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Palm-fringed beaches and ripe bananas, rum punches and reggae, tropical sunshine and James Bond mystique – the Caribbean has long been a byword for paradise

If occasional crises – hurricanes, revolutions and most recently, Haiti's devastating earthquake – have crumpled this picture postcard view, the Caribbean remains a region largely devoted to the good life.

First, some geography. The islands are divided into three broad groups. To the west are the Greater Antilles: mainly independent countries including Cuba, Jamaica and Puerto Rico. To the east is the long, curving necklace of the Lesser Antilles, which are in turn divided into the tiny Leewards (Anguilla down to Antigua) and the slightly-less-tiny Windwards (including Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia and Barbados).

If you’re simply looking to fly in and flop on a perfect beach, you’re spoilt for choice. Antigua, Anguilla, Barbuda and the Turks and Caicos Islands have some of the longest and quietest sands in the world, while St Vincent and the Grenadines have beaches of squeak-fine white silica.

If you want to actually do something on your trip, though, you have more options than you might think. Seafaring and colonial history is everywhere: you can tour Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua, visit the oldest city in the New World – Santa Domingo – in the Dominican Republic, and hike the oldest protected forest in the west at Main Ridge, Tobago.  Communist Cuba is the most culturally rich island, with its mesmerising capital Havana, irrepressible rumba and salsa music, and opportunities to stay in cheap B&Bs run by ordinary Cubans – casas particulares.

Although rarely thought of as an ecotourism destination, many Caribbean islands offer great hiking and wildlife opportunities. Away from Jamaica’s all-inclusive resorts lie the cool Blue Mountains and wild Cockpit Country, and Dominica, Grenada and St Lucia all offer stunning rainforest walks. Sailing and diving are world class too – try the sheltered British Virgin Islands for sailing courses, and the Cayman Islands for epic, coral-encrusted wall dives.

Although the Caribbean is not ideally set-up (or economical) for island-hopping, various clusters of islands can be tackled this way. Mailboats still ply the waters between St Vincent and Grenada; the French creole islands around Guadeloupe are joined by hydrofoil; and ferry-linked Trinidad & Tobago make an appealing double-act. For longer itineraries, you’ll need to use inter-island ‘hopper’ planes, or transit via hub airports in Barbados, Antigua or Jamaica.

Finally, is it expensive? Well, yes – the Caribbean can loosen your wallet faster than a Carnival shimmy. But if you travel in shoulder season (late November to mid December, mid April to late May), book independent accommodation or guesthouses and research flight options carefully, you can still enjoy the Caribbean dream without an MI6 expense account.

So what are you waiting for? Start planning your Caribbean adventure today…



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