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Which Caribbean Island Is Right for You?

If your mental picture of the Caribbean is a stereotypical stock image of a palm tree arching over a pristine white beach, it may be time to revisit the region. The Caribbean is dotted with dozens of island nations, each with its own unique offerings for travelers. Are you drawn to historic forts, cobblestone streets, and colorful Spanish architecture? What about lushly forested hiking trails that snake past tumbling waterfalls and bromeliads dripping with rain? Or would you rather explore multi-hued coral reefs teeming with rays, turtles, and tropical fish?

There’s an ideal Caribbean island for just about every type of traveler, from foodies to families (and, yes, beach bums too). Read on to find out which Caribbean island is right for you.

Dominica: Haven for Hikers

dominica waterfall and hiker

The unspoiled rainforests and waterfalls of Dominica, often called “the Nature Isle,” provide endless opportunities for hikers. The island’s most famous trek—and one of its most challenging—is the day-long sojourn to Boiling Lake. The flooded fumarole at the end of the trail is one of the world’s largest hot springs, and it’s typically shrouded in steam. Shorter hikes include a trip to the towering Middleham Falls or a jaunt around scenic Freshwater Lake.

Where to stay: The Fort Young Hotel in Roseau, Dominica’s capital city, offers access to shops and restaurants and is a good jumping-off point for hikes and other adventures.

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St. Barthelemy: Gourmet Dining

dining at le tamarin st barthelemy

Prices are high, but the quality of cuisine is even higher on luxe St. Barthelemy. This island offers a little slice of Europe in the center of the Caribbean, and menus here are dominated by French dishes with a Creole twist. One of the best culinary experiences on the island is fine dining in the lush tropical garden at Le Tamarin. If your budget needs a break, treat yourself to a picnic lunch from a gourmet deli or local market.

Where to stay: With colorful rooms and cottages, most of which feature panoramic views of St. Jean Bay, Le Village is one of the island’s most popular spots to stay.

Turks and Caicos: Wild About Watersports

kayaker grace bay turks and caicos

Home to one of the Caribbean’s longest barrier reefs, Turks and Caicos is an ideal spot to explore the underwater world. You can even swim with stingrays on Grand Turk. The island’s calm mangrove forests are perfect for kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding, while Long Bay Beach (on the island of Providenciales) is a popular place to try your hand at kiteboarding. Windsurfing, sailing, and fishing are other options around the islands.

Where to stay: The Windsong Resort overlooks spectacular Grace Bay. All rooms feature kitchenettes or full kitchens.

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Saba: Off the Beaten Path

saba landscape

With a friendly population of about 2,000, the tiny Dutch island of Saba is the perfect spot for travelers looking to truly get away from it all. The five-square-mile island is actually a dormant volcano, surrounded on all sides by a well-preserved marine park where divers can explore pristine coral reefs. For stunning views, climb the aptly named Mount Scenery; at 2,910 feet it’s the highest point on the island. Looking for a souvenir? Delicate Saba lace is handmade by local women and sold in a number of boutiques on the island. One caveat: This is not the island to visit if you love beaches. Saba has very few, and one is a “wandering beach” that’s only visible under the right conditions.

Where to stay: Every one of the 10 comfortable cottages at The Cottage Club has a full kitchen and a private balcony overlooking the sea.

Curacao: Number One for Nightlife

curacao cocktail

After the sun goes down, the action starts to heat up in Curacao. After all, the island is famous for Blue Curacao Liqueur. Casinos, beach clubs, annual festivals, and famous international DJ appearances are all a part of a typical night out in Curacao. Whether you’re visiting for a festival like Carnival or The Flying Dutch, or just looking to enjoy a night out on vacation, Curacao is the best island for you. Jazz clubs, lounges, and hipster bars line the trendy Pietermaai area, or you can enjoy live music and DJs at beach clubs like Cabana Beach or Zanzibar. But don’t worry if nightlife isn’t for you; it’s not too in-your-face. Curacao is also known for its famous blue water and dive sites.

Where to stay: If you’re looking for a city stay, try the hip BijBlauw in the Pietermaai district of Willemstad.

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Puerto Rico: History and Culture

cobblestone street in old san juan

The cobblestone streets and brightly colored colonial buildings of Puerto Rico’s Old San Juan are a must-visit for travelers seeking cultural attractions to complement a beach getaway. The city is home to two historic forts, including El Morro, which dates back to 1539. Old San Juan also boasts a lovely cathedral and a museum devoted to Spanish cellist Pablo Casals. Other attractions include dozens of art galleries and antique shops, as well as a vibrant restaurant scene.

Where to stay: Housed in a 19th-century building, the Decanter Hotel offers elegant rooms in the heart of Old San Juan.

St. Lucia: The Ultimate in Romance

st lucia twin pitons with pink flowers

There’s a reason St. Lucia is one of the most popular islands in the Caribbean for honeymoons. For sheer beauty and romance, you can’t beat its famous Twin Pitons, lush rainforests, and wide white beaches. And there are a variety of indulgent all-inclusive resorts here in every price point, from the stunning Jade Mountain (complete with infinity pools and open-air views of the Pitons) to the several couples-only Sandals Resorts scattered around the island.

Where to stay: The adults-only, all-inclusive Sandals Grande St. Lucian offers a dozen restaurants, six bars, and plenty of activity options.

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Aruba: Best for Beach Bums

aruba beach umbrellas

Pristine white sands and crystal-clear waters await travelers to the beaches of Aruba. The most popular strip of sand is two-mile Palm Beach, which offers calm seas for swimming and other watersports, as well as plenty of restaurants, beach bars, and hotels—so you don’t have to stray far from your towel to refill your fruity drink or grab a snack. If you’re looking for a quieter, more private experience, try Arashi Beach, a favorite with locals, or Malmok Beach, a top spot for snorkeling.

Where to stay: Playa Linda Beach Resort is located right on Palm Beach and offers a range of accommodations from studios and suites to townhomes.

Martinique: The Caribbean in Miniature

martinique landscape

For travelers who love variety, Martinique offers a little taste of everything that makes the Caribbean special—rolling cane fields and lush banana plantations, cascading waterfalls and rainforest trails, beautiful beaches and stylish shops, fascinating history and fresh local seafood—all in one French-flavored island. Spend some time strolling and shopping in Fort-de-France, the capital city, before heading out of town to St.-Pierre, a town shadowed by a nearby volcano that killed 30,000 residents when it erupted back in 1902. (Learn all about it at the town’s Musee Volcanologique.) Relax on the beaches of Pointe du Bout or go canyoning down a river to one of the island’s many waterfalls.

Where to stay: Treat yourself to a luxury stay at French Coco, where each suite comes with its own private swimming pool and terrace.

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Bahamas: Family Fun

father and child on beach in bahamas

Clean, safe, and just a short plane ride from the United States, the Bahamas offer a variety of choices for travelers with kids. Many families flock to Nassau and neighboring Paradise Island, where you’ll find the biggest and glitziest hotels (including the famous Atlantis mega-resort), as well as the best boutique shopping and the greatest variety of activities. Grand Bahama Island, with its main town of Freeport, is another good bet for miles of wide white beaches paired with hotels, restaurants, and casinos. If your family prefers a quieter experience, head to the Out Islands—including Andros and the Exumas—where the hotels are smaller, the beaches practically deserted, and the scenery pristine and untouched.

Where to stay: Hideaways is a family-friendly resort on Great Exuma, offering multi-bedroom suites and cottages.

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Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2017. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

By Sarah Schlichter

Deputy Executive Editor Sarah Schlichter's idea of a perfect trip includes spotting exotic animals, hiking through pristine landscapes, exploring new neighborhoods on foot, and soaking up as much art as she can. She often attempts to recreate recipes from her international travels after she gets home (which has twice resulted in accidental kitchen fires—no humans or animals were harmed).

Sarah joined the SmarterTravel team in 2017 after more than a decade at the helm of IndependentTraveler.com. Sarah's practical travel advice has been featured in dozens of news outlets including the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Budget Travel, and Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor.

The Handy Item I Always Pack: "A journal. Even years later, reading my notes from a trip can bring back incredibly vivid memories."

Ultimate Bucket List Experience: "Road tripping and hiking through the rugged mountains of Patagonia."

Travel Motto: "'To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.'—Freya Stark"

Aisle, Window, or Middle Seat: "Aisle. I get restless on long flights and like to be able to move around without disturbing anyone else."

Email Sarah at sschlichter@smartertravel.com.

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