How to Choose the Caribbean Island That's Right for You

Posted by Doug Stallings on January 27, 2010 at 4:10:59 PM EST | Post a Comment
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When people find out that I'm one of the main Caribbean editors here at Fodor's, the one thing almost everyone wants to know is which island in the Caribbean is the "best." It's one of the most common question posted in our Caribbean user forums. The truth is there is no "best." Each Caribbean island is unique, and everything depends on what you're looking for.

If you know yourself and know what you want, you can come pretty close to perfection in the Caribbean. But that's often easier said that done. To help you jump-start your winter or spring vacation planning, here are some suggestions for all kinds of travelers. See which of these major interests best describes you; perhaps these questions will help you narrow down your choices.

I love beautiful beaches

Well, who doesn't want a beautiful beach on a tropical vacation? You'll find at least one beautiful beach on almost every Caribbean destination you can imagine. I'd ask you to dig a little deeper to find something else that will help make your choice a bit clearer. If you aren't interested in digging deeper, then take a look at Anguilla, the Turks & Caicos, Aruba, Grenada, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Grand Cayman, all renowned for their beautiful beaches.

Avoid: A handful of islands, including Dominica, Bonaire, Montserrat, Saba, St. Eustatius, Trinidad, are not known for their beaches.

I love fine dining

If you want great food, you're in luck. Virtually every island has at least a few excellent restaurants, though food in the Caribbean is comparatively expensive because most of it has to be imported. But several islands excel in their dining offerings. Three islands in particular—Anguilla, St. Barthélemy, and Barbados—have a wide variety of excellent restaurants; just be prepared with your platinum card when you get the bill. St. Maarten/St. Martin has a wide variety of restaurants in every price range, though many of the best can be found on the French side in Grand Case.

Avoid: Montserrat, St. Eustatius, St. Vincent, and the Dominican Republic; the first three islands have few upscale restaurants, and in the D.R. the prevalence of all-inclusive resorts means few off-site opportunities except in Santo Domingo and a handful of other places.

I love scuba diving

If you are more interested in what's below the waves than what's above, there are some islands that will definitely appeal to you. Bonaire is one of the best dive destinations in the world, let alone the Caribbean. The Turks & Caicos, Cayman Islands, St. Lucia, and Saba are also renowned for their diving. Dominica is an often overlooked dive destination, as is St. Eustatius, though the latter has some of the best wreck-diving you'll find. And if you like wrecks, the British Virgin Islands has one of the most popular wreck dives in the world, the RMS Rhone.

Avoid: Anguilla, Antigua, Barbados; almost every island has some nearby reef, but these three destinations aren't the best for serious divers.

I love snorkeling

If you're not a diver, you may still have an interest in what's below the waves. Bonaire is great for both since its reefs are just offshore. And the Grenadines (especially the Tobago Cays) and Turks & Caicos are also great for both divers and snorkelers. Other islands, such as Virgin Gorda and St. John, are better for snorkelers.

Avoid: The north coasts of Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic (and also Punta Cana); with no barrier reefs, these waters aren't conducive to clear views or a lot of brightly colored fish.

I love golf

One of the great joys of golf in the Caribbean is the chance to play under the palm trees with a view of the ocean. Some of the best resort courses you'll find at in the Caribbean. Barbados has some excellent (albeit pricey) courses. The Dominican Republic has so many great courses that they are hard to count; so does Jamaica. Nevis has but one golf course (at the Four Seasons), but it's one of the Caribbean's best; the same is true for Palm Island in the Grenadines. Puerto Rico has a wide range of courses, both great and not so great.

Avoid: Bonaire, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica, Saba, St. Barthélemy, St. Eustatius, St. Vincent. Why? No courses. And forget about St. Maarten, too; yes, there's one course, but it's not well-maintained and not really worth your time.

I love nightlife

For those who want to drink and dance the night away, Aruba, St. Maarten, and Puerto Rico are good choices, and all three of these islands also have great casinos. While it has no big casinos, Jamaica does have great nightlife, especially in Negril and Montego Bay. But Trinidad is another island with great nightlife, and Grand Cayman is surprisingly lively after dark. There's a lot to do in the Dominican Republic after dark, especially if you're in the busy capital, Santo Domingo.

Avoid: Montserrat, St. Kits, Saba, and St. Vincent & the Grenadines; every island has something to do after dark, but true night owls will want to look elsewhere.

I love big, all-inclusive resorts

If you like everything in one package, then the two best values in the Caribbean are Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. No other island excels at the AI-resort game quite as well as these two. But St. Lucia has a lot to offer, as does Antigua. But you can't exclude Mexico from your search if you are looking for AI resorts. Cancún, Cozumel, and the Riviera Maya have some of the best and biggest resorts, and the prices there can't be beat.

Avoid: Many islands, including Anguilla, Bonaire, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, St. Barthélemy, and others, simply do not have any all-inclusive resorts.

If you still aren't sure what island is best for you, try out our Travel Planner. Enter all your likes and dislikes and see what destinations show up as your Best Match.

More by , Fodor's Editor

Posted in Travel Tips Tagged: Caribbean, Escapes

Member Comments (20)  Post a Comment

  • Bubba737 on Jan 7, 13 at 09:01 PM

    I was at Palm Island about 3 years ago. Either the writer of this article has never been there, or he doesn't know squat about golf. The Palm Island "Golf Course" is an unmowed former landing strip with no tee boxes, no fairways and no greens. They stuck flags at various places around the property. We could only find about half of them on the 9 hole course. If you sent your 5 year old out on a very rough patch of ground to design a golf course, it would look like the Palm Island golf course--probably better!!! Palm Island was a fun experience if you like totally laid back with not much to do, but please don't think you are going to play golf there unless things have radically changed!!

  • TC on Aug 6, 11 at 12:30 PM

    Although not strictly speaking a Caribbean island, Cozumel offers all of the above in a safe environment. The atmosphere and food are all greatly influenced by the surrounding sea.

    The "wild side" of the island has spectacular beaches, as do many of the resorts on the south end of the island. Both diving and snorkeling are amazing on the world's second largest reef system.

    Because the Yucatan Peninsula was surrounded on 3 sides by water and by an impenetrable forest on the fourth southern side, the Yucatan was influenced more by the Caribbean islands than by Mexico.  As a result, Yucateca food is distinct and separate from what is commonly called Mexican  food. Fine dining is plentiful and inexpensive.

    There is a reasonable golf course, plenty of night life and it's pretty easy to get to Cozumel from most US locations with direct flights or a hop from Cancun on the connecting ferry.

  • joan on Feb 9, 10 at 09:51 AM

    mba, I was thinking the same thing when I read "I love beautiful beaches." Although technically not in the Caribbean, the tropical Out Islands of the Bahamas have the most beautiful, deserted, pink(!) beaches I have come across in the region.

  • lisa on Feb 7, 10 at 12:00 PM

    What about best for hiking? We loved St. John for hiking in addition to beaches and snorkeling. Are there other islands with good hiking trails?

  • mba on Feb 2, 10 at 02:42 PM

    Also not mentioned is the Bahamas, recently i have been looking online for prices of rentals, mostly private single family homes, and found that homes in the bahamas are very reasonable, beaches are wonderful, and travel time is very short to either freeport, or nassau. Great for families, with options for staff or not.

  • Arcticfamily5 on Jan 29, 10 at 07:06 PM

    What about traveling with three kids -- 12, 15 and 18? They aren't your typical texting addicts, would rather be active outside (swimming, snorkeling,a neighborhood pick-up soccer game), abd ballroom dancing, and family-oriented theater. Major concerns are cost and safety. Since there are 5 of us, we usually are required to have multiple rooms.

  • Doug_Stallings Fodor's editor on Jan 29, 10 at 09:33 AM

    Regarding Cuba, yes, I have to say that we do ignore it because our guides are aimed at U.S. travelers. My hope is that the ban on U.S. citizens spending money (and traveling except on licensed trips) will be lifted in the coming years. In the meantime, look for some updated coverage on Cuba on our site. I'm just now finalizing a major update to our Cuba coverage and hope that it will be posted online within the next couple of months.

  • Doug_Stallings Fodor's editor on Jan 29, 10 at 09:31 AM

    Fodor's publishes information on nonstop flights in our Caribbean guide each year. While the number of nonstops is growing at present, it's also contracted in some places as well. But that might be a good place to start.

    And every year, the Washington Post does a Caribbean article about the best nonstops from the DC area. I think other papers may do similar round-ups, though the Chicago Tribune's travel section has now been gutted and does very little original reporting. Check out the Miami paper online as well; they might do something.

  • BillonSafari on Jan 29, 10 at 08:49 AM

    While this is helpful it seems to ignore the largest (by geographic area)Caribbean destination of all - that is Cuba where thousands of Canadians go every winter.

  • leebabs27 on Jan 28, 10 at 07:31 PM

    This is really helpful but is there a way to figure out what island is easiest to reach from one's local airport other than going through each airline there?

  • whitehall on Jan 28, 10 at 03:37 PM

    HBNicole: Be careful. The elephant in the forum is crime, which is a growing problem on Caribbean islands, where even cruise passengers are being victimized, often without much publicity. A bad economy, a growing divide between the haves and have nots, and youth violence and drugs all are contributing to the problem. If you don't need beaches, fancy restaurant options, or nightlife, we recently found a Caribbean gem, the island of Saba. Authentic, friendly, safe, several good restaurants. No mega villas, jets, celebrities, resorts, cruise ships (although you can find some of that nearby).

  • HBNicole on Jan 28, 10 at 01:50 PM

    Thanks montreal_mascotte!

  • montreal_mascotte on Jan 28, 10 at 12:31 PM

    You can also stop at any of the rum shops and share a drink with the locals.

  • montreal_mascotte on Jan 28, 10 at 12:28 PM

    To HBNicole - We go to Barbados every year, and we now rent an apartment from a company called Aaaltman (aaaltman.com). The prices start at $200 (US) a night, but in the off season, from April to November, they offer 14 nights for the price of 11. The island is safe to explore by car. We rent one for about $50 a day. Every Friday night, there is a big fish barbecue called the "Oistins Fish Fry". Best fish on the island! Period. You eat like a king for $10.00 and drinks are cheap too. Mostly locals and some tourists sit around picnic tables. Great atmosphere and local music, soca. I can't wait to go back!

  • HBNicole on Jan 28, 10 at 12:17 PM

    What about someone who wants to stay away from resorts? I'd like to find an island that is safe for a visitor to wander about the neighborhoods exploring where the locals eat and hang out, rather than eat in a fine dining restaurant with imported food and play golf or shop.

  • Doug_Stallings Fodor's editor on Jan 28, 10 at 12:06 PM

    Actually, tansay, you have a good point. I've neglected both islands, and while neither is really high on the radar of most Americans, Guadeloupe probably ranks higher for me than Martinique (ironic since Martinique is easier to get to from the U.S.). Guadeloupe has beautiful beaches, great diving and snorkeling, and many natural wonders. The problem is that the best places in Guadeloupe are all over the map, requiring you to rent an expensive car, but the smaller hotels there (and even a couple of the larger ones) are charming. And there are some really unique places on the outlying islands (Guadeloupe isn't really an "island" but rather an archipelago of several islands ... but try getting to Marie Galante or Les Saintes in less than a day of travel). I'd probably rank Guadeloupe restaurants above those in Martinique as well, but the latter has a much more developed tourism infrastructure and over all probably has better resorts that would appeal to Americans.

  • tansay on Jan 28, 10 at 11:00 AM

    So what about Guadalupe & Martinique? Where do they fit in to all this?
    Tansay

  • cej18 on Jan 28, 10 at 10:39 AM

    Surprised you didn't list Luquillo Beach in Puerto Rico as a great beach. The palm trees on the beach are beautiful & provide shade (or anchors for a hammock) when you want it & the swimming is magnificent - like swimming in a huge saltwater pool.

  • montreal_mascotte on Jan 28, 10 at 10:33 AM

    While some fine dining restaurants in Barbados are very expensive, there are plenty of affordable dining spots. Here are a few places where you can eat under $20.00 (US dollars): Oistins Fish Fry, Just Grillin', Connie De Grill Master, Chefette (yes, it's a local fast food chain, but they have some of the best rotis on the island), Groots Pub, The Beach House, Marketfive by John Hazzard (in Bridgetown, new restaurant opened by former Sandy Lane chef), Ackee Tree, Roti Den, Café Indigo, to name a few. We like fine dining too, and we have had some incredible meals in Barbados. We always eat once at Sandy Lane (whether it's a brunch at Bajan Blue, lunch at the country club or dinner at L'Acajou for a special occasion), but there are a lot of restaurants that are less expensive, which allows us to balance the cheap with the chic. And let's not forget the beautiful beaches. You can always find a beach that is nearly deserted in Barbados. AND: the jazz festival, Cropover Festival, Barbados Food festival, cricket, polo, opera, horse racing. Here are some reasons why we love Barbados so much: beautiful beaches, good food, lots of things to do, great service, friendly people and it's a pretty safe island. We always rent a car and love to visit the different parts of the island (the East and the West offer completely different sceneries) and go beach hopping.

  • Madame_Budget on Jan 28, 10 at 10:15 AM

    I find that St John, USVI, fits the bill for snorkeling and dining... great beaches and fist-class restaurants.

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