ROSALIE, DOMINICA ? "Are you sure this is the right way?" I asked, my leg flailing to find another crevice in the tree knots below me. Luca, my husband, responded with a grunt ? not very reassuring.
Luca and I are not exactly avid hikers or adrenaline junkies ? no skiing, surfing or bungee-jumping for us on a typical vacation. But when the urge to escape the winter grind struck, we didn't just want to relax on the beach. We also wanted some element of inspiration and adventure ? however mild. Only question: Where to go? We decided to make our first trip to the Caribbean, to two islands, Dominica and Barbados, each with its own allure.
And that's how we ended up hanging over a cliff face in Dominica.
Getting dirty in Dominica
A rugged, hard-to reach, self-proclaimed "nature island" dropped into the Lesser Antilles, Dominica is as far away from the all-inclusive Caribbean experience as you can get. Instead of bands of tranquil beaches crawling with tourists, it's covered with lush rain forest and enough trails to keep you hiking for weeks.
We were climbing down Wavine Cyrique on our first day, a vertical trail of tangled mangrove roots and improvised rope ladders. And we had, in fact, managed to lose our way. There was nothing to do but keep going.
But as we learned, Dominica always rewards a struggle. Safely reaching the bottom, we found ourselves on a scene straight out of "Pirates of the Caribbean," with a secluded black sand beach, a waterfall shooting off the cliff into the rough sea and a coconut tree swaying lazily in the breeze.
Dominica was full of small astonishments like that. After scrambling over muddy rocks and wading through rivers for an hour, we'd suddenly find ourselves faced with a powerful waterfall emptying into a basin of turquoise water ? perfect for swimming. Snorkeling, we not only enjoyed watching neon fish and sea cucumbers, but thanks to the island's volcanic activity, we were surrounded by sparkling bubbles that give the spot its name: Champagne Reef.
I couldn't have felt farther from my usual busy schedule. In the morning, we'd start the day with a refreshing jump into the river. At night, we curled up in a comfortably furnished yurt at a property called Mermaid's Secret, falling asleep to the calls of crickets and frogs.
But sometimes, as they say, you need a "vacation from the vacation." Dominica's isolated natural beauty enchanted us. But after five days of exploring, our muscles were tied up in knots and our legs were crisscrossed with scratches. Before we headed back to snow, we were still dreaming of a perfect beach day. Luckily, Barbados was next on our itinerary.
Beach on a budget
Soon, we were crammed into a white van, Luca scrunched up next to our suitcase. For one U.S. dollar, we were heading from the airport to the home of our Airbnb hosts.
We chose to visit Barbados because it was on Dominica's flight path (flights also pass through Antigua) but also because we'd heard it was relatively easy on the wallet. Its postcard-perfect beaches are free and public transportation is simple to navigate. Almost every time we stepped onto the street, a van pulled up next to us, ready to whisk us away.
At first, we were a bit dazed by the crowded beaches, overflowing with families on vacation. But thanks to the vans, with a little legwork we found perfectly secluded beaches in Barbados, too.
Juma's Restaurant, in Speightstown, was an easy favorite. Pool-calm waters, an immaculate stretch of sand and free use of lounge chairs and umbrellas make it the island's best-kept secret. On the Saturday we visited, the lounge chairs didn't even fill up. For an inexpensive lunch you can buy a sandwich for $5.
On the other side of the island, try Bottom Bay. With its dramatic cliffs and foamy waters, it was clear to see why it's popular for fashion shoots. There are no restaurants nearby, so pack a picnic, but you can buy a pina colada in a fresh coconut onsite.
Still, there's a time and place for crowds in the Caribbean. On Friday nights, tourists and locals alike descend on Oistins Fish Fry, an outdoor bazaar of restaurant shacks that fix up overflowing plates of fish, plantains and macaroni for $15. As the night went on, the music turned up, more locals joined in, and the stage became a freewheeling dance scene where everybody showed off their moves.
On our last morning, we woke with the sunrise. As we took our final dip in the warm waters before heading home to face the rest of winter, I felt satisfied that we'd accomplished our goal: the perfect introduction to the Caribbean.
"And we are definitely coming back," Luca said.
If you go