Stay cool and head back to the Caribbean: Travel expert FRED MAWER says despite the hurricanes there are plenty of reasons to visit

  • Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered parts of the Caribbean earlier this year?
  • The region's status as an idyllic holiday destination then took a massive knock
  • But for much of the Caribbean, it is business as usual when it comes to tourism
  • Fred Mawer explains the best times to visit the islands and which is right for you?

I’m just back from Barbados, and I can report that its white-sand beaches and lush tropical gardens are looking as glorious as ever. During the week I was there, it was baking hot and mostly sunny, with the occasional refreshing downpour – typical for this time of year.

Normally all this wouldn’t be news. But the Caribbean’s status as an idyllic holiday destination took a massive knock recently.

Two immensely powerful category five hurricanes, Irma and Maria, ripped through the region in September, devastating the islands directly in their paths.

The Caribbean's status as an idyllic holiday destination took a knock recently after two devastating hurricanes?

The Caribbean's status as an idyllic holiday destination took a knock recently after two devastating hurricanes?

These included Barbuda, the British and US Virgin Islands, the dual-nation island of Dutch St Maarten and French St Martin, Anguilla, St Barts, Puerto Rico and Dominica.

The catastrophic destruction dominated the headlines for many days, and it will take many months, and in some cases years, for these islands to recover fully.

However, what’s not universally appreciated is that the islands of the Caribbean are spread over a very large area – more than a million square miles. The hurricanes passed through the north-eastern corner of the region, leaving about three-quarters of the Caribbean largely unaffected.

It’s very much business, and holidays, as usual at a host of ever-popular islands and countries, among them not only Barbados, but also St Lucia, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Grenada and St Kitts.

The same is true even for places that were scarily close to the hurricanes’ paths but not directly hit.

For example, Antigua, just 28 miles from its pulverised little sister of Barbuda, escaped significant damage, and with tourism the main lifeblood to its economy, it desperately wants visitors to keep coming.

So if you’re considering a holiday to the Caribbean in the coming months, there are plenty of islands to head to.

I’ve been lucky enough to have visited the region many times over the years. Here are some key points you need to know to plan a trip.

When to go

The Atlantic hurricane season officially runs from June 1 to November 30. But hurricanes are statistically likeliest between mid-August and mid-October, and especially in September.

The other major consideration is cost. The Caribbean can be an expensive place to visit at any time, but particularly at the moment. On most islands, everything is priced in US dollars or in local currencies pegged to the US dollar, and the pound is about 15 per cent weaker against the dollar than it was two years ago.?

The British Virgin Islands, pictured, took a direct hit from Hurrican Irma but is the best  in the Caribbean for sailing

The British Virgin Islands, pictured, took a direct hit from Hurrican Irma but is the best in the Caribbean for sailing

To keep costs down, you may want to avoid peak season – mid-December to April – when hotel and villa rates can be 50 per cent higher than at other times of year.

Factoring in both the weather and cost, either the first half of December or May are ideal times to visit.

Where to go

The hurricane-damaged British Virgin Islands (BVI), Anguilla, St Barts and Dominica are really special places, among the best in the Caribbean for particular types of holiday. But there are enticing alternative islands, with similar Unique Selling Points.

The BVI are all about escapist little islands and yachty holidays – but the Grenadines provide that, too. Anguilla has the Caribbean’s most sublime beaches – but those on Antigua are also pretty special.

For luxury hotels and villas, gourmet restaurants and celebrity-spotting, St Barts is unbeatable – but Barbados’s ‘Platinum’ west coast runs it close.

Mountainous and rainforest-covered Dominica is the Caribbean’s nature isle par excellence – but there are worthy alternatives, including Trinidad and Tobago for superlative bird-watching, and southern St Lucia for jungly and dramatic scenery.

As far as other tips go, for an affordable hotel-based holiday, an all-inclusive in the Dominican Republic is a sensible choice.

Despite the hurricanes, it is still easy to see everything the Caribbean has to offer from snorkelling to beaches?

Despite the hurricanes, it is still easy to see everything the Caribbean has to offer from snorkelling to beaches?

Cuba is as cheap as the Caribbean gets if you stay in locals’ houses (find them on airbnb.co.uk), and, in my opinion, it’s the region’s most culturally stimulating country: stay in Havana and travel around rather than simply plonking yourself in a beach resort.

Jamaica is great for keenly priced, funky small places to stay, while little Nevis excels in historic plantation hotels.

Lastly, if you’re thinking of visiting the Caribbean in the peak hurricane season, note that major storms very rarely hit the most southerly Caribbean islands such as Aruba and Tobago.

That said, Grenada, another southerly island, was badly hit by Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Cuba, pictured, is as cheap as the Caribbean gets if you stay in locals’ houses and is one of the most culturally interesting islands?

Cuba, pictured, is as cheap as the Caribbean gets if you stay in locals’ houses and is one of the most culturally interesting islands?

How to book

Packages are still the way most Brits book Caribbean holidays. Tour operators usually offer better deals than you can get by booking flights and hotels direct, and by booking a package you get back-up assistance if things go wrong (such as being caught up in a hurricane).

Companies specialising in the Caribbean include Caribtours (caribtours.co.uk), Inspiring Travel Company (inspiringtravelcompany.co.uk), Tropical Sky (tropicalsky. co.uk), Tropic Breeze (tropicbreeze.co.uk) and Virgin Holidays (virgin holidays.co.uk).

Shop around: operators often offer very similar places to stay in the Caribbean; identical holidays can vary in price between companies by many hundreds of pounds; and any added-value hotel perks that you might be offered, such as a ‘free’ extra night or spa treatments, are rarely unique to a particular operator.

Caribbean cruises

The Caribbean is also open for cruises. The western Caribbean (in cruise parlance Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Mexico’s Yucatan coast, Belize) and the southern Caribbean (including Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines and the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Cura?ao) were unaffected by the hurricanes.

Within the eastern Caribbean, many itineraries do include hurricane-hit islands and ports, key among them being Puerto Rico’s San Juan, St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, and St Maarten.

The Caribbean is always popular for cruises and some ports hit by the hurricane have already re-opened?

The Caribbean is always popular for cruises and some ports hit by the hurricane have already re-opened?

Some cruise lines have switched such itineraries to a different part of the Caribbean, while others have for the time being swapped recovering islands with nearby ones not damaged by the storms.

That said, some cruise ports on hurricane-affected islands, such as at San Juan and St Thomas, have reopened surprisingly speedily, and are already reappearing on some cruise lines’ itineraries.

At the moment, such islands won’t be looking pristine, and the full range of excursions may not be on offer. However, your visit will be much appreciated by locals, in terms of financial and moral support.

More information

See caribbeantravelupdate.com for detailed, regularly updated information on recovering islands.

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