The Caribbean isn’t all just yachts and cruise ports (or souvenir hassle). With such a wide variety of coastal destinations, not all beaches are the same.
Each destination in the Caribbean has its own scene, whether it be an all-night party scene or the high lines of an uber-luxe resort.
But what about the lesser-known destinations throughout the region that don’t get as much press? We've gathered our top intel on the Caribbean's secret spots that are sure to deliver unbeatable trips.
The incredible hike at Dominica’s Boiling Lake
One of the Caribbean’s best destinations for rugged adventures, mountainous Dominica sports an incredible hike. It's a tough six-mile path clinging to narrow ridges of the “Valley of Desolation.” The destination? Boiling Lake. The 207ft-wide lake is veiled in steam, with bubbly burps on its grayish surface. No matter the temptation, never enter the Boiling Lake under any circumstances. The lake's namesake is for a reason, the water can reach boiling temperature, and can rapidly change temperature without notice. The valley is the remnants of an 1880 volcanic eruption. Expect to get dirty.
Cuba's beguiling Baracoa
At Cuba’s east end – near the notorious Guantánamo Bay – lies one of the country’s greatest engineering marvels (OK, it’s not a long list). The 34-mile (55 km) La Farola, finished by revolutionaries in 1964, is a rugged, rollercoaster-style road that reaches one of Cuba’s most intriguing towns – Baracoa. Relatively isolated since its 1511 birth, Baracoa is known for haunted legends, a hike up the flat-top mountain El Yunque and really, really good coconuts, which appear in cucuruchu (grated coconut mixed with sugar, honey and guava, wrapped in a palm frond).
Haitian “Vodou Rock”
At the Hôtel Oloffson in chaotic Port-au-Prince, made famous by Graham Greene’s The Comedians, you can watch weekly “Voudou rock” concerts of the band RAM (named for hotel owner Richard A Morse), featuring rara horns, guitar and keyboards. Morse, who says he bought the hotel after it was offered to him from a loungan (Vodou priest) for USD$20, says they “take African roots as a starting point.” It’s a real juke joint experience, he says, “I can’t believe I’m in the middle of it.”
Flying off Saba’s cliff
Saba’s Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport has the world’s shortest runway (400m). When departing Saba, planes don’t technically lift off the ground; instead, the runway suddenly stops and the pilot literally drives the aircraft off the edge of a cliff. It’s an equally butt-clenching experience to land here. Check Winair for flights to Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius and St Kitts. And yes, there’s a cocktail lounge in the departure area.
Dominican Republic's hidden beach
Bávaro and Punta Cana, in southeastern Dominican Republic, may be the epicenter of beach travel here. But there are ways to escape the hordes. Take the lovely Hwy 104 west through mountains to Playa Limón, a two-mile, isolated beach lined with coconut trees. You’re likely to have the spot to yourself most of the day and the drive alone justifies the trip.
Birding in Trinidad & Tobago
Trinidad and Tobago is excluded from many Caribbean birding books, partly because the sheer number of species here – about 430 – overwhelm editors. (Another reason, perhaps, is that the nation is removed from the normal “Caribbean route”). Non-birders will be considering a new hobby after visiting Trinidad’s Asa Wright Nature Center, one of the world’s great birding outposts, with all-inclusive lodges in the Northern Range rainforest. It’s a 90-minute drive from the capital, Port of Spain.
The James Bond Hotel
It’s not the “007,” but Jamaica's Goldeneye Resort – easily one of the Caribbean’s most glamorous destinations – is the former estate of Ian Fleming, who hatched up the Bond concept in the 1950s and '60s while entertaining a stream of A-list celebs. These days it’s run by Island Records’ owner Chris Blackwell, but the stars keep coming (Johnny Depp, Bono, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, to name a few).
Puerto Rican Christmas Carols
Those wanting to give up the cold at Christmas, but keep the Yuletide on 10, can spend it in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, where you’ll find a month-long sing-songy celebration. Churches conduct dawn masses rich with aguinaldos (Puerto Rican Christmas carols), while exuberant groups of carolers travel house to house and make merry. Along the market-lined Paseo de la Princesa, pick up wooden santos figurines (saints carvings) for Christmas souvenirs.
US Virgin Islands' secluded spot
Experience complete seclusion by visiting Issac Bay in the US Virgin Islands. But like most good things, you'll have to work for it. A 20-minute hike takes you to a truly beautiful and unspoiled stretch of land considered the most beautiful on the island. The untamed landscape means there's no shade or facilities. During the months of July to December, the preserve is a major haven for green and hawksbill turtles.