Such casual finds are typical of the way the traveller discovers those who once lived here in the Caribbean, from the indigenous Taíno to the dark days of the slave trade. Having spent more than 20 years exploring this region, I’ve grown used to spotting cannon being used as fenceposts and sugar mills ingeniously repurposed as homes, hotel suites, dining rooms and museums – or, even, also on Antigua, as a police training academy.
While I love the sunshine, beaches and rum here as much as anyone, it’s frustrating how that fly-and-flop image masks a formidable heritage. UNESCO recognised this wealth as early as 1982, when Old Havana was one of the first places to be granted World Heritage status. Today there are 21 UNESCO sites across the islands alone, ranging from the colonial architecture of Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital, to the colossal but barely-visited Brimstone Hill Fortress on St Kitts.
Such remnants are not just stones and monuments, but a fountain of stories with beating hearts born from the vibrant cook-up of cultures that defines this region. Food for thought and a swim in a warm, turquoise sea – now that’s a proper trip.
Cartagena de Indias, Colombia
Founded by the Spanish in 1533, Cartagena was one of the main Caribbean ports from where the colonisers funnelled the riches of the New World back to Europe – and the need to protect this wealth has left it ringed with fortifications including the colossal Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas and 12km of stone ramparts. Granted UNESCO World Heritage status for its historic importance, Cartagena’s also a popular beach stop with a spirited nightlife. To get your bearings head up to La Popa, a 150m hill crowned with a convent that offers a fine city views.
Don’t miss: The walled Centro Histórico with its lattice of cobbled streets and flower-filled plazas where you can relax in the shade nibbling cocada de guayaba (guava with coconut) sweets. Visit the Museo del Oro Zenú for a glimpse of the glistening gold treasures the Spanish were seeking and the Palacio de la Inquisición to see how they brutally maintained their power. Local flavours: Like coffee? Rum? Chocolate? Ice cream? Cartageneros adore their food and drink and you can learn about all of these and more on a half-day tasting tour with Cartagena Connections (cartagenaconnections.com). Or join a cooking class to make typical dishes such as crab carimañolas (stuffed yuca fritters) and cassava-coconut cake.
Our tip: Colombia has the greatest bird diversity in the world. A convenient way to appreciate this natural splendour is at the Aviario Nacional in Barú, a 50-minute drive south. The seven-hectare aviary is arranged in three ecosystems with 190 species to spot (aviarionacional.co)
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Founded in 1496 by Bartholomew Columbus, Santo Domingo was the first city in the New World and has an abundance of churches, fortifications and museums to prove it. Nearly everything to see of historic importance is parcelled up in the 12 blocks of the Zona Colonial on the west bank of Río Ozama. Top of the bill is the Catedral Primada de América, completed in 1540, while the Museo Alcázar de Colón was once the powerhouse of the island’s first governor, Diego Columbus (Christopher’s eldest son). In the warm evenings, these ancient streets come alive with bars offering happy hours and live music; a cool Presidente beer slips down very nicely.
Don’t miss: In the city’s leafy residential district of Gazcue, the Plaza de la Cultura is home to the country’s national theatre, library and several museums. Make a beeline for the Museo del Hombre Dominicano for its insights into the island’s original inhabitants, the Taíno, while the Museo de Arte Moderno features works by its foremost 20th century artists.
Local flavours: The Malecón, the city’s long seafront boulevard, is where Dominicans grab a breather and enjoy some nightlife. Meanwhile, in the Zona Colonia,l there are free dance shows in Plaza de España on Friday and Saturday evenings; on Sundays the ruined stone walls of the Monasterio de San Francisco resound to a live band playing merengue and salsa.
Our tip: The seaside isn’t the only place to relax in this lively city. In the Arroyo Hondo district you can stroll around the largest botanical gardens in the Caribbean. Covering 2 sq km, it displays flora from across the island and has an arboretum that houses more than 1,500 species of tree.
Martinique’s capital is a full-on French port complete with mega-cruise ships, traffic congestion and a firm belief in the importance of lunch. Gallic formality blends with laidback Caribbean rhythms to create a vibrant and at times dishevelled mood. The Place de la Savane is a large rectangular seafront park dominated in its south-east corner by the haughty 17th-century Fort-St Louis, which is still used by the navy – some sections are open for tours. The heart of the city’s heritage lies between the park and Rivière Madame, an intense grid of streets centred on the Gothic Revival Cathèdral St-Louis, built-in 1895 using an iron frame to withstand natural disasters.
Don’t miss: Bibliothèque Schoelcher, a flamboyant building on the north-west corner of La Savane that was constructed for the 1889 World Exposition in Paris and then shipped here. It still functions as a free-entry public library and the ornate interior features wrought iron pillars, decorative tiles and the names of French literary greats writ large on the walls.
Local flavours: The French restaurants in Martinique can be disappointing compared to those in mainland France so save your euros and enjoy a picnic in La Savane where there is even a small beach. Here you are never far from a pâtisserie, bien sûr, and you can pick up island fruits such as mangos, pineapples and the figue pomme (a small, sweet banana) in the charming Marché Lafcadio Hearn.
Our tip: Take the 15-minute ferry ride from the pier near Pointe Simon south to Anse Mitan, a popular seaside spot where you can grab a swim then enjoy some ouassous flambés au rhum vieux (shrimps flambéed in aged rum) at a toes-in-the sand beach restaurant.
With its picturesque UNESCO World Heritage-listed waterfront, brightly coloured gabled buildings and stores selling Gouda cheese and Delft pottery, Willemstad appears to present a classically Dutch scene. In fact it is much more interesting thanks to Curaçao’s cultural diversity – the island is home to over 50 nationalities and most residents speak English, Dutch, Spanish and Papiamentu (Creole). Easy to walk around, the city is split into two parts, Otrobanda and Punda, by the Sint Annabaai channel that is spanned by a swing bridge lit up at night. Visitors can respectfully explore this diverse heritage further at the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel, the oldest continuously used synagogue in the Western hemisphere, and the Museum Kurá Hulanda, which documents the island’s ties with West Africa through slavery.
Don’t miss: A stroll in the Pietermaai district, in the east of the city, which has many fine Dutch 18th and 19th-century buildings and doesn’t get swamped with cruise ship visitors. There are also boutique hotels and small restaurants worth returning to for dinner; try Mosa, which offers sharing plates featuring local shrimp, octopus and ceviche (mosarestaurant.com).
Local flavours: Plasa Bieu is a casual, lunch-only former market in Punda serving hearty stews and island specialties like funchi (polenta) and cactus soup. Or book a half-day Caribbean cookery class with cheery Dutch chef Helmi Smeulders (helmismeulders.com).
Our tip: Willemstad is flat so cycling is a lovely way to explore – Art Now Tours offers insightful guided rides to see the vivid street art of Punda (facebook.com/arttourscuracao).
St George’s, Grenada
Sprinkled over a promontory on the island’s south-west coast, the colourfully painted buildings of St George’s make a striking tableau as they circle around a well-protected harbour. Exploring inevitably means hiking up and down hills – the view from Fort George, built by the French in 1705, is worth the effort, along with a look at St George’s Anglican Church, dating from 1825, which has bravely defied numerous hurricanes. The Grenada National Museum, on the corner of Young and Monckton Streets, is a modest affair so combine it with a visit to Market Square – Saturday morning is the prime time to appreciate the island’s riches including the fruits and spices for which Grenada is famed.
Don’t miss: Love chocolate? Grenada now has five artisan producers and you can learn all about this moreish confection at House of Chocolate, which combines a small exhibition with a yummy café and shop (houseofchocolategnd.com).
Local flavours: St George’s is the sort of place where you should sit back and watch Grenadan life go by – preferably with a cold local beer and some freshly grilled fish in front of you. A top spot for this is the Carenage waterfront promenade, where Sails Restaurant has harbour views and a menu that glides confidently from tuna salad to goat roti and homemade ice cream (facebook. com/sailsgrenada).
Our tip: Grenada regularly wins medals at the Chelsea Flower Show and several gardens that send blooms, such as Hyde Park and Smithy’s, are in the hills close to St George’s. Visits are by appointment and can be arranged via Caribbean Horizons (caribbeanhorizons.com).
Cheapside, Milk Market, Wellington Street... There’s a familiar ring to the street names in this easygoing waterfront capital graced with splendid neo-Gothic Parliament Buildings, an inner harbour known as the Careenage and the Garrison Historic Area, which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its ‘outstanding British colonial architecture’. The city centre is easily explored on foot, taking in notable landmarks such as the veranda-ringed Mutual Building, erected in 1895, and National Heroes (formerly Trafalgar) Square. Tucked away on the south side of Chamberlain Bridge, the 1893 Blackwoods Screw Dock is the oldest surviving ship-lift in the world, while the nearby dazzling sands and turquoise waters of Brownes Beach may prove irresistible. For a sense of the island’s past, tour the Barbados Museum and George Washington House (where the future United States president stayed in 1751) in Garrison Savannah, which lies 3km to the south.
Don’t miss: A day at the races. All island life comes to the Garrison Savannah track, where horses have been running since 1845. Meetings are generally held on Saturdays (barbadosturfclub.org).
Local flavours: Try some Bajan dishes such as fried flying fish, pepperpot (a spicy meat stew with cassareep and cinnamon) and coconut cream pie at Brown Sugar, a garden courtyard restaurant near Garrison Savannah that offers a bountiful buffet lunch (brownsugarbarbados.net).
Our tip: Barbados has a trusty network of blue and yellow public buses that provide a cheap and entertaining way to travel in and out of the capital. Pay as you board with Barbados dollars (transportboard.com).
English-speaking Guyana produces excellent rum and its engaging capital comes scented with sweet smells wafting across from the Diamond Distillery, which is set on the east bank of the Demerara River (tasting sessions available). The national capital has some attractive buildings, not always in the finest condition, that reflect its British and Dutch heritage – the latter’s talent for engineering is manifest in numerous canals and a sea wall that runs along the coast for 450km. St George’s Cathedral, built in 1892 and one of the tallest wooden structures in the world, is the flagship photo op while cricket fans will want to see the historic Bourda ground and its modern successor, Providence Stadium. Save time, too, for the National Museum and the Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology, which is devoted to the country’s indigenous peoples.
Don’t miss: A sunset cruise on the Demerara River, passing under Harbour Bridge to visit mangroves and banks rich in birdlife including egrets, herons, kites and sandpipers (book via wilderness-explorers.com).
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