A Peak Season Peek at the Carib

While the Caribbean islands have long been a paradise for Jewish snowbirds, Philadelphia vacationers are discovering a wealth of Jewish connections in these sun-drenched isles.

Before coming to Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, where he is now rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin served for many years at the oldest surviving synagogue in this hemisphere, Congregation Mikve Israel-Emanuel in Curaçao.

And Rabbi Malcolm Stern of Philadelphia was visiting the tiny, wind-swept island of Nevis with his wife and discovered an old, weed-covered Jewish cemetery. They deciphered and copied 16 tombstone inscriptions.

Stern was so inspired by the area that he wrote an American Airlines Tourist's Guide to Jewish History in the Caribbean.

Of course, you don't have to be a religious leader to savor what the Caribbean has in store.

And even though winter has arrived, just a few flight hours away are a string of picture-perfect islands that deliver lots of sun, sand and surf.

Indeed, as of just days ago, it's officially peak season in the Caribbean, where each island has its own unique personality.

Three-, four- and five-star accommodations range from modest to luxurious, so there's an affordable vacation for all.

Here's a capsule preview of some of the most popular destinations, with apologies to other islands, which may be equally spectacular.

Antigua (one of Sophia Loren's favorite vacation locales) boasts 365 sparkling white-sand beaches. It is believed the island was blessed with exactly this number so a visitor can lounge on a different beach every day for a year without repetition.

Antigua is independent, but still retains a decidedly British veneer. The island has almost a country-club atmosphere; it's small but very friendly.

Offshore, more than 30 little islands, some visited by day charter boats, offer even more seclusion — and still more private beaches. Visitors can partake in watching cricket matches all around the island.

Several good choices for accommodations are: the luxe St. James Club, the all-inclusive Sandals Antigua Resort & Spa, and the elegant Curtain Bluff; moderately priced include Siboney Beach Club, the cozy B&B-like Ocean Inn and the plantation-esque/yet inn-like Harmony Hall.

Anguilla, northernmost of the British Leeward Islands, offers some of the best and least crowded beaches. You can explore an offshore island — and have your own picnic and swim all day. The island is just a 30-minute water ride to bustling St. Martin/St. Maarten.

The super-deluxe Cap Juluca,with its Moorish-style villas, is stunning (breakfast is served on your own patio); also deluxe is Malliouhana and CuisinArt Resort. More modestly priced are Arawak Beach Inn, Syd-An's and Shoal Bay Villas.

While in Barbados, do stroll on Swan Street (the main shopping street) in Bridgetown, long known as "Jew Street" because of the predominance of Jewish-owned stores.

A short walk from Swan Street finds the former synagogue of Sephardic Congregation Nidhe Israel. Jewish traders, it is believed, came from Recife, Brazil, in 1654, and some family graves may be found in the old Jews' Burial Ground.

Afternoon tea is enjoyed at many hotels. Among the luxe hotels are Sandy Lane Hotel & Golf Club (Tiger Woods got married here and rented the entire hotel!); the Coral Reef Club, with a folklore show and barbecue every week; and the all-inclusive Almond Beach Resorts. Modestly priced accommodations include the Allamanda Beach Hotel, the Colony Club and Amaryllis Beach Resort.

Cayman Islands consist of three islands: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. Famous for the powdery beaches on its Seven-Mile Beach, the waters are paradise for snorkelers.

Expensive resort hotels are the recently opened Ritz-Carlton, the Westin Casaurina Resort and the Grand Cayman Marriott, as well as the Hyatt Regency Grand Cayman (offering kosher meals). Moderate accommodations include the Cayman Diving Lodge, the Anchorage and Tarquynn Manor.

Curaçao, visitors agree, is a tropical Holland in miniature, although Dutch, Spanish and English are spoken here. Willemstad, the picturesque capital, is immaculate and architecturally interesting.

The Underwater Marine Park rises out of a large national park laced with trails.

And, of course, there is the aforementioned synagogue, a draw in and of itself for many Jews visiting this lovely area.

Most glamorous of resorts is the Curaçao Marriott Beach Resort & Emerald Casino, and the restored Avila Beach Hotel is popular with Dutch royals. Moderate hotels include the Hilton Curaçao and the Lions Dive & Beach Resort.

In the Dominican Republic, distinct cuisines and cultural heritage add to the attractions of this lively island. The spacious resort Casa de Campo, with its handsome villas, offers endless sporting and outdoor activities — from freshwater river-fishing to golf, snorkeling, tennis and horseback riding on the beach.

Another fine hotel is the Occidental Grand Puerto Plata; modesty priced resorts include the Marien Coral by Hilton and the all-inclusive Grand Paradise Bavaro.

Saba: This tiny, delightful, less hyped island has no beaches, but what a charmer it is! Dramatic mountains and cliffs ring the island with its gingerbread houses and winding roads.

Tour the Saba National Marine Park, where you can dive, swim, fish and boat for hours. Popular with scuba-divers, the waters are crystal-clear.

You can also climb to the top of Mount Scenery and explore Cave Bay.

Willard's of Saba and Queens Garden Resort are plush, if you can use that word on this island; modest places are Juliana's Hotel and Scout's Place.

St. Kitts and Nevis are intimate sister islands, small but quite dramatic. St. Kitts has lovely restored plantation inns and small hostelries brimming with West Indies charm. The island offers windsurfing and scuba-diving, as well as craft boutiques and several interesting art galleries.

And be sure to try the climb up Mount Nevis, often topped by the clouds.

Among the fine hotels are Rawlins Plantation Inn and the Golden Lemon.

Nevis — the larger and more bustling of the two isles — also boasts cozy inns, though the beachfront beauty is the Four Seasons Nevis Resort. Also gracious is the Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, sweeping down to the sea. Moderately priced accommodations include the Hurricane Cove Bungalows and the Banyon Tree Bed & Breakfast.

St. Luciais fast becoming one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean, yet is still relatively unspoiled; it has a mixed flavor of French, British and almost South Pacific ambience.

The mountainous island has the elegant Ladera Resort cradled between the famous Pitons, three Sandals Resorts and LeSPORT.

For more information on any of these islands, log on to: www.caribbean.com.



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