CARIBBEAN ESSENTIAL GUIDE
With more than 700 islands to choose from, the Caribbean caters for all tastes. Our destination expert Fred Mawer picks the best and outlines what each has to offer.
When to go
There are three factors to consider when choosing your Caribbean holiday: weather, cost and crowds. The weather in the Caribbean is generally best - namely driest, with low humidity and pleasantly cool nights - December through to April. Summer and autumn are stickier, a few degrees warmer and wetter: showers and short, heavy downpours are common, prolonged spells of constant rain less so. June to November is also the official hurricane season. Statistically, September, followed by October, are the months you’re most likely to encounter a major storm, though even then the odds are slim. It partly depends on which island you go to, as some are more hurricane-prone than others - see stormcarib.com.
In terms of cost, mid-December to mid/late April is peak season in the Caribbean, and hotel (and villa) rates are 20-50 per cent higher then than the rest of the year. For travel during any school holiday period, you’ll pay a premium for flights.
As for crowds, hotels are fullest and the beaches most crowded in the peak winter months, especially Christmas/New Year, February and Easter. September and October are the quietest months, when some hotels and restaurants close, and bars can be near empty.
Taking into account the weather, cost and crowds, May is an ideal month to visit. The weather then is often almost as good as in the peak winter months, but accommodation costs significantly less. For similar reasons, the first half of December is also a good time to travel. If you’re tied to the school holidays and intent on keeping costs down, consider travelling over May half term, when flights can work out cheaper than other school holiday periods. If you want to go in the school summer holidays, note that fares tend to drop in late August.
Where to go
The main islands
Bear in mind that the advice on when to go, above, applies across the Caribbean.
British Virgin Islands
St Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
Turks and Caicos
With its mountainous interior covered in dense rainforest, Dominica is the best Caribbean island for nature holidays. Hiking trails lead to waterfalls, lakes and lookout points for birdwatching, and the best places to stay are eco-oriented guesthouses.
The US commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a fascinating mix of American and Hispanic cultures. It’s a good choice for a touring-plus-beach holiday. Sightseeing highlights include Old San Juan (a Unesco World Heritage Site), El Yunque subtropical rainforest, the vast Camuy Caves, and Ponce, rich in colonial and Art Nouveau architecture.
The Bahamas offers the full gamut of holiday experiences. New Providence, home to the capital Nassau, and Paradise Island have high-rise hotels, shopping malls and casinos, while the sleepy, getaway Out Islands offer deserted, pink-tinged beaches. Throughout the archipelago, big-game fishing and snorkelling/diving are major draws.
Montserrat is dominated by the active Soufrière Hills volcano. Its eruption in 1995 blanketed Plymouth, the former capital, in ash, and much of the island is still an exclusion zone. You can visit volcano viewing points, including a scientific observatory. Other attractions include birdwatching and diving.
The US Virgin Islands comprise three very different islands. St Thomas is loud and lively cruise-ship territory. St John, much of which is a national park, is more peaceful and undeveloped, with pristine beaches and comfy camping options. On St Croix, a major attraction is the Danish colonial arc.
For several reasons, the Caribbean is the world’s premier holiday spot for cruising. The weather is generally hot and sunny. You can visit half-a-dozen islands in a week - extensive, DIY island hopping in the Caribbean is not that easy or cheap, making a cruise definitely the best way to see a lot of the region in one go. On-shore activities are enormously varied, ranging from sightseeing in colonial cities to zip-lining over rainforests, climbing up waterfalls, snorkelling with stingrays and trying out all sorts of other watersports. Or you can just chill on a beach - several cruise lines include in their itineraries a stop at their own, private tropical island. The choice of non-cultural excursions makes Caribbean cruising an ideal option for families.
As for possible downsides, Caribbean cruising itineraries usually visit a port a day, so there’s often little daytime at sea relaxing. Cruise-ship passengers can swamp the ports they visit. And, while independent exploring is easy on stops on Mediterranean cruises, in the Caribbean transport is usually required to reach key sights, and a large proportion of passengers sign up to organised excursions.
There are three cruising areas in the region: the Eastern Caribbean, typically including Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and, for Florida departures, the Bahamas; the western Caribbean, taking in the Cayman Islands, Jamaica and Mexico; and the Southern Caribbean, visiting southerly Windward Islands and the Dutch Antilles.
Cruise-and-stay packages are worth considering. Many cruises set off from Florida, but Barbados is also an important embarkation point. There are also good-value repositioning cruises in the spring and autumn, crossing the Atlantic by sea one way, flying the other.
You can cruise in the Caribbean year round. The weather is best December-April, the peak season, though ports are busiest then, and prices are lower at other times of year. If you go in the hurricane season (especially September and October), there is a chance that your ship will have to change its itinerary to avoid storms.
We arrange some of the best package holidays to the Caribbean.
Booking a package combining the flight with a hotel can often work out cheaper than booking the flight and accommodation separately. It can also save hassle - amongst other things, the tour operator can sort out airport-to-hotel transfers - and you get back up if things go wrong.
Let us arrange your package holiday to the Caribbean. Caribbean Holidays http://www.luxurytravelandtourism.co.uk/destinations.html