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To Shop or Not to Shop? That's the Island Souvenir Question.

Whether Zickie and I are sunning ourselves in the Dominican Republic or scouting for the perfect waterfront spot for a seafood feast in Grenada, one thing I cannot resist? Yes, the souvenir shops. From Hydra, Greece to Key West, Florida I’ve never met a souvenir shop that I didn’t like. (That’s only a slight exaggeration.) Do you know the kind I mean? The boutiques stuffed to the rafters with colorful t-shirts, shell necklaces, decorated coconut shells, and all manner of things that maybe, just maybe, we don’t actually need.

island travel blog

(The fabulous Shell World emporium in Key Largo. Photo by Laura Albritton.)

Still, these stores with their gew-gaws and glitter lure me as surely as gold would a magpie. “Hold on a minute,” I say to Zickie, interrupting him mid-sentence, and then, he turns to find his wife has disappeared! She’s lost to the big black hole of souvenir world.

The problem with souvenirs is that you can wind up buying a lot of stuff that later seems astonishingly tacky. Back home, in the cold light of day, away from Caribbean shores, that wallet shaped like a fish? Maybe not such a brilliant bargain, after all. In fact, souvenirs can become just so much JUNK. (My problem is that I hate clutter. This is not to say my house doesn’t have clutter, but I hate it, and I wage war against it, which makes souvenir shopping a particularly double-edged experience.)

island Runaways

(Treasures? In Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. Photo by Laura Albritton.)

So, what are the best souvenirs to buy? The ones you won’t regret a year later. Although I still sometimes make mistakes (and kick myself afterwards), I hope that over the years of island runaways and other travels I’ve become a bit more astute about my purchases.

Here are some things I’ve learned the hard – and even expensive – way:

1. Buy well fitting t-shirts that you will actually wear.

Especially if you’re a woman, those big, boxy men’s t-shirts will probably not be flattering on your feminine frame. After giving away many vacation shirts to the thrift store, I’ve finally learned to slow down, inspect the fit, hold it up to me in front of a mirror, and basically treat acquiring a t-shirt with as much seriousness as selecting a pair of leather sandals. Fortunately, these days many shops offer t-shirts in a range of sizes which flatter ladies’ shapes. My most recent acquisitions? One from Shell World in Key Largo and from Fidel Productions on Carriacou. Both shirts are cute, fit me to a t (pun intended), and will be worn to death.

Caribbean travel blog

(Selfie with Key Largo t-shirt. Photo by Laura Albritton.)

2. Buy things you will (a) use and (b) be able to pack easily.

My Island Runaways co-conspirator Zickie and I collect souvenir magnets. Why not? They’re small, usually inexpensive, and when we notice them on our refrigerator back home, they remind us of happy times and sunny places. A lighthouse from Key West, a crab from Grand Bahama, a pink flamingo from Siesta Key…these little things bring a smile to my face on a grey day. Any regrets? None whatsoever! Maybe they’re a bit hokey or cheesy, but they serve a real purpose: keeping our daughter’s school reminders in a handy place.

Key West souvenirs

(Refrigerator magnets are easy to pack. Photo by Laura Albritton.)

3. Buy art or hand-made crafts.

The beautiful thing about art or a locally made craft is that you have something unique to enjoy for years, plus you are contributing in a tangible way to the island economy. (I can’t tell you how disappointed I’ve been on occasion to get home and see a “Made in China” label on my Caribbean souvenir.)

Now, this is a trickier category because sometimes the painting or wood carving you see on your island vacation turns out not to look so swell in your own home. That five foot tall giraffe you got along the road outside Ocho Rios? Perhaps it doesn’t work so well with the English country décor. So, I have learned to be heartless, or less of a sucker, in any case. Considering a piece of art, I slow down, eyeball the object in question, imagine my house in my mind, and if I still can’t decide…walk away. My mistakes are usually made when I buy in a panic.

tropical island getaway

(A hand-painted switchplate from Jamaica. Photo by Laura Albritton.)

4. Buy things you will consume.

This, to me, is the easiest kind of souvenir to indulge in. Artisanal chocolate from Guadeloupe? Yes, please! Rum from Puerto Rico, Martinique, and Jamaica yet again? What a fantastic idea. I also love buying coconut candies, hot sauces, plantain or banana chips which then become a nice treat once vacation is over. You get to eat or drink something tasty, and the best part? They don’t take up space in your house indefinitely!

Even the most experienced travelers can have weak moments, however. In the Grenada airport I spotted darling handmade boats, like the colorful fishermen’s boats we saw by the shore, made out of paper and brightly painted. They were in fact little banks for children. My justification for buying one? That I’d give it to my child. But now I must confess something: I have kept it for myself. Right now it sits above my desk, reminding me of a blissful week spent in the tropics.

Grenada souvenir

(The paper boat I kept for myself. Photo by Laura Albritton.)

After all, even an experienced, time-toughened souvenir shopper can't be prudent all the time...can she?

Do you have island souvenirs that you absolutely love? If so, let us know! If you’re on Facebook, we’d love to see a photo of your best vacation treasure. (Or the crazy one you’ve started to regret!)

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