Travelers admire eight island jewels that sparkle with great natural beauty.
By Allan A. Swenson

The multicultural Caribbean shines with appealing islands that offer opportunities to discover exciting outdoor adventure, meet charming people and take home many marvelous memories. Because the Caribbean is a popular cruising destination, a panorama of the best spots to visit may help narrow your search for the right cruise. While wonderful beaches and near-perfect weather are common to these islands, each has its own cultural and historic experience.

Above: Willemstad, Curaçao is well known for beautifully restored historic buildings. Curaçao Tourist Corporation photo

Top (in title): Warm, crystal-clear water in the U.S. Virgin Islands is perfect for snorkelers. United States Virgin Islands Department of Tourism photo

Jamaica has a vibrant history. Original inhabitants were the peaceful Taíno, indigenous inhabitants originally from South America, who greeted Christopher Columbus in 1494. Columbus described Jamaica as the fairest island he had ever seen, and today’s adventurer also will be taken with the destination’s natural beauty.

Climb to the top of Dunn’s River Falls, a national park located just outside Ocho Rios on the north coast. Adjacent to the falls is Dolphin Cove, where visitors can swim with dolphins, snorkel or simply enjoy lush tropical surroundings that include a beach, waterfall and jungle trail. In Negril, Mayfield Falls has 21 natural swimming pools.

Don’t miss the world-famed attractions of Montego Bay, including Greenwood Great House, owned by the family of British poet Elizabeth Barrett-Browning. Rose Hall Plantation has a sordid history that’s linked to the “White Witch” Annie Palmer. River rafting is a popular activity in Montego Bay; don’t miss a chance to enjoy this relaxing activity.

If you love gardening, visit Cranbrook Flower Forest and Adventure Trail located between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. The Royal Botanic Gardens in New Kingston also is inspiring.

U.S. Virgin Islands

Some 50 islands in the eastern Caribbean comprise the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). Travelers will know the three populated islands–St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John.

Check out tours from the capital city of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. Take in breathtaking ocean views and fantastic duty-free shops. Don’t miss the beautiful beach at Magens Bay, noted as one of the best stretches of sand in the world.

Travel to the northeast shore of St. Thomas to visit Coral World Marine Park and Observatory. Here, visitors can hand-feed a stingray or see sharks up close in the open-air pool. Try parasailing or dive deep in a 30-passenger submarine to view beautiful, natural, undersea coral gardens with colorful tropical fish that appear close enough to touch.

Two-thirds of St. John’s 19 square miles are designated national park lands. In 1962, Congress expanded the boundary of Virgin Islands National Park to include 5,650 underwater acres to preserve the beautiful coral and seascapes. This is a diver’s dream.

Check out fascinating ranger-led programs. Reservations are needed for the Reef Bay hike of about two hours. Don’t miss the petroglyphs left by the ancient Taíno. Adventurers can kayak, hike or snorkel beautiful Caneel Bay. Its crystal blue-green waters teem with coral life. Sea grape trees and coconut palms shade the pristine white sand beaches.

And, unlike other Caribbean destinations, U.S. citizens are not required to hold a passport to travel to the USVI.

French influences

Exotic Sint Maarten/St. Martin is the smallest island in the world to be shared by two sovereign governments–Dutch and French. The Dutch capital is Philipsburg on the southern part of this 37-square-mile island. St. Martin, a French dependency, occupies the northern half. The dual nationality adds variety to this island gem. Both Dutch Sint Maarten and French St. Martin have maintained a peaceful coexistence for more than 350 years, quite an accomplishment for two bordering nations that claim to have 77 different nationalities among the population.

Dutch Sint Maarten presents some interesting contrasts. Wide coastal beaches full of sunbathers and surfers are a far cry from the quiet country roads of the hillsides and the glittering casinos and clubs of the coast at night.

Guadeloupe is the center of the Caribbean’s Creole culture having a spirited blend of French and African influences. This island has a grumbling volcano known as La Soufrière, rainforests and secluded beaches, some of which are for nude or topless bathers. The capital city, Basse-Terre, is worth exploring. Sugar cane fields are everywhere and cab drivers often stop to cut some cane to give passengers a taste.

St. Barts has a joyous spirit amid endless sun and gentle surf on this mountainous island in the French West Indies. Wonderful restaurants and world-renowned beaches–some topless–are famous. Gouverneur and Saline are the two beaches that are popular with celebrities. And the tax-free shopping at designer boutiques like Chanel, Dior and Gucci is hard to resist.

Luscious St. Lucia

Farther south, St. Lucia offers diving, snorkeling, sailing, yachting, wind surfing, hiking and trail riding. The Eastern Nature Trail along St. Lucia’s Atlantic coastline is an exciting 3.5-mile trek along the rugged and beautiful coast. For bird watchers, there are species endemic to St. Lucia, which include the magnificent Frigate bird and the Red Bill tropicbird. Nature lovers can spot dolphins, sea turtles or one of 20 species of whales.

The British invasion

Barbados, 270 miles northeast of Venezuela, has a decidedly British flair. British settlers arrived in 1627 and the island remained a colony for the crown for more than 300 years before gaining independence in 1966. Visitors will enjoy its great natural beauty, from the wonder of the underground caverns at Harrison’s Cave to tropical flora at Flower Forest and Andromeda Gardens.

Ocean Park, with freshwater and tropical marine life, is one of Barbados’ newest attractions. Other colorful sites include Animal Flower Cave, Graeme Hall Swamp and Welchman Hall Gully, full of tropical trees and flowers. Curiously, Barbados is a coral island, pushed out of the sea by volcanic activity long ago. You’ll find coral shore beaches on the West Coast have fine white sand stretching along a blue-green sea. Many coral reefs fringe the Barbados shoreline for excellent snorkeling and diving.

Dutch treat

Willemstad, capital of Curaçao and the Netherlands Antilles, has been called one of the richest cities in terms of culture and diversity, and has welcome duty-free shopping. You’ll find more than 700 historic buildings in Willemstad, many of which are being restored to former splendor. In addition to a varied history, Curaçao’s ethnic diversity lends itself to rich cultural traditions that have been embraced by both natives and visitors alike.

And then there are the beaches: 38 remarkable escapes offering rocky coves surrounded by massive cliffs or quiet bays and inlets. All share distinctively clear turquoise water and perfect weather. Almost all bathing beaches are scattered along the sheltered and calm southwestern coast. Check out Barbara and Blue Bay beaches. Daaibooi Bay is close to town with good snorkeling along its rocky ledge.

Divers extol the beauty of Curaçao’s underwater world. The Superior Producer site probably has one of the finest wrecks in the Caribbean. The Tugboat is another worthwhile site, only 17 feet deep, and a very popular spot that offers great underwater photo opportunities.

At Curaçao Seaquarium, part of the fun is a “touch tank“ for touching live animals. You also can sign up to snorkel or scuba dive and hand feed stingrays, sea turtles, sharks and many other colorful tropical fish.

Each Caribbean destination offers its own distinctive history, culture and allure, but they share one common name: paradise.

Allan A. Swenson is a contributor from Kennebunk, Maine.
Nov/Dec 2007

AAA members who book a four- or five-night stay in the Caribbean with Travel Impressions receive a $25 per room food and beverage credit. Talk to your AAA Travel agent who can help you find the perfect Caribbean getaway. AAA also can assist with your passport photos, or with expediting a passport through Travisa. Call (888) 366-4222, click on or visit a AAA Travel office near you.

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