Think of the Caribbean and you are bound to imagine stunning beaches, tropical forests, colourful towns and laid-back locals with warm, welcoming smiles. The region is all of that, of course. Yet it is made up of more than a dozen island nations, each of which has its own culture, charm and beauty to woo visitors.
The islands are far more than places to fly to and flop out on the sands. Tuck into seafood fresh from a boat or local specialities you won’t find anywhere else.
Walk through forests resounding to the calls and sights of exotic birds. Cool off in waterfall-fed pools. Snorkel or dive in crystal seas where inquisitive dolphins and stingrays come right up to you. Dress up to join in a carnival parade.
But don’t forget to lay back and chill out, too. After all, this is the Caribbean.
The most easterly part of the Caribbean comprises islands both familiar and less well-known to British holidaymakers.
Barbados dishes up Bajan hospitality aplenty, notably in the Fish Fry Friday nights of fishing village Oistins near historic capital Bridgetown. Resorts and hotels fronting soft-sand beaches line its eastern side while its west coast is more rugged.
Dominated by the UNESCO-listed twin peaks of its Piton Mountains, St Lucia is a verdant island of forests and romantic beaches where you can also soak in volcanic mud baths and watch turtles hatch at dusk.
Tobago’s 26 miles of soft-sand beaches contrast with the birdlife-rich Main Ridge Forest Preserve where waterfalls tumble through rocky canyons. Belying its name, Sunday School is a music-filled street party where visitors are welcome to join in the fun. Sister island Trinidad has wonderful birdlife of its own in the Caroni Swamp close to lively capital Port of Spain, where visitors can sign up – and dress up – to join in one of the dancing bands of the Caribbean’s biggest carnival.
Nature is key in the rainforest-covered mountains of Dominica, with the appeal of Grenada’s three islands embracing colonial history, beaches, waterfalls, wreck diving, spices and its unique organic chocolate.
Also in the Windward Islands are St Vincent and the Grenadines, comprising over 30 islands and cays, and Martinique.
The region’s westernmost part takes in its largest island nations. Jamaica resonates to the sound of reggae and you can dance to the beat at parties on the sands of Negril and Montego Bay. Accommodation ranges from family-friendly resorts to strictly adult-only. Take a break from the beach to enjoy its rivers, mountains and waterfalls – and don’t leave without trying jerk chicken.
Enigmatic Cuba fascinates for the crumbling beauty of its captivating capital, Havana, where lumbering old American cars still ply the streets as taxis, as well as for the beaches of purpose-built resort Varadero, the colourful preserved buildings of Trinidad and the limestone crags and cigar factories of Vinales.
Relax on the wide, palm tree-edged beaches of the Dominican Republic’s many resort hotels or get active with water sports, deep-sea fishing, adventure activities, hiking in a biosphere and playing world-class golf courses overlooking crashing waves and still, blue waters. Historic capital Santo Domingo is the New World’s oldest city and pulsates to merengue, soca and other music styles.
The Cayman Islands’ appeal lies as much below the waves as above, offering spectacular diving, snorkelling with the rays of Stingray City and even submarine tours. Seven Mile Beach is world-renowned while natural attractions include Hell – jagged, black limestone formations.
Puerto Rico and Haiti, which shares Hispaniola Island with the Dominican Republic, also form part of this region.
Antigua will satisfy the most ardent of beach lovers as its 95 miles of coastline has 365 beaches – one for every day of the year. The island has an English feel, underlined by the Georgian splendour of Nelson’s Dockyard and yacht-filled English and Falmouth Harbours. Sister island Barbuda is surrounded by protective reefs and has one of the world’s largest frigate bird colonies.
Soak up the sun on the beaches of British Territory Anguilla listening to the music from its many beach bars or take a boat to explore its six offshore cays. Its abundant nature includes 135 bird species and nesting turtles.
One of the best ways to see St Kitts is aboard the narrow gauge St Kitts Scenic Railway on a three-hour circular ride around the island, seeing its beaches, rainforest, historic Brimstone Hill Fortress and sugar cane fields along the way.
On neighbouring Nevis, visit the Horatio Nelson Museum to see the largest collection of relics belonging to the naval hero. Island hopping by yacht is a popular way to see the 60 islands and cays of the British Virgin Islands, as it is for the four larger islands and 50 islets of the US Virgin Islands group to the south.
BAHAMAS & TURKS AND CAICOS
Beaches of pink and white sands, traditional wooden houses painted in pastel shades, tasty conch fritters, glitzy casino resorts, diving with sharks and deserted islands that are home to the nation’s famous swimming pigs – a holiday in the Bahamas is anything but ordinary. And for festive fun, few events match its joyful and colourful Junkanoo celebrations.
Unwind on some of the world’s best beaches in the Turks and Caicos Islands, a chain of 40 islands and cays where seclusion and serenity are the order of the day. Feast on locally-caught conch, lobster and grouper and dance to the islands’ own ripsaw music at night.
ARUBA, BONAIRE & CURACAO
Collectively known as the ABC Islands, they lie below the hurricane belt just north of Venezuela and enjoy year-round sun without the threat of violent weather.
Aruba spans 21 miles of arid scenery and its beaches are acknowledged as some of the Caribbean’s most pristine and beautiful. Stay in accommodation from intimate boutique properties to all-action, high-rise resort hotels with nightclubs and casinos.
Bonaire focuses on nature, with 20% or its land area and all of its surrounding sea protected as national parks, and an unhurried pace of life. It is also popular for sports such as diving, kite surfing and windsurfing. Five centuries of history, Afro-Caribbean traditions and a multi-ethnic culture reflected in its cuisine make Curacao a fascinating holiday destination.
Anchored in mid-Atlantic just a seven-hour flight from London, the turquoise waters, pink sands and rocky coves of Bermuda are complemented by outdoor adventures, golf, water sports, natural attractions including caves and humpback whales, shopping for elegant fashions, history from its British colonial heritage and its masked Gombey dancers and drummers.
Dark ’n’ Stormy isn’t a weather forecast, it’s a Bermuda cocktail made with dark rum and ginger beer.