TravelTraveler Magazine

Flip-Side Caribbean

With its picturesque beaches and crystalline water, it’s no wonder the Caribbean is a popular vacation destination. But beyond the mega resorts and cruise ship decks there are rich cultures waiting to be explored.

The next time you’re in the mood for a tropical getaway, think about taking a trip to one of these lesser-known islands to get a more authentic Caribbean experience.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands…

Instead of St. Thomas, try St. John

St. Thomas may be the place to go for duty-free shopping (perfume or watches, anyone?), but St. John is the true gem of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Just look to the sea to see why. The island has everything from mainstream beaches with all the amenities to secluded spots where you’ll have the sandy stretch all to yourself — or share it with a sleepy donkey. (Donkeys were once a staple of the local economy, used to haul supplies and people, and many of their wild descendants remain). Regardless of your choice, you won’t be disappointed.

But shoppers, have no fear: St. John offers enough boutiques to keep you busy. But development is limited because more than half of the island is protected as a national park, so you’ll get the best of both worlds.

The same goes for foodies. Head over to Vie’s Snack Shack (yes, it’s an actually a shack) for the best chicken and conch fritters you’ve ever tasted. If you’re still craving something sweet, try Colombo’s Smoothies (they’ll add rum for added punch).

Can’t miss pick: Virgin Islands National Park. Exploring this mammoth nature preserve is the best way to get to know St. John Twenty different hiking trails will lead you to coral reefs, sugar-plantation ruins, and more.

In the Bahamas…

Instead of Grand Bahama, try Green Turtle Cay

Grand Bahama offers extravagant resorts, extensive shopping, and a constant swarm of cruise ship dwellers, but its cultural essence gets buried. Make the trek to Green Turtle Cay in the Abaco Out Islands to get a taste of true Bahamian life. This small island is worlds away from its overdeveloped counterpart; you have to use golf carts to navigate its back roads.

Take your time exploring the island’s main town of New Plymouth and the colorful houses and shops you’ll find there — just watch out for the dogs and chickens that roam the narrow streets.

You won’t find any chain restaurants here. Try Laura’s Kitchen for homemade Caribbean goodies like fried grouper and cracked conch, and then head to Sundowners Bar for a large Daiquiri at sunset followed by a night of dancing with the locals.

Can’t miss pick: Brendal’s Dive Center. With 25 years of guide experience, Brendal will give you a top-flight tour of the island’s loveliest dive spots. Or climb aboard his island-hopping cruise to Great Guana Cay on Sundays for live music, island drinks, and a huge pig roast. It’s one of the best parties in the Abacos.

In the Leeward Antilles…

Instead of Aruba, try Bonaire

Aruba is a cruise-ship hotspot (especially among American travelers), but if you’re looking for an island getaway without the casinos, high rises, and tourists, travel southeast to Bonaire.

Bonaire’s entire coastline is protected as a marine sanctuary and its well-preserved coral reefs draw divers from all over the world. But diving isn’t the island’s only famous water sport; it’s also a windsurfing hotspot. Take a beginner’s lesson at Jibe City or watch from the beach as windsurfers of all ages show off their tricks.

If you have any energy left, head to the Little Havana Cigar Bar in the main city of Kralendijk for a night of dancing and live music. While you’re there, chat with the locals and learn a few words in Papiamentu, the local language.

Can’t miss pick: Caving. Take a break from the sunshine to experience a totally different side of Bonaire. The Barcadera caves are the most visited, though there are several other cave networks to be explored (access to some caves is limited to protect the island’s diverse bat populations).

Erin Spencer is an intern at National Geographic Traveler, and a student at the College of William and Mary. Follow her story on Twitter @etspencer.