With 30 major islands – and more than 100 if you include every cay, spit and sandbar that disappears at high tide – the Caribbean offers a mind-boggling variety of destinations.
There are volcanic islands smothered in jungle, lively islands and some with just one hotel on them. And then there are the beaches – some deserted, others shoulder-to-shoulder with bars. So which should you choose?
ANGUILLA, THE HIGH POINT IN LOW-KEY SOPHISTICATION
Perfection: Sandy Ground, with its stretch of rickety beach bars, comes alive at sunset
Here you’ll find the best beaches of them all: blinding white sand gently shelving into gin-clear shallows to a sea so turquoise it would test a Surrealist painter’s palette.
There are strands to stroll at dawn, sophisticated spots for lunch and sandy shacks for a lobster snack. Some are lively by day such as Shoal Bay in the east, others come alive at sunset, such as Sandy Ground, with its stretch of rickety beach bars.
But mostly, Anguilla is about soaking up the sun and cooling off in the waves.
The island is quite expensive and not that easy to reach, but it has a good range of hotels and excellent villas in a fantasyland of architectural styles such as Moorish, Greek and even modernist abstractions in white concrete.
Anguilla also has serious restaurants, with cuisines including imaginative at Hibernia, innovative at Blanchards and equatorial ‘cuisine of the sun’ at Veya. Independent-minded Anguillians are laid back to the point of horizontal; their island is the ultimate in low-key Caribbean sophistication.
Splash out: Cap Juluca, B&B from £1,054 a night (belmond.com).
Best value: Carimar Beach Club, one-bedroom self-catering cottages from £198 a night (carimar.com).
FANCY A COOL RUNNINGS RIDE IN ADVENTURE-FILLED JAMAICA?
Majestic: The Blue Mountains are Jamaica’s highest mountain range, with the tallest peak 7,402ft above sea level
Mountainous and green, Jamaica has inland waters as cool and inviting as its sea. There are challenging hikes in the Blue Mountains (including to the 7,402ft peak), the John Crow Mountains and the extraordinary Cockpit Country, but also inland pools in which to swim and waterfalls to admire, such as those at Reach Falls and Mayfield. Of course there are zip-lines, lumpy, bumpy off-road vehicle tours and even a Cool Runnings-style bobsleigh descent. But best of all is river rafting – quite the opposite of white-water rafting – as you are punted on a bamboo raft along the Martha Brae or the Rio Grande, with a Red Stripe beer in hand and silken water between your toes.
Jamaica is large by Caribbean standards, with a strong island culture – the Jamaicans are demonstrative and lively and at times the streets really do reverberate to a reggae beat.
There’s an exceptional range of hotels in a full range of prices, from the traditional classics to funky modern hideaways.
The Jamaicans are demonstrative and lively and at times the streets really do reverberate to a reggae beat. Pictured is a colourful Jamaican street market
Independent restaurants are sadly few, due to the effect of all-inclusive resorts, but street food can be fun.
Take a road trip and stop where the Jamaicans do, for corn soup or jerk chicken and a johnny cake – cornmeal flatbread.
Splash out: Round Hill, B&B from £431 per night (roundhill.com).
Best value: Geejam, B&B from £184 per night (geejamhotel.com).
DRESS TO IMPRESS (AND DANCE ON TABLES) IN CHIC ST BARTS
Heavenly: Pictured is the chic Eden Rock on St Barts, where people dress up, not down, so pack summer finery
Not long ago Caribbean cuisine was hardly something to write home about. Now that chefs and suppliers are up to international speed, you can eat well – if you choose well.
St Barts is French, but classical recipes are reimagined and often steeped in local spices (try L’Esprit Salines). You can also expect Italian (L’Isola), Japanese (Orega and Kinugawa) and trusty French creole food at Eddy’s.
Dine by day, with fashion shows to divert you, in gardens under overhanging greenery (Le Tamarin), and right on the shoreline at Eden Rock’s Sand Bar and La Cabane at Cheval Blanc’s Isle de France. At night you can overlook the lovely Gustavia harbour from Bonito and La Guerite. Let your hair down at the Ti St Barth club, where dancing on the tables is part of the fun.
The quality of the food is indicative of life on St Barts: chic, stylish and beautifully presented. The island feels more metropolitan than Caribbean, and while it is certainly not cheap, there are excellent hotels and endless villas plus a lively social scene, both on the beach and in the evenings.
People dress up here, not down, so pack summer finery.
Splash out: Eden Rock, B&B from £1,445 per night (oetkercollection.com).
Best value: Hotel Le Village, B&B from £162 per night (levillagestbarth.com).
WHY TINY NEVIS IS SUCH A BIG ATTRACTION FOR HISTORY FANS
In Charlestown there’s a miniature museum of Nevis history in Alexander Hamilton House – where the US founding father and subject of the hit musical was born
Caribbean history may be mired in controversy right now but there’s no question that a beautifully designed plantation house sitting perfectly in its environment looks utterly magical.
Nevis has a handful of plantation house hotels which hark back 50 years to a time before tourism took over the islands. After tiny, charming Charlestown and its miniature museum in Alexander Hamilton House – where the US founding father and subject of the hit musical was born – look out for Horatio Nelson’s marriage register at Fig Tree Church and a museum devoted to Nelsonabilia. Then hike the Upper Round Road and seek out hidden ruins – you will discover windmills with massive iron crushing gear mouldering away, and stone ruins that now only whisper of the island’s elegant past.
Nevis is small, quiet and heart-stoppingly pretty, an island to fall in love with. Development has been quite sensitive, resulting in charming villas.
There is some seaside action, of course. In the light scattering of hotels on the west-facing Pinney’s beach, the beach bars doze by day and come alive at sundown.
Splash out: Montpelier Plantation, B&B from £170 per night (montpeliernevis.com).
Best value: The Hermitage, B&B from £130 per night (hermitagenevis.com).
DOMINICA’S ECO WONDERLAND IS BUZZING WITH WILDLIFE
With few white-sand beaches, Dominica approaches things differently from most Caribbean islands
Mantled in rainforest and so fertile you could almost expect a pencil to take root, everywhere on volcanic Dominica has a soundtrack of twittering, zinging, buzzing and peeping.
There are gardens with explosive tropical greenery and flowers (try Papilotte), scores of butterfly and bird species, two rare types of parrot and insects so large they appear to clank when they move.
Hiking trails venture up into dwarf and cloud forest, then down into the volcanic underworld – the island’s ‘Valley of Desolation’ has a fumerole, a sulphurous volcanic vent, with the Boiling Lake at its heart.
What’s more, this place is as fertile beneath the sea as above, and known for its colourful corals and whale-watching.
With few white-sand beaches, Dominica approaches things differently from most Caribbean islands, and some hotels make a virtue of their immersion in the rainforest.
There is a strong creole influence and most islanders speak French Creole, with lively chatter in the markets and on buses.
Splash out: Secret Bay, B&B from £592 per night (secretbay.dm).
Best value: Jungle Bay, B&B from £141, per night (junglebaydominica.com).
WHY FAMILIES RULE THE ROOST IN BRILLIANT BARBADOS
Barbados, pictured, is big for families due to direct flights from the UK and hotels in all price brackets have kids’ menus, activity programmes and babysitting
There’s a warm welcome for children in the Caribbean, whether on the beach or in the children’s soft play areas of the inevitable fast-food restaurants. Barbados is big for families due to direct flights from the UK and hotels in all price brackets have kids’ menus, activity programmes and babysitting, and when you want to explore together, there is calm and protected swimming if you choose the west coast or the Miami Beach lagoon on the south.
Tried-and-tested outings for family fun include swimming with turtles around Folkestone Marine Park, a Jolly Roger cruise for a day’s piracy, seaborne bouncy castles and banana boat rides.
Inland, head for Harrison’s Cave for stalactites and the Wildlife Reserve for monkeys and agouti.
Head for Harrison’s Cave for stalactites (above) and the Wildlife Reserve for monkeys and agouti
Multi-generational travel can be an expensive business, so consider a villa or apartment for your accommodation. There are plenty to choose from along both coasts. With its welcoming air, a huge choice of accommodation and activities, Barbados makes an ideal first visit to the Caribbean. The west and south coasts have different characters – the west more expensive and stylish, the south busier – but they are equally friendly.
Splash out: Sandy Lane, B&B with two children, £1,577 per night (sandylane.com).
Best value: Bougainvillea Hotel, B&B from £214, per night (bougainvilleabarbados.com).
DROP ANCHOR AT THE SECLUDED BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
The British Virgin Islands have excellent hotels, some set on their own island, making them extremely private and secluded. Pictured is a beachside room at the Anegada Beach Club
With more beach bars per square mile than any other island, along with reliable winds and excellent anchorages, it’s no wonder the British Virgin Islands are a hub for sailors.
A well-developed sailing industry means you can take a catamaran or monohull, sailing yacht or motor yacht, crewed or ‘bare’ boat (or a captain to settle you in), and even a berth on a weekly scheduled catamaran. There are snorkelling reefs, desert island picnic spots by day, and then evening fun on the circuit of lively bars.
The BVI also have excellent hotels, some set on their own island, making them extremely private and secluded.
With reliable winds and excellent anchorages, the British Virgin Islands are a hub for sailors. Pictured is Tortola, the capital island
Tortola, the capital island, feels busy with yachts and cruise ships (and the strong finance industry, which has resulted in splendid places to eat out).
Elsewhere, life takes place at a low-key to comatose pace, particularly in Jost van Dyke – dozy tropical perfection – and Anegada – undiscovered Caribbean.
The beaches are wonderful, with water so clear that yachts seem to hover and with sand like talcum-powder.
Splash out: Guana Island, B&B from £640 per night all-inclusive (guana.com).
Best value: Sugar Mill Hotel, B&B from £252 per night (sugarmillhotel.com).
There truly is somewhere for everyone in the Caribbean. Here are some of the best tour operators which can help you choose the right island and accommodation for your needs.
Caribtours (caribtours.co.uk) has a very broad selection of islands and hotels across the region, including the pick of the all-inclusives.
Elegant Resorts (elegantresorts.co.uk) offers Caribbean luxury on more than a dozen islands.
Just Grenada (justgrenada.co.uk) covers Grenada and a handful of other islands in detail and offers a good range of prices.
Tropic Breeze (tropicbreeze.co.uk) has a super selection of accommodation in a full range of prices across the Caribbean, including sailing in the British Virgin Islands.
- All rates are for low season, and are supplemented by local taxes and service charges.
FANCY FISH AND CHIPS AT COWELL’S HANGOUT?
Nowhere does beachside restaurants better than the west coast of Barbados. Here are six of the best places for delicious food.
Lone Star, Alleynes Bay
This former garage is the number one hangout for the rich and famous, and is especially popular with guests from the luxury Sandy Lane resort nearby, such as Simon Cowell.
On a gorgeous beach, it serves up simple favourites such as beer-battered sea bass and chips (£32) and moules frites (£30), as well as the more exotic grilled jerk lobster (£52).
It’s easy to spend all day here, with lunch followed by an afternoon on a sunlounger before a bit of snorkelling in the usually calm sea, and a pina colada at sunset (thelonestar.com).
Sea Shed, Mullins Beach
Since it opened in 2019, this has fast become a favourite of locals, tourists and stars, offering great pizzas from £14, steak frites (£25) and a lovely coconut panna cotta (£7).
Spread across three levels, it feels like a theatre at night and a relaxed club by day, with showers to freshen up after a dip. Its cocktails are also excellent (seashedbarbados.com).
Ocean fresh: One of the fish dishes at The Fish Pot in Clinketts
The Fish Pot, Clinketts
This family-run spot has been serving the freshest fish, combined with Caribbean sauce twists, for 19 years.
Based in a former 18th Century fort, it’s opposite The Little Good Harbour, a cosy hotel run by the same owners.
Swordfish with a banana curry (£22.50) and herb-crusted ahi tuna (£24.50) were highlights of a concise dinner menu – lunch is a more wide-ranging affair (fishpotbarbados.com).
Orange Street Grocer, Speightstown
This smart, mainly organic deli-bistro wouldn’t look out of place in West London – apart from the sea views.
Everything is made from scratch and there’s a large vegetarian selection. My son Luca loved the fish tacos (£16) (theorangestreetgrocer.com).
Champers, Rockley Beach
Overlooking one of the island’s best large beaches, this is a sophisticated place. Specials include fish pie (£17) and shrimp curry (£24), but the coconut pie dessert is the star attraction (champersrestaurant.com).
The fried chicken (£16) was the best we found, and the curried chicken and potato roti (£10) was heavenly.
But the main selling point is that it has screens showing English cricket (and football), making it a nice retreat for a couple of hours out of the sun.