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The Caribbean, three ways

Renew body and soul in Dominica, Parrot Cay and Curaçao

By Katharine Dyson
Cooking Light magazine

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Parrot Cay Resort offers quiet luxury and dazzling scenery.

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(Cooking Lightexternal link) -- The islands of the Caribbean beckon with warm trade winds, pristine blue waters, and a laid-back pace. And they offer something special for every style of traveler: nature-lovers, art enthusiasts or simply daydreamers seeking to unplug with a healthy dose of relaxation. We've selected three islands that exemplify these ideals.

Whether you seek an escape filled with natural wonders, deluxe pampering, or arts and culture, these Caribbean gems fill the bill.

Dominica

Best for: Dominica offers great opportunities for nature and adventure lovers.

Location: The 29-mile-long island is between Martinique and Guadeloupe, Eastern Caribbean.

Getting there: Fly into one of Dominica's two small airports via Puerto Rico or other nearby gateways, such as Antigua.

Highlight: Start from the village of Laudat, and walk for an hour to Breakfast River. Climb through the rain forest, and you'll reach The Valley of Desolation, a moss-carpeted basin punctuated with hot springs and mini geysers. Keep hiking until you see Boiling Lake, one of the largest volcanically heated lakes in the world, a steamy cauldron, white with foam.

Allure: Dominica (dom-in-EE-ka) is breathtaking in its jungly greenness. Here the floodgates of mass tourism have not been breached -- the terrain alone discourages this.

The interior is sharply cut by mountains, rivers, and waterfalls; ragged hillsides plunge into a turquoise, crystalline sea. Beaches, secluded gems, mostly of golden or black volcanic sand, lie hidden at the end of unpaved roads. Just offshore are dramatic dive sites and springs that spew hot water and bubbles amidst schools of squid and huge stoplight parrotfish.

Local fare: Dominica's fertile soil yields succulent fruits like mangoes, guavas, and bananas, as well as yams, dasheen, and tannia. Popular local cuisine includes Creole dishes; always on tap is Kubuli, Dominica's local beer.

In the family-owned La Robe Creole Restaurant in Roseau ((767) 448-2896), try san coche, codfish boiled in coconut milk and served with dumplings and green bananas. For nonstop mountain vistas, try Mountain View Restaurant and Bar in Pond Casse ((767) 449-2386).

Where to stay: Visitors to Dominica stay mostly in small guesthouses or inns. Crescent Moon Cabins nestled in a beautiful rustic setting, make a perfect base for ecotourists and hikers, and the homegrown food is outstanding (rates from $115; (767) 449-3449, www.crescentmooncabins.comexternal link). The six-room boutique hotel, Beau Rive, known for its exceptional cuisine, is decorated in pristine whites and natural woods. Views of the sea are breathtaking (rates from $120 double with breakfast; 767-445-8992, www.beaurive.comexternal link).

Did you know?: Dominica is the best whale-watching spot in the Caribbean. Whales are present along its coast year-round.

Parrot Cay

Best for: Those in search of serene, quiet luxury and walks on the long white sand beaches will love Parrot Cay.

Location: The 1,000-acre private island is in Turks and Caicos, British West Indies.

Getting there: Fly to Turks and Caicos' Providenciales Airport via Puerto Rico.

Highlight: Rise with the sun and walk barefoot the 10 yards or so from your villa along a path defined by waving sea grass to the dazzling white, powdery beach. You might just run into Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Paul McCartney or Bruce Willis; they have all at one time or another sunk their toes in this very sand. This morning, though, you see no one, just one or two trails of footprints and a pair of sandals sitting at the foot of the path. Could it have been just yesterday when you were whisked by private launch from the Providenciales Airport over the turquoise sea to this idyllic island?

Allure: Ringed by more than three miles of beaches, Parrot Cay (key) soothes and restores. You don't come here for nightlife, or casinos or shopping. On Parrot Cay, life is purposely simple, a study in refinement as many rooms have private plunge pools, dreamy beds encased in gauzy fabric, bottled water delivered by butlers, pristine warm sand and privacy.

Parrot Cay's 60 rooms, suites, villas and beach houses are distributed along the beach and in its Mediterranean-style main hotel, which presides over a hillside. Spacious villas decorated in soft whites and neutrals have pickled-pine vaulted ceilings, screened sitting rooms, living rooms, large decks, kitchens, and a discreet array of entertainment equipment. The look is natural, the furniture arranged according to feng shui principles. Baths have polished pine vanities and large open tiled showers with rain-shower heads. Just outside, limestone walls surround another shower where the water reaches you after tumbling over a slab of rock.

Although the beach villas are the most luxurious accommodations, you can have a room in the main hotel that has water views, a balcony, and the same good taste in décor for a fraction of the price.

Local fare: The Terrace Restaurant in the main hotel is open for breakfast and dinner, whereas the more casual poolside Balinese-style Lotus restaurant by the sea serves lunch and dinner. On some evenings, you can listen or dance to live music. Cuisine features Mediterranean- and Asian-inspired dishes.

Deluxe pampering: COMO Shambhala is the resort's spa. Many of its massage therapists come from Bali, and options include an Indonesian-style treatment using Javanese essential oils and combining rolling and long kneading strokes, Thai massage, shiatsu, Indian head massage, Reiki and reflexology. Ayurvedic offerings include the Abhyanga, where two therapists provide a four-hand massage and Shirondhara, in which a stream of warm herbal oil is poured over your forehead.

Couples can book Shambhala's secluded cottage, which has a private open-air tub, deck, and treatment rooms for two. Parrot Cay has a well-equipped gym, an infinity-edged pool, kayaks, windsurfing and canoes, tennis courts and bikes. Snorkeling and diving excursions are also offered. The resort's launch can take you island hopping, perhaps to Iguana Island, inhabited by the prehistoric-like creatures (rates from $285 for rooms; from $1,425 for beach houses; (904) 288-0036, http://www.parrotcay.como.bz/external link).

Curaçao

Best for: Those who can tear themselves away from the beach to explore Caribbean heritage and culture will enjoy Curaçao.

Location: 35 miles north of Venezuela.

Getting there: Curaçao has daily nonstop flights from the United States to its International Airport, which has the longest runway in the Caribbean.

Highlight: The Museum Kurà Hulanda, in the heart of Willemstad, reveals what life was like when enslaved Africans arrived in Curaçao.

Allure: Curaçao's (cure-a-sow) candy-colored colonial buildings are topped by peaked gables, and traces of the Dutch language run through the island's rhythmical native tongue, Papiamentu, a reminder that this now independent country was Dutch for more than three centuries (1634 to 1954). For its size, the island is home to a surprising number of museums, art galleries and historic sites, including Landhuis Brievengat, once the hub of a working plantation and now a cultural center and museum.

Walk across the 100-year-old swinging Queen Emma pontoon bridge, connecting the Punda (eastern) side with the Otrobanda (western) side of Willemstad, the Netherlands Antilles capital and a U.N. World Heritage Site. Then head to the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the Western hemisphere.

Local fare: In Punda, visit the Mercado Flotante, the floating market where vegetables and seafood arrive by boat from Venezuela each morning. Also go to the Marsche Bieu market, where you can enjoy local specialties like erwten soep (thick pea soup), fried plantains, and kabritu (stewed goat).

Catch the beat: Curaçao's music is a mélange of styles -- merengue, calypso, reggae, salsa, and cha-cha, all with an underlying African rhythm. In late April, local folklore groups participate in the Séu Harvest parade and at the Cuisine, Culture, and Heritage Festival, where there are more than 50 stands to check out.

Where to stay: The Hotel Kura Hulanda, in the center of Willemstad, features 100 luxurious rooms in 18th- and 19th-century buildings set around flower-filled courtyards. There is a fitness center, spa, and two swimming pools -- one in a grotto with a waterfall (rates from $210 per room; (877) 264-3106, www.kurahulanda.comexternal link). The new Lodge Kura Hulanda and Beach Club, a sister property, is set on coral cliffs above the ocean. A prime diving destination, the lodge has an on-site dive shop, as well as an array of water toys.

Did you know?: Curaçao's capital, Willemstad, is one of the Caribbean's most important architectural centers. Several of the 765 buildings in the historic area are listed as monuments.


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