbean.” The sunrise side is also home to cactus-studded Arikok National Park, which features rebuilt access roads, trails, and a new visitors center, thanks to a $10 million grant from the EU (arubanationalpark.org, adult admission $10). The best budget-hotel option, however, is back on the west side about a $20 cab ride away: MVC Eagle Beach, a 19-room inn with ocean-view terraces, all-white bedding, and dark-wood furniture (mvceaglebeach.com, from $145).
Some solitude seekers insist there’s a direct relationship between proximity and peace: The farther you travel, the more quiet things get. Then there’s Cat Island, a 48-mile-long coral outcrop just 265 miles east of Florida and only 45 minutes from Nassau. SkyBahamas Airlines flies to Cat Island daily from Nassau (skybahamas.net, round-trip from $169), yet of the over 5 million travelers to the Bahamas last year, only a fraction made a call on Cat. What they found here wasn’t much, and in a good way: thatch-roof beach bars and empty pink-sand bays, diving and gentle hikes up Mt. Alvernia, the Bahamas’s highest point at 206 feet above sea level. There’s a great waterfront restaurant in Arthur’s Town called Da Smoke Pot that serves sweet-and-sour conch and rum punch, and hosts musicians on the porch playing Bahamian songs on the musical saw (242/354-2094, sweet-and-sour conch $15). Nearby Pigeon Cay Beach Club occupies a three-mile strand with seven simple, stand-alone rental cottages (pigeoncaybahamas.com, from $140).
U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS
St. Croix, at 82 square miles, is larger than St. Thomas and St. John combined, yet of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, it gets the fewest visitors. Why? It’s the most remote and the least developed—good news for the agriculture-rich island’s burgeoning food scene. Among the most notable foodie stops are the farmstays and weekend workshops at the Virgin Islands Sustainable Farm Institute on the island’s certified organic Ridge to Reef Farm (visfi.org; tours daily from $25; visit website for farmstay retreat options), and the annual St. Croix Food & Wine Experience, a festive, weeklong charity event in April that draws big-name chefs such as Top Chef Masters star Graham Elliot Bowles and James Beard award-winner Ana Sortun (stcroixfoodandwine.com, events from $50). Sports culture is also thriving in all that open space. Horseback riding and triathlons are popular, as well as diving and other water sports. One of the newer options: Sea Thru Kayaks VI’s tours through the island’s two bioluminescent bays (seathrukayaksvi.com, 90-minute tours $50). “Go when the moon isn’t full, and you can really see the lights twinkling,” says local restaurateur and sommelier Katherine Pugliese, a cofounder of the food festival. “You feel like you’re in pixie-land.”