Why in the world should you settle for all those cheesy malls and resort gift shops, the cruise-terminal complexes and hypercommercialized downtowns clogged with cookie-cutter perfume, watch, and T-shirt shops? If you know where to look, it’s still possible to find unique local products, atmosphere, or both. There are of course various straw markets and crafts centers on various islands, of course, but here are just a few of the other favorites I’ve come across in my years covering the Caribbean. And it’s just part one — part two is on the way!
Anguilla One of the Caribbean’s top sculptors, Cheddie Richardson is a world-class whiz at shaping wood, coral, bronze, and stone into graceful, sometimes haunting pieces depicting folks and fauna. Get an eyeful out at Cheddie’s Carving Studio in The Cove, out on the island’s west end not far from Cap Jaluca and other resorts (he does commissions and sells other Anguilla artists and artisans, too).
Antigua Shopping-wise, if there’s one thing the Caribbean’s stuffed full of, it’s same-old-same-old jewelry shops. The Goldsmitty, part of the historic Redcliffe Quay complex in St. John’s, is one of the felicitous exceptions. Dutch expat Hans Smit has quite an imagination, and uses it to turn out unique gold pieces set with pearls and a slew of gems from diamonds to black opals.
The Bahamas You may’ve spotted those primary-colored Androsia batiks — cheerfully awash in sea critters, island flowers, butterflies, and more — for sale elsewhere in the Caribbean. But the mother workshop, now in its 37th year, is on Andros, the Bahamas’ largest Out Island, just outside Andros Town. Pop in for a tour and the best selection anywhere (outlets also on most other Bahamian isles). Another Out Island keeper is Great Abaco’s Conch Pearl Galleries in Marsh Harbour, which sells some great local arts and crafts but specializes, of course, in conch pearls — those pink little beauties from the queen conch that are among the world’s rarest baubles. And yes, I’m aware that technically the Bahamas aren’t part of the Caribbean.
Barbados In the island’s upper central highlands, Earthworks Pottery contains a cornucopia of colorful crockery with designs from understated to psychadelic, but all tropically inspired (you can stick it all in the microwave and dishwasher, too). The gallery also hawks a bunch of other great Bajan booty, from paintings to jams.
British Virgin Islands Yes, corals are endangered in parts of the Caribbean, but at The Coral Studio, up in the hills of Tortola, Fiona and David Dugdale use only that which washes up on shore to create elegant, delicate pieces — figurines, plates, clocks, boxes, and more — in various pastel colors and sometimes reminiscent of Wedgwood china (by appointment). For some funkier browsing, head to Tortola’s East End to bridge-connected Beef Island, where Aragorn’s Studio purveys not only Aragorn Dick-Read’s creative pottery and metal creations but also an array of edibles, traditional Carib Indian crafts, and more; demos and lessons are available, too.
Cayman Islands The Caymans famously excel in the quality and quantity of their marine life, and for evocative depictions thereof, a couple of Grand Cayman stalwarts offer different but equally compelling options. Artist/marine biologist/all-round personality Guy Harvey sells his vividly realistic paintings, prints, and sculptures at his imposing George Town gallery, and at the Sunset House Hotel south of town Cathy Church runs a dive/camera shop and gallery full of her stunning color and B/W photos and prints.
Dominican Republic All the resort areas — Punta Cana, Puerto Plata, etc. — have their little shops and malls, but for better options I recommend a visit to capital Santo Domingo, an easy day or overnight away. Examples include the colonial zone’s La Atarazana complex and L’Île au Trésor in the Plaza Conde building, where Parisian Patrick Leclerq creates exquisite jewelry using native Dominican amber and larimar, much of it pirate-themed. Outside SD, another must-see collection of shops at a touristy but high-quality ersatz “old Mediterranean” village out in La Romana, Altos de Chavón, including jewelry (some one-of-a-kind and/or custom made, especially out of larimar and amber, a Dominican specialty), artworks, crafts, clothing, housewares, furniture, cigars, coffee, linens, golf gear, and
Martinique Don’t miss Le Village de la Poterie in Trois-Ilets, the small seaside town across the bay from Fort-de-France. In these red-brick buildings, front and center amid the various island crafts is of course the pottery, planters, and figurines shaped from the local red clay using traditional Carib and Arawak techniques and designs; demos are very much a part of the experience.