Is there anywhere on the planet more synonymous with paradise than the Caribbean? A tumble of islets and cays between Florida and Venezuela, this beauteous region evokes images of powder-soft sands, absurdly clear waters, good humoured locals and a no-worries vibe. Some of the world’s best thriving reefs are here, not to mention acres of virgin rainforest to swing through and hidden waterfalls to clamber up. You can’t go wrong. But that’s not to say they’re all much of a muchness; behind the rum shacks – a staple of Caribbean life – these palm-fringed idylls each has something unique to offer. Here’s a closer look at seven of the destinations on our wish lists.
Just north of Venezuela’s Paraguaná Peninsula, sits the small Dutch Caribbean island of Aruba in all its enchantingly green glory. When you aren’t seeking out bygone times with a tour of colonial buildings in Oranjestad and the 18th-century Fort Zoutman – the island’s oldest structure – you’ll find plenty of walking pursuits as you venture deep into Arikok National Park. Covering almost 20% of the island, it’s home to protected local flora and fauna and features dense tropical scenery, peppered with cacti, peaks, caves and geological sites that reach all the way to the coastline.
Speaking of the coast, the white-sand beaches here stretch far and wide and are without doubt Aruba’s most lauded and unmissable feature. Head south or west to find these, for a chance to either indulge in a spot of water sports (snorkelling or kitesurfing, perhaps), or kick back and relax on sun-warmed sands. Those famous, postcard-perfect pictures of Aruba’s pink flamingos don’t lie: just off the southern coast, the private Renaissance Island offers an enchanting display of the island’s rich biodiversity.
The Dominican Republic is one of life’s all-rounders, acing just about everything. The second largest island in the Caribbean, it’s bountifully blessed; with rainforests, mangrove swamps, desert and cloud-shrouded mountains transporting visitors to another world. Despite its popularity, its size and diversity make total escapism possible. When you’re bobbing on aquamarine waters watching humpback whales break the surface, you’ll have long banished any concern that you might be sharing your tropical dream with one too many other nirvana-hunters.
As for the digs; if your vision of hotel perfection is more barefoot boutique than big-name resort, you’ll be delighted to know that a ripple of chic small hotels are starting to pop up in some of the most interesting and authentic locations (the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo is a must for a spot of culture). Take the whole family, your adventure-hungry friends or someone you plan to romance the Hispaniola out of – this one’s a safe bet.
Heading east past the parties of Puerto Rico and the sailing boats of the British Virgin Islands, we have compact, character-packed St. Kitts. One half of a dual-island nation, St. Kitts is no stranger to visitors thanks to the cruise ships pulling into bustling Basseterre, but it still manages to retain that small-scale, old-fashioned charm nobody wants to see go. The food has a bold West Indian kick, but if you’re not up for that, the fresh line-caught seafood is as much of a menu staple at smart hotel restaurants and simple eateries alike.
A volcanic isle (long dormant), the beaches range from coal-black to pale and silvery, with the most beautiful wriggling down the edge of the south-eastern peninsula that almost connects neighbouring Nevis. When you’re not wading in the calm sea, hit the road with the local Soca-blaring minibuses to see the historic sugar-cane plantations, dotted with crumbling colonial inns, as well as the stupendous Tracy Island-esque scenery.
From the heights of the Pitons mountains on its western coast, right down to its 20 protected marine areas growing on volcanic rock, St. Lucia’s landscape is as surreal as it is eye-pleasing. A spectacular riot of colour and drama, it still makes quite the soothing sight for any kind of traveller – whether you’re one to hike through rainforest trails, get your sea legs kicking with a panoramic boat trip, or simply flop onto soft sands for as long as you possibly can.
If it’s a more fast-paced natural escape you’re after, climb the active Soufrière Hills volcano for endless views over verdant plantations. On the flip side, if you hear the local nightlife, shopping scene and buzzing beaches calling your name, make a beeline for Rodney Bay along the north-western coast.
Near the tip of the Caribbean’s tail, nutmeg-scented Grenada exudes warmth. Stylish without being at all ritzy (there are no mega-resorts here), it’s the stray-coconut, quiet-cove fantasy where the hospitality is unfailingly friendly. The capital, St George’s, is one of the prettiest towns in the entire archipelago; a hotchpotch of staggered, colourful old buildings overlooking a peaceful, sailboat dotted inlet. Sun-faded and rustic, this is a place to let your shoulders drop as you stroll, a few rums in, from the bar to the beach with a book under your arm.
The most enticing stretch of sand on this verdant island is generally agreed to be Grand Anse, which is conveniently close to St George’s and the airport – ideal if you want to fly and practically flop out of Arrivals into the best locations. From here, you can also venture out on diving trips to nearby reefs and snorkel in warm waters. The classic Caribbean holiday.
Buckets full of sunshine, sand and glistening sea, as well as a rich British colonial history and plethora of tourist-friendly attractions, all make Barbados quite the strong Caribbean contender. Head here for a chance to golf, swim, dive or eat your heart out, and worry not – you’ve a long list of luxury pads to call home at the end of each day, offering an irresistible blend of colonial heritage, modern design and bold seafront settings.
Head for the island’s capital city, Bridgetown, to amble through streets lined with architectural marvels, sample seafood at local markets and waterfront cafés, or explore no fewer than six shipwreck dive sites in Carlisle Bay. Elsewhere, Barbados’ world-famous cave system will delight any explorer, while the Andromeda Gardens put a seriously diverse and unique spin on the concept of the botanical garden.
The smaller of the two islands that make up the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, this castaway gem isn’t as well-trodden as its neighbours. Pocket-sized Tobago is truly low key, with eccentric tastes, untamed shores and a laid-back spirit. The highlight of the Tobagonian calendar is the goat race – or the boat race, which takes place on the same day – depending on what you’re into. The pinnacle of the week’s social activity is Sunday School – a dancehall-charged street party that might be faintly alarming to anyone who misinterpreted the event. At all other times, this is sleepy-ville, where mornings are better put to use than evenings; but if you know where to look, there are some one-of-a-kind locales that’ll put some Angostura bitters in your soda (Jemma’s Seaview Kitchen is a treehouse restaurant with a quirky, upbeat atmosphere).
Culture aside, the island packs a lot into its 300 square kilometres, with dense rainforest punctuated by waterfalls, plus a vivid blue underworld that’s home to manta rays and giant turtles. Get all that physical exertion out of the way in the first few days, then get back to what it’s all about – the fine art of doing absolutely nothing.