Be confident, mon. My instructor Matthew’s words stuck in my head as I bent my knees and started to pull the rope toward me, hand over hand. The windsurfer’s sail rose and I shifted my weight to my back leg. My left hand reached the top – the sail was up! Now I could hear Matthew exhorting me to “hold the sail!” Letting go the rope, I clutched the boom farther down, both hands now, and the breeze caught and filled the fabric right on cue. Somehow I maintained my precarious crouch and, turning my head slowly, gazed over the tip of the board out at the turquoise Caribbean stretching magnificently to the horizon.
“Okay, good,” said Matthew. “Now you ready to try it?”
I let the sail drop and stepped back onto the hot sand. “You mean out there? On the water? You must be joking.”
My brush with windsurfing took place on Barbados, the third of four Caribbean stops. The idea was that at each destination, apart from indulging in the usual vacationer’s ways, I would try to improve at some activity, one that made sense for that island (if not necessarily for me). So, fueled by a thirst for knowledge, and indigenous rums, I set out on my journey of discovery. I visited St. John, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and Anguilla. One unwitting side effect of the islands I chose and the order in which I visited them was that the designated activities grew more daunting as the trip progressed: I started with tennis, proceeded to off-road biking, then windsurfing, and finally – most harrowing of all – cooking.
Herewith a true account of self-improvement running headlong into hedonism under the unforgiving tropical sun.
I’ve only been flailing away on the court for about 90 seconds when Giff Searls, one of my opponents (the others being the ball, my racquet, and the game of tennis itself), calls a merciful halt.
“Okay, let’s stop the bleeding for a minute,” he says cheerfully. Searls is the tennis director at the Caneel Bay resort, and I am his feckless student. I haven’t played tennis in years, and it shows. During my conversations with Giff about my game, the phrase “gorilla arm” comes up far more than it really should in civilized discourse.
It’s here on St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, that the gulf between where I’m living and what I’m learning is widest. At the luxurious Caneel Bay, Searls has volleyed with former number-one Mats Wilander and coached guests like Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Kevin Bacon, Alan Alda, and Michael J. Fox. Caneel is the resort on St. John.
But I’m not staying at Caneel. To get to my lessons each day, I drive my Jeep over from the Concordia Eco-tents, twenty minutes away, where life is considerably more spartan. I’m living on a dense, tangled hillside in a self-sustaining two-story structure – not really a tent, more like a cottage – made of wood beams and canvas flaps and screens. The floors, which feel like cushioned planks, are actually flame-resistant recycled sawdust and milk cartons, same as the walkways that connect Concordia’s eleven units. To shower I have to first prime a 30-gallon rainwater-filled cistern with twenty vigorous pumps. Inside the tents are small reading lights, thin-mattressed beds, a “weather station” (wall barometer, thermometer, hydrometer), and a kitchen. It’s like camping out in simple comfort … indoors. Sitting in tennis clothes on my rustic balcony overlooking Salt Pond Bay, I enjoy an evening rum while bananaquits and hummingbirds go about their business in the soft light.
Concordia is a smaller, newer variation on the better-known Maho Bay Camps, another ecologically sound vacation community created by Stanley Selengut several bays over, but I prefer Concordia’s splendid solitude. During the several relaxing days I spend there, I see almost no one (though a number of the tents are occupied), and hear nothing more jarring than the surf.
Ted Copeland, who co-manages Concordia with his wife, Shay, explains that part of the Concordia approach is to educate guests, maybe inspire someone to explore alternative energy sources back home. (Guests are required to do a simple cleanup when they leave: sweep and wipe down the tent, gather linens, dispose of garbage, roll up flaps.) The tents are on stilts, and the open space underneath is shared by hermit crabs and the equipment used to run each unit. Ted affectionately pats a large green container. “It’s the Clivus Multrum composting system,” he murmurs. “Love it.” Another day I’m talking to Shay when a stricken-looking man opens the screen door to the main office. Shay asks how the couple is doing. “Not so good,” he replies. They just got here and his wife, he says, is in “culture shock.” Shay calmly offers to show them a studio. (In addition to the Eco-tents, Concordia rents out “studios” that are comparatively luxe – tile floors, kitchen, microwave, real bathrooms.) The man perks up, and while he goes off to fetch his traumatized spouse, Shay tells me that maybe 40 percent of their guests feel that way on arrival – they’ve come a long distance, they’re tired, they didn’t expect it to be so rough – but that most stay and love it. Later, Ted says, “The people that should’ve gone to Caneel, we put ‘em in studios.”
I go to Caneel, of course, for my own reasons (non-guests can take lessons). The tennis there is part of Peter Burwash International, which runs more than 60 such programs around the world. Under Giff’s guidance over several days, I work on my left hand, then my forehand and backhand, first from the service line, then the baseline. Next I practice my serve. Not only is it fun, but because I’ve started from scratch, my progress feels more astounding than it probably is.
But I don’t spend all my days on St. John camping out in tennis whites. For one thing, there are meals to enjoy. At Shipwreck Landing, in Coral Bay, the motif is nautical and the atmosphere funky and unpretentious; a bit of chicken stir-fry, Key lime pie, and a Bushwacker can hit the spot, and did, more than once. One night I tried the popular Miss Lucy’s, a mile down the road from Concordia, where one waitress and one waiter had their hands full taking care of some 25 diners. But the tender and spicy conch fritters were well worth waiting for, as was the grilled tuna and the raspberry-mango cheesecake.
St. John’s beaches are pretty and, when you’re lucky, all but private: One afternoon I shared the ample Salt Pond Bay crescent with no more than a half-dozen widely scattered humans, a pelican, an iguana, and a mongoose. And driving the winding, dipping roads around an island that’s half national park is a treat in itself. You can’t go fast here – open highway means 20 to 30 paved feet of straight, mostly crater-free road – so you’re forced to enjoy the scenery. One promising-looking detour led me to a dirt road that quickly showed every indication of trailing off into weeds and rocks. But then I spotted a sign posted helpfully on a tree: tourist info: you are lost, it read. Perhaps. But on the tennis court, anyway, not nearly as lost as I used to be.
At the airport in Puerto Plata, on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, everyone is running around blowing whistles. Maybe not everyone. But even a little whistle-blowing goes a long way, particularly when you are rooted to one spot, waiting – and waiting – for a driver. A local man finally approaches me. I explain the missing-driver situation. “Is he Dominican?” he asks. “He will be late.”
It’s muggy and chaotic and very green. On the road (finally) to Cabarete, a fast-growing little tourist town, everyone who was previously whistling is now honking. Motoconchos – motorbike taxis with three or more people hanging precariously off them – slow to offer pedestrians a ride, five pesos for a couple of miles. Climb aboard, plenty of room, just squeeze your steamer trunk right up there between that tractor engine and Manuel. It’s transportation Ringling Bros.-style.
My accommodations have been arranged by Iguana Mama, the adventure-travel outfit that has agreed to put me on a bicycle the next morning and roll me down a mountain along difficult roads. I’m staying in a fancy compound called Bahía de Arena, a quiet private enclave on the beach about half a mile outside Cabarete. My two-bedroom house is clean and comfortable, with ceiling fans, tile floors, lots of wicker, and bedside stacks of German magazines and French paperbacks. Although the most serious crime in the area is petty theft, armed guards, rifles slung over their shoulders, patrol the grounds round-the-clock.
The day of the trip I’m up at 6:30. By 7:00 my next-door neighbor is poolside with his boom box going, playing the same song over and over. And at 7:30, Patricia Suriel, the affable American who runs Iguana Mama, picks me up and drives me to her office – essentially a bicycle shop – in Cabarete. I’ve signed up for a half-day trip down from the mountaintop village of La Cumbre de Moca, which is an hour’s drive from Cabarete. During peak season, December through April, this particular trip might attract twenty cyclists, but it’s off-season, so only five have signed up – and three of them don’t show. So it’s me and a young Norwegian from New York named August, plus our guide, Junior. Suriel’s husband, Freddy, will drive us up to Moca in a truck.
I’ve done a fair amount of recreational cycling, but apart from a childhood encounter with some abandoned trolley tracks that rendered me briefly airborne, nothing that could be considered even remotely risky. Once I’m matched with a mountain bike, Tricia hands me a helmet. “The Dominican Republic is known for its beaches,” she says, “not its hospitals.” She recommends being careful with the children who like to line the road and high-five you as you whiz past (some regard it as a form of jousting, the aim being to unseat the cyclist).
During the drive to Moca, past pig and cow farms and fields of cacao, yucca, squash, plantains, sweet potatoes, banana, and pineapple, we get a glimpse of a beautiful, fantastically colorful country. There’s green, first and foremost. But the tin-roofed houses are painted lime, pink, red, lavender, purple, blue, and mustard. Even the political parties and candidates – a presidential election is days away – are color-coded: Are you a card-carrying member of the white party? A lifelong red? Have you always voted purple? After a roadside breakfast of eggs, plantains, squash, and coffee, Junior briefs us on the rules of the road and we’re off.
The trip down, just over twenty miles equally divided between paved road and off-road, takes about three hours. The countryside is breathtaking, with valleys and conical hills covered in palm and caoba (mahogany) trees; it looks a bit like southeast Asia. We stop now and then, especially on the easy-riding sections, and Junior tells us about the vegetation. Schoolkids, in powder-blue and beige uniforms, do indeed line up to high-five us, but gently – there’s no funny business.
Off-road is wild: rutted dirt roads pocked with pot holes and ditches, and mined with loose stones. It’s 90 minutes of shake, rattle, y roll. I have to learn quickly just how much to rise up off my seat – enough to avoid some terrible jolts but not so much that I end up swinging in the lower branches of a mango tree.
After one steep and treacherous downhill stretch, I arrive, vibrating but relieved, at the bottom of a hill just in time to hear Junior announce, “So now we cross the river” – whereupon he turns his bike into the underbrush and, pedaling, disappears. We follow him, riding, somehow, along a narrow winding footpath, headed for “the river,” until August’s chain breaks. Junior repairs it, and in a short while we’re wading across a stream, carrying our bikes over the slippery stones. Five minutes later, with little evidence of civilization anywhere nearby, we hear the loud and unmistakable sound of merengue. In an open valley, at a wider spot in the river, a midday party is in progress. Couples dance in the shade, children splash in the shallow water, men and women are grilling food. (The only discordant note is the unsightly litter of dozens of discarded paper plates.) This time we ride our bikes through the river, across a yard-wide, damlike wall with water rushing over the top. We’re careful to keep our steering true: There’s a small waterfall on our immediate right, and anyway the wall’s surface is almost as pitted with holes as some of the roads we’d been on. We make it across. Our bike trip – which I found challenging off-road, but easy on – is over.
Back in Cabarete, Junior takes me on his scooter to a roadside shack and arranges for a lunch of crabmeat stew and fried bananas. That evening I go to the other extreme, dining with Tricia at Otra Cosa, a fine French place – there’s always a fine French place – on the beach in Cabarete. Halfway through the seviche appetizer, the power goes out. For my entrée I have shrimp. They appear to be the size of lobsters, although it is quite dark. Suriel tells me that Iguana Mama, which also offers hiking, cascading, and rafting, and is perhaps best known for its weeklong mule trek in Bermudez National Park, has been operating for eight years.
“When we started, Cabarete was really small – a surf shop, basically,” she says. “There were no Americans.” Even now, although 80 percent of Iguana Mama’s clients are American, most travelers to the Dominican Republic (and in the Caribbean the D.R. ranks second to the Bahamas in tourism) are European. Many head for the resorts in Playa D’orado, and Iguana Mama draws some day-tripping clients from there. Suriel’s main problem is keeping a staff. “Within eighteen months, I lost six amazing guys – the bulk of my Dominican staff – to foreign women,” she says, laughing. Lately, she’s been trying to hire married guys.
On Barbados, I am joined by an emissary from New York’s HQ, ostensibly to make sure that I go through with the dreaded windsurfing – the word gunpoint is mentioned during a tense phone conversation about arrangements – but actually (I suspect) because of the swank accommodations. I’m staying at the Lone Star Restaurant and Hotel, about a mile up the western coast from Holetown, along a strip that’s home to some of the island’s older big resorts – Colony Club, Glitter Bay, Coral Reef, Royal Pavilion. The Lone Star is something else entirely: a restaurant primarily – and a good one – but with four adjacent suites right on a small beach. The former garage, which dated to the forties, has been turned into a boutique hotel; it opened in 1998, and the owners are contemplating expanding to ten rooms. The restaurant’s heavily British guest list has included Roger Moore, John Cleese, and 40 percent of the original Spice Girls. In short, it’s good enough for me – and, coincidentally, for the emissary from New York.
The service is both first-rate and unstuffy, the rooms beautiful in a Philippe Starckish way (he in fact did the bathroom fittings). There are a lot of mirrors around the Lone Star, including a framed, full-length one stuck casually down on the sand.
For the first couple of days, conditions were deemed (by me) to be unacceptable for windsurfing. Rather, the precise activity that seemed to be indicated by the soft breezes was drinking caipirinhas on the balcony. The caipirinhas were followed by a series of pleasing meals in the Lone Star’s casual yet elegant restaurant – light, mainly Mediterranean- and Asian-influenced dishes of red snapper, pork tenderloin, crab claws, tuna medallion, baby octopus. But eventually the wind kicked up and it was down to the beach by scruff of neck to the water-sports stand with me, where Matthew did his best to explain the unnatural act of standing upright on a board that’s moving swiftly along the surface of the water.
There was a learning curve. Initially, I would crash into the sea almost instantly, and I feared that I would in time develop some exotic repetitive-motion syndrome (tensing/gulping/clambering; tensing/gulping/clambering). But eventually I learned to relax, and with the emissary heckling supportively from shore, I increased the duration of my nerve-racking aquatic glides to 10, 30, even 45 seconds. “You’re doing everything right!” Matthew screamed at one point, as he paddled distantly behind me on a sail-less board. And I would have grinned then, had my face not already been frozen in a rictus of terror as I raced toward St. Lucia 100 miles away, clinging to a sail.
Such exertions are ideally planned for Sunday, because then you can unwind in grand style at the weekly party in Holetown. At a tiny intersection on 1st Street, two establishments, next-door to each other, provide the catnip: The TML Bar sponsors a popular karaoke party right out in the street; TML stands for Too Much Love, as it must. And the restaurant Ragamuffin’s, a converted chattel house, has on its menu on Sundays what must be the biggest, if not the only, drag show in all Barbados.
In the rear garden at Ragamuffin’s, we are handed a large drinks cube, which we roll like a die to make our selection. It comes up african delight. And what would that be? “It’ll get you there,” promises the waitress. As we eat a delicious meal of calamari, and chicken with mushrooms, the performers start to arrive, hurrying past us with hangers and garment bags. The show soon starts in the small front room, among the crowded tables. There’s a Tina Turner, a Shania Twain. “River Deep, Mountain High” mercifully drowns out a karaoke “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” from out front. The performers’ wigs brush the fishnet hanging from the low ceiling, and their huge pumps bend the old floorboards. They’re still vamping when we leave at around eleven, and the street party is in full swing as well, though the karaoke’s been shelved in favor of taped reggae. Scores of people are drinking and dancing. But even the unsteadiest of them appear to be on more solid footing than a certain beginning windsurfer was that afternoon, out on the open sea somewhere west of Barbados.
“Monday is like Sunday here,” says Walter. “Every day of the week is about the same.”
Anguilla is quiet and calm, and not just compared with Ragamuffin’s. Walter, an older taxi driver, reflects his island’s collective demeanor. “I have two hobbies I would like to tell you about,” he says softly as we approach CuisinArt, the new resort and spa that, from a distance in the nighttime, resembles a lit-up cruise ship. “One is collecting business cards. The other is singing and dancing. So if you have a business card, I would like to have it.”
CuisinArt is a close approximation of a gleaming, whitewashed Mediterranean village. The various sections are named for Greek islands, and I’m in Lipsi, in an enormous suite with a bedroom, living room, two bathrooms, a balcony, and a private deck for tanning. From my shower, I can see St. Martin. The resort opened last December after having been delayed by Hurricane Lenny, which damaged the island severely. CuisinArt is teeming with staff, and everywhere you look people are carrying linens or mowing or watering. The pristine white sand beach is long and empty.
I’m here, supposedly, to learn something about cooking, but one look at the enticing new spa suggests a very different line of self-improvement. Tennis on St. John left me with an aching forearm and wrist. My fingers still hurt from applying the handbrakes while biking in the Dominican Republic, and they’re a bit raw from tugging at the sail on Barbados. The windsurfing has also done alarming things to my lower back (bending), to my knees (climbing back aboard; praying), and to my ego (passim). Surely there was much to be gained, if not learned, from a really great massage. Maybe even a facial. I’d always wanted to utter the words, “No, I can’t do it then – I have a facial.” So I make a couple of appointments.
Michelle McDonough runs a spa staff of physical therapists who specialize in sports injuries, and guests are more than willing to seek them out. There are specialists and treatments for migraine, sciatica, tennis elbow, and the like. The staff have all worked with doctors but, as one specialist told me, “we can also do the pampering thing.”
So they can. I passed on something called “ear-coning” (“It can help with pressurization problems – it creates a vortex of energy on either side of your third eye,” the specialist explained), but their skillful way with a massage and, yes, a facial enable me to confront even cooking with equanimity. This turns out to be more of a demonstration than a class: We just watch and take notes. CuisinArt is owned by Leandro Rizzuto, who also owns the Cuisinart line of kitchen products, and the resort places a great emphasis on its cuisine – they have their own hydroponic garden and restaurant – and, starting in the spring, visiting chefs will conduct two such sessions a week for interested guests. Along with a half-dozen others, I sit in one afternoon and watch Denis Jaricot, CuisinArt’s satisfyingly Gallic-looking and -sounding head chef, whip up a few things in Santorini’s demo kitchen.
Jaricot starts with a smoothie. “Raymond,” he says to his assistant, “I am missing ba-nana.”
And so it goes. Jaricot talks throughout, explaining what he’s doing and why. Portions of each concoction are passed around to the class – gazpacho, potato gnocchi, cucumber-blossom fritter. On tasting this last delicacy, one of my classmates cries out in ecstasy. Jaricot smiles, says to Raymond, “Leave some out, he wants more.” People jump up now and then to peer into a saucepan. “What was in the middle of that almond cake last night?” one woman asks. Jaricot grins: “Rice Krispies.” The dinner I have at Santorini that evening – tuna sashimi, rack of lamb – suggests that Jaricot and his staff perform every bit as well for a less intimate audience.
CuisinArt is so high-end and produced – turn a corner and you’re likely to stumble upon a harpist, or a crooner – that an evening off-base at the Pumphouse, a popular joint over in the hamlet of Sandy Ground, is a welcome change of pace. A burger, a few beers, a live reggae band: something to cut the pampering a little.
A short while later, I’m back in resort-land, walking by the pool and gardens under a full moon. Nearby, a group of men and women are engaged in a spirited game of late-night boccie. And I thought: Reggae in a roadhouse, boccie on a manicured lawn. Tennis and composting. Stunt-riding and massages. Lots of exercise and lots of rum. Not extreme travel, exactly, but a vacation of extremes. What could be better?
WHERE TO STAY Concordia Eco-tents (800-392-9004); canvas-walled units complete with wind- and solar-powered kitchenettes start at $110. At Concordia’s older and rougher sister resort, Maho Bay Camps (800-392-9004), tent-cottages start at $105. If tents aren’t your style, you’ll prefer the deluxe Caneel Bay Resort (888-767-3966), where doubles start at $400.
WHERE TO PLAY Private tennis lessons at Caneel Bay’s Peter Burwash International (340-776-6111) are $70 per hour. The Caneel Bay Beach Hut offers snorkeling, kayaking, and other water activities.
WHERE TO EAT Shipwreck Landing (340-693-5640) entrées $6-$18. Miss Lucy’s (340-693-5244) entrées $15-$24.
GETTING THERE American Airlines (800-433-7300), Delta (800-241-4141), US Airways (800-428-4322), and Continental (800-231-0856) fly to St. Thomas. There’s a 40-minute cab ride to the ferry station at Red Hook, where ferries to St. John run hourly, from 6:30 a.m. to 12 a.m.; $3 per person.
WHERE TO STAY At Bahía de Arena (809-571-0370) doubles start at $85. Beachfront condos from Cabarete Palm Beach Condos (800-822-9994) start at $72 for a studio, double occupancy.
WHERE TO PLAY At Iguana Mama (800-849-4720) a half-day mountain-biking trip costs $55, including bike, helmet, breakfast, and guides.
WHERE TO EAT Sandros, a roadside stand in Cabarete, offers inexpensive local fare. At night, there’s fine French dining at Otra Cosa (809-571-0897); entrées $12-$18.
GETTING THERE TWA (800-892-4141) and American (800-433-7300) offer direct flights from New York to the Puerto Plata airport. Taxis to Cabarete cost about $20.
WHERE TO STAY The boutique gem, Lone Star Restaurant and Hotel (246-422-1617); doubles start at $675. For a more traditional resort, there’s Colony Club (407-363-5112); doubles start at $542; Glitter Bay (246-422-5555); doubles start at $529; and the Royal Pavilion (246-422-5555); doubles start at $679.
WHERE TO PLAY Sign up for windsurfing lessons ($100 per hour, including rental equipment) at Blue Water, the water-sports stand out on the beach, about 25 yards from the Lone Star.
WHERE TO EAT Lone Star Restaurant (246-419-0599), entrées $9-$21; Ragamuffin’s (246-432-1295), entrées $15-$22.
GETTING THERE American Airlines (800-433-7300), Air Jamaica (800-523-5585), and BWIA (800-538-2942) offer direct flights from New York to Barbados.
WHERE TO STAY CuisinArt Resort & Spa (800-937-9356); doubles start at $695. Complimentary cooking classes are offered twice weekly by executive chef Denis Jaricot. Additional demonstrations featuring visiting chefs are offered throughout the year.
WHERE TO EAT Santorini (800-937-9356); entrées $20-$45. The Pumphouse (264-497-5154); entrées $9-$22.
GETTING THERE American Airlines (800-433-7300) flies to Anguilla, and Continental (800-231-0856) offers direct flights to St. Martin, just a twenty-minute ferry ride from Anguilla.