When airlines like Pan Am began flying nonstop from New York to tropical destinations like Martinique in the 1960s, the islands were a hotbed for celebrity sightings. Of course, not much has changed in that respect. Sun, sand and bottomless sangrias have a way of staying relevant.
In the decades since, though, the region stretching east and west from Belize to Barbados, and north and south from Cuba to Colombia, has gone through a family-friendly phase, had more than a few romantic runs and even took a couple of eco-tourism jaunts. But through it all, the Caribbean has worn the same warm smile and carried the same jovial disposition it always has.
If you haven’t visited the region in the past few years, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s having another moment right now, this one being led by refined hotels whose sole mission is to exceed guests’ expectations. Forbes Travel Guide noticed this dedication and passion throughout the region, and began rating properties in the Caribbean over the past year. Three hotels earned Five Stars: Antigua’s Jumby Bay, A Rosewood Resort and St. Barts’ Cheval Blanc St-Barth Isle de France and Eden Rock. Four more—Anguilla’s Cap Juluca, St. Barts’ Le Guanahani, St. Lucia’s Ladera Resort, and Turks & Caicos’ Amanyara—received Four-Star awards, and The Somerset on Grace Bay on Turks & Caicos achieved a Forbes Travel Guide Recommended designation.
Of course, the trend toward more luxurious, if-you-can-dream-it-you-can-have-it stays isn’t necessarily anything new; we’re almost certain Frank Sinatra had some unforgettable Caribbean jaunts back in his day. It’s just that things have gotten bigger and even more over-the-top these days. So, while other places around the globe can offer 75-degree forecasts, very few can do so from piercing blue shorelines in front of world-class accommodations.
One of the region’s true eye-catchers is the yet-to-open Baha Mar, a 1,000-acre, five-hotel mega complex. When the otherworldly Bahamian property officially opens its doors on March 27, it will serve as the area’s latest—and arguably, it’s most demonstrative—show of excess. The specifications for the property read like a Guinness World Records entry: a $3.5-billion price tag; 100,000-square-foot casino floor, the largest in the Caribbean; 200,000 square feet of convention space.
Still, the most impressive aspect of the property is the list of high-end hotel brands calling the place home: Baha Mar Casino & Hotel (1,000 rooms); Grand Hyatt at Baha Mar (700; it opens May 1); SLS Lux at Baha Mar (300); Rosewood at Baha Mar (190); and the all-inclusive Melia at Baha Mar (726). Place those tony titles alongside properties like One&Only Ocean Club and The Cove Atlantis that have welcomed well-heeled travelers for years, and you see why the island is a favorite stop for the likes of Salma Hayek and Mark Wahlberg.
“Rosewood at Baha Mar is going to be a one-of-a-kind resort in the Caribbean,” says Luis Fernandes, managing director for Rosewood at Baha Mar. “It’s going to be very, very different. It will offer a bigger resort, but with a beautiful, exclusive enclave, where the high-end resort clientele will want to come. It’s really going to be much more of an adult type of resort. Obviously, we do welcome children and families over their holidays and special weekends, but it’s going to be very much a beautiful, James Bond-style of resort experience with very personalized service.”
Roughly 600 miles south of the Bahamas sits the Dominican Republic, the most-visited island in the Caribbean. There you’ll find another posh property eager to show off its new look. Actually, Tortuga Bay Hotel has wowed Hollywood’s elite and politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton for years, but it wasn’t until last October that native son Oscar de la Renta unveiled his stunning canary-hued villas. The famed designer employed mahogany woods, wicker and other natural elements to create spaces that maintain plantation-style sensibilities that the well-traveled crave. Once you pair unparalleled accommodations with award-winning cuisine and 45 holes of championship golf, you understand why the place has never been more popular.
Puerto Rico, the second most visited destination in the region, certainly knows a thing or two about crowds. And even though more than three million people squeeze onto an island about the size of Connecticut every year, things never feel cramped. If anything, the tropical paradise juggles the needs of lovebirds, family reunions and everyone else without missing a salsa-tinged beat.
“The boom that we’re having [is due to] the economy of the U.S. improving,” says Jorge Collazo, regional director of sales and marketing for Condado Vanderbilt, one of the premier properties in Puerto Rico. “But more than that it is just the [free] time that the American traveler has now to travel. Ten, 15 years ago, people might plan one serious vacation a year. In today’s world, people are planning at least two serious vacations a year, and then several [smaller] getaways throughout the year. And, if you take a destination like Puerto Rico, if you leave New York in the morning, you can literally be laying on the beach early in the afternoon.”
It’s that proximity to the continental United States that makes Puerto Rico so attractive. (We’d guess not having the hassle of dealing with customs lines and not needing an international plan on your cellphone are pluses, too.) Other countries like St. Lucia, Cayman Islands, and Antigua and Barbuda won’t be able to ease any stress on your Verizon bill but they can match Puerto Rico in terms of swanky vacation options.
Which brings us back to the Bahamas’ massive Baha Mar. Foodies will appreciate a menu of 50 restaurants and bars on the property. Spa enthusiasts will love all that ESPA, the brand’s first Caribbean outpost, has to offer on its 30,000-square-foot campus. And future Jacques Cousteaus won’t want to leave on-site sanctuary pools and a free-flight aviary flourishing with wildlife. Developers have thought of almost everything at Baha Mar. Luckily for travelers, that appears to be the case in almost every direction you look across the region’s azure waters.
“The Caribbean has always been there,” says Mr. Fernandes, “but now there’s a reinvention. I think that is what is happening in Baha Mar and what’s happening in St. Barts and Cuba. The Caribbean is again on the rise and I think the Caribbean is being beautified. I just love the fact that there’s this great contribution to all of these beautiful island nations that deserve to become much more luxury-driven. The Caribbean is reinventing itself and it is beautiful to see what’s going on.”