When you’re longing for a spot of winter sun, nothing quite appeals like the Caribbean. The balmy sea breezes, the lush landscape of palms and rain forest, the sparkling shores fringed with colourful coral reefs make it an enticing and exotic destination. Add charming island towns with their bright fishing boats and pastel-painted, colonial architecture; or ancient Mayan ruins to explore, or vibrant nightlife fuelled by rum and reggae, and it ticks all the boxes for adventure, fun and relaxation.
No matter where you chose to go, a good beach is a must. Both island and mainland tourist spots offer hundreds of busy beaches and quiet coves. Below are six notable beaches in three very different Caribbean destinations that are worth discovering for their atmosphere, activities and location.
Montego Bay is one of the biggest resorts on this popular Caribbean island. Here, two of Jamaica’s favourite beaches are located just a few minutes apart, along the 'hip strip' of Gloucester Avenue, known for its lively restaurants, bars and shops. Both charge a small admission fee, but it’s worth it for the comfort of clean facilities and convenient beachside amenities.
Doctor’s Cave Beach
This is the beach that helped put Montego Bay on the tourist map. In 1906, Dr Alexander James McCatty donated his beach property here to found a private members’ club, the Doctor’s Cave Bathing Club, so-named because he and his friends, who were also doctors, entered the beach through a cave. The cave was destroyed by a hurricane in 1932, but by then, Sir Herbert Barker, a British osteopath, had published an article praising the curative powers of the water. It drew scores of foreign visitors to the beach, hotels were built nearby, and the rest is history.
Today the translucent, turquoise water, which maintains a balmy 22 - 28 C temperature year-round, is still the beach’s biggest draw. Whether you’re paddling, swimming or just basking in the sun on the soft, white sand, it’s hard not to believe it will cure every ill.
The beach is maintained by the bathing club, who manicure the sands daily and charge a $6 admission fee. Visitors enjoy clean toilets, showers and changing facilities. You can rent beach chairs and umbrellas for an additional charge, or just bring a beach towel and find a quiet spot.
This is a popular beach, so it’s a good idea to arrive early (it opens at 8.30am). You can get your morning coffee here too, at the island’s first Starbucks. The Sand Restaurant and Bar serves jerk chicken, fish burgers and other meals and drinks. There is also a gift shop and a gym ($12 day use fee).
Bring your snorkel and mask, or you can rent snorkelling gear here. The beach is part of the Montego Bay Marine Park, and you can see a range of marine life in its coral reefs.
Walter Fletcher Beach
One kilometre to the south, along Gloucester Avenue, Walter Fletcher Beach enjoys the same clear, calm waters and lovely white sand as Doctor’s Cave Beach. But it is also home to the Aqua Sol Theme Park. If you have children, or if you want a choice of activities to enjoy along with the sand and sea, this beach could be a perfect fit.
Aqua Sol features a variety of water attractions. One section of the beach has water slides and a lazy river. Jet skiing, para-sailing, wave running and kayaking are among the watersports on offer, along with pedal boats and banana boats.
For land-based fun, have a go on the MoBay 500 go-cart racing track. You’ll also find a professional tennis court, a skating rink, a fitness centre, ping pong tables, beach volleyball and other activities.
Snorkelling is excellent here, as the corals lie very near to the shore. You can often see turtles, as well as colourful reef fish and other marine creatures. There are shops along the beach where you can rent or buy snorkelling gear.
When you need a break from the sun, wander up to Gloucester Avenue where you’ll find several restaurants and bars serving Jamaican cuisine. There are also street vendors and picnic tables along the edge of the beach.
Just across the road is the former Fort Montego, built by the British to protect Montego Bay from sea invasions. Today it’s the setting for the Old Fort crafts market, where local weavers and textile artists sell colourful bags, shirts, dresses, jewellery and more. Take a break from the beach and shop for souvenirs to take home.
Walter Fletcher Beach is open Wednesday - Sunday, 9am-5pm. There are lifeguards, toilets and changing rooms.
It may be only 34 square miles in size, but Saint Martin is one of the most popular Caribbean islands. Divided into two territories - the French Saint-Martin in the north and the Dutch Sint-Maarten in the south - it is a favourite stop for cruise ships.
Philipsburg, which sits along Great Bay on the island’s livelier south side, is the island’s bustling main port. Browse the shops along Front Street for souvenirs and duty-free bargains such as watches and jewellery. Be sure to visit the Guavaberry Emporium, where you can taste the sweet, rum-based folk liqueur, made with wild guavaberries that grow only in the centre of the island.
Stroll along the Boardwalk, which runs parallel to Front Street along the beach. It’s lined with a variety of bars and restaurants serving fresh seafood and cocktails, and there’s often live music.
Although the beach at Great Bay is well-maintained and convenient for shopping and dining, it is often teeming with the cruise ship crowd. Luckily, a more relaxed beach is close at hand.
Little Bay Beach
Just west of Philipsburg, the Fort Amsterdam Peninsula separates Little Bay Beach from the busier Great Bay waters. Although it is popular with holidaymakers from nearby resorts, its distance from the port means that it escapes most of the daytrippers and enjoys a more peaceful atmosphere.
This beach offers fine white sand and generally calm, shallow water that deepens gradually, making it an attractive spot for both paddling and swimming. Note that this lovely stretch of sand can become narrow at high tide, so it’s worth checking the tide times in advance.
Showers and toilets are available, and there are a handful of bars and restaurants scattered along the shore. You can often buy cold drinks, beer and snacks from wandering beach vendors too.
Little Bay is a fantastic beach for snorkelling. The coral reefs begin just offshore so you can snorkel right from the beach. Thanks to the clear and tranquil waters of the bay, underwater visibility is high. Angelfish, starfish, pufferfish, lobsters or even barracuda are among the marine creatures that can be spotted here.
You can rent snorkelling gear at watersports centres on the beach. Ask about snorkelling tours and scuba diving trips that will take you to other sites around the island, such as nearby Simpson Bay, where you can swim above a shipwreck and see stingrays and sea turtles. Paddle boats, jet-skiing, parasailing and other activities are also on offer at Little Bay Beach.
Or stretch your legs and make the short climb to the top of the hill above Little Bay, along the path that begins at the far end of the Divi Resort. It brings you to the ruins of Fort Amsterdam, which was built by the Dutch in the late 1630s. A few cannons still guard the stone ramparts, and there are grand views over both bays. It’s a great spot to photograph the sunset or the cruise ships sailing to and from the port.
Fort Amsterdam is also an important nesting and breeding site for the island’s national bird, the brown pelican, depicted on its flag and coat of arms. Thanks to a replanting programme by the St. Maarten Nature Foundation, the peninsula has become a haven for birdlife, especially migrating sea birds.
If you’re looking for a quiet beach, you won’t find it at Maho. But you will get one of the most unusual seaside experiences in the world. This beach is located at the western end of the runway for the Princess Juliana International Airport, and its attraction is the novelty of sunbathing with jumbo jets flying directly overhead.
Maho Beach is Instagrammer heaven. Where else can you get so close to the underside of a moving 747? Even if you don’t join in, it’s a laugh to watch excited beach-goers posing for dramatic selfies in front of the incoming planes. And when the planes take off again, hang on to your belongings as the powerful jet thrusts create sandblasts that can blow them away.
The novelty of this beach makes it a must-see. Although it has powdery, light beige sand, there is no shade and the clear blue water has a steep drop-off that makes it unsuitable for children. You can rent sun loungers and umbrellas, but an hour or so here may be enough. Instead, resume your plane-spotting at the Sunset Beach Bar over a drink and a wood-fired pizza.
Despite Mexico’s long coastline, only the eastern end of the Yucatan Peninsula actually borders the Caribbean Sea. But the 82-mile stretch from Cancún south to Tulum is one of the country’s top spots for beach lovers. Romantically named the Riviera Maya, it is fringed with stunning white-sand beaches and dotted with beautiful resorts. Beneath the sparkling blue waters lies the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System; also known as the Belize Barrier Reef, it runs all the way to Guatemala, making it the world’s second-longest barrier reef. Inland, the tropical jungle contains awesome temples and archaeological sites built by the ancient Mayans.
With so many fabulous stretches of sand on this coast, picking a ‘best’ beach is no easy task, but it would be hard to find one more beautiful than Playa Maroma, about 12 miles north of the popular resort of Playa del Carmen. Its dazzling white sands shelve gently out to sea beneath transparent blue waters. And though you probably won’t have it all to yourself, the backdrop of lush palms gives this spacious beach a peaceful, secluded feel.
Playa Maroma is at its best when you’re relaxing on a sun lounger with a good book, soaking up the gentle sea breezes and luxuriant surroundings. But there are plenty of activities nearby. Snorkelling and scuba diving around the amazing coral reef that lies just offshore top the list of watersports. Several operators offer horse riding tours to explore the tropical jungle that backs onto this beautiful beach.
You can even swim with dolphins here. Dolphin Discovery is a dolphinarium with a world-renowned breeding programme, and all the dolphins were born under human care. Interacting with these magnificent marine creatures is an incredible experience you’ll never forget.
For our last beach pick, head across the country to Puerto Vallarta, a major Mexican resort on the Pacific Coast. It’s rare to find an urban beach with a blue-flag designation, but Playa Camarones, which translates as ‘shrimp beach’, has long been lauded for its cleanliness and environmental protection policy. It also has lifeguards, toilets and disabled access.
This wide, sandy beach extends from Villa Premiere to the northern edge of the Malecon in downtown Puerto Vallarta. It’s popular with locals, who come here for sunset strolls, dog walking and family days out. Men and boys often cast their fishing lines from the southern end of the shore. All this makes it a great beach for people-watching as well as sunbathing.
The shore is normally lapped by gentle waves, but storms in the Pacific can create strong currents and swells, so check conditions locally. A variety of watersports are on offer, including stand-up paddleboards, jet skis, boating and parasailing.
Migrating whales travel along this coast in winter. Indulge in some whale-watching from the beachfront terrace of the El Barracuda Restaurant or El Solar Bar next door. There’s a good variety of bars and restaurants along the shore, and more food, drink and shopping options in the downtown streets nearby.
Better yet, look out for the palm-thatched, open-sided food stands called palapas. With a plate of fresh fish or shrimp and a cool drink in hand, there’s no better way to savour the glorious beach life.
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