Caribbean Adventure Trail

Stephen Thorpe on nature, wildlife and hiking holidays in the Caribbean

  • The two steep volcanic Pitons are St Lucia's great landmark. Photograph by Stephen Thorpe
  • Macaws are just part of Guyana's enormous reservoir of wildlife. Photograph by Stephen Thorpe
  • The White House hotel in St Kitts, once a plantation house. Photograph by Stephen Thorpe
  • White island off Carriacou- you might see a whale spouting in the channel. Photograph by Stephen Thorpe
  • Jamaica's Blue Mountains. Prime hiking country. Photograph by Stephen Thorpe

Adventure travel is already big business. More than five million North Americans alone take part in wildlife and nature tours every year, a substantial market that is not limited to backpackers.

It is still controversial: some opponents deride the “green revolution”, contending that the hotel-on-a-beach syndrome is ecologically preferable, because it confines tourism activities and their fallout and allows unspoiled areas to remain pristine, undisturbed by the consumers of sun, sea and sand.

But the fact remains that few Caribbean visitors are really aware of the true nature and culture of the islands. For many, the image is still swaying palms, luscious beachscapes, splendid hotels and tempting piña coladas. True the Caribbean is all of this. But beyond the familiar image another world exists, and that is what growing numbers of travellers now want to discover.

Jamaica is probably the ultimate adventure island. As the old Tourist Board slogan used to boast: “We’re more than a beach, we’re a country.” Trekking the misty paths of the Blue Mountains or riding the river rafts of the Rio Grande and Martha Brae, you begin to understand what that means. Even the place-names in remoter areas conspire to enhance the adventure: the District of Look Behind, Wait-a Bit, Pennycomequick and Maggotty. The highest botanical garden in the world, at Cinchona, captures perfectly the ethereal stillness and richness of mountain landscape.

Walking is probably the best way of appreciating any new country, and in Jamaica the opportunities for hill-walking are unsurpassed. There’s even an organisation – JATCHA, the Jamaican Alternative Camping and Hiking Association – to guide you towards the many pleasures that lie beyond Jamaican beach life.

The United States Virgin Islands, on the other hand, have developed the “green” concept into an art form. At Harmony and Estate Concordia in St John, the latest techniques in conservation and site restoration have been used to dramatic effect, balancing ecological sensitivity with creature comforts. Buildings are made from recycled materials, electricity is generated by sun and wind power, and indigenous vegetation has been preserved wherever possible, creating a showpiece of environmental awareness.

Not far to the south-east, St Kitts is dominated by the volcanic peak of Mount Liamuiga. Climbing the flanks of this ancient mountain, through dense forest to the crater rim, is one of the most memorable hikes in the Caribbean. The south-western end of the island is a peninsula of low ridges and mysterious pink-hued salt ponds, also prime hiking country. Hotel development is scheduled in the wake of a spectacular road carved through the hills; across the water, the small sister island of Nevis has a smaller peak, seemingly forever wreathed in voluminous white cloud, and a series of plantation houses transformed into exclusive hotels, an attractive base for exploring this quiet island.

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While St Lucia has a firmly established traditional tourism business, large swathes of the island are virtually unexplored. There are interesting rainforest hikes from Mahaut to Fond St. Jacques and around the Anse Galet peninsula, nature reserves on small offshore islands of the Windward coast, and the unique environment of Soufriére town and the Pitons. Barbados has recently awoken to the possibilities for walking around the Scotland district, and Antigua offers dramatic and rewarding coastal trekking, especially around the remoter indentations and the new Parham Harbour restoration.

Dominica, with its rugged hinterland, steep forested mountainsides, rivers and lakes, describes itself as the “nature island”, and attracts independent-minded travellers interested in nature, diving and new experience. St Vincent too has an interesting range of natural attractions, including the Falls of Baleine and the Vermont Nature trail. Petit Byahaut, tucked into a valley cleft two and a half miles north of Kingstown on the Leeward coast, is reached only by boat. There are trips to the Soufriére volcano, and the spirit of the old Caribs lives on in their artefacts and petroglyphs.

Further south, Grenada is a fascinating island with recently discovered waterfalls where mullet can be found in emerald pools, a newly established National Park around Levera in the north-east, forest reserves and walking trails, and the oldest mill in the Antilles at the River Antoine rum distillery. Its sister island of Carriacou is good walking country: the Cassada Bay hotel, perched on a bluff overlooking White Island, is an excellent centre of operations, featuring a languid breeze-blown atmosphere and the attentions of Spud, the genial manager, who has a keen eye and telescope for any spouting whale in the channel below.

The twin islands of Trinidad and Tobago are geologically linked to the South American mainland, and have huge potential for developing special-interest travel packages. Habitats vary from upland forest and savannah to mangroves, freshwater swamp and beach lands. At the Asa Wright Nature Centre in the idyllic Northern Range, 169 bird species have been recorded, including the elusive cave-dwelling oilbird; the magnificent scarlet ibis is a constant attraction at the Caroni reserve near Port of Spain.

Guyana, on the north-eastern seaboard of South America but Caribbean in heritage and outlook, has, like Dominica and Belize, put adventure at the core of its evolving tourism development. The only English-speaking nation on the South American continent has a vast range of habitats and a landscape which can appear primeval in the great forested river basins of the Demerara and Essequibo. Trips to the Rupununi savannah, contact with Amerindian tribes and the awesome Kaieteur Falls, five times the height of Niagara, are just some of the highlights. You travel by launch, four-wheel-drive trucks and light aircraft, and accommodation ranges from nights under canvas to jungle lodges.

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Caribbean tourism has begun to change. The white-sand beaches and clear blue waters are not going to disappear, and the comforts and culinary delights of grand old plantation houses are never that far away. But remote waterfalls, animals and birds, ancient volcanoes and dense rainforest are becoming the frontiers for a more adventurous approach to travel. The new travellers will be getting much closer to the real spirit of the islands.