One of the cornerstones of the Caribbean is the fact that nearly every resort is set along a stunning strip of sand. What sets the truly great hotels apart from everyone else is what you find away from the beach — fortes or phenomena that advance the guest experience to a whole different level.
Nowhere is that more true than at the hotels that made the list of Caribbean resorts. All boast great service, awesome edibles and designer-savvy décor, of course; but there's also some niche theme or specialty that no other resort in the region can match.
For instance, Half Moon on Jamaica’s north shore is the best place in the Caribbean for golf. Not so much because the resort has its own championship course and golf academy, as the fact there are so many other world-class courses nearby — White Witch, Ironshore and the legendary Tryall among them. You can easily go a whole week at Half Moon without repeating the same 18 holes.
Tennis is the ace at Curtain Bluff, along the rugged southern shore of Antigua. Four championship quality courts (all are lit for evening play), fully stocked pro shop, in-house racquet stringer and three full-time teaching pros count among the tennis amenities. The resort also hosts the annual Antigua Tennis Week with its pro exhibitions, stroke and strategy clinics, amateur competitions and post-match parties awash in fine wine from what many consider the Caribbean’s best cellar (25,000 bottles strong).
Horned Dorset Primavera goes to the opposite extreme. Renowned for its lack of activities, it offers sublime silence and extreme privacy. And while not as unplugged as it once was (some of the rooms now have phones), the posh Puerto Rican boutique property also spurns gadgets. Bring a book and a friend. Or your surfboard, because Horned Dorset (named after a breed of sheep raised by the owners before they got into the hotel business) overlooks the best waves in the Caribbean. The nearby town of Rincon flaunts numerous surf shops, schools and guides who will take you out to spots like Tres Palmas for its 25-foot monsters.
It may seem silly to fly all the way down to the islands and not stay anywhere near a beach, but that’s always been Ladera’s trump card. Perched on a jungle ridge 1000 feet above sea level and surrounded by the remains of ancient volcanoes, the St Lucian resort blows you away with its rainforest setting, fresh mountain air and vertigo-inducing views of the famous Piton Peaks and the distant Caribbean. All of this made even more intense by the fact that none of the rooms have western walls — they open right onto nature and sheer drop-offs.
Another duck out of water, Ocean Club in the Bahamas is renowned for its bygone French architecture, both real and reproduced — a genuine 12th-century Augustinian cloister that was shipped all the way across the Atlantic and reassembled, and a lush formal garden modeled after those at Versailles. Asian style, on the other hand, is what sets Necker apart from the other posh private island resorts in the region — extravagant Balinese bungalows filled with handmade furniture, fabrics and artwork imported from the far-off Indonesian island, as well as a Balinese spa and Hindu meditation hut. This comes courtesy of Richard Branson, who created Necker as his own family retreat before deciding to share it with the rest of the world.
Sir Richard may prefer the privacy of his own island, but other Brits of that same feather flock together at Sandy Lane, along the west coast of Barbados. One of the Caribbean’s oldest and most esteemed resorts is also one of the most English, with a Palladian-style main building, a bar renowned for its Scottish single malts, and a head chef who previously cooked for the likes of Princess Di, Maggie Thatcher and Rod Stewart. Right down the road is the Barbados Polo Club, as well as the holiday homes of former prime minister Tony Blair and many other Anglo luminaries.
Although our best of the Caribbean list also harbors three upscale resorts in the French Antilles, only one of them is genuinely Gallic. Eden Rock on St. Barths is run by an expat Scottish family; La Samanna on St Martin is part of the London-based (and American-owned) Orient Express group. That leaves Le Guanahani as the bona fide Francophile — a small red-roofed resort that looks like it washed up after drifting across the Atlantic from the French Riviera. The cottages are classic French West Indies and Le Bartolomeo restaurant an oasis of Franco-Caribbean cuisine. And if there’s a bit of attitude when it comes to the staff, that’s just part of the vibe.