Here are some pearls that I loved.
1. EEL – Anguilla, with its beaches, beach bars and some of the best chicken I’ve ever eaten, charmed me. In the hierarchy of Caribbean islands, it’s not as glitzy as nearby St. Barths, it’s smaller and less populated than St. Maarten, and it’s far less commercial than other forerunners. British posts, such as the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands. There are no fast food chains on the island. Plus, no skyscrapers, no cruise ships, and no casinos. What Anguilla lacks in tourist traps, it makes up for in white-sand beaches (there are over 30 of them) and hospitality.
2. PUERTO RICO — The island is the best of all worlds in the Caribbean. There are gorgeous beaches, a bustling capital, and a culture that combines the comforts of home (Puerto Rico is a US territory) and the mild climates of the islands. Old San Juan might be as touristy as heck when the cruise ships arrive (avoid days and times when the streets are crowded with cruise passengers), but you can always get away from it all with a trip to El Yunque, The rainforest of Puerto Rico.
3. BEQUIA — Bequia (pronounced BECK-way) is the second largest island in the chain of 32 islands that make up Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. With a population of just over 5,000, it is an unassuming place where flights cannot land at night as the small airport has no runway lights. There are no big chain hotels or upscale resorts. There’s not even a Starbucks. There is an ATM all over the island. In short, Bequia is a true escape in a time when it feels like there are few true escapes left on the planet.
4 and 5. GUADELOUPE and MARTINIQUE — Guadeloupe and Martinique are two separate islands, but I’m putting them together here because both are French overseas departments, and both feel more rustic than some of their neighboring French islands. On the 430-square-mile island of Martinique, sandwiched between Dominica and St. Lucia, rum production is watched as closely as champagne production in France. The rum tastings at the distilleries are almost as impressive as the beaches. If you’re going to Guadeloupe, you should be in a bathing suit most of the time, slathered in fruit salad-scented sunscreen. You should also be lying on a large towel looking out at the attractive pale blue ocean. My favorite beach here was Plage du Souffleur on the island of La Désirade, a short ferry ride from Grande-Terre. I have fond memories of some of the bluest waters I have had the pleasure of floating in. The sand was the color of Benjamin Moore’s Lancaster Whitewash paint. I marveled at how I practically had the beach all to myself.
6. SOUTH CAICOS — South Caicos, part of the Turks and Caicos archipelago, is a sleepy island where you can escape the crowds of Providenciales, as well as celebrities such as Neil Patrick Harris and Justin Bieber. It’s far enough away (an additional flight from Providenciales is required to get here) to help thin out the crowds, so you’ll often find yourself alone on the beaches. That’s a plus if you’re looking to plan your first trip to the Caribbean in the age of the pandemic. The 8 square mile island not only has celebrities, but also donkeys and horses roaming the roads, as well as pristine beaches and great snorkeling.
7. Saint Lucia — The island may be known as a destination for lovebirds and honeymooners, but there are plenty of other wildlife to discover. It is the delight of hikers. The island is dominated by the Pitons, and after spending a day photographing them during my visit, I decided to hike them. There are two, Gros Piton (2,530 feet) and Petit Piton (2,438 feet). There are no markers, so guides are necessary. It was a strenuous and wet hike (it rained several times), but the views were worth it.
8. BARBADOS — If it’s good enough for Rhianna, it’s good enough for you. Barbados is the richest and most developed country in the Eastern Caribbean. Many of the affluent Brits and Europeans with indeterminate accents who holiday here are looking to let loose, not pinch their books when they drop anchor near one of the well-appointed beach clubs for an after- noon of rum cocktails. I was drawn to the beach club scene. During my visit, I spent a quiet afternoon at the Cliff Beach Club. There were only sunny rosy cheeks and Gucci sandals under mid-century sputnik light fixtures. From there, I moved on to Mullins Beach Bar and Grill, a more humble space with a not-so-humble crowd. Bottom line: This is an island best visited when you’ve just gotten a raise or fancy watching cricket or polo matches with a very well-dressed crowd.
9. St. Barthelemy — Like Barbados, a good time in St. Barts doesn’t come cheap, but it’s still a chic paradise. The island, an overseas collectivity of France with a year-round population of 10,000, is best known as an escape for bold names such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Gwen Stefani and Beyoncé. Many other Caribbean islands rely on mass tourism from cruise ships, but St. Barts limits cruise ships to those with no more than 300 passengers. Here you can shop for designer goods and dine at top-notch French restaurants, but you can also sample its 11 free public beaches.
10. CURACAO — The island, 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, is part of the ABC Islands along with Aruba and Bonaire. Seized by the Dutch in 1634, it became an autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 2010. The most industrialized of the former Netherlands Antilles, Curaçao does not rely on tourism as its only industry. It’s a curious place where one moment you’re soaking up gorgeous ocean views, and the next you’re smelling oil from a nearby refinery serving Venezuela’s oil fields. Despite the inconvenience of smelly oil refineries, its iconic iguana soup, aloe vera plantations and ostrich farms give it a distinctly different feel to its Caribbean neighbors.