Looking for some of adventure on your Caribbean escape? Down for going off the beaten path? Check out these often-overlooked islands that are more than the sum of their white sandy beaches.
Rule number one for outdoor lovers thinking about an escape to the Caribbean? Get off the beaten path. Otherwise you’ll be herded onto overdeveloped beaches and cookie-cutter resorts teeming with the same people you’re hoping to get away from. (If that’s what you want, a flight to South Florida is much cheaper.) Instead, touch down on one of these lesser-known islands, where you’ll find dreamy beaches, world-class fishing, hiking, mountain biking, and, most important, no crowds.
Hike, Don’t Drive, on Saba
You can land on the five-square-mile island of Saba (home to the smallest commercial runway in the world at 1,312 feet, with each end leading off a cliff) and get around using nothing more than your two feet. The airport and Saba’s two main towns, the Bottom and Windwardside, are connected by a series of old walking trails. Before the appearance of Saba’s first and only paved road in the 1950s, these canopied paths were the main thoroughfares for locals. Pack light and you can hike from hotel to hotel in under two hours through the rainforest, from Juliana’s to Queen’s Garden Resort. Or you can stop halfway and spend a night at the Rainforest Ecolodge. In between, locals will point you to the Mount Scenery Trail, a staircase-like climb that leads to the island’s highest point and a sweeping view of Windwardside.
Don’t expect to find many beaches. Saba’s volcanic base gives it a coastline of jagged cliffs that top out at more than 3,000 feet. The island has only two legit strips of sand: Well’s Bay and the man-made Cove Bay. No complaints here—it keeps the daiquiri-sipping tourists at bay.
Dive the Blue Holes of Andros
The term “blue hole” has become synonymous with Belize, but the Bahamian island of Andros actually has the highest concentration of them in the world—178 on land and at least 50 in the sea. The holes are at the top of an expansive underwater cave network formed by the eroding limestone bedrock. Tourists can scuba and snorkel right through them. Chances are they won’t be crowded since there are no cruise ships or high-rises on Andros.
The blue holes at South Bight are the most popular because they have the most marine life. But Vermont native turned Andros local Jessie Leopold, owner of Andros Diving, also recommends the Crack, an area where on-land and in-ocean blue holes abut one another.
Need a rest day? Drive over a causeway from St. Nicholls or San Andros to Red Bays Village, 14 miles from the airport. It’s home to a tribe of black Seminoles, ancestors of Native Americans and slaves from Florida who fled from persecution in the early 19th century. They’re known for living off the land and crafting palm thatch baskets. It is possible to visit, just be polite when taking photos.
Mountain Bike in Haiti
In 2012, just two years after Haiti’s devastating earthquake, a small team of Americans visited the island in hopes of establishing the first professional mountain biking stage race in the country. On that trip, Chris Kehmeier, a trail specialist from the International Mountain Biking Association, called the route from Furcy and La Visite National Park one of the gnarliest trails he’d ever seen due to its steep, exposed, rocky terrain.
The following year, the MTB Ayiti International Stage Race was born (ayiti translates to “land of mountains”). Using Haitian vendors and local staff, the race injects money into the local economy. The inaugural event took bikers a total of 65 miles through rural villages from the mountains of Port au Prince to the coastal region of Marigot. On the first day, the course climbed a bruising 8,000 feet into La Visite National Park.
Prepping for its third year this January, the race (not for beginners) showcases Haitian culture along with the stunning landscape. Labeled a “cultural immersion experience” by its creators, the event combines three days of biking with three days of historical tours, trail development, and themed celebrations to connect visitors and locals. The six-day program costs $1,950 per person. Not in the mood to race? You can still access the trails, but contact MTV Ayiti to find a guide. Going it alone is not recommended.
Get there: Fly to Port au Prince direct from Miami.
Bonefish in Los Roques
The Bahamas may be known for excellent bonefishing, but if you want to ditch the crowds, consider Los Rocques Archipelago National Park, 85 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Yes, the South American country gets a bad rap, but that keeps this marine park immaculate and devoid of American crowds. The U.S. State Department lists a travel warning for Caracas and the Venezuelan interior, but Los Roques is a 45-minute flight in the other direction.
“Los Roques has a series of super-shallow pancake flats that are surrounded by deeper water,” says Michael Caranci of The Fly Shop, the first group of anglers legally licensed to fish in the area. “The shallow flats have a firm bottom that is perfect for stalking fish on foot.” Because it’s closer to the equator, Los Roques enjoys a longer fishing season (February to October) than the islands of the northern Caribbean.
If you want to see some of the best preserved coral reefs in the Western Hemisphere, check out Ecobuzos Dive Adventures.
Get there: You’ll need to transfer in Caracas to Los Rocques Airlines, Chaipi Air, Albatros, Blue Star, or LTA.
Get Your Diving Cert on Petit St. Vincent
Petit St. Vincent is a private island at the southern tip of the Grenadines. It’s extremely small—just 115 acres. The island features only 22 cottages (no Wi-Fi or telephones) and two restaurants. But don’t worry about the lack of land, because you’ll be spending all your time off the grid and in the water.
Owned and operated by the son of Jacques Cousteau, Jean-Michel Cousteau Diving Caribbean opened in the beginning of November. The dive center offers guided and instructional dives through what Cousteau calls some of the healthiest reefs in the Caribbean. It’s only the second Jean-Michel Cousteau school in the world and the first in the Western Hemisphere (the other is in Fiji).
Divers can ride tidal currents through the Mayreau Gardens, explore the Puruni Wreck of 1918, track down lobsters and six-foot-tall coral at Frigate Point, and explore the underwater cave at Sail Rock. Beginners can get PADI certified.
Get there: Fly to Barbados, and then change to Union Island. From there, it’s a 20-minute boat ride to Petit St. Vincent.
Race on Nevis
Nevis has been given the nickname “Island of Sport.” Why? The islanders love competition. Take, for instance, the area’s buzzing drag and horse racing scenes or its yearly triathlon (November) and the 2.5-mile interisland swim to St. Kitts (last Sunday in March).
That reputation keeps growing. Last year, Nevis hosted its first running festival in September, featuring a marathon, half marathon, 10K, 5K, and 3K. It drew a modest 400 people, but with a second go-round already planned for September 2015, Nevis is shaping up to be a well-rounded destination for competitive racers.
The island is only 35 square miles and encircled by a 20-mile road—perfect for road biking. The interior is connected by a series of forested hiking trails that skirt around and through the island’s highest point at 3,232 feet. You can also check out the fishing—recently installed man-made reefs using old cars have attracted tuna, wahoo, dorado, kingfish, snapper, barracuda, shark, and mahimahi.
When it’s time to put your feet up, locals recommend the beaches on the west side for relaxing. Don’t miss Paradise, Oualie, and Lovers Beach, where the sand is soft and the water calm. If you’re looking to stay active, head to the reefs of Herbert’s Beach on the Windward side for snorkeling.
Get there: JetBlue and Spirit can get you to St. Maarten, where you can hop on a Winair plane to Nevis or jump on a 45-minute ferry. American and JetBlue both go to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where you can switch to Cape Air, Tradewind, or Seaborne to Nevis.