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10 Best Caribbean Islands Offer Great Sun and Beaches
Choosing the 10 best Caribbean islands is fairly easy. Choosing the best of the 10 is not.
People often have different preferences for a Caribbean vacation. Some love to lie on the beach all day and veg at night.
Others prefer plenty of outdoor activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing, etc. Others still may like the unique culture, history, shopping and dining available on so many of the islands.
Anyone who thinks that culture and history don’t attract them to the Caribbean may think differently after visiting Old San Juan, Chichen Itza or English Harbour.
People like me who never thought they would want to go shopping there may change their minds after spending an afternoon in the festive shopping districts on Aruba, Curaçao, Nassau or St. Maarten.
That’s why the following list is in alphabetical order. Let the reader decide which one is best for him or her based on personal preferences.
1 - Aruba
The crown jewel of the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao claims it is the island with the most return visits in the Caribbean.
What makes Aruba so popular is the low annual rainfall, great beaches, 42 scuba diving spots, a proudly multilingual population, ease with transportation and the fantastic Palm Beach. Palm Beach has not only a great beach but also a great shopping and dining strip.
Aruba is a low-stress island: rare worries about rain, getting around, finding someone who speaks your language, finding a place to eat or finding a place to plop down on the sand.
2 - St. Thomas
St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands is a common destination on eastern Caribbean cruises. It is a mecca for duty-free shoppers who look for bargains in jewelry and electronics.
The capital of Charlotte Amalie had been the place to go for any shoppers. But the sprawling and growing Havensight Mall right by the cruise docks has taken over the crown.
St. Thomas attracts nearly 3 million cruise and overnight visitors each year, according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization. The tourists who don't shop much head to famous beaches such as Magens Bay.
Best Caribbean Island Poll
Which Caribbean Island Do You Think is Best?
3 - Cozumel
Cozumel is another crown jewel, this time as a favorite stop on western Caribbean cruises.
The largest island of Mexico is not well-known for its beaches but rather for other attractions: the food of course along with Mayan ruins and especially the snorkeling and diving among the local coral reefs.
What also makes it attractive lies across the water at Playa del Carmen, one of the top Caribbean shopping and dining districts.
Visitors to Cozumel, even those who arrive briefly by cruise, can hop on a ferry and cross the water for a day of activities along the bustling Fifth Avenue.
4 - Dominican Republic
A vacation in the Dominican Republic is usually a choice between the resort areas of Punta Cana or Puerto Plata. Either one offers the same experience: some of the best beaches and best resorts in one all-inclusive experience.
Because the two areas are somewhat isolated, it is largely a given that vacationers will end up in an all-inclusive resort. But these all inclusives have so much to offer that visitors will rarely find the need to leave the resort grounds.
Consider Dominican Republic as a choice for anyone who wants the fewest possible hassles on vacation. Hand over a check and let the resort take care of the rest. If that's not enough, go looking for some outdoor adventure in this large and mountainous country.
5 - Grand Cayman
Ah, Grand Cayman. It immediately brings back wonderful memories of its number one attraction, Stingray City. Visitors will get in the water on a sandbar with stingrays that are comfortable with human contact. They glide among the legs of people as if they are old friends, sometimes even coming into gentle contact with their wings.
Although Stingray City is the top excursion on the island, Grand Cayman is also on the list of best Caribbean islands because it has one of the most famous beaches in the region -- Seven Mile Beach. The beach literally is seven miles long and packed with resorts, restaurants, shopping and other activities.
Cruise visitors will find that the beach by the docks is often packed with people. Try walking or taking a taxi farther away from the docks to get fewer crowds.
6 - Nassau
Some people may call the most popular cruise port in the region -- and one of the most popular in the world -- overly commercialized.
But Nassau on New Providence Island deserves a high rank among best Caribbean islands for its shopping and dining district along with its attractions. The most famous attraction is the Atlantis resort and its water park.
Other attractions include forts Charlotte and Fincastle, the Queen’s Staircase and Blue Lagoon Island.
What makes Nassau a top choice is not so much the attractions, beaches or shopping. What makes it a top choice is how easily tourists can get there and also the size of the tourism district.
The Bahamas are not technically part of the Caribbean because they lie to the north of the Caribbean Sea. But the Caribbean cruises often include a stop there. As a result of their closeness to the U.S., they are quick and easy to visit via flight or cruise.
7 - Jamaica
Take your pick: Ocho Rios, Montego Bay, Negril or Falmouth. Yes, Jamaica is famous for its culture, the way locals speak and the way they dress. But those are just side benefits. The real draw of Jamaica lies in the above three tourist areas.
Ocho Rios and Montego Bay are both top-rated beach and resort areas. Falmouth is the newly developed cruise port with a host of tours and historical activities.
Like Dominican Republic, Jamaica is the place to go for all-inclusive resorts and great white-sand beaches. Like Grand Cayman, Jamaica has one of the most famous Caribbean attractions at Dunn’s River Falls. Visitors there climb up more than 600 feet of cascading waterfalls in a daisy chain (a line of people holding hands) to the top. It is a great family experience.
8 - St. Maarten
St. Maarten is an oddity for several reasons. One is that it is the smallest island in the world shared by two countries, France and the Netherlands. The other is the disconnected nature of the island thanks to the hilly countryside and relatively few roads.
Netherlands controls the Sint Maarten side and France controls Saint Martin. Each one has a pair of major attractions.
On Sint Maarten, there is the wonderful cruise port of Philipsburg. Like Aruba, Nassau and Playa del Carmen, it has a large and lively shopping district that even non-shoppers might enjoy.
The other major draw is the resort area at Simpson Bay, which is packed with beaches, resorts and plenty of things to do, including a beach next to the airport where visitors can sit beneath landing jets only a few dozen feet overhead.
On Saint Martin is a top 10 beach at Orient Bay and the quaint French village of Marigot. Orient Bay is not only famous as a beach but also as a clothing-optional beach. Marigot is a pleasant afternoon visit for the outdoor stalls, the food and the amazing view from atop Fort St. Louis.
9 - Anguilla
Having Anguilla on the list may surprise some people who have never heard of it or don’t know much about it.
This small island off the coast of St. Maarten has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean, especially at Shoal Bay East and Rendezvous Bay. As a result, snorkeling or diving near any beach is fantastic.
But it also has one other reason for being on the list. It is one of the quietest islands and ideal for anyone seeking peace and wanting to avoid commercialism. It’s a great place to relax and get away from everything.
Visitors to St. Maarten will be able to take a day trip to Anguilla via a 45-minute ferry ride.
This small island off the coast of St. Maarten has some of the best beaches in the Caribbean.
10 - St. Lucia
I vividly remember touring the rugged and beautiful St. Lucia coastline on an ATV. I also vividly remember my son on another ATV getting covered in mud by someone spinning their wheels in front of him.
But that’s another story. The main point is the beauty of this island in the back country and the memorable attractiveness of the cruise port.
Other reasons to consider St. Lucia are the top-ranked resorts, the towering Piton volcanoes, hiking and of course the beaches.
Runners Up Poll
Which Island Should Be on the Top 10 List?
Plenty of runners up could easily make the top 10 list for various reasons. But some of those same reasons might keep them off it as well.
The U.S. Virgin Islands, especially St. Thomas, is one of them. Some may argue that it has great duty-free shopping. Others may argue that it is one of the most commercialized and possibly the most commercialized island in the Caribbean.
San Juan, Puerto Rico is a huge cruise port and has a great attraction at Old San Juan. It is convenient and easy to reach. But it is not known for its beaches, resorts or unique attractions.
The British Virgin Islands have some great beaches but is not as easy or inexpensive to reach as other islands.
Vote in the poll above and offer your comments below.
Related Caribbean Links
- Western Caribbean Cruise Ports Offer Great Adventure
Western Caribbean cruise ports are popular because of many unique and memorable shore excursions.
- 10 Great Caribbean Attractions + 50 More
The top 10 Caribbean attractions include Stingray City, Dunn's River Falls, cave tubing in Belize, Old San Juan and Chichen Itza near Cancun.
© 2014 Scott Bateman