Long before Club Med and Sandals resorts began cropping up all over its isles, the Caribbean has been a desirable getaway from bone-chilling winters and fast-paced city life. Problem is, when it comes to the southern sea white-sand beaches, pristine blue water and an unlimited supply of piña coladas generally all mean one thing: an overdose of cruise ships ready to spill their passengers onto every port city in which they dock.
But, contrary to popular belief, relatively uncharted territory in the Caribbean is not a paradox. Untapped islands like Cuba’s Isla de la Juventud offer the lax tropical environment for which the region is known, sans eyesores like piercing parlors and tacky T-shirt shacks that litter its more popular neighbors. Other lesser-known chains near South America have yet to be touched by the tourism torpedo.
“Many spots in the Lesser Antilles, like the Windward Islands (home to Dominica and Grenada), are not as popular as destinations like the Bahamas, Caymans and Virgin Islands. These may take longer to get to from the mainland U.S., but then you’re rewarded with a more intimate experience,” says William Travis, editor of Frommer’s Caribbean guide.
Picking a destination not served by major airlines from the U.S. mainland also allows for fewer people, less expensive lodging and untainted scenery. Getting to secluded Les Saintes, for example, is no simple feat, though it is perfectly manageable: Three flights–from New York City to San Juan, San Juan to Guadeloupe, Guadeloupe to Les Saintes–will place you in the lap of luxury.
“If you want to stay away from cruise ships, make sure when you’re planning your trip to avoid staying in or visiting a port of call,” Travis advises. “And even though your plane may land in or near a port of call, plan to stay as far away as possible.
“There are still quite few destinations that don’t have a lot of development, like Saba. To get to these destinations will take some time and money, as you would need to first travel from a major destination (in the Caribbean) to get to one of these islands. But if you want something more remote, it’s worth the trip.”
Planning around the Caribbean’s high season — December through April — when the fares are lower and the crowds fewer is another way to bypass the tourist boom, adds Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon. The senior editor at Caribbean Travel & Life also recommends getting out and exploring on your own as opposed to succumbing to organized tours.
“Consider renting a car and hitting up the smaller towns and villages that are less tourist-oriented,” Greaves-Gabbadon states. “It’s these authentic, spontaneous experiences that really make your vacation.”
Once you finally land, you’ll find diving and snorkeling sites abound in nearly every part of the sea’s mesmerizing waters. Virgin Gorda, Tobago and others are starting to attract those in search of underwater thrill-seeking vacations. For the ultimate adrenaline junkie, shark meccas like Andros in the Bahamas provide the sought after rush of splashing around with bloodthirsty marine monsters.
But lush beaches, sparkling sea and a thriving aquatic community weren’t all it took to make our list. Several of Guadeloupe’s entities such as Désirade and Les Saintes, with their wide varieties of animal and plant species, appeal to those looking for eco-tourism during their time away. Similarly, islands like Grenada are beginning to catch the eyes of nature lovers of all walks of life for their lush, leafy, green foliage, and likewise, tourist operators are starting to take note.
Saint Kitts wins our superlative for “Most Likely to Become a Household Name,” as the larger of the two islands that composes this sea-locked state has, unfortunately, turned into a stop on several cruise routes. Nevertheless, this tropical locale has maintained the hip, unassuming air that helped it gain popularity in the first place — if you venture outside its Disneyland-like cruise terminal, that is.
To find our most revered under-the-radar getaways, we scoured every corner of the sea—from the north tip of the Bahamas to the furthest reaches of Trinidad and Tobago—in an effort to offer you the cream of the Caribbean crop. So put on some Jimmy Buffet, serve up that margarita (hold the salt!), and peruse our complete list of favorites as you escape into a virtual world of rum, reggae and pure island bliss.
La Isla de la Juventud, Cuba
Ahoy, matey! Cuba’s second largest entity – the inspiration behind the pirate accounts in Peter Pan and Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Treasure Island – draws its historical roots from its swashbuckling counterparts. A prime destination for snorkeling, you may stumble upon a sunken ship or, if you’re really lucky, buried treasure. The jury’s still out on whether or not Uncle Sam taxes recovered gold left long ago by Long John Silver, Captain Hook and Co.
Les Saintes, Guadeloupe
If you’ve tired of the attitude of St. Barts, veer off course to Les Saintes next time instead. With a similar, less pretentious clientele and a more kick-up-your-feet-and-chill environment, this up-and-coming French hotspot offers more bang for your buck.
Although it’s the largest island in the Bahamas, Andros – known by locals as “the Big Yard” – is also the least visited, even further adding to its appeal. With just 6,000 inhabitants, this haven for the shark-friendly is free of commercial tourism and boasts a host of virgin diving sites that have yet to be tapped along its 140-mile-long barrier reef, the world’s third largest. Just don’t get lost in the Tongue of the Ocean: the abysmal trench dips more than 6,000 feet below the ocean’s surface and is a prime spot for wall diving.
Commonwealth of Dominica, Lesser Antilles
Often confused with the Dominican Republic, which it is in no way affiliated, this tucked-away find appeals to naturists of all kinds. Influenced by its constantly evolving geothermal-volcanic activity, Dominica is home to the world’s largest boiling lake, as well as a plethora of flora and fauna. Dominated by rainforest and protected park, it also houses endangered wildlife that can no longer be found on its neighboring isles. “Dominica is lush and beautiful and a good choice for nature lovers – but it has black sand beaches, which may be a turnoff for some,” says Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, senior editor at Caribbean Travel & Life.
La Désirade, Guadeloupe
One of nine islands that compose the Guadeloupe archipelago, Désirade is so remote it has a single modest road that runs under a steep limestone cliff. All of the island’s villages are situated along this sole six-mile stretch. A fine example of the rural French West Indies of old, the desert-like Désirade features a bird sanctuary chock-full of wildlife, a host of hiking trails and a smattering of coconut trees along its coral-protected beaches.
Saint Kitts, Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis
A one-time sugar-manufacturing state, you’ll still stumble upon dilapidated sugar cane fields and factories among the hilly terrain of the former British colony. Just be sure and visit before the rest of the world discovers this well-kept secret. “Numerous luxury resort real estate developments are going up and additional cruise ships will be calling there year-round, so it won’t be long before the crowds arrive,” adds Greaves-Gabbadon.
Tobago, Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
A lack of high-rises and all-inclusive package deals makes Tobago a diamond in the rough. With the Atlantic on one side, the Caribbean on the other and Venezuela’s River Orinico running into it from the south, Tobago’s surrounding sea is more emerald green than the water encompassing other islands. Still, it remains popular with divers: its coral community is impressive, and three ferry wrecks near its shores offer ample reasons for making the plunge.
Saba, Netherland Antilles
Unexplored and, thus, uncontaminated – it’s called “the Unspoiled Queen” for a reason – this pinprick in the southern Caribbean is completely uninhabited in parts and is home to just over 1,000 residents. Gaining popularity for its diverse array of aquatic life and clear waters, giving it a diving visibility of more than 100 feet, Saba also sports miles of rocky coastline, making it a prime locale for climbing and caving.
Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
With the majority of the island protected park, don’t look to Virgin Gorda for a wild getaway. But if it’s peace and quiet you seek, this BVI gem will deliver. Though it does see its share of tourists – its unusual natural attraction “the Baths,” exotic grottos and pools formed by oversized boulders, insure a steady stream of visitors – most of the island tends to attract a more chill audience. Fun fact: Christopher Columbus lent Virgin Gorda its name (meaning “Fat Virgin”) in 1493 for the resident mountain that resembles a protruding tummy.
A major source of nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa and more, Grenada – dubbed “the Spice Island” – has more spices per square mile than anywhere else in the world. It is also one of the most lush islands in the Caribbean, with its mountainous interior and volcanic origins. “Grenada has it all: nice people, sandy beaches, good snorkeling and beautiful nature trails that wind through a colorful jungle,” William Travis, editor of Frommer’s Caribbean guide, says. “It’s a very mellow, relaxing spot.”
Published in Forbes Traveler