Although it's developing rapidly as vacationers discover its 19km (12 miles) of arid but spectacular beaches, Anguilla (rhymes with "vanilla") is still quiet, sleepy, and relatively free of racial tensions. A flat coral island, it maintains a maritime tradition of proud fishermen, many of whom still make a living from the sea, catching lobsters and selling them at high prices to expensive resorts and restaurants. Although the island has a handful of moderately priced accommodations, Anguilla is a very expensive destination, with small and rather exclusive resorts. It's as posh as St. Barts, but without all the snobbery. There are no casinos (and that's the way most of the locals want it). In fact, there's not much to do here except lie in the sun, bask in luxury, and enjoy fine dining.
Antigua is famous for having a different beach for every day of the year, but it lacks the lushness of such islands as Dominica and Jamaica. Some British traditions (including a passion for cricket) linger, even though the nation became independent in 1981. The island's population of 80,000 is mostly descended from the African slaves of plantation owners. Antigua's resorts are isolated and conservative but very glamorous, its highways are horribly maintained, and its historic naval sites are interesting. Antigua is politically linked to the sparsely inhabited and largely undeveloped island of Barbuda, about 50km (31 miles) north. In spite of its small size, Barbuda has two posh, pricey resorts.
Until its beaches were "discovered" in the late 1970s, Aruba, with its desertlike terrain and lunarlike interior landscapes, was an almost-forgotten outpost of Holland, valued mostly for its oil refineries and salt factories. Today vacationers come for the dependable sunshine (it rains less here than anywhere else in the Caribbean), the spectacular beaches, and an almost total lack of racial tensions despite a culturally diverse population. The high-rise hotels of Aruba are within walking distance of each other along a strip of fabulous beach. You don't stay in old, converted, family-run sugar mills here, and you don't come for history. You come if you're interested in gambling and splashy high-rise resorts.
Originally founded on a plantation economy that made its aristocracy rich on the backs of slave laborers, this Atlantic outpost was a staunchly loyal member of the British Commonwealth for generations. Barbados is the Caribbean's easternmost island, a great coral reef floating in the mid-Atlantic and ringed with glorious beige-sand beaches. Cosmopolitan Barbados has the densest population of any island in the Caribbean, with few racial tensions despite its history of slavery. A loyal group of return visitors appreciates its stylish, medium-size hotels (many of which carry a hefty price tag). Usually, service is extremely good, a byproduct of the British mores that have flourished here for a century. Topography varies from rolling hills and savage waves on the eastern (Atlantic) coast to densely populated flatlands, rows of hotels and apartments, and sheltered beaches in the southwest. If you're looking for a Las Vegas-type atmosphere and fine beaches, go to Aruba. If you want history (there are lots of great houses and old churches to explore); a quiet, conservative atmosphere; and fine beaches, come here.
Its strongest historical and cultural links are to Holland. Although long considered a poor relation of nearby Curaçao, Bonaire has better scuba diving and better bird life than any of its larger and richer neighbors. The terrain is as dry and inhospitable as anything you'll find in the Caribbean, a sparse desert landscape offset by a wealth of marine life that thrives along miles of offshore reefs. The island isn't overly blessed with natural resources, but those coral reefs around most of the island attract divers and snorkelers from all over the world. The casino and party crowds should head for Aruba instead.
The British Virgin Islands (B.V.I.)
Still a British Crown Colony, this lushly forested chain consists of about 50 small, mountainous islands (depending on how many rocks, cays, and uninhabited islets you want to include). Superb for sailors, the B.V.I. are less populated and less developed, and have fewer social problems than the U.S. Virgin Islands. Tortola is the main island, followed by Virgin Gorda, where you'll find some of the poshest hotels in the West Indies. Anegada, a coral atoll geologically different from the other members of the B.V.I., mainly attracts the yachting set. Come here for the laid-back lifestyle, the lovely sandy beaches, the friendly people, and the small, intimate inns.
The Cayman Islands
This trio of islands is set near the southern coast of Cuba. It's a prosperous, tiny nation dependent on Britain for its economic survival and attracting millionaire expatriates from all over the world by means of some very lenient tax and banking laws. Relatively flat and unattractive, these islands are covered with scrubland and swamp, but they have more than their share of expensive private homes and condominiums. Until the millennium, Grand Cayman enjoyed one of the most closely knit societies in the Caribbean, although recent prosperity has created some socioeconomic divisions. The warm, crystal-clear waters and the colorful marine life in the offshore reefs surrounding the island attract scuba divers and snorkelers. Many hotels line the luscious sands of Seven Mile Beach.
Because much of the island's surface is an arid desert that grows only cactus, its canny Dutch settlers ruled out farming and made Curaçao (Coo-ra-sow) into one of the Dutch empire's busiest trading posts. Until the post-World War II collapse of the oil refineries, Curaçao was a thriving mercantile society with a capital (Willemstad) that somewhat resembled Amsterdam and a population with a curious mixture of bloodlines, including African, Dutch, Venezuelan, and Pakistani. The main language here is Papiamento, a mixture of African and European dialects, though Dutch, Spanish, and English are also spoken. Tourism began to develop during the 1980s, and many hotels have been built since then. The island has a few interesting historic sights, and Willemstad is one of the most charming towns in the Caribbean. If you're choosing among the Dutch ABC islands, go to Aruba for beaches and gambling, Bonaire for scuba diving, and Curaçao for little cove beaches, shopping, history, and its distinctive "Dutch in the Caribbean" culture.
An English-speaking island set midway between Guadeloupe and Martinique, Dominica (Doh-mi-nee-kah), the largest and most mountainous island of the Windward Islands, is not to be confused with the Dominican Republic . A mysterious, little-visited land of waterfalls, rushing streams, and rainforests, it has only a few beaches, most of which are lined with black volcanic sand. But if you like the offbeat and unusual, you may find this lush island the most fascinating in the Caribbean. Some 85,000 people live here, including 2,000 descendants of the Carib Indians. Roseau, one of the smallest capitals in the Caribbean, is more like an overgrown Creole village than a city. Dominica is one of the poorest islands in the Caribbean, and it has the misfortune of lying directly in the hurricane belt.
The Dominican Republic
Occupying the eastern two-thirds of Hispaniola, the island it shares with Haiti, the mountainous Dominican Republic is the second-largest country of the Caribbean. Long a victim of various military dictatorships, it now has a more favorable political climate and is one of the most affordable destinations in the Caribbean. Its crowded capital is Santo Domingo, with a population of two million. The island offers lots of Latin color, zesty merengue music, and many opportunities to dance, drink, and party. Unfortunately, the contrast between the wealth of foreign tourists and the poverty of locals is particularly conspicuous, and it's not the safest island. For fun in the sun and good beaches, head for La Romana in the southeast, Punta Cana on the easternmost shore, Puerto Plata in the northwest, or any resorts along the Amber Coast in the north.
The southernmost nation of the Windward Islands, Grenada (Gre-nay-dah) is one of the lushest islands in the Caribbean. With its gentle climate and extravagantly fertile volcanic soil, it's one of the largest producers of spices in the Western Hemisphere. There's a lot of very appealing local color on Grenada, particularly since the political troubles of the 1980s seem, at least for the moment, to have ended. There are beautiful white-sand beaches, and the populace (a mixture of English expatriates and islanders of African descent) is friendly. Once a British Crown Colony but now independent, the island nation also incorporates two smaller islands: Carriacou and Petit Martinique, neither of which has many tourist facilities. Grenada's capital, St. George's, is one of the most charming towns in the Caribbean.
Although it isn't as sophisticated or cosmopolitan as the two outlying islands over which it holds administrative authority -- St. Barthélemy and the French section of St. Martin -- there's a lot of natural beauty in this département of mainland France. With a relatively low population density (only 440,000 people live here, mostly along the coast), butterfly-shaped Guadeloupe is actually two distinctly different volcanic islands separated by a narrow saltwater strait, the Rivière Salée. It's ideal for scenic drives and Creole color, offering an unusual insight into the French colonial world. The island has a lot of good beaches, each one different, and a vast national park (a huge tropical forest with everything from wild orchids to coffee and vanilla plants). It's life à la française in the tropics, but we'd give the nod to Martinique if you can visit only one French island.
A favorite of North American honeymooners, Jamaica is a mountainous island that rises abruptly from the sea 145km (90 miles) south of Cuba and about 160km (99 miles) west of Haiti. One of the most densely populated nations in the Caribbean, with a vivid sense of its own identity, Jamaica has a history rooted in the plantation economy and some of the most turbulent and impassioned politics in the Western Hemisphere. In spite of its economic and social problems, Jamaica is one of the most successful black democracies in the world. The island is large enough to allow the more or less peaceful coexistence of all kinds of people within its beach-lined borders -- everyone from expatriate English aristocrats to dyed-in-the-wool Rastafarians. Its tourist industry has been plagued by the island's reputation for aggressive vendors and racial tension, but it is taking steps to improve the situation. Overall, and despite its long history of social unrest, increasing crime, and poverty, Jamaica is a fascinating island. It offers excellent beaches, golf, eco-tourism adventures, and fine hotels in all price brackets, making it one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean, especially since you can find package deals galore.
One of the most exotic French-speaking destinations in the Caribbean, Martinique was the site of a settlement demolished by volcanic activity (St. Pierre, now only a pale shadow of a once-thriving city). Like Guadeloupe and St. Barts, Martinique is legally and culturally French (certainly, many islanders drive with a Gallic panache -- read: very badly), although many Creole customs and traditions continue to flourish. The beaches are beautiful, the Creole cuisine is full of flavor and flair, and the island has lots of tropical charm. Even more than Guadeloupe, this is the social and cultural center of the French Antilles. If you'd like to visit a charmingly beautiful island with elegant people, the Martiniquaise will wish you bonjour.
Home to more than four million people whose primary language is Spanish (though English is widely spoken, too), the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is under the jurisdiction of the United States and has a more or less comfortable mix of Latin culture with imports from the U.S. mainland. It's the most urban island of the Caribbean, with lots of traffic and relatively high crime, though it compensates with great beaches, glittering casinos, hotels in all price brackets, sports and eco-tourism offerings, good hearty food, and sizzling salsa clubs. The island's interior is filled with rainforests and ancient volcanic mountains; the coastline is ringed with gorgeous sandy beaches. The commonwealth also includes a trio of small offshore islands: Culebra, Mona, and Vieques (the last has the most tourist facilities). San Juan, the island's capital, has some of the most extensive and best-preserved Spanish colonial neighborhoods in the New World, with historic sites and much to see and do, and a steady flow of cruise-ship passengers who keep the stores and casinos filled throughout much of the year. You can usually find great package deals through Puerto Rico's hotels and resorts.
Saba is a cone-shaped extinct volcano that rises abruptly and steeply from the watery depths of the Caribbean. With no beaches or historic sights to speak of, the local Dutch- and English-speaking populace has traditionally made a living from fishing, trade, and needlework, rather than tourism. Hotel choices are limited. Saba's thrifty, seafaring folk can offer insights into the old-fashioned lifestyle of the Netherlands Antilles. There's only one road on the island, and unless you opt to hike away from its edges, you'll have to follow the traffic along its narrow, winding route. Basically, you come here if you want to hang out at your hotel pool, climb up to a rainforest, go diving, and perhaps make a day trip to one of the nearby islands. Saba is a place to visit if you like to collect untouristy islands. You may want to come just for the afternoon -- you can do this by plane or trimaran.
St. Barthélemy (St. Barts)
Part of the French département of Guadeloupe, lying 24km (15 miles) from St. Martin, St. Barts is a small, hilly island with a population of 7,000 people who live on 34 sq. km (13 sq. miles) of verdant terrain ringed by pleasant white-sand beaches. A small number of African descendants live harmoniously on this chic Caribbean island with descendants of Norman and Breton mariners and a colony of more recent expatriates from Europe. An expensive and exclusive stomping ground of the rich and famous, with a distinctive seafaring tradition and a decidedly French flavor, St. Barts has a lovely "storybook" capital in Gustavia. For sophistication and luxury living, St. Barts is equaled in the Caribbean only by Anguilla, and the price tag isn't cheap. It's a place to visit if you want to wind down from a stressful life.
St. Eustatius (also known as Statia)
Statia is part of the Netherlands Antilles and the Leeward Islands, lying to the south of Dutch St. Maarten. During the 1700s, this Dutch-controlled island ("the Golden Rock") was one of the most important trading posts in the Caribbean. During the U.S. War of Independence, a brisk arms trade helped to bolster the local economy, but the glamour ended in 1781, when British Admiral Romney sacked the port, hauled off most of the island's wealth, and propelled St. Eustatius onto a path of obscurity -- where it remained for almost 200 years, until the advent of tourism. Today the island is among the poorest in the Caribbean, with 21 sq. km (8 sq. miles) of arid landscape, beaches with strong and sometimes dangerous undertows, a population of around 3,000 people, and a sleepy capital, Oranjestad. Out of desperation, the island is very committed to maintaining its political and fiscal links to the Netherlands. This is a destination for people who are interested in American Revolution-era history and who like hanging out around a pool at a friendly, informal local inn. Most people will want to make a day trip to see the historic sites, have lunch, and leave.
St. Kitts & Nevis
The first English settlement in the Leeward Islands, St. Kitts has a rich sense of British maritime history. With 176 sq. km (68 sq. miles) of land, St. Kitts enjoyed one of the richest sugar-cane economies of the plantation age. This island lies somewhat off the beaten tourist track and has a very appealing, intimate charm. A lush, fertile mountain island with a rainforest and waterfalls, it is crowned by the 1,138m (3,734-ft.) Mount Liamuiga, a crater that, thankfully, has remained dormant (unlike the one at Montserrat). St. Kitts is home to some 38,000 people and Brimstone Hill, the Caribbean's most impressive fortress. Come here for the beaches and the history, for lush natural scenery, and to stay at a restored plantation home that's been turned into a charming inn. Lots of sporting activities, ranging from mountain climbing to horseback riding, are also available.
Many Nevisians feel strongly about eventually breaking away from St. Kitts, from which Nevis is separated by 3km (2 miles) of water. Nevis was spotted by Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World. He called it Nieves -- Spanish for "snows" -- when he saw the cloud-crowned volcanic isle that evoked for him the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees. Known for its long beaches of both black and white sand, Nevis, more than any other island in the Caribbean, has turned its former great houses, built during the plantation era, into some of the most charming and atmospheric inns in the West Indies. It also has the Four Seasons Resort for those who want world-class elegance and service. The capital city of Charlestown looks like a real Caribbean backwater, though it is home to hundreds of worldwide businesses that are drawn to Nevis for its tax laws and bank secrecy.
St. Lucia (Loo-sha), 39km (24 miles) south of Martinique, is the second largest of the Windward Islands. Although in 1803 Britain eventually won control of the island, French influence is still evident in the Creole dialect spoken here. A volcanic island with lots of rainfall and great natural beauty, it has white- and black-sand beaches, bubbling sulfur springs, and beautiful mountain scenery. Most tourism is concentrated on the island's northwestern tip, near the capital (Castries), but the arrival of up to 200,000 visitors a year has altered the old agrarian lifestyle throughout the island. Come here for the posh resorts and the gorgeous beaches, the rainforests, and the lush tropical foliage.
St. Maarten/St. Martin
Lying 232km (144 miles) east of Puerto Rico, this scrub-covered island has been divided between the Dutch (Sint Maarten) and the French (Saint Martin) since 1648. Regardless of how you spell its name, it's the same island on both sides of the unguarded border -- though the two halves are quite different. The Dutch side contains the island's major airport, more shops, and more tourist facilities; the French side has some of the poshest hotels and superior food. Both are modern, urbanized, and cosmopolitan, and both suffer from traffic jams, a lack of parking space in the capitals, tourist-industry burnout (especially on the Dutch side), and a disturbing increase in crime. In spite of the drawbacks, there's a lot to attract you here -- great beaches, the shopping (some of the Caribbean's best), the gambling, the self-contained resorts, the nonstop flights from the U.S., the nightlife, and some of the best restaurants in the Caribbean. For a day trip from here, you can fly to St. Eustatius or Saba.
St. Vincent & the Grenadines
The natural beauty of this miniarchipelago has long been known to divers and the yachting set, who consider its north-to-south string of cays and coral islets one of the loveliest sailing regions in the world. St. Vincent (29km/18 miles long and 18km/11 miles wide) is by far the largest and most fertile island in the country. Its capital is the sleepy, somewhat dilapidated town of Kingstown (not to be confused with Kingston, Jamaica). The Grenadines, some 32 neighboring islands, stretch like a pearl necklace to the south of St. Vincent. These include the charming boat-building communities of Bequia and Mustique, where the late Princess Margaret had a home. Less densely populated islands in the chain include the tiny outposts of Mayreau, Canouan, Palm Island, and Petit St. Vincent, which was mostly covered with scrub until hotel owners planted much-needed groves of palm and hardwood trees and opened resorts.
Trinidad & Tobago
The southernmost of the West Indies, this two-island nation lies just 11km (6 3/4 miles) off the coast of Venezuela. Both islands once had sugar-plantation economies and enjoyed fantastic wealth during the 18th century. Trinidad is the most industrialized island in the Caribbean, with oil deposits and a polyglot population from India, Pakistan, Venezuela, Africa, and Europe. Known for its calypso music and Carnival celebrations, it is also one of the most culturally distinctive nations in the Caribbean, with a rich artistic tradition. In its 4,662 sq. km (1,800 sq. miles), you'll find a bustling capital (Port-of-Spain), wildlife sanctuaries, and an impressive variety of exotic flora and fauna. What you won't necessarily find are beaches: While Trinidad has some excellent ones, they are far removed from the capital and hard to locate.
For beach life, head for Tobago, which is about 30km (19 miles) northeast of Trinidad. Tiny Tobago (14km/8 3/4 miles wide and 42km/26 miles long) is calmer and less heavily forested, with a rather dull capital (Scarborough) and an impressive array of white-sand beaches. While Trinidad seems to consider tourism only one of many viable industries, Tobago is absolutely dependent on it. Life is sleepy on Tobago, unlike bustling Trinidad. Tobago has coral reefs ideal for scuba diving, rainforests, powdery sands, shoreline drives, lanes of coconut palms, and a soothing get-away-from-it-all atmosphere. We hope it stays that way.
Turks & Caicos
Although these islands are actually part of the Bahamian archipelago -- they are to the east of the southernmost islands of the Bahamas, directly north of Haiti and the Dominican Republic -- they are governed separately.
Home of Cockburn Town, the capital of Turks and Caicos (Kayk-us), Grand Turk nevertheless has a small-town atmosphere. The farthest island from Florida, it totals 23 sq. km (8 4/5 sq. miles). Grand Turk is ringed by abundant marine life, but most of the island's surface is flat, rocky, and dry. The diving is world class -- the main draw for most visitors. Grand Turk has a relatively undeveloped tourist infrastructure, although it offers a scattering of inns and hotels.
One of the larger islands of Turks and Caicos, Providenciales, or Provo, is green but arid, with miles of scrubland and stunted trees covering the island's low, undulating hills. Whatever Turks and Caicos has to offer in organized sports is here, including the nation's only golf course, boat tours, and diving excursions. The 19km (12-mile) beach and pristine coastline of Provo were a tourist development waiting to happen. In the late 1970s, hotel megaliths such as Club Med poured money into increasingly popular low-rise eco-conscious resorts. Now Provo's tourist infrastructure far surpasses that of Grand Turk. The island also has the best cuisine and the finest entertainment in Turks and Caicos, but it's still much sleepier than the big developments of Aruba.
The U.S. Virgin Islands
Formerly Danish possessions, these islands became part of the United States in 1917. Originally based on a plantation economy, St. Croix is the largest and flattest of the U.S. Virgins, and St. Thomas and St. John are more mountainous.
All three islands offer stunning beaches, great snorkeling, sailing, and lovely scenery, but they are rather expensive destinations. If you want great shopping and lots of diversions, facilities, bars, restaurants, and modern resort hotels, go to overbuilt St. Thomas, sometimes referred to as the shopping mall of the Caribbean. Cruise-ship passengers pass through constantly. St. Croix also has good facilities, though not as many as St. Thomas. It's more laid-back, a better place to escape for peace and quiet. St. John is most often visited on a day trip from St. Thomas. Much of this island is devoted to a national park, a gift from Laurance Rockefeller to the national park system. Petty crime is on the increase, however -- an unfortunate fly in the ointment of this otherwise soothing corner of paradise.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.