Looking to bring home a memory of your Caribbean escape? A little reminder of bright skies and warmth to get you through the cold, grey winter, perhaps. Don’t settle for some generic made-in-Taiwan shot glass or a two-for-$20 tank top with the name of your cruise port screen-printed on it. The savviest souvenir hunters search for items that are locally made and are as much of a pleasure to keep as they are to give away to sun-starved co-workers. Not a natural-born shopaholic? No problem. As someone who travels the Caribbean for a living, I’ve got the best tips for finding great stuff and good deals.
Know the rules
Hands Off Whether you’re at a market stall or in a store, if you’re not sure you want it, don’t touch it! Mauling the merch only raises the vendor’s hopes (and may open you up to unwanted pressure to purchase). Want it? The same rule applies, because every seller worth their salt knows that if you pick something up, you’re much more likely to buy it. If you simply must have that straw basket, play it cool. Feign indifference, be prepared to walk away and you’ll likely get the best price.
Go Local Trust me, no one wants another beer cozy or fridge magnet. Think beyond the norm and consider non-traditional items that are unique to the destination. I’ve brought home hand-painted fabric from Grenada, cassava cakes from St. Lucia and leather cowboy boots from Cancun. Supermarkets and gas stations are a great place to find local snacks you can give as gifts and books by local authors make great presents for young and old.
Wheel and Deal Negotiating skills aren’t only necessary in the market; they come in handy in duty-free stores as well. In my experience, the price on the tag of that Tanzanite pendant is merely a starting point. So feel free to (respectfully) ask if the merchant can do better. And for high-priced designer items (that Cartier watch or Tiffany ring), make sure you know the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP), because “duty-free” doesn’t always mean “bargain.” Sometimes you can do just as well by shopping at home online or during a sale.
Regret Nothing Want it? Need it? Buy It! You’re much more likely to regret a passed-up purchase than something you bought that didn’t quite work. So what if you bring back a dud? One shopper’s mistake is another shopper’s must-have; that’s why there’s eBay.
Four must-buy Caribbean souvenirs
Step away from the floaty pens, cheap sunglasses and poorly made straw hats. You can do much better than that tired tourist tat. Here are some of my favourite items from popular Caribbean destinations.
Barbados Head inland to Earthworks Pottery in St. Thomas, where local artisans make everything from cruets to casserole dishes, and there are 50 signature hand-painted place setting patterns to choose from. Pick one that catches your eye and then add more pieces to your collection every time you return.
Grenada Of course you should bring back something made with nutmeg, the aromatic spice that made the Spice Island famous. But don’t limit yourself to the seed-and-grater combo sold in souvenir stores. Hit the supermarket for nutmeg syrup (now there’s a maple syrup alternative!) and the pharmacy for Nut-Med, a spray and lotion made with 15-per-cent nutmeg oil that soothes sore muscles.
Jamaica For a caffeine kick minus the mid-afternoon crash, fire up Starfish Oils’ hand-poured and heavenly Blue Mountain coffee candle – made with the pricey beans from the island’s world-famous highlands – and feel, as they say, all right.
St Lucia Shipwright-turned-artist Zaka makes his signature wooden masks and totems from old telephone poles and other recycled wood. You’ll find them all over the island, but visit Zaka Art Café in Soufriere for custom orders and the widest variety of his Crayola-bright collection.
… And the one souvenir you should never bring back
Promise me, oh Caribbean-bound travellers, that you would never even think of buying one of those knitted hats with the faux dreadlocks attached. Sure, they’re sold all over the Caribbean, but they aren’t made there. They flatter exactly no one. And, in my opinion, they instantly flag you as a culture-appropriating, taste-deficient tourist. As with unattended baggage at the airport, they should be confiscated and immediately destroyed.
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