Palm trees swaying over white-sand beaches, pellucid waters with teeming reefs just a flipper-kick from the shore and killer rum cocktails brought right to your lounge chair - this is the Caribbean, as per everyone's favourite tropical fantasy. The ultimate place to flop on the sand and unwind, the region offers sun, sand and corporeal comforts aplenty, and has long seduced those after life's sybaritic pleasures.
Given these obvious draws, a holiday in the Caribbean - anywhere in the Caribbean - is commonly proffered as the ultimate getaway. But buying into this postcard-perfect stereotype - and failing to recognize the individual idiosyncrasies of the islands that make up the archipelago - is the biggest mistake a first-time visitor can make. Drawing on the combined traditions of Africa and those brought here by Spain, Britain, France, Holland and the 500,000 people who arrived from India as indentured workers after the abolition of slavery, no other area in the Americas exhibits such a diverse range of cultural patterns and social and political institutions - there's a lot more on offer here than sun, sea, sand and learning to limbo.
Culturally , this relatively small, fairly impoverished collection of islands has had an impact quite out of tune with its size, from the Jamaican sound-system DJs who inspired hip-hop, to the Lenten bacchanalia that have come to define carnivals worldwide. Over the last five hundred years, each country or territory has carved out its own identity (some much more recently than others, with the onset of mass tourism and the advent of the all-inclusive), and it's hard to think of worlds so near and yet so disparate as the sensual son and salsa of Cuba compared to the dance-hall and Rasta militancy of neighbouring Jamaica or the poppy zouk of Martinique and Guadeloupe. Sport rivals music as a Caribbean obsession, and though golf is well represented by the scores of world class courses, the region's game of choice has traditionally been cricket, introduced by the Brits and raised to great heights by the Windies team, who led the world for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Wins are rather less common these days, but cricket remains central to the Caribbean psyche, with international matches known to bring their host islands to a complete standstill. Other popular spectator sports include football, which has made massive inroads since Jamaica's Reggae Boyz qualified for the 1998 World Cup, and baseball, firmly entrenched in Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
Each island has a strong culinary tradition, too, and while you might come here to sample Caribbean classics such as Trinidadian roti, Grenadian "oil-down" or Dominican mountain chicken (actually a very big frog), you can also enjoy croissants and gourmet dinners in the French islands, Dutch delicacies in the Netherlands Antilles and piles of good ol' burgers and fries in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas - and on every island with a fair-sized tourism industry you'll find "international" restaurants of every ilk alongside hole-in-the-wall shacks selling local specialities.
The Caribbean's natural attractions are equally compelling, its landscapes ranging from teeming rainforest, mist-swathed mountains and conical volcanic peaks to lowland mangrove swamps, lush pastureland and savannah plains. The entire region is incredibly abundant in its flora , despite the sometimes volcanic or scrubby interiors on certain islands. Heliconias and orchids flower most everywhere, while hibiscus and ixoras brighten up the hedgerows, and the forest greens are enlivened by flowering trees such as poinsettia and poui. Not surprisingly eco-tourism abounds, whether it be hiking through the waterfall-studded rainforest of Dominica or St Lucia, high-mountain treks in Jamaica, or birding in Trinidad, which has one of the highest concentrations of bird species in the world. The sea here is as bountiful as the land; besides taking in superlative diving and snorkelling around multicoloured reefs and sunken ships that play host to technicolour tropical marine life, you can turtle-watch on innumerable beaches that see nesting leatherbacks and hawksbills, go whale-spotting from St Lucia, Dominica and the Dominican Republic, or frolic with giant manta rays offshore of Tobago and stingrays in the Caymans.
Beyond their cultural and physical richness, the Caribbean islands share a similar history of colonization . The first known inhabitants, farming and fishing Amerindians who travelled from South America by way of dugout canoes around 500 BC, were swiftly displaced by Christopher Columbus , the Italian explorer who "discovered" the region for Spain in the late fifteenth century, touching down on the Bahamas, Cuba, Hispaniola and Jamaica, and mistakenly assuming that he had found the outlying islands of India, bestowing the title "West Indies" to the region. Seduced by fantasies of innumerable riches, other European countries soon jumped on the bandwagon. The Spanish were followed by the British, French and Dutch , who squabbled over their various territories for most of the sixteenth century, their colonization of the islands hindered by pirates and state-licensed privateers who plundered settlements and vessels without mercy.
Nonetheless, European colonies were established throughout the region, and by the seventeenth century, the islands had begun to be developed in earnest. The British proved most adept at establishing huge plantations of sugarcane - estates which required far more labour than the colonists themselves could provide, and which gave rise to the appalling business of the slave trade . Plantation life for slaves was one of unimaginable barbarity, and eighteenth-century rebellions , combined with Christian tenets of humanity and charity, engendered the first moves toward emancipation - between 1833 and 1888 slavery was abolished in the Caribbean.
Post-emancipation, conditions for all but the planter elites remained abysmal, and the establishment of unions and subsequent labour strikes led, by the 1930s, to the creation of political parties throughout the region. This in turn nudged the islands to call for independence from their colonial rulers, increasingly so after World War II. The early twentieth century also saw tourism start to take root. Wealthy Brits and North Americans had patronized palatial resorts since the late nineteenth century, and the glitterati followed in the footsteps of Noel Coward and Errol Flynn to Jamaica and Ernest Hemingway to Cuba, thus creating the air of exclusivity which remains inextricably tied to the Caribbean today. But with the introduction of long-haul air travel in the 1960s, tourists began to arrive en masse. While the fenced-off all-inclusive enclave is still going strong today, the region now has as many budget-oriented bolt holes as it does luxury resorts, and as many possibilities for adventurous travel as it does for staid beach holidays.
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