There’s much more to the Caribbean than just Aruba and Jamaica, and contrary to popular belief, if you’ve seen one island, you haven’t seen them all.
These off-the-beaten-path destinations transcend Caribbean clichés, with no all-inclusive resorts, cruise ship hordes, or casinos to intrude upon your island oasis.
A pier in Anegada. (Photo: iStock)
Because it’s separated from its nearest neighbor by 15 miles, the second-largest British Virgin Island is also the least trammeled. If your bum’s in search of a beach, this coral outpost is the place for you. Famously flat (the highest point is only 28 feet above sea level), Anegada lays claim to 17 miles of sugar-white sand that surrounds it, and the oversize lobsters that call it home.
Enjoy the best of both on Loblolly Bay, where Big Bamboo serves the crustacean grilled to perfection. In the unlikely event that you get bored with the beach, head inland to the see the flamingos that live on the island’s salt flats, or hop a boat to more developed BVIs, such as Tortola and Virgin Gorda, which are less than an hour away. But if you decide to stay overnight, Big Bamboo has a clutch of cottages right on the shore.
An aerial view of the Viceroy in Anguilla. (Photo: Viceroy)
It’s a celeb favorite that’s been name-checked in hip-hop songs and featured on reality TV, so one might expect this tiny isle (30 minutes by ferry from Saint-Martin) to be posh and prohibitively pricey. However, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Anguilla’s casual vibe and by how affordable the island can be enjoyed.
It’s all about the beach here, and all 33 strands are postcard-perfect, public, and free (chaise and umbrella rental is usually waived if you’re eating at a beachfront spot). There’s great dining too, and not just at pricey-but-worth-it spots such as Blanchard’s. Hungry’s Food Truck offers a $20 lobster pasta, and the Ferryboat Inn’s Wednesday $1 chicken wings are a hit. For the best of both worlds, beach and eat at offshore islets Sandy Island and Scilly Cay, which both serve the island’s yummy lobsterlike crayfish. Scilly’s rum punch is also a bargain at just $5.
Frigatebirds in Barbuda. (Photo: iStock)
Antigua’s little sister is just a 15-minute flight or two-hour ferry away, but because it’s largely untouched by tourism, it feels a world apart.
With a population of less than 2,000 people living in a single village, the 15-by-8-mile-island is most famous for its pink-flecked sands (particularly the stunning 17-mile-long sweep at Low Bay, where Lighthouse Bay resort presides) and bird watching (Barbuda has one of the world’s largest frigatebird colonies), and as a haven for wildlife such as donkeys, deer, and land turtles.
Since there are only a handful of hotels and guesthouses, most people visit on day trips to do little else but laze on the beach and enjoy Barbuda’s simple pastoral pleasures. Sound like your speed? Better go now. If and when a proposal (from a group headed by Robert De Niro) for a luxury resort, eco lodge, marina, and new airport gets off the ground, Barbuda could quickly become the new Caribbean “it” girl — with the crowds to show for it.
Yachting is a way of life in Bequia. (Photo: iStock)
If you really want to get off the grid, consider this outpost in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, an archipelago of 32 compact islands between Saint Lucia and Grenada. Only seven square miles, Bequia (pronounced beck-way) is best known for its beaches (one named for Britain’s Princess Margaret, who had a home on nearby Mustique) and yachting. It’s also one of the only places in the world where limited whaling is sanctioned, and there’s a small museum you can visit to find out about the island’s whaling heritage, which dates back to the 1800s.
Today Bequia is recognized as the boat-building capital of the Caribbean, and model whaling boats, carved from the local gum tree, are sold as souvenirs in several workshops on the southern side. Most visitors sail here on day trips from other Grenadines, but if you decide to stay, Firefly Plantation is a working 18th-century fruit estate and is a rustic-chic hideaway perfectly suited to the sleepy island.
The diving in Bonaire is some of the best in the world. (Photo: iStock)
With 89 dive sites, 350 species of fish, and 57 types of coral, Bonaire (the “B” in the ABC islands just north of Venezuela) has long been a favorite of divers and snorkelers. Still, it remains a mystery to most Caribbean visitors, which is a shame because the so-laidback-it’s-almost-horizontal Dutch isle has plenty to offer on land too.
Visiting the iconic slave huts adjacent to the salt flats is a moving experience, and a tour of Cadushy of Bonaire, where the Caribbean’s only cactus liqueur is made from an indigenous succulent, offers a literal taste of the island. Dining in the capital, Kralendijk, is impressive for a country this small (112 square miles), with waterfront restaurants serving everything from Peruvian to French and island cuisine (don’t leave without sampling the local delicacy iguana soup). Harbour Beach Village is Bonaire’s largest and fanciest resort, from where you can rent a kayak and paddle over to Klein Bonaire, an offshore outpost in the island’s marine preserve.
The lush rainforest of Dominica. (Photo: iStock)
There’s perhaps no Caribbean island more synonymous with all things nature and eco-oriented than this one. Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, it’s situated between Martinique and Guadeloupe. Two-thirds of the 290-square-mile country is covered with rainforest and crisscrossed with rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. Hikers will enjoy the Waitukubuli National Trail (the Caribbean’s longest), a 115-mile, 14-segment around-the-island path, most of which has reopened since summer’s tropical storm Erika.
Kayaking, diving, and canyoning are popular pursuits, but even if you’re not that adventurous, a trip to Boiling Lake in Morne Trois Pitons National Park is worth the effort. It’s the world’s second-largest hot lake, with naturally effervescent water that reaches almost 200 degrees Fahrenheit. And when you’re tuckered out from all that adventure, Secret Bay, a clutch of luxurious cliff’s-edge villas in the rainforest canopy about an hour from the capital, Roseau, is a welcome retreat.
Exuma is the place to swim with pigs. It’s an experience you’ll never forget.(Photo: iStock)
Within the 700-plus islands in the Bahamian archipelago, you’ll find Exuma — a necklace of 365 islands surrounded by famously clear and shallow sea. It’s not surprising that a vacation here is all about being on the water, whether you’re snorkeling at Thunderball Cave (made famous in the James Bond movie of the same name), drift diving over billion-year-old fossils called stromatolites, or simply hopping a water taxi to Stocking Island’s Chat ’n’ Chill beach bar for the Sunday pig roast.
There’s more (live) animal interaction at Compass Cay, where you can swim and snorkel with “harmless” 200-pound nurse sharks. Even so, nothing beats the uniquely Caribbean experience of swimming with wild pigs in the waist-deep waters off Big Major Cay. Another must is Little Exuma’s Pelican Beach, where you can straddle the painted line that marks the Tropic of Cancer.
Terre-de-Haut, Les Saintes. (Photo: iStock)
For Americans, the only secret bigger than this French-Caribbean territory is the fact that it isn’t actually just one island but five — clustered in an archipelago between Dominica and Antigua.
Arguably the more soulful sister to Martinique, Guadeloupe offers diverse visitor experiences, from the tiny idyllic isle of Terre-de-Haut to the pastoral pleasures of sleepy Marie Galante, where you can tour three of the nation’s nine rum distilleries. But most visitors stay in the butterfly-shaped Grande Terre/Basse Terre region, where natural assets include beaches, waterfalls, and La Soufriere volcano, and stalls sell yummy street snacks such as bokit (a deep-fried pita pocket) and toasted sandwiches called agoulous.
Norwegian Air’s new direct service from Baltimore, Boston, and New York City (launching in December) makes getting to Guadeloupe easy, and frequent ferries make island hopping even more so. La Creole Beach Hotel in Gosier is a comfortable base from which to start your exploration.
Anses d'Arlet village, Martinique. (Photo: iStock)
An overseas region of France, Martinique (north of Saint Lucia) is French by history but Caribbean at heart. The misconception that you have to speak French to enjoy it may be why it’s been off Americans’ radars, but that should change with Norwegian Air’s new (and inexpensive) flights from New York City, Boston, and Baltimore, which launch in December.
While locals consume the most champagne per capita of all of France’s regions, this is the home of rhum agricole, and touring any of several distilleries offers a window to Martinique’s history and culture (Habitation Clement even has three art galleries). Food, of course, is equally as important, and local cuisine melds French techniques with island ingredients at standouts such as Petitbonum in Le Carbet and Ti Sable, a hipster beach bar at Anse D’Arlets. There are plenty of Euro-style boutique hotels in the tourist hub of Trois-Îlets, but Cap Est, with plush suites and outdoor showers, is guaranteed to please American guests.
The coastline of Nevis. (Photo: iStock)
Once overshadowed by its larger sister island, Saint Kitts, this serene 36-square-mile gem (a 45-minute ferry ride away) is big on things to do. Seeing Nevis Peak, the cloud-crowned dormant volcano in the center of the island, is a no-brainer. Hike to the top (for the experienced only) or explore its lowlands with a guide. Afterward, a dip in the hot springs at Bath soothes a weary body, and a Killer Bee rum cocktail (or three) at Sunshine’s bar on Pinney’s Beach takes care of your mind.
Next door at Four Seasons Nevis, you can play a round with the island’s famous vervet monkeys (which outnumber residents three to one!) or hole up for the day in a butler-serviced beachfront cabana. Stay in one of the island’s handful of historic inns, set on the grounds of former sugar estates. A good choice is Nisbet Plantation (the only one on the beach), where the Thursday-night barbecue is a local institution.
A view of the city of Windward. (Photo: iStock)
With no beaches except one that comes and goes with the tide, no casinos, no duty-free shopping, no all-inclusive resorts, and no nightlife beyond bar karaoke, this mountainous five-square-mile Dutch-Caribbean island (population 2,000, comprising 50 nationalities) isn’t for everyone. But for experienced Caribbean travelers in search of something truly unique, it’s a real find. The region’s best hiking destination has several trails, but a must-do is Mount Scenery, which, with an elevation of 2,855 feet, is the highest point on Saba and the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Otherwise, spend your time strolling the sleepy town of Windward, which, with its iconic red-roofed cottages and well-tended gardens, is like a scene from a jigsaw puzzle. While most visitors are day-trippers from Saint-Martin, Saba’s 160 rooms include simple but charming cottages at the Cottage Club and stately suites with private plunge pools at Queen’s Gardens Resort.