Sun-drenched beaches, cool ocean breezes and turquoise waters make the Caribbean vacation-worthy year-round. But savvy travelers know that summer is savings season, and at islands like Curaçao, St. Lucia, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and Jamaica, crowds shrink to a fraction of their winter numbers. Read on for our guide to maximizing your fun in the tropics.
Thanks to the candy-colored Dutch houses that line the streets of the capital, Willemstad, and coral reefs teeming with sea turtles, Curaçao has a Europe-meets-the-tropics vibe. Just off the coast of Venezuela, it’s easier than ever to access: JetBlue recently launched nonstop flights from New York, and the Curaçao International Airport is undergoing an expansion.
You don’t even have to take a boat to reach one of the area’s well-known snorkeling spots, along the east side of Caracas Bay. Curious2Dive rents snorkeling gear and can point you to the remains of a sunken tugboat practically vibrating with blue parrot fish just 15 minutes from shore. Nearby, Windsurfing Curaçao offers windsurfing lessons on the calm lagoon at Spanish Water during the summer.
To dive even deeper—450 feet or more below the surface, to be exact—consider boarding a submarine operated by Substation Curaçao. It’s a splurge but the least expensive of two places in the Caribbean where you can do this at such depths (the other is Honduras). You won’t have to get wet, and from your perch in the five-person vessel (four passengers and one pilot), you’ll be able to visit a shipwreck that’s otherwise lost to the eye.
Distinguished by the mighty twin Pitons jutting up from a sapphire sea, St. Lucia is a unique beauty off the Central American coast. Come summer the tourism board’s “St. Lucia Rocks This Summer” promotion offers discounts on tour operators and more (saintlucianow.com). One of the island’s most beautiful stretches, the white-sand Sugar Beach is reachable by water taxi from other parts of the island. Consider renting a thatched palapa and hitting the lively Bayside Bar for cocktails, such as the passion fruit mojito.
You can swim among parrot fish within the protected marine reserves in Soufrière and Anse Cochon through Scuba Steve’s Diving. The St. Lucia Forestry Department operates trail walks and bird-watching excursions within the waterfall-filled Edmund Forest Reserve, just east of Soufrière.
Enormous leatherback sea turtles come ashore on Grand Anse beach from March through August to lay their eggs. Moonless nights are your best chance for spotting a nesting turtle in action as part of a Grande Anse Turtle Watch Tour, an unforgettable overnight camping outing offered by the St. Lucia National Trust.
Just 50 miles off the coast of Florida, the Bahamas is very accessible. There are often lots of direct flights to choose from. On the island of Grand Bahama, the city of Freeport is filled with shops, restaurants and nightlife. Skip the global couture outposts and head to Port Lucaya Marketplace, where locals operate a series of small stalls stocked with handwoven straw baskets and gauzy beach cover-ups.
Be sure to check out the popular Lucaya Beach and Fortuna Beach, then consider heading east of Freeport to Lucayan National Park. The 40-acre national park has one of the world’s largest underwater cave systems (accessed by special diving permits that can be arranged with about a week’s notice through the Underwater Explorers Society (unexso.com) as well as nature trails and boardwalks that wind through serene pine forest. Grand Bahama Nature Tours offers guided kayaking trips through mangrove canopies and tours of Lucayan caves.
Back in Freeport at Port Lucaya, hop the open-air ferry for the 10-minute ride to Taino Beach’s Tony Macaroni’s Conch Experience, where you can sip fresh piña coladas from coconuts.
TURKS AND CAICOS
Only 8 of the 40 cays and islands of Turks and Caicos, a sand-spun archipelago southeast of the Bahamas, are inhabited. As tempting as it may be to spend most of your time on the famed Grace Bay Beach, in Providenciales, you’ll be rewarded for venturing farther afield.
Eight-hundred-acre Pine Cay Island, sandwiched between Providenciales and North Caicos, has shockingly bright blue water. The island is private, but you can explore its pristine reefs with Caicos Dream Tours. The Dream Day Getaway outing begins with snorkeling at a coral reef near Provo, followed by a barbecue lunch on the beach.
Back in Provo, stop by Da Conch Shack, on Blue Hills Beach, for a delicious meal. The hammering sound that fills the air is conch shells being split open so you can feast on island specialties like conch fritters and chowder.
Rushing rivers and a thriving reggae music scene: Few Caribbean islands offer Jamaica’s mash-up of nature and culture. Montego Bay is the island’s second-biggest city, but it is more a beach lover’s retreat than anything else. At Doctor’s Cave Bathing Club, right on the “hip strip” shopping street, a few dollars gets you all-day access to a private beach lined with palms and lapped by water the color of an Easter egg.
For something more active, head west to Good Hope Great House, where an 18th-century sugar plantation has been turned into an adventure center in partnership with Chukka Caribbean Adventure Tours. On the 2,000-acre grounds you can soar on a zip line above bamboo forests. On the road back to Montego Bay, snag a table under an almond tree at the Far Out Fish Hut and settle in for just-caught snapper grilled over an open fire.
And at the tiny marina at Glistening Waters, just east of Montego Bay near Falmouth, a 5-minute boat ride brings you into a shallow bay where bioluminescence causes the waters to glow bright green. Swimming in the water at night and watching the iridescence set your entire body aglow is easily one of the Caribbean’s most memorable, and affordable, thrills.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.