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Best of the Caribbean

Cindy Loose

I would never ask readers to do my work. Unless they want to. Here's the deal: We're constantly asked, "Where should I go in the Caribbean?" I'm trying to put together a definitive list of which islands are best for those looking for specific experiences.

I plan this week to begin investigating at least 10 categories, including best for golfing, for history and culture, for nature, for nightlife, for families, for beaches, for cheapskates, and for shopping -- meaning both bargains on duty-free type items and local products like folk art.

I'll be drawing on my own experiences and those of my colleagues, and will grill experts on various topics and islands, but if you'd like to weigh in, I'd appreciate the insights.

Of course, most islands have something to offer in every category, but we'd like to highlight those that are special in some way in a given category. When it comes to something like golf, the answer might be resort-specific, but for the most part we'd like to keep our focus island-wide.

So, if you know some islands, and think one is better than most for one of the particular activities mentioned above, give me your ideas, and tell why.

Beware, though: Glancing over my shoulder in this way might be a little like watching sausage being made, as the idea runs up against facts and reality.

By Cindy Loose |  February 7, 2007; 10:53 AM ET  | Category:  Caribbean , Cindy Loose
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I really enjoyed our trip to St Lucia. It would probably fall best under your "nature" category - amazing snorkeling and diving, plus a rainforest, lush tropical vegetation, hot springs, and volcanoes to hike.

Personally, I primarily enjoyed how very nice and knowledgeable the locals were (the taxi drivers have to take classes in local history, so they are very helpful - you pretty much get a tour of wherever you are passing through when you are in a taxi).

The island also has a very interesting history in terms of changing hands between the brits and the french many times and now being independent, but we were there to relax so didn't explore much of this aspect.

Posted by: wanderer | February 7, 2007 11:59 AM

The hookers on the dutch side of St Maarten are splendid... very international and professional.

The constant flow of American men disembarking the cruise ships and heading en masse to the chicken ranches are evident of this.

The dining on the French side is likely the best in the Carribbean

Posted by: bobby o'rielly | February 7, 2007 12:21 PM

Grenada is a wonderful island and the small Gem Holiday Beach Hotel on Morne Rough Beach is the place to stay

Posted by: Don | February 7, 2007 12:40 PM

My favorite destination used to be Montserrat, but it seems that's really out of the question these days . . . other than that, there's no place I wouldn't go in the Caribbean, but there are my favs. First place -- Curacao. This Dutch island is large enought to support both a good-sized city (Willemstead) as well as lots of wild countryside and sparsely populated beaches. There's the range of lodging for every style: fancy resorts, hotels, self-catering apartments and homes. The beaches are clean and beautiful -- there's access to all the resort beaches. Most, if not all, the public and resort beaches have great facilities such as bathrooms, showers, snack-bar, beach gear, with very low admission and rental prices (akin to U.S. parks). The water on many leeward beaches are protected, calm, and gradually descend so they are perfect for small children. The shelf drops steeply and makes for excellent shore diving all around the island. There are many restaurants and clubs, most with a distinctly European feel. The Dutch sensibility and hospitality, architecture and design are all prevalent in this beautiful place. Except for a few small local art-type shops, the shopping is touristy and usually overrun with cruise ship traffic. Island history is full of early explorers, triangle trading, and the slave trade. It is helpful to have a car, but if you stay near or around Willemsted, you can easily walk or taxi most places.

An easy and beautiful choice is Puerto Rico for many of the same reasons -- except there is a distinct difference in the sense of order. The natural beauty and variations on Puerto Rico worth exploring. The diving and snorkeling is excellent -- but you cannot find decent facilities at many of the public beaches.
The nightlife in the cities and small towns is booming -- literally. You can find delicious small and big restaurants everywhere. There is a lot of great shopping all over Puerto Rico in addition to the cruise ship ware. Island history is rich here -- preserved in its Spanish influenced culture, early explorers and triangle trade. having a car is very helpful, although there are plentiful taxis to get you around (it's a little scary).

St. John, U.S.V.I., is another favorite for beach-going, watersports, families and getting away from it all. I wouldn't recommend it for its shopping at all, the natural beauty of this island is preserved by the National Park status bestowed on most of the island. Although you can rent dive gear, it is really impossible (read so difficult that you lose your will) to do any beach diving. The calm, protected beaches are ideal for families, especially with small children. Unfortunately, it seemed that the health of the reef has seriously deteriorated -- and I didn't learn the reason. There are only very few good restaurants, cultural activities or historical experiences, but it doesn't matter because that is not the reason to go to St. John. The city of Cruz Bay is tiny, although the small shops and local artists do offer some lovely and reasonable souvenirs. We brought with us some special wines to two restaurants -- they had no way to decant them except in plastic pitchers! In addition to the two big resorts (Westin & Caneel Bay), the opportunity to rent private homes is abundant, which I highly recommend. The place is very expensive and you must really have a car. I hope that I just had a few weird encounters or was overly-aware because of my young kids, but there seemed to be quite a few aggressive, abusive locals around -- especially in Cruz Bay.

Finally, and I don't know if it counts as a Caribbean destination per se, but Ambergris Caye, Belize, is a lovely, friendly, and fun place. The diving is spectacular, even for beginners or snorkelers considering the protected Hol Chan marine park. The restaurants are universally good, especially if you stick to an all-lobster-and-conch diet! The locals are incredibly friendly and helpful. With only a few cars on the island, you can bike and walk everywhere.
In addition to the excellent restaurants, the nightlife and music scene is surprisingly -- well -- existent, in tiny San Pedro town. There are hotels and resorts of all sizes, as well as private rentals. It is not a cruise ship destination, although small charters, yachts and sailboats-a-plenty stop in to mix it up. I would not say the land of the island is full of natural beauty, except it is located right on one of the most beautiful coral reefs in the world. Unless you stay at a place like Victoria House, I would put this vacation in the inexpensive category.

Posted by: Sluefoot | February 7, 2007 12:56 PM

I would hope one of your categories might be "best island for doing nothing" and for that I would nominate two islands: Anguilla and Turks & Caicos. I think Anguilla has the best beaches in the Caribbean and it would get my vote for that catagory also. Turks & Caicos has some very secluded resorts where you can do nothing at all and love every minute of it -- and the beaches are pretty good too.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 7, 2007 1:24 PM

ooh, Sluefoot, going to Ambergris Caye soon for a week. We are active, outdoor people (not beach-liers) but not expert snorkelers (my husband has never even done it before). Is there other outdoor stuff to do on the Caye itself? Are we going to regret staying there and wish we had booked on mainland (too late to cancel now...)

Posted by: DC traveler | February 7, 2007 2:51 PM

For history and culture, people must visit St. Eustatius (known as Statia to the locals). They were the first island/country to salute the US when we became the US. It is a little island with minimal activities, which is where you want to go to relax. They have an extinct volcano which you can hike into where there is, what they call a rainforest, with pretty trees and birds. The island is also a diver's paradise!

Posted by: Lindsay | February 7, 2007 4:54 PM

I echo the previous comments on St. John USVI. The beaches are gorgeous and both Caneel Bay and the private homes for rent are great (but pricey) options.

Posted by: Jennifer | February 7, 2007 5:29 PM

I don't want to add my island to the list, I'm afraid people will start going there and I like it isolated!

Posted by: Arlene | February 7, 2007 6:50 PM

St. Martin is the place to go for dining. Best foie gras I have ever had we ate at the hotel restaurant at le Domaine du Lonvilliers. Would have never thought I would be praising a hotel restaurant so highly. Another plus of St. Martin is it's duty free so French wines can be bought for really cheap.

Posted by: David | February 7, 2007 8:07 PM

It seems to me that Grand Cayman gets very little coverage in the US, but it's a fabulous place. The beaches (especially 7 mile beach further out of town) are gorgeous. The water sports are superb, with great snorkeling sites and renowned scuba. The food is lovely and there are lots of great choices. Above all, the island is incredibly safe, friendly and accessible. Unlike some other Caribbean locations, there is no "fear" of wandering outside the resort areas. Sure, the golf is limited and the shopping ain't Bermuda, but it's a lovely retreat and worth more than a passing mention every other year.

Posted by: G'burg, MD | February 7, 2007 8:10 PM

Two islands that get little attention in the U.S., but are real gems, are Guadeloupe and Martinique. I would put both in the "history/culture" category, if only because they both still are part of France, but I would also put Guadeloupe in the "nature" category. The left side of the island, "Basse Terre," is one of the most lush, green places on earth. Both Guadeloupe and Martinique are solidly middle class, and in much better economic condition than many islands of the Caribbean. I've heard that Delta now goes to both islands from Atlanta.

Posted by: Fsord | February 8, 2007 9:04 PM

Would pitch Aruba for its decent prices at resorts (just slightly more than S. Jersey Shore!), widespread acceptance of U.S. dollars, consistent climate, freedom from hurricanes, prevalence of English speakers, and general absence of the poverty & crime that seem to characterize many other islands. Don't know if it's "exotic" enough, or the tops in any one category, but very solid all around.

Posted by: bc | February 9, 2007 11:33 AM

I'd have to nominate Barbados for best all-around. I don't play golf, but I remember lots of golf courses; there are also beaches large and small, lots of good snorkeling, and a wide variety of hotels and resorts. The interior has a lot of farmland; it reminded us of Scotland. There is also dense jungle and a fair amount of high ground, so it's not just a tabletop with sand. Good food (try the flying fish sandwiches), very friendly people. We drove all over the island and never felt insecure.

Posted by: Arlington, VA | February 9, 2007 12:47 PM

We stayed at Journeys End Resort (all inclusive) on Ambergris Cay - a boatride from downtown San Pedro town, which we found to be too touristy. Belize is a wonderful destination - lots to do - jungle and river boat tours, snorkeling and diving, hammocks with books, and a general laid back feeling with wonderful local folks.

Posted by: Ellen | February 9, 2007 1:08 PM

The Sugar Mill Resort on Tortola gets my vote. Fabulous beaches and food, the nearby Bomba Shack (it defies description, but suffice it to say, it's a legendary local watering hole), Smuggler's Cove, island hopping on a catamaran, spectacular snorkeling - relentlessly romantic and largely unspoiled. (We quickly learned why all of the rental cars on the island are 4WD.) Does it get any better than that?

Posted by: Annie | February 10, 2007 8:07 PM

I have to agree with the nomination of St. John, USVI for nature. Virgin Islands National Park covers most of the island, and keeps it somewhat protected from commercial overgrowth. We had a fabulous time (see some vacation photos) hiking the trails, many of which lead to world-class beaches.

On the bargain side, some say the Cinnamon Bay campground on St. John is one of the best deals in the Caribbean.

Posted by: Dave | February 10, 2007 11:13 PM

Vieques, PR

Posted by: Anonymous | February 11, 2007 7:21 PM

For Nature and Beaches look at St. John, USVI.
No passport required (some airlines have their own rules it seems), about twenty US Park Service hiking trails. Beautiful, quiet beaches all around the island. Stunning views around most turns. Watch out for chickens, donkeys, cows and goats as you drive 20 MPH around the island. Oh, one more thing. For the most part (especially on the Coral Bay side), check your ego at the ferry dock. Imagine that Washington DC.

Posted by: Bart | February 12, 2007 11:18 AM

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