Living: The Still Pristine Caribbean

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Six islands in the Antilles where Lesser is more

Believe me, Sire, these countries far surpass all the rest of the world in beauty and conveniency.

—Christopher Columbus, writing to King Ferdinand of Spain from the West Indies, circa 1492

Columbus was one of the few travel writers in history who actually discovered the paradises they praised. To be sure, he could not say much for West Indian cookery in his day. Among the then dominant Carib Indians, who were cannibals, la nouvelle cuisine consisted of smoked or stewed Spaniard, followed in later years by filet of Frenchman and Londoner broil. Nor, for that matter, before paths were cleared through jungles and up mountains, could a seafaring man more than sense the islands' dazzling diversity of terrain or the richness of their flora and fauna. Since Columbus first gazed on what was to be for three centuries the main corridor for settlement of the New World, the islands have accumulated an asset more precious than all the gold that was not there: people, of almost every ethnic origin, melded into distinct and assertively individual societies.

From the days of Columbus, most of the islands have been ravaged by colonial strife. Since World War II, many have been despoiled by commercial neocolonialists, with their genius for blanketing beach and meadow with concrete and neon. Few travelers in search of tranquillity and an authentic native culture would risk their dollars or digestions today on such tourist emporiums as San Juan and St. Maarten. The American Virgins have mostly been deflowered by developers; St. Croix has seen mindless racial killing. Trinidad and Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas have become tourist traps. Cuba and, to some extent, Haiti have been mutated; Castroism is infecting other islands, notably Grenada. In many parts of the West Indies, political, economic and social unrest are curdling the coconut milk.

Yet there are islands in the 2,000-mile-long Antillean archipelago that are still near pristine, islands without racial tension or xenophobia, islands with opalescent beaches, lush rain forests and brooding volcanic peaks, islands laved by waters that American Writer Lafcadio Hearn described a century ago as "flaming lazulite." Here the visitor will meet with hospitality and good humor as unflagging as the cool, dry trade winds.

The backwater Bali Hais are to be found in the Leeward Islands, which are part of the Lesser Antilles, south and east of Puerto Rico; Dutch-ruled St. Eustatius, better known as Statia, and Saba; French St. Barthelemy, a.k.a. St. Barts; and the British islands of Anguilla, Montserrat and Barbuda. These islands were named but largely ignored by the Spanish because they offered little promise of quick riches; for the most part, they have scant rainfall and thin soil. Thus they were generally spared the excesses of European rivalry that devastated rich plantation colonies like Jamaica, Trinidad, Cuba and Hispaniola. They also have escaped exploitation. They cannot be reached by direct flight from the U.S. or Europe, and they closely regulate development of any kind.

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