Voodoo festivals, rainforest treks, irresistible rhythms, stunning beaches... the list goes on. There's an authentic Caribbean just waiting to be explored - ditch your preconceptions and go
There are many clichés to turn an independent traveller off the Caribbean. The migratory flocks of package holidaymakers settling on beaches, barely knowing which country they're in. Factory-style hotels muscling in on any section of beachfront. All-inclusive compounds that actually tell their guests 'it's dangerous out there'.
But clichés are a tired shorthand, and often the facts are worth examining afresh. Certainly you should in the Caribbean, because beyond the shoreside screen of coconut oil and palms, you will find a region packed with unexpected interest and variety. Neighbouring islands speak French, Dutch and English, drive on the right and the left, use the euro, the florin and the East Caribbean (and usually the US) dollar. They drink Guinness, champagne, rum and Heineken.
The region is perhaps best known for its music. Like harmonics, different rhythms resonate along the island string. Reggae and soca, zouk and salsa. Others emanate wistfully from the past - ska, biguine and calypso. All are underpinned by African drums and are compulsively danceable - and burst forth at carnivals and countless other events.
Many of the Caribbean islands are exceptionally attractive, both for well-known reasons - the beaches - but also for less-known landscapes of tropical forests and mountains, rich in flora and birdlife. British West Indian history is tortured but desperately romantic. Wooden plantation estate houses and vast fortresses stand in tropical greenery, near stone parish churches that would look at home in Dorset. Combine this with a visit to a French island, say, where shoppers wave baguettes in the street and postmen ride Mobylettes, and you have an unexpectedly lively mix.
It is enlightening to tease out the strains of a colonial past, but there is more than this. There is creole. This evocative word, originally applied to a native West Indian of European and African descent, has come to signify something more than the sum of its constituent parts, something specifically Caribbean. Faces, food, languages and religions are all creole. It is the spirit of the Caribbean.
Jamaica is simply one of the coolest places in the world, and among the Caribbean's most attractive islands. Switch on Irie FM, the culture reggae station, and drive up through the Blue Mountains (from Kingston), where you will find a gracious, gentle life, with botanical gardens, superb birdlife and excellent hiking. You will come to Portland parish and its capital Port Antonio in the north-east, which is lovely, unbelievably fertile and quiet. Rafting the Rio Grande might seem touristy, but it really is magical. Or head south from resort-heavy Montego Bay to Treasure Beach, which has a trusty Jamaican vibe. On the west coast there are the charming clifftop hotels of Negril, and inland the historic wilderness of Cockpit Country.
Barbados is the stalwart holiday destination for many Britons, who tend to head for the west coast if they are wealthy and the south coast on a package. The east coast is where the Barbadians themselves once went on holiday and it retains an unpretentious charm. Inland you will find riffling fields of sugar cane and some classic plantation houses. You may not go to watch the stars, but the restaurants and bars where they spend their time offer good food. Somewhat unexpectedly for the Caribbean, Barbados is one of a handful of islands (Anguilla, St Barths and St Martin) where you can really expect to eat well.
The Dominican Republic is Latin Caribbean life taken to a higher degree. Santo Domingo contains the oldest buildings in the Western hemisphere, and has a great attitude and a traditional feel. Avoid touristy Puerto Plata and Sosua. Instead head for Cabarete, famous for its windsurfing, or the beaches of the Samana peninsula, with their handful of stylish small hotels.
St Lucia has grown popular over the past decade. If its superstructure is British, at core it is French creole. It is an immensely beautiful island, so touring independently is worthwhile: the hiking (up the Pitons if you like; see right) is good and the fetes (as parties are known) are excellent. Don't miss 'Fish Fridays' at the ramshackle village of Gros Islet - a weekly jump-up of food and festivity.
Hardly anyone goes here - which is why you should be the exception
The truculent Soufrière Hills volcano has muscled Montserrat off the tourist radar for the past decade, but flights and yacht excursions continue to this sweet, quiet spot from neighbouring Antigua. Sadly Plymouth, the pretty capital, has been destroyed, but there are tours of the volcano observatory and the old Air recording studios (Dire Straits, The Police, Rolling Stones). The island also offers great value accommodation in a handful of guesthouses and villas: groups of 4+ can pay US$175 (£104) or less per person per week off-season.
Redonda, a lump of rock next door, is the stuff of mystical and literary legend. It was claimed in 1865 by a Matthew Shiell, a poet, who appointed himself king. Later courtiers included JB Priestley and Rebecca West. The royal line, often sold for a bottle of wine, is hotly disputed and exercises all sorts of adults in a delightfully childish way.
British travellers have never known the Dutch Caribbean well, which makes the ABCs (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao, just off Venezuela) and SSS islands (Saba, Statia and St Maarten, in the north-eastern Caribbean) interesting in their own right. Bonaire is excellent for its diving and Curaçao has an exceptionally strong island culture. Aruba has superb sand, but it has gone for Miami Beach high-rise style and volume tourism. Similarly, half-Dutch, half-French St Maarten is a tourist and gambling den, though there are some good independent spots to escape to (eg Simpson Bay) and you can certainly eat well. Once so wealthy that it was called the Golden Rock, St Eustatius (Statia) is small and uninspiring nowadays, but Saba, which also has excellent diving, is unfeasibly pretty - nearly every house is gingerbread and they all have a red roof.
Haiti is simply the most extraordinary, most extreme Caribbean island. It takes familiar strains from around the islands and amplifies them to a blare - at moments a screech, at others a melody. The poverty is more extreme here, but out of it comes more explosive joy than you can imagine. Haitian primitive art is exceptional. The French roots are evident, in food and Catholicism, but in language the local creole (Kweyol) tongue is harder baked, as is their local religion, voodoo.
Why stick to one Caribbean island when you can skip between several? Here's our pick of the hops
St Vincent through the Grenadines to Grenada by ferry
The Grenadines are a chain of small island gems anchored by the 'large' Windwards of St Vincent and Grenada. With ten days and a bit of patience you can make the whole journey by boat. Fly via Barbados into Kingstown on St Vincent, then take an hour-long ferry ride to Bequia ('beck-way'), as picture-perfect as a Cornish village transported to the tropics. Bequia is a popular sailing stopover, so has good bars and restaurants. Next catch the twice-weekly MV Barracuda mailboat to Canouan or to tiny Mayreau for classic Caribbean small-island life. Then to Union Island - dubbed the 'train station of the Grenadines' - to fix your onward journey to Carriacou and, vitally, for a side trip to the Tobago Cays, five uninhabited islands with superb snorkelling and sand. A twice-weekly boat crosses (if you can't hitch a ride on a yacht) to Carriacou, Grenada's sand-rimmed, laid-back alter-ego. When you just have to leave, end your journey in the Caribbean's prettiest harbour, the amphitheatrical St George's, Grenada.
The islands around Guadeloupe
Guadeloupe and its islands are a geographical confusion: the westerly Basse-Terre ('low ground') region actually rises to 1,500m, while easterly Grande-Terre ('tall ground') is basically flat - and the neighbouring 'Saints' are far too pretty to be saintly. But together they offer a great ferry-driven ten-day French creole tour. There is all the coquetry, cuisine and nonchalance of the French, but in the tropics. Fly into functional Pointe-à-Pitre and head straight for verdant Basse-Terre, with its excellent small independent hotels, isolated coves with beach bars, diving and lovely plantations. Next visit Les Saintes, best for their quiet, vertiginous prettiness, then Marie-Galante, the island named after Columbus's flagship, which is flat and sandy - with, reputedly, the finest rum and parties in the Caribbean. Finish up on the southern coast of Grande-Terre, where a handful of smaller beach hotels compete with the big chains.
Trinidad & Tobago
Like sisters, Trinidad and Tobago are visibly of the same stock, but have different characters, though both are lively and relaxed in equal parts. Take ten days between them, hopping on the short flight or the Port of Spain-Scarborough ferry. In Port of Spain (Trinidad) visit a panyard to see a steel band practise, a calypso tent for satirical story-singing, or party at Mardi Gras. Trinidad's birdlife is exceptional: over 400 species - visit Mt St Benedict or Asa Wright Nature Centre. Grand Rivière in the north-east, with its handful of independent inns, is a quiet, cool stopover. On Tobago, head first for the easy eastern end, with its spectacular diving and rainforest trips. Then spend your final days at the livelier west, where there is good independent accommodation on classic beaches.
Guadeloupe, Dominica and Martinique form a line of forested titans linked by hydrofoil (www.express-des-iles.com), meaning you can mix and match, taking your pick and spending a few days in each. They were all French once – Dominica and St Lucia were subsequently taken by the British - but you still hear creole. They also exchange music - mainly zouk and soca. Start in Guadeloupe, then catch the catamaran to Dominica, simple and undeveloped by comparison, with pretty 'skirt and shirt' (stone and wood) buildings in Roseau and some of the most extreme greenery man can witness (though only a few beaches). Martinique is suddenly developed by comparison, all autoroutes and sophistication - and history in Gauguin and Napoleon's Josephine. For quieter spots, seek out Les Anses-d'Arlet and the Caravelle peninsula. St Lucia is the next island in line, and makes a good final flourish - or an alternative starting point thanks to good air services.
Puerto Rico, Vieques & Culebra
Puerto Rico is a boggling mix of Anglo and Latino, modernity and simple West Indies, busy city and easy island life - and ideal for exploration. Old colonial San Juan has streets of pretty restored buildings, and offers museum and cultural interest by day (this is the oldest corner of the US) and buzzing nightlife. Then set off, driving (of course - this is the States) to explore. Not far from the city you will find coffee factories, restored Arawak settlements and Arecibo, the largest satellite dish in the world - it sought out quasars and pulsars. Lastly the beach. Oddly, the finest are actually offshore, a short flight or ferry ride away, on Puerto Rico's tiny islands, Vieques (the fallback home of the Royal Navy in the Second World War) and Culebra, which has good sailing. Both have a small-island air, Latin-style. Vieques boasts a spectacular phosphorescent lagoon.