11 action-packed Caribbean islands — and how to pick the right one for you
From snorkelling the pristine reefs of Bonaire to discovering the colourful street art of Curaçao, this is a region that excels in the wild and the unexpected.
5 Nov 2021, 16:23 GMTThe islands and territories that make up the Caribbean are justifiably renowned for their bountiful sunshine and beaches, but beyond the resorts lie an intoxicating variety of cultures, creatures and cuisine that rarely make the headlines. But with dozens of destinations to choose from, how to decide which to visit? We’ve selected 11 of the most engaging, where memorable adventures amid natural wonders await.
1. Go birdwatching in Tobago
Quiet and welcoming, Tobago is a top pick for twitchers, thanks to its forest, wetland and coastal habitats. The island’s star attraction is the Main Ridge Forest Reserve, which was established in 1776 and is best explored via the Gilpin Trace Trail or less busy Spring Trail. Speyside, in the north east, is close to both the reserve and Little Tobago island, an offshore seabird sanctuary that’s home to the likes of frigatebirds, sooty terns, brown boobies and Audubon’s shearwaters.
“Most visitors want to see the blue-backed manakin, white-tailed sabrewing and red-billed tropicbird,” explains Newton George, a birdwatching guide who’s been scouring the treetops for over 50 years. He and his wife Dianne run the Hummingbird Gallery from their home in the village — the feeders on their garden verandah providing excellent photo opportunities. The nearby beachfront Blue Waters Inn, Speyside, makes a great base for further ornithological excursions.
Birds are also a prime reason to visit Adventure Eco Villas on the west coast at Arnos Vale. This estate has a checklist of 48 species that can be seen around its 12 acres, including parrots, flycatchers and tanagers.
For a change of mood, hit the waves. The island’s many dive sites include The Sisters, where hammerhead sharks hang out at the wreck of MV Maverick, a ferry that was scuttled in 1997 and now swarms with marine life. On nights with little moonlight, Radical Sports Tobago offers bioluminescence safaris where you can kayak or paddleboard through waters illuminated by microscopic organisms that emit a blue glow when disturbed. Dip your hand in and watch it glitter as though you were a radiant ghost dripping with jewels.
How to do it: Virgin Atlantic flies direct from Heathrow to Tobago from £427. Blue Waters Inn has rooms from $238 (£173), B&B.
More info: visittobago.gov.tt
2. Hike with the locals in Barbados
A good way to explore the wealth of heritage and natural attractions is to join the three-hour Sunday walks organised by the Barbados Hiking Association. These can attract 20 or more walkers, mainly islanders plus a few clued-up visitors. The fit can tackle a pacy, 12-mile ‘Grin ’n’ Bear’ hike, while the shorter and more relaxed ‘Stop ‘n’ Stare’ version includes pauses to catch your breath and learn about the places en route, which can range from a hillside where bituminous coal was once collected to the grave of Hollywood star Claudette Colbert, who died here in 1996.
As well as getting the chance to chat with Bajans, the walks reveals the contrast between the island’s highly developed west side and the wild and windy east coast, where surfers gather and life is more relaxed. For a taste of both, book a twin-centre trip combining the upmarket, self-catering suites at Little Good Harbour in the village of Shermans, and the eight-room Atlantis Historic Inn, overlooking Tent Bay. The latter was originally opened in response to the creation of a now-defunct railway line in 1883, and every year a 24-mile hike retraces its tracks. Night owls can also join monthly full-moon walks. There’s no charge for this but donations are accepted for the Barbados National Trust, which cares for several historic sites. These include a synagogue in the capital, Bridgetown, a restored sugar windmill and Welchman Hall Gully, a nature reserve that includes land kept much as it was when the first settlers arrived in 1627.
How to do it: Turquoise Holidays offers a seven-night trip from £1,764 per person (based on two sharing), including flights, transfers and accommodation split between Little Good Harbour and Atlantis Historic Inn, half-board.
More info: visitbarbados.org
3. Dive into the history of St Kitts
Fancy having a UNESCO World Heritage Site all to yourself? That’s how it can feel on a visit to Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, a colossal, British-designed military citadel dating from 1690 that crowns the west coast of St Kitts, offering expansive views to the neighbouring Dutch island of St Eustatius. Dubbed the ‘Gibraltar of the West Indies’ and once home to over 1,000 soldiers and their families, it’s filled with memories of the enslaved and the enlisted and includes an extensive museum.
St Kitts is considered the ‘mother colony’ of the Leeward Islands; English and French settlers arrived here as early as the 1620s and then spread to neighbouring islands. These formative years are recalled at the cemetery of the Anglican church at Middle Island, where the tombstone of Sir Thomas Warner, the first English governor of the West Indies, survives. At the Wingfield Estate in Old Road Town, an indefatigable Yorkshireman, Maurice Widdowson, has spent years excavating and restoring the ruins of the first working rum estate and distillery in the Caribbean. A self-guided trail tells its story from the early days of tobacco and indigo to the rise of sugarcane.
History-lovers will find more to unpick in St Kitts & Nevis’s capital. It’s home to Basseterre, with time-battered churches, Georgian buildings, the modest National Museum of Saint Kitts and leafy Independence Square, where schoolchildren now grab lunch from brightly painted food trucks. Around the island, chimneys and mills stand testament to a sugar industry that limped on until 2005. A legacy of this is the splendid St Kitts Scenic Railway, a narrow-gauge line originally built to transport cane that’s been reborn as a ride that trundles around the north to the accompaniment of live a cappella singers.
The journey reveals how St Kitts remains a wonderfully green island where the rainforest is actually expanding due to the demise of sugar. For a taste of its dense and mountainous interior, take on the strenuous guided hike to its highest point, the 3,792ft summit of Mount Liamuiga. Your reward is to look down into a huge, forested volcanic crater, before heading back to relax at one of the island’s many golden-sand beaches. Centrally placed South Frigate Bay Beach has a strip of bars and affordable accommodation at Timothy Beach Resort, while Cockleshell Bay Beach, at the tip of the island’s southeastern peninsula, is the largest and liveliest, a fine place to kick back with a Carib beer and a swim after a satisfying day’s sightseeing.
How to do it: British Airways Holidays offers a seven-night trip from £749 per person (based on two sharing), including flights and accommodation at Timothy Beach Resort, room only.
More info: stkittstourism.kn
4. Try diving & watersports in Bonaire
The arid, low-lying Dutch island of Bonaire is one of the best destinations in the Caribbean for underwater thrills thanks to a decision taken in 1979 to protect its entire coastline to a depth of 200ft. The result is a pristine reserve where corals and marine life have flourished. A further bonus is that more than 50 of its dive spots are accessible from the shore, with well-established operators such as Dive Friends Bonaire offering the chance to experience it all. There’s also plenty for snorkellers to enjoy at sites such as Pink Beach and the uninhabited island of Klein Bonaire.
Above the surface, Lac Bay attracts both kitesurfers and windsurfers year-round. There’s the option to hike or mountain bike around Washington Slagbaai National Park, too, which encompasses a fifth of the island in the north. Sustainability is front and centre on Bonaire; the 20,000 mostly Dutch residents like to keep it clean and green by harnessing wind and solar energy. There are projects to restore reefs and protect a colony of around 1,000 yellow-shouldered parrots, while donkeys — released in the 1950s when they were no longer needed to work — roam free.
How to do it: KLM flies via Amsterdam from £651 return. Hotel Islander Bonaire in Kralendijk offers doubles from $100 (£72), room only. Delfins Beach Resort in Kralendijk offers doubles from $180 (£130), room only. klm.com hotelislanderbonaire.com
More info: tourismbonaire.com
5. Sample Caribbean country music in St Lucia
Calypso, reggae and steel pan drums might be hallmarks of Caribbean music, but that’s not the story on St Lucia. This super-scenic isle has an unexpected passion for American-style country music that developed in the 1940s when there were two US military bases here. The bittersweet lyrics about broken hearts, lonely nights, small-town bars and pick-up trucks struck a chord in this vivid land of hummingbirds, mangoes and soaring volcanic peaks, and it’s stuck with the generations. Pop into a supermarket and you’ll likely hear Dolly Parton or Kenny Rogers crooning away over the speakers. There are country music shows on the radio, flyers advertising ‘back in time’ dances and bars where your jerk chicken and Piton beer may well come with a side of Loretta Lynn.
If you fancy some jiving, Twist 2 For 1 is a rustic bar in Grande Riviere that plays traditional country music every Sunday. Country singers and line dancing are also part of the nightly entertainment programme at many popular resorts, including Windjammer Landing, Anse Chastanet and Bay Gardens Beach Resort & Spa. Local stars to look out for are Stetson-crowned karaoke singer Shervon Sealy and the LM Stone Family Band. “My stepfather went to cut sugar cane in Florida and brought the music home,” explains LM, a performer who once won a contest in Nashville where he was the only Black singer out of 50 entrants. His three sons and daughter are part of the act, too, mellifluously reminding us how, in the words of country legend Glen Campbell, rhinestone cowboys ‘really don’t mind the rain, and the smile can hide all the pain’.
How to do it: Tropical Sky offers a seven-night trip from £1,049 per person (based on two sharing), including flights, transfers and accommodation at Windjammer Landing, B&B.
More info: stlucia.org
6. Sample local delicacies in Grenada
Grenada, along with its sister islands Carriacou and Petite Martinique, was recently declared the world’s first ‘Culinary Capital’ by the World Food Travel Association — and this green and mountainous nation certainly has plenty to offer food enthusiasts. Must-visit spots include the deliciously scented nutmeg processing station in Gouyave and the River Antoine Estate distillery, which has been producing fiery rums since 1785.
The ‘Spice Isle’ has also made a name for itself with its handful of tree-to-bar artisan chocolate-makers — good going for a place with only 112,000 inhabitants. The annual Grenada Chocolate Fest, usually held in May, sees themed events hosted across the island.
A good starting point for a self-guided trail is the House of Chocolate in the capital, St George’s. While you’re in town, go for lunch at Sails Restaurant & Bar, on the waterfront, to try local treats such as carambola juice, fried plantain and coconut ice cream.
For a deeper understanding of how cocoa beans are transformed into one of life’s essentials, take a drive inland to Belmont Estate in Saint Patrick. “One cocoa pod equals one bar of chocolate,” a guide explains, as the labour-intensive stages of cultivation, harvest, fermentation and drying are demonstrated.
In the neighbouring parish of Saint Mark, the Diamond Chocolate Factory offers a free tour of the former distillery in which its Jouvay brand is created. Nearby Crayfish Bay Organics, meanwhile, is a small enterprise run by Kim and Lylette Russell, who make a passionate case that chocolate should not only taste good but should be ethically produced in a way that benefits the community. For those seeking a deeper dive into the subject, the estate has cottages for rent, and guests are welcome to join in with the picking, turning and tramping of the cocoa.
How to do it: Just Grenada offers a seven-night trip from £1,260 per person (based on two sharing), including flights, transfers and B&B accommodation at True Blue Bay Boutique Resort.
More info: puregrenada.com
7. Kitesurf the coast in St Vincent and the Grenadines
The tiny islands of the Grenadines are an exhilarating playground where sunshine, ocean and sky come together in a frenzy of water-based sports activities. The gateway for flying into this aquatic paradise is Union Island, but many visitors also sail in by yacht or catamaran to the Tobago Cays archipelago, a marine park of dazzling beauty. Here, you can swim and snorkel with turtles in 28C waters that are mesmerisingly clear, while paddleboarders and kitesurfers coast back and forth across a turquoise sea. Salt Whistle Bay, a long, curving beach on the island of Mayreau, protected from rougher waves by an outcrop of land, is another magnet for visitors.
Palm Island is a good place to use as a base for activities, and is also home to the luxury, all-inclusive Palm Island Resort & Spa. A free boat shuttle runs to Union Island, 10 minutes away, where JT Pro Center offers kitesurfing tuition, including a half-day ‘discovery lesson’ for novices who want to give it a go (winds are best between November and July).
Union Island’s main town, Clifton, has more accommodation options, along with restaurants and plenty of bars. One worth a visit is Happy Island, a castaway-style escape built on a foundation of conch shells.
For those looking to go island-hopping, Dream Yacht Charter offers week-long, skippered yacht and catamaran cruises, sailing north from Grenada via Carriacou. Experienced kitesurfers can bring their own kit and the itinerary is go-as-you-please, with stops to sleep under the stars in secluded Chatham Bay and to enjoy a toes-in-the sand lobster buffet on Petit Bateau island.
How to do it: Elite Island Holidays offers a seven-night trip from £2,535 per person (based on two sharing), including flights via Barbados, transfers and all-inclusive accommodation at Palm Island.
More info: discoversvg.com
8. The best of beach life in Anguilla
Where are the best beaches in the Caribbean? Anguilla is a strong contender, not least because this orderly British Overseas Territory has 33 of them to enjoy. Arid and low-lying, the slender isle is just 16 miles long and home to a mere 15,000 residents, meaning its brochure-perfect sands never get crowded. What’s more, these classic runways of spotless white powder are bordered by warm, clear waters, where show-off fish dally and passing turtles give snorkellers a friendly wave.
All the resorts in Anguilla are low-rise and most are high-end, having been rebuilt and improved after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Top of the bill are the glamorous Malliouhana, which rests on the cliffs at Meads Bay, and isolated Cap Juluca, set beside the crescent of Maundays Bay. A more affordable option is Carimar Beach Club, also on Meads Bay, which offers one- and two-bedroom self-catering villa suites.
Alongside this superlative accommodation comes a thriving culinary scene that majors on the local catch and extends from trucks dishing up delicious fish chowder for a few bucks to the delicate casserole Thailandaise de crayfish, served at Caribbean-Asian restaurant Hibernia.
What can you do beside lotus-eating? First stop has to be the absorbing Heritage Collection Museum in East End, where local historian Colville Petty has amassed a well-presented treasury of finds, donations and ephemera about his homeland. Exhibits range from rudimentary spearguns and school punishment books to portraits of the island’s many centenarians. There’s also information on the farcical ‘Bay of Piglets’ revolution of 1969, which British paratroopers and police officers were sent to quell. Today, links between the territory and the UK remain strong — there’s a sizeable Anguillan community in Slough and the Queen’s Birthday is a public holiday in Anguilla.
For the full island experience, get out on the water. “We always put up the sails,” says Laurie Gumbs, owner of Tradition, a 40-year-old handcrafted sloop that offers breezy day trips to Prickly Pear Cay. At night, Liquid Glow offers silent paddling under the stars in transparent kayaks fitted with LED lights.
Back on land, local rock star Bankie Banx pumps up the volume at his rustic Dune Preserve in Rendezvous Bay. And if the rum flows and you need to sleep things off the next morning, a dream beach is never far away.
How to do it: Tropic Breeze offers a seven-night trip from £1,880 per person (based on two sharing), including flights, transfers and accommodation at Carimar Beach Club, room only.
More info: ivisitanguilla.com
9. Explore the street art in Curaçao
The Caribbean is a region that explodes with colours and patterns, from flamboyant marine life to brightly painted homes and exuberant carnival costumes. On the Dutch island of Curaçao, 40 miles north of Venezuela, even commercial buildings come in vivid ice-cream hues — most notably in the centre of its UNESCO World Heritage-listed capital, Willemstad, where a much-photographed parade of slender-gabled townhouses rises beside the waters of Sint Anna Bay.
Split into two halves across a bay, this port city is best explored on foot or bike with Art Now Tours, which offers guided tours of a boisterous street art scene that mixes strident imagery with social commentary (for a taste, see @francissling, @jhomarloaiza and @garrickmarchena on Instagram). Stay in the lively Pietermaai neighbourhood, which has characterful heritage properties, abundant restaurants and small, contemporary hotels like the waterside Saint Tropez Ocean Club.
Much of the island’s energy come from its cultural diversity — there are more than 50 nationalities living here. This is reflected in a culinary whirl that spins from pancakes, gin and gouda cheese to tuna ceviche, curried goat, stewed iguana and funchi (polenta) fries. To get a handle on all this, book one of the Caribbean cookery courses or chef’s table dinners offered by Dutch author Helmi Smeulders.
Away from the city lie well-kept white sand beaches, salt flats blushing with flamingos and more than 70 diving and snorkelling spots including the flat, uninhabited island of Klein Curaçao and quirky Tugboat Beach, where fierce-jawed needlefish patrol beneath a hulking pier built for Curaçao’s now-declining oil industry. Inland, Christoffel National Park has trails, self-drive routes and the 1,220ft Christoffel Mountain, the island’s highest point.
How to do it: KLM flies via Amsterdam to Curaçao from £698 return. Saint Tropez Ocean Club in Willemstad offers doubles from $133 (£112), room only.
More info: curacao.com
10. Check into historic hotels in Nevis
Nevis is where the fine idea of taking a Caribbean holiday began. It was here in 1778 that the region’s first purpose-built resort, the Bath House Hotel, was opened by a local merchant, John Huggins, complete with a ballroom, Italian gardens and thermal spa.
A few years later, Horatio Nelson sailed in and married a local widow, Fanny Nisbet, with the Prince of Wales giving away the bride. You can still dip your feet in the soothingly hot volcanic waters where this hotel originally stood, while the marriage record of the naval hero can be seen in the nearby St John’s Figtree Anglican Church.
Shaped like a green sombrero, low-key Nevis has never been interested in the huge cruise ships and all-inclusive resorts that you find elsewhere in the Caribbean. Instead, it goes in for the type of characterful, heritage hotels that are slowly vanishing elsewhere. These escapes lie hidden in the hills where, instead of a television, guests get rampant tropical gardens where you can easily lose a day reading in a hammock.
The classic example is family-run The Hermitage in Figtree, which has a main house dating from 1680 and wooden cottages set in gardens shaded by mahogany and mango trees. You can tuck into pumpkin pancakes for breakfast, jerk pork for lunch and pre-dinner rum punches, made in the traditional style with nutmeg and sour orange.
Equally appealing is Montpelier Plantation & Beach, a country house in St Johns with a mosaic-patterned pool, elegant Great Room and luxurious rooms set in lush grounds where at night resident toads come to sit by the footlights. For something more modern, Golden Rock Inn is a foliage-wrapped former sugar estate in Gingerland that’s been turned into a stylish bolthole by New York-based artists Brice and Helen Marden. Expect bright red woodwork, designer furniture and a terrace restaurant where you can dine on mahi mahi under the stars.
And the sightseeing? Climb the 3,231ft Nevis Peak, stroll the golden sands of Pinney’s Beach or go ‘liming’ with the locals at the roadside barbecue organised every Friday night by the local Water Department.
How to do it: Just St Kitts & Nevis offers a seven-night trip from £1,550 per person (based on two sharing), including flights, transfers and B&B accommodation at Montpelier Plantation.
More info: nevisisland.com
11. Discover surprising stories in Montserrat
Passport stamps may have become an endangered species, but in green and mountainous Montserrat visitors are lucky enough to get one shaped like a shamrock. This little-visited British Overseas Territory was first settled in the 1630s by Irish Catholics, and the two emerald isles have stayed connected — the national flag features a Celtic harp and St Patrick’s Day is a spirited public holiday that mixes Guinness and soca music.
Pre-pandemic, there was a ferry from Antigua, but at present the only way to visit is by plane. The rewards are many: with a population of just 4,500, you soon make friends, and adventures include crowd-free diving, hiking in the forested hills and kayaking to Rendezvous Bay, the island’s only golden-sand beach
Birdwatchers can search for the elusive Montserrat oriole and turtles can be seen nesting on the west coast beaches from May to December. Major volcanic eruptions that started in 1997 have left two-thirds of the island out of bounds. Footage of this cataclysm can be seen at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, in Flemmings, and there are several viewpoints over the exclusion zone, plus trips to see Plymouth, the former capital, which is now an ash-cloaked ghost town.
Only a couple of small hotels operate, while villas are more affordable than in many parts of the Caribbean. The most characterful option is Olveston House, the former home of The Beatles producer Sir George Martin, who set up the nearby Air Studios Montserrat, where many 80s hits were recorded. The recent documentary film Under the Volcano explores this creative moment, and a music heritage tour is in the pipeline.
How to do it: British Airways flies direct from Gatwick to Antigua from £378, with onward connecting flights offered by Fly Montserrat from $146 (£106). Olveston House in Olveston offers doubles from $218 (£158), room only.
More info: visitmontserrat.com
Published in the December 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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