Many weary travelers escape to the Caribbean islands each year for rest and relaxation. Arguably there is no better place to lounge beneath a tree or soak up the sun's rays. But if you're feeling a little adventurous or ready to try something new on your trip, you may want to try your hand at hiking up a mountain, biking a scenic back road, or taking a picnic lunch before a polo match.
Not surprisingly, you'll also have numerous water sports options at your disposal on the islands, and you don't have to be an expert to enjoy most of them. For nearly all forms of recreation in the Caribbean, you can either go it alone or hire guides or instructors who are accustomed to leading and teaching beginners.
If you're a seasoned outdoorsman, you may opt for a sea kayak excursion that ends with a night of camping in a national park. Others may prefer to sign up for a group outing. Try an out-of-the-way snorkeling destination if you'd like to test the Caribbean waters in private setting, or explore the coastline by horseback, which is offered almost everywhere. Some places even have pony rides for the kids.
Your best resource for finding equipment, guides, maps and destination ideas is the concierge of your hotel. Hotels can usually help with recreation planning, and some resorts even offer complimentary bicycles and windsurfing equipment to guests. Most of the islands in the Caribbean also have at least one rental company offering bikes and other gear for around $20(USD) a day or at a weekly rate. If you're a skilled and fit biker, try mountain biking in the Dominican Republic, a destination rated high for its unique bike terrain.
Two of the most popular forms of island recreation are hiking and water sports; once you've had a day or two of activity, you may be ready to sit on the sidelines for an island sports match--a great way to experience Caribbean culture. Cricket and soccer are popular sports all over the region. Catch a cricket test match in Jamaica, Barbados, or Antigua. Sailing regattas and golf and tennis tournaments also abound; baseball is a mainstay in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. And if you like horse racing, you'll find some of the best in Jamaica, Barbados and the Dominican Republic.
Hiking can be a thrilling way to traverse steep hills, narrow roads, and protected areas inaccessible to cars. Depending on your mood, skill level, and interests, hiking in the Caribbean can be short, easy treads or long, strenuous treks.
You can either use a trail guide and map from your hotel, or you can hire a guide. In fact, a hired guide may be required for some hikes, sometimes for the protection of a particular ecosystem and sometimes for your protection. National parks and preserves throughout the Caribbean offer free organized hikes with an experienced and knowledgeable guide who will keep you informed about what you're seeing, hearing and smelling along the way.
Hiking trails--both marked and uncharted--can be found throughout the region. Some of the trails even follow plantation roads. Others take you up into a volcano or down into the pool of a waterfall, where you might enjoy a swim after your walk. There are hikes specially suited to bird watchers and exotic plant lovers. And you can be fairly certain that the scenery along your hiking path--whether of the coastline, the forest, the mountains or villages--will be breathtaking. Although you can find good hiking just about everywhere in the Caribbean, there are some places that really stand out:
The El Yunque Rain Forest, Puerto Rico: A spectacular destination with trails for beginners and the very experienced. Various hiking paths will take you from forested areas up to mountain peaks and around waterfalls; you'll observe rare and beautiful flora and fauna along the way.
The Pico Duarte Ascent, Dominican Republic: This is the highest mountain in the Caribbean and is best for skilled and physically fit hikers. The hike takes two days and covers about twelve miles.
The Blue Mountain Peak, Jamaica: An exhilarating adventure for those after a strenuous climb. Hikers leave at 2:00 a.m. in order to be at the summit for the sunrise and enjoy a glorious start to the day.
La Soufriere Volcano, Guadeloupe: A terrific hike that's great for beginners but fun for all skill levels.
St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands: Approximately two thirds of the island is protected national park land. You'll find twenty or so hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulty levels on this unspoiled island. Most hikes on St. John are guided by park staff.
Traveler's Tip: Don't let the ubiquitous Caribbean showers ruin your trip. Carry wet-weather gear while hiking and be prepared for dirt roads to get muddy. Also carry a water stash to prevent dehydration. And remember that when you're on an ascent, the air will cool rapidly the higher you go, so packing an extra shirt is wise.
Plan on returning to your home base by around 6:00 p.m. if you are not with a guide--it can be difficult to navigate home on a darkened path.
Bordered by the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, the region is rich with water sports options. Wind surfing has grown in popularity in recent years, so much so that the area now hosts world-class competitions in the sport. Wind surfing is an exciting but fairly strenuous activity and should be approached cautiously.
Concession stands rent boards for around $25(USD) a day. You can also hire an instructor if it's your first time out. Chenay Bay, on the north coast of St. Croix, U.S.V.I., is a popular destination for wind surfers. Other good bets are Aruba, the Dominican Republic and the southern coast of Barbados.
The islands also have opportunities for kayaking, white water rafting, and parasailing. On Barbados, Aruba, and on St. Thomas, U.S.V.I., you can go aboard a submarine, descend about a hundred feet and get an up-close look at ocean life. You may also enjoy a glass-bottom boat ride for underwater sightseeing. Hotels and beachside vendors also rent water skis, pedal boats, wave runners, jet skis, surfboards and water bikes. For the beginning surfer, you can rent a boogie board to try out in gentle Caribbean waves.
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