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Twelve can’t-miss Caribbean picks

With dozens of destinations, thousands of hotels and resorts, and activities ranging from beach hopping to volcano hiking, choosing where to go in the Caribbean can be a daunting task, even if you’re an island veteran. That’s why we’ve put together this list: to help you get some ideas for planning your perfect Caribbean escape.

We’ve pooled our collective Caribbean travel experience, along with years of reader feedback and new suggestions from regional experts, to create our list of Caribbean favorites. Whether you’re looking for a romantic getaway, an epic adventure, or just a really great beach, start your research here with our best suggestions for you, the undecided traveler, as you prepare for your next (or first) Caribbean vacation. We’ll help you find a:

  • Perfect beach
  • Romantic escape
  • Family resort
  • Unique adventure
  • Great diving spot
  • Resort with something for everyone

Read all of our picks by clicking on the “Continued…” link below.

BEGIN >> If you want a perfect beach…

A perfect beach

Grace Bay Beach, Providenciales, Turks & Caicos

Although numerous upscale properties punctuate the edge of Grace Bay’s 12 miles of white sand, its beach retains a serenity rarely found on other resort beaches. Most motorized water craft are banned from Grace Bay’s calm waters—a National Park—and stretches of the beach are often empty, especially in the morning. “Crowds on our beach are unheard of,” says Mark Durliat, managing partner and co-owner of the Grace Bay Club, one of the top luxury hotels on the beach. “The sand is powdery white and clean, made primarily of sandstone and limestone, which accounts for the magnificent turquoise color of the water.” While the beach isn’t much for people-watching, you might spot a local celebrity from the water’s edge: JoJo, one of the rare wild dolphins that freely socializes with humans, may swim by for a visit.

Trip planning: Rates for winter stays at the Grace Bay Club start at $725 per night; off-peak summer prices start at $425 per night. American offers daily flights from Miami to Providenciales International Airport. Fares for travel in mid-February start at about $300 round-trip, plus taxes. For more information, visit www.turksandcaicostourism.com.

Trunk Bay, St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

One of the most photographed beaches in the Caribbean, St. John’s Trunk Bay is hardly a hidden gem, but it’s stunning nonetheless. The 800-foot-long palm-lined beach is protected as part of the Virgin Islands National Park, as are the natural wonders beneath the bay’s surface. The park maintains a 225-yard snorkeling trail here, with engraved plaques identifying coral and other sea life located five to 15 feet under water.

While the bay can get crowded in the middle of the day, park regulations help protect the beach from overuse. “The National Park Service does an excellent job of maintaining Trunk Bay,” says Joe Kessler, president of Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, a non-profit dedicated to the park’s protection. Still, visit in the morning before cruise tours from nearby St. Thomas descend on the island.

Trip planning: Most visitors reach the island by ferry from Red Hook ($4 one-way; 20-minute trip) or Charlotte Amalie ($8 one-way; 45-minute trip) on St. Thomas, as St. John has no airport. St. Thomas is served by several major U.S. carriers. Fares from Miami start around $320 round-trip before taxes in mid-February. The Westin St. John, one of the island’s most popular resorts, has winter rates starting at $489 per night. For more information, visit www.usvitourism.vi.

NEXT >> If you want a romantic escape…

A romantic escape

Ladera Resort, Soufriere, St. Lucia

On an island known as a sanctuary for honeymooners, St. Lucia’s Ladera Resort is perhaps the most romantic haven of all (and not coincidently rated the highest of any hotel in the world in a recent Conde Nast Traveler reader survey). Perched 1,000 feet above sea level on a steep forested slope between St. Lucia’s two Piton peaks, this remote eco-lodge style resort inhabits a realm of its own. Ladera’s six villas and 19 suites have hand-carved wooden furniture, large four-poster beds, private plunge pools, and exotic touches like sink spigots made from conch shells.

But it’s what the rooms lacks that make them truly unique: a fourth wall. With the room open to the mountain breezes and the songs of birds and tree frogs (but carefully designed for privacy and protection against the elements), the missing wall removes the division between you and your tropical surroundings. “It’s like you’re in your own private world,” says contributing editor Erica Silverstein, who recently visited. And the view: “Incredible from every room. You see both Piton peaks in front of you, then the rainforest between them sloping down to the blue ocean. It faces west, so when it’s not cloudy, you’re in prime sunset territory. And everything in St. Lucia is brilliantly green; the hills are radiant with color.”

Trip planning: Winter rates at Ladera Resort start at $450 per night, while nightly summer prices start as low as $280. Non-stop American flights from Miami to Hewanorra International on St. Lucia start at $479 round-trip before taxes in mid-February. For more information about St. Lucia, visit www.stlucia.org.

Peter Island Resort, Peter Island, British Virgin Islands

If you don’t have your own private island retreat, Peter Island Resort is the next best thing. This exclusive resort has an entire 1,800-acre island in the British Virgin Islands to itself. Peter Island can only be reached by boat or helicopter, and only 116 guests can stay at the resort at any one time.

The hilly island is largely undeveloped and boasts five white sand beaches and 20 coves, including Honeymoon Beach, which is open to one couple at a time. Peter Island Resort itself comprises 30 oceanview rooms, 20 beachfront suites, and four villas set in secluded locations around the island. Meals and afternoon tea are included with room rates, and you can dine at a beachside grill or the more formal Tradewinds restaurant. You can make use of the resort’s sailboats, tennis courts, fitness center, and other island amenities for free, or opt for extras like scuba diving trips, yacht charters, and helicopter tours. For the real royal treatment, you can splurge on a visit to the Spa at Peter Island, which sits on its own private beach.

Trip planning: Winter rates at Peter Island Resort start at $900 per night. Summer rates drop as low as $560 per night. Most guests fly to into Beef Island Airport on nearby Tortola and then transfer to Peter Island on the resort’s private yacht, which is complimentary to guests. Round-trip flights from Miami to Tortola on American start around $350, plus taxes, in February.

NEXT >> If you want a family resort…

A family resort

Club Med Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Club Med Punta Cana is the antidote for families who wonder if they can ever have a vacation for which they don’t have to plan every little detail and no one gets bored. Set on 75 acres of oceanfront property on one of the most desirable stretches of beach in Dominican Republic, this all-inclusive property boasts a dizzying array of activities—both for kids and adults—at no extra charge. “Club Med Punta Cana is a knockout for kids programs,” says Teresa Plowright, About.com’s family travel expert. “Plus, ‘The Ramp’ [a teens-only program] is a very cool concept.” More than just pool time and arts and crafts, Mini Club Med lets kids as young as four participate in activities such as “Circus School” (where they can take lessons in everything from juggling to trapeze), hip-hop dance classes, sailing trips, and “Mini Scientists” educational programs. While the kids are busy having fun under the watchful eyes of G.O.s (Gracious Organizers), adults are free to join in Latin dance lessons or Crunch fitness classes, go windsurfing or kayaking, or just lounge by the pool.

Trip planning: Seven-night vacations at Club Med Punta Cana start at $840 per adult, $385 per child ages four to 15, and $231 per toddler ages two to three, plus a membership fee of $60 per adult and $30 per child. Rates include accommodations, all-day gourmet dining, open bar, daily activities and nightly entertainment, children’s clubs, non-motorized water sports, sports instruction, and all gratuities. Round-trip flights from Miami to Punta Cana on American start at just over $200 in February, plus taxes. Learn more about Punta Cana and the rest of the Dominican Republic at www.domrep.org.

Beaches Negril, Jamaica

Part of the Sandals resort empire, the chain’s flagship family resort, Beaches Negril, is situated on some of the best real estate in the Caribbean and has amenities for every age group, from infants to adults. There’s a supervised kids’ camp for children up to age 12, and teens are allowed to socialize with each other in their own hangouts. “Ultra Nannies” certified in child development care for babies and toddlers while older kids play games, go snorkeling and sailing, and participate in other age-specific activities with counselors. Other perks for kids include activities with Sesame Street characters, an Xbox game center, and the massive new “Pirates Island” water park.

There’s plenty for adults too. Among other options, you can indulge in a massage or body treatment at the Red Line Spa, go scuba diving for no extra charge, take out a boat, or play tennis. There are also five specialty restaurants including an upscale adults-only restaurant and a teppanyaki-style Japanese eatery.

Trip planning: All-inclusive rates at Beaches Negril start at $315 per adult per night and $90 per child ages two to 15. This price covers all meals and snacks, open bar with premium-brand drinks, use of all amenities, supervised kids’ programs, land and water sports, airport transfers, and taxes and gratuities. Non-stop flights on Air Jamaica to Montego Bay, the nearest city with a major airport, start at $118 round-trip plus taxes from Miami. Learn more about Jamaica by going to www.visitjamaica.com.

NEXT >> If you want an adventure…

An adventure

Kite boarding in Cabarete, Dominican Republic

Strong and steady trade winds make Cabarete on the north coast of the Dominican Republic the Caribbean’s mecca for kiteboarders and good place for beginners to learn, too. “Cabarete is one of the best places in the world to go kiteboarding,” says Antonio Masala, a European transplant who runs the Take Off School of Riding Waves on Playa Encuentro. Numerous kite schools offer lessons in Cabarete, including multi-day courses, which are a good idea for novices. You’ll start with a briefing on equipment and safety, and then learn how to maneuver a small practice kite on the beach. Once you’ve figured out how to fly a kite, you’ll move to a bigger kite and practice flying it while floating on your stomach in the water. Eventually you’ll be allowed to get up on a board, and from there, the sky’s the limit.

Trip planning: A three-day course with the Take Off School of Riding Waves costs $270. Many active travelers stay at laidback Villa Taina in downtown Cabarete, which has winter rates starting at $75 per night. Non-stop February flights on American to nearby Puerto Plata International Airport from Miami are about $300 round-trip. Go to www.activecabarete.com for more information about the area.

Hiking to Boiling Lake in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, Dominica

Covered in virgin tropical rainforest, the little visited, little developed island of Dominica is often said to be the only island in the Caribbean that Christopher Columbus would still recognize. Today, the island’s volcanic peaks are a hiker’s paradise, and the lack of crowds makes Dominica all the more desirable a destination for eco travelers. “It’s like a little Garden of Eden,” says Sonia Lander, operations managers and guide for Ken’s Hinterland Adventure Tours, which runs hiking trips throughout the island.

The eight-mile round-trip trek to Boiling Lake in Morne Trois Pitons National Park is a good choice for hikers looking for a challenge. The trail starts in dense rainforest and climbs steeply through elfin woodlands to the other-worldly “Valley of Desolation,” a volcanic area filled with bubbling mud pots, sulfur-stinking fumaroles, and blue-, yellow-, and rust-colored hot springs. A final push brings you to the steaming Boiling Lake, the second largest of its kind in world.

Trip planning: Guided hikes to Boiling Lake with Ken’s Hinterland Adventure Tours are $50 per person with a minimum of four hikers. Rates at the eco hotel Papillote Wilderness Retreat, located near the National Park, start at $110 per night. Two-stop, round-trip flights on US Airways from Miami to Dominica start at $435 plus taxes in February. Learn more about Dominica by visiting www.dominica.dm.

NEXT >> If you want a great diving spot…

Great diving

Bonaire Marine Park, Bonaire, Netherland Antilles

Thanks to more than 25 years of protection as a national park, Bonaire’s reefs have escaped the kind of ecological damage suffered elsewhere in the Caribbean, still hosting thriving stands of coral and a huge array of marine species. “Bonaire is the number one destination in the Caribbean for fish diversity,” says Ramon de Leon, manager of Bonaire National Marine Park. “In a normal dive, an expert eye can identify 100 to 130 different species.” Brilliant yellow butterflyfish, fierce-looking scorpion fish, dainty long-snouted sea horses, and even the itinerate whale shark are just a few of the creatures that can be spotted off the coast.

The park surrounds the entire coast of Bonaire and Klein Bonaire (Bonaire’s tiny satellite island) from the high-water mark to the 200-feet depth contour. The reef begins right at the shore, so divers can literally walk to some of the Caribbean’s best diving. Most of Bonaire’s 86 designated dive sites are just off the leeward (western) side of the island. Many divers start with an orientation dive (a national park requirement) at Bari Reef, the top site for marine-species richness in the entire tropical western portion of the Atlantic Ocean.

Trip planning: Bonaire Dive & Adventure’s popular six-day unlimited shore-diving package starts at $110 per person, including tanks and weights. Nightly rates for stays at the dive shop’s affiliated resort, Sand Dollar Condominium Resort, start at $155 per night. Packages are available. Getting to out-of-the-way Bonaire isn’t cheap or easy, though. Round-trip flights from Miami on American with a day-long layover in San Juan, Puerto Rico, start at $495 plus taxes in February.

Bloody Bay Wall, Little Cayman, Cayman Islands

The late Jacques Cousteau considered Little Cayman’s Bloody Bay Wall, a sheer underwater cliff that attracts hundreds of species of fish and coral, to be one of top three dive sites in the world. And, despite the wall’s foreboding name, you don’t have to be one of the world’s top divers to experience its wonders. “Bloody Bay Wall starts in as little as 15 feet and drops rather quickly to over 6,000 feet, [but] the fact that it starts so shallow also makes it easy for absolute beginners to dive,” says Marc Pothier, a dive instructor with Paradise Divers and an administrator of Paradise Villas.

With a qualified outfitter, you reach various dive sites along the wall via quick a 20-minute boat ride and then start exploring the wall’s vertical forests of sponges and coral. Depending on which part of the wall you explore, you may see green and hawksbill turtles, eagle rays, stingrays, scorpion fish, nurse sharks, moray eels, or Jerry the grouper, an unusually friendly fish who likes to be petted.

Trip planning: A two-tank morning dive with Paradise Divers costs $85, which includes boat transportation, tanks, weights, and an underwater guide. Nightly rates at the affiliated Paradise Villas start at $185 in the winter and $160 in the summer. Packages are available. Round-trip flights on Cayman Airways from Miami (with a stopover on Grand Cayman) start at $278 plus taxes in February. For more information about the Cayman Islands, visit www.caymanislands.ky.

NEXT >> If you want a resort with something for everyone…

Something for everyone

Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas

With 2,300 guest rooms, 35 restaurants and bars, the biggest casino in the Caribbean, a Mandara Spa, the second largest marine habitat in the world after the real thing, and its own yacht marina, Atlantis is more like an ocean-themed Disney World than a resort. “Atlantis is a city unto itself—you never get bored,” says Toby Streett (senior producer for BookingBuddy.com, a sister site of SmarterTravel.com), who got engaged and married at the resort.

The focal point of Atlantis is its 34-acre waterscape where sharks, turtles, and more than 50,000 other sea animals reside in 11 exhibit lagoons. There you can watch the marine life or play in water attractions like a quarter-mile-long lazy river or a replica of a Mayan temple with five waterslides including the “Leap of Faith,” a 60-foot near-vertical drop that sends you shooting through a clear tube submerged in a shark lagoon. Another highlight is “The Dig,” a labyrinth of chambers and passageways that displays relics of the fictitious “Atlanteans” and provides underwater views of marine habitats. At Atlantis, you can fill up on anything from fine French cuisine to Starbucks coffee (and soon sushi at the internationally acclaimed Nobu) and shop for everything from local-made crafts to Versace couture.

Trip planning: Winter rates at Atlantis start at $370 per night; late summer rates drop as low as $230 per night. Atlantis is located a short distance from Nassau International Airport. Non-stop round-trip flights from Miami on American start at about $130, plus taxes, in February. Learn more about the Bahamas by visiting www.bahamas.com.

Hyatt Regency Aruba Resort and Casino, Palm Beach, Aruba

Located on Aruba’s famous Palm Beach, the elegant nine-story Hyatt Regency Aruba manages to attract everyone from honeymooners to families with young kids, making it one of the most popular properties on the island. The resort’s 360 deluxe guestrooms were recently renovated, and its list of amenities and activities is extensive. The resort features a multi-level pool with waterfalls and a three-story water slide, a 1,198-square foot spa, the Carnival-themed Copa Cabana Casino, a state-of-the art fitness center, and four restaurants offering cuisine ranging from fine Continental dishes to pizza.

If you’re looking for more structured fun you can check out Hyatt’s daily schedule of yoga classes, games, live entertainment, and other happenings, or consult with the “Adventure concierge” to set up activities like sailing or scuba trips. Kids can keep busy during the day at Hyatt’s Camp Watapana, which offers programs designed to educate them about Aruba’s culture and environment, such as lessons in Papiamento (the island’s native language) and excursions to Aruba’s butterfly farm.

Trip planning: Winter rates at the Hyatt start at $460 per night. Even though Aruba is located safely out of the hurricane belt, summer rates still drop, with prices starting as low as $285 per night. And, despite Aruba’s distance from the U.S., its popularity makes travel relatively cheap and easy. Non-stop February flights from Miami on American start at $250 round-trip, plus taxes. Learn more about the island by visiting www.aruba.com.

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