Think Caribbean and many of us conjure up images of languid winter vacation escapes. What contributes to those images for me are some iconic film locations, chief among them the sizzling beaches and sophisticated casinos of the James Bond films.
And, although few of us can reach the physical perfection of Ursula Andress or Daniel Craig emerging from the sea, you don’t have to take your cocktails shaken and not stirred to enjoy the pristine beaches, verdant landscapes, and high-end resorts in films like these.
Pro Tip: Many places in the Caribbean suffered extreme damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017; some hotels and restaurants remain closed, and others have been rebuilt and are opening. Make sure to check before you book.
Jamaica: Goldeneyes And Grottoes
It’s been almost 60 years since Ursula Andress emerged from the deep at Laughing Waters beach in Jamaica in Dr. No. And Jamaica’s bond with Bond has lasted for years since Sean Connery settled comfortably in what is now Couples San Souci, the former San Souci resort that was carved into the cliffside. It was so beautiful, in fact, that James Bond (this time with Roger Moore) returned to the hotel in Live and Let Die. For the full glam experience, head to the tiny town of Orcabessa, site of the GoldenEye resort, the former home of Bond’s creator Ian Fleming. More a collection of private villas and cottages, GoldenEye has a private beach and lagoon and lush gardens. Its 52 acres also feature two oceanfront pools, a treehouse-style spa, and a host of activities such as paddle boarding, snorkeling, yoga classes, and mountain biking.
Bond also stayed in Cottage 10 at the Half Moon Resort near Montego Bay. The cottage has been renovated in the decades since, but the hotel remains a timeless destination with beautiful white cottages and the atmosphere of an elegant era.
A location from Live and Let Die that you can still visit is Green Grotto Caves — the site of evil Doctor Kananga’s underground base on the fictitious island of San Monique. Located in Falmouth, between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay, the caves were once used for shelter by the native Arawak Indians and as hiding places for runaway slaves. Local guides can take you diving.
Perhaps you can also see yourself hanging out with Stella, who got her groove back (as did Angela Bassett with Taye Diggs) at the luxurious Round Hill Hotel and Villas in Montego Bay.
Pro Tip: The no-frills Scotchie’s Restaurant in Ocho Rios is said to have the most authentic jerk chicken in Jamaica.
Puerto Rico: Rum And Resorts
Only 2.5 hours from Miami and less than four hours from New York, Puerto Rico is an easy winter destination (and no passport is needed for U.S. citizens).
San Juan has long been popular as a film location. The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp as Hunter S. Thompson, was mostly filmed here and in the local bars and dives. When I last visited Puerto Rico, I chose to stay in Old San Juan at the Hotel El Convento, a unique colonial-style resort (previously a Carmelite convent) built in 1646 and close to great bars and restaurants. Guests there have included Pablo Casals, Ernest Hemingway, and Truman Capote.
You can also sample some of the famous Puerto Rican rum at boîtes (small restaurant/nightclubs) around Old San Juan, or check out the most famous creator of those spirits at Casa Bacardi, just a short ferry ride away (bookings must be made in advance).
If proximity to sand and sea are more important to you than colonial houses and cobblestoned streets, San Juan also has miles of lovely beaches washed by turquoise waves.
Not far from Old San Juan is the Caribe Hilton, on a private 17-acre lushly landscaped peninsula with a secluded beach. Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, is situated on a former sugar plantation just west of San Juan. Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, less than 10 minutes from San Juan, is a five-star hotel built in 1919 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Condado Ocean Club is a boutique hotel just 15 minutes from the airport. El Conquistador is a luxury resort in Fajardo (on the east coast of the island); it reopened following a multi-million dollar renovation after Hurricane Maria. There is a water taxi to the exclusive beach at Palomino Island (but the beautiful little Isla Palominitos, a film site of Pirates of the Caribbean, is closed to visitors because of erosion and the 2017 hurricanes).
Getting to the island of Vieques by boat or plane can be challenging but is worth it. Most flights leave from San Juan International Airport (the planes are basically puddle jumpers and not for the queasy). Ferries take about 30 minutes from Ceiba to Vieques but can get crowded (and sometimes are canceled because of bad weather).
Vieques was a major location for the 1963 film Lord of the Flies, based on the 1954 dystopian novel by William Golding. But visitors should not worry; there isn’t much of a chance that your grandkids will turn savage at this peaceful and pleasant refuge.
This laid-back little island is perhaps most famous for Bioluminescent Bay, also called Mosquito Bay, a lagoon that is home to millions of tiny organisms which glow bright greenish-blue after dark. You’ll have to book a tour to see the lagoon’s wonders, but many report that kayaking there at night is a bucket list experience.
The Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is a prime place for hiking, and the island is famous for its wild (but gentle) horses that have roamed free since the Spanish brought them over from Europe hundreds of years ago.
Places to stay on Vieques include the Hix Island House, a 19-room hotel in the jungle with a pool and tropical views; Finca Victoria, which is an eco-retreat on 2.5 acres; El Blok, which also has a good restaurant; and the Malecon House, also in the town of Esperanza. There are also numerous Vieques vacation rentals.
Pro Tips: This year is San Juan’s 500th anniversary! Special events run through June of 2022. Visitors recommend a jeep rental for the more difficult roads on the island.
The Bahamas: Bond And The Beatles
A luxe guide to the Bahamas is sparked by three words: “Bond. James Bond.” The proof? Daniel Craig on the beach in Casino Royale.
In that film, Daniel Craig pursues evil baddy Le Chiffre to a poker tournament held at the One & Only Ocean Club on Paradise Island. The Ocean Club is the epitome of luxury with a private beach and all-white sand, not to mention several restaurants, including the Courtyard Terrace and Restaurant Dune.
Sean Connery (who owned a house in Lyford Cay in the Bahamas) wooed Fatima Blush at the British Colonial Hilton Nassau in Never Say Never Again. The colonial-style hotel originally opened in 1924 and has been called “the Grand Dame of all Nassau hotels.”
Another popular film with a Paradise Island location was the 1966 Help!, with John, Paul, George, and Ringo, among others, singing the title song on the beach.
The Beatles stayed at the glittering Balmoral Club on Cable Beach, built in 1946 and created to be the playground for many of the royals. The hotel became the Sandals Royal Bahamian (set to open again in early 2022), one of two Sandals hotels in the Bahamas. The other is Sandals Emerald Bay in Exuma. A special perk is that the Emerald Bay offers tours to Staniel Cay, the home of Thunderball Grotto (named after the movie), a prime place for diving and snorkeling amidst spectacular underwater caves.
St. Croix (Not Mexico, After All)
Andy (Tim Robbins) and Red (Morgan Freeman) are finally reunited in “Mexico” in the film The Shawshank Redemption, but the scene was actually shot at Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge in St. Croix.
Nearby places to stay include Cottages by the Sea, about 2.7 miles from the beach, and the Carambola Beach Resort & Spa on the north coast, about 7.5 miles from Sandy Point. The 3-mile beach itself is located near the town of Frederiksted at the southwest end of St. Croix. Part of the 380-acre Sandy Point Wildlife Preserve, the beach is an important nesting area for the endangered leatherback turtle. The refuge operates very limited hours, especially when the turtles are nesting, so check out access on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s official Sandy Point webpage.
Note that there are no restrooms or other amenities at the beach, but there are other compensations. As one reviewer wrote: “No facilities. No shade. No nothing. Just Heaven.” Sounds like just the spot to spend a day in paradise.
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