The Real Deal
Imagine a lush and lovely tropical island (or two) with unspoiled beaches and vibrant coral reefs, a friendly, low-key paradise that's largely undiscovered by the globe-trotting hordes. A dreamy little place where there are no cruise ships, no malls, no celebs fleeing the paparazzi. For anyone who has a yen to live the laid-back caribeña lifestyle, this may be the spot for you.
The Corn Islands -- Big and Little -- are one of the best-kept secrets of the Caribbean. Just 81km (50 miles) off the coast of Nicaragua in the western Caribbean, the Corns are not luxe, by any means. Restaurants are open-air and topped by thatched roofs. You will not be swathed in perfumed sheets or wrapped in cool minimalistic furnishings, but you can stay at charming and colorful little posadas, many run by European expats with style and panache. Looking to get somewhere fast? Golf carts are the preferred mode of rapid transit. And if it's a sizzling nightlife you're after, head to Aruba or St. Maarten -- although the restaurant/disco Nico's, located on Big Corn island's south end, is a rocking good time on Sunday nights.
For lovers of tropical heat, the weather is obliging, with average temps of 29°C (84°F) year-round and winds from the east -- people staying on the windward side of the islands get a nice little breeze at night to rock them to sleep. And both islands are ringed by stunning azure seas and coral reefs teeming with marine life. You'll see huge staghorn coral formations, anemones, sea fans, sea stars, and all manner of fish, from sea devils to spotted drum. Dive Nautilus (tel. 505/575-5077; www.divebigcorn.com), on Big Corn, offers dive, snorkeling, fishing, and glass-bottom-boat trips on both Big and Little Corn islands. Dive Little Corn (www.divelittlecorn.com), that island's only dive shop, offers dive and snorkeling trips as well as dive courses taught by PADI-certified instructors and kayak rentals.
One favorite dive spot is the rock/coral formation known as "Blowing Rock." It rises 30m (98 ft.) from the sea floor, its craggy top visible above the ocean surface, with a colorful array of fish both small and large -- including shark and barracuda. Fishing, in fact, is still the main industry here, and you will dine like a king on fresh fish and Caribbean lobster pulled from the sea -- accompanied by home-baked coco (coconut) bread, of course.
Little Corn is even more primitive than Big Corn; it has no paved roads and no cars, which suits a growing number of travelers just fine. In fact, some prefer Little Corn's über-laid-back quality of life to the "fast" lanes of Big Corn. Just about a square mile in size (versus 6-sq.-km-long/21/2-mile-long Big Corn), the island is little more than gorgeous white-sand beaches and tropical forest. To get from one place to the other, you bike or walk (or travel on horseback). When you're not biking or walking, you're paddling about in the clear emerald sea.
Getting There: Big Corn: Managua or Bluefields (La Costena airline; 3 hr.). Little Corn (water taxi from Big Corn: 30 min.).
Where to Stay: Casa Canada, Big Corn Island (tel. 505/644-0925; www.casa-canada.com). Casa Iguana, Little Corn Island (www.casaiguana.net).