Caribbean Getaways: Islands in the Sun
The Caribbean lures travelers with its sparkling blue waters and tropical beaches. And best of all, it’s an easy jaunt to paradise.
Since last year’s hurricane season was one for the record books, you might be a little wary of a Caribbean vacation this summer, thinking that the area is not ready for tourists. But let us reassure you. Although several countries suffered serious damage, the storms bypassed a whopping 70 percent of the region (which comprises more than one million square miles), and most of the affected countries have bounced back and are rolling out the welcome mat for visitors.
So here, for your vacation consideration, are six sun-drenched destinations. From breezy Bahamian cays south to the lush rainforests of Grenada, these idyllic isles are the stuff of Caribbean dreams—but they are easily within reach. Just find your favorite and start plotting your escape.
Say “Bahamas” and most people immediately think of Nassau, the capital, or nearby Paradise Island, famously dominated by Atlantis resort. But the Bahamas is actually an archipelago of more than 700 islands that stretches from Grand Bahama just 50 miles from Florida south to Inagua, 288 miles east of Cuba. In between are island groupings such as the Exuma Cays, where you can swim with pigs (really!) and straddle the Tropic of Cancer; the boating capital of the Abacos; and idylls such as Harbour Island, which offers Instagram-worthy beaches washed by turquoise water and fringed with pink sand.
Easily accessible but far enough away to make you feel as if you’ve actually gone somewhere exotic, the Bahamas offers plenty of diversions, on the beach and beyond. For beach lovers who want their sand time served with a scene, Nassau’s Junkanoo Beach and Cable Beach are always buzzing. Purchasing a day pass gives you the run of Paradise Island mega-resort Atlantis, with its 13 pools, 141-acre water park and sprawling waterscape of lagoons, waterfalls and aquariums. And if you’re staying in the Out Islands (anywhere other than Nassau/Paradise Island), you’re just a boat ride away from uninhabited cays where you can realize all your desert island dreams.
(©BAHAMAS MINISTRY OF TOURISM)
In Nassau, savor local flavor on the Bites of Nassau walking tour, which features stops at six city eateries. On the menu: conch, baked macaroni and cheese, peas ’n rice, and a refreshing glass of “switcha” (limeade), served with a side of local history.
On Grand Bahama, The Garden of The Groves, home to the Caribbean’s first public labyrinth, is punctuated with ponds, waterfalls and palm trees and populated by native birds and butterflies. A tour of the nearby Sands brewery, which concludes with generous pourings of the local suds, will surely inspire an adventure of its own.
(©BAHAMAS MINISTRY OF TOURISM)
Part of the new billion-dollar Nassau resort development, Baha Mar, the 1,800-room Grand Hyatt Baha Mar offers the Caribbean’s largest casino; its own Jack Nicklaus signature golf course; and six pools, all set along the island’s most famous strand, Cable Beach. bahamar.grand.hyatt.com
If a small hotel is more your speed and you’re content to be near but not on the beach, consider The Island House, a 30-room retreat in the tony Nassau neighborhood Lyford Cay. Amenities include a cinema and spa. Shima, a Southeast Asian restaurant, is a delight. the-island-house.com
Dating from the 18th century, Nassau’s oldest hotel and restaurant, Graycliff, boasts something to please every palate: a 250,000-bottle wine cellar; a pizzeria; churrascaria; a chocolatier; and a cigar factory. graycliff.com
Savor Bahamian specialties (think conch fritters, cracked conch and Johnny cake) in one place at Lukka Kairi, a waterfront restaurant at Nassau’s Prince George Wharf. Sky juice—a popular Bahamian cocktail made with gin and coconut water—is a fitting accompaniment. lukkakairi.com
Even if you’re staying in bustling Nassau, you can still sample the classic Bahamian Out Island experience on Sandy Toes’ day trip to Rose Island, a 15-minute boat ride from the capital that feels much farther. The excursion includes a snorkeling tour, buffet lunch and sightings of Gilligan’s
Island, where scenes from the classic TV show were shot. sandytoesbahamas.com
Crystal-clear water, miles of whitesand beaches and some of the world’s best diving have made the Cayman Islands one of the Caribbean’s most popular destinations. Less than 500 miles south of Miami, the largest of the three Caymans is Grand Cayman, a sophisticated 76-square-mile tourist hub. And although its smaller sister islands, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, see far less tourist traffic, they’re just a quick flight away and definitely worth a day trip if time permits.
Visitors who fly in on the island’s national airline, Cayman Airways, start their vacay the moment they board with complimentary Tortuga rum punch in-flight. And cruisers dock right in the waterfront capital, George Town, where shops and restaurants are steps from the gangway. But regardless of how you get here, make Seven Mile Beach your first stop. The lively resort-lined strand on Grand Cayman’s west coast is a must for sun-seekers, swimmers and snorkelers. Searching for a quieter scene? Nearby Smith Cove (also known as Smith Barcadere) is a chill South Sound spot with tiny twin beaches and great snorkeling. If you visit during the week, a flock of chickens may well be your only company.
Divers will be enchanted by Grand Cayman’s reef, 60 feet of drop-offs and more than 250 dive sites, many less than a half-mile offshore. And even the water-wary will be tempted to take the plunge at Stingray City, a sandbar that’s home to hundreds of Southern Atlantic stingrays. Hop a cruise to this open-water wonder, then wade in waist-deep to play with the gentle gliders. redsailcayman.com
At Pedro St. James, tourists can discover Grand Cayman’s colorful heritage at interactive exhibits housed in the island’s oldest surviving stone building, a meticulously restored three-story, 18th-century mansion set amid sprawling Great Pedro Bluff.
On the northernmost end of Seven Mile Beach, Kimpton Seafire Resort + Spa has 266 slick rooms, all but 10 with ocean views. But the buzz is all about the $10,000-a-night corner penthouse and the spa’s Turkish bath, one of only three in the Caribbean. seafireresortandspa.com
Parrotheads (aka Jimmy Buffett fans) and their pals can roost at the Margaritaville Beach Resort Grand Cayman, an oasis inspired by the singer’s laid-back lifestyle and lyrics. The resort has four pools, a License To Chill Bar and complimentary nightly band performances. margaritavilleresortgrandcayman.com
Every Wednesday, the West Bay shopping and entertainment center Camana Bay hosts its Flavour Tour, a two-hour stroll during which you can sip and snack on fare from several of its restaurants and bars. At $89 per person it’s a steal. camanabay.com
The ultimate special-occasion splurge, Blue by Eric Ripert at the Ritz-Carlton Grand Cayman is the Caribbean’s only AAA Five Diamond restaurant, offering more than 700 wines and seafood tasting menus that cost around $200 a head. ritzcarlton.com
Only a five-minute flight away, sister island Cayman Brac (population 2,000) feels a world apart. Your to-do list may include exploring the sunken Russian warship MV Tibbets or topside diversions such as quaffing a cold Caybrew on any of 10 secluded beaches. Just don’t leave without swinging by Pioneer Bakery for Brac bread, the addictive circular loaf for which the island is famous. caymanairways.com
You might not have heard much about this eastern Caribbean charmer, but with increased flights from the U.S. and more than 400 new hotel rooms about to become available (a Kimpton resort is scheduled to open here in 2019), chances are you soon will.
At the southern end of the Grenadines archipelago, the 133-square-mile gem (pronounced Gre-NAY-da) is known as the Island of Spice because of its fertile soil. The result: a bounty of plants, herbs and spices (Grenada is the world’s second-largest producer of nutmeg), whose fragrance is apparent with every breeze. This is a destination that still oozes Old Caribbean charm—a place where you can safely hop a local bus, and where it’s not uncommon to see people hand-washing their clothes in the river.
Despite its diminutive dimensions, Grenada boasts 45 white-sand strands plus nine black-sand beauties. Our recommendation: Start by spreading your blanket on Grand Anse, the island’s 2-mile-long marquee shoreline. Bordered by almond trees and punctuated with small hotels, it’s also the perfect spot for an evening stroll, when the view of the sun setting over the harbor in the capital city, St. George’s, begs to be immortalized on your Instagram feed.
(GRENADA TOURISM AUTHORITY)
Rum lovers should make a beeline for River Antoine, the oldest distillery in the Western Hemisphere, where rum is made today much as it has been since 1795. Just don’t leave without buying a bottle of their ambrosial rum punch; it’s a steal at $10 a bottle and is only sold here.
If time permits, consider a day trip to Carriacou, one of Grenada’s two sister islands. (The other is Petit Martinique.) The two-hour ferry crossing from St. George’s (ospreylines.com) is a journey into the past, ending on an idyllic 13-square-mile outpost that’s home to 7,000 people, one gas station and, they say, 100 rum shops.
Stumped for a souvenir? If you didn’t take the fascinating tour of the nutmeg processing station in Gouyave, head to the nearest grocery store for a bottle of nutmeg syrup. It’s good on pancakes but even better in rum punch.
(GRENADA TOURISM AUTHORITY)
What you forfeit in terms of beachfront location, you gain in awe-inspiring Caribbean views at Mount Cinnamon Resort & Beach Club, a cozy 22-suite hillside retreat overlooking the sugary curve of Grand Anse. mountcinnamongrenadahotel.com
Calabash Luxury Boutique Hotel is a pricey but unpretentious cloister on a secluded south-coast peninsula. Complimentary breakfast served to the hotel’s garden suites (some of which have their own plunge pools) and the seductive sweep of Lance Aux Epines beach make it ideal for a romantic getaway. calabashhotel.com
Enjoy a buffet lunch of local specialties in a pastoral hillside setting at Belmont Estate, a 300-year-old, 300-acre farm where Grenada’s ubiquitous nutmeg is processed. Organic chocolate bars made from cocoa grown onsite make a fitting finale to your visit. belmontestate.net
You won’t find a more unique happy hour spot than The Lightship, a decommissioned floating lighthouse docked at Le Phare Bleu Marina. Expect rummy cocktails and a live band with spectacular sunset views on the side. lepharebleu.com
Grenada is blessed with 14 waterfalls, and one of the easiest to get to is Concord Falls, in the island’s western interior. It costs only a dollar to enter the hillside haven, where you can wade into bracing waters beneath gushing 35-foot-high cascades. Tip: Time your visit for early morning, and you’ll likely have the idyllic oasis all to yourself.
(ROYALTON NEGRIL RESORT & SPA)
Known for rum, reggae and Rastafarianism, the region’s largest English-speaking island claims a culture, cuisine and countrymen (think Bob Marley and Usain Bolt) who have exerted a global influence far beyond the island’s size.
Jamaica’s history of hospitality is rich, dating to the 1950s in exclusive resorts in the north-coast towns of Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, and today extending east and west to Port Antonio and Negril. This island is also famous for its profusion of beachfront all-inclusive resorts, the first of which debuted in 1978. Many of the resorts offer tours and excursions beyond the property so you can safely explore this diverse destination. From beaches to the Bob Marley Museum, secluded waterfalls to mist-crowned mountains, there’s so much here to see and do.
Just outside Ocho Rios, for example, beyond the 600-foot-high cascades at Dunn’s River Falls and the bobsled-themed rollercoaster at Mystic Mountain, lies Prospect Plantation. Here visitors can amble through the 1,000-acre estate on camels, who happily pose against a vivid backdrop of tropical plants and trees planted by visiting heads of state. And at Trelawny’s River Bumpkin Farm, you can pair a tour of the plantation with kayaking and tubing down the Martha Brae, a 2-mile trip that transports visitors through the upper reaches of the river and also back in time. islandroutes.com
Of course there are also plenty of beaches to plant your bum. Port Antonio’s Frenchman’s Cove, a local go-to, is a small scallop of sand bordered by a garden with a river running through it. Relaxed indulgence is the order of the day on the 7-mile strip in Negril, where a colorful cast of characters presides. But south-coast staple Floyd’s Pelican Bar, a quirky over-water drinkery made of driftwood, is possibly the best combination of wet and wild fun.
The Royalton Negril Resort & Spa, which opened a little over a year ago, is a scenic, sprawling property at the water’s edge. This all-inclusive resort is comprised of three sections, each offering a distinct experience—one for families, a Diamond Club option with butler service, and an adults-only getaway. royaltonresorts.com/royalton-negril
Sophisticated but not stuffy, Jamaica Inn in Ocho Rios combines a genteel country club vibe with modern conveniences (think lightning-fast WiFi and an oceanfront spa) and more than 50 years of storied service. (Winston Churchill and Marilyn Monroe were guests.) jamaicainn.com
In Mo’Bay, breakfast like a local at The Pelican Grill, a waterfront diner that’s one of the best places to try the national dish, ackee and saltfish, and where the malted milkshakes are legendary. pelicangrillja.com
The empanada-like Jamaican patty is to islanders what the burger is to Americans. And wherever you’re staying on the island, you’re just steps from a Tastee or Juici bakery, where you can sample the iconic meat-, seafood- or veggie-filled pastry pocket for yourself. tasteejamaica.com, juicipatties.com
In the 1950s, actor Errol Flynn popularized recreational rafting on the Rio Grande—an activity formerly used to transport bananas from plantations to port. Today, visitors to Port Antonio can drift along the scenic waterway in bamboo rafts captained by expert oarsmen, who enliven the tranquil 2.5-hour trip with amusing anecdotes, daring pole tricks and as much Red Stripe as you desire. explorerjamaica.com
(PUERTO RICO TOURISM COMPANY)
Although it was hit hard by last summer’s hurricanes, Puerto Rico is on the rebound, and has since declared itself open for business, with more than 100 hotels, 4,000 restaurants and 107 attractions ready to receive visitors. And although conditions vary across the island, the cosmopolitan capital of San Juan is certainly listo for leisure travelers, who rightly rave about the country’s unique mash-up of African, Spanish and other European influences reflected in its history, food, art and culture. More reasons to visit: American citizens don’t need a passport to enter the commonwealth, the official currency is the U.S. dollar, and there are no roaming charges for U.S.-based cellphone users.
Luxury high-rise hotels line the coast in the neighborhoods of Isla Verde and Condado, and there are plenty of historic and charming boutique hotels in Old San Juan. Staying in the old city puts you within walking distance of two of San Juan’s most iconic attractions, the historic forts of El Morro and San Cristobal, and smack in the center of the Instagrammable square-mile, famous for its narrow cobblestoned streets lined with colorful colonial buildings. If you stay in Condado, strolling its main thoroughfare, Avenida Ashford, is essential to get a feel for the “once-gritty, now-pretty” waterfront district where Louis Vuitton and Gucci rub shoulders with swanky hotels and trendy independent boutiques.
(PUERTO RICO TOURISM COMPANY)
San Juan is also a superb dining destination with a dynamic culinary scene that reflects its multi-culti roots. When you’ve had your fill of sightseeing, sample a piña colada (or three!) at the Caribe Hilton and the Old San Juan bar and restaurant Barrachina (barrachina.com), both of which claim to have invented the island’s national drink in the 1960s. Across the bay in Cataño, the free tour at Casa Bacardi tells the story of the famous (originally Cuban) rum company and includes complimentary cocktails. Salud!
(PUERTO RICO TOURISM COMPANY)
The urban-chic Serafina Beach Hotel recently opened in the Condado neighborhood with 96 rooms, a see-and-be-seen poolside lounge, and a respected pedigree as the first hotel from international culinary conglomerate, Serafina Restaurant Group. serafinabeachhotel.com
Smack in the center of cobblestoned Old San Juan, Morocco meets the Caribbean at 32-room Casablanca, a charming and art-filled boutique hotel where the decor pays homage to the classic movie (and rooftop soaking tubs are a bonus). hotelcasablancapr.com
There’s no sign outside the house Jose Enriqué converted into his eponymous Santurce restaurant, but you’ll know it by the crowd of Sanjuaneros on the porch. Precede your Puerto Rican feast with the signature Naturola rum cocktail and leave room for scrumptious dessert. joseenriquepr.com
You must try mofongo, a specialty made with mashed fried plantains and stuffed with pork, chicken or seafood. And Café El Punto, tucked into an alleyway off Callé Fortaleza, is a great place to start. cafeelpunto.com
Take a vacation from your vacation on an outing to the offshore island of Culebra aboard East Island Excursions’ high-speed catamaran. The all-day adventure starts in Fajardo and includes snorkeling at one of three Cordillera islands plus plenty of beach time at Culebra’s famous Flamenco Beach. Snorkeling gear, a buffet lunch and rum cocktails are included in the tab. eastislandpr.com
TURKS & CAICOS ISLANDS
(AGILE LEVIN/VISIT TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS)
Just south of the Bahamas, 40 Turks and Caicos Islands float in the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean, only eight of them inhabited but almost all blessed with stunning sweeps of bone-white beach. And whether you’re staying on the 38-square-mile tourist hub of Providenciales (known affectionately as “Provo”), where 12-mile-long Grace Bay is the marquee strand, or on a tiny private-island cloister such as Parrot Cay, chances are it’s the sand that seduced you.
But the archipelago specializes in more than mere beach. Less than a mile from shore the sea wall plummets 6,000 feet, making Provo a must-do for divers (the island also boasts the world’s third longest barrier reef). Prefer to stay above the water line? Take one of Big Blue Unlimited’s paddleboards out for a leisurely float through the mangroves, or join their kayak tour of the cays and creeks that comprise the Princess Alexandra National Park. bigblueunlimited.com
On sleepy Grand Turk, Oasis Divers runs excursions to Gibbs Cay that combine snorkeling with an intimate encounter with stingrays, and it’s just a 15-minute boat ride offshore of the islet. Each member of the small and inquisitive family of rays has a name. Be sure to look for Freckles, Princess, and tail-less Stumpy.
(AGILE LEVIN/VISIT TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS)
Also on Grand Turk, swing by the cruise terminal to see the exhibit: a kitschy life-sized replica of the space capsule Friendship 7 and astronaut John Glenn, commemorating his historic 1962 splashdown here after his orbital flight.
But whichever of the islands you choose to visit, make sure you try the the national brew, Turks Head, a refreshing Provo-produced lager that is made using imported hops and desalinated island water. And do bring back a bottle of Bambarra rum, the TCI’s signature brand. It’s available in several varieties, but we’re partial to the 15-year-old blend, Trouvadore.
Grace's Cottage at Point (TROPICAL IMAGING)
The all-inclusive resort Beaches Turks & Caicos will prove to be the right choice for every member of your family. Sesame Street’s Grover comes to your suite to read the little ones a bedtime story. Your teens will be busy polishing their deejaying skills. As for you, you’ll have the best couples massage ever. beaches.com
There are three things we love about 28-suite charmer Point Grace: its central location midway along Grace Bay, romantic alfresco dining at Grace’s Cottage restaurant, and relaxing en suite in claw-foot bathtubs. pointgrace.com
Hands down the best place to sample the islands’ scrumptious sea snail is at beachfront classic Da Conch Shack, where the meaty mollusks are kept in an ocean pen steps from the kitchen, so you know your conch salad is going to be as fresh as it gets. daconchshack.com
Named for Provo’s latitude, The Palms resort’s Parallel 23 restaurant boasts a setting (on the candlelit, bougainvillea-strewn terrace of a great house) that’s as beguiling as the delectable Caribbean fusion cuisine. thepalmstc.com
If you’re staying on Provo, hop on the TCI Ferry to neighboring North Caicos, where you can rent a car and explore Middle Caicos, home to stunning (and often deserted) Bambarra Beach. Your second stop: Conch Bar Caves, a 120,000-year-old, 1.5-mile-long cavern, complete with four species of bats and seemingly bottomless subterranean lagoons. tciferry.com