Long before Club Med and Sandals resorts began cropping up all over its isles, the Caribbean has been a desirable getaway from bone-chilling winters and fast-paced city life. Problem is, when it comes to the southern sea white-sand beaches, pristine blue water and an unlimited supply of piña coladas generally all mean one thing: an overdose of cruise ships ready to spill their passengers onto every port city in which they dock.
But, contrary to popular belief, relatively uncharted territory in the Caribbean is not a paradox. Untapped islands like Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud offer the lax tropical environment for which the region is known, sans eyesores like piercing parlors and tacky T-shirt shacks that litter its more popular neighbors. Other lesser-known chains near South America have yet to be touched by the tourism torpedo.
“Many spots in the Lesser Antilles, like the Windward Islands (home to Dominica and Grenada), are not as popular as destinations like the Bahamas, Caymans and Virgin Islands. These may take longer to get to from the mainland U.S., but then you're rewarded with a more intimate experience,” says William Travis, editor of Frommer’s Caribbean guide.
Picking a destination not served by major airlines from the U.S. mainland also allows for fewer people, less expensive lodging and untainted scenery. Getting to secluded Les Saintes, for example, is no simple feat, though it is perfectly manageable: Three flights–from New York City to San Juan, San Juan to Guadeloupe, Guadeloupe to Les Saintes–will place you in the lap of luxury.
“If you want to stay away from cruise ships, make sure when you're planning your trip to avoid staying in or visiting a port of call,” Travis advises. “And even though your plane may land in or near a port of call, plan to stay as far away as possible.
“There are still quite few destinations that don't have a lot of development, like Saba. To get to these destinations will take some time and money, as you would need to first travel from a major destination (in the Caribbean) to get to one of these islands. But if you want something more remote, it's worth the trip.”
Planning around the Caribbean’s high season — December through April — when the fares are lower and the crowds fewer is another way to bypass the tourist boom, adds Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon. The senior editor at Caribbean Travel & Life also recommends getting out and exploring on your own as opposed to succumbing to organized tours.
“Consider renting a car and hitting up the smaller towns and villages that are less tourist-oriented,” Greaves-Gabbadon states. “It’s these authentic, spontaneous experiences that really make your vacation.”
Once you finally land, you’ll find diving and snorkeling sites abound in nearly every part of the sea’s mesmerizing waters. Virgin Gorda, Tobago and others are starting to attract those in search of underwater thrill-seeking vacations. For the ultimate adrenaline junkie, shark meccas like Andros in the Bahamas provide the sought after rush of splashing around with bloodthirsty marine monsters.
But lush beaches, sparkling sea and a thriving aquatic community weren’t all it took to make our list. Several of Guadeloupe’s entities such as Désirade and Les Saintes, with their wide varieties of animal and plant species, appeal to those looking for eco-tourism during their time away. Similarly, islands like Grenada are beginning to catch the eyes of nature lovers of all walks of life for their lush, leafy, green foliage, and likewise, tourist operators are starting to take note.
“At the moment, Grenada is popular with Europeans but less so with Americans because of a lack of direct flights,” Greaves-Gabbadon says. “Things look set to change as international developers and resort companies move in. As they do so, you can expect more convenient and more frequent airlift from the United States. If you want to sample the traditional charm of these islands, the time to go is now.”
To find our most revered under-the-radar getaways, we scoured every corner of the sea — from the north tip of the Bahamas to the furthest reaches of Trinidad and Tobago — in an effort to offer you the cream of the Caribbean crop. So put on some Jimmy Buffet, serve up that margarita (hold the salt!), and peruse our complete list of favorites as you escape into a virtual world of rum, reggae and pure island bliss.