Enjoy the outer limits
The US territories offer a different perspective, says Chris Leadbeater
Chris Leadbeater is a full-time travel journalist who has written for The Independent since 2009. He specialises in the USA, South America and Europe, but has covered destinations as varied as Mozambique, New Zealand, Indonesia and Lebanon. Prior to becoming a travel journalist, he worked as a music writer and for men's magazines.
Friday 30 November 2012
Last month, the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico held a referendum that saw residents vote in favour of becoming a full US state. The move will still need to be approved by the US Congress – but it raises the exciting prospect of the American flag gaining a 51st star. It does something else too. It acts as a reminder that the idea of America is not limited to the contiguous landmass. Puerto Rico is currently classed as a "US territory" – one of several such offshore enclaves that are affiliated to the USA without being official states.
But where are these places? And more to the point, why should you go? Read on…
Puerto Rico is the perhaps the best-known of the US territories - partly because it is the closest to the mother ship. It comes tinged with a sun-kissed romanticism - Hunter S Thompson's fictional tale The Rum Diary has his louche journalistic narrator searching for his identity (and his next drink) in San Juan. The capital is the most magnetic part of a destination that mainly deals in beach breaks - Old San Juan (pictured), the colonial centre of the city, is alive with cobblestones and colour. But visitors should also head to Vieques, an isle that plays host to Bioluminescent Bay, a cove where micro-organisms in the water emit an ethereal blue-green glow. Travesias Islenas Yaureibo (001 787 447 4104; viequesoutdoors.com) offers kayak tours from $35 (£22).
How to do it: British Airways (0843 493 0787; ba.com) flies weekly from Gatwick. Inn On The Blue Horizon - near Esperanza, on Vieques - (001 787 741 3318; innonthebluehorizon.com) has doubles from $130 (£80), room only.
US Virgin Islands
Basking in the Caribbean Sea, 50 miles east of Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands are sun-and-sand escape hatches. Three main islands dispense easy charm and lazy days. Saint Croix is the largest, but Saint Thomas has the international airport. The capital, Charlotte Amalie, has enticing eateries in the Frenchtown district.
The star of the show, though, is Saint John, which has an unhurried vibe, lovely beaches and elegant resorts. It also has the Virgin Islands National Park ( nps.gov/viis); 5,650 acres of thick forest and submerged coral gardens.
How to do it: American Airlines (0844 499 7300; americanairlines.co.uk) flies to Saint Thomas from Heathrow via New York (JFK) and Miami. Caneel Bay (001 340 776 6111; rosewoodhotels.com) on Saint John has double rooms with breakfast from $660 (£410).
Huddled in the Pacific some 1,250 miles east of the Philippines, Guam is scarcely on the beaten path. But the biggest island in Micronesia is an intriguing option for the intrepid. Most of the population is clustered in the central region, yet there is beauty and isolation in the south, where the indigenous Chamorro culture is best preserved. You can find black sand beaches on the east coast at Talofofo and modern hotels on the west shore in the holiday hotspot of Tumon Bay. There is history too. War In The Pacific National Park ( nps.gov/wapa) commemorates the struggle with Japan in the Second World War.
How to do it: Dry season runs from December to June. A seven-night stay at the Hyatt Regency on Tumon Bay (room only), flying from Heathrow via Seoul on Korean Air on 20 January, costs from £1,593 a head with Travelocity (0871 472 5116; travelocity.co.uk).
Northern Mariana Islands
Perched on Guam's doorstep, the Northern Mariana Islands throw out 15 slivers of land - of which Saipan is the largest. Most visitors come in search of the soft beaches on the south and west coasts (such as Micro Beach), and the relaxation-friendly resorts in the tourist pocket of Garapan. But those with a taste for life under the waves can find fascinating scuba amid the sorrowful Second World War wrecks in Tanapag Lagoon. Local specialist Aquasmith (001 670 233 5055; aquasmith.com) offers a package of two beach dives for $90 (£56).
How to do it: A seven-night stay (room only) at the four-star Mariana Resort & Spa in the San Roque area of Saipan - flying from Heathrow via Seoul with Asiana Airlines on 20 January - costs from £1,110 per person, with Expedia (020-3027 8682; expedia.co.uk).
Hidden 800 miles north-east of Fiji, American Samoa - an archipelago of just 76 square miles - is the southernmost US territory. Its remote aesthetic is underlined by the main outcrop of Tutuila, where the National Park of American Samoa ( nps.gov/npsa) serves up lush rainforest laced with hiking trails. However, calm and comfort murmur at Sadie's By The Sea (001 684 633 5900; sadieshotels.com), where double rooms start at $120 (£74), with breakfast, and a deep-tissue massage at the house spa comes to $60 (£37).
How to do it: The airport for American Samoa is Pago Pago, the first stop on the trip home for many of the Apollo astronauts after their Pacific splashdowns. Fly to Honolulu (accessible on American, Delta or United) and continue on Hawaiian Airlines. Alternatively, Princess Cruises has a 28-day Hawaii, Tahiti and Samoa voyage (which calls at Tutuila) departing Los Angeles on 26 March. Prices start at £2,500, not including flights (0843 373 0333; princess.com).
For more information, see DiscoverAmerica.com
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