It's that time of year – when many of us find ourselves dreaming of stowing the galoshes and ice scrapers and heading to the tropics. The trickiest part is often deciding which Caribbean island appeals most. Here's a quick guide to 20 favorites, selected by the experts at 10Best, and each one a nominee in the Readers' Choice award contest for Best Caribbean Island.
Ambergris Caye, the largest island in Belize, is beloved for its mild weather, beautiful beaches, SCUBA action, and gorgeous sunsets. The island, a former pirate's refuge, has added appeal with its ancient Mayan history and artifacts. Snorkeling is great here, but many birders come to see what they can of the 260 species that call the island home. Anguilla has wonderful sand beaches that stretch forever. It's also uncrowded and has comparatively little development while boasting some of the Caribbean's finest restaurants. It's the ideal place to just kick back and relax. Calypso music sets the mood and who can resist a romantic getaway on an island with the aptly-named Rendezvous Beach?
Pour a cocktail and make a toast to Barbados, the island that gave rum its name ("rum-bullion") and was the first island ever to export it. Barbados also invented Caribbean tourism back in the 1700s, luring even George Washington, who made his only overseas trip here. There's more to see and do in Barbados than on most islands. It also has plenty of good beaches, excellent dining and accommodations ranging from small inns to lavish resorts.
Bonaire is the perfect island for those who like to stay active. With perhaps the Caribbean's best shore diving, this is the easiest place to see amazingly colorful and varied sea life in waters that are typically swimming pool-calm. Between dives, visitors cycle the island's hills and plains, kayak its mangroves and learn to windsurf at Lac Bay.
Cozumel is rightly known for its amazingly clear water and also features an array of Mayan ruins and a protected ecological park for close-ups of saltwater crocodiles. The water is beautiful here, and gives American visitors the feel of being in a foreign country. Mopeds are a great way to get around and downtown has lots of shopping near the cruise port.
In Curacao, the picture-postcard port of Willemstad offers extensive shopping but many small beaches dot the island. Curacao's cosmopolitan population (more than 70 different nationalities) is best reflected in its dining establishments, with widely varying menus that often include numerous Dutch and Indonesian dishes. Curacao has several plantation houses with strikingly different colors and styles, some dating to the 17th century and some of which have been turned into restaurants. Photographers love Curacao.
Mountainous Dominica is covered by almost two-thirds of its original rainforest. It offers superb short and long hikes, including a trek to one of the world's largest boiling lakes. Visitors to Dominica discover the Caribbean's principal surviving group of Carib Indians. Resident sperm whales add surprise to the offshore scenery while divers explore the steep walls and volcanic vents that make Dominica diving unique. The beautiful Bahamian island of Eleuthera is a hop, skip and a jump from Florida's east coast and offers impossibly beautiful water, friendly locals, and amazing snorkeling and diving. Colonized by the British in 1648, Eleuthera still offers beautiful pink- and white-sand beaches, and a rolling terrain made more dramatic by the island's narrow width and broad views of the sea. Great Abaco is the main island in the Abacos, a chain of Bahamian Islands revered as a boating destination. The quaint town of Marsh Harbour is the largest city in the Abacos and serves as a launching pad for day trips to other islands via Albury's Ferry Service. Laid-back, colonial in feel, and with azure seas, Great Abaco is easy to reach from the U.S.
Known as the Spice Island and the land of nutmeg, Grenadaassures some of the region's best dining — its flavorful dishes featuring local seafood, vegetables and spices. Located off the beaten path, Grenada hotels still tend to be small and highly individualized. The main port city of St. George is one of the Caribbean's most photogenic, second only to Curacao's Willemstad. Grenada is known for its excellent rainforest hiking trails and two dive sites in particular: the one-of-a-kind Underwater Sculpture Park and the Bianca C, a large deep-water wreck sometimes called the "Titanic of the Caribbean."
Popular Jamaica is where all-inclusive vacations were refined. But it's also the land of reggae music, good times, jerk barbecue and "No problem, mon!" Jamaica is the one Caribbean island everyone has heard of. It offers explorers tremendous geographic variety, and activities include mountain hiking and biking, diving, golf, and even a Jamaican "bobsled" ride. It's also home to many historical locations, including Goldeneye, where Ian Fleming wrote the James Bond novels. .
Nevis, the sombrero-shaped island in the Lesser Antilles, is the smaller, more rustic version of St. Kitts. Intimate plantation inns are the norm, and miles of palm-lined, golden-sand beaches bordered by colorful reefs just offshore provide just enough in terms of entertainment for travelers who like to relax, but not too much. Golfers will find one of the most stunning and challenging courses on the planet at the Four Seasons, Pinney's Beach.
The powdery white-sand beaches of Providenciales or "Provo" — the jewel of the Turks & Caicos — are the stuff of postcards and dreams. The beaches along the north shore of the island near Grace Bay often rank among the best in the world, while the equally stunning stretches of sand along the cays of Chalk Sound in the south remain blissfully pristine.
Puerto Rico is a party Mecca, celebrating more than 500 festivals a year. Does this qualify it as the happiest island? It is perhaps the easiest island to visit, with San Juan one of the Caribbean's busiest air hubs. Large hotels may line San Juan beaches but the old city and its landmark El Morro fortress retain the charm and feel of a colonial Spanish settlement. Most of the residents speak English, however. Out on the island, the Caribbean National Forest (better known as "El Yunque") is not only the only tropical forest in the U.S. forest system but is the most popular day trip from San Juan.
St. John is as big as neighboring St. Thomas but without its big-city ways. The island and its main town, Cruz Bay, are tiny backwater outposts, reminiscent of what the Caribbean was like a half century ago. Most of St. John, including the waters around it, is a protected national park. Well-marked hiking trails developed by the U.S. National Park Service are internationally famous but less well known is the island's excellent snorkeling and diving. Everyone has "seen" St. John: whenever the news media want to depict the ideal Caribbean beach, Trunk Bay seems to be the natural choice. After all, it's long been ranked one of the world's best beaches.
St. Kitts, the larger and more developed of the Caribbean Sisters, was first discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, and it's been a favorite slice of paradise to countless travelers ever since. Guests to the West Indies island can spend the night in 18th-century sugar plantations while hiking through mountain rainforests, lazing on quiet beaches and exploring historic colonial ruins.
St. Lucia's two towering volcanic plugs (aka, pitons) rise above black-sand beaches. Add in rainforests and this is one visually spectacular island. The dramatic landscape along with plentiful all-inclusive resorts makes St. Lucia a top-ranked honeymoon destination. Visitors spend their days relaxing on a beach, hiking rainforest trails, snorkeling and diving or visiting the world's only "drive-in" volcano. Join in one of the weekly block parties at Gros Islet or Anse La Raye on Friday night.
A small island shared by the Dutch and French, St. Maarten/St. Martin makes it easy to sample two distinct cultures, especially the excellent dining on the French side. There's an outstanding selection of beaches where topless sunbathers don't raise an eyebrow. This island is an affordable version of upscale St. Barts.
Tobago was the setting for Robinson Crusoe in both book and film, and is still the perfect spot for castaways. Most hotels are small, but big resorts have arrived in limited numbers. Tobago's diving is highly rated (with one of the Caribbean's largest brain corals) but hiking and birding are the main draws.
There's nowhere better than Tortola if you like to sail or want to learn. It's considered the bareboat sailing capital of the Caribbean, if not the world, with as many as 1,000 boats available for charter in winter. Sail inside the protected waters of the 3-mile wide Sir Francis Drake Channel or, if you wish, hire a crew to man the helm, cook and clean.