Holiday Escapes: Island Paradises

Sometimes the best present is the one you give yourself, and what could be better than a sun-filled getaway to Bermuda, the Florida Keys, or Nevis?

Bermuda

Christmas on the beach? Why not? And in Bermuda you’ll get the extra treat of a holiday celebration comprised of British, American, and Caribbean traditions.

Do: The semi-temperate climate might not have you in the Yuletide mood, but attend the Christmas Eve candlelight service at Bermuda Cathedral, in Hamilton, and you’re sure to feel the spirit. Complete with a beautiful tree, poinsettias, processions, and singing.

From Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day you’re likely to encounter Gombey troupes, parades of singing and dancing locals who don brilliantly colored costumes and towering peacock-feathered hats. The performances are improvised, and are likely to happen anywhere during the six-day period. Just listen for the sounds of drums and whistles.

St. George’s is the place to be on New Year’s Eve. In King’s Square and Ordnance Island you’ll find food stalls, kiddy rides, and live entertainment. A midnight countdown culminates in the much-anticipated dropping of the “Bermuda Onion.” Who needs Times Square?

Stay: The Fairmont Hamilton Princess combines the best of old and new. Opened in 1885, the hotel’s rooms are decorated in a warm up-to-date style and service is Old World courteous. The hotel’s “Gold Christmas” package includes five nights accommodation in Fairmont Gold, the boutique hotel within a hotel. Available December 17 through January 15, 2008, from US$1,665. The hotel serves a fine Christmas buffet in the Harborview ballroom.

Cambridge Beaches offers tranquility, five beaches, and acres of tropical gardens on a lovely peninsula. Guests stay in cottages with views of the bay, or in rooms that open onto the gardens. During the festive season, expect nightly musical entertainment in the hotel’s Port O’ Call Pub, de-stressing yoga sessions, casino nights, and caroling. A gala dinner (formal attire, please) is planned for New Year’s Eve. Rooms from $500.

Dine: Homemade ravioli filled with crabmeat, blackened mahi-mahi, pan-seared lamb chops with risotto — you can sample it all at Ascots. End with Crépes Garibaldi (filled with strawberries, a chocolate nut sauce and crème chantilly). In the Royal Palms Hotel. About $50 a person. Reservations suggested.

Aqua, in the Ariel Sands Hotel, is right on the beach, making this perfect for a romantic rendez-vous. Pan-fried snapper on soba noodles or fresh tuna with chile mole served over eggplant are top-notch menu items. Reservations essential.

Florida Keys
The holidays in the Florida Keys tend to be offbeat twists on standard seasonal traditions.

Do: Have a holiday photo taken with a dolphin at Dolphin Research Center (Grassy Key). A $35 fee for the group plus individual admission prices covers the photo session and a high-resolution digital image provided on a disk. Sessions are available twice daily, morning and afternoon, on a walk-in basis only. Adults $19.50; seniors 55 and over is $16.50; children 4-12 is $13.50. MM 59 on Grassy Key.

If your visit coincides with New Year’s Eve, don’t miss the annual fireworks show on Blackwater Sound (Key Largo), or the Key West New Year’s Eve Celebrations, at Sloppy Joe’s Bar (201 Duval St). The latter involves the descent of a pirate wench from the mast of the tall ship Liberty Clipper in the island city’s Historic Seaport. Goofy, but fun nonetheless.

Stay: Little Palm Island Resort & Spa is on a private island off Little Torch Key, and accessible only by boat. Guests are picked up from the dock and stay in thatched-roof bungalows, carefully placed in the lush landscaping to provide complete privacy. Beds are draped in netting, the shady verandahs have ocean views, and some rooms have secluded outdoor showers.

Christmas Day dinner at the resort is a gourmand’s dream, with “Calabaza” soup en croute with Cilantro cream, seared Filet Mignon, chestnut and truffle emulsion, and sweet-potato mash. Guests staying on til New Year’s Eve enjoy a festive five-course dinner. Rooms from $650.

Casa Morada is an all-suites resort on the bay in Islamorada. There are 16 suites, most with private patios and balconies overlooking the water. The hotel is set in a beautiful garden and the pool has a sandy “beach.” Rooms are cool, stylish, and comfortable. Rates start at $499 for seaview suites.

Dine: Barracuda Grill (Marathon) works magic with seafood — think voodoo stew, with scallops, shrimp, and veggies in a spicy tomato-saffron stock. Start with the tipsy olives (marinated in gin) or the super-spicy calamari. The key-lime cheesecake is a perfect finish. About $50 a person.

The menu at Pierre’s flawlessly fuses Asian, Indian, and Floridian tastes. Favorites include yellowtail flavored with lotus root and served over a chile-spiced soba-noodle salad and pan-seared sea scallops with cauliflower risotto and roasted garlic foam. Reservations are recommended. About $50 a person.

Nevis

Tiny Nevis is so undeveloped you won’t find a single traffic light on the island. Yet it’s home to some of the most sophisticated resorts in the Caribbean. Locals do the holidays up with traditional music and dance celebrations.

Do: Head over to St. Kitts for the annual Christmas Carnival, running through January 2. It’s all about parades, music, dancing around the clock. The opening ceremonies feature the crowning of the King and Queen. The New Year’s Day “Las’ Lap” parades are special, too. St. Kitts is a 20-minute ferry ride from Nevis.

Like your Christmas music with a little calypso? The Honey Bees play Saturday nights at the Golden Rock Plantation Inn. Enjoy a West Indian Buffet as you listen. Nisbet Plantation Beach Club offers live music in the Great House lounge Sunday-Thursday during the festive season.

Visit Nevis’ art galleries in a half-day tour led by Gillian Smith and Ceri Whitfield, owners of Café des Arts Gallery (Main Street, Charlestown, Nevis, 869/469-7098). Or head to the Nevis Craft Cooperative in the Cotton Ginnery (behind the town pier in Charlestown) and watch as crafts people carve wooden toys and sculptures, weave, and create ceramics.

Stay: Nisbet Plantation Beach Club celebrates the “12 days of Christmas” December 20 through “Old Year’s Night” (New Year’s Eve). On each of the 12 nights, guests receive a different gift from hotel staff with their turn-down service, from handmade local crafts to culinary treats and sweets. Planned activities include crab races, a special Christmas dinner, and holiday movies on the beach. Guests stay in charming cottages at this beachfront plantation inn. Rates start at $595 per night.

The Four Seasons Nevis Resort has 350 prime ocean-front acres along Pinney’s Beach, one of the prettiest beaches in the Caribbean. The 200 guest rooms are in 12 two-story wooden cottages, decorated in quiet pastels. During festive season, the resort offers weekly movie nights on the driving range, and on 12/24 Santa Claus arrives at the resort by boat. Rooms start at $475.

Dine: The Montpelier Plantation Inn offers a fixed-price dinner for $54. Start with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails in the Great Room and then move to a candlelight terrace overlooking tropical gardens and the ocean to dine on crab-stuffed chicken breast or seared swordfish in papaya-black bean salsa. Finish with a Dominican Chocolate Tasting, including spiced hot chocolate, cocoa nib candy, or chocolate-rum ice cream with bananas. Reservations essential, 869/469-3462.

Mango at the Four Seasons is right on the beach. Diners in the open air restaurant get a great view of the sunset while feasting on dishes such as Cades Bay pumpkin soup, spiny lobster fritters, gallows bay pot fish Nevisian style, or lime and ginger Wahoo fillet. The signature Mangojito cocktail is delicious. About $50 a person. Reservations suggested. 869/469-1111.