From the alabaster-white beaches of Bermuda in the north to the cactus-topped desert inland of the ABC Islands in the south, the windswept coves and surfing reefs of Dominica in the east to the jungle-dressed tips of Cuba and the Antilles in the west, the Caribbean has long been a treasure trove of things to do and see.
Combining adventure with relaxation, hundreds of years of colonial history with enthralling Arawak culture, West Indian spices with European gastronomic flair, honeymooners with hill walkers, budget backpacker haunts with some of the most exclusive hotels on the planet, it’s got something for every type of traveler.
This definitive list of the 25 best islands to visit in the Caribbean should help any would-be visitors to the land of samba and sultry sun discover the spot that’s right for them.
It’s got everything from Cuban cigarillos to magma-spouting mountains, not to mention countless airbrushed beaches of pristine sand and shimmering turquoise sea. See you in the rum bars!
Start on the Jamaican north shore, where powdery white sands run their way along the coast from the ivory stretches of iconic Seven Mile Beach, past the sheer-cut Negril Cliffs, through the luxury uber-resorts of Montego Bay, around the gushing Dunn’s River Falls, and out to where famous James Bond Beach gives way to the jungles of Ocho Rios in plumes of swaying coconut palms, juniper bushes, mangrove and tamarind.
Further in the east and the mighty Blue Mountains rise in verdant swathes of jungle, Jamaican boas swinging from the vines and the scents of coffee beans wafting along the undergrowth.
Then, on the inland hills, visitors can seek out the birthplace of legendary Bob Marley at Nine Mile, or simply opt to flit between the rum bars of Kingston listening to the master and his steel-drum, Rasta off-beats.
Mo’Bay, meanwhile, pulses with nightlife and the smells of jerk chicken, while honeymooners kick back on beachside decks and sip Red Stripe to the sunset.
Also see: Best things to do in Jamaica
2. Turks and Caicos
If it’s beaches you’re after (and let’s face it, what traveler to the Caribbean isn’t?), then Turks and Caicos is perhaps the perfect spot.
A peppering of over 300 tiny islets in the midst of the Lucayan Archipelago, many of the TCI (as it’s known for short) are little more than just sand banks or rugged pillars of rock that rise above the waters of Caribbean Sea.
The salt-washed jetties of Cockburn Town might be the capital, but it’s laid-back Providenciales that draws all the crowds.
And why not? This U-shaped speck of land comes fringed by alabaster-white Grace Bay, punctuated with luxurious five-star resorts, imbued with old pirate carvings from the 19th century, and ringed by coral gardens just waiting for the intrepid SCUBA diver.
Oh, and it’s the home of the island’s deep-fried conch clams too! Further afield and the TIC offers up uber-romantic honeymoon suites on their own private island, beaches like Malcolm Beach, and the glowing turquoise currents of Chalk Sound to boot!
Also see: Best things to do in Turks and Caicos
3. St. Lucia
St. Lucia is like the child that refused to conform.
Instead of settling down to be overgrown by mangrove and palms, it rose and rose, peaking with the mighty duo of the Pitons, or rising to a whopping 950 meters with the jungle-dressed Mount Gimie at its heart.
Then there are the bubbling volcanic springs and mud pools, forever carving and changing the interior of the island around Soufriere.
And talking of little Soufriere on the south coast, it’s here that travelers will discover the gorgeous cove of Anse Chastanet, hidden between cliffs and promontories and clusters of coastal waterfalls.
The north of the island continues to offer up beauties too, like the golden powder of Reduit Beach and the strong bulwarks of Pidgeon Island National Park – home to fortresses raised by the British during the Seven Years’ War.
Also see: Best things to do in St. Lucia
A tumultuous past and political penchant for communism has meant Cuba has remained something of an off-the-beaten-track option for travelers in the Caribbean until only recently.
The latest news is a loosening of travel and import restrictions from America, both expected to bring hordes of new tourists to the so-called Pearl of the Antilles.
There’s certainly no shortage of pulls.
For one, the capital at Havana oozes a vintage charm.
Cadillacs bump up and down the streets and peeling stuccoed frontispieces circa 1925 give way to the off-beats of samba, rumba and songo aplenty; cigar smoke puffs out of the speakeasies and the sun-splashed Malécon is strutted by all sorts! Leaving the Che monuments and Spanish streets behind, the greater island offers up picture-perfect beaches at Varadero, ecotourism amidst karst mountains in Pinar del Río, breathtaking vistas in the Viñales Valley – the list goes on!
Also see: Best things to do in Cuba
5. Antigua and Barbuda
Separated by a short gap of sky-blue Caribbean Sea in the midst of the Leeward Islands, the duo that makes up Antigua and Barbuda represent one of the region’s most well-rounded tourist draws.
In St. John’s parish, the small and tight-knit capital of the archipelago, there are cricket grounds and bobbing cruise ships on the horizon, while the slap and click of casino chips is never too far away.
For the best intro to the rest of Antigua (the larger of the two islands), most travelers will scale up to Shirley Heights Lookout, where the pearly-white of beaches, the deep green of the palm forests and the occasional bloom of bougainvillea spread out to reveal Falmouth and English Harbour – two of the earliest colonial towns here.
Stone churches atop cliffs belie the English influence, while old sugar plantations await inland.
And then there’s Barbuda: a mecca for sailors and swimmers in search of real seclusion.
Also see: Best things to do in Antigua and Barbuda
6. US Virgin Islands
The USVI aren’t your usual Caribbean paradise.
That’s not to say they don’t have all the ubiquitous shimmering sands and aquamarine-hued waters.
It’s to say they have other things up their sleeve too! A mecca for yachters, the trio of Saint Croix, Saint John and Saint Thomas, together with countless smaller specks of rocky land like Water Island, Thatch Cay and Hassel Island, offer up a pick and mix of little coves and cliff-backed inlets to explore by boat.
Then there’s Salt River Bay, a verdant bloom of mangrove forests that spills into the cobalt blue and pretty underwater corals of Buck Island Reef.
Rum distilleries come ten to the penny too, while pretty remnants of Danish rule still stand above the palm trees and the ferns. Yep, this one’s a real top choice!
Cacti-topped Aruba shares much with its Latin American neighbors.
After all, this gem-shaped island on the far southern reaches of the region is closer to the mainland than it is to many of the other salt-washed islands of the Caribbean.
Let’s start with the weather, which remains unusually steady and warm, unperturbed by the hurricanes and cyclones that wash through the Atlantic belt.
The 300 days of sun and soothing shore waters ensure a steady stream of snowbirds from the US, who can be seen reclining on the sands of Baby Beach in the south, the windblown rocks of Hadikurari, shaded Arashi, or the reef-ringed likes of Boca Catalina right throughout the year.
Then there’s Aruba’s dusty, desert-like interior, peaked over by the lookouts of Haystack Mountain, and the island’s curious Papiamento lingo, fusing Spanish and Dutch, Creole and Portuguese.
Also see: Best things to do in Aruba
8. Dominican Republic
From the swaying palms and rugged cliffs of Los Haitises in the east to the old mineshafts and dusty trailheads of the Sierra de Bahoruco in the west, the surfing hotspots of Cabarete and Puerto Plata in the north to the urban sprawl of Santa Domingo and its concomitant colonial treasures in the south, the Dominican Republic has plenty of tricks up its sleeve! For most, the piece de resistance is Punta Cana, where strips of white sand run along the windward coast like glistening ribbons in the moonlight, punctuated only by the occasional luxury resort, its infinity pools butting up right to rollers of the Atlantic.
Others will aim for the beautiful coast of Cibao, and hop between fishing towns and salt-washed cays.
Others still will go intrepid and seek out the ridges and hikes of the Enriquillo Valley, and indelibly green Armando Bermúdez. The choice is yours!
Grenada is the Spice Isle: a land of nutmeg and vanilla pods and fragrant wafts of cinnamon that twist and turn in the sultry Carib air, rolling down in breezes with the trade winds to the pretty bays of Grand Anse and the shiny white sands of Morne Rouge Beach.
Volcanic in origin, the island spikes and dips with the cones of Mount Saint Catherine and the grass-rimmed crater lakes of Grand Etang alike.
Waterfalls gush and carve the landscapes too, running swiftly over the rocks at Royal Mount Carmel and flowing in moss-clad steps at the Seven Sisters, accessible only by winding hiking trails through the mountains.
Oh, and let’s not forget the human side of things: the lively local fish fries of Gouyave; the River Antoine brewing house – home to some of the oldest rum labels in the world.
Also see: Best things to do in Grenada
10. The Bahamas
Spread out over a whopping 470,000 square kilometers of ocean between where the beaches of northern Cuba give way to the Lucayan isles, The Bahamas connect the Caribbean with the coastal reaches of the United States – and more specifically, the Sunshine State of Florida.
Since the late 18th century, these glistening cays and sand bars have been joined with the Commonwealth.
The British made a colony here after ousting bands of buccaneers and pirates from the shores, leaving the elegant neoclassic looks of the Bahamian Parliament and the juggernaut walls of Fort Charlotte in their wake.
More recently, the rich and famous came, settling their yachts between the coves of New Providence and the beachfront villas of Paradise Island, or slapping poker chips on the Atlantis casino floor.
Don’t worry though, The Bahamas are for everyone: ecotourists flock to the reefs of Grand Bahama, beach-hunters for the secluded inlets of Long Island, sports fishers and divers straight to the coral gardens of Bimini.
Also see: Best things to do in The Bahamas
11. St. Martin
Cut in two halves by an international border, the pretty island of St. Martin (that’s Sint Maarten or Saint-Martin depending whether you’re from the north or the south) remains uber-popular with cruise shippers and sun seekers, not to mention the crowds of gamblers and shoppers that hit its shores each year in search of the Vegas-style games rooms and duty free shopping in Cole Bay, Phillipsburg and the rest of the Dutch side.
Meanwhile, sands shimmer and shine against an electric-blue sea at Orient Bay in the north, cocktail joints spill into the tide at Mullet Bay, and the footsteps of pirates still mark the untrodden and secluded smuggler’s coves of Pinel Island in the east.
Marigot’s markets are popular too, while the fusion of Dutch and French cultures makes for a truly interesting mix.
Also see: Best things to do in St Martin
12. Puerto Rico
Defended by the age-stained bulwarks of colonial forts and crenulated, cannon-holding palisades, washed over by some of the wildest surf spots in the Caribbean (think the legendary likes of Tres Palmas, Rincon and the Middels), trodden by the likes of Christopher Columbus and the marauding pirates of the great seas, and shaped by American and Spanish history alike, Puerto Rico is unquestionably one of the jewels of the region.
The UNESCO-attested capital at San Juan is a real treat, awash with Baroque churches, the mighty El Castillo fort and the shimmering beaches of Condado.
It has a party side too, with oodles of Senor Frogs and spring breaker bars bursting from the cobbled streets after dark.
Go east to find the beautiful Luquillo beaches and the frog-spotted forests of El Yunque, or south to see off-the-beaten-track Ponce, complete with curious multi-coloured cathedrals and some of the emptiest sands on the island.
Also see: Best places to visit in Puerto Rico
In Barbados, the waves lap like rhythmic samba beats against the soft, soft sands of Alleynes Bay or Brandons Beach; the palm trees sway in the Atlantic trade winds of the rugged east coast, the wild surf swells spattering the boulders of Bathsheba and Cattlewash with salt and whitecap water.
In Barbados the yachts bob in the harbours of UNESCO-attested Bridgetown, and potent rum is sipped between the distilling tanks of Mount Gay.
In Barbados, the flying fish become frying fish with a scotch bonnet top in the earthy holes-in-the-wall, and luxurious all-inclusive resorts loom on the clifftops, their infinity pools just edging over the shore.
In Barbados, there are millionaires and backpackers alike, some kicking-back with pina coladas on sunning terraces, others hiking the jungle trails, SCUBA diving the reefs and enjoying the local rum shacks on the streets. Barbados is, simply, awesome!
Also see: Best things to do in Barbados
Nestled in the middle of the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe is the tropical Caribbean chart-topper that no one’s ever heard of.
Shaped like a butterfly, the destination spreads its wings over two large main islands: Basse Terre and Grande Terre.
These are joined at the hip with a series of manmade bridges, and each offer up a different medley of treats.
On Grande Terre is where travelers will find the heady nightlife and stylish fashion outlets of Gosier, giving way to the shimmering beaches of Caravel and the haunting graveyards of Morne à l’eau.
Basse Terre, the larger of the two isles, is a wilder place.
Dressed in jungle that springs in one thousands shades of green from the volcanic soils, it’s cut-through by countless waterfalls, towered over by the mighty tops of La Grande Soufrière (the tallest mountain in the whole Lesser Antilles chain!) and peppered with ancient Arawak archaeological sites.
Also see: Best things to do in Guadeloupe
Fabled for its place on one point in the mysterious Bermuda Triangle (although perhaps people might not mind going missing here!), this hook-curve of land is actually not, strictly speaking, in the Caribbean at all.
Instead, it bridges the gap where the Caribbean Sea meets the North Atlantic, giving it an altogether different character to many of the islands on this list.
Take the beaches, which are hued in pink thanks to powdered corals, and lapped by waves of frothy Atlantic rollers.
The topography is rugged, with rocky walls rising straight from the ocean to host clifftop golf resorts at spots like Tucker’s Point, while the climate maintains a steady sultriness and pleasant humidity, from December to December.
There are also glaring similarities to the Caribbean, like the colonial Englishness, which still sprouts up in Bermuda’s hearty country pubs and oozes from the whitewashed mansions of St George.
Also see: Best things to do in Bermuda
16. Cayman Islands
Join smiling locals, flapping endangered sea turtles, blooming ghost orchids, multi-coloured iguanas, and some of the richest folk to ever raise mansions on the edge of the Caribbean Seas on the trio of isles that form the Caymans.
Enfolded between Cuba and Jamaica, it’s hardly surprising that these sun-kissed spots look the part.
There are gorgeous beaches, going from Seven Mile on Grand Cayman (one of the most popular) to the untouched, seaweed-dressed sands of little Cayman Brac.
There are formidable colonial forts, like St. James Castle, and museums chronicling British maritime history and Carib piracy in George Town.
Treasures lurk underwater at Stingray City (guaranteed stingray viewing!), while uber-rare turtles wait in the pools of Boatswain’s Beach.
And at night the hedonism takes over, with al fresco parties at the legendary Sunset House, and rum-packed cocktails aplenty at Billy Bones!
Also see: Best things to do in the Cayman Islands
17. British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands poke their jungle-clad heads above the swells where the North Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea.
Blown over by the perpetual trade winds, these crown territories have long been a mecca for the chino-wearing, well-to-do sailor, raising a flapping sail and weaving designer yachts amidst the empty coves and crevices that line the moneyed tax haven of the VI archipelago.
However, in recent decades the spot has also entered the mainstream more and more, with intrepid types focusing on the endangered hawksbill colonies off Ginger Island, the blooming colours of the coral gardens, and awesome SCUBA spots, like the sunk RMS Rhone.
There’s surfing opportunities on Apple Bay, while the whitecaps all around Anegada isle offer windsurfers some long and challenging rides.
And when it’s time to relax, be sure to hit the glimmering crystalline waters of the so-called Baths, hidden between black volcanic boulders on the edge of Virgin Gorda.
Where other Caribbean islands are all about luxury resorts and bespoke cocktails, designer brands and well-to-do hotel suites, Haiti is more about one thing: adventure.
This half of Hispaniola has certainly had its troubles, from devastating earthquakes to coup d’etats, but that can’t change the rugged cliffs and palm-fringed beaches of Jacmel, nor the turquoise-blue waters of Labadee, where cruise ships now dock by their thousands.
But for all intents and purposes, Haiti remains an off-the-beaten-track option with oodles of hidden surprises.
Check out the soaring walls of the Citadelle Laferrière, the largest fortress in the Americas that oozes tales of slave revolts and colonisation alike.
Then there are the gorgeous sands of Cape-Haïtien, the pirate retreats of Tortuga, the dense Forêt de Pins and its hiking trails – the list goes on.
Yep, Haiti looks like it’s set to become one of the Caribbean’s top draws in the 21st century!
Also see: Best things to do in Haiti
19. St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Saint Vincent is the kingpin of its eponymous archipelago, shaken like a pepper pot to release the empty and secluded reaches of the smaller Grenadines to the south.
And what a kingpin it is! Clad in swathes of emerald rainforest, it’s got biodiversity to rival anywhere in the Americas: hummingbirds flit between magenta orchid blooms; waterfalls crash through tropical glades; turtles and dolphin pods weave past each other amidst the deep-blue waters.
Tourist wise, there are much fewer folk here than in say St. Lucia just to the north.
Some do come however, to explore the lagoons and sparkling cays of the Grenadines, or to honeymoon with views of Bequia Beach, or on the isolated Tobago Cays.
Others will strap on the SCUBA gear and go underwater, flitting between Bat Cave and the endless schools of frogfish and barracudas.
Hailed by many as the Pompeii of the modern era, Montserrat was ravaged back in 1995 when the mighty dome of the hitherto quiet Soufrière Hills mountain exploded in plumes of magma and ash, covering the pretty little English-flavored capital of Plymouth with flows of volcanic rocks and stone.
The people who lived there – many descendants from Irish immigrants in the 1600s – largely moved to the northern section of the island, which is now the only safe place to visit outside of the so-called Seclusion Zone.
But travel to tiny Montserrat has and always will be an adventure.
Proudly off-the-radar of the typical Caribbean luxury trail, this mountain-topped speck in the Lesser Antilles is a place for hitting empty trails and driving empty coastal roads.
You’ll find the likes of isolated Rendezvous Bay, jungle-spotted volcanic massifs deep in the Central Hills, see multi-coloured thrushes amidst the trees, and dive in young coral gardens.
Oh, and drink frothy Guinness in hearty Gaelic pubs!
Also see: Best things to do in Montserrat
21. St. Barts
Home to some of the most luxurious hotel resorts and exclusive boutiques on the planet, St.
Barts has a certain air of importance that often works to keep away the casual visitor.
But you don’t need to be a billionaire oil fat cat to enjoy this one. (It just helps a little.)
There’s no question that the prize is worth paying for though…glistening sands hide between the green headlands at Shell Beach and uber-romantic Flamands, snorkelers trawl the waters at Colombier, and cocktail-sippers chatter the days away in designer bikinis between the bars of Grand Cul-de-Sac.
Evening sees the SCUBA divers and submarine tourers emerge from the depths to enjoy fresh lobster cuts, while Gustavia – the capital – has countless private yachts and bespoke fashion shops in its midst.
There’s also a charming Francophone edge to this overseas territory of Paris’, with elegant haute and fine-dining just two examples of the European influence.
Also see: Best things to do in St. Barts
22. Trinidad and Tobago
Unlike most all of its Caribbean neighbors, the duo of Trinidad and Tobago has a special economic trump card: oil.
Yep, thanks to the refineries and booming fossil fuel industry here, tourism has remained firmly in the backseat. That’s not to say it’s a bad place to come.
On the contrary: it’s perfect if you want something a little less in the way of Disneyland tropics and something more in the ilk of wild Carib backcountry.
Trinidad is the largest isle, its hills cascading in blooms of coconut palms down to beautiful beaches like Maracas, Chagville and Las Cuevas.
Tiny little Tobago, meanwhile, is even more undeveloped.
It’s got Pigeon Point and Englishman’s Bay – both picture-perfect images of exotic beaches, the sort you could find in a travel brochure.
Travelers can also see the whitewashed remains and canons of Fort George, go turtle seeking on Matura Beach, or join the raucous celebrations of the archipelago’s Pre-Lenten Festival – a medley of Brazilian colour and carnivalesque dances that’s one of the biggest cultural dates on the Caribbean calendar!
Also see: Best things to do in Trinidad and Tobago
23. St. Kitts and Nevis
St. Kitts and Nevis is sculpted volcanic hills covered in blankets of tropical green.
St. Kitts and Nevis is historic sugar plantations clad in ages of moss and crumbling colonial fortresses where canons rust in the salt sea breezes.
St. Kitts and Nevis is about soaring Mount Liamuiga and its brooding volcanic cone.
St. Kitts and Nevis is the eye-opening dive sites of the Monkey Shoals and the gliding sea turtles of Frigate Bay Reef, it’s the English-style churches and regal fountains of Basseterre; the striking remains of Brimstone Hill and sheer-cut black cliffs that drop to a wavy ocean.
St. Kitts and Nevis is a fine balance of adventure and relaxation, gorgeous tropical vistas and interesting – if occasionally brutal – colonial history.
In short, St. Kitts and Nevis is a well-rounded holidaying spot in the middle of the sun-splashed Lesser Antilles.
Also see: Best things to do in St. Kitts and Nevis
A patchwork of virgin forests and rising volcanic mountains, cascading coastal hills and the occasional powdered cove where the Caribbean Sea drifts in and out at regular intervals, Martinique combines the beauty of the tropics with all the refinement you’d expect of a French overseas territory.
For example, there are exhibitions dedicated to the artistic output of Paul Gauguin (who came here in the late 19th century) set in the shadow of the steaming top of active Mont Pelée.
Then, countless folds of empty sand going from Grand Anse to Anse Turin are met by the rugged, moss-clad walls of the Gorges de la Falaise (the Caribbean’s answer to Greece’s Samaria Gorge), and curious mashups of spice-packed Tamil curries mix with Francophone pastries on the streets of Fort-de-France.
Also see: Best things to do in Martinique
The elusive ‘C’ of the ABCs makes its home between the cacti-spotted reaches of Aruba and the shimmering reefs of Bonaire.
There, just a stone’s throw from the Venezuelan coast, it rises from the cobalt waters to display multi-coloured Dutch mansions in Willemstad (a UNESCO World Heritage Site besides), craggy boulders and cliffs and swimming sea turtles at the Shete Boka National Park, boat-bobbing harbours at Fort Amsterdam, floating markets and cactus-topped hills for walking.
Given the diversity, it’s hardly surprising that Curaçao draws a really broad range of travelers.
Some come to kick-back in luxury resorts like the Hyatt with its private beach at Barbara, others will dive into awesome Playa Kalki, explore the hanging stalactites of the Hato Caves, or case out the colonial history at spots like the Maritime Museum and Postal Museum in the capital.
Also see: Best things to do in Curacao