Silky white sand, warm turquoise waters and a gentle, salt-sprayed breeze.
Nothing says vacation like the islands of the Caribbean. Here, in no particular order, is our list for the 5 Hottest Caribbean Islands for 2017
Two nation vacation in the tropics and a hint of Europe
Why go? The smallest island in the world governed by two European nations, St. Maarten/St. Martin, a half Dutch, half French island, has a high satisfaction rate among visitors who experience some of the best the Caribbean has to offer. As a major hub in the region, there are plenty of flights to the island – so you’ll be on the beach (there are 37 in all) in no time. Plus the multicultural mix, with people here from 70 countries, has helped turn the island into a food lover’s paradise.
St. Martin is less developed and more intimate than the Dutch side. Watch local life unfold at one of the open-air cafes by the harbour in Marigot, then climb up the remains of Fort Louis (92 steps) built in 1789 for the panoramic view of the island, before seeing pre-Columbian artifacts at the Saint Martin Museum. Lunch or dinner on Restaurant Row (with oodles of choices) in Grand Case, is a must, while day trippers will love the island-hopping opportunities to neighbouring Anguilla or St. Barth.
Quintessential experience Spend time at Marigot’s bustling harbour, with its boutiques, craft stalls, and cafes. To experience St. Martin’s biggest town at its liveliest and most colourful though, visit on Wednesday or Saturday when the daily outdoor market expands to include local vendors selling an array of tropical fruits and vegetables, seafood and spices.
Eat The heart of the culinary scene on St. Martin can be found on the strip in Grand Case. Choices run the gamut from French bistros to gourmet restaurants, and beachside barbecue stands called lolos. Fresh seafood, Codfish fritters, chicken, spare ribs, pigeon pea soup and sweet potato pudding are some of what you’ll find in what many people call the “culinary capital of the Caribbean.”
When you Go There are plenty of options for getting to the island including some all-inclusive package trips. On arrival you can rent a car, scooter or moped and zip around on the well-maintained roads with ease. Car rental rates are competitive – expect an average of $30 U.S. a day. For tourism information check www.stmartinisland.org
Unspoiled and unpretentious
Why go? Two former British colonies, just three kilometers apart, St. Kitts and Nevis are among the prettiest islands in the Caribbean, something you’ll appreciate while riding “the Last Railway in the West Indies,” or strolling amid tropical flowers at the Botanical Gardens where Mt. Nevis serves as a picturesque backdrop.
Even with major high end projects – Kittian Hill and Christophe Harbour – the twin islands are still largely undeveloped. Come here for uncrowded beaches, restored 18thc plantation inns, and history, including Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in St. Kitts. In the capital cities of Basseterre and Charlestown you’ll find homes with gingerbread fretwork and centuries-old buildings, constructed at a time when sugar was king.
Nevis, which has no stoplights, is the smaller and quieter of the two. American patriot Alexander Hamilton was born here and you can visit his reconstructed home; while Lord Horatio Nelson, who once visited on military patrol, married local woman Frances Nisbet and left behind a collection of items that are now on display at Museum of Nevis History.
Between them, the islands also have some gorgeous beaches, as well as opportunities for hiking, golfing, horseback riding, ziplining, as well as activities on the water from sailing, diving and snorkeling to windsurfing and deep-sea fishing.
Quintessential experience The St. Kitts Scenic Railway is a unique and popular excursion. Built between 1912 and 1926, the old narrow-gauge train, once delivered sugar cane from the fields to the mill in Basseterre, and now carries tourists on a leisurely, narrated journey passed cane fields, ocean views and cliffs, villages, old windmills and the volcanic cone of Mt. Liamuiga. The three-hour trip covers 28 km by rail and 19 km by bus and makes a complete 48 km circle around the island.
Insider tip Frigate Bay isn’t just a beautiful beach, it’s also a good place to get lunch at one of the many stalls that line this happening strip. For local action when the sun goes down, head to Mr. X’s Shiggidy Shack on Thursday night for their famous bonfire parties; Friday for steel-pan music, and Saturday for karaoke night!
Explore Consider a rainforest hike or one of the other tours offered through Greg’s Safaris whose family has lived on the island for generations. For more adventurous travellers, consider a hike to one of two volcanoes – 1,156-metre high Mt Liamuiga in St. Kitts, or the harder climb for which a guide is definitely recommended up 985-metre high Nevis Peak.
Eat The national dish of St. Kitts and Nevis is stewed saltfish, dumplings, plantains, and breadfruit. Other local specialties include goat water stew, crab back, roti, and conch. For a special night out, there’s farm-to-table cuisine at The Kitchen, with produce sourced from Kittitian Hill’s organic farm.
When you Go The best way to see both islands is to fly to St. Kitts, then take a ferry to Nevis. Ferries depart frequently throughout the day for the 30 to 40 minute journey. For official tourism information check stkittstourism.kn.
Civility in the tropics
Why go? If you listen closely, you’ll often hear well-mannered citizens greet each other in formal tones: “Good Day Mrs. Phillips,” “Hello Mr. Adams.” On the most British island in the Caribbean (British rule lasted for 340 years until independence in 1966), they drive on left side of the road, play cricket, and serve afternoon tea at places like Cobblers Cove. But that’s just part of the story.
The beaches run the gamut from Crane Beach, an oft raved-about crescent of pink sand, to calm Mullins Beach, ideal for swimming and snorkeling, and Bathsheba, a popular surfer spot. For history, the capital city Bridgetown along with its garrison is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with many buildings dating from the 1700s. Though it’s worth venturing around the island to uncover other gems including two historic Great Houses – Sunbury Plantation House and Museum, and St. Nicholas Abbey (circa 1650).
One of the island’s top attractions is Harrison’s Cave, a limestone cavern which visitors explore on a one-hour long underground journey via electric tram. It’s above ground though where the island’s tropical beauty really shines, at places such as the Andromeda Botanical Gardens, the Flower Forest, and Hunte’s Gardens, each one a completely unique experience.
On the other hand Barbados can be pricey, compared to Cuba, for example, where all-inclusives predominate. Beaches are very good though not on a par with jaw-droppingly gorgeous stretches of sand to be found on islands such as Anguilla or Barbuda.
Claim to fame Once one of the largest producers of sugar, Barbados is home to the world’s oldest rum distiller – Mount Gay, established in 1703. The visitor centre offers tours of the blending and bottling plant, along with a film, an exhibit and rum tasting.
Quintessential experience The Crop Over festival is an annual month long event (from about July 1 to August 1) that traces its history to the 1700s when Barbadian slaves celebrated the end of the sugar harvest. A lively parade and calypso music are among the highlights.
Local tip Oistins is the place to be on Friday and Saturday nights when the fishing village is transformed into an open-air street festival and fish fry. There’s music and local crafts for sale, and plenty of food, such as grilled kingfish, barbecue chicken, macaroni pie, breadfruit and cassava, all cooked at outdoor stalls while you wait.
Wow! If you missed the chance to fly on the British Airways Concorde (G-BOAE) now you can see it up close and stroll the aisle of this retired supersonic aircraft, which flew for many years between London and Barbados, and opened for tours on the island in 2007.
Eat local Flying fish is the national dish and can be served steamed, fried or grilled. Pepper pot – a stew of oxtail, beef and other meat in a rich gravy, is also popular.
When you Go The island is busiest (and priciest) in the high season from around mid December to mid April. Some hotels close in September and October for annual maintenance. Roads are well maintained, though traffic near Bridgetown isn’t unusual. For more check visitBarbados.org.
The Caribbean’s little known upscale gem
Why go? Tell people you’ve just been to Anguilla and chances are you’ll get one of two responses: “Where?” or “Angola?” No, Anguilla – east of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. The lack of name recognition may have to do with the fact that it’s a small island (26 km long and 5 km wide) and a relative latecomer to the tourism industry. But being somewhat off the radar is ideal for those seeking a relaxing getaway without the crowds.
A dry, low lying isle, Anguilla is primarily known for its superb beaches, innovative cuisine and high-end, sometimes over-the-top resorts. It’s almost impossible to take a bad photo of one of the 33 beaches here including standouts such as Rendezvous Bay, Maundays Bay and Meads Bay – long, stretches of sand that are almost blindingly white. One glimpse of the clear blue water and you’ll understand the tourism slogans, from “tranquility wrapped in blue,” often seen on brochures, to “Anguilla: 50 shades of blue,” on an overhead sign near the ferry terminal. If you’re here in March and like reggae music come for the Moonsplash Festival.
On the other hand There are no nonstop flights to the island, and not a lot to do, plus accommodation can be very pricey with some rooms and villas starting at $2,000 a night.
Quintessential experiences A short trip to Scilly Cay, a tiny coral spec, is a must while on Anguilla. If the boat’s not at the dock when you arrive, just wave and someone will fetch you for the “120 second” free ride to the cay. Come for lunch – chicken, lobster, crayfish and fish – plus the rum punch, as 175,000 have apparently been served in the past 29 years!
Insider tip Even if you’re not staying at Zemi Beach House, the newest resort on Anguilla, you can still enjoy some of what it has to offer. There’s the Rhum Room, which has more than 100 different rums from about a dozen countries including some of the finer spirits going for upwards of $650 shot, and the Zemi Thai House Spa, with an authentic 300-year-old house transported from Thailand plus an amazing hammam, one of the few in the Caribbean.
Explore Drive around the island or hire a cab to see the beaches or check out local attractions such as Wallblake House (built in 1787, it’s the island’s only surviving plantation house), the Heritage Museum and the distinctive looking Bethel Methodist Church. Informative guided tours can be arranged through outfits such as Nature Explorers Anguilla (which offers bird watching, photography tours and more) and the Anguilla National Trust (hikes, tours to historical places). Recent rains have filled up the salt ponds, which will make for superb bird watching for months to come. Another option is a visit to a few of Anguilla’s cays including Sandy Island and Prickly Pear Cay where you can stop for lunch, hear the bananaquits chirping in the palm trees, or spot one of the indigenous iguanas.
Eat Grilled Anguilla crayfish, spiny lobster, coconut shrimp, grouper, snapper are some of the fresh seafood items found on local menus. Curry makes an appearance in pasta salads, springs rolls and goat dishes. The ahi starter at Pimms at Cap Jaluca is a crowd pleaser, as is the Caribbean sampler at Davidas. One local hotelier described Tasty’s and E’s Oven as two restaurants where you can experience “5-star food at 3-star prices.” Mabel Gumbs’ hearty corn soup ($5 a bowl) is a local favourite and available at a roadside stall in The Valley every Saturday from about 10a.m. to 2 p.m.
Splurge The Malliouhana, An Auberge Resort – where luxury meets the warmth and gracious hospitality of the Caribbean – is highly regarded as one of the finest resorts in Anguilla, since its opening in 1984. With 44 rooms and suites, the boutique resort is built atop a panoramic bluff overlooking the Caribbean and reaching down to the white sands of Meads Bay and Turtle Cove beaches. Rooms start at $500 US per night. malliouhana.aubergeresorts.com
When you go Fly to St. Maarten and take one of the frequent ferries to Anguilla, which takes under 45 minutes. Options for getting around include renting a car (you’ll need a temporary driver’s license, which costs about $20 U.S.) or hiring a taxi for $25 U.S. an hour (more after 6pm). Departure tax is $28 U.S. ivisitanguilla.com
Where nature and indigenous culture meet
Why go? Hike on land, dive in the sea, and learn about the vibrant Carib culture, just don’t mistake this former British colony for another idyllic Caribbean beach destination. It’s all about nature here, from relaxing in one of the natural hot springs to hiking in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with its Emerald Pool and amazing waterfalls. Bunk down in places with names such as Liberty Jungle and Secret Bay while pondering sightseeing options: the Ft Shirley ruins, whale watching, visits to the botanical gardens, rum distilleries, and the beautiful capital Roseau with its centuries-old churches and architectural heritage. A volcanic island that boasts some of the highest mountains in the Caribbean, that’s Dominica.
On the other hand It’s one of wettest islands in the Caribbean. There are no non-stop flights, big resorts or fancy restaurants and some beaches have a strong undertow.
Quintessential experience Indigenous people on most Caribbean islands have long since died out, but not in Dominica, where about 3,500 Carib Indians – descendants of the very first inhabitants – continue to thrive. They call themselves Kalinago and live off the land, mostly in the rugged northeast part of the island, where they still maintain their traditions.
Visitors can meet the Kalinago and get a glimpse of their unique way of life at the Carib Village by the Sea.
Explore The new Waitukubuli National Trail, a 183-kilometre-long route which links the south of the island to the north, winds past rivers, waterfalls, forests, and villages. If you don’t have a week to hike the entire trail, sample one of the 14 sections, with varying levels of difficulty, each one designed to be completed in a day.
Local tip Other islands have Carnival, but Dominica claims to be the home of the Real Mas, an event true to its 18th century origins. Along with the usual Calypso Monarch competition, Queen Show, and J’ouvert, this pre-Lenten festival (Feb/March), has a few other events that set it apart. A parade on Carnival Monday dubbed “Old Mas,” features participants dressed in West African ceremonial regalia, made from strips of frayed cloth or banana leaves and capped by a ghoulish mask and horned headpiece. Then on Ash Wednesday, the “spirit” of carnival is paraded through the village in a mock funeral procession and burned in a bonfire!
Fresh fish and chicken are commonly found on menus, but travellers with an adventurous palate may want to seek out local game for which the island is known – including agouti (a large indigenous rodent) and manicou (a small opossum). Side dishes and local staples include plantains, kushkush (cornmeal), yams, breadfruit, and dasheen (taro). Try traditional Carib bread made fresh with coconut and cassava, from the Cassava Bakery in Salybia.
When you Go In the absence of any non-stop service, you’ll have to catch a connecting flight through one of the other islands or take a ferry from Guadeloupe or Martinique. If you want to avoid the rain, visit during the dry season in the winter and spring months. As roads can be narrow and some sites may be difficult to find, it’s worth considering an organized excursion.