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The Perfect Island Paradise

December 5, 2006
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For many of those who move to the Caribbean, paradise isn’t solely determined by palm trees & cool breezes. These people enjoy an island just as much for what it may not have: All-inclusive resorts and cruise-ship piers are among the topmost pariahs. They want old-school Caribbean: ambles along empty beaches, sipping a cold one at sunset and friendships that last forever with people who also crave the simpler things in life. Here are three places that fit the bill.

Montserrat Once upon a time, this quiet corner of the British West Indies was the hippest hangout in the Caribbean, the place where the likes of Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder and Sting recorded hit tunes. There are still quite a few music people mixed in among the many foreigners who make their home on Montserrat. But the loudest noise these days is the Soufriere Hills Volcano, which belches smoke, ash and the occasional boulder on the island’s south side.

    • What’s on the market? There isn’t a lot of beachfront property for the simple reason that there isn’t a lot of beachfront; Montserrat is a rugged island of cliffs and rocky shores. Most people live in the lush hills, relishing views of distant Nevis. Although houses can be had for as little as $120,000, the average two- to three-bedroom home with pool and about half an acre of landscaped gardens runs $200,000 to $350,000. Get the lowdown on current listings at www.tradewindsmontserrat.com.
  • Why move here? Nature lovers relish the superb bird watching, hiking along secluded jungle paths and exploring the dangerous but fascinating volcanic zones. There is a strong sense of belonging among natives and expats that translates into ardent community service and a fairly exuberant social scene.
  • Technicalities: Non-nationals must obtain a land-holding license to own property on Montserrat, the equivalent of 10 percent of the house’s or land’s value. Buyers own the property outright and receive a Certificate of Title guaranteed by the British colonial government. “It’s all on the up and up,” says Susan Mac-Leod Edgecombe of Tradewinds. “Nothing goofy.” Although Tradewinds sells homes only in the safe zone, they do get inquiries from speculators about areas damaged during the 1995 eruption. But the safe zone, or northern part of the island, is protected from the volcano by large mountains and by distance.
  • Your Sunday afternoon: “People were concerned that we would be bored living here,” says Dwain Lovett, who bought a home in 2004 with his wife Ruthann. “If they only knew!” Like many expats, the Lovetts, who are from Dallas, are into community service and active in the Friends of the Montserrat Cultural Centre (with former Beatles manager Sir George Martin). “Sundays are usually our days for taking a trip into the Daytime Entry Zone,” says Dwain, referring to the restricted area around the base of the volcano, where they search for mangoes and guavas. Then it’s back home for a dip in their pool and watching the sunset from their veranda, rum and Diet Coke in hand.

Bocas del Toro (Panama) More than a hundred islands, reefs and mangrove cayes comprise this remarkable archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast, an old-fashioned nirvana where “live and let live” remains the local creed. Isla Colón is the main island and the place where most expats choose to settle down.

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    • What’s on the market? Isla Colón’s coastal homes fetch anywhere from $175,000 for an older abode on a small plot to around $350,000 for a brand-new home on one acre of titled land. Waterfront lots on the main- land can be had for as little as $50,000 but cost more on Isla Colón. Both home and property prices are rising about 40 percent per annum. For current listings, check out www.bvrealty-panama.com.
  • Why move here? Isla Colón has everything you loved about “Survivor Pearl Islands”: drop-dead gorgeous beaches and translucent tropical waters — only on the Caribbean side and without the hassles. It’s uncrowded enough to find an empty beach but has enough people to stoke a budding café and bar scene. There is sufficient rain to keep things green year-round, and surrounding seas are ideal for scuba, snorkel, kayak, surfing and fishing. It’s difficult to find a place this perfect that’s still utterly unspoiled.
  • Technicalities: If all documents are in order, titled property can be transferred within 30 days of purchase. If you try to build your own home or add to an existing property, the required multiple permits may take weeks or even months to get approved. Expats living in Bocas recommend hiring an experienced Panamanian lawyer to vet the paperwork for buying and/or building.
  • Your Sunday afternoon: Texan Allene Blaker and her husband bought land in Bocas in 1998 and later built their own house. They spend much of their free time in the water. “We’re both surfers, which is the main reason we moved here,” she explains. Like any bona fide surfer, Allene refuses to divulge her favorite surf spots. On a typical Sunday, the Blakers pack a picnic lunch (with a bottle of wine) and kayak to a deserted beach for an afternoon of snorkeling and spear fishing.

Carriacou (Grenada) Thirteen square miles of heaven at the southern end of the Grenadines, the island of Carriacou has long been a popular stop on the Caribbean yacht circuit but only recently became a magnet for expats seeking homes in the sun. Although part of Grenada, the locals think of themselves as a separate entity, proud of their cultural roots and determined to maintain the island’s unique essence.

    • What’s on the market? According to Carolyn Alexander of Down Island Ltd. Realty, beachfront property can cost approximately $5 to $10 per square foot. Recently a three-bedroom waterfront house sold for $450,000. Many people choose to build their own homes on land away from the seafront. Down Island’s listings are posted at www.islandvillas.com.
  • Why move here? Carriacou is one of those increasingly rare “working islands” where local life revolves around time-honored pursuits like boat building rather than tourism. The local culture is extraordinarily diverse for such a small place, an intriguing blend of English, Scottish, French and African influences. Offbeat traditions also endure — greasy-pole contests, wandering troubadours and the Big Drum dance with its infectious rhythms.
  • Technicalities: Foreigners are required to obtain an alien landholders license, which costs 10 percent of the final purchase price. Applications must be accompanied by bank and character references, plus a letter from the police in your current abode stating that you are not a criminal threat. Foreigners may not purchase more than one acre of land in Carriacou.
  • Your Sunday afternoon: “There is a strong likelihood that you will find me reading a book on Sunday after- noon,” says snowbird Alex, who preferred not to use his full name. He spends his winters on Carriacou and the rest of the year in Maine. Alex and his wife also while away the days lazing on the beach or kayaking the numerous out islands. “We decided on Carriacou because it’s small, out-of-the-way and unknown,” says Alex.
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