Photos: Caribbean way of life

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  1. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of the Barbados Tourism Authority shows Harrismith Beach, Barbados. Sun, surf and sand are the main draws on this tropical Caribbean island. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of Barbados Tourism Authority shows The Watering Hole rum shop in Barbados. The rum shops on the island are good places to sample local food and drink, watch a game of dominos, or just get to know the friendly and hospitable Bajans. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. St. Lucia

    Developed, beautiful and situated in the Eastern Caribbean, St. Lucia is accessible from Europe and Canada, and reachable -- albeit not as easily -- from the United States. St. Lucia is known as a romantic destination. The island gets plenty of visitors, including wedding parties. (Holger Leue  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. St. Lucia

    Cocoa pods lie on the ground ready to be processed at Fondoux Plantation in Soufriere, St. Lucia. Cocoa is one St. Lucia's main produce alongside the more obvious banana crop. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. St. George's

    The capital of Grenada, St. George's is considered one of the prettiest harbor towns in the Caribbean. Grenada's unique layout includes many finger-like coves, making the island a popular sailing destination. (Richard Cummins  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Cayman Islands

    The Cayman Islands very popular attractions, Stingray City and the nearby shallows known as the Sandbar, provide the only natural oportunity to swim with Atlantic Southern Stingrays. (David Rogers / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Stingray City

    The Cayman Islands very popular attractions, Stingray City and the nearby shallows known as the Sandbar, provide the only natural oportunity to swim with Atlantic Southern Stingrays. (David Rogers / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. St John's

    In high season, up to five cruise ships visit St John's, Antigua, each day. The boats unload mostly American and European passengers who fan out across the island visiting the casinos and beaches. Antigua is easily accessible, and can offer good values for tourists. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Antigua

    Antigua, located in the Northeastern Caribbean, is a popular tourist spot. While there are high-end, stylish hotels, the island also features a large number of mid-priced options. Visitors will find beach bars, restaurants, casinos and shopping. (Richard I'Anson  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Antigua

    People walk along an area known as Devils Bridge in Indian Town Point, Antigua. Antigua is a wintertime destination for many visitors from the north. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Dominica

    Not as well known as other Caribbean islands, Dominica is green, fertile and mountainous. Visitors will find some opportunites to scuba dive, but watersports are not its main draw. The island does, however, offer a slew of rainforest trails -- great for hiking and sightseeing. (Greg Johnston  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Dominican Republic

    An old church building is seen in La Romana, the third-largest city in the Dominican Republic. (Wayne Walton / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Belize

    Belize gets more than 850,000 visitors each year. The hot spot allows watersports such as kayaking and snorkeling, as well as inland activities like hiking and birding. The Mayan ruins of Altan Ha, pictured, are easily accessible from Caye Caulker. (Andrew Marshall / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. La Tortuga

    A fisherman repairs his nets on Cayo Herradura, off the island of La Tortuga in Venezuela. The country offers visitors a variety of activities to choose from, but remains undervisited -- especially compared to its South American neighbors. (Lynne Sladky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Cuba

    Cuba blends the fantastic attractions associated with other Caribbean destinations with an amazing history. Tourists can stroll white sand beaches, take in the incredible architecture and party into the early-morning hours. (Javier Galeano / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. St. Barthelemy

    St. Barthelemy is a vacation spot of stars and millionaires. Trendy, chic and sexy, St. Baarths is safe for tourists, but expensive to visit. About 8,700 people reside on the island. (Mark Mainz / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Puerto Rico

    A man climbs to a 40-foot waterfall at the south side of the Caribbean National Rain Forest, commonly called El Yunque, near Naguabo, Puerto Rico. Most visitors hike the well-marked paths in the northern half of the park's rain forest but the trails in the south allow hikers and nature lovers to explore the only tropical forest in the U.S. national forest system. (Herminio Rodriguez / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Puerto Rico

    The cupola of San Juan Cemetary as well as colorful homes sit next to the ocean in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Puerto Rico

    Men play dominos in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. Old San Juan is a well-preserved colonial city that allows tourists a peek into the past. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Guadeloupe

    Guadeloupe isn't as developed as some other Caribbean islands, but it offers a variety of beaches -- some active with watersports, some secluded. The island also offers beach bars, restaurants, mid-range hotels and other tourist amenities. (Marcel Mochet / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 7/5/2006 3:49:23 PM ET 2006-07-05T19:49:23

"When am I going to see a barracuda?" my 7-year-old, Marlie, asked for the tenth time since the start of our trip. It was no passing fancy: This is a kid so enthralled by toothy creatures that he endlessly doodles underwater scenes infested with 'cudas, sharks and eels. He hadn't seen any in the wild yet, but with a week to explore the Bahamas aboard a sailboat, it was only a matter of time before he came face to face with one of his favorite sea monsters. As his mom, let's just say I had mixed feelings about that.

"You're going to see some really big fish here, Marlie," said our captain, Dave, in his thick Aussie accent as he steered the dinghy toward Sandy Cay Reef. Marlie, bouncing at the bow alongside his brother, 11-year-old Alex, nodded and studied the water intently -- a kiddie Cousteau.

Dave explained that this was a "drift" snorkel: We'd drop in at one end of the reef and let the current carry us while he tagged along in the dinghy to pluck us out when we finished. The first mate, Melanie, splashed over the side, followed by the boys and then their father, Gary. When I slipped in, Gary and I joined hands with Marlie and Alex so we could stay together. With arms and legs outstretched, we looked like a cluster of skydivers freefalling in formation.

The reef appeared below us, a watery metropolis of coral and sponge structures pulsing with colorful citizens. A school of black-and-yellow striped sergeant majors zipped by like busy commuters. Parrotfish, angels and fairy basslets mixed and mingled amid huge brain corals and tangles of white-tipped staghorn. A large grouper puttered along a sandy throughway between sections of stony reef, finning past a stingray that burrowed into the bottom. Suddenly, we were engulfed by a cloud of tiny shimmering silversides, so many that they blocked our view. And then, just as suddenly, the school parted, revealing a long silver torpedo with teeth.

"Bawahcudah! Bawahcudah!" shouted Marlie, his voice distorted through his snorkel. Little hands tightened their grip on mine, but then Alex yanked his away. "Shark! Shark!" he yelled, pointing out a baby bull shark swimming 20 feet down. Another, larger barracuda appeared, and then a third. The shark did a lazy turn. The boys hooted and grunted to announce each new and exciting development.

The end of our drift came far too soon. Turning toward the dinghy, I saw the biggest barracuda hanging nearby, just below the surface. Intimidating but not threatening, he looked as if he was simply waiting around to make certain that Marlie's wish had come true. I gave him a little wave and thought, "My kids will still be talking about you in 20 years."

Marlie popped his head up and peeled off his mask. "Three barracudas and a shark! My friends are not going to believe this!"

"Man, I want to do that again," said Alex as Dave reached down to help him back aboard. I felt the same way: like a kid who'd just been on the greatest roller coaster -- and was ready to do it all over.

Given Marlie's marine-life obsession and Alex's love of sailing, deciding to do an island-hopping adventure by boat was an easy pick for our summer vacation. We chose the Abacos as our cruising grounds because this 120-mile-long island chain in the northern Bahamas offers safe, easy sailing within protected waters, and because it's only a 45-minute flight from Florida. The other decision we had to make was whether to go it alone, bareboat, or rent a yacht that came with a crew. Considering the time taken up with provisioning, cooking and cleaning and the stress of actually working the boat versus having pure relaxing quality time with the boys, the crewed charter option was another no-brainer.

Captain Dave and Melanie welcomed us aboard the Meltemia -- a 47-foot four-cabin catamaran -- at the Moorings base on Marsh Harbour. "I've got a beginning snorkeler and a novice sailor," I said. "Can we tailor the trip to keep them interested?"

"I think we can handle that," Dave smiled, rolling out a chart of the Sea of Abaco, the broad, shallow body of water that separates Great Abaco from dozens of smaller islands that face the Atlantic to the east. Gary and I leaned over the chart, pointing out island after interesting-looking island: Green Turtle Cay, Man-O-War, Manjack, Pelican … we wanted to hit them all.

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Dave let us go on for awhile before gently suggesting a more relaxed itinerary. "People typically want to visit as many islands as they can," he said. "But at the end of the trip, they always wish they had taken it a bit slower, to savor the places they visited." We agreed and settled on a plan that combined days of exploring uninhabited beaches and secluded reefs with stops at larger islands that would offer local culture and fun dining options. There'd be plenty of snorkeling stops and good stretches of sailing in between.

As we finished plotting our course, the telltale crinkling of foil told me that Marlie was pilfering snacks in the galley. Melanie, though, was a step ahead of the dreaded "I'm starving!" meltdown, and set the shaded outside table with salads and fresh sweet Bahamian bread, which were promptly and totally devoured.

The beamy catamaran was surprisingly comfortable. Gary and I unpacked in one teak-trimmed cabin, and the boys decided it'd be fun to share the berth just forward of ours -- within giggling distance. The crew roomed on the other side of the boat, and each air-conditioned cabin had a private head. With Melanie's small galley filled with potted herbs, baskets of fresh fruit and, thanks to the pre-cruise preference sheet, an assortment of our favorite foods and drinks, the Meltemia instantly felt homey.

Our gear stowed and the boys chomping at the bit, Dave steered the boat out of the harbor and into the blue-green waters of the Sea of Abaco. It was another sign that our crew had experience in dealing with kids that our first stop was nearby, a warm-up snorkeling spot called Mermaid's Reef. It allowed the boys to burn off some nervous energy and Marlie to spot a few fish while we all made sure our masks and fins fit.

After that, it was Alex's turn. Dave sat beside him at the helm, demonstrating the GPS and explaining how he determined the best angles for the sails as we made our way to Great Guana. Veterans of the serious Australian yacht-racing circuit, Dave and Melanie became Alex's personal sailing instructors for the week and seemed to thoroughly enjoy having the rapt attention of such a willing pupil.

With both the boat and the kids under our crew's control, Gary and I lounged on the trampoline stretched across the bow, breathing in the fresh sea air, taking in the view of the islands scattered on the horizon and letting the boat's gentle motion rock us into a state of extreme relaxation.

We'd scheduled our trip over the 4th of July, which coincides with the Abacos' biggest event of the year, Regatta Week, a series of major races and epic parties that migrate to a different island each day. One of the wildest shindigs is held at Nippers Beach Bar & Grill on Great Guana. Melanie warned us that things can get a little PG-13 there, but also said that they had great fireworks. We decided to have the best of both worlds by touring Guana by day and then retreating to our own party aboard the Meltemia, where we'd have a great view of the show.

Dave dinghied us ashore, and we set off down the main road -- basically a sidewalk that served as a golf-cart highway. There wasn't much on the long, narrow island beyond a tiny village of clapboard houses and small shops, with a few cottages perched atop the bluff. We followed a hand-painted sign that led off the sandy track and came to a series of multi-level decks rising from a 40-foot dune overlooking a seemingly endless stretch of gleaming white sand fronting the Atlantic: the infamous Nippers. I was prepared to distract the boys from any bootie dancing or bikini-top malfunctions, but we'd timed it right and the crowd seemed content to sit in the sun nursing cocktails and lunch platters. Not that my guys would have noticed: The second they saw the view, they only had eyes for the ocean and dashed down the stairs and into the water. We adults arrayed ourselves on calypso-colored stools along the railing at the edge of the dune and ordered drinks.

After running the beach, jumping around in the water and climbing on the big rocks, the boys clambered back up to the bar. Then Marlie spotted the pool. I said yes to the inevitable so it would seem like I was in charge. He dove in and was immediately inspired by the pirate logo painted on the bottom. His next request was a skull-and-bones "do rag" just like the Nippers Pirate had. At the gift shop, I was in charge again -- this time because I had the credit card.

As the bar began to fill, we headed back to the boat. The Guana Cay Regatta was just starting, so Dave and Melanie got the chance to explain to Alex how the 50 or so boats were jockeying for position and how they'd race around the markers. Watching him staring out at the collection of colorful sails, I could tell Alex was picturing himself at the wheel of one of the speedy boats and planning his winning strategy.

We spent the rest of the day at nearby Water Cay, snorkeling and exploring. The boys, dressed in buccaneer bandannas, launched an attack and successfully took control of a beautiful white crescent of beach. It wasn't much of a battle considering the fact that there wasn't another human in sight, but their father and I still appreciated the effort since they allowed us to share their claim. We stretched out on the sand while they gathered a treasure-trove of giant conch shells.

We made it back to Guana in time to get a prime anchorage. While Melanie prepared dinner, Gary and I judged the most-dramatic-jackknife contest, with our puppyfish repeatedly hurling themselves off the stern. We sat down to eat as the sky slowly shifted to a deep gold, with the dropping sun silhouetting sailboats in the distance.

Melanie brought out our plates, each with a generous slab of grilled tuna on a bed of spinach mashed potatoes. I held my breath as Marlie screwed up his nose, until Melanie laid down his plate, which held an elegant presentation of chicken nuggets. Big smiles all around. Perhaps, I thought, we could ask the crew to come home with us, float the Meltemia in the little lake behind our house and have the boys live aboard.

After dinner we lazed on deck, gazing at the amazing dome of twinkling stars until they were upstaged by Nipper's fireworks. Melanie helped the kids blow up balloons and light glow sticks and they marched around the trampoline, keeping everyone thoroughly entertained. A procession of dinghies buzzed toward shore, ferrying revelers to the big party at Nippers', but we were perfectly content with our own little celebration, feeling lucky to be together, bobbing on the Sea of Abaco as the sky sparkled red, white and blue.

Over the next several days, we fell into a blissful rhythm of sailing and exploring, making our way south down the chain -- snorkeling the lush reef at Fowl Cay, scaring up sea biscuits on the Tilloo Banks, wading the vast flats off Tahiti Beach, happy-houring at the famous flotsam-adorned beach bar Pete's Pub in Little Harbour -- and discovering a new anchorage every evening.

Rising early, we'd tune in the VHF to hear Miss Patti, a woman on Great Abaco who does a daily radio show that combines the marine-weather forecast and news with time for yachtie chat, when boaters call in to find friends and get or give advice on everything from where to find a good mechanic to the best happy hour. Being a boater here instantly makes you part of a friendly community, one that is always welcoming and willing to help new arrivals.

Toward the end of our trip, we dropped anchor within sight of the Abacos' iconic red-and-white striped Elbow Cay Lighthouse. Heading ashore and strolling Hope Town's narrow streets lined with colonial-style cottages draped in hibiscus and bougainvillea, the boys even discovered an interest in history. Of course, history here includes the detail that some of the original settlers made their living by luring passing ships onto the rocks so they could scavenge the cargo. The famous lighthouse was a "gift" from the Mother Country in the hope of making the Abacos safe for English ships. Some not-so-grateful locals who knew their piratical careers would disappear as soon as the light began to burn tried to sabotage the project. Thrilled to be able to touch part of such wicked history, Alex and Marlie led the charge up the 101 steps of the lighthouse.

At the top, with a view of the bustling harbor, glistening beach and Atlantic Ocean to the east, the Meltemia lying at anchor to the north and the Sea of Abaco spread out as a blanket of blue to the west, I was thankful that the lighthouse survived. And also glad that I was here seeing it with my family. In just a week, we'd seen the boys grow up and their worlds expand before our eyes. I couldn't believe how confident Alex had looked paddling a kayak in open water following a lesson from Melanie. And, after carefully watching Dave pick his way past reefs and shoals every day to find good anchorages, Marlie was now a bona-fide boat boy. "We can't go into that area," he'd said one afternoon, pointing at a shoal. "I can tell by the color of the water that it's too shallow."

My entire family had grown sea legs thanks to our Aussie crew. When we had booked the crewed charter, I was worried that sharing our vacation with a couple of total strangers was going to be awkward. But we hit it off so well that every day was a "G'day" and everyone on board was a "mate" or a "bloke." The boys had two new heroes, and far from being an uncomfortable presence, Dave and Melanie were now part of our family.

It was one of our best vacations ever, and just like a kid on a roller coaster, I wanted to do it all over again.

Caribbean Travel & Life Says:

Sailing aboard a crewed charter yacht can be the family vacation of a lifetime, provided you know what you're getting into. Here are a few important things to consider when planning a sea excursion for the whole clan:

    * Before booking, get your kids acclimated to boating. Finding out a family member is prone to seasickness on the first day of your seven-day charter is very bad news. Though the Sea of Abaco is known for its calm waters and you never lose sight of land, the weather is changeable and can impact your onboard comfort. A little experience aboard boats -- from yachts to dinghies -- can make the kids more confident when the boat takes an extra dip or roll. If you're unable to test the waters beforehand, consider coming a few days on the yacht with several days at a nearby resort.

    * Your kids should be old enough to obey and understand safety rules. This is critical for the well-being of everyone on the boat. The captain and first mate will do a thorough rundown of onboard rules and safety features. There will also be areas of the boat that will be hands-off. Though you might be itching to enjoy a family charter right bow, don't take your kids on this trip before they're ready. Leave the little ones with Grandma and make it a couples' getaway. When the kids are older, plan another charter. Believe it, you will want to do this again.

    * This vacation is all about water. The whole family will be more at ease if the kids are strong, experienced swimmers. If your kids are not great swimmers, you're all better off relaxing at a beach resort somewhere and watching the kids frolic in the shin-deep surf. After they pass that swim test, book your charter.

    * Pack light. This is barefoot boating adventure. Though it's a luxury yacht, it's not like a luxury resort where you have to change clothes several times a day to beach it, dine in a nice restaurant and lounge poolside. In fact, dressing up in the Abacos means putting on a fairly fresh T-short, dry shorts and flip flops -- and closet space is very limited on the boat.

    * The Moorings offers bareboat and crewed sailing charters in the Abacos aboard monohulls and catamarans from 35 to 47 feet. You'll appreciate knowing that most of the boats are less than three years old, fully equipped and meticulously maintained. The Moorings' full-service travel agency will walk you through the planning process, from choosing the right boat to booking flights and local activities. Prices are from $74 per person per day based on a group of six for bareboat charters and from $215 per person per day based on a group of six for crewed charters; minimum charter time is two days. Contact: 888-952-8420; moorings.com

Where to Stay (On Dry Land)

ABACO BEACH RESORT & BOAT HARBOUR

Style: Casual Comfort by the Sea

Location: Marsh Harbour on the peaceful island of Great Abaco

Rooms: 72 oceanfront rooms, all with private terraces or balconies; four one-bedroom suites with full kitchens and pull-out sofas; six two-bedroom villas

Rates: From $240 (year-round)

Amenities: Air conditioning; marina; two pools; tennis; fitness room; water sports; dive shop; boat rental

Dining: Angler's Restaurant overlooks the marina, and a pool bar has swim-up seating.

Contact: 800-753-9259; abacobeachresort.com

BLUFF HOUSE BEACH HOUSE & YACHT CLUB

Style: Luxurious and intimate

Location: Atop the highest point on Green Turtle Cay

Rooms: 32 spacious rooms, suites, villas and cottages, all with private balconies and ocean views

Rates: From $150 in low season ($180 high)

Amenities: Air conditioning; marina; tennis; pool

Dining: The casual Jolly Roger Bar and Bistro and more formal Clubhouse

Contact: 800-745-4911; bluffhouse.com

GREEN TURTLE CLUB & MARINA

Style: Laid-back colonial charm

Location: Overlooking the waters of Green Turtle Cay's White Sound

Rooms: 32 club rooms, waterfront rooms, villas, two-bedroom suites and one-bedroom apartments

Rates: From $170 in low season ($225 high)

Amenities: Air conditioning; marina; pool; boat rentals; golf

Dining: Traditional bar food at Turtle Pool Bar and Grill; fine Caribbean fusion cuisine at Club Restaurant

Contact: 866-528-0539; greenturtleclub.com

TREASURE CAY HOTEL RESORT & MARINA

Style: Family-friendly resort complex

Location: Adjoining a world-class beach and protected harbor on Great Abaco's Treasure Cay

Rooms: 87 standard rooms, deluxe rooms, deluxe suites, two-bedroom suites and three-bedroom suites

Rates: From $140 in low season ($160 high)

Amenities: Air conditioning; marina; tennis; pool; golf

Dining: International menus at Spinnaker Restaurant, Coco Beach Bar and Tipsy Seagull Outdoor Bar

Contact: 800-327-1584; treasurecay.comy.com

Caribbean Travel & Life is the magazine for anyone in search of the perfect tropical getaway. Each issue presents expert insider’s advice on where to find the Caribbean’s best beaches and attractions, its finest resorts and spas, liveliest beach bars and activities, and its friendliest people.

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