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New Lures On Caribbean Shores


October 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

EARLY on a September morning in Old San Juan, guests on a breeze-swept terrace at the elegant Hotel El Convento sipped coffee and ate freshly sliced mangoes, papayas and pineapple. A reception desk clerk stayed busy answering the phone, a honeymoon couple checked out and, behind a terrace door, guests admired the cozy library. September is the depths of the doldrums in the Caribbean, but on that day, El Convento was bustling, thanks in part to bargain room rates.

Caribbean travel is showing signs of resurgence, though not on every island, with help from the bargain prices many tourists have enjoyed in the past couple of years, as hotels responded to post-Sept. 11 fears of flying, continuing economic worries in the United States, and war.

Last winter was promising, said Alec Sanguinetti, director general and chief executive of the Caribbean Hotel Association, with increases in air arrivals over the previous year. When the Iraq war started, he said, "There was not a rash of cancellations, but advance bookings just fell off the radar completely."

Bookings this summer rose in response to off-season bargains - like El Convento's $125-a-day rate in September for rooms that go for $345 in winter - but the lower prices cut profits. "It's a tough market out there," said Mr. Sanguinetti. "Everyone is still watching the economy. It's the No. 1 problem right now."

But for people craving a Caribbean getaway, there are new and newly redone rooms in hotels, inns, cottages and villas in many price ranges. Add to that a flurry of new amenities: increased air service; spas; lures for honeymooners, couples and families; activities; and luxury touches.

Puerto Rico, which has the region's busiest airport, actually saw a rise in its hotel occupancy of 3.7 percentage points over the previous year, to 78.2 percent. This season the island is welcoming its first all-inclusive hotel, the 490-room Paradisus Puerto Rico, part of a large Spanish hotel chain, scheduled to open Dec. 15. Puerto Rico's satellite island, Vieques, recently gained its first large luxury hotel, the 156-room Wyndham Martineau Bay Resort - and lost a major sore point, maneuvers by the United States Navy. But a 506-unit hotel, Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach, sister to the more upscale Hyatt Dorado Beach, closed July 15. (The popular river pool, children's club and other attractions are still open along with the Hyatt Hacienda del Mar, a time-share property on the Cerromar's grounds.) A corporate announcement gave as reasons "the general business climate and the proliferation of newer and more modern competitors."

In a new marketing plan, Puerto Rico is urging visitors to venture out from the island's North Coast and historic Old San Juan, bustling with stylish restaurants, shoppers and strollers, to the less-traveled western side, where surfers have ridden winter's waves for decades. The coast is now called the Porta del Sol for its spectacular sunsets.

There are many lures in this part of Puerto Rico, diving, hiking and bird watching among them. At certain periods during the winter in Rincón, a west coast surfing town, people gather by the hundreds to watch whales swimming close to shore in the Mona Passage, between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. February is high season for whale-watching. The main vantage point is the Rincón Lighthouse Park.

Built on a secluded beach in Rincón, the elegant boutique hotel Horned Dorset Primavera recently grew to 53 units with the addition of 22 spacious villa suites with private plunge pools; the new suites start at $890 a night, rooms at $600, including breakfast and dinner but not the service charge on meals and the 9 percent government tax. The new Blue Room restaurant decorated with Italian tiles is an alternative to the imposing formal dining room. It is open for breakfast now and, starting Nov. 15, will also serve bistro fare for lunch and dinner. The new 70-foot lap pool overlooks the sea.

"We've found all these rooms rent first," said Wilhelm Sack, general manager and co-owner, on a tour of the new suites.

A new 112-room hotel, Rincón of the Seas Grand Caribbean, opened this year and unlike the Horned Dorset welcomes children under 12. Decorated with blue and green print fabrics, guest rooms have off-white tile floors and balconies. Winter rates start at $225. Among the island's more affordable hotels, the charming beachfront Casa Isleña has nine rooms brightened with Mexican furniture and winter rates starting at $115.

In other parts of the Caribbean, visitor numbers increased early this year in the Turks and Caicos, Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Bonaire, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Dominica, Jamaica, Saba, St. Lucia and St. Maarten. Visitors to Aruba surged by 15 percent in August over August of last year because hotels there offered some attractive package deals.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands visitors from January through June decreased very slightly from the previous year, but some resorts have been busy. At the palatial, newly expanded Ritz-Carlton St. Thomas with 200 rooms and suites, each with a private balcony or terrace, and a plush new spa with an inviting lounge on a scenic terrace, occupancy rates in July reached 90 percent. Some low-season guests have gotten rooms for $189. High-season rates, starting at $489, have not risen this year. "We're being conservative," said Jamie Holmes, the general manager, "because we feel the market is still a little bit fragile."

In August, responding to dismal bookings, and competing with newer, spiffier hotels, the 65-room friendly Bolongo Bay Beach Club on St. Thomas, which has two popular restaurants and simple rooms facing a 1,000-foot crescent-shaped beach, dropped its $145 a night autumn rate to $79 until Nov. 23 for reservations made by Nov. 1. Bolongo Bay is also offering 20 percent discounts on all hotel packages and activities from Jan. 3 to 31, pricing rooms at $172 a night.

On St. John - more than a million people visited the popular National Park in 2002 - snorkelers ply the blue-green waters along beautiful beaches, and hikers walk scenic trails. The Cinnamon Bay Campground and the resort Maho Bay Camps within the park have been thriving. From high season through April, occupancy rates at the 114-unit Maho Bay Camps were 85 to 90 percent, bolstered by family and yoga groups. The resort's "real gem," said Maggie Day, the general manager, has been the Art Center, where guests learn how to blow glass, make pottery and create other hand-crafted pieces. Winter double rates, $110 for a tent-cottage ($115 for February and Christmas and Easter weeks), will stay the same.

The elegant Buccaneer Resort on St. Croix, on 340 acres with 138 rooms and suites, an 18-hole golf course, a spa and eight tennis courts, is offering a fourth night free for rooms with ocean views Jan. 4 through 24. Winter rates start at $295, including full breakfast and use of kayaks.

Tourism on the island has been down, said Joel Tutein, superintendent of the U.S. Virgin Islands Park Group in St. Croix. In 1988, the year before Hurricane Hugo permanently closed four large hotels, the coral-rich Buck Island Reef National Monument, he said, attracted 105,000 visitors, compared with 50,213 in 2002. Carnival Cruise Lines stopped coming in May of last year because of "crime against passengers and crew," said Jennifer de la Cruz, a spokeswoman for Carnival. Later, other cruise lines bypassed St. Croix, causing shops and the cruise ship terminal to close. Now, with surveillance cameras in place and more police, it is possible, according to industry representatives, that at least some ships will return.

A well-regarded dive shop, St. Croix Ultimate Bluewater Adventures, has been seeking new divers by giving free scuba demonstrations in hotel pools and last month staged a large underwater wedding. There is a new scuba shop and a new pier for dive boats at the 129-room Divi Carina Bay Resort and Casino, which is offering new nightly bargain rates as well: $174 for a standard room Jan. 4 to Feb. 7, and after that, $190 until April 9, compared with $225 last winter, when the occupancy rate was only 50 percent. Perched along a beach protected by a reef, the hotel expects to open 50 more rooms that can be turned into 25 suites by the end of March.

The Bahamas, on the other hand, seem to be in a mild upswing. There are 700 Bahamian islands and 22,000 rooms in a variety of hotels, villas and timeshares; the major excitement is in the Outer Islands with the Nov. 15 opening of the 183-room Four Seasons Resort Great Exuma at Emerald Bay. The resort will have a spa and fitness club, Zen garden and 18-hole golf course; a casino will follow. Set on a crescent-shaped inlet, the hotel is British colonial in style with a cluster of three-story pastel stucco buildings with shutters and white tile roofs.

Through the end of June, Bahamas air arrivals were up 1.2 percent, hotel occupancy rates were 63.9 percent and room rates were up 5.7 percent over 2002, according to the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. "Some resorts have done spectacularly well, like Atlantis," said Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace, director general of tourism, referring to the megaresort on Paradise Island, "and others not so well."

"We know what the problem is: customers want properties spruced up a bit," he added. "Atlantis has shown us that sun, sand and sea are not enough. People don't buy rooms, they buy an anticipated experience."

The 2,300-room Atlantis is popular, said Howard Karawan, executive vice president of Kerzner International, which developed, owns and operates the resort, because of its many activities. The occupancy rate at Atlantis this year through mid-September was 85 percent with no rate decrease, though since 9/11 marketing has increased. Last month the company broke ground on the first phase of a $600 million expansion, luxury villas, at the intimate One & Only Ocean Club, where winter rates start at $695. "This has been by far its most successful year," Mr. Karawan said, referring to the Ocean Club's 80 percent occupancy rates this year. "High-end people are still traveling."

Jamaica had an increase in stayover visitors - 7 percentage points in the first six months of this year over the same months last year, according to the director of tourism, Paul Pennicook. He said that more people were looking for soft adventure, such as swimming with dolphins, possible in Montego at Half Moon Bay Resort, which has a new Dolphin Lagoon. The price for an hour's swim is $155. Within the next year, Mr. Pennicook said, the island will have more than 1,000 new rooms, mostly in new all-inclusive hotels and lodgings. The all-inclusive Riu Club Negril with 450 to 500 rooms is scheduled to open in March near its sister resort, the Riu Club Tropical Bay. Prices for this winter, he predicted, "will inch up but will still not get back to pre-9/11 prices - I don't think that will happen until 2005."

On Grenada, a new hotel owner, Susan Fisher, a former fashion executive, recently opened Bel Air Plantation on the southeastern coast. The resort is made up of six villas and five cottages built on a hillside, along with an upscale restaurant, cafe, grocery, art gallery and small beach. Butterfly and bird aviaries will follow next year. With winter rates starting at $295 a night, Bel Air hopes to attract busy people who crave serenity, Ms. Fisher said. To that end, it does not admit guests under the age of 15. For bookings for 2004 made by Nov. 30, seven nights will be offered for the price of six.

In the Dominican Republic, known for competitive pricing, 223 of 7,000 new hotel rooms this year can be found at the all-inclusive Viva Tangerine, scheduled to open Nov. 1 on a 361-foot beach in Cabarete, a North Coast wind-surfing town. From Jan. 3 through 31, double rates will start at $174, and from February through April 10, $190, including meals, drinks and wine, 24-hour snacks, aerobics, nonmotorized water sports, nightly entertainment, dance lessons, yoga and meditation classes, and programs for children from 4 to 18. Beginning Dec. 1, when the parent company, Viva Resorts, joins Wyndham International to become Viva Wyndham Resorts, the hotel will be called Viva Wyndham Tangerine.

Tiny, mountainous Saba in the Dutch West Indies is home to the Ecolodge Rendez-Vous, built to attract nature lovers, hikers and divers, with 12 simple cottages (with bathrooms), most of which sleep four, costing $85 a night in high season. Since it opened in August 2002, occupancy rates have been only about 25 percent, but the Rendez-Vous's Rainforest Restaurant has become popular.

Near Saba, there are bargains on both sides of the island shared by Dutch St. Maarten and French St. Martin. Hotel packages on St. Maarten have been offering every fourth night free, every fourth day car rental free, and a $50 coupon per room redeemable at restaurants and other places, similar to a program last year when every third night was free. The promotion may go beyond Dec. 15, said Regina LaBega, St. Maarten's director of tourism. Hotel occupancy rates have been averaging 65 percent this year, she said, compared with 48 to 50 percent last year. St. Martin hotels are offering every seventh night free until Dec. 15 and will have other promotions for winter.

New spas are springing up around the Caribbean like ferns in a rain forest, from St. Kitts in the Leeward Islands to tiny, exclusive Mustique, part of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. "In the old days," said Mark Nooren, managing director of the Renaissance Aruba Beach Resort and Casino, recently upgraded with a $13 million redo, "a resort was all about restaurants, discos and casinos. Now it's about spas, tai chi and yoga." In addition to therapies at its Okeanos Spa, the resort offers massages in a cove on its private island, which is frequented by flamingoes.

Hot rocks (massages with stones) are showing up at many places. One is Indulgence by the Sea on Aruba, a small new spa at the all-inclusive Divi Aruba, a sister resort to the Tamarijn Aruba. A massage might be needed after a visit to the new 3,000-square-foot activity center, set to open this winter with a 30-foot-high climbing wall and a health club with Cybex workout equipment. A nine-hole golf course is expected to be completed in March or April.

And there are French-trained spa therapists at the stylish new Cap Est Lagoon Resort and Spa on the southeast coast of Martinique. Thirty-five of the hotel's 50 suites have pools. Winter rates start at $468 and include the breakfast buffet.

At secluded Little Dix Bay in Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, a new cliffside spa has a two-tier plunge pool, nine treatment rooms in separate cottages offering views and, among other treatments, a $125 Virgin Gorda goat milk and honey wrap. To the southwest at upscale Peter Island Resort, the old spa has been replaced with a larger one: 13,000 square feet and 10 treatment suites large enough for couples.

St. John's genteel Caneel Bay Resort will soon have new activities at its Self Center, which a brochure describes as "a mind body spirit center." Among the new sessions will be the Art of Divine Love for Couples, Planetary Cycles and World Trends, and the Healing Power of Music.

Coco Kreole on St. Lucia has no spa, but starting at $80 a night ($75 in low season), it is cheap and cheerful. The 20-room yellow and blue boutique hotel, equipped with wireless Internet access, is scheduled to open this weekend in Rodney Bay, near local restaurants and bars. Allen Chastanet, its owner, has plans to build 90 more rooms nearby.

Among islands contemplating ways to fill vacant hotel rooms, Dominica, the island with relatively few good swimming beaches but pristine waterfalls, coral reefs, hiking trails, a boiling lake and magnificent rain forests, also shelters large, endangered turtles. By persuading its resident turtle hunters to become turtle guides, the local tourist authority is hoping to add a new activity for visitors - watching the island's leatherback, hawksbill and green turtles.

For bargain hunters dreaming of coconut rum punches on a tropical beach, summer's fire sales have vanished. But now that "just in time" bookings are pervasive, last-minute specials seem likely. As Mr. Pennicook of Jamaica said: "We have been our own worst enemy in this industry. We have trained customers to expect bargains."

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