Note: Hotel rates in this story are for high season (generally December through April), but they may be higher over holidays.
Direct vs. nonstop: Be careful when booking. Direct flights aren't the same thing as nonstop flights, and they may stop en route to your destination. (A single flight number can cover several flights.) One long layover in Atlanta and you won't make that mistake again.
A white-sand haven for the celeb set — everyone from Garbo to Oprah has stayed here — the former British colony is also a popular destination for boaters.
Must-do: Nelson's Dockyard National Park, the restored, 18th-century naval yard, was named for Admiral Horatio Nelson, who lived in the Leeward Islands for a few years (268/460-1379, nationalparksantigua.com, $5).
Where to stay: The Siboney Beach Club is a homey, 12-suite inn right on Dickenson Bay, one of the island's finest beaches (800/533-0234, siboneybeachclub.com, from $190).
Like sister islands Bonaire and Curaçao, Aruba — 18 miles north of Venezuela — lies just outside the hurricane belt. And even though Hurricane Felix brought heavy rain in September, the island usually enjoys sunny skies year-round.
Must-do: Arikok National Park covers nearly one fifth of the island. It's home to divi-divi trees, cactus gardens, yellow-breasted bananaquits, and kododo blauw lizards. Highlights include Guadirikiri Caves and more than 20 miles of hiking trails (011-297/585-1234, free).
Where to stay: Amsterdam Manor Beach Resort is on Eagle Beach, a popular stretch of white sand (011-297/527-1100, amsterdammanor.com, from $159).
Just a 30-minute flight from the mainland U.S., the Bahamas has everything from mellow beaches with sparkling water to large resorts with glitzy nightlife and casinos. You can fly to several of the islands from Florida, but the main entrance points for the rest of the U.S. are Grand Bahama and Nassau/Paradise Island.
Must-do: Paradise Island's Atlantis is a mega complex that pairs the fun of Orlando with the subtlety of Vegas — in other words, there's a faux Mayan temple and cutting-edge waterslides (242/363-3000, atlantis.com, water park admission from $110 for nonguests, $75 for kids under 12; limited availability).
Where to stay: The 30-room Orange Hill Beach Inn is on a good Nassau snorkeling beach (888/399-3698, orangehill.com, from $123). Guests at Comfort Suites Paradise Island can access neighboring Atlantis — including the water rides, pools, and private beaches — without having to pay $425 a night (877/424-6423, choicehotels.com, from $220, includes breakfast). On Paradise Island's eastern tip, the harborfront Paradise Harbour Club & Marina has a pool, a Jacuzzi, and free beach shuttles (242/363-2992, phc-bahamas.com, from $150).
Although Barbados has been an independent nation for over 40 years, it still has British traits: Cars drive on the left, cricket is the national sport, and there's a fondness for afternoon tea.
Must-do: On Friday and Saturday nights, the village of Oistins hosts a big street-food festival, where partygoers enjoy seafood of all kinds, including mahimahi and lobster. Plates cost about $5, and the party starts around 7 p.m.
Where to stay: A 15-minute drive from the airport and within walking distance of St. Lawrence Gap, Dover Beach Hotel has 59 rooms steps from Turtle Beach (246/428-8076, doverbeach.com, from $92). All of the rooms at the beachfront Sea Breeze Beach Hotel have a balcony or patio; guests can soak in the two pools or the three Jacuzzis (246/428-2825, sea-breeze.com, from $124, includes breakfast).
Did you know? George Washington worked as a surveyor on Barbados for two months in 1751. The house where he lived is now a museum.
The action on arid and sparsely populated Bonaire is underwater: The pristine reefs teem with tropical marine life. Divers love it.
Must-do: A scuba trip to one of the island's 86 dive sites, most of which are on the western shore. Hotels can make arrangements. A three-hour "resort course" costs about $50; four-day PADI certification runs around $300.
Where to stay: The 22-room Bellafonte Chateau de la Mer, on the western shore, has a private pier near a snorkeling reef (011-599/717-3333, bellafontebonaire.com, from $125).
The largest and most populated of the three Cayman Islands, Grand Cayman has long drawn divers eager to get a glimpse of the Cayman Trench — an underwater canyon that plunges to nearly 25,000 feet deep.
Must-do: Snorkel while being surrounded by rays at Stingray City — a string of sandbars in the North Sound. Captain Marvin's Watersports runs three-hour trips that depart from Governor's Harbor (345/945-6975, captainmarvins.com, $40, includes gear).
Where to stay: The Turtle Nest Inn has 10 two-bedroom condos and seven one-bedroom apartments that sleep four (with full kitchens). You can see the ocean from the beds in units 3, 4, 6, 7, and 8. The inn also has one room available for a single (345/ 947-8665, turtlenestinn.com, from $99).
The confluence of the Caribbean and the Netherlands is most visible in the vibrant architecture, which marries a tropical palette with Dutch building styles.
Must-do: The Punda neighborhood in Willemstad, the capital of the Netherlands Antilles (Curaçao's island group), is renowned for its colonial Dutch character and plentiful shopping opportunities.
Where to stay: A colorful collection of airy studios and bungalows, Chogogo Resort overlooks Jan Thiel Beach, which is a few minutes away on foot. Note: A three-night minimum stay is required (011-599/9-747-2844, chogogo.com, from $110).
When Christopher Columbus caught a glimpse of Hispaniola — the island that's now home to the Dominican Republic and Haiti — during his first expedition to the New World, he declared: "This island is the most beautiful that I have yet seen." The D.R.'s capital is Santo Domingo, on the southern coast; the other entry points from the mainland U.S. are La Romana (in the southeast), Punta Cana (on the east coast), Puerto Plata (in the north), and Santiago (inland, toward the north).
Must-do: A horseback ride on a beach. Your hotel can arrange it.
Where to stay: Adults-only and all-inclusive, BlueBay Villas Doradas in Puerto Plata is great for romance (809/320-3000, bluebayresorts.com, from $240). Near La Romana, the all-inclusive Viva Wyndham Dominicus Beach has 530 rooms, three pools, four restaurants, and four bars (809/686-5658, wyndham.com, from $260). Bávaro Princess is an 800-room all-inclusive near Punta Cana, with everything a family could want: a pair of swimming pools, six restaurants, and a five-minute walk over to the beach (809/221-2311, princess-hotels.com, from $198).
Did you know? The D.R.'s capital, Santo Domingo, was founded in 1496 — making it the oldest continuous European settlement in the New World.
The largest island in a nation that also comprises Carriacou and Petite Martinique, Grenada has a law stating that buildings cannot be taller than a coconut palm tree.
Must-do: Hike the Mount Qua Qua Trail through the rain forest in Grand Etang Forest Reserve; then, top off the trek with a swim in one of the cascade pools at Concord Falls (473/440-6160, $20 for a guided hike for two).
Where to stay: At the beachside Coral Cove Cottages, terra-cotta-roofed cottages sit on five peaceful acres of hillside gardens (473/444-4422, coralcovecottages.com, from $140). La Sagesse is a former plantation home on a secluded beach (473/444-6458, lasagesse.com, from $170).
Guadeloupe is an archipelago with a land area of more than 580 square miles, the majority of which is made up of Grand-Terre and Basse-Terre, adjoining islands shaped like a giant butterfly.
Must-do: On Basse-Terre's northern tip, Jardin Botanique de Deshaies has more than 900 plant species (011-590/590-284-302, jardin-botanique.com, $19).
Where to stay: The 10 rooms at Amaudo HÃ´tel, on the south coast of Grand-Terre, have terraces overlooking the sea (011-590/590-888-700, im-caraibes.com/cocolo, from $179).
Did you know? In 1976, Guadeloupe was evacuated when La Soufrière, on Basse-Terre, threatened to erupt. Werner Herzog made a film about it.
Everything seems a bit more vibrant here, and the lilting patois of the locals makes everything sound sunnier. The main entry points for U.S. travelers are Kingston and Montego Bay.
Must-do: Kingston's Bob Marley Museum is where the legend lived until he died in 1981 (876/927-9152, bobmarley-foundation.com, $10). In Montego Bay, taste authentic Jamaican jerk chicken at the Pork Pit (27 Gloucester Ave., 876/940-3008, $3).
Where to stay: For the all-inclusive experience, it's hard to beat the five pools, waterslides, a beach, and water sports and activities at Starfish Trelawny Resort & Spa in Montego Bay (877/467-8737, starfishresorts.com, web-only rate from $89). In the heart of Mo' Bay, but isolated from the action, El Greco Resort is an all-suite complex on a hill above Doctor's Cave Beach, which is accessible by elevator (888/354-7326, elgrecojamaica.com, from $125). If you are flying into Kingston, consider Morgan's Harbour Hotel and Marina. Lime Cay beach is a 10-minute boat ride away (876/967-8040, morgansharbour.com, from $117, includes breakfast). Or see another side of the island at Forres Park Guest House, on a coffee farm near the Blue Mountains (876/927-8275, forrespark.com, from $80).
It's easy to believe Martinique is officially a department of France, what with French being spoken everywhere and food that's better than average for the region.
Must-do: Le Jardin de Balata is home to 3,000 varieties of flora (011-596/596-64-48-73, jardindebalata.fr, $9).
Where to stay: The Frégate Bleue Hotel has high-ceilinged rooms furnished with antiques (011-596/596-54-54-66, fregatebleue.com, from $212, includes breakfast). The view of Diamond Rock island is the prime reason to stay at the apartment-style Hotel Diamant Beach (011-596/596-76-16-16, diamant-beach.com, from $105).
A U.S. territory since 1917, Puerto Rico has more to offer than bustling San Juan. There are also nonstops from the mainland to Aguadilla, on the west coast, and Ponce, on the south coast.
Must-do: Hike to 35-foot-tall La Mina Falls, where there's a natural pool, in El Yunque National Forest (Rte. 191, 787/888-1880, http://www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean/, free).
Where to stay: About 15 minutes by car from Old San Juan, the art deco Normandie Hotel was renovated in 2004 (787/729-2929, normandiepr.com, from $145). In Ponce's historic zone, Hotel Melia has 73 rooms, some with balconies over the plaza (787/842-0260, hotelmeliapr.com, from $105). La Rosa Inglesa is a hilltop B&B in Rincón, about a 30-minute drive from Aguadilla; there's a pool and three suites (787/823-4032, larosainglesa.com, from $100).
Sugar production once made St. Kitts one of the Caribbean's richest nations, but it's now known more for tourism.
Must-do: Built by slaves, Brimstone Hill Fortress is both a moving look at St. Kitts's history and a vantage point from which you can see Nevis (869/465-2609, brimstonehillfortress.org, $8).
Where to stay: At laid-back Bird Rock Beach Hotel, there's an outfitter for diving and fishing (800/621-1270, birdrockbeach.com, from $90). The Ocean Terrace Inn has three swimming pools, and it's only a quarter-mile walk to the city of BasseÂterre (800/524-0512, oceanterraceinn.com, from $109).
The island boasts long stretches of beach with white, golden, and volcanic sand. The verdant interior, meanwhile, is home to some of the region's best hiking.
Must-do: The hard-to-miss Pitons — St. Lucia's twin volcanic peaks — overlook Soufrière harbor. The larger Gros Piton is the only one you can climb. Self-guided treks are prohibited, but Gros Piton Tours leads four-hour hikes (758/489-0136, $25).
Where to stay: A family-run guesthouse, La Haut Plantation has 13 hillside rooms. Like its infinity pool, most have a view of the Pitons (758/459-7008, lahaut.com, from $100). Ti Kaye Village Resort is 75 minutes from the airport, but you'll be rewarded with one of 33 ocean-view rooms and cottages, each with a veranda and a hammock (758/456-8101, tikaye.com, from $175, includes breakfast).
Did you know? Two Nobel laureates hail from St. Lucia: Derek Walcott (Literature, 1992) and Sir Arthur Lewis (Economics, 1979).
ST. MARTIN/ST. MAARTEN
About half the size of Washington, D.C., the island is the smallest landmass in the world to be shared by two countries: the Netherlands (St. Maarten) and France (St. Martin).
Must-do: At Loterie Farm, a 150-acre nature reserve on the French side, take a hike among mahogany and mango trees — or sail between the trees on zip lines in the Fly Zone (011-590/590-87-86-16, loteriefarm.net, admission $5, Fly Zone $40).
Where to stay: Right on the French side of the border, the family-run Les Balcons d'Oyster Pond rents bungalows with marina views (011-590/590-29-43-39, lesbalcons.com, from $120). Another winner, on the Dutch side, is the Pasanggrahan Royal Guest House, a former governor's estate. The name derives from an Indonesian word for "place of rest," and the four-poster beds and open-air dining options certainly make it feel that way (011-599/599-542-3588, pasanhotel.com, from $158).
TRINIDAD & TOBAGO
Trinidad, the larger member of the two-island nation, is home to the modern capital, Port-of-Spain. Sleepier Tobago has quiet beaches and towns. Just north of Venezuela, the islands are among the most ethnically diverse in the Caribbean.
Must-do: Scope out parrots and hummingbirds in the rain forest at Trinidad's Asa Wright Nature Centre (868/667-4655, asawright.org, $10). In Tobago, go snorkeling at Angel Reef, off the fishing village of Speyside (868/660-4888, tobagodiveexperience.com, $25).
Where to stay: Rooms at Coblentz Inn Boutique Hotel have themes reflecting Trinidad's heritage (868/621-0541, coblentzinn.com, from $180, includes breakfast and minibar). Pax Guest House, on a historic Benedictine estate along Trinidad's Northern Range, offers spectacular views of the rain forest (868/662-4084, paxguesthouse.com, from $45). On Tobago, Kariwak Village is a family-run holistic retreat where guests bliss out with outdoor yoga and tai chi sessions (868/639-8442, kariwak.com, from $125). Adventure Eco Villas is on a 12-acre organic fruit farm. The beach is a five-minute walk (868/639-2839, adventure-ecovillas.com, from $130).
Did you know? Trinidad and Tobago was the first country to proclaim a national holiday (Emancipation Day) celebrating the end of slavery.
TURKS & CAICOS
Despite an upswing in tourism in recent years, Turks and Caicos still feels off the beaten path. Even in high season, Providenciales (a.k.a. Provo), the most developed island, never feels crowded. Life is a beach for those who need nothing more than soft white sand and clear blue water.
Must-do: At Da Conch Shack, conchs are kept in underwater pens before being cracked, curried, or served raw in salad, right on the beach (649/946-8877, conchshack.tc, conch salad $10).
Where to stay: The sand is just steps away from every room at Sibonné Beach Hotel (866/644-1658, sibonne.com, from $125). The family-run Caribbean Paradise Inn is two minutes from Grace Bay Beach (649/946-5020, paradise.tc, from $208, includes breakfast).
U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS
No passport is required for travel to the U.S. Virgin Islands (or Puerto Rico, the other U.S. territory in the CaribÂbean). The smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John, doesn't have an airport, but St. Croix and St. Thomas welcome nonstops daily.
Must-do: About two miles off St. Croix's northern coast, Buck Island Reef National Monument is best visited by day trip from Christiansted, St. Croix's capital. Take a half-day snorkeling trip aboard a 40-foot catamaran, run by Big Beard's Adventure Tours (866/733-4482, bigbeards.com, $60, with gear and beverages).
Where to stay: Built in 1829 by a French sea captain, the 14-room Hotel 1829 is on St. Thomas's Charlotte Amalie harbor (800/524-2002, hotel1829.com, from $125). On an islet in St. Croix's ChristianÂsted harbor, Hotel on the Cay is accessible by a free two-minute water taxi that runs 24 hours. The hotel has its own sandy beach, and each of the 53 rooms boasts an ocean view (340/773-2035, hotelonthecay.com, from $130).