Sunday, 03 May 2015 09:56

Critter-happy Caribbean

Written by  Melanie Reffes
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Few vacation experiences appeal to the entire family like an afternoon cavorting with the critters who call the Caribbean home. From swimming with the sharks in The Bahamas to staking out rare birds in St. Lucia and taking photos with the monkeys in St. Kitts, there is an animal-friendly island for everyone and an easy sell for travel agents.

For the Birds
It’s literally for the birds at Anse Chastanet, one of the ritziest resorts in St. Lucia that also happens to be one of the best bird watching locales. Tours take nature lovers to spectacular birding perches like the Millet Bird Sanctuary Trail where enthusiasts with eagle eyes (or binoculars) will marvel at more than thirty alluring varieties like the Red Neck Pigeon with its distinctive maroon-hued plumage and the St. Lucia Pewee with its cinnamon-colored underbelly.
With travel to Cuba looming on the horizon and a US Embassy set to reopen in Havana, the island may soon be as popular with Americans as it is with Europeans and Canadians. Chockablock with history, music, cigars, old cars and rum, Cuba is also home to a thriving ecosystem. On an itinerary organized by Natural Habitat Adventures, tourists are treated to vistas of the stately pelicans and flaming orange flamingos as they strut about Cienaga de Zapata National Park, a 1.5 million acre UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on the southern coast. For those wondering about travel logistics, Natural Habitat books the flight from Miami to Cienfuegos and the return flight from Havana to Miami with a charter company that is authorized to provide direct flights to Cuba.

Underwater Sightseeing
They look like large dinner plates burrowing into the sandy ocean floor of the North Sound in Grand Cayman, yet eagerly swim to the surface when they hear the sounds of the boats from Stingray City. One of the most popular tourist animal attractions, Stingray City is delightful for swimmers, snorkelers and divers who covet a get up-close-and-personal experience with the smooth southern stingrays. Eager for a snack from the hands of tourists, the rays swim so close that you feel them brushing your face with their wings and sucking squid from your fingers.

When it comes to interactive fun with fifty thousand sea animals, Atlantis Paradise Island in the Bahamas wins the Powerball lottery. The mega-resort with one of the largest outdoor marine habitats in the world was inspired by the Lost City of Atlantis and offers a vacation fantasy for the entire family. Visit the touch tank aquariums in The Dig where venomous lionfish, piranhas, iridescent jellyfish and six-foot long eels keep each other company and Dolphin Cay where the gentle mammals live on fourteen acres filled with seven million gallons of seawater, then to the Shark Tunnel where onlookers wear glass helmets for a nose-to-nose experience of the fierce animals zigzagging around them. For the cherry on top, enroll the kids in the Jr. Ultimate Trainer for a Day program and for the grown-ups, the Ultimate Trainer for a Day Program
beats another day on a sun lounger.

Also in The Bahamas, if your bucket list includes getting a mushy kiss from an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin or an affectionate snuggle from a California sea lion, take the scenic high-speed double-decker catamaran from Nassau to Dolphin Encounters on Blue Lagoon Island. After a few pointers from the pros working in the Dolphin Swim Program, the gentle giants are putty in your hands and happy to pose for the best-ever souvenir photos. If sea lions are more your style, jump into the warm waters where the playful critters are trained to swim with tourists who o ffer a salty fish treat as a reward.

Do the Right Thing
The name says it all in St. Martin on the French side of the dual-nation island. I Love My Island Dog is the only shelter devoted to keeping strays off the streets and beaches and finding new homes for them overseas. Relying solely on donations from tourists, the ramshackle shelter welcomes volunteers who help keep the pooches clean and happy. Micro-chipped, neutered and vaccinated, the dogs are in tip-top shape and with adoption rules a breeze via the NY-based One Puppy at a Time, dog lovers can return home with more than tan lines and a few extra pounds.

If you arrive to St. Kitts on a cruise ship, you’ll see the cuter-than-cute vervet monkeys on the shoulders of entrepreneurial locals who hang out on the Port Zante pier making a few bucks from tourists as they snap photos of the critters dressed in zany costumes. If you’re on the beach, you’ll find them foraging for a food handout, you’ll see them in the countryside early in the morning or late in the afternoon and as the sun sets, friendly gangs raid the beach bars in search of a cocktail. Mostly vegetarian, the cheeky boozers with expressive black faces arrived with the slaves from West Africa and from eating the fermented fruit that blankets the rain forest floors, they developed a taste for alcohol although today, many are teetotalers and prefer a soft drink to a martini.

The horses that call the Biras Creek Resort in the British Virgin Islands home were rescued from Puerto Rico in 2009 and today are part of an interactive program at the Virgin Gorda resort. An innovative experience offered to guests, visiting and grooming the horses is gratis with classes that teach the fine art of horsing around offered for a nominal fee. True to their name, Paso Finos are the horses with the ‘fine step’ and are gentle with experienced equestrians and newbies.

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