Paradise Found

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 May, 2012, 12:00am

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On the island of Providencia, it is impossible not to dig your toes into the beach and sigh. This tiny South American corner of the Caribbean Sea is not overrun with five-star resorts or trendy beachfront cocktail bars. What it has in sand buckets full, is pure undiluted pleasure.

A province of Colombia, more then 8,900km north of the mainland, the islanders here speak English, not Spanish, and proudly hold on to a culture that takes little influence from its Latin American allegiance.

Despite expert divers raving about its high visibility waters, the island welcomes only a handful of visitors each year. Those that come are mostly content to explore near-deserted beaches and eat fresh Creole fish straight from the sea.

But for those visitors who like their paradise dipped in adrenalin, there is plenty on offer. The barrier reef here is the third-largest in the world, after Australia and Belize, and since being declared a Unesco Seaflower Biosphere Reserve in 2000, it also one of the best preserved.

At Blue Hole - a dive site a few minutes offshore - we descended into a vast wall of delicately intricate coral. Blue parrotfish circled waving green sea fans, purple lobster claws poked from clusters of yellow fire tubes, a grey shark swims cautiously below. We could have happily grown fins and stayed forever.

But the underwater show is not just for the scuba-certified; with water this calm and clear all you need to do is jump in - especially in McBean Lagoon, the island's marine national park and undisputed snorkelling capital of the region. In its centre is Crab Caye - a miniature palm-dotted islet that would make even Robinson Crusoe salivate with desert-island fantasies. But within minutes of diving in, we were sharing water with shy sea turtles and industrious manta rays.

But though the water is hard to leave, the interior of the island is crossed with rainforest trails that are equally compelling. On our last day, we hiked to the 300-metre high point of the island with farmer and guide Mike Hawkins Bryan. We passed tall angular cotton trees and wild orchards dripping with tamarind, orange and mango buds. On the summit, we foraged off-trail for fallen coconuts, Bryan slicing the ends off with his machete so we could drink the juice and gnaw on the hard rich fruit inside.

On our way down, he showed us a shortcut through the forest to reach Machineel Beach - a perfect jungle-kissed arc of wild tranquillity. Children played on tyre swings strung from coconut trees, reggae music filtered out from a bamboo beach bar and we relaxed on a sandy hammock in the shade. Luxury comes in many forms, and here on Providencia, it comes utterly unmanufactured.

TREASURE POINTS

Forget Johnny Depp - the real pirates of the Caribbean are from Providencia. In the late 17th century, the Spanish conquest of South America transformed these peaceful shores from a simple Puritan colony to a haven for enterprising privateers hell-bent on getting their hands on New World treasure. Strategically placed on the trade route back to Europe, the island's high volcanic peaks provided perfect vantage points to spot Spanish Galleons laden with Inca gold, while her calm bays offered easy hiding places.

There were rich rewards for captains with enough pluck to take them, and none was more successful then the infamous Welsh buccaneer Henry Morgan, who - having been given the Elizabethan nod of consent - used the island as a base from which to terrorise the Spanish fleet and coastal provinces. It was from here that he sacked Spain's key port of Panama in 1671, and legends still abound of hordes of that gold buried deep in the islands interior.

Morgan's home on the island was Santa Catalina - a tiny pedestrianised landmass, now connected to the mainland by a 100-metre floating bridge. An easy path leads around the island from Milta Point in the east, where traitor pirates were once hung, to Morgan's Head in the west, a rocky outcrop with an alleged likeness to the captain himself. The trail passes Fort Warwick, a 300-year-old English battlement built to defend her pirate colony.

BLUE HEAVEN

Set back in a quiet hillside, with panoramic views across the marine national park and lush tropical forest on all sides, Providencia's boutique hotel, Deep Blue, opens this month and is sure to make your jaw drop - especially the rooftop infinity pool, where dawn swimmers are rewarded with an awe-inspiring sunrise dip. For those looking for something special, it's the only luxury offering on the island and well worth a look.

Each of the 14 guestrooms (pictured right) feature soft minimalist decor detailed with touches of local art, and all open to balconies with sea views worthy of the hotel's name. Meandering stone paths lead to an over-water restaurant, where a tapas menu of seasonal delicacies blend the islands Creole heritage with Colombia's South American sparkle. There's also an extended decking area, perfect for dipping your toes in the turquoise water as the sun goes down.

Although there's no beach at Deep Blue, the hotel runs shuttle services to two of the best on the island, both about 10 minutes away. For a true castaway experience, grab a kayak and head to the small but perfectly formed island of Crab Caye a few hundred metres offshore.

hoteldeepblue.com