Look beyond the sun and rum

Experience the authentic Caribbean

Maura Curley

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You might say Cara-bee-an or perhaps you pronounce it Car-rib-bean.

Either way the word flows rhythmically from the lips, conjuring up images of floating in the cyan sea and sipping sweetened rum drinks, garnished with fruit and plastic palms.

But there’s so much more fun under the sun in this region of the world.

Caribbean island countries are brimming with pleasures and treasures you won’t find anywhere else on the planet. They comprise a colorful multi-cultural kaleidoscope pulsating with magic and majesty.

Sharing the joy is up to you. But here are just some things to do after you touch down on the tarmac or sail into these sparkling shores.

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Feel the rhythm

Rihanna has her roots in Barbados and world class performers headline at many island music festivals throughout the year. Yet old time traditions still thrive. Listen to fungi, also known as quelbe, the official music of the Virgin Islands. It's created from a "scratch band" a merry mix of home-made instruments, some carved from gourds. During carnivals catch the cool of calypsonians telling their special stories or experience the soothing sounds of steel pan.

Move to the backbeat of reggae in Montego Bay, the spirit of salsa in San Juan, and celebrate with zouk in Guadeloupe. Zouk music, which originated in the French island of Guadeloupe, and moved to Martinique has an unmistakable rythmn. The word means "party," and it will make anyone feel festive with its distinctly pan Caribbean sound.

Dances offer more diversity. Tambu in the Dutch island of Curacao and the bamboula still thriving in St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, are empowering expressions that originated with African slaves. Both depend on carefully synchronated movements accompanied by dramatic drums. Flamenco and salsa are still taught in Puerto Rico and mambo, the precursor to the cha cha, began in Havana.

Folkloric troupes, on many islands perform at special events and festivals to keep their dance culture alive.

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Sample fresh fruits and roots at farmer’s markets and native drinks such as bush tea, coconut water, sorrel and ginger beer from local vendors.

You can relish Johnny cakes and pates - pockets of pastry often stuffed with chicken or conch- in the British Virgins, enjoy the national dish of Flying fish in Barbados and sample savory rotis and fiery curries in Trinidad or a spicy shark and bake on the beach in Tobago. If you’re in the mood, consider island aphrodisiacs – like sea moss-or the Dominican Republic’s infamous mamajuana, a blend of rum, red wine and honey mixed with tree bark, herbs and often-secret spices.

Contemporary Caribbean cuisine might not be as well known as Italian French or Mexican. But an annual competition and expo, known as “ The Taste of the Caribbean” has helped put the region’s cooking on the map. Professionally trained island chefs, inspired by native dishes, are taking the region’s cooking to a new level of sophistication. This means you’ll find a lot island intrigue on more restaurant menus.

Make new friends

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Look beyond the tops of your flip-flops. The community of web footed and four legged friends may surprise you. Lizards and iguanas are just a few. Donkeys and goats roam freely in St. John’s Coral Bay, and often will stop for a photo op. Little yellow breasted bananaquits may sing a sweet serenade if you leave them a dish of sugar on the rail of your deck or windowsill. Sit by the shore in the early evening and you might see pelicans dive for their supper in a dramatic swoops and swirls. Watch and wait. You might even be rewarded with sublime sunset

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Invest in island-made

Forget that “ souvenir” that’s manufactured thousands of miles away. Pack you bags with authentic arts and crafts.Caribbean Artisans offer a range of treasures that are actually created here, often from sustainable ingredients. Collect locally crafted jewelry, carvings and woodturnings from tropical hardwoods, original sketches, watercolor and paintings, candles and soaps infused with natural scents like coconut, mango and papaya.

Native cooperatives in Road town Tortola and crafts markets in St. Lucia and the Straw Market in the Bahamas offer a treasure trove of locally produced merchandise. These include original music, woven straw bags and baskets, jewelry fashioned from natives seeds, sweets, hot sauces, and spices. Ask for nutmeg, and cinnamon grown on the fertile island of Grenada. In St. Maarten buy a bottle of Guavaberry liqueur from the Guavaberry Emporium in Phiipsburg.

Discover that the Caribbean offers equisite exports, in addition to that tropical tan.

Photo: Folkloric dancers perform in Puerto Rico.

virginvoices.com photo by D.B. Bostdorf

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Maura Curley is a senior writer for virginvoices.com


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