Stretching from the southeastern United States down along the east coast of Central America to the north coast of South America, the Caribbean consists of more than 700 islands, islets, reefs, and cays. Yet, for some strange reason, the vast majority of travelers seem to visit the same old chestnuts year after year. For more adventurous travelers seeking an escape from the crowds, here are seven serene island getaways that are perfect for really getting away from it all.
Scuba divers in Culebra, (Photo: Geoff Galice/Flickr)
Culebra, Puerto Rico
Located 19 miles east of Puerto Rico, the smallest of the inhabited Spanish Virgin Islands feels like it’s a world away. Seven miles long and three miles wide, with fewer than 3,000 residents, Culebra has virtually no nightlife to speak of. But it does have crystal clear waters with visibility that extends more than 60 feet, gorgeous white sand beaches (Culebrita is among the best.), and the oldest lighthouse in the Caribbean. Thanks to the establishment of the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge in 1909, there are also lots of seabirds and turtles, not to mention exceptional scuba diving.
Where to Stay: Set on a private bay, the cottages at Tamarindo Estates offer ocean views, fully equipped kitchens, and an 1,800-foot beach with great shelling and snorkeling.
A Dominica waterfall (Photo: Chris Favero/Flickr)
Often confused with the Dominican Republic, “The Nature Island” is 65 percent covered in tropical rainforest, with 300 miles of hiking trails. Thanks to copious rain, impressive waterfalls are everywhere, with Emerald Pool, Trafalgar Falls, and Victoria Falls all worth a visit. Other highlights include the Morne Trois Pitons National Park (the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the eastern Caribbean), snorkeling Champagne Reef (where geothermal activity makes the water warm and bubbly), and the Kalinago Barana Autê (home of the pre-Columbian Carib people).
Where to Stay: Rosalie Bay, an eco-conscious boutique and wellness resort, was named the No. 2 resort in the Caribbean by Condé Nast Traveler in 2013.
Wild pink flamingos on Isla Holbox (Photo: Raq_escobar/Flickr)
Isla Holbox, Mexico
Located 40 minutes northwest of Cancun, Holbox Island is a tiny fishing village separated from the mainland by a shallow lagoon, which provides sanctuary to thousands of herons, flamingos, and numerous endangered species. Golf carts are the most common form of transportation — no cars allowed. And with Yum Balam nature reserve and Isla Pájaros (Bird Island) you’re sure to see more animals than people. But the island’s big draw is the annual afuera, a gathering of hundreds of massive whale sharks that come to feed off the Yucatán Peninsula coast every June to September.
Where to Stay: Tucked away on a remote section of the island next to Yum Balam, Villas Flamingos offers charming villas with eco-friendly bathrooms and a hammock on the terrace.
Local rum on Marie-Galante (Photo: Benjamin R. Albrecht/Flickr)
Discovered in 1493 by Christopher Columbus and named after his flagship, Marie-Galante is a 61-square-mile island in the Guadeloupe archipelago. Best known for sugar production during the colonial era, the island offers a rural taste of French West Indies tranquility, with myriad farms, pristine beaches, and lagoons protected by coral reefs. This is an island truly in touch with its folkloric traditions, but it can be surprisingly lively at night, when locally produced rum and “ti punch” sweetened with sugar cane bring the piano bars and nightclubs to life.
Where to Stay: Located in the heart of a vast tropical garden, the villas, bungalows, and suites at La Rose du Brésil offer lots of space and a distinctive splash of Creole culture.
Boats off the coast of Montserrat (Photo: Patrick Nouhailler/Flickr)
Montserrat was a showcase for the lifestyles of the rich and famous in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, when albums by icons like Dire Straits, Duran Duran, and The Police were recorded at Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios. But in 1995, the long-dormant Soufriére Hills volcano roared to life, destroying the capital city of Plymouth and forcing two-thirds of the population to flee. Now the island has been reborn as a nature sanctuary, with nine world-class, rainforest hiking trails, stunning scenic coastlines, and some of the best diving the Caribbean has to offer.
Where to Stay: One of the first businesses that opened after the volcanic eruptions, Tropical Mansion Suites is a family-owned effort credited with helping to revitalize Montserrat tourism.
Relaxing in a hammock in the Rosario Islands (Photo: Santiago Duarte/Flickr)
Rosario Islands, Colombia
Just a 45-minute boat ride from the historic city of Cartagena, this little-known treasure is an archipelago comprised of 30 islands. The islands are part of the Corales Islas del Rosario Natural National Park, which was created to protect 4,633 square miles of reefs, sea grass, and mangroves and the aquatic species that inhabit them. As you might expect, the snorkeling and scuba diving are superb. But you can have an equally amazing time just curling up in a hammock with a stiff drink, watching the spectacular sunset from a quiet, cozy Colombian paradise.
Where to Stay: Blending elegant sophistication and laid-back simplicity, Coralina Isla Boutique is a quiet, foodie-friendly paradise.
The serene waters of Saba (Photo: Patrick Nouhailler/Flickr)
Known as “the Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean,” this Dutch island is just a 12-minute flight from St. Maarten. With a total area of only five square miles (population 2,000), the island’s centerpiece is the aptly named Mount Scenery, which rises 2,910 feet above sea level. Naturally, climbing and hiking the mountain’s trails are among the island’s most popular activities, but the protected waters of Saba National Marine Park also draw visitors with stunning 220-foot tall volcanic pinnacles, dolphins, and the occasional whale sighting.
Where to Stay: With warm, welcoming owners and breathtaking views, the El Momo Cottages are an eco-friendly hideaway offering romance, rest, and relaxation in equal measure.
The “Thunderball grotto” on Staniel Cay (Photo: cdorobek/Flickr)
Staniel Cay, Bahamas
This tiny, 2-square-mile island, with a population of just 110, is an under-the-radar ecotourism haven in the remote Exumas. With just two hotels, a restaurant/bar, and a marina, there’s not much action in sleepy Staniel Cay to attract the cruise ship crowd. But for nature lovers, there’s the picturesque Thunderball Grotto (featured in the 1965 James Bond film), the famous swimming pigs of Major Cay, sailing and scuba diving in impossibly blue waters, and perfect little beaches without a single soul in sight.
Where to Stay: Built by Staniel Cay natives on their family’s ancestral lands, Embrace Resort is the area’s first sustainable eco-resort.