Travelers often think of the Caribbean as one big, sunny playground filled with islands fringed by sandy white beaches shaded by swaying palms. And while that’s true to some extent, there’s far more variety in the 700-plus islands of the Caribbean than meets the Ray-Ban-covered eye.
Many Caribbean islands are lush and tropical, but others are windswept desert islands dotted with cacti, not palms. Nearly all islands share African influences, but the cultures differ depending upon who colonized the islands—the English, Spanish, French, Dutch or even the Danes. Some islands have expansive modern resort districts, while others work hard to preserve the laid-back atmosphere that first attracted tourists to the Caribbean a century ago.
No Caribbean island truly offers something for everyone (despite what the local tourist board might tell you). But regardless of what kind of traveler you are, there is a Caribbean island that’s right for you.
A cave and a fish-filled cenote are among the attractions at the massive Aquaventure water park at Atlantis Paradise Island, Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Atlantis Paradise Island
BEST ISLANDS FOR FAMILIES
If your kids are content with chilling on the beach or playing in the pool, you can pretty much take them to any island in the Caribbean. But some islands and resorts offer a lot more kid-friendly activities than others.
The Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in Nassau, Bahamas, has long been famed for its 141-acre Aquaventure water park and marine habitat with animal encounters and educational programs. Also in Nassau is Baha Bay water park at the rival Baha Mar resort complex, a $200 million aquatic playground with more than 30 attractions that debuted in 2021.
Jamaica is another island that has multiple resorts with water parks, plus attractions that appeal to kids with a sense of adventure, including zip lines, river rafting and a Jamaican bobsled-themed mountain coaster. At the Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, kids can get slimed, meet Nick characters and stay in a pineapple-shaped villa like SpongeBob’s home in Bikini Bottom.
BEST ISLANDS FOR SOLO TRAVELERS
Safety is a primary concern for many solo travelers, and while most Caribbean islands are generally safe to visit, a few stand out. The fascinating volcanic island of Montserrat hasn’t had a murder in more than a decade, for example, and St. Barths, the Cayman Islands, and Turks and Caicos also have some of the lowest crime rates in the Caribbean.
It’s not all about safety for solo travelers, of course. The opportunity to meet new people also ranks high among the priorities of those flying solo. That makes Barbados, with its combination of low crime and a vibrant nightlife especially attractive.
A day trip to Klein Curaçao, an uninhabited island off Curaçao’s coast, includes a visit to the iconic pink lighthouse. Photo of Curaçao Tourist Marketing Inc.
BEST ISLANDS FOR LGBTQ TRAVELER
Like the Netherlands itself, the former Dutch islands of the Caribbean—Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao and St. Maarten—are noted for their warm welcome of LGBTQ visitors. Curaçao, in particular, has made attracting diverse travelers a priority by banning discrimination, legalizing gay marriage and hosting one of the Caribbean’s longest-running Pride parades, held annually since 2012.
Gay rights also are protected in the French islands of the Caribbean (including St. Barths, Martinique,St. Martin and Guadeloupe), and Puerto Rico has a lively local LGBTQ scene that includes gay-friendly hotels and nightlife in San Juan.
On the other hand, some Caribbean nations still criminalize gay sex, including Barbados, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Dominica, crossing them off the travel itineraries of many LGBTQ travelers.
Jamaica is an affordable Caribbean destination with a broad range of activities. Photo courtesy of Jamaica Tourist Board
BEST ISLANDS FOR BUDGET TRAVELERS
It used to be that all-inclusive resorts were the easy answer for budget travel in the Caribbean, but some all-inclusives have switched to a five-star model offering butler service, fine dining and prices to match. That said, it’s still possible to find resorts that offer accommodations, food, drink and activities at a moderate price, particularly in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Cancún in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Punta Cana, for example, has surprisingly affordable rates, and in general, it’s hard to beat the Dominican Republic for its combination of reasonably priced hotels and flights. Negril in Jamaica has both all-inclusive and non-inclusive resorts that won’t burn through your vacation dollars, including Xtabi on the Cliffs, Rooms on the Beach Negril and Merrils Beach Resort (the last two are directly on the island’s famous Seven Mile Beach). In Nassau, Bahamas, Breezes Bahamas Resort & Spa is an affordably priced all-inclusive sitting in the shadow of the flashier Baha Mar complex.
Horseback rides on the beach await solo travelers (and others) in Barbados. Photo courtesy of Barbados Tourism Marketing Inc.
BEST ISLANDS FOR LUXURY TRAVELERS
The tiny French Caribbean island of St. Barths is practically synonymous with luxury travel in the Caribbean, a frequent haunt of movie idols, rock stars and other one-percenters. Several other Caribbean islands also have built a reputation as discreet and pampering island getaways, such as Mustique in the Grenadines, but you don’t have to roll with the A-listers to enjoy a luxury Caribbean vacation.
The British Virgin Islands is a favorite boating destination that can be island-hopped by charter yacht and also boasts some of the best private island resorts in the Caribbean, including Guana Island and Richard Branson’s Necker Island.
Providenciales in Turks and Caicos is another luxe destination with private islands of its own (COMO Parrot Cay, Ambergris Cay) as well as the remote Amanyara, the sole resort in an 18,000-acre nature reserve on Provo’s northeast coast. On St. Lucia, upscale resorts such as Jade Mountain, Ladera and the Viceroy Sugar Beach combine high-end service and amenities with unforgettable views of the island’s twin Piton mountains, rising dramatically from the sea.
There are so many islands to explore in the Caribbean. Try a destination that sounds appealing, and on your next trip, try a different one. Cruising is a great way to island-hop and mix and match different experiences—family fun at one port of call, for example, and luxurious amenities for the adults at another.