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Winter In The Caribbean

With the bleak winter on our doorstep, there’s no finer time to flee to the sunnier side of the world. For this feature, we have cherry-picked six Caribbean islands offering a wide range of diving and topside experiences. So throw away your thermals, dig out your ridiculous tropical shirt and join us for a tour of six great Caribbean diving islands   

St Lucia

 

Pinnacles of perfection

As a vision of tropical paradise, St Lucia is close to perfection. Two conical mountains, the iconic Pitons, dominate the landscape, giving way to lush valleys and a picturesque Caribbean coastline. St Lucia has positioned itself as an upmarket destination with an emphasis on the good life – the resorts abound with spas and ‘wellness centres’, which means you can eat and drink yourself silly on the all-inclusive, then make it all better by having a massage and a seaweed wrap. 

Diving highlights

Almost all of the diving takes place on the sheltered Caribbean side, which is also home to most of the resorts. The main diving area is the Soufriére quarter in the southwest
of the island, a 50-minute drive from the airport at Vieux Fort on the southern tip of the island. You can expect classic Caribbean reef diving on most of the sites, with sponge-dominated reefs and a reasonable smattering of reef fish. 

The best scenic dive is Superman’s Flight, a mellow drift along a wall where green and hawksbill turtles are frequently encountered. You see a lot of arrow crabs, banded cleaner shrimp and juvenile boxfish on the reef, while the sandy areas are home to lizardfish and peacock flounders with intricate patterns on their camouflaged bodies. 

While St Lucia is not endowed with the wreck-diving status of its neighbour Grenada, it has two excellent wrecks that are well worth visiting. In fact, one of them – the Lesleen M – is probably the best dive on the island. This 52m-long freighter was sunk in 1986 as part of an artificial reef project, and has blossomed into one of the prettiest shipwrecks I have ever dived. It sits at 20m, its hull festooned with sponges and gorgonian fans. The decks are curiously devoid of life, but parts of the interior are bedecked with corals and teeming with blackbar soldierfish. As you swim around the companionways, you will notice that trapped air has created a quicksilver sheen on the ceilings – it really is one of the most beautiful wrecks in the world. The second wreck is the 75m-long Daini Koyomaru, a Japanese dredger sunk off Anse Cochon in 1996. A little deeper and more exposed to currents, it provides a contrast to St Lucia’s otherwise sedate diving.

Getting there

Weekly direct flights from London Gatwick with British Airways (www.ba.com) and Virgin Atlantic (www.virgin-atlantic.com) are from around £450 return. Flights are generally booked as part of a holiday package.

Recommened resorts

StLucia resort2

Most of the coastal resorts have in-house dive centres, and those that do not can easily arrange diving excursions. A perennial favourite among divers is Anse Chastanet near Soufriére (www.ansechastanet.com), whose diving guides have a thorough knowledge of the reefs. Just around the corner, occupying the prime spot between the Pitons, is the luxurious Jalousie Plantation Resort (www.jalousieplantation.com), pictured above, known for its opulent surroundings and superb critter diving on its house reef. A resort with a unique philosophy is the recently refurbished Le Sport (www.thebodyholiday.com). Thanks to its array of fitness activities and spa facilities, this hotel attracts a lot of repeat business

 

Dominica

Dominica

 

Health and diversity

Dominica is that rare thing – an unspoiled Caribbean island where nature runs riot and the marine environment is close to pristine. It is even more mountainous than St Lucia, and this terrain has been a barrier to development, so the island is something of a time capsule. The little airport is pleasant enough, but can only handle relatively small craft, so you have to fly via St Lucia or Barbados. It’s worth the effort – Dominica is a natural treasure with excellent hiking and friendly locals.

Diving highlights

The reefs around Dominica are well above average in terms of health and diversity, but the best diving is found at Scott’s Head Marine Reserve on the southwest tip. Dive sites such as West Bank and Swiss Cheese are bursting with coral, not to mention goldentail moray eels, scorpionfish and cleaner shrimp. While other islands are famed for their macro life, Dominica has a little of everything. So you can expect to see seahorses and frogfish alongside more commonplace critters, with some very colourful
reef scenery as a backdrop.

The sponge reefs are amazing, but if you yearn for something different you should visit a site called La Sorcière, supposedly named after a witch who was thrown into the sea nearby (everyone has a different version of this story). 

You need keen eyes to make the most of this dive, but look carefully and you will find secretary blennies, anemone crabs and tiny arrow blennies, as well as a family of Caribbean reef squid, all on a relatively shallow dive.

For critter purists, the shore dives south of the capital Roseau can yield some fascinating discoveries. You sometimes have to walk though people’s back gardens to access the entry points on private jetties, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem. Along the silty sand of the shoreline, you can find seahorses, snake eels and the spectacularly ugly shortnose batfish. 

Getting there 

The easiest route is from London Gatwick to Antigua or St Lucia, where you can complete the journey on a 50-seater Dash-8 airplane. Caribbean airline Liat (www.liatairline.com) has daily flights between the islands. 

RECOMMENED RESORTS

Dominica resort

Dominica’s resorts tend to be functional rather than luxurious. For diving around the Scott’s Head marine park we recommend Anchorage Hotel (www.anchoragehotel.com), pictured above, which also has a dive centre and whale watching business attached. The accommodation at Sunset Bay to the north is basic, but the attached restaurant is strongly recommended and there is an on-site dive centre (www.sunsetbayclub.com

 

Aruba

Aruba

 

Wrecks galore

Aruba, 16 miles from the coast of Venezuela, is one of the most southerly of the Caribbean islands. A year-round destination, outside of the hurricane belt, its dry climate and white, sandy beaches are popular with sun seekers. There are high-rise hotels, casinos and a bustling capital city, Oranjestad. Diving is just one of many watersports and activities on offer. If you’re looking to combine diving with other sports, or simply laze on a beach, Aruba’s got a great mix to please all tastes.

Diving highlights

Aruba’s wrecks are its main draw for divers and the most popular is the Antilla. At 120m long, it’s one of the largest shipwrecks in the Caribbean, and you’ll need a couple of dives on it to really do it justice. A German freighter, the Antilla was scuttled by its captain in 1940 when Germany invaded the Netherlands. It now lies at 18m. Its large holds lend themselves well to penetrations and the wreck attracts a lot of marine life – angelfish are numerous here.

Another freighter, the Jane Sea, was purposely sunk for divers in 1988. It’s deeper than the Antilla at 30m. Colourful sponges and corals are now growing inside the holds and there’s
a particularly fine fan coral at the propeller. If you’ve had your fill of shipwrecks, you can dive a plane. The YS 11 is directly beneath the flight path into the island’s airport, but it didn’t crash – it was purposely sunk in 2004. The cockpit is intact, and you can swim through the fuselage. 

The wreck lies at 28m and at the end of the dive you can visit sponge reef – aptly named for the wide range of colourful sponges found here.

Getting there

Thomson Airways (www.thomson.co.uk) flies weekly to Aruba from London Gatwick and Manchester from May to October; you can pick up last-minute deals starting from around £400. KLM (www.klm.com) has five flights a week from Amsterdam, which you can fly to from 15 regional UK airports. Flights start from £720.  

Recommended resorts

Aruba resort

Amsterdam Manor (www.amsterdammanor.com), pictured below, combines Dutch colonial architecture with a striking location on beautiful Eagle Beach. In the evening, the hotel’s restaurant Passions on the Beach is well worth a visit – you’ll eat great food with the sand between your toes. Westin Resort (www.westinaruba.com) is a high-rise, international-style hotel with a spa and wide range of activities. Diving can be booked through the hotel or directly with the dive centre; Red Sail Sports (www.aruba-redsail.com) and S.E. Aruba Fly n Dive (www.se-aruba.com) are two of the main operators. JADs (www.jadsaruba.com) dive some of the quieter sites in the south of the island.

 

Bonaire

Bonaire

 

A diver’s paradise

Bonaire has a large diving community and most of its visitors are here for the reefs – even the number plates proclaim the island as a ‘diver’s paradise’. A Marine Park was established in 1979 from the shore to a depth of 60m; all divers must pay a fee towards the park’s upkeep (US $25) and have an orientation lecture at their dive centre – a small price to pay to help protect the environment.

Many resorts offer unlimited shore diving and the best way to take advantage of this is to hire a pickup, load it with your dive gear and head off to one of the 60 shore dive sites around the coast. Buddy Divers offers cylinder refills at a drive-thru – how easy is that?

Diving highlights

Most of Bonaire’s dive sites are along the west coast, which is protected by the island from the prevailing winds. The sea here is sheltered, with little surge or current. Around 10m from Bonaire’s shore is a fringing reef, rich in marine life. Sponges and corals are particularly colourful and there’s a plenty of reef fish as well as morays, turtles and the occasional tarpon.

At a site called Alice in Wonderland, the fringing reef is mirrored by a second, deeper reef that runs parallel to it. The first reef has gorgonian corals, angelfish and parrotfish, while the second is where you’ll spot barracuda and snapper. Close by is the wreck of the Hilma Hooker – a 70m cargo wreck at a maximum depth of 30m. Both sites are accessible from the shore.

There are around 20 dive sites around the islet of Klein Bonaire, which are dived by boat; at Carl’s Hill, you dive along a steep wall with plume corals and black coral. Watch out for spiny lobsters and crabs hiding in crevices in the reef and schools of fusiliers swarming past. It’s a popular spot with photographers.

The conditions on Bonaire’s east coast are wilder – there’s more wind and surge, but there’s also a better chance of seeing some larger marine life than on the sheltered west coast. Sharks, schools of tarpon and eagle rays can be spotted here. Diving is with East Coast Divers by RIB – it can be a bit of a bumpy ride, but it’s worth a little discomfort to see a different side of the island’s marine life.

Getting there

You can fly to Bonaire from the UK via Amsterdam with KLM (www.klm.com). Return flights cost around £850.

Recommended resorts

Bonaire resort

Most hotels on the island have their own dive centres. Buddy Dive Resort (www.buddydive.com) is a well-established dive centre, with a fantastic house reef right under its jetty, and good quality accommodation. Harbour Village Beach Club (www.harbourvillage.com), pictured above, is one of the most luxurious hotels on the island; it has its own private beach and meals are served on a pier, jutting out from the beach over the sea. The multicoloured Divi Flamingo Beach Resort and Casino (www.diviresorts.com) is a fun, busy place to stay and closer to the restaurants, bars and shops of the island’s capital Kralendijk.

 

Montserrat

Montserrat

Bommies and gullies

The volcanic soil of Montserrat provides the basis for a rich rainforest, but those same primal forces brought destruction to the island back in 1995 when the Soufriére Hills volcano erupted. Much of the southern side of the island was destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by the lava, but today Montserrat is recovering. The volcano still shows signs of sporadic activity, including ash falls. But the early warning system is held to be sufficient to evacuate the island in time, and the populated areas are situated far from the zone of geothermal activity.

Diving highlights

Most of the established dive sites are found off the west coast: the east side is still restricted due to some ongoing signs of volcanic activity, but occasionally it is possible to see the new reefs created when the lava flowed into the sea. 

Montserrat dive sites typically feature coral and sponge-encrusted bommies interspersed with sand gullies. They seem to have more big fish than many Caribbean islands; over the course of a week you can expect to see solitary barracuda, southern stingrays and plenty of eagle rays. 

One of the best-known sites is Pot of Gold, a series of volcanic boulders with sand patches at 25m. The reef is dominated by barrel sponges, brain corals and sea whips, with an array of vase sponges in different pastel hues. It’s always worth having a look at the sand, where flying gurnards and yellowhead jawfish live. 

Another rewarding spot is Redonda, a little island 14 miles offshore where there is a site littered with ancient ships’ anchors. Here, you will find a 2m-long resident green moray, plenty of southern stingrays and the occasional nurse shark. As an emerging dive destination, Montserrat is never crowded – you are guaranteed to have your chosen site to yourself.

Getting there

There’s a reason – besides the volcano – why Montserrat is off the mainstream tourist trail. Flights from the UK are routed via Antigua and cost around £750 return, including taxes. There are also daily flights from Montserrat to St Lucia and Dominica with Liat Airways. 

Recommended Resorts

Montserrat resort

At the time of writing the only working hotel on the island was Tropical Mansion Suites (www.tropicalmansion.com), pictured above, owned by a local family. It’s a comfortable, intimate place five minutes from the airport. For diving, book with Green Monkey Dive Shop at Little Bay (www.divemontserrat.com)

There’s a reason – besides the volcano – why Montserrat is off the mainstream tourist trail. Flights from the UK are routed via Antigua and cost around £750 return, including taxes. There are also daily flights from Montserrat to St Lucia and Dominica with Liat Airways. 

 

St Maarten 

StMarteen

Fine dining and diving

St Maarten lies in the Lesser Antilles, 180 miles east of Puerto Rico. Half the island is French and part of the French West Indies; the other side is Dutch – part of the Netherlands Antilles. The mix of cultures on the island has had an influence on the food, and St Maarten is known for its fantastic restaurants serving French and West Indian cuisine – a great excuse to tuck in after a hard day’s diving. 

Diving highlights 

Most dive sites are in the south of the island, on the Dutch side. The HMS Proselyte was a British ship that ran aground on a reef in 1801. The wooden ship has long since disappeared, but coral-covered cannons and three huge anchors remain. If you look carefully, you might also spot musket balls, cannon balls and broken pieces of crockery. The site is a healthy reef, with occasional sightings of eagle rays and stingrays. 

Other wrecks include the Carib Cargo, a ship that sank in 1996. You can visit the bridge and the engine room of this newer wreck.

The reefs of St Maarten are just as exciting to explore. The Maze is a popular dive site; here you’ll swim over, around and through the coral formations while seeing a variety of marine life. At another site, called the Circus, there are caves, lava tubes and lots of elk horn coral.

Some dive centres offer shark diving with Caribbean reef sharks – on these dives, sharks are fed a small number of fish to bring them closer to divers. If you’re lucky, you could spot sharks on any dive though.

Getting there

Air France flies directly from the UK to St Maarten (www.airfrance.co.uk). KLM also offers flights from a large number of regional airports via Amsterdam. Return flights cost around £750

Recommended resorts

StMarteen resort

Divi Little Bay Beach Resort (www.diviresorts.com), pictured above, is good value and has a dive centre on site while Holland House (www.hhbh.com) is a bit of beachfront luxury, right in the centre of the town of Philipsburg.

  

WHEN TO GO

Hurricane season in the Caribbean is between June and November, but this doesn’t rule out travel in that time, by any means. August, September and October are the peak months for hurricanes, with early September being the height of the season. The chances of your resort being where a hurricane makes landfall are pretty small, though the storms can extended for hundreds of miles.Unsurprisingly, you can get some good deals on holidays during this time in the Caribbean – you just need to be careful where and when you travel. The ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) in the south tend to avoid the storms, as do Trinidad and Tobago.

Tour operators

Aquatours 020 8398 0505
www.aquatours.com

Crusader Travel 020 8744 0474
www.divequest.co.uk

Divequest01254 826322
www.divequest.co.uk

Dive Worldwide0845 130 6980
www.diveworldwide.com

Oonasdivers01323 648 924
www.oonasdivers.com
 

Regaldive01353 659 999
www.regaldive.co.uk
 

 

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