Covering a wide swath of the area between the southern US and eastern Mexico, the Caribbean Islands offer a myriad of landscapes, activities, and price ranges. From exotic turquoise beaches to lush, dense jungles and cactus-strewn deserts, activities ranging from snorkeling to hiking, rum-tasting, cigar-rolling, and historical exploration, there’s something for everyone, whether you are a backpacker, luxury-seeker, or somewhere in between. Our picks for the best Caribbean islands have you covered!
Here are the criteria I used for my ranking:
- Beautiful beaches
- Diversity of outdoor activities
- Quality of cuisine
- Friendliness of locals
- Value for money
Caribbean at a Glance
- Area: 1.063 million mi²
- Population density: 392/sq. mi.
- Ethnic groups: African; European; Indian; Chinese; Amerindian; Javanese; Arab; Jewish; Hmong; Multiracial
- Population: 44.42 million (2019)
- Demonym: Caribbean, West Indian
20 Ambergris Caye
LOGISTICS: Ambergris Caye is the largest island of Belize, located northeast of the country’s mainland, in the Caribbean Sea. It is about 25 mi long from north to south, and about 1 mile wide. Golf carts are used to get around. A Maya community lived on the island in Pre-Columbian times and made distinctive polished red ceramics.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Island is a ring of white sand beaches around a mangrove swamp in the middle. San Pedro Town is the only town on the island/peninsula. Ambergris Caye was host to the first season of the TV series Temptation Island which aired in 2001.
Diving in Hol Chan Marine Reserve and snorkeling at Shark Ray Alley are a lot of fun. If you are a more expert diver, you might want to dive in the Blue Hole. While I’m certified, diving in caves 140 feet deep is beyond my comfort zone, even though it sounds amazing.
DOWNSIDE: To get on and off the island, you have to take a water taxi. Since many of the activities (like cave tubing) and restaurants are on the mainland, the schedule and length of time taking a water taxi got old. Also, the mosquitos at dusk are brutal! Most resorts spray during this time, so you might want to stay indoors while spraying.
LOGISTICS: is an island and municipality in the Caribbean Sea off the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, opposite Playa del Carmen and part of the state of Quintana Roo. The main town on the island is San Miguel de Cozumel which is also where the cruise ships dock.
The economy of Cozumel is based on tourism, with visitors able to benefit from the island’s spas, scuba diving, and snorkeling.
HIGHLIGHTS: Cozumel has a lot of great diving areas and pretty beaches. There are also diverse activities such Chankanaab Adventure Park and Zona Archaeological San Gervasio. Another popular activity is to rent a 4×4 and explore the island on a day trip.
DOWNSIDE: San Miguel was pretty commercial, and the beaches, while pretty, were not as spectacular as other beaches in the Caribbean. Admittedly, it’s a tough bar to clear.
18 St. Kitts & Nevis
LOGISTICS: St. Kitts and Nevis is a dual-island nation situated between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It’s known for cloud-covered volcanic Mt. Liamuiga and its tropical beaches. Many of its former sugar plantations are now inns or atmospheric ruins.
HIGHLIGHTS: St. Kitts, is dominated by the dormant Mount Liamuiga volcano, home to a crater lake, green vervet monkeys, and a rainforest crisscrossed with hiking trails.
DOWNSIDE: Beyond a bit of hiking and nice, but not extraordinary beaches, not much else to do on St. Kitts, and Nevis is even smaller, so they’re great for relaxation but not for adventure-seekers. Also, there’s a bit of crime to beware of.
17 St. Maarten
LOGISTICS: Sint (St.) Maarten is a semi-autonomous country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. With a population of 41,486, it encompasses the southern 40% of the divided island of St. Martin, while the northern 60% of the island constitutes the French overseas collectivity of St. Martin. Sint Maarten’s capital is Philipsburg. The island is very popular with sun-seekers and cruisers.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Philipsburg boardwalk is a long stretch of shops, bars, and restaurants along Great Bay’s beach. Maho Beach is where airplanes flight seemingly a few feet over the beach. You can sign up to become part of the crew on a regatta racing vessel and take part in an actual race.
DOWNSIDE: Can get crowded when cruise ships are docked.
16 St. John
LOGISTICS: St. John is the smallest of the three U.S. Virgin Islands with a National Park that occupies more than half the island. Its forests shelter birds such as cuckoos, warblers, and hummingbirds.
HIGHLIGHTS: At the beautiful turquoise Trunk Bay there is a unique underwater snorkel trail. The mangroves at Hurricane Hole host a variety of corals and anemones. You can also find dolphins and hawksbill and green turtles in the island’s waters.
DOWNSIDE: It’s quite small and quiet, so aside from water activities and some bike riding, there is not a lot to do.
15 St. Lucia
LOGISTICS: St. Lucia is an Eastern Caribbean island nation known for its two rugged tapered mountains, the Pitons rising up on the west coast. Its coast is home to volcanic beaches, reef-diving sites, lush rainforests, luxury resorts, and fishing villages. The capital, Castries, is a popular cruise port
HIGHLIGHTS: Not to be missed is the “drive-through” volcano where visitors can indulge in the bubbling volcanic hot springs and mud baths.
DOWNSIDE: While subjective, I did not find the beaches as pretty as many of the other turquoise beaches in the Caribbean.
14 St. Thomas
LOGISTICS: St. Thomas is known as the gateway to the Caribbean, with the capital and port of Charlotte Amalie and lots of rum distilleries for sampling.
HIGHLIGHTS: There’s a lot to do on St. Thomas. The prettiest beach is the crescent-shaped Magens Bay. Activities include Blackbeard’s Castle and Buck Island Refuge. The best thing to do is to rent a car and drive around the island, hitting some stunning scenic lookout points high in the mountains which overlook the port, beaches, and rainforests.
DOWNSIDE: St. Thomas is one of the most commercial islands and a popular cruise destination which can make it quite crowded when multiple ships are in port.
LOGISTICS: Culebra is a small, sparsely populated island with a surrounding group of cays off the east coast of Puerto Rico.
HIGHLIGHTS: One of the most beautiful beaches, not just in the Caribbean, but in the world, Flamenco Beach, is located on Culebra. The long crescent-shaped white-sand beach has shallow, crystal clear water that is perfect for families looking to relax or a weekend getaway for couples.
DOWNSIDE: Like many of the other very small islands, there’s not much to do beyond beach activities, but it makes a great day trip from the east coast of Puerto Rico.
12 Cayman Islands
LOGISTICS: The Cayman Islands is made up of three small islands in the western Caribbean Sea, located between Cuba and Jamaica. Grand Cayman, the largest and most popular island, is known for its beach resorts and superior scuba diving and snorkeling sites.
HIGHLIGHTS: The Cayman Islands are very safe and there is little poverty. Seven Mile Beach with soft white sand and calm, turquoise water is consistently named as one of the world’s best beaches in the world.
DOWNSIDE: Very expensive with mostly high-end resorts, the beaches get crowded, and some say it is too “Americanized.”
LOGISTICS: Martinique is an autonomous department of France. The rugged Caribbean island is part of the Lesser Antilles. The culture is a distinct blend of French and West Indian influences. Its largest town, Fort-de-France, features steep hills, narrow streets, and La Savane, a garden bordered by shops and cafes.
HIGHLIGHTS: Beautiful landscape includes lush forests and volcanic mountains, and the rugged Gorges de la Falaise.
DOWNSIDE: While pretty, the beaches are generally not the brilliant turquoise of some other Caribbean islands.
LOGISTICS: Sitting just off the coast of Venezuela, Aruba is one of the picturesque Lesser Antilles islands. The official language is Papiamento, a curious fusion of Spanish, Dutch, Creole and Portuguese.
HIGHLIGHTS: In addition to dazzling white beaches, there are also intriguing cactus-strewn desert landscapes to explore. It’s also not in the usual hurricane-prone zone.
DOWNSIDE: Many people prefer a tropical rather than desert landscape. There have also been some safety issues reported over recent years.
9 Turks & Caicos
LOGISTICS: Turks and Caicos is a British Territory archipelago encompassing 40 low-lying coral islands. Scuba-diving sites include a 14-mile barrier reef on Provo’s north shore and the dramatic underwater wall off Grand Turk Island.
HIGHLIGHTS: If you’re looking for a relaxing beach vacation, this is it. Beaches of mesmerizing aquamarine water lap onto baby-powder soft white-sand Grace Bay on the gateway island of Providenciales is often named the most beautiful in the Caribbean.
DOWNSIDE: It’s a bit pricey to stay here, with mostly high-end resorts. Also, there’s not too much to do beyond the beaches.
LOGISTICS: Officially known as the Commonwealth of The Bahamas, the sovereign country lies within the Lucayan Archipelago of the West Indies in the Atlantic. It takes up 97% of the Lucayan Archipelago’s land area and is home to 88% of the archipelago’s population. The Bahamas serve as a kind of connecting point between the Caribbean and southeast coast of Florida. The British drove pirates and buccaneers from the islands and made the Bahamas their colony.
HIGHLIGHTS: Many of the islands of the Bahamas are close, and island-hopping is a popular pastime. While they all have ubiquitous gorgeous beaches, some islands offer unique experiences such as swimming with pigs, diving in coral gardens, shopping in straw markets, and casino gambling.
DOWNSIDE: The Bahamas can be pretty pricey, and because it is farther north than the rest of the Caribbean, the winter months can be too cold for beach and water activities.
LOGISTICS: Curaçao is a Dutch Caribbean island close to the coast of Venezuela and is one of the “ABC Islands.” The island is known for its beautiful beaches tucked into small coves as well as its expansive coral reefs rich with marine life.
HIGHLIGHTS: In addition to the shimmering beaches, you won’t want to miss exploring the pastel architecture of Willemstad, accessed by the Queen Emma floating bridge. Curacao offers great diving with colorful reefs and fish, and in fact, it’s where I introduced my teenage son to diving.
DOWNSIDE: The food and accommodations tended to be a bit pricey.
LOGISTICS: Jamaica has a lush topography of mountains, rainforests, and turquoise beaches. Many of its all-inclusive resorts are clustered in Montego Bay, outdoor activities around Ocho Rios, and diving sites around Negril. Kingston is known as the birthplace of reggae music star Bob Marley.
HIGHLIGHTS: White powder turquoise beaches lined with coconut palms are abundant. Don’t miss climbing UP Dunn’s River Falls, a very fun experience in which “human chains” are made to assist. Lots of inexpensive cruises stop here.
DOWNSIDE: Avoid some areas at night, and of course do not buy drugs at any time.
LOGISTICS: Barbados is an eastern Caribbean island and an independent British Commonwealth nation. Bridgetown, the capital, is a cruise-ship port with colonial buildings. Local traditions include afternoon tea and cricket, the national sport.
HIGHLIGHTS: Bottom Bay is one of the prettiest beaches in the Caribbean, although the surf there is frequently too rough for swimming. The island has a lot of fun things to do in addition to the beaches, e.g. botanical gardens, Harrison’s Cave, and the 17th-century St. Nicholas Abbey plantation. I went with my kids and then again as a couple, and found it to be very accommodating for both scenarios.
DOWNSIDE: Petty crimes like pickpocketing sometimes plague the capital. Also, be aware that camouflage clothing is prohibited. We were stopped when we arrived at the airport and had to change the camo cargo shorts of our young son before we could leave.
4 Antigua & Barbuda
LOGISTICS: The island nation of Antigua and Barbuda is an independent Commonwealth country in the Leeward Islands comprising the two namesake islands as well as several smaller ones. Nestled at the point where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet, it’s known for reef-lined beaches, rainforests, and resorts.
HIGHLIGHTS: There is so much to do in Antigua, you’ll likely run out of time before you run out of amusements. First, with 365 beaches, you could spend a year hopping to each one.
Historical English Harbour with Nelson’s Dockyard and towering, bougainvillea-laden Shirley Heights is beautiful and should not be missed. For a romping fun time, try careening through the muddy valley on a buggy.
Don’t miss eating some of the spiny lobsters in Antigua — they are said to be the most delicious in the world…and I agree!
Antigua has the lowest crime rate in the Caribbean.
DOWNSIDE: Be aware that there are two different types of dollars and they have different values. Plastic bags are banned, so bring reusable ones. The accommodations are mostly all-inclusive – not a lot of boutique hotels.
3 British Virgin Islands
LOGISTICS: The British Virgin Islands are part of a volcanic archipelago in the Caribbean, and still a British overseas territory. Comprising four main islands and many smaller ones, BVI is known for its reef-lined beaches and as a yachting destination. The largest island, Tortola, is home to the capital, Road Town.
HIGHLIGHTS: On Virgin Gorda island is the Baths, a stunning beach sporting a jumble of huge boulders jutting up from the coast. Spectacular to say the least, it’s arguably the most beautiful beach in the Caribbean as well as the most photographed.
There are some great scuba spots like the sunken RMS Rhone and the rainforest-filled Sage Mountain National Park.
DOWNSIDE: Beaucoup expensive! Open your wallet if you plan to visit this paradise island!
2 Puerto Rico
LOGISTICS: Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island and unincorporated U.S. territory with a diverse landscape of mountains, beaches, waterfalls, and Spanish colonial architecture. Add to that a history of plundering pirates and strategic forts, and you’ll find that Puerto Rico is the gem of the Caribbean.
HIGHLIGHTS: Explore Old San Juan’s colorful Spanish colonial buildings, centuries-old canon-lined El Morro and La Fortaleza fortresses, and sip a Peña Colada where it was invented.
In addition to beaches all around the island’s coast, Puerto is overflowing with nature to discover, such as the El Yunque tropical rainforest, three bioluminescent bays, and caves. It’s a relatively small island so exploring by car is the way to go.
DOWNSIDE: Puerto Rico used to be a budget destination, but that has changed in recent years. While there are a lot of high-end hotels in the area of San Juan, the choices outside seem to be more of vacation rentals who now charge a high cleaning fee which is pretty hefty for those who are only staying a day or two in one place. Beware that there’s not much public transportation and car rentals are expensive.
LOGISTICS: Officially the Republic of Cuba, the island is located where the northern Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Although it’s a spectacular destination with so much to see, do, and eat, unfortunately, the country’s tumultuous past and link to communism have hurt its tourism appeal over the last several decades.
HIGHLIGHTS: Hop in one of the colorful vintage cars that cruise past the once-decadent capital of Havana, Che Guevara signs and monuments, and along the seaside Malécon. Visiting Cuba is like stepping into a time warp.
Outside the city are the magnificent turquoise beaches of Varadero, the lush cigar farms of Viñales Valley, the candy-colored downtown of Trinidad, and the historic architecture of Cienfuegos.
Staying in casa particulars – private residences that have been tailored and licensed to operate as bed and breakfasts – rather than the hotels is a great way to get an authentic experience.
DOWNSIDE: Well, the most obvious is that Americans will once again find it difficult to enter Cuba due to US restrictions. Havana is crumbling (although I found it to ooze vintage charming), there’s very little access to wifi, no road signage, very little English spoken, and the food isn’t great. Are these really negatives? We found them to be part of the adventure! Cuba is one of the most fascinating places we’ve ever visited – not just in the Caribbean but in the world!
Didn’t see your favorite island here? There are more than 700 islands, islets, reefs, and cays on the Caribbean Plate, and we have not been to all of them…yet. This list represents our favorites only of the ones we’ve actually visited in person.
Also, what makes an island special is subjective. Some like adventure, others just to lie on a beach with a Peña Colada in hand.
Don’t worry…this list will be updated as we venture to discover more of the best Caribbean Islands!
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.
She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the new few months.
Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.