Los Roques, Venezuela
An Edenic (if hard to reach) national park with none of the usual cash drains.
Los Roques is pure castaway Caribbean: a string of islands encircled by brilliant white sand, scattered with coral and palm trees, and almost completely devoid of people. Because the islands are in a national park, there are no high-dollar resorts and little in the way of shopping. Most visitors stay in one of the low-key posadas in old fishermen’s homes, many of which offer meals and boat trips to the outer islands at special rates, further cutting costs. Only catch? It’s pretty hard to get there, with most fliers connecting through Caracas, usually with the help of a Venezuelan travel agent like Explore Partners (explorepartners.com). On the main island of Gran Roque, check into Ranchito Power ($55 per person; los-roques.com/ranchito-power.htm), a charming five-room posada run by Anna Putzolu, one of the Italian expats who have turned the islands into a de facto Italian colony. Hire a boat (Putzolu can arrange it) to take you to one of the most isolated chunks of land in the archipelago, Cayo de Agua. Your captain will drop you off in the morning with beach chairs, an umbrella, and a lunch of fresh tuna sandwiches and Venezuelan Polar beer—and you won’t see another soul until he picks you up in the afternoon ($30 per person). Back on Gran Roque, splurge on a dinner of seafood risotto and grilled octopus at the open-air, beachside Posada Caracol restaurant ($80 set menu; caracolgroup.com). This being Little Italy, expect an expertly concocted cappuccino with dessert.
• Personal boat captain for a day of island-hopping $30 per person
• Four-day beginner’s windsurfing package with Vela Windsurf Resorts $143
• Beachside lobster lunch for two at Juanita on Crasquí Island $70
Montserrat, West Indies
Until its volcano stops rumbling, the half-deserted island will remain heavily discounted.
The Soufrière Hills Volcano has been spewing ash intermittently since a hugely destructive eruption in 1997, but the fear of living next to the Caribbean Pompeii hasn’t stopped islanders from turning Montserrat’s northern half into a lush, affordable hideaway. Book passage from Antigua aboard the new government-run ferry ($100 round-trip; visitmontserrat.com; starts in December), and race 30 miles to Olveston House (from $75; olvestonhouse.com), a former home of Beatles producer Sir George Martin converted into a six-room inn. Rent a kayak from Green Monkey Inn & Dive Shop ($10 an hour; divemontserrat.com) and paddle about fifteen minutes to the island’s only white-sand beach, Rendezvous, stopping by a few sea caves to see colonies of sleeping fruit bats. The dive shop can also ferry you to the island’s premier attraction—the volcano—with a stop at the eerie ex-capital of Plymouth, now buried up to its roofs, chimneys, and steeples in once-molten mud ($55 per person).
• Lava-spotting trip to Montserrat Volcano Observatory $3.75
• Bar of bay-leaf soap plus volcanic pumice stone at Emerald Spa $6
• Well-poured pint of Guinness at the Wide Awake Bar $3
The remote, resort-free village costs a fraction of what you’ll pay farther up the Yucatán.
What Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya was in the late eighties—a cheap, barefoot bohemia for sunbathing, beach-reading, and bottomless margaritas—Mahahual, about 150 miles south on the newly coined Costa Maya, is today. The main drag, a sand road dividing the Caribbean from dense mangrove forests, is a veritable U.N. conference, lined with hotels owned by Canadians, guide shops manned by the Dutch, and restaurants staffed by Italians. This despite the fact that the closest international airport is a four-hour drive away in Cancún, which has, helpfully, kept big resorts from moving in and driving up prices. Break up the long ride into town by stopping at a few Yucatán highlights, including a swim at Cenote Cristal just south of Tulum or a crowd-free climb of the ten-story Templo 1 at the Mayan ruins of Chacchoben (both $3). Reserve a beachfront room at the wind- and solar-powered Balamku Inn (from $75 including breakfast; balamku.com), which lends out complimentary kayaks for exploring a reef just 100 yards offshore. Start paddling midmorning, snorkeling gear in tow ($10 a day), after downing a heaping plate of huevos rancheros.
• One-hour massage in a beach palapa on the malecón $25
• Margarita sipped from a swing at Los 40 Cañones bar $5
• Homemade pita and dips at the Travel in’ restaurant $3
Rugged geography and a dearth of beaches spell big bargains in the Caribbean.
The Caribbean possesses more classically beautiful beaches than the smallish strands on Dominica (one reason why prices are lower here than on St. Lucia two islands south—that and the fact that the mountainous terrain hardly lends itself to sprawling, all-inclusive resorts). But nowhere in this part of the world is there better hiking than on Dominica’s 300 miles of government-maintained mountain trails, which invite hot and sweaty but infinitely rewarding jungle treks to waterfalls, emerald swimming holes, and even one bizarre, unswimmable mountaintop lake that boils from volcanic activity. The new Waitukubuli National Trail, now partially open, will span Dominica north to south in 115 miles of footpaths when completed next year. The best way to get to them is via a 45-minute puddle-jump from St. Lucia on LIAT (from $65; liatairline.com). Hire a guide from Ken’s Hinterland Adventure Tours to lead you on a lung-busting, seven-hour trek to Boiling Lake ($50 per person; khatts.com). Recover on a chaise at the newly expanded Beau Rive inn, where both the swimming pool and ten balconied rooms overlook a wave-bashed coast (from $180; beaurive.com).