Year-round sunshine, a laid-back pace of life and endless stretches of sugar-soft sand bring people flocking to the Caribbean. But with 28 island nations to choose from, each with a different flavour, how do you narrow down where to go? Jenni Doggett explores Jamaica and the British Virgin Islands to get you started…
Best for adventurers
Jamaica’s musical pedigree, vibrant street-food culture and beautiful beaches established it long ago as one of the world’s most famous tropical destinations. And with over 175 attractions, it offers more to do than all the other Caribbean islands combined.
Mountain high, valley low
You’ll need some of the region’s super-strength coffee to power you to the top of 2,256m Blue Mountain Peak. But a pre-dawn hike is worth the early start and it only takes a few hours to reach the summit, where the heavy red sun rises above blue marshmallow clouds that give the place its name. The lavishly forested landscape gradually reveals itself in panorama and, on a clear day, you can see as far as Cuba.
Assume the recovery position on tranquil Negril beach, its immaculate powdery sand stretching for miles. The laid-back thrum of local musicians covering Bob Marley classics and softly ringing steel drums mingle with shushing waves for the perfect holiday soundtrack. For those who prefer to spend their days vertical, Jamaica also boasts some of the best golf courses in the Caribbean. Take your afternoon tee at the White Witch – the highest-ranked course on the island and the must-play location in Montego Bay.
Food for thought
Hit the alternative MoBay city-side to sample the local street-food scene, tender goat curry, golden bammies (cassava flatbread soaked in coconut milk) and local staple jerk chicken. Watch out for scorching-hot Scotch bonnet peppers.
Burn off the comfort food by horse-riding in the sea, zip-lining through the trees or taking a breakneck-speed bobsleigh ride, but a lazy afternoon rafting on the Martha Brae River is the traditional Jamaican tempo. Simple bamboo rafts originally used to carry sugar cane to the coast are punted by local guides deep into Jamaica’s interior. Mango and breadfruit trees form a magical tunnel through sun-flecked foliage.
As you glide along the crystalline river, tropical birds telegraph your passage and the guide’s lyrical commentary tells the tale of a witch and her hidden gold mines. Legend has it that rather than leading Spanish occupiers to the mine, a Jamaican witch called Martha Brae took them to a local cave where she summoned a flood to drown herself and her captors, taking the secret of the mine’s location to her grave.
The best bits
EAT: Spicy Fish Tea and steamed snapper at Little Ochie in Alligator Pond
DRINK: Appleton Estate Rum, crafted the same way for 265 years – and take a tour of the estate to learn about Jamaica’s oldest distillery
READ: Man Booker Prize winner A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
EXPLORE: Dunn’s River Falls, near Ocho Rios, which tumble over a series of rock terraces before pouring out directly into the Caribbean Sea
LISTEN TO: Kool 97 FM. The Kingston-based radio station plays classic reggae and new tunes
TRY: Rick’s World Famous Rum Punch at Rick’s Café, and watch the cliff-divers backflip into the sea
BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
Best for water babies
A secret treasure among sailors for many years, the 50-plus other-worldly isles and hidden coves that make up the British Virgin Islands (BVI) have become much more accessible for landlubbers with more frequent and direct flights.
Gentle trade winds and protected bays make the BVI perfect for sailing, but there are treasures aplenty on terra firma too. The four main islands of Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke each have their charms – glorious tropical beaches where you can sip away at sundowners and watch big grey pelicans preen; skeletal shipwrecks for divers to explore; extravagant treehouse restaurants; and raucous pirate bars – but for rock-star luxury, Peter Island is the place to hang your flip flops.
Privately owned and with only 52 rooms (plus three luxury villas) in 1,800 acres, it really feels as if you have the place to yourself. The beaches are pristine, strung with crisp cream hammocks under rustling palms. The spa is world-class; sun-baked skin is soothed by cool lemongrass-scented air conditioning as soon as you enter the elegant premises. Every detail is attended to. A few hours in the outdoor bohio and beachside Jacuzzi will melt your bones, and if it weren’t for the on-demand golf cart taxi service around the island it’s likely most guests would never summon the energy to leave the spa.
Scrub Island is a smaller but equally luxurious option and the perfect base for exploring. Discovered by Columbus more than 500 years ago, it remained uninhabited until pirates and buccaneers began to stop off on the island to scrub barnacles off their boat, hence the name. These days it’s a little more glamorous and, with abundant water taxis, charter boats and kayaks, there are plenty of ways to navigate around the superyachts in the spectacular North Sound of nearby Virgin Gorda, Billionaire’s Playground.
You can catch your own dinner angling for bonefish and tarpon from pure-white beaches or follow in Hemingway’s tracks and go sport fishing out at sea. There is no better way to build an appetite than an afternoon chasing mahi-mahi and wahoo. Go island hopping to exquisite Cow Wreck Beach, snorkel with trumpet fish in a local cove or just laze in the terraced pool and wait for cocktail hour.
The best bits
EAT: Fish chowder at The Dove restaurant in Road Town, Tortola, recommended by locals and captains alike
DRINK: Pusser’s Painkiller cocktails, an institution in these parts – sailors all stop for sundowners
READ: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, said to be based on Norman Island
LISTEN TO: The Rolling Stones – Keith Richards is a regular here and the inspiration behind Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean
EXPLORE: The Baths at Virgin Gorda – giant granite boulders collapsed in on each other to form a series of magical turquoise pools and caves
Discover the very best of the Caribbean and what island suits you by chatting to one of our Travel Experts. Make an appointment and they’ll discuss what you want from your Escape and your budget to create the perfect beach holiday.