If you plan to stay at one of those mega-sized all-inclusive resorts where no one bothers to leave the property except to return to the airport, it doesn’t matter which island you’re on. The limbo contests, nightly magician acts, and rum drinks at the tiki bar will all be about the same. But if you want an authentic cultural experience with a dose of adventure added in, read further. These three islands offer the best bargains for a Caribbean getaway.
This lush, leaf-shaped island in the far southern Caribbean fell off the American radar screen shortly after U.S. forces invaded it in 1983 to topple the Marxist government there. Today it quietly thrives as a spice producer and affordable getaway for adventure-minded people lured not only by the long, empty soap-flake white beaches, but also its forested inland volcanic peaks.
Bask: Morne Rogue Beach is smaller, more placid, and less crowded than its big sister to the north, Grand Anse Beach, but just as picturesque.
Explore: Take the two-hour Seven Sisters Falls hike past, you guessed it, seven waterfalls through the rainforest of Grand Etang National Park.
Stay: You’ll get ocean views, a down-home atmosphere, and rates that start at $99 a night at the Rumboat Retreat bed and breakfast in the fishing village of Gouyave on the island’s western shore.
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Yes, St. Thomas is the Caribbean’s cruise ship magnet, and its capital, Charlotte Amalie, can be overrun with tourists, but don’t be scared away. The island is cheaper to visit than St. Croix and St. John, and can offer the same seclusion and wealth of natural beauty if you know where to look.
Bask: The palm-shaded pearl sands of crescent-shaped Lindquist Beach on the island’s east coast is accessed by an unmarked dirt road, leaving it blissfully quiet for those few who know of its existence.
Explore: Paddle among the mangrove islands in Inner Mangrove Lagoon and hike Cas Cay island during a three-hour kayak tour with Virgin Islands Ecotours ($79).
Stay: The nine-room, garden-ringed Green Iguana Hotel on Blackbeard’s Hill peers down at Charlotte Amalie and the water (from $90).
The finger-shaped former Dutch colony off the Venezuelan coast enjoys a relatively strong economy thanks to the oil and finance trades, so it’s not reliant on the overdevelopment of pricey, exclusive resorts to bring in big dollars. The result is a crowded capital city of Willemstad, but quiet, cozy and friendly outdoor escapes along its quiet shoreline.
Bask: Curacao’s best beach escape is actually on an uninhabited spit of sand called Klein Curacao, about 15 miles off the coast. Almost as dazzling as its bleached, sugary sands is the snorkeling in its clear blue waters. Several outfitters will ferry you there, including Mermaid Boat Trips ($105 per person).
Stay: The palm-fringed Rancho el Sobrino Resort on the western tip of the island is a five-minute walk to Forti Beach, a quiet sandy strip shared by fishermen and the occasional swimmer or sunbather. Its 12 studios and apartments encircle a broad swimming pool, and the restaurant serves traditional local dishes like papaya stew (rooms from $80).