Here's what to expect as you step onto the most popular islands of the Caribbean, whether you arrive by sea or air.
The fabled Caribbean “ports of call” — where cruise ships make their stops — lure sun and fun seekers of all ages and, in may ways, define the personality of each of the islands, too. Everywhere, young explorers and their families will delight in nature’s bounty, trekking along pristine trails, meandering valleys, and sea cliffs overlooking craggy seascapes. It’s also fun to be a kid splashing in the glittering waters, teeming with kaleidoscopes of rainbow fish and marine life. Water lovers will marvel at the close encounters of the underwater kind found in the surf kissed coves and iridescent waters. All the islands are home to every water sport conceivable including swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, paragliding, water skiing and sailing over aquamarine waves.
No matter where you land by ship or plane, bring binoculars for up-close bird and butterfly sightings, and studying the native flora that grows besides raging waterfalls and lush rainforests. For the best family photos, place yourselves in the midst of the endless valleys of sugar cane, pineapple, and coconut tree groves, which grow in abundance on these exotic islands.
Take the time to peek into the history and folklore of the islands thanks to the rich local culture that thrives. Stop by open air markets, food stalls, and beach shacks, and coax the youngsters to join you in taking a taste of island delicacies, each with a distinct flavor and flair all its own. Everyone will soon catch themselves swaying to the infectious music of the steel drums and calypso crooners, whose beat accompanies you everywhere.
Here’s a look at some of our favorite islands and what they have to offer.
Antigua, West Indies
This island boasts 365 superb white beaches and a beautiful National Park that stretches for ten square miles. From villages with colorfully painted houses, historic churches, sugar mills and forts, there’s much to see and do in addition to suntanning, swimming and sailing. Antigua has retained strong links to English tradition including afternoon High Tea that takes place throughout the island.
There’s also a wonderland of undersea activity for snorkelers and scuba divers, offering 500 different dive sites with coral canyons, sea caves, shipwrecks and wall drops. For those who would rather stay dry, there are ATV adventures exploring the remote side of the island and the very popular canopy tours with nine to 12 zip-lines. Golfers will find the Cedar Valley Golf Club, an 18-hole Championship, par 70, 6,157-yard course, a welcome respite.
Everyone will enjoy strolling around Antigua’s capital city of St. John’s. Heritage Quay, set right in the middle of town, is a modern complex of duty free and chic luxury shops, set alongside vendors selling the island’s bananas, pineapples, mangos, coconut, and their handmade crafts. There’s something for everyone here.
Nelson’s Dockyard National Park in English Harbour is Antigua’s most prized historic possession. This great monument to the past is now a lively focus of activity. The nautical museum, once the Admiral’s house, and several other buildings stand as a memorial to Admiral Horatio Nelson who made it his base in the 1780s. The park offers five easily-walked trails. After visiting the Dockyard, ramble around the extensive fortifications, barracks and powder magazines of Shirley Heights. The top of the Heights is a lookout with magnificent panoramic view of the whole area.
Take a drive to Devil’s Bridge along the rugged part of Antigua’s coastline. The spouting surf, along with several blowholes carved into the volcanic rock, create the most dramatic and picturesque explosions of spume and foam found anywhere. Fig Tree Rain Reserve, another beautiful drive, climbs up and down hillsides to the center of the island. Drive through the lush vegetation of the rain forest bursting with mango guava, orange, coconut and fig trees (fig is the Antiguan name for banana).
Aruba, Dutch West Indies
The most westward of the leeward group of the Netherlands Antilles, 15 miles from Venezuela’s coast. Oranjestad, Aruba’s capital has picturesque streets dotted with pastel-colored houses under red tile roofs.
On the west side of Barbados, coral shore beaches of fine white sand stretch along blue-green seas. Coral reefs fringing the shoreline offer excellent snorkeling and scuba diving. The east coast is another story. With strong and constant trade winds and a rugged rocky shore, this area of Barbados features the spectator sports of polo and horseracing, and top notch golf courses.
History buffs will enjoy National Heroes Square, Parliament, St. John’s Church, Bathsheba, Holetown and Sunbury Plantation House. The Barbados Museum depicts the island’s colorful heritage, and is housed in an old prison located in the 19th century Garrison Historical Area. Take a tour of Harrison’s Cave, an exotic kaleidoscope of vaulted chambers with beautiful stalagmites and stalactites formed from crystallized limestone. Don helmets and board the electric tram for a subterranean ride through this natural phenomenon.
The new Concorde Experience will attract the aviation buffs in the family. This is a state-of-the-art facility where one of seven British Airways Concorde supersonic passenger jets are exhibited. Experience a visual show with light effects simulating take-off, and get to view the interior of the plane. The cockpit is cool!
Get caught up in the giggles of families having fun together at the Monkey Encounter. Walk along shady paths to look for the funny and fascinating green monkeys that run freely in their own wildlife preserve.
The mountainous island country known as “Nature Isle” is the ultimate eco-Caribbean island. Here there are three national parks including Morne Trios Pitons that has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Home to the remaining settlement of Caribe Indians, the region’s original inhabitants, it’s more rustic and reminiscent of how the Caribbean used to be, and that’s good! There’s something for everyone to see and do at every level of comfort.
For family members who don’t care to do much walking, there’s the Panoramic Rain Forest. It’s not too long, and you get to see the rugged green rainforest scenery along the winding roads. To take in more beauty, stop at the Botanic Gardens featuring over 40 acres of plants, trees and flowers. If plenty of nothing is on the agenda, you can seek out one of the many beaches that offer serenity, and where yours are the only footprints you’ll see.
Those with experience and the spirit of adventure will want to seek out the treasures in Dominica’s waters. Guided by a professional dive master, divers can cut a path through a wall of warm bubbles created by fissures on the ocean floor, or dive the volcano as the locals call it, exploring dramatic drop-offs, caves and wrecks.
Hikers can arrange for a guide to accompany them as they head for the mountains. Thanks to its mountainous terrain and despite its small size, Dominica offers a wide variety of challenges to real hikers who want more then a walk in the park
Trafalgar Falls is one of Dominica’s most popular natural attractions, 5 miles from the capital Roseau. Two major waterfalls cascade side by side out of deep gorges on the face of the cliff. Emerald Pool is a crystal-clear blue-green grotto filled by a waterfall. Birds are common here, especially the hummingbird and occasionally the indigenous Sisserou and Imperial Parrots. Be sure and bring your bathing suit, camera and sun protection to enjoy Freshwater Lake that lies at the center of an old volcano.
Sweet scents of cinnamon, glossy brown nutmeg, cloves and vanilla will tickle your senses in Grenada, also known as the “Spice Island.” Take a guided tour to view the dense tropical rainforest that drapes the volcanic mountains, and waterfalls that cascade down the hillside to groves of cocoa. As you would suspect, sailing is a Grenadian specialty, and charter yachts are available for sailing around Grenada’s coast.
The tiny capital of St. George’s is one of the prettiest ports in the region. Its horseshoe shaped harbor is surrounded by a pastel rainbow of dockside warehouses. A fun way to get to beaches from here is by the small, colorful wooden water taxis.
There are over 45 beaches in Grenada. Grand Anse Beach has 2 miles of white sand in a sheltered bay, and is definitely a favorite. Also popular is Morne Roughe Bay, which is smaller, with warmer and fairly shallow waters. Diving opportunities here are some of the best in the Caribbean, and boast the largest shipwrecks as well as a volcano. There are at least 30 dive sites including reefs, wrecks and walls, mostly within 20 minutes of Grand Anse Beach.
If waterfalls beckon, the Annadale Falls, with a well tendered path lined with local fruit trees and flowering plants, is the easiest to get to. Concord Falls, with a paved road leading almost directly up to it, is also readily accessible and there is nothing like taking a bracing dip in the cool mountain stream. For the more adventurous, there’s the prized walking and hiking area of Grand Etang Forest Reserve with its extinct volcano, 1800-feet high, that cradles a blue crater lake. The fittest of the fit will enjoy a hike to Seven Sisters Waterfall.
Those less adventurous should plan to make a stop at the Botanical Gardens, blooming with an array of tropical flowers and sightings of brilliantly plumed Caribbean birds. Or browse around Market Square, a typical West Indian open air market with a profusion of local spices. If you still have some time to spare, you will not be disappointed with a visit to the breathtaking True Blue Campus of St. George’s University of Medicine. It’s a top center for the lifelong study and practice, of medicine and gathers students and teachers from 85 nations.
St. Barts, French West Indies
Known as the “St. Tropez of the Caribbean,” the natives are descendants of settlers from Brittany and Normandy. French boutiques and restaurants and Creole-style villages are just several of the alluring aspects of this tranquil island.
St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
This is a popular Caribbean playground, idyllic for snorkeling, diving, dining and duty-free shopping. Of particular interest is the 176-acre Buck Island Reef National Monument, the only underwater national park in the United States.
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
If you’ve got fun on your mind, you’ll love the endless possibilities this lively port offers. Everyone will find it easy to do something they’ve never done before, as well as enjoy all the world-class shopping, of course. Start your adventure along the narrow cobblestone streets of Charlotte Amalie, where multi-hued hibiscus and bougainvillea spill out across the stone walls. The island iguanas love to sunbath here so just a word of caution: If you wear red polish and wiggle your toes, an iguana might think you’re a juicy red rose!
Coral World is a landmark family attraction where you can spy a fish-eye view of life on a coral reef. The more adventurous in the family will enjoy the exciting Sea Trekkin’ Helmet Dive. They’ll get to check out the bottom of the sea wearing nothing but their swimsuit and a high tech helmet. Other family members might want to hop onboard the Atlantis Submarine, submerging 90 feet, for an intimate view of undersea secrets.
Take the St. Thomas Skyride, an aerial tram to the top of Paradise Point, where you will be rewarded with spectacular views of Charlotte Amalie harbor and neighboring islands during the 7-minute ride. Enjoy a delicious lunch here, with a menu that includes popular American fare as well as the featured island delicacy, Lizzie’s Flying Fish. There’s also a kids menu with all the classic favorites. Take time to browse the unique shops, and get to enjoy a cool Bird Show.
Other famous sites on the island include: Magan’s Bay Beach, Sapphire Beach, Red Hook, Turtle Cove, Coki Beach and Frenchman’s Reef..
Just a stone’s throw away, St. John, where two-thirds of its beauty is reserved as a national park, is a popular sidetrip. Ferry on over to Trunk Bay to spend an afternoon of lazy pleasures such as beach lounging and sunning, or a little water action including swimming and snorkeling on this secluded island.
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
Noted for her natural beauty, Tortola has more than 30 bays sheltered by the impressive slopes and lush green peaks that dominate the land. Tortola is also a major center for crewed charterboats and bareboats, each offering different attractions for family members to enjoy. Many well-equipped boat charters and other facilities for fishing are also available.
Water lovers will find an abundance of extraordinary coral gardens, magnificent undersea walls, caves, sunken wrecks and exotic marine life. Beginning divers will love Painted Walls, a shallow dive off the southern point of Dead Chest, while the more experienced will revel in the awesome snorkeling and scuba diving spots at Blonde Rock. For more lay back strolling, splashing and treasure hunting, you’ll find miles of palm-studded pristine beaches at Smugglers Cove, Cane Garden Bay, Brewers Bay, Long Bay, and Elizabeth Beach.
Sage Mountain National Park lends a trek up the mountainous peaks that dominate the land. Escape to the cool slopes of the highest point sheltering a primeval rainforest hidden deep inside. Ridge Road, spotted with rugged heights and magnificent vistas, is for the more fit and adventurous family members.
For a more leisurely afternoon, a visit to J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens offer peaceful walks through pathways covered with colorful vines, a miniature forest and a fern house. The Virgin Island Folk Museum is where young and old can marvel at the exhibit of Arawak stone tools. Also on exhibit are intriguing artifacts from two historic shipwrecks: The 14-gun sloop HMS Nymph and a 310-foot-long iron hulled steamer.
For a total interactive adventure, Dolphin Discovery provides a bonding family experience. After enjoying your amazing dolphin encounter you’ll get to relive this incredible experience for years to come, watching the personal DVD and photos that have been taken of your adventure.
Photos by Mel Greenberg
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.