If your mental picture of the Caribbean is a stereotypical stock image of a palm tree arching over a pristine white beach, it may be time to revisit the region. The Caribbean is dotted with dozens of island nations, each with its own unique offerings for travelers. Are you drawn to historic forts, cobblestone streets and colorful Spanish architecture? What about lushly forested hiking trails that snake past tumbling waterfalls and bromeliads dripping with rain? Or would you rather explore multi-hued coral reefs teeming with rays, turtles and tropical fish?
There's an ideal Caribbean island for just about every type of traveler, from foodies to families (and, yes, beach bums too). Read on to find out which Caribbean island is right for you!
Dominica: Haven for Hikers
The unspoiled rain forests and waterfalls of Dominica, often called "the Nature Isle," provide endless opportunities for hikers. The island's most famous trek — and one of its most challenging — is the day-long sojourn to Boiling Lake. The flooded fumarole at the end of the trail is the world's second-largest hot spring, and it's typically shrouded in steam. Shorter hikes include a trip to the towering Middleham Falls or a jaunt around scenic Freshwater Lake.
St. Barth's: Gourmet Dining
The prices are high but the quality of cuisine is even higher on luxe St. Barth's. This island offers a little slice of Europe in the center of the Caribbean, and menus here are dominated by French dishes with a Creole twist. One of our favorite culinary experiences on the island is dinner or Sunday Champagne brunch at Restaurant Le Gaiac (in the Hotel le Toiny), which incorporates fresh-caught fish and vegetables grown in its own organic garden into its menus. If your budget needs a break, treat yourself to a picnic lunch from one of the island's several gourmet delis.
British Virgin Islands: Wild About Water Sports
Sailors love the British Virgin Islands for their steady winds, balmy sunshine, and dozens of cays and coves to explore. Haven't brought your own boat? It's easy to find one here, whether you want to charter a fully crewed yacht for a week or simply enjoy a day sail on a local catamaran. In many cases you can dive, snorkel or fish right off the boat. Beyond sailing, the BVI are a great place to go kayaking, windsurfing or even swimming with dolphins. There are more than 60 British Virgin Islands in all, many uninhabited; the largest and most popular with visitors are Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada.
Saba: Off the Beaten Path
With a friendly population of just 2,000 and only 25,000 visitors a year, the tiny Dutch island of Saba is the perfect spot for travelers looking to truly get away from it all. The five-square-mile island is actually a dormant volcano, surrounded on all sides by a well-preserved marine park where divers can explore pristine coral reefs. For stunning views, climb the aptly named Mount Scenery; at 2,877 feet it's the highest point in the Netherlands. Looking for a souvenir? Delicate Saba lace is handmade by local women and sold in a number of boutiques on the island. One caveat: This is not the island to visit if you love beaches. Saba only has one, and it's called the "Wandering Beach" for a reason; it's only visible at select times of the year.
Puerto Rico: History and Culture
The cobblestone streets and brightly colored colonial buildings of Puerto Rico's Old San Juan are a must-visit for travelers seeking cultural attractions to complement a beach getaway. The city is home to two historic forts, including El Morro, which dates back to 1539. Old San Juan also boasts a lovely cathedral and a museum devoted to Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. More modern attractions include dozens of art galleries and antique shops, as well as a vibrant restaurant scene.
St. Lucia: The Ultimate in Romance
There's a reason St. Lucia is one of the most popular islands in the Caribbean for honeymoons. For sheer beauty and romance, you can't beat its famous Twin Pitons, its lush rain forests or its wide white beaches. And there are a variety of indulgent all-inclusive resorts here in every price point, from the stunning Jade Mountain (complete with infinity pools and open-air views of the Pitons) to the several couples-only Sandals Resorts scattered around the island.
St. Maarten: Number One for Nightlife
After the sun goes down, the action starts to heat up on St. Maarten. About a dozen casinos offer gambling, shows, live music and fine dining; Casino Royale (at the Sonesta Maho Beach Resort) is the largest, with 30 gaming tables and 400 slot machines. The island jumps with beach bars, dance clubs and lounges to help you while the evening away.
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Aruba: Best for Beach Bums
Pristine white sands and crystal-clear waters await travelers to the beaches of Aruba. The most popular strip of sand is two-mile Palm Beach, which offers calm seas for swimming and other water sports, as well as plenty of restaurants, beach bars and hotels — so you don't have to stray far from your towel to refill your fruity drink or grab a snack. If you're looking for a quieter, more private experience, try Arashi Beach, a favorite with locals, or Malmok Beach, a top spot for snorkeling.
Martinique: The Caribbean in Miniature
For travelers who love variety, Martinique offers a little taste of everything that makes the Caribbean special — rolling cane fields and lush banana plantations, cascading waterfalls and rain forest trails, beautiful beaches and stylish shops, fascinating history and fresh local seafood — all in one French-flavored island. Spend some time strolling and shopping in Fort-de-France, the capital city, before heading out of town to St.-Pierre, a town shadowed by a nearby volcano that killed 30,000 residents when it erupted back in 1902. (Learn all about it at the town's Musee Volcanologique.) Relax on the beaches of Pointe du Bout or go canyoning down a river to one of the island's many waterfalls.
Bahamas: Family Fun
Clean, safe and just a short plane ride from the United States, the Bahamas offer a variety of choices for travelers with kids. Many families flock to Nassau and neighboring Paradise Island, where you'll find the biggest and glitziest hotels (including the famous Atlantis mega-resort), as well as the best boutique shopping and the greatest variety of activities. Grand Bahama Island, with its main town of Freeport, is another good bet for miles of wide white beaches paired with hotels, restaurants and casinos. If your family prefers a quieter experience, head to the Out Islands — including Andros, Great Abaco Island and the Exumas — where the hotels are smaller, the beaches practically deserted, and the scenery pristine and untouched.