10 Island Adventures Better Than All-Inclusives

Jamie Moore, January 02, 2015
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    Sometimes you need an adventure that gets your heart thumping, a thrill to remind you that deep down inside you're still as fun and gutsy as you were when you were 20. These Caribbean adventures are the adrenaline-awakening experience you're looking for. They'll have you sweating through your shirt, gasping for breath, and wiping whitewater spray from your face. So close your eyes and jump off that Caribbean cliff. Prove to yourself that you've still got it.

    (Photo: St. Lucia Tourist Board)

    Climbing the Pitons, St. Lucia

    Two volcanic spires that rise up side by side from the depths of the sea, the Pitons are an iconic feature of St. Lucia's landscape and a terrific challenge for experienced hikers. The strenuous trek to the top of Gros Piton (towering 2,619 feet above sea level) is steep and rocky. Expect to scrabble up some stretches on all fours and reach the summit in two hours with a sweat-soaked shirt. Guides lead you through lush rainforests to waterfalls where you can watch for 27 species of birds, get eye-level views of Petit Piton, and look out over the island and the Caribbean Sea.

    If You Go: Start early in the day, when temps are cooler. The trail is open year-round, but dry season is December through May. Book with a tour company or hire a guide for $30 at the interpretive center at the base of the mountains. Scuba divers can explore the coral-encrusted Piton Wall, a several-hundred-foot drop at the base of Petit Piton.

    (Photo: Riviera Maya Destination Marketing Office)

    Cenote Snorkeling, Mexico

    Beneath the jungle of the Yucatan Peninsula lies an extensive network of underground rivers that flow out to the ocean. You'd never know it if it weren't for the thousands of gaping sinkholes, or cenotes, in the jungle floor, where sunlight shines down on sections of water. Snorkelers can glide through gurgling subterranean passages at several cenotes that have been developed and illuminated by tour companies in the area. At Hidden Worlds, near Playa del Carmen, follow a snorkeling guide through narrow tunnels and into massive caverns with stalactites, stalagmites, and bats that occasionally fly just above your head.

    If You Go: Find the right cenote for your level of adventure. Gran Cenote is especially popular with scuba divers. Families with younger kids in tow can swim or paddle through a cenote on a Huck Finn-style raft at Xplor park.

    (Photo: Jemere Thaxton/Getty Images)

    America's Cup Yacht Racing, St, Maarten

    The 12 Metre Challenge on St. Maarten is your chance to compete in a mini America's Cup regatta without any experience at all. Climb into an actual 12 Metre-class America's Cup racing yacht with a bunch of strangers, and a professional crew of three will give each of you a job and teach you to sail. Whether your assignment is winch wench, the main grinder, or some other post, you learn where to stand and what to do. After a 20-minute training, you're off to the races. The crew makes this five-leg match fun and gets you into the competitive spirit, encouraging you to trash talk the other yacht and take bragging rights when you win.

    If You Go: Expect to get wet. Consistent trade winds help yachts keep a good clip, and one yacht will often cut off the other, passing close enough to send spray flying. The excursion lasts two and a half hours.

    (Photo: Island Routes Caribbean Adventures)

    River Tubing, Jamaica

    More than 100 rivers cut through Jamaica's lush rainforest, and the best views are from the water, on a tube. In Ocho Rios or Montego Bay, river guides will give you a colorful inflatable, string it together with the group, and keep you entertained with fun stories and local lore. You'll experience a seldom-seen part of Jamaica that is not accessible by car. On Chukka Caribbean Adventures' White River Tubing safari, you can bounce down rapids or float lazily through an old coconut plantation and beneath arching bamboo. Island Routes' River Bumpkin Tubing Adventure includes rapids, a rope swing, and a pedicure by your guide using the river's natural limestone.

    If You Go: The rainy hurricane season runs August to November, creating faster-flowing rivers. If you prefer no rain, the best time to visit is November through May.

    (Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

    Scuba Diving with Sharks, Bahamas

    This is a bucket-list adventure that scuba divers can't miss (even if, technically, it's just outside the Caribbean). Stuart Cove's dive resort in Nassau takes you on a two-tank dive with Caribbean reef sharks. On the first dive, you'll head to a wall or a wreck where reef sharks usually congregate and swim with them in a natural encounter. The second dive is a shark feed, where you kneel on the bottom with fellow divers in a semi-circle around a bait box. About 30 reef sharks come to tear chunks off the bait at the end of your guide's long pole. Want to be the one handling the bait? Take the two-day Shark Feeder Program.

    If You Go: Stay warm in a wetsuit. Because the depth is relatively shallow, you won't burn through your air and bottom time for the feed can last as long as an hour. If you're looking for a shark experience in the Caribbean, try swimming with whale sharks near Cancun.

    (Photo: Greg Johnston/Getty Images)

    Kiteboarding and Windsurfing, Dominican Republic

    The small, laid-back beach town of Cabarete in the Dominican Republic has the eastern trade wind to thank for putting it on the professional wind-sport circuit and tourism map. Home to international kiteboarding and windsurfing competitions (Cabarete Race Week, Kiteboarding World Cup, and Master of the Ocean), Cabarete Bay has six wind-sport schools that will take you from the basics to the adrenaline thrill of catching big air. At Kite Club Cabarete, you'll don a two-way radio helmet that lets you stay in contact with your instructor so you can learn kiteboarding more quickly. Beginners especially appreciate the year-round warm water and the light current that always pushes them back into Cabarete Bay.

    If You Go: Typically, there is little to no wind in the morning. Thermals kick in between 12:30 and 1:30 p.m., making the wind stronger until it peaks at about 4 p.m. and dies off around 6 p.m. The strongest winds occur in June, July, and August.

    (Photo: TripAdvisor, LLC)

    Kayaking in a Bioluminescent Lagoon, Puerto Rico

    Kayaking under the night sky in bioluminescent waters is an extraordinary natural phenomenon. It's pure magic, and you're the sorcerer. With every movement of your paddle, you activate thousands of tiny plankton that light up like blue stardust at the command of your touch. Puerto Rico boasts three of the world's bioluminescent bays, and one of the most stunning is Laguna Grande Bioluminescent Bay. Located at Cabezas Nature Reserve in Fajardo (less than an hour drive east of San Juan), this secluded lagoon is protected by mangrove forests. Glide through the glassy lagoon on a two-hour kayaking tour with a marine biologist who explains the processes and unique conditions required for the glow to occur.

    If You Go: Plan your trip on a moonless night during the summer, when the luminescence is at its brightest. It's the sun's energy that recharges the microorganisms that live in the bay, allowing them to shine at night.

    (Photo: Extreme Dominica)

    Canyoning Adventures, Dominica

    Dominica, a tropical rainforest island of volcanoes, canyons, and rushing rivers, gets more than 300 inches of rainfall each year, making it the perfect place for canyoning adventures. Shimmy into a wetsuit, strap on a helmet and harness, and prepare to get wet. Extreme Dominica's canyoning and adventure tours take you on a romp through the canyons, where you'll climb and rappel through waterfalls and plummet cannonball-style off cliffs into pools below. It's a heart-thumping experience that you won't forget.

    If You Go: Wear sturdy water shoes for the four- to five-hour tours, which run daily throughout the year. The wettest months are June through December. After your trek through the canyons, warm up in one of the island's many geothermal features. We recommend soaking in the hot sulfur pools of Wotten Waven or snorkeling in warm bubbles at Champagne Reef.

    (Photo: Courtenay Rooks)

    Hiking in a Bat Cave, Trinidad

    Not for the squeamish, Trinidad's Tamana Cave is an absolute assault on your senses. Every night on cue at sunset, millions of bats leave their cave in gigantic swarms to feed, before returning to roost. Position yourself at the entrance and let the waves of bats sweep over you—they fly so close that you can hear their squeaks. You'll feel the whoosh of their wings, and now and again one might land on you for a few seconds. It's an exhilarating experience, but beware: The stench of the cave's bat droppings can be overwhelming. Tour companies suggest wearing rubber kitchen gloves and dust masks to protect your hands and lungs from the massive amounts of droppings and the fungi found in them.

    If You Go: Be prepared for a steep hour-long hike up the side of Trinidad's Mt. Tamana to get to the cave. Bats live here year-round, but if you want to visit during the dry season, come from January to May.

    (Photo: Rios Tropicales)

    Whitewater Rafting, Costa Rica

    Warm river water and tropical rainforests chattering with colorful wildlife make whitewater rafting in Costa Rica a novel experience, even for those who've rafted throughout the United States. The Pacuare River (Class II–IV), consistently named one of the world's top rafting rivers, gives paddlers the chance to spot lazy sloths and monkeys on the riverbanks and parrots and toucans flitting overhead. On the Pacuare River One-Day Trip with Rios Tropicales, you'll raft the exciting 19-mile stretch from San Martin to Siquirres. Get drenched in heaving rapids on this trip, which can last from 3.5 to five hours, depending on water conditions. The excursion slows down at the end, just in time for you to look up and realize you're floating between two mountains.

    If You Go: To see the most action, go at the end of the wet season (November through March), when the river levels peak. On KE Adventure's 14-day family adventure tour, you can combine a calmer rafting excursion on the Sarapiqui River with zip-lining, horseback riding, and canal cruising.

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    This article was originally published by SmarterTravel under the title Caribbean Adventures Worth Leaving Your All-Inclusive For.

    (Lead Photo: Riviera Maya Destination Marketing Office)

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