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Seeking sun and savings

By Patricia Borns
Globe Staff / January 24, 2010

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Does your favorite winter sport require surf wax not ski wax? For heat on the cheap, we scoured the warm zone for destinations with great packages, or lodging options under $130 a night, and recent round-trip airfares from Boston under $450. Then we applied our rating system: high scores for barefoot simplicity, debits for resort crowds. And the winners are . . .

Culebra
“I live in paradise,’’ says David Feliciano, a downsized corporate accountant from Cincinnati who landed a dream job as a chef at Mamacita’s, a popular restaurant on this island 17 miles east of Puerto Rico’s mainland. Culebra getaways revolve around Flamenco Beach, one of the world’s most stunning strands, where a campsite costs $20 a night. There are a half-dozen other beaches within biking distance of wherever you happen to be (the whole island is 7 miles by 3 miles). Boat or kayak trips take you to even more spectacularly empty beaches on Cayo Luis Peña and Culebrita, two nearby nature preserves.

Visitors would be challenged to overspend on Culebra, where the best meals are likely to be a $5 swordfish kebab from a street vendor or the serve-yourself fresh mahi with a cold Medalla (the local brew, bring your own) at Barbara Rosa’s. While shelter ranges from under $50 a night to over $3,000 a week for a palatial villa, Palmetto Guesthouse has what most sun-seekers want. A double room with charm, shared kitchen facilities, Internet access, and free airport or ferry pickup starts at $103.55 a night, including tax. Palmetto owners Terrie and Mark Hayward, formerly from Braintree, are generous with their local knowledge, which includes Terrie’s bike and running trails as she trains for April’s Boston Marathon.

Rincón
This town on Puerto Rico’s west coast drew surfers in the 1960s to its cool vibe and consistent swells. Now, a mix of surfer dudes, expats, and Puerto Rican families makes it and its north-facing neighbors welcoming places for learners and pros. Boards rent for as little as $15 a day, and surfing schools abound. The Boarding House overlooking Antonio’s Beach offers an eight-day, all-inclusive package for two including lessons with owner Carlos Martinez, a Rincón native, starting at $1,259.30 (rooms without lessons start at $75 a night). Just want to work on your tan? Rincón’s calm beaches are on the south side.

Puerto Rico’s attractions go well beyond its beaches. For under $200 a week you can rent a car and follow the Ruta Panorámica into the Cordillera Central, visit a coffee farm, and hike a cloud forest in El Yunque National Forest Reserve. City lovers: Spend your first or last day soaking up the colonial sights and all-night salsa sounds of Old San Juan, a two-hour drive from Rincón. Da House Hotel offers old world-style digs at the center of it all (doubles from $80 a night, www.dahousehotelpr.com).

Roatán
Hyped as a dive destination, this Bay Island 40 miles northeast of the Honduran mainland has virtues above the water line that make an affordable escape. For $98.60 a night, tax inclusive, a cabana at Villagio Verde offers a garden of privacy from which you can walk to West End, a bustling village of appealing restaurants and bars, or water taxi to gleaming West End Beach. From Feb. 7-21, a room for two including breakfast, a bottle of bubbly, and tax costs $527.80 a week.

Far from the crowds, a boat will whisk you to Sante Wellness Center on the reef-fringed south coast for what could be the Caribbean’s most healing, modestly priced spa retreat. (Eye masques $15, body scrubs $45, a two-hour tropical noni wrap and massage $145.) Eco-travelers: In the untrammeled east end Mango Creek Lodge bundles seven nights in an over-water cabana with all meals, drinks, and a first-rate do-list for $1,000 a person.

To really “get’’ Roatán, experience its local communities: Hoist a Salva Vida lager at B.J.’s Backyard in Oakridge and dory through the secret bights frequented by latter-day pirates. In Jonesville, catch a boat to Hole in the Wall for lunch at a hippy hangout started by sailors who grounded on Roatán for good.

Puerto Viejo
Small it may be, but Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast was a surfing insiders’ mecca that exploded when the 1994 sequel to “Endless Summer’’ revealed it to the world. The getaway focuses on a string of laid-back beach towns from Cahuita National Park to Manzanillo, each with distinct features: the gold sands and Rasta vibe of Playa Cocles; the black sands and reef break of Playa Negra; a quieter, palm-shaded Playa Chiquita, the social hub of Puerto Viejo; and the tawny miles of Gandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge.

In Puerto Viejo you’ll enjoy an overload of eating, drinking, and dancing spots in the company of surfers, American and Euro expats, Afro-Caribbeans, Bribri Indians, and other Tico (Costa Rican) types, all happily coexisting with the toucans and sloths. The thatched bungalows at Korrigan Lodge surround you in jungle-like privacy, yet the golden sunburst of Punta Uva beach is steps away. The $630 a week rate includes tax, breakfast, and bikes. In Puerto Viejo, epicenter of cool, Cabinas Guarana offers low-cost charm a short walk from the beach. The $41-a-night double room rate includes tax and a community kitchen where you can make your own plantain chips and ceviche.

Wherever you stay, your hosts can connect you with affordable ecotours and guides for trekking, rafting, birding, or visiting a Kekoldi Indian village. Put Cahuita National Park and a boat trip to see turtles in Tortuguero National Park high on your list.

Barbados
An under $450 round-trip fare to the British West Indies proves there’s a silver lining to even this economic cloud. The regular $149-a-night rate at Sea-U Guest House is slightly outside our box, but grab the winter special - seven nights in a studio for two with breakfast and car rental for $1,490 - and enjoy this tony island from a romantic East Coast perch. In the Sea-U neighborhood, splurge on a traditional Bajan brunch at the storied Atlantis (scheduled to reopen late this month, $37.50). Hike with Sea-U staffer Sea Cat to Bath beach, a reef-protected seaside park ($17.25). After playing in the surf, tip a Banks brew with the local crowd at Surf Side rum shop, or dine seaside at Round House, a 19th-century inn restored by a former Connecticut family, the Manleys.

Farther afield are more attractions than on almost any other Caribbean island to explore in the car that comes with your package. Just remember: “Left! Left!’’

St. Lucia
“Budget’’ isn’t a word we associate with St. Lucia, but a February fare break and south coast stay can take you literally and figuratively away from it all. Here, a rural ambience brings you closer to the island’s West Indian roots. In Choiseul, Balenbouche Estate is a working organic plantation run by Uta Lawaetz and her daughters Anitanja and Verena, stewards of the land for over 20 years. The family offers rustic cottages starting at $120 a night or $755 a week (tax included), giving you the run of their gardens and beachfront as well as the main house kitchen, which can also prepare your meals.

“Laborie offers a different kind of tourism, sharing a Caribbean village’s life,’’ says Yves Renard, who fell in love with the south coast fishing hamlet 30 years ago and moved from his native Guadeloupe. Independent travelers enjoy its local beaches, music, and food, from weekend fish fries to Debbie’s Place, cooking up St. Lucian home-style meals. Ten minutes by bus are the villages of Saltibus and Banse, starting points for serious hiking. Chalet Lamar, Renard’s kitchen-equipped cottage, is a five-minute walk to Titou Bay and rents for $60 a night.

Vieux Fort is St. Lucia’s wind- and kite-surfing capital, and The Reef Kite & Surf on Anse de Sables beach plays ambassador to both sports. It’s a fun place with near-hostel rates for basic waterside cabins. Beach huts are $60 a night for two with breakfast and taxes. On offer: a $725-a-person special with two weeks’ lodging and nine hours of kitesurfing courses, including breakfast on the beach.

Patricia Borns can be reached at patriciaborns@comcast.net.

If You Go

Culebra

www.islaculebra.com

culebrablog.com

Palmetto Guesthouse

787-742-0257

palmettoculebra.com

Rincón

www.rincon.org

www.rinconpr.com

The Boarding House

Road 413 Km. 4, Puntas

787-823-4191

www.boardinghousepr.com

From $125 a night with breakfast.

Roatan

www.roatanonline.com

www.roatanisland.net

Villagio Verde

West End

011-504-445-4046

www.holidayroatan.com

Puerto Viejo

www.puertoviejosatellite.com

www.greencoast.com

puertoviejo.net

Korrigan Lodge

Punta Uva

011-506-27-59-91-03

www.korriganlodge.com

Cabinas Guarana

011-506-2750-0244

www.hotelguarana.com

Barbados

www.barbados.org

www.totallybarbados.com

Sea-U Guest House

Tent Bay, Bathsheba, St. Joseph

246-433-9450

www.seaubarbados.com

Saint Lucia

www.stlucia.org

www.ilovelaborie.com

Balenbouche Estate

758-455-1244

758-285-6628 (cell)

www.balenbouche.com

Chalet La Mar

758-455-9725

www.slucia.com/lamar