Perfect Trip: Bahamas
Day 1 Forty feet down in the poolblue Atlantic off New Providence, Bahamas, I'm inside a silver tornado of Caribbean reef sharks. I've joined Stuart Cove's Dive Bahamas for a chance to come face-to-snout with these graceful, cat-eyed sharks. They pointedly ignore us, interested only in the delectable fish heads offered up by divemaster Ervin Moss, but my thumping heart keeps time with the rhythmic crunch of arrowhead teeth on cartilage. Back on the boat I realize my fear, born of ignorance, has been banished by bottom time with these awesome creatures, and I'm left instead with the pure joy of experiencing a wilderness where large predators still roam.
Day 2 The sharks whet my appetite for more wild experiences, so I fly west to Andros Island, the largest island of the Bahamas. Landing at Andros Town, I travel back two decades to clapboard fishing villages and Androsian pine forests. On the short drive north to Small Hope Bay Lodge's family-owned beachfront cottages, I understand why this magical Out Island is the rumored haunt of chickcharnies, mischievous red-eyed forest spirits. That afternoon, the lodge's dive boat takes me to Jean's Dream off the east coast. Here in the coral gardens between the shallows and the wall of Andros Barrier Reef, Nassau groupers sit balloon-gilled over brain coral, and shoals of silversides morph like fun-house mirrors. In the dark off the wall's edge, the sea floor plummets more than a mile. I feel like I'm flying.
Day 3 "Take away the mangroves," Small Hope-owner Jeff Birch says, "and that reef dies. The swamps clean the seawater and serve as a nursery to juvenile fish." Jeff hands me a pair of binoculars and a small homemade guidebook. Behind the lodge is a limestone path that skirts the edge of a red mangrove swamp. Snowy egrets step gingerly across the mud, hunting minnows that crease the clear water. I take in a deep breath; the wet aroma of decay, I realize, is really the smell of the living reef.
Day 4 A quick connection through Nassau and a 40-minute flight southeast to Great Exuma, and I've arrived on my second Out Island, this one known for its beaches. After a basket of conch fritters in George-Town, I point my rented motorcycle south and devour the Queen's Highway. Past the overgrown plantation ruins and little village of Rolletown, I discover Tropic of Cancer Beach on Little Exuma (the two islands are connected by a bridge). I wade out into the warm, shin-high riffles, knowing I've found a very different wilderness from New Providence's sharky depths and Andros' reef and mangroves. I close my eyes and float until my pulse is as faint as the hush of the waves on the beach. jad davenport
Under the Sea
Mexico's largest island, 12 miles off the Yucatán Peninsula's east coast, takes its Mayan name, meaning "place of the swallows," from the birds that surf its thermals. But to divers, this 30-mile-long island, known simply as "Coz," is the place to ride a different sort of wind: A strong current near the famed Palancar reef just off the island's southwest shore generates some high-octane drift diving. Tunich, a dive site off the coast of the InterContinental Presidente Cozumel Resort Spa, is one of the best. Soar over a 60- foot-deep plain of sea sponges as big as Ming vases, joining hundreds of queen triggerfish and the occasional green sea turtle. If you're not already a diver, get certified at Scuba Du at the resort. When you've tired of riding the blue winds, head to San Miguel's zocalo (town center) for wahoo tacos, ice-cold Dos Equis and live mariachi. Rent a Jeep in town and drive east through the mahogany and ceiba forests to the San Gervasio ruins, where the Maya worshipped Ixchel, the moon and fertility goddess. Then head to the far south and climb the Punta Celarain Lighthouse for a panorama reserved for only you and the swallows. InterContinental rates from $191. ichotelsgroup.com; islacozumel.com.mx jd
Head in the Clouds
Landing on this towering, extinct volcano after a 15-minute flight south from St. Martin isn't for the faint-hearted. The runway is barely longer than an aircraft carrier and plunges 100 feet off both ends into the dark blue Atlantic. Saba's glorious isolation and vine-tangled rainforests lead the 1,500 locals to refer to their home as the "Unspoiled Queen." Stay in one of the cottages at the family-run Ecolodge Rendez-Vous, where lights and showers are solar-powered. The trail up 2,877-foot Mount Scenery, the highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, passes right by the lodge. But the view from Scenery's summit including nearby St. Kitts and St. Eustatius on clear days isn't free: You earn it sweating up 1,064 mossy steps beneath tree ferns and cascading heliconia. Ecolodge rates from $65. ecolodge-saba.com; sabatourism.com jd
Marine Park Sanctuary
Until recently, pink flamingos outnumbered the more than 11,000 inhabitants of Bonaire, located just north of Venezuela. Explore the boomerang-shaped isle's 180 miles of unpaved roads by bike. The elegant residents of the Flamingo Sanctuary roost on sun-scorched salt pans on Bonaire's southern half. Up north in the Washington- Slagbaai National Park, the island gathers into dry hills covered by candle cacti forests overlooking limestone-terraced beaches. With an arid topside, Bonaire takes its water seriously: In 1979 the government declared the entire coastline more than 6,500 acres a marine park, from the high-water mark to 200 feet beneath the azure waves. To further this trend by educating its guests, Buddy Dive Resort opened two diving and snorkeling trails on their house reef in 2007 with underwater signs identifying species of corals. Rates from $110. buddydive.com; infobonaire.com jd