It's the middle of January, and heat-seeking bikini bombshells carpet the beach, bronzing the winter pallor from their pampered flesh. There's a special buzz in the air that grows louder as the beautiful people get amped for another night of seeing and being seen in the A-list spots. You're at ground zero of the Caribbean high season, and you wouldn't have it any other way.
Same beach in mid-July. You decompress on the flawless stretch of white sand, mellowing to the shoosh of the waves. Tonight you'll splurge on dinner, happily blowing some of the money you saved by taking your trip in low season -- and you won't even need a reservation. Tomorrow, it's the summer sales at the boutiques, then a free snorkel excursion. You won't find these kinds of perks in winter. What's not to love?
Two distinct vacations, same great Caribbean getaway. Whether you fancy the highs or lows of the tourist seasons, it pays to know what they mean for your next tropical sojourn.
Lasting from mid-December to mid-April, the Caribbean high season spans Christmas and Spring Break and offers the driest weather of the year. With afternoon temperatures in the 80s, conditions are perfect for working that new swimsuit.
High season is when you can hobnob with the fashionistas on St. Barts or spot the Hollywood set in Anguilla. It's when even the sleepy islands come alive -- the music gets louder, the dancing more frenetic as Carnival season swells, crests and crashes like a huge party wave. If you happen to be single, the "tourists gone wild" social scene enhances your chances of finding that star-crossed lover. "Also, many hotels have holiday festivities, making it a fun time of year for families," says Carla Lockhart of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism.
High season is peak time in the Caribbean in more ways than one: It's also make-or-break time for the regional hospitality industry. It's the law of supply and demand in ruthless action -- the "high" in "high season" means prices. But get over the sticker shock, because "shoulder season" is just around the corner.
You know that beach suite you covet at Provo's lavish Palms? The couple who checked out on April 22 paid $750 a night, but by waiting until April 23 to check in, you pay just $400. What a difference a day makes.
Nearly every resort and cruise ship in the Caribbean reduces its rates around mid-April. Thus begins shoulder season, the transitional period when you still get great weather but the crowds begin to thin. Traveling during these months can save you from 20 to 50 percent on lodging, allowing you to trade up to a better class of accommodation or plan a longer trip than you could manage in winter. A looser budget also lets you enjoy more activities, eat in better restaurants or bring back more keepsakes.
Many resorts post their rate cards on their websites, making it easy for you to see the seasonal fluctuations with exact dates and costs. If your hotel of choice has only an online booking engine and not a rate card, call and ask for the crucial money-saving dates before making a reservation. Opportunistic travelers are wise to the ways of shoulder season, so if you want to time your trip for the first week of reduced rates, you should book as far in advance as possible.
Running from July to mid-December, true low season means you can stay even longer, live even larger. Rates drop markedly -- you can pocket a startling 60 percent on lodging, especially late in the season -- and resorts and cruise lines often package air, accommodations, sports and spa treatments, increasing the value of your expenditures even more.
Popular perception says that traveling to the tropics in low season exposes you to potentially dangerous weather. The reality? Though hurricanes get lots of media play, you'd have to be awfully unlucky to get caught in one. Even the most regularly soaked islands get thumped by a strong storm only once every 8.5 years. Places like Bonaire, Curaçao and Trinidad, which lie outside the hurricane belt, get hit only once every 60 years (for storm incidences at your destination, visit the Climatology section of the Caribbean Hurricane Network website, stormcarib.com). Check with your property about bad-weather insurance, as many Caribbean hoteliers have begun developing make-good plans to give visitors extra peace of mind.
As for rain, the wettest months don't come until fall, and even then you're mainly talking a few afternoon downpours. Average low-season temperatures in most destinations climb only a few degrees above those in high season. The water is warmer -- in the 80s -- as well as calmer and often clearer, making this the best time for water sports. "Another plus for dive travel in the summer is that families can share the underwater experience while kids are out of school," says Keith Sahm of Sunset House, a top dive resort in Grand Cayman that offers PADI courses for adults and juniors ages 10 to 12.
Low season is also when the tropics turn up their charm, luring tourists with festivals and events. Among the annual notables are Jamaica's Red Stripe Reggae Sumfest (July 16 to 22), the Caribbean's premier reggae gathering, and Tortola's BVI Emancipation Festival (now in its 52nd year, July 28 to August 12), a two-week carnival with parades, music, food and contests. Check the Calendar of Events at the Caribbean Tourism Organization website (doitcaribbean.com) for happenings in your destination.
Of course, there are drawbacks to low-season travel. Though arrivals generally drop, a spike of European vacationers in July and August can lead to elbow-bumping select parts of the Dominican Republic and Mexico. Some restaurants and stores only open during high season, and hotels may use these months for renovation. Ask what construction work is scheduled for your property before making reservations, and request a room remote from noise and debris -- or stay elsewhere. They'll be happy to have you.
Due to its northerly latitude -- jutting defiantly out in the Atlantic about 600 miles east of North Carolina -- Bermuda's tourist seasons run opposite to that of the Caribbean proper. Falling in line with summer vacations, Bermuda high season, from May through August, is a time when children can find playmates and water temperatures are ideal, averaging in the low 80s -- just like the air temps.
Two shoulder seasons go from March through April and from September through November. The March-April period feels a lot like low season, with Brrrmuda's air and water temps in the mid-60s. September through November, temperatures average a pleasant 77 degrees, but there's a chance of a hurricane -- on average, one every 21 years.
Low season begins in December and lasts through February. Bermuda tourism officials call this "Golf and Spa" season, with air temperatures averaging 65 degrees. OK, so the Atlantic is too cold for swimming, but you can pick a resort with an indoor pool -- and the seasonal savings will help you afford it.
The Real Deal
How much can traveling in low season really save you? Here's a sample of rates from some popular resorts and a cruise line. Rates are based on mid-range accommodations, double occupancy.
Divi Carina Bay Beach St. Croix
Elbow Beach, Bermuda
Westin Grand Bahama Island Our
Carnival Cruise Lines
*starting rate, based on seven-day Caribbean sail
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.