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Ask T+L: Caribbean Q&A

We know you're crazy about the Caribbean — every month our mailbox is filled with letters seeking advice. So this month we've turned over Ask T&L to our in-house expert, senior editor Laura Begley, who spends her free (and work) time canvassing the islands. We told her it was time she shared her findings — and answered your most frequently asked questions about the Caribbean.

q. What's new this year?
a. Two years ago, when the Donna Karan-clad staff swung open the doors of London's minimalist Metropolitan, I was right there. You can bet I'm booking tickets to the Turks and Caicos, where Metropolitan's founder, Christina Ong, has opened Parrot Cay (800/628-8929; doubles from $400) on a 1,000-acre private island. Designer Keith Hobbs has created a whitewashed colonial hideaway with an Asian-style holistic spa and 56 rooms overlooking the water. In other news, Antigua's exclusive Jumby Bay Island (800/421-9016 or 268/462-6000; doubles from $650) is back on the scene, now as a Rockresort. In the fall, Sandy Lane (246/432-1311), on Barbados, will reopen after a $130 million expansion. Expect a fresh look, a sprawling poolside spa, and, with two new courses, some of the best golf in the Caribbean.

q. Tell me about an inexpensive hotel by the water: I want to fall asleep to the sound of the waves.
a. This must be our number-one request, and truth be told, such hotels are tough to uncover. Maya Tulum (415/472-1266; doubles from $65, with private bath), on Mexico's Caribbean coast, has 32 thatch huts cooled by sea breezes. St. Bart's is notoriously expensive, so the wood-and-stone cottages at Village St.-Jean (590/276-139; doubles from $150), on a hill overlooking Baie de St.-Jean, are a refreshing find. There's also the cute 21-room Osteria del Mar (787/727-3302; doubles from $87), right on the sand in San Juan, Puerto Rico. St. Croix, filled with low-cost inns, publishes a photo-filled guide to its budget accommodations; 888/466-8784.

q. Is it possible to charter a yacht in the Caribbean without blowing all our savings?
a. Absolutely. One of the best agencies is Hinckley Crewed Yacht Charters (800/504-2305 or 207/244-0122). Sample price for a seven-day jaunt through the Grenadines on a 41-foot sailboat with captain and cook: $3,500 for two, including all meals. Another good name is Nicholson Yacht Charters (800/662-6066 or 617/661-0555), a family-run company based in Massachusetts that sends yachts around the British and U.S. Virgin Islands, the Grenadines, Antigua, and St. Martin.

q. Where can we go diving or snorkeling without bumping flippers?
a. I had a fantastic time off Trunk Bay in St. John, but — come to think of it — my flippers did flop against a few others. On Bonaire, at Captain Don's Habitat (599-7/8290; doubles from $200), a 72-room divers' hotel, scuba guides will take you to untrammeled fish-filled coves and sheer drop-offs. Nearby Aruba is surrounded by well-preserved airplane and boat wrecks, such as the Antilla, a German freighter that sank during World War II. Still unclaimed by tourism, Saba's crystal-clear waters are worth a dip.

q. We did St. Bart's last year. What other islands have great food?
a. On Puerto Rico a number of chefs are modernizing Latin American cuisine. Not more fusion! you might be thinking, but these geniuses haven't lost their island integrity. In San Juan, halibut with banana chutney, garlic cream, and black olives tops the menu at Ramiro's (1106 Magdelena Ave.; 787/721-9056). The restaurant at Rincón's Horned Dorset Primavera (Rte. 429; 800/633-1857 or 787/823-4030) has never been better, led by chef Aaron Wratten, from New York's Daniel. Can't forget my favorite: Old San Juan's Parrot Club (363 Calle Fortaleza; 787/725-7370), with its zesty curried crab cakes. Anguilla also rivals St. Bart's. Check out the new bayside Eclipse restaurant at Cap Juluca (Maundays Bay; 264/497-6666), and Malliouhana Restaurant (264/497-6111), with a vast wine cellar and chef Michel Rostang at the helm.

q. A big anniversary is coming up and I want to take my wife somewhere special. What's the Caribbean's most romantic resort?
a. My parents, who just celebrated an important anniversary, had the same question. Unfortunately, Mustique's Cotton House (784/456-4777; doubles from $790), a dreamy resort on an 18th-century plantation, was booked. So I told them there are tons of romantic places in the British Virgin Islands, from Guana (a Greek-style private island where Bill Cosby recently vacationed) to Little Dix (what celebrity hasn't been there?). Mom and Dad picked Biras Creek (800/223-1108; doubles from $570, including all meals) and they couldn't have been happier. At the 33-room Relais & Châteaux resort, on a rugged Virgin Gorda outcrop, they stayed in a beachfront cottage, dined by candlelight, and spent their days puttering around to deserted talcum beaches in a Boston Whaler.

q. My girlfriends and I are thinking about going to a spa together. Suggestions?
a. The first Aveda spa in the Caribbean has been launched at Chris Blackwell's Strawberry Hill (800/688-7678; from $1,655, double, for three nights, including breakfast and spa services), high up in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica. On the beach in Negril, Strawberry Hill's sister resort, the Caves (800/688-7678; from $2,330, double, for three nights, including all meals and spa services), has a more limited roster of Aveda treatments. You can also sign up for the new Inward Bound program at Jamaica's Round Hill (800/972-2159 or 876/956-7050; $2,415 for seven nights, double, including activities and two meals). The weeklong session of yoga, tai chi, and fitness classes will be held in January, June, and December. Later this year, California's legendary Golden Door will open an outpost at Puerto Rico's Las Casitas (888/472-6229 or 787/863-1000; doubles from $985), a tony resort adjacent to El Conquistador.

q. I like the sun but get bored lying on the beach. Which islands have the best hiking?
a. You can't beat lush St. John — more than half of the island is national park land. Sign up for a guided hike at Cruz Bay's visitors' center (340/776-6201), and then tag along with a ranger on a trek down to Reef Bay. Two great day hikes on St. Lucia, covered with dozens of trails: the journey to Des Cartiers, nesting ground of the rare Jacquot parrot; and the trek up Mount Gimie, the island's highest peak. And then there's wild, mountainous Dominica, a tiny dot between Guadeloupe and Martinique. The rain-forest hikes and bird-watching are incomparable.

q. Where should we stay for a family reunion?
a. Your best bet is to rent a villa; you'll get maid service and plenty of room — at a per-person cost that's far less than staying in a hotel. Overseas Connections (888/728-4552) leases impressive spreads, such as Anguilla's seven-room, $22,000-a-week Cerulean, designed by minimalist architect Deborah Berke. Other top rental agencies include Resorts Management (800/225-4255), wimco (800/932-3222), and LaCure (800/387-2726).

q. What's the deal with Cuba?
a. The island, which has been embargoed for 36 years, received a flurry of attention in June when the U.S. government started allowing direct charter flights from Miami. But sorry, folks: despite all the sexy spreads you've seen in fashion magazines, Cuba is still off-limits (unless you have family there or are an academic or a journalist). Sure, there are sneaky ways to get into the country, but if American officials catch you there you can be thrown in jail. Not worth the risk.

E-mail your questions, or mail them to: Ask T&L, 1120 Avenue of the Americas, 10th floor, New York, NY 10036. We regret that questions can be answered only in the column.

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