If there was ever a more delicious dilemma than which Caribbean idyll to cruise, we’re yet to face it.
It’s almost as if the Caribbean was made for cruising. Islands scattered in a manner which makes it perfectly possible to open your curtains to a new nirvana every morning. The promise of sunshine at a time when our hometowns are turning grey with drizzle. Seas made for snorkelling, coves for discovery by catamaran, and an intoxicating cocktail of rum punch and reggae.
By dictionary definition, paradise is ‘a place or condition of great happiness, where everything is exactly as you would like it to be’. As you sit beneath the canopy of a rainbow beach shack on the sand, your hair whipped by the sea breeze and your belly full of jerk chicken, it’s difficult to consider that a state of greater happiness could ever exist.
More than 7,000 islands, islets and reefs call the Caribbean home. In part one of our complete guide to the region, we’re casting a spotlight on some of the stars of the show.
The Brit Abroad
A sense of the familiar is dappled amidst the exotic in Barbados. On the one hand are the fiery, friendly Bajans, living life to a calypso beat, clad in carnival colours, hunched over raucous dominos games at the Oistins Fish Fry, fuelled by Banks beer.
But they don’t call the island ‘Little England’ for nothing. After almost 350 years of British rule, the tell-tale signs remain. There’s the Bajan dialect unexpectedly interjected with the Queen’s English, and there are afternoon teas enjoyed on former sugar plantations. There’s the cricket – the island’s national sport, in fact – and there’s the Historic Bridgetown and Garrison, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which once stood at the centre of Great Britain’s Atlantic colonial empire. St Nicholas Abbey is the oldest intact 17th century plantation on the island and the kind of regal sprawling estate you’d expect from a National Trust day out. More importantly, it serves up the best aged rum you’re ever likely to imbibe.
But this isn’t Britain, it is Barbados, a fact which is confirmed by the presence of swaying palms, millpond seas and blue skies. Upmarket resorts, a south coast surfer’s paradise, the aforementioned historic capital, rugged roads lined with rum houses and sugar plantations, and aquamarine waters brimming with sea turtles entirely undisturbed by your presence; this diverse little island has it all. Hawkers peddle barbecued mahi-mahi and jerk chicken from beachside shacks, macaroni sides and rum punch washing it all down and lulling you into the kind of food coma only a sun-soaked siesta can shake off.
And then there are the beaches. The beauty of Barbados is that it has no private beaches. Instead, every sandy cove is fair game and finding your favourite piece of paradise is part of the fun. The pale pink sands of Crane Beach are the island’s most famous and some of its best, whilst the west coast’s Payne Beach promises nothing but pleasure. Walk the entirety of its white sandy stretch or slip into the water and make your acquaintance with the incredibly tame turtles that famously inhabit the bay.
The Hopeless Romantic
This is the original love island, where honeymooners spend their days on adrenaline-fuelled adventures for two and their evenings catching sunsets beneath the shadow of Les Pitons, two vast volcanic cones rising above acres of emerald rainforest. St Lucia has been recognised as the ‘World’s Leading Honeymoon Destination’ a record eight times by the World Travel Awards and it isn’t hard to see why.
Those who play together, stay together, and St Lucia offers plenty in the way of adventure. Hike the green peaks of the Pitons or zip line through the rainforest treetops. The steaming crater of Soufriere Volcano is another of the island’s must-see attractions, the promise of soothing hot springs and curative mud baths rewarding those who can stand the smell; they don’t call it Sulphur Springs for nothing. Natural wonders also abound at Pigeon Island National Park, a historic spot just outside the island capital, Castries. Barracks, batteries and fortifications once protected the Caribbean from French fleets but today they are tasked with little more than facilitating the appreciation of heart-stopping views across the northwest coast.
Of St Lucia’s 98-mile coastline, no slice of sand offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience quite like Grand Anse beach. Each year, between the months of March and August, these sands welcome the return of the female sea turtles that hatched here as long as 40 years earlier. The endangered leatherback turtle lays its eggs in the sand of St Lucia’s most remote beach, setting the scene for its tiny hatchlings to make their break in a frantic scurry to the surf months later. Those who are fortunate enough to witness the spectacle won’t forget it in a hurry.
Memorable meals occur as often as memorable experiences here, where Michelin-starred restaurants and unassuming barbecue huts sit side by side, each dishing up equally impressive Caribbean cuisine. Fresh seafood is served from hook to hob, the rum is subtly spiced and the steel bands play into the night. What’s not to love about St Lucia?
The Shopaholic’s Paradise
St Thomas is the most cosmopolitan of the US Virgin Islands and despite measuring just 32 square miles, there’s plenty more to the destination than the duty free shops for which it has become famous. This is an island which offers as much to sun-seekers and adrenaline junkies as it does to the shopaholics, so let the shops wait a while and start exploring.
Beach bums and water babies have probably already heard of Magens Bay Beach, St Thomas’s busiest stretch of sand and a favourite for watersports, but it is the solitude found amongst the shells at Brewer’s Beach that is craved between visits. Even on the busiest of days in port, the sands here are all but deserted. Isn’t that what we all really want when we’re reclining on the sands and imagining ourselves castaway in paradise?
Another place that makes you wonder whether being shipwrecked in the Caribbean must really be all that bad is St John, the greenest of the US Virgin Islands and one located just a short boat trip from St Thomas. This idyllic isle is the smallest and quietest of the three, with serenity seekers heading here for unspoiled scenery and a coast edged with no fewer than 44 beaches. Hiking trails here are well-walked, unearthing rugged routes to blissful bays and hidden coves.
If the thought of being marooned on an island paradise doesn’t appeal, perhaps splashing the cash might. It is impossible to speak of St Thomas without mentioning its shops, and there’s plenty to indulge in here aside from the usual bargain booze and souvenir rum cakes. The upscale stores of the Yacht Heaven Grande Marina are perfectly placed to take advantage of the moneyed guests who pass their winters on yachts in the nearby marina, which is one of the most exclusive moorings in the Caribbean. Louis Vuitton and Gucci are amongst the ultra-luxe offerings here, though neither offer duty free when you might well need the discount most. For those arriving into port, Havensight Mall is an obvious first stop, whilst the nearby cobblestones of Charlotte Amalie offer not just great shopping, but knockout chicken tacos and one of the best lookout spots on the whole island, too.
The Happy Island
Aruba proclaims itself to be the Caribbean’s happiest island and it’s a claim that’s hard to question when you look at the facts. After all, if you’re not happy in a 70 square mile space packed with blissful beaches, chic resorts, good-time casinos and a zesty coloured capital that could have come straight from Disney, there’s really little hope for you at all.
This island retreat in the southern Caribbean, located just 18 miles off the tip of Venezuela, is ‘compact but bijou’ as an estate agent might say. But, whilst these may be words of warning when it comes to home buying, they’re music to our ears in terms of tropical isles. This smaller size means that you can be on a beach within 10 minutes from anywhere on the island, a thought made all the more exciting by the fact that there’s barely a ‘World’s Best Beaches’ list Aruba’s sandy swathes haven’t appeared on. Some are merely a slither, like the tiny Malmok Beach, whose sunken ship wrecks and coral reefs make it popular with snorkelers. Venture further north and you’ll happen across the local’s favourite, Arashi Beach, where little other than the odd ramshackle yet charming beach hut disturbs your view. Others beaches on Aruba are vast, like Eagle Beach, which is home to the famous fofoti tree and a nesting site for green, leatherback and hawksbill turtles.
Aruba’s waterfront capital, Oranjestad, is every bit as colourful as its name suggests, its Dutch origins and multi-national population making for a cultural mixing pot that mustn’t be missed. The city’s proximity to the port puts attractions including the Butterfly Farm, Fort Zoutman and the National Archaeological Museum at your fingertips.
With such treasures on the coast, you could be forgiven for overlooking the interior wilds of Aruba, including a national park that blankets almost a fifth of the island in various shades of green. The dry landscape of Arikok National Park comprises flora and fauna, caves scrawled with authentic drawings by the Arawak Indians, numerous beaches and the Natural Pool, a unique circular volcanic rock formation accessible only by 4×4.
The Sailor’s Choice
A night at Necker Island, Sir Richard Branson’s private island hideaway, sets the rich, famous and fabulous back around £30,000 a night. Fortunately, for everyone else there is Tortola. Whilst other isles in the British Virgin Islands chain have shunned traditional Caribbean flavour for an overwhelming air of exclusivity, there’s still something seriously authentic about this cruise favourite that makes it the perfect place to catch a lime with a cool Callwood rum.
You can measure happiness in grains of sand, or so the British Virgin Island mantra says. If that is the case, the colony’s capital Tortola promises many a happy holiday. Tucked into coves, between green volcanic peaks, are red-roofed towns and golden bays lapped by turquoise water. In fact, the water here is the clearest in the Caribbean. Many who arrive into the British Virgin Islands don’t linger long on Tortola at all, instead hopping across to nearby Jost Van Dyke or Peter Island. And then there’s Virgin Gorda and The Baths, the monumental granite boulders and cavernous grottos of which have become known as the world’s most famous sheltered sea pool.
Those who do choose to remain on Tortola are justly rewarded with their own slices of paradise, be it at the beautifully underdeveloped Brewers Bay Beach, or on the sands of Cane Garden Bay Beach, one of the island’s most scenic and so most popular spots, where beach barbecues and watersports draw a crowd.
Sage Mountain National Park is the highest point on the island and hiking its seven trails to some of Tortola’s best vantage points takes you along pathways lined with hanging vines, wild ferns and majestic mahogany trees. If you thought the British Virgin Islands looked good from ground level, the views across the chain of islands and on towards the US Virgin Islands will blow you away from 1,700ft above sea level.
The Natural Beauty
In 2004, Grenada was all but wiped out by the force of Hurricane Ivan. But even Mother Nature is no match for fierce Grenadian spirit and, like a phoenix from the fire, the island has risen bigger, brighter and better than ever. The nutmeg trees on the island also known as the ‘Spice Isle’ have long since grown again, their scent a lingering reminder of the destination’s determination to flourish.
Grenada is the most organically beautiful island in the Caribbean, but it is the man-made forts and French colonial buildings of its horseshoe bay that provide the prettiest of welcomes to its visitors. Venture beyond the bustling harbour of St George’s – a maritime favourite and host of many a regatta – and you’ll find yourself absorbed in acre after acre of natural beauty. Black and white sands, hot springs, crashing waterfalls and a vast crater lake, verdant rainforests, and waters so clear you can see straight to the coral reefs below, are all part of Grenada’s great and diverse landscape. The Grand Etang Forest Reserve, Lake Antoine and Annandale Falls are all unmissable examples of what this beautiful island has to offer, as are its typically paradisiacal beaches. Most famous of them all is Grand Anse, an impressive arc of talcum-soft sand stretching over a mile along the coast towards St George’s. The sands of Magazine Beach are worth writing home about too, with seasoned divers lured into its pristine waters by one of the world’s top wreck diving sites, the Bianca C. Those who prefer lazier beach days will find the sands almost deserted towards the centre of the beach, where the only distraction from your sunbathing and snooze sessions is the temptation of lunch at Grenadian institution, the Aquarium.
With your feet on firmer ground, a visit to the Belmont Estate provides welcome respite from the never-ending flow of Caribbean rum, tempting your taste buds with organic dark chocolate instead. The one time 17th century sugar plantation now sees The Grenada Chocolate Company take Trinitario cocoa beans from tree to bar and the end result is divine.
Another of Grenada’s star attractions to merge manmade with Mother Nature is Jason deCaires Taylor’s Underwater Sculpture Park, which occupies the sea bed beneath Moliniere Point, just two miles north of St George. The installation is almost otherworldly, its 65 sculptures having become artificial corals on which marine life has thrived.
The Split Personality
St Maarten is a destination split between Dutch and French heritage. Philipsburg is the island’s Dutch capital and the arrival point for those visiting by cruise ship, whilst Marigot is the capital of the French territory. No formal boundaries exist between the two regions, in fact, the only indicator that you have crossed from one to the other is a single welcome sign.
St Maarten is an island of beaches great and small, with 37 scattered around its coast. Each is entirely unique, from the lengthy stretches of Long Bay and Orient Beach, to the clothing-optional Cupecoy Beach, which is famed for its sunsets over the surf. Google ‘Maho Beach’ and you might be surprised by the results. This St Maarten spot is located directly under the flight path of the Princess Juliana Airport runway on the Dutch side of the island, and has become famous for the jumbo jets flying so low on approach to the runway, beachgoers can feel the force of the jet blast. As a result, the Maho Beach is always busy and whilst there are better beaches on which to while away a day, it’s worth a trip here purely for the photos.
Both the Dutch and French sides of St Maarten share a love of shopping, though their wares differ greatly. The old Creole houses of Marigot have been restored in traditional Saint Martinoise style, with many transformed into luxury boutiques. Whilst the duty-free prices are mighty tempting, it is the daily open-air Marigot Market which offers a more authentic insight into life on the island, along with some tasty souvenirs that sure beat the usual magnets and keyrings. Despite being the Dutch side of the island, Philipsburg’s shops are purveyors of plenty more than Edam cheese and Delft Blue, though you’ll find both of these in abundance too.
As if St Maarten’s two totally unique sides aren’t enough, the island is also the starting point for excursions to two of the Caribbean’s most elite haunts, Anguila and St Barts. Saba is another popular day-visit destination, with beaches substituted for mountain hikes and awesome volcanic scenery.
The Beach Bum
There’s a slice of paradise for every day of the year in Antigua, with the island home to an incredible 365 beaches.
From the idyllic Valley Church Beach and the lively Dickenson Bay with its watersports, boat trips and beach bars, to the quieter Darkwood Beach and Ffrye’s Bay, the picture-postcard paradise spot and a photoshoot favourite. You could spend a month on the sunniest island in the eastern Caribbean and still fail to find the time to soak up the sun on all its beaches, never mind fitting in space to make the 90-minute ferry trip to its sister island, Barbuda; home to the famous soft-pink crushed coral sands.
Then there is everything besides the beaches. Nelson’s Dockyard hosted Admiral Nelson’s fleet in the 1700s but now it welcomes ships sailing the oceans for pleasure, rather than for King and Country. Many are often surprised to discover that, despite being considered the best remaining example of Britain’s colonial Caribbean legacy, the Georgian dockyard was only granted UNESCO World Heritage status earlier this year. The English Harbour, in which Nelson’s Dockyard is located, continues its maritime links today, known as the international capital of sailing and famed as the home of the Caribbean’s largest annual regatta, Antigua Sailing Week. The best views of the harbour are famously found at Shirley Heights, a former Royal Navy lookout championed for offering the best views in Antigua from 490ft above sea level.
Lively Friday and Saturday mornings can be spent at the farmers’ market in St John, Antigua’s pastel-coloured capital, where market stalls are piled high with exotic fruits and local crafts. The neo-baroque towers of St John’s Cathedral loom above the St John skyline, whilst the far-reaching city and harbour views from the 18th century Fort James and Fort Barrington once acted as the first line of defence against an attack by the French.
The sugar cultivation industry also played a huge part in Antigua’s history and former plantations are scattered around the island. Perhaps the most famous of them all is 17th century Betty’s Hope, where gripping guided tours do an incredible job of conveying the hardships of the slaves who once laboured there.
The Party Animal
The 700 islands and atolls in the Bahamas archipelago resemble a string of pearls from above, dotted in waters so bright a shade of turquoise they can be seen from space.
There is something about the Bahamas which attracts those to whom money is no object. From Bill Gates to Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey to Michael Jordan; those who can holiday anywhere in the world, holiday here.
There’s never a dull moment in the Bahamas, between mornings spent on sugary white sands and snorkelling along the Andros Barrier Reef, and afternoons spent tucking into conch salad at Arawak Cay, the sun setting to a reggae soundtrack outside the rainbow beach shacks that are home to the archipelago’s exuberant Junkanoo. This is the most colourful place in the Caribbean, with 25 flora-filled national parks, the world’s largest pink flamingo colony and the inky waters of the world’s deepest blue hole. From the fiery face of the Andros iguana, to the green, coral and blue of the endangered Bahama parrot, even the animals provide the most colourful of welcomes.
Norwegian Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises and Holland America Line all founded their private islands in the Bahamas, confirming the destination’s reputation as the action-packed party capital of the Caribbean. There isn’t much you can’t do here and there are few who the destination doesn’t aim to please. There are Nassau’s historic ramparts, Fort Montague, Fort Charlotte and Fort Fincastle, and there are the sunken Spanish galleons occupying ocean beds between islands. For those who prefer aquatic adventures, there are day passes to the Aquaventure Waterpark at the Atlantis Paradise Island, the largest waterpark in the Caribbean. With 18 water slides, 11 pools and a mile-long river rapid ride, this 114 acre attraction is the star of the show on a family cruise from Miami and is located just a stone’s throw from Nassau’s downtown shopping mecca.
The People Pleaser
Few destinations can claim to be affluent yet laidback, family-friendly yet with an air of exclusivity and subtle touches of luxury. Grand Cayman is all of these things and more, and if you’re in the market for a Caribbean holiday with appeal well beyond the beaches, the largest of the Cayman Islands fits the bill perfectly.
In a Caribbean studded with coastlines which are perfect by their very definition, achieving the accolade of being the very best of them all is quite the achievement. Seven Mile Beach, on the island’s west coast, has scooped the top spot countless times and once you step on its sands, it becomes instantly apparent why.
Grand Cayman’s seas are brimming with coral formations and there are over 360 dive sites around the island. Plunge below the waters to experience some of the Caribbean’s best snorkelling at Seven Mile Beach, where snorkel sites can be accessed straight from the beach, and at the equally popular Devil’s Grotto or Smith Cove, both of which are just minutes from the George Town port. The Cayman Wall is one of the most renowned dive sites in the world and experienced divers might well confirm this British Overseas Territory as home to the best diving in all of the Caribbean. Highlights include the wreck of the USS Kittiwake, sunk off the northern end of Seven Mile Beach, and the Ironshore Gardens on the island’s east coast.
Wildlife abounds in Grand Cayman, both at sea and ashore, with two of the island’s star attractions bringing you closer to nature. Stingray City occupies a sandbar off the North Sound, where stingrays once congregated to collect the scraps left behind by fishermen cleaning their catch of the day. Today, they have become more accustomed to being hand-fed squid by visiting tourists and doing so is a must during your time in Grand Cayman. Equally enthralling is an afternoon at the Cayman Turtle Farm: Island Wildlife Encounter, which sits with the 23-acre marine park and conservation area of Boatswain’s Beach Park. The attraction is the largest in the Cayman Islands and, whilst its 11,000 green sea turtles take a starring role, there’s enough going on to entertain the whole family all day.