When you think of a perfect exotic vacation destination, one of the many islands in the Caribbean Sea will most likely come to mind. Right between the two American continents, the area has more than 700 islands, cays, and reefs. Most islands are independent states or dependent territories, and tourism is the main contributor to these islands’ economy.
The first inhabitants of these islands were the Arawak Indians and the Caribs, but, after European settlers arrived in the regions, these tribes disappeared. Though most islands are very small, they have a wide range of European influences from French, Spanish and English, to Danish, Dutch and even Swedish, all infused with African traits, making the Caribbean culture one of the most diverse and eclectic in the world.
Though the main activity on the Caribbean Islands is relaxing by the beach, a large number of water sports are being practiced here, including snorkeling and scuba diving alongside the many coral reefs, surfing, windsurfing, fishing and paddle boarding.
The lush flora in the region is reason enough to visit the natural reservations on these islands, but the true treasures are hidden deep in the turquoise and teal waters of the sea. Many islands have several ships submerged off the coasts for a more enhanced experience for scuba divers, who also get the thrill of swimming with dolphins, sting rays or turtles.
The main cities on these islands are, in fact, small, charming villages, with colorful buildings and many parks and beaches. Though several islands, including Barbados and Jamaica, boast a lively nightlife, most Caribbean Islands are quiet destinations, mostly focusing on relaxing and exploring the breathtaking, exotic landscapes.
The entire area enjoys a tropical climate with more than 300 days of sunshine a year, making it a great vacation spot year-round. Though a large number of islands can be affected by hurricanes, in general, the mild, tropical climate is one very important reason why so many tourists choose the Caribbean Islands as their vacation destination.
1. St. Lucia
Right on the eastern side of the Caribbean Sea, the island of Saint Lucia is one of the most beautiful and interesting islands in the Caribbean. With a striking cultural mix of French, English, East Indian and African influence, St. Lucia is a great choice for a once in a lifetime vacation. This island is also famous for its twin Pitons – two distinguished cone shaped peaks named Petit Piton and Gros Piton. These natural formations are one of the most well-known highlights in the entire Caribbean Sea.
The largest revenue for St. Lucia’s economy is tourism so it’s no wonder tourists tend to flock on this 238 square miles island particularly during dry season, between January and April. St. Lucia’s tropical weather makes it a perfect destination for those in search for a quiet vacation by the beach.
Apart from the gorgeous white sand beaches, one of the most popular places on the island of St. Lucia is the drive-in volcano Sulphur Springs, also known by its French name Soufrière, near the city with the same name. This is the only volcano in the world where visitors can drive all the way to the top. There tourists can still encounter steam and other geothermal signs. The volcano is also popular for its hot springs and mud baths.
Nature enthusiasts will have the opportunity to explore some of the most beautiful landscapes, starting with the two Pitons. Tourists with enough stamina can climb all the way up to the top of these peeks. St. Lucia is one of the most mountainous islands in the Caribbean, but the two pecks are definitely the most interesting places to explore. The Petit Piton is over 2,400 feet tall, while the Gros Piton is over 2,500 feet. It takes about two hours to reach the top of the Gros Piton, but the effort is truly worthwhile. The spectacular views over the entire island and also over the Caribbean Sea are the best excuse to make this effort.
While there, tourists must also explore the gorgeous Diamond Botanical Gardens, at the foot of the two Pitons. The gardens are actually on the Soufriere Estate, one of the oldest one in St. Lucia. The botanical garden boasts many walking trails, an historic mill, a waterwheel and another popular highlight of the island – the Diamond Waterfall. The water is laced with minerals and because of that the waterfall has different sparkling colors, as it reflects the light.
Marigot Bay, on the western coast of St. Lucia, is considered to be one of the most beautiful bays in the Caribbean. Surrounded by lush forests, Marigot Bay boasts wide, white sand beaches, beautiful teal waters and swaying palms, thus making it one of the most exotic vacation spots in the area.
Barbados has become a well-known island in Central America in the past few decades, but also a very popular vacation destination. Known as Little Britain, because of its strong English influences, the island of Barbados is one of the most densely populated countries in Central America.
Barbados is mostly famous for its impressive beaches perfect for a vacation by the sea, but the island is also a great spot for watersports, mostly surfing and windsurfing. Another beloved activity here is swimming with turtles, as the island houses four species of nesting turtles.
The entire island is actually a very large coral reef and throughout the years, the water has formed fascinating underground caverns. This peculiar landscape is another highlight for tourists who love snorkeling and scuba diving.
The best place for surfing in Barbados is definitely the Soup Bowl on the east coast of the island. The waves attract not only the most famous surfers in the world, but also adrenaline junkies in search for the perfect wave. The southern coast boasts many beaches great for body-surfing and wind surfing.
One of the most popular beaches in Barbados is Crane Beach, a former boat landing spot where the cargo was lifted with a crane, hence the name of the area. Now, the beach is a great vacation destination with many hotels and a pink coral sand beach.
Nature lover must pay a visit to Andromeda Botanic Gardens, where they can explore this incredible tropical garden which boasts, not only hundreds of exotic plants and bird species, but also breathtaking views over the Atlantic. If that is not enough, the Flower Forest is also a great place to explore the lush wilderness. Right on the hills on the center of the island, the Flower Forest features over 50 acres of exotic flowers including many colorful orchids. Moreover, visitors can walk around beautiful palm trees and gingers.
Barbados has several interesting caves just waiting to be explored, but if you’re to choose only one then Harrison’s Cave is the place to visit. A crystallized limestone cavern, this place features several waterfalls, cascades, streams and deep pools. Here, tourists not only can admire the impressive stalactites and stalagmites properly illuminated, but also an interesting display of Arawak Indian artifacts.
The most beloved activity for tourists in Barbados is, without a doubt, swimming with turtles. There are four turtle species that make their nests on the beaches of Barbados: leatherbacks, hawksbill turtles, green turtles and loggerheads. During certain periods tourists can actually spot baby turtles trying to make their way to the water.
Visitors should explore de diverse ecosystem of the island at the Barbados Wildlife Reserve. Here, tourists can walk through the mahogany forest which houses iguanas, several species of monkeys, turtles, and hundreds of peacocks, parrots and pelicans.
Known as the place where reggae was born, Jamaica is a pristine travel destination thanks to its turquoise waters, golden beaches, coral reefs, crystal waterfalls and lush rainforests. This island is also popular for its large number of historic plantations which can be visited and offer delicious meals and a history lesson.
Jamaica is the third largest island in the Caribbean and it offers tourists a wide range of activities from water sports to hiking through the mountains, swimming with dolphins and even waterfall rappelling. After so much excitement, tourists love to taste some of the best rum in the world that is produced right there on the island.
The first place every visitor should see as soon as they reach Jamaica is, without a doubt, Montego Bay. One of the largest cities in Jamaica, Montego Bay is the epitome of a perfect exotic destination with wide beaches, swaying palm trees and sparkling blue waters. Here, tourists get the true Jamaican experience, at any of the numerous beach front hotels. Visitors can explore the incredible beaches by taking horseback trips, or simply enjoy the silence of the island while fishing or taking river rides on a bamboo raft.
A very popular spot in Montego Bay is the Rose Hall Great House, a restored plantation which dates back to 1770. According to local legend, a powerful witch ruled the manor while practicing black magic. Nowadays, the Rose Hall welcomes visitors with beautiful decorated rooms and many compelling stories about its former residents.
The most beautiful beach in Jamaica is Negril Beach, a dream like stretch of sand perfect for fish swimming and snorkeling. Not too far from the beach, tourists in search for a more adrenaline filled vacation can literally climb waterfalls at Mayfield Falls & Mineral Springs. Right in the heart of Dolphin Head Mountains, the area boats two falls and 20 natural pools all invaded by lush flora. Tourists can either hike along the falls or simply trek the actual waterfall.
It is almost mandatory for every tourist who debarks on the island of Jamaica has to pay a visit to the country’s capital, Kingston. Here visitors get to experience a different side of Jamaica. A busy and loud city, Kingston makes a stark contrast with the rest of the island where time seems to stand still. Whether you are a reggae fan or not, you should definitely spend some time at the Bob Marley Museum, right at the singer’s former house. Marely is probably the most famous Jamaican of all times and the museum created in his honor attracts thousands of fans every year. Make sure you see the star shaped guitar and other personal effects in the singer’s bedroom.
Visitors who want to learn more about this region’s history can take a tour of the Institute of Jamaica’s museums, or those who want to explore the lush flora of the island, should not miss the largest botanical park in the region, Hope Gardens.
Another breath-taking attraction on the island is the Blue Lagoon, a stunning blue water hole beloved by scuba divers everywhere. The lagoon is feed by freshwater springs and it is 200 feet deep. That is why the water has dozens of colors raging from deep blue to light green, and thanks to its clear waters, this is a very popular area for snorkelers and scuba divers.
On the north coast of Jamaica, visitors flock to Ocho Rios port another dream-like resort where visitors not only can relax by the beach, but they can also swim alongside dolphins. Just outside Ocho Rios, a three acres marine park offers visitors the amazing chance to snorkel or kayak around dolphins, sharks or stingrays.
The little island of Aruba is actually part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the official language of the island is Dutch. Aruba has about 70 square miles and has no rivers. The best highlights of the island are of course the beautiful beaches, thus placing Aruba among the most popular vacation spots in the Caribbean.
The mild tropical weather makes Aruba year-long vacation spot especially since the island is outside of the area usually affected by hurricanes.
Just like the two Pitons in St. Lucia, the Conchi Natural Pool, right on the northern coast of Aruba, is one of the most well-known sights in the Caribbean. Though it’s only accessible by ATVs or 4×4 vehicles because it’s on a deserted part of the coastline, Conchi is a natural pool created by a rare rock formation right by the coast. The landscape is simply breath-taking and it’s well worth the drive.
Among the most popular beaches in Aruba are Eagle Beach and Palm Beach. Eagle Beach is home to the largest number of hotels and time shares, and most tourists usually choose to stay here while exploring the island. The resort is perfect for relaxing by the beach and just experiencing the island’s easy-going way of life. In June, the beach is the background for the great spectacle offered by baby turtles which, during this time, they hatch and crawl towards the water. Eagle Beach is also a great place for water sports, including wind surfing and snorkeling.
Visitors who prefer a quitter vacation should choose Palm Beach, where most of the high-end hotels can be found. The beach and waters are calmer, as there are far fewer jet skis and water boarders.
Birdwatchers should not miss the Bubali Bird Sanctuary. Even though it’s not a very large park, this bird sanctuary houses more than 80 species of birds, including egrets, ducks, herons and skimmers. Another noteworthy park in Aruba is the Butterfly Farm, in Palm Beach. Here visitors can admire butterflies from all over the world and witness their metamorphosis from the egg to the colorful winged creature.
On the northernmost tip of Aruba, tourists can visit the California Lighthouse. A former lighthouse which its sole purpose was to warn ships from the coastline, today, California Lighthouse is a very popular touristic attraction. The lighthouse was named after S.S. California which sunk near the coastline before the lighthouse was erected. The landmark is located among sand dunes, and those who venture to the top of the lighthouse will discover stunning views over the dunes and the Caribbean Sea.
During the 15th and 16th century, gold-seekers traveled to Aruba in search for treasures. Legends of great wealth inspired people to build gold mines throughout the island. Nowadays there are a few still standing, which were turned into great touristic attractions, even though they’re just ruins. Among the most well-known are Balashi and Bushiribana Gold Mills, which, during the 18th century, when locals finally found gold on the island, these two mines were built and exploited. Today, there are only a few ruins left which make a stark contrast with the picturesque rocky landscape around them.
5. Grand Cayman
The Grand Cayman is the largest of the three islands which form the Cayman Islands and one of the most sought after touristic attraction in the Caribbean. A British territory, the Grand Cayman is the most Americanized of the three Cayman Islands.
The most famous spot on the island is the Stingray City, an amazing diving site near a sandbar, popular for snorkelers and divers. Here visitors can swim in still 12-foot deep waters filled with Southern Atlantic stingrays. Swimmers can feed and pet the friendly creatures or simply watch them swim around them.
The Seven Mile Beach is probably the most famous stretch of sand in the Caribbean and for good reason. This paradise-like beach bordered by beautiful blue waters and coconut palms is a welcome oasis from the busy ports filled with noisy tourists. The most beautiful resorts on the Grand Cayman are located on the Seven Mile Beach and visitors can learn how to snorkel in the shallow waters by the beach.
The bustling capital of Grand Cayman, George Town, is not only an exotic travel destination but also an offshore banking hub. Every time cruise ships dock in George Town, the tiny streets of this city are filled with curious tourists who swarm the capital and take in the colorful buildings and visit Fort George, which was built to protect the island from pirates. The most interesting building in George Town is, without a doubt, the Government Administration Building, a modern edifice made out of glass, known by the locals as the Glass House.
George Town also offers visitors the opportunity to experience the fascinating underwater world without even getting wet. On the South Church Street, Atlantis Submarines take tourists on a submarine ride, 30 meters deep underwater where people can experience the magnificent underwater world filled with tropical fish, underwater canyons and even a few shipwrecks and shallow reefs.
Grand Cayman is a very popular diving site thanks to the reefs which surround the entire island. At Gun Bay divers can explore an entire convoy of ten sunken ships; while an ex US Navy submarine was intentionally submerged by the northern part of Seven Mile Beach to enhance divers’ experience underwater.
6. The Bahamas
Around 700 small islands and over 2,000 cays form one of the most popular countries in the Caribbean, The Bahamas. Some of the islands are just 50 miles from Florida, like Grand Bahama or Bimini, while the most popular one is the 80 square miles island of New Providence, where the capital city of Nassau can be found.
Since the Bahamas is a group of islands, water sports are among the most sought after tourist attractions in the country. Another popular highlight here is the beautiful beaches which attract thousands of tourists every year.
Every visitor who ends up in this paradise should start their journey right in the capital of Nassau which also happens to be the largest city in the Bahamas. More than 70 percent of the entire population of the Bahamas lives in Nassau, which is an eclectic mix of African and English cultures.
The city was founded during the middle of the 17th century by the British, but it became a popular spot for pirates and it soon it was transformed into a self-proclaimed “Privateers Republic”, under the rule of famous pirate Blackbeard. However, the British Empire became concerned by the influence of the pirates in the Bahamas and by the 18th century all pirates were either killed or driven out from Nassau.
Today, the capital is mostly popular for its charming streets lined with colorful Caribbean style buildings and abandoned structures. Nassau is also a popular destination for visitors who are interested in pirate legends, and the best place to learn more about the tumultuous history of this city is at the Pirate Museum where visitors can explore a recreated pirate ship and even an entire pirate town.
Just off Nassau visitors flock to Paradise Island, a tiny island famous for the Atlantis resort. The entire area recreates the legend of Atlantis and it boasts an aquarium, a luxury hotel, an entertainment complex and a water park. Here, visitors can take a walk through the Versailles Gardens and French Cloister or they can interact with dolphins and sea lions at the Dolphin Cay.
Tourists who want to escape the crowds should choose the northernmost island of the Bahamas, Grand Bahama. This is the closest large island to Florida, and a popular destination for Americans. The capital of this island is Freeport, the second largest city in the Bahamas and also a great starting point for a trip through this island. However, today the most popular spot in Grand Bahama is Port Lucaya, a paradise for shoppers everywhere. This island also has the largest underwater cave system.
Also known as the fishing capital of the Bahamas, Bimini Island is actually the closest island to the United States of America, just 45 miles from the city of Miami. Bimini is a cluster of very little islands where professional fishermen participate in deep-fishing tournaments which take place here from March to September. The beaches here are also popular for snorkelers and divers, who can encounter dolphins and sharks. Bimini Island was one of Ernes Hemingway’s most beloved vacation spots and his famous novels “Islands in the Stream” and “The Old Man and the Sea” were inspired by these breath-taking beaches.
Grenada Island is located in the far south of the Caribbean Sea. Also known as the Spice Island, this 133 square miles island is the perfect sport for tourists who want to experience the real Caribbean culture.
Mostly popular for its gorgeous beaches and many waterfalls, Grenada Island is one of the most important producers of cloves, cinnamon, mace, ginger, and nutmeg in the whole world. The fertile volcanic soil that covers most of this island is also perfect for growing vanilla and cocoa beans.
The capital city of the island is St. George, which is said to be the most beautiful port in the Caribbean. The city’s colorful buildings are a magnet for yacht and medium-sized boats who dock in Carenage harbor. Locals sell spices and homemade artefact to curious visitors, right on the streets of the city; while those who want to take in the entire capital choose to visit one of the two forts who guard the city: Fort George and Fort Frederick. From there tourists get to see gorgeous views over the capital and the sea.
Divers in search for something different should not miss the opportunity to dive at Moliniere Bay, not too far from St. George. Here, the Underwater Sculpture Park is actually a submerged art gallery with interesting statues created by artist Jason de Caires Taylor. Here tourists can admire sculptures ranging from life-size figures of children to different petroglyphs, either by scuba diving or snorkeling, or by taking a glass bottom boat.
One of the most exquisite waterfalls in Grenada Island is definitely Annandale Falls, an over 30 feet tall waterfall which plunges into a crystal water pool. The fall is hidden in the forest north of St. George and is a favorite among locals and tourists alike. Visitors usually choose to take a dip into the chilly waters, while daredevils spend their time diving right from the top of the waterfall.
Tourists who travel to this remote corner of the world should not miss the chance to see the actual place where the Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. On the northern coast of Grenada Island, Bathways Beach is the meeting point between the sea and the ocean. The beach is part of the Levara National Park which boasts several little islands just off the coats. Here birdwatchers have a special bridge from where they can spot several species including the critically endangered Grenada Dove, while swimmers can take dips into the shallow waters protected by the offshore reef.
Right next to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, Anguilla is a merely 35 square miles island. A popular tax heaven, Anguilla introduced its very first form of income tax in 2011.
The island was colonized by English settlers during the 17th century and since then it has become a self-governing British territory. Because of its small size, the island has very little natural resources, thus its economy depends mostly on offshore banking and luxury tourism.
Anguilla encompasses everything a Caribbean island should have: white sand beaches, striking bays, swaying palm trees, all surrounded by beautiful blue waters. Since tourism is such a large part in the lives of local, several upscale hotels, resorts and restaurants have been opened on the island in the past decades. However, that hasn’t taken away the authentic atmosphere of the island which is one of the main attractions here.
The capital of this country is Valley, a sleepy town which boasts some of the most important historical sites on the island. Every journey through this city should start at the Anguilla National Trust where tourists can discover several displays about Anguilla’s history. One of the largest plantations on the island is Warden’s Place, a cotton and sugar plantation built by slaves at the end of the 18th century. Here curious visitors can even admire the original cotton ginning machineries. Afterwards, tourists who want to take in the entire area can head towards the highest spot on the island, the top of Crocus Hill, from where they get to see stunning 360 degrees views over the entire capital.
Anguilla boasts many great beaches but the best one is Rendezvous Bay Beach, a more than 2 miles crescent of fine sand and calm clear waters. Shoal Bay East is also considered to be one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, particularly thanks to its coral gardens and wide beaches.
Tourists in search for a more traditional experience can have a taste of local culture in Sandy Ground Village, a low-key resort with many traditional restaurants and small shops. Here, visitors can take a tour of the Old Salt Factory.
Anguilla Island is also famous for its double reef system with a wide variety of corals, but also for the large number of sunken ships that have become artificial reefs. This is a paradise for divers and snorkelers who love to explore every one of the seven marine parks which surround the island. Here, divers get to spot barracudas, sharks and stingrays.
9. Virgin Islands
Politically speaking, the Virgin Islands are divided into the US Virgin Islands (the western islands) and the British Virgin Islands (the eastern islands). This island group is a border between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.
The American Virgin Islands includes around 50 islands and cays and boasts lush tropical forests, beautiful mountains, large beaches and many rocky coves.
The capital of the US Virgin Island is Charlotte Amalie one of the largest ports in the area, right on the south shore of St. Thomas. Here tourists can indulge in some retail therapy – Charlotte Amalie has the largest number of shops and boutiques in the Caribbean, or they can tour Blackbeard’s Castle or the island’s oldest structure, Fort Christian.
One of the most beautiful areas in the entire archipelago is Buck Island and its sea gardens. This is one of the most popular touristic attractions, and boasts the best dive sites in the American Virgin Islands. The Buck Island reef is located about 1.5 miles off the coast of St. Croix. Divers who venture around the reef can swim among tropical fish like barracudas and blue tangs.
On the other hand, the British Virgin Islands are just as beautiful as their American counterpart. Consisting of more than 60 islands, this archipelago is a pristine spot for yachting, sailing, but also for scuba diving. The capital city is Road Town, right on the busiest island in the British Virgin Islands, Tortola Island.
Road Town is a popular port for cruise ships and yachts which bring hundreds of tourists who love to shop on the Waterfront drive or sample some local cuisine on Main Street. The capital is also home to several sugar mills and historic forts, but also to quirky Virgin Islands Folk Museum.
The most famous landmark in the British Virgin Islands is the Virgin Gorda Baths, a peculiar bay filled with giant boulders scattered throughout the area. The boulders create large grottoes and pools perfect for diving and snorkeling. The area where the boulders form a cave is the most photographed spot in the entire archipelago.
Just like the American Virgin Islands, the British ones boast many gorgeous beaches perfect for basking in the sun and swimming in the crystal clear waters. White Bay Beach in Jost Van Dyke is one of the most popular in the area with beautiful white sand beaches and a barrier reef which protects the coast from large waves. Tortola’s Smuggler’s Cove is a secluded part of the island which also happens to be a beloved spot for visitors looking to escape the more touristic parts of the islands. Here, visitors can snorkel in the peaceful turquoise waters and even swim with turtles.
10. St. Barts
A small volcanic island in the northwest part of the Caribbean Sea, St Barts is the perfect blend of French elegance and relaxed island lifestyle.
This tiny island goes about many names including Saint Barthélemy, St. Barts or St. Barths, and its beauty has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors every year for the last century. This is the only island in the Caribbean Sea which used to be a Swedish colony, and to this day, St. Barts still has strong Swedish influences.
The beautiful golden beaches are the main attraction of this island, alongside charming old towns, secluded caves and tropical forests. The capital city is Gustavia, a busy cruise port named after a Swedish king. The city’s distinguishing red roofs are a landmark for yachts and boast who dock here. Tourists usually choose to explore the shops and the gourmet restaurants in the city center, or climb the almost 100 feet tall hill where the few remaining stonewalls of Fort Karl can still be spotted. From the top, visitors get to admire a truly gorgeous view overt the city and Shell Beach.
On the southern coast of St. Barts, tourists flock to one of the most beautiful beaches on the island, Saline Beach. A secluded stretch of golden sand surrounded by sand dunes, this area is perfect for a relaxing day of sunbathing and swimming. During windy days, surfers will swarm Saline Beach in search for the perfect wave.
Another beautiful beach, also on the southern coast of the island, is Governor Beach, a secluded area surrounded by green hills and rocky coasts.
Those who dare to explore the island should definitely take a trip to the tiny village of St. Jean. Right in the middle of St. Barts, St. Jean is mecca for tourists with deep pockets. Here gorgeous villas are hidden in the tropical flora and high end restaurants and shop welcome their prestigious visitors. The village also boasts a breathtaking beach right by the bay, with white sand and shallow waters with natural coral reef, perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
Divers should not miss the Nature Reserve of Saint Barthélemy, a gorgeous marine reserve which is comprised of five separate areas around the island. Here, divers will get to explore the fascinating underwater world filled with colorful corals, sea turtles, reef sharks, lobsters, tropical fish and spotted eagle rays.