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…

Further Reading

Top 10 Caribbean travel experiences

Blue skies, bluer waters, palm trees and cocktails... all true, but there's a lot more to the varied islands of the Caribbean. Ditch your beach towel and do something less boring

  1. Wander Old Havana, Cuba – the crumbling capital of Cuba is an intoxicating mix of colonial architecture, seafront promenading, mojitos and pulsing salsa bars. Some of the centre's old mansions have been renovated and are now stylish hotels, making for an atmospheric stay.
  2. Island-hop through St Vincent and the Grenadines – board the mailboats with the locals (and their families/luggage/chickens) for Caribbean 'cruising' with a more human feel.
  3. Dive Bloody Bay Wall, Cayman Islands – just off Little Cayman island the sea floor makes a dramatic plunge, dropping 2,000m – and producing one of the most vibrant, wildlife-rich dive sites in the region.
  4. Visit volcanic Montserrat – in 1995 a massive eruption decimated the capital of Montserrat, and much of the population was forced to flee; now, the crater still rumbles but travellers can visit the island (volcanic activity permitting) to see the dramatic smoke plumes and fascinating lava flows.
  5. Hike up the Pitons, St Lucia – known as a honeymoon hub, St Lucia also boasts some of the Caribbean's most dramatic scenery; the steep hike up the Pitons is one of the best treks in the region.
  6. Explore Jamaica’s coffee country – the rolling Blue Mountains offer a different facet of this chilled-out island; hike amid lush greenery and butterflies to find small clapperboard farm villages and great views.
  7. Kayak through phosphorescence, Puerto Rico – on Vieques
    Island there are bays that bloom with bioluminescent plankton – swim or paddle here at night to watch the micro-organisms put on a dazzling watery light show.
  8. Experience Mardi Gras, Trinidad – the Caribbean's biggest party takes over Trinidad every February/March. Expect outlandish costumes, loud calypso tunes and no sleep!
  9. Walk and whale-watch, Dominica – the Caribbean's 'nature isle' is lush, green and undeveloped, and perfect for hiking. Head inland to trek around dormant craters, or sail offshore to see breaching whales (best November to March).
  10. Learn to sail, British Virgin Islands – BVI's calm and sheltered waters are the perfect place to get to grips with jibs and main sails. Take lessons to earn a competent crew qualification, or hire a skipper to do the hard work for you.

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