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THE PERFECT ESCAPE:The Caribbean’s New Value Season

Ladera4_1 (Ladera)

On a week long swing through Anguilla, St. Martin and Nevis last May, I was stunned to discover that the best resorts were full of guests. I was surprised because May has long been considered part of the Caribbean low season, which has traditionally stretched from April 15 to December 15. But at Anguilla’s Malliouhana Hotel & Spa, St. Martin’s posh La Samanna and the tony Four Seasons Resort, Nevis, I saw plenty of 30- and 40-somethings, not a few wearing Merrill Lynch or Bear Stearns basball caps. They had families in tow and were jazzed to be on vacation. The way I figure it, if your broker chooses this time of year to go on vacation, doesn’t that tell you something?

Mall1_1 (Malliouhana)

Welcome to the Caribbean’s new season, which runs roughly from April 15 to May 31. While summer and fall have long been a time of low prices and great value, this six-week window in springtime has been largely ignored. In fact, when I mentioned it to Damian McCabe, CEO of McCabe Bremer Travel in McLean, Virginia, she seemed surprised. "We send lots of families seeking value to the Caribbean in the summer and fall," she said. "The rates are low and the resorts are quieter."

But clearly, the word has gotten out. On Anguilla alone, the poshest resorts, such as Malliouhana, Cap Juluca and CuisinArt Resort & Spa, were running close to 90% occupancy not for just a weekend or a week but for the entire month. Those numbers rival figures from January to March.

What gives? It’s called value. At Malliouhana, where the conversation is hushed and the sea breezes are perfumed with old money, my elegant ocean-view room with balcony was just over $405 a night. Not cheap, but a real deal when you consider that the same room goes for $880 a night from mid-December through late April. So while the season may be booming, the rates are still blessedly low-season. For the time being, anyway.

Mall3

WHY GO IN SPRING

Those lower rates are a key reason. Smart, well-heeled travelers are taking advantage of the chance to stay at upscale resorts for less. You might pine for a Cap Juluca vacation when it’s snowing outside your window, but when rates drop from a winter high of $825 to $400 on May 1, that getaway becomes a lot more financially palatable. No wonder May is a great time to visit.

Beyond the fact that prices drop in April and May, many people want to avoid the wintertime hordes. Anguilla’s popularity, for example, has skyrocketed over the past few years, and Hollywood, in the shape of Brad Pitt and Liam Neeson, has descended. But go in the spring and you have a better chance of getting a break on a room and securing a restaurant reservation. And for those who would rather interact with locals than celebs, this is the time to visit.

Then there’s the weather at home. Despite what various poets have told us about spring, April and May in New England and the Rocky Mountain states are called mud season. In much of the Midwest, it can be a long, cold spring indeed, and a warm vacation is appealing.

Why not wait until summer to go? Several reasons. One is that a lot of people have a pent-up need for a Caribbean vacation after a long winter and don’t want to put it off any longer. Also, some high-end properties don’t reduce prices any further in summer. Then there’s the weather in the islands. Summer is, of course, hotter, and June 1 marks the official start of hurricane season. And while lesser priced resorts drop their rates as well, it’s the most expensive resorts that offer the biggest drop and consequent bang for your buck.

LATE-SPRING DEALS

How much can you save by booking in May? Take a look at the basic rates and package prices at two top resorts.Mall2

Perched on a coral headland overlooking Mead’s Bay Beach, Malliouhana Hotel & Spa (800/835-0796; malliouhana.com) has a vaguely exotic appearance, with its white stucco arches, a reflecting pool and a terraced lobby that leads to a clifftop restaurant and a drop-dead view.

BASIC RATES: You can get an ocean-view double between May 1 and August 31 starting at $405. Go in April and the price is $555. In the high season, which runs from December 17 through March 31, you’ll pay $880.

PACKAGES: When you book five nights in an ocean-view double room between May 1 and August 31 with the Friends & Family package, you’ll get a second ocean-view double room free for five nights. The extra room can be for two children or two friends. The total cost is $2,430.

Just the two of you? The Romantic Interlude package, from May 1 to August 31, includes four nights in an ocean-view double room, transfers, daily continental breakfast, a three-course dinner each evening, a one-hour tennis lesson and a sunset cruise. The price is $2,355. Considering that entrees can hit $48 at the restaurant and you’re staying in a room that runs $880 a night in winter, this constitutes something approaching value.

Ladera3

The St. Lucia resort of Ladera (800/738-4752; ladera.com) is situated some 1,000 feet above the Caribbean, adjacent to the twin peaks of the Piton Mountains. It is justly famous for its dramatic rooms, because each one was built without a fourth wall, allowing Caribbean breezes to enter. Since the resort is set on a sheer jungle-clad cliff face, privacy and safety are not issues.

BASIC RATES: A one-bedroom suite with plunge pool is $310 in summer, $385 in spring and autumn and $495 in winter.

PACKAGES: Book the same room with the All Inclusive Package and you get accommodations for five nights and three meals per day as well as afternoon tea, two spa treatments and transfers. The package price from April 17 through June 10 is $3,340 per couple, or $668 per night. A deal? You bet, considering that you’re getting 15 meals and two complimentary spa treatments, not to mention all those afternoon teas and transfers.

A SECOND LOOK AT THE TRADITIONAL LOW SEASON

So where does that leave the summer months? Increasingly popular with families, it seems, since anyone with school-age kids can’t begin an island sojourn until late June.

The good news for them is that some of the resorts drop their prices even lower between June and the end of September. The biggest drawbacks in summer, of course, are the aforementioned hot weather and the hurricane threat. In addition, some resorts, such as Malliouhana, close for maintenance in September and October. At other properties, the star chef might return to Paris or Milan for a few weeks’ vacation in midsummer, though the food likely remains very good at the high-end places. Some of the smaller puddle-jumper airlines, like BWIA and Winair, occasionally trim their schedules in the slower season.

But whether you go in summer or spring, you’ll still find less-crowded beaches, more locals than celebs and money-saving rates and packages. Sounds like a fine vacation to me.

This article originally apperared in Diversion.

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