The Hottest News from the Caribbean and the Bahamas

Hotelier Chris Blackwell continues to place a stamp on his homeland. He has just turned Goldeneye-- the north- shore estate where James Bond creator Ian Fleming lived and wrote-- into an Island Outpost hotel. Guests stay in rustic but stylish seaside bungalows (doubles from $1,000 a week, all-inclusive; 800/688-7678). News at Strawberry Hill, Goldeneye's sister outside Kingston: an Aveda spa is moving in (doubles from $280; 800/688-7678).

In order to accommodate its growing fan club, Negril's laid-back Rockhouse recently added 14 thatched-roof huts. Not to worry: there are still fewer than 30 rooms (doubles from $100; 876/957-4373).

El San Juan Hotel & Casino has been creating a buzz with the opening of its new restaurant, Aquarela, headed by superstar Cuban-American chef Douglas Rodriguez, founder of Miami's Yuca and New York City's Patria (dinner for two $110; 787/253-5566).

Down the beach, Puerto Rico's first Ritz-Carlton makes the scene in December (doubles from $400); 800/241-3333). Not to be outdone, the Four Seasons is said to have snapped up beachfront land on a prime, undeveloped stretch of the north coast.

The secluded, luxurious Horned Dorset Primavera, on the west coast near Rincón, is spreading its wings. Its owners have just built a one-bedroom bungalow, Mirador Villa, with a wraparound veranda and a private pool (doubles from $280, Mirador Villa from $800 a night; 787/ 823-4030). They're also turning a historic Old San Juan building into a 15-room inn; look for a summer opening. There's even talk of a third Horned Dorset, on Puerto Rico's out island of Culebra.

On the better-known out island, Vieques, the arrival of the 15-room Hacienda Tamarindo (doubles from $115; 787/741-8525) perks up this beach-blessed but hotel-deficient island. The top place to stay on Vieques, Inn on the Blue Horizon, has expanded from three rooms to nine (doubles from $150; 787/741-3318).

Long before it was fashionable, eco-tourism got its start on St. John, when Laurance Rockefeller managed to have two-thirds of the island declared a national park in the 1950's. Today, as an alternative to hiking St. John's mountains and beaches, travelers can take them in on donkeys or horseback (809/693-5778). On sister island St. Croix, the newest way to explore the rain forest is on an escorted mountain-bike adventure (809/773-5004).

Excitement is growing on ST. THOMAS in anticipation of the Frenchman's Reef and Morning Star beach resorts, relaunched by Marriott after a $45 million makeover. Interiors are by Hirsch Bedner Associates, which redesigned the Beverly Hills Hotel (doubles from $298 at Frenchman's Reef, from $385 at Morning Star; 800/524-2000).

If you have the cash, consider being the first in your set to stay at Cerulean, a spectacular new villa designed by minimalist architect Deborah Berke, who counts New York's Calvin Klein store among her projects. Besides eight vast bedrooms with marble baths, a free-form pool, and all sorts of gardens and courtyards, the place has a sensational American chef (from $15,600 a week; 888/728-4552).

Just up the magnificent white beach from Cerulean, the legendary Cap Juluca has just been acquired by one of its original investors, South African financier Dion R. Friedland, who has announced his plans to turn this property of domed Moorish fantasy villas into "the Caribbean's number-one resort" (doubles from $1,810; 264/497-6666).

Still under the watchful direction of founder Howard Hulford, the 35-year-old Curtain Bluff resort will surprise guests this season with its first swimming pool and a newly relaxed evening dress code for men: jackets are still required, but ties are optional (doubles from $655, including all meals; 888/289-9898 or 212/289-8888).

Galley Bay, a 61-room hideaway, has reopened after renovations due to hurricane damage. The most romantic accommodations are in the 12 thatched Gauguin Cottages. It's like dying and going to Tahiti (doubles from $520, including all meals; 800/345-0356).

Forever chic, forever trendy, St. Bart's continues to lure the rich, the famous, the wanna-bes-- and the shoppers. It's the Caribbean's place to find the last word in French resort fashions. This season, check out the new Morgan (synthetic suede bikinis, lingerie-inspired minidresses) and Raffia (its own sunglasses and chiffon cover-ups).

Half-French/half-Dutch St. Martin suffered considerable hurricane damage in 1995. Among the casualties were the rickety shacks (lolos) in the French town of Grand Case, where island ladies sold barbecued ribs, fried fish, and grilled shrimp and chicken. Happily, the lolo ladies are back, now operating out of sturdy thatched booths.

In a dreamy location on Cul de Sac beach overlooking the offshore Îlet Pinel is Little Key, an attractive new 94-room resort. It has two restaurants, five pools, and a ferry that takes guests to the aforementioned islet for snorkeling and picnics (doubles from $235; 590/87-49-19).

An unlikely hotelier has set up shop near St. Lucia's capital, Castries: Partridge Family teen star turned syndicated radio personality Danny Bonaduce recently purchased Shingle Cove, a former prime minister's estate. The three-villa property, which must be rented out in its entirety, comes with a top cook. Already, the place has stirred interest among Bonaduce's Hollywood pals (from $335 a night for two people; 561/482-5618).

With its rain forests and mountains, St. Lucia is often compared to the South Pacific. This year it's getting its eco-act together, with the Nature Heritage Tourism program. All over the island, new hiking trails are being established: near Soufrière, check out the Enbas Saut Trail, which winds up at a series of waterfalls.

Also near Soufrière: after a checkered history of owners and managers, the 102-villa Jalousie Plantation has been taken over by Hilton International, which is spending $6 million to perk it up (doubles from $500; 800/445-8667). Cliff-hanging Ladera has added five one-bedroom suites. Each has a plunge pool and only three walls; the fourth is open to the views-- and sometimes the rains (doubles from $330; 758/459-7323).

Actress Claudette Colbert, who lived on the island for more than three decades, is memorialized by a lovely garden at the year-old Barbados Gallery of Art, which displays works by established and emerging Caribbean artists (and has one of Colbert's own paintings).

Villa Nova, once British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden's holiday home, is scheduled to open as a hotel next December. Dining rooms and salons will be in the 1830's great house; the 28 guest rooms will be in a new, adjacent building (246/433-1524).

Meanwhile, Barbados's famous Sandy Lane will shut down in April for a 17-month, $75 million renovation. Better book a room for the millennium . . . now (doubles from $695, including breakfast; 800/223-6800).

On this Grenadines island where Mick Jagger has a home, Cotton House, the sole resort, has completed a major three-year renovation. Now all 20 guest rooms and the Great Room, originally decorated by set designer Oliver Messel, have been renewed under the supervision of Messel disciple Aubrey Crew. The new chef, Daniel Pochron, comes from Citronelle in Washington, D.C.; he may have the stuff to put Cotton House on the culinary map (doubles from $790, including meals; 800/826-2809).

For years the Caribbean's "Spice Island" has been known for its inns and guesthouses. But that's about to change, with two hotel projects brewing. The 200-suite St. James Beach Hotel, rising on Grand Anse Beach, is expected to open by Christmas next year; Ritz-Carlton is negotiating a purchase.

One of the best places in this hemisphere to view the total solar eclipse that will take place on February 26 is the southern Caribbean. Top spot: Curaçao, where the blackout will last 3 1/2 minutes, starting at 1:06 p.m.

This unspoiled island chain just southeast of the Bahamas harbors a flourishing wildlife population, from dolphins to pink flamingos. The government aims to keep things pristine through an expanding network of nature reserves and refuges. The newest, Little Water Cay Nature Trail, is on an islet off Providenciales. An elaborate system of boardwalks and observation towers allows visitors to check out-- but not harm-- the large colony of West Indian rock iguanas.

The acclaimed Four Seasons Resort Nevis now has five new villas for rent, bringing the total to 20. There's everything from a two-bedroom cottage to a four-bedroom manse with its own pool. New for golfers: complimentary Cuban cigars are passed out from a cart that circulates on the links, and children under 18 are welcome to play if accompanied by their parents (doubles from $600, villas from $1,500 a night; 800/332-3442).

The hottest gossip is that Hong Kong-based Amanresorts-- known for some of the world's most deliciously luxurious retreats-- has bought an island in the Exumas with the idea of building the Western Hemisphere's first Aman. For the moment, nobody's talking.

Club Med has plenty to say about the $15 million it has spent transforming its Paradise Island hotel. In addition to handsome new guest rooms, this reborn resort now offers the House in the Woods, a two-story villa used as a location for the Catherine Deneuve film Le Sauvage (doubles from $284, villa from $320 a night, including all meals; 800/258-2633).

The new Pan Am Air Bridge guarantees a splashy arrival aboard restored World War II-era seaplanes (taped big-band music plays during the flight). Flights leave from Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale to Paradise Island, Bimini, and Walker's Cay ($142-$226 per person; 800/371-8628 or 800/925-5377).

The word from Andros is that two newly opened villas-- the five-bedroom Kamalame Cove and the nine-bedroom Kamalame Cay-- are bringing added luxury to the largest and least-known of the major Bahamian islands (from $8,400 a week, including meals; 888/728-4552 or 516/725-9308).

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