Cracking the Caribbean on a budget

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When travelling in the Caribbean, your choices are as diverse as the islands. But you don't need to fall for the cliché of pricey beach resorts or isolated boutique getaways costing hundreds of dollars a night.

You can enjoy the same beautiful beaches and lusciously warm, blue waters as the big spenders and you can do so on a budget without settling for the over-hyped all-inclusive mega-hotels with their hundreds of tiny rooms and buffet lines piled high with fast food fare. Cool and interesting budget places can be found on islands scattered across these achingly alluring waters.

Here's our favourite five islands for having a sunny frolic that won't leave you with a fiscal hangover. And this is true even in high season from December to March when rates soar in inverse proportion to the temperatures in northern climates. (During the low season, June to August, rates plummet everywhere.) All the finds below can be enjoyed for under US$100 a night.

Barbados

Yes, the west coast of this beautiful island is renowned for snooty old clubs and resorts where tea is still served to people dressed in linen at 3pm. But elsewhere you can find bargains. In the south, Dover Beach has the requisite beckoning sands, a string of budget hotels, a groovy bar scene and access to fabulous windsurfing. On Fridays, you can hit one of the region's great events, the open-air community fish fry at Oistins where seafood fresh off the boats is grilled up at prices that bring out throngs of dancing locals. There's even cheap and efficient local buses for car-free odysseys island-wide.

Bequia

The star of the string of islands called the Grenadines (of St Vincent and the Grenadines' fame), this dream of sand and palm trees around a perfect little harbour might prove impossible to leave. With barely 5000 residents, Bequia isn't big but it has lot of little guesthouses and cute apartments around the main town of Port Elizabeth. Many are on the hillsides and have sweeping views. Gorgeous and laid-back beaches are short walks away. Getting here from other nearby islands is half the fun: hitch a ride on a yacht, hail a passing fishing boat or hop on a big old yawing ferry.

Bonaire

Divers like bargains and for them reef-ringed Bonaire is paradise. Even if you don't dive, however, this small island offers pink-hued beaches, pink-hued flamingos and a rich and preserved history easily sampled by bike. The main town of Kralendijk is a walkable charmer with plenty of popularly priced bars and cafes. You can easily find simple rooms. Competition means that divers can find deals on gear rental or lessons. Non-divers can get a mask and fins and take the plunge, as Bonaire's aquatic beauty is right off the shore.

Cuba

The ultimate budget destination in the Caribbean? Cuba offers endless possibilities for adventure and the more you live like a local, the less you'll spend. Even Havana is dirt-cheap, especially given that the number one thing to do - exploring the myriad streets lined with crumbling colonial and art deco gems while savouring the pulsing local life - is free. Across the land, casa particulars offer stays in private homes (often quite nice) for under US$50 a night.

Saba

Where? That's the common response you get when you say you're going to Saba - obvious music to the ears of anyone looking for a total Caribbean escape. A quick 15-minute hop from the busy airport at St-Martin/Sint Maarten to the world's smallest runway brings you to this tiny island and its 1500 residents. Cute little guesthouses perch in the pretty main town of Windwardside (guess which way the wind blows…) and there are homestyle eateries for savoury and spicy dinners. What Saba doesn't have is a beach, except one little cove of sand that comes and goes with the tides. It does have great hiking through Eden-like rainforests.