Drag yourself away from the shore-side screen of palms and coconut oil and you’ll find that the Caribbean offers a trove of unexpected adventure in beautiful locations.

Once known for its sun, sea and sizzling inactivity on the sand, the Caribbean has recently upped its game for active travellers, with a steadily growing number of adventure activities available beyond sailing. As you’d expect, watersports are massive, from snorkelling and SUP in calm and protected waters to world-class kitesurfing. On land there’s hiking, canyoning and even mountain ultra-running. The most rewarding islands tend to be the larger ones – the bigger areas of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico simply offer more variety. However, the tall, volcanic islands in the Eastern Caribbean chain also offer excellent rainforest hiking, ziplines, waterfalls and plunge pools.

A palm-fringed beach is dotted with kitesurfers preparing their kites on the beach, while many others have already got them airborne.
Cabarete in the Dominican Republic is a hotspot for kitesurfing thanks to the consistent trade winds © Andrey Prokhorov / 500px

Kitesurfing & windsurfing

Due to constant tradewinds streaming in from the Atlantic, the islands have excellent kite and windsurfing. Winds are best from December to June, while the waves are bigger from December into the early part of the year, when you can perfect your freestyle. It’s warm, of course, so a shorty wetsuit will generally do. And, as befits the Caribbean, easygoing communities have grown around the favoured spots, creating a great atmosphere in which to relax after a day spent being pummelled by the wind and waves. The best spots are at Cabarete on the north shore of the Dominican Republic, where winds hit the coast across the bay; at Silver Rock, on the southern tip of Barbados, where fluorescent kites and sails scoot back and forth from the lighthouse; and the enclosed bay near Vieux Fort at the south tip of St Lucia. Other favoured spots include the southern part of Martinique and Le Moule on the northern coast of Grande-Terre on Guadeloupe. Many of the smaller islands also have a small operator with a few rigs to rent, including Antigua, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Tobago and even glitzy St Barts.

Two divers float vertically, almost silhouetted against the bright blue sea, next to a near vertical wall of colourful corals.
Divers can explore the sheer walls off the coast of the Cayman Islands ©Brent Barnes / Shutterstock

Diving

Coral like a thousand green molar teeth, barrel sponges large enough to sit in and networks of spiky staghorn flitting with sergeant majors and grunts, damsels and rock beauties… Caribbean diving is spectacular. The water is warm and visibility can reach 30m, some islands have purposely sunk wrecks, and even the smallest island has at least one dive operator. The best dive spots include Tobago, particularly its east end, famous for rays and large corals (one brain-coral is the size of a semi-detached house) that flourish on the nutrients brought on currents from the Orinoco (you need to be comfortable diving in currents). The Cayman Islands are known for their sheer walls, with corals as bright as cathedral windows. Bonaire, one of the Dutch Leeward Islands off Venezuela, is famed for its colourful corals and sloping drop-offs. In the Bahamas they have made a speciality of diving with sharks, and off Dominica you can dive in "Champagne" bubbles released by submarine volcanic activity. Also consider Saba and Jacques Cousteau’s marine park off Guadeloupe.

A hiker standing at lofty lookout overlooking Gros Piton in the distance; the coast is also seen far below.
Looking down over Gros Piton while hiking in the mountains of St Lucia © Justin Foulkes / Lonely Planet

Hiking

Almost all of the islands offer opportunities for hiking, usually for the day, particularly the larger Greater Antilles and the tall volcanic islands of the Eastern Caribbean. In places, old farmers’ trails have been kept up, but often you hike to dormant volcanic peaks. For all the exertion, though, often these hikes are taken gently, with a guide’s explanation as the centrepiece, detailing the extraordinary flora and fauna in the rainforest. Remember that many hikes culminate at a waterfall and rock pool, so bring swimming gear. Volcano climbs include verdant La Soufrière (1234m) in St Vincent and quiescent Mt Pelée (1397m) in Martinique, the Boiling Lake in Dominica, and the iconic, incisor-shaped Gros Piton in St Lucia. There are also rainforest hikes to see birds in the oldest forest reserve in the Western Hemisphere at the Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Dominica has a long-distance trail, 184km from one end of the island to the other, as do Martinique and Guadeloupe. In the Dominican Republic you can climb up to the Caribbean’s highest peak, Pico Duarte (3098m).

Read more: 10 great Caribbean secrets

Canyoning & caving

Across the rainforest-smothered islands there are endless waterfalls, canyons and rivers for canyoning. Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Martinique and Guadeloupe all have great canyoning, while there are options in Dominica and Grenada, too. For a gentler experience in the lower reaches of the rivers there is tubing. Or, if you wish to go underground, try caving in Puerto Rico.

A lone surfer riding a wave; he's standing so close the front of his board with one foot that five of his toes are hanging over its front edge (ie. hanging five).
A surfer "hanging five" on a beach break in Barbados © John Seaton Callahan / Getty Images

Surfing

Despite the 4800km run-up for the Atlantic Ocean, there are only a few places with reliable, reachable surf. Two of the best spots are the east coast of Barbados, at Bathsheba (where you can watch the action from cafes), and at Rincon on the northwestern end of Puerto Rico.

Mountain biking

Just a couple of islands have bike parks. Anse Chastanet, near the Pitons in St Lucia, has a handful of trails, as does the Toro Verde Nature Adventure Park on Puerto Rico.

Read more: Jamaica for adrenalin junkies

Ziplines

Ziplines have now appeared all over the Caribbean – in St Lucia, St Kitts, Antigua and Puerto Rico (which claims the world’s longest) – so you can see the rainforest close up, and suddenly find yourself flying across a 60m river gorge, before re-entering the trees.

Two pigs standing in the shallows of a beautiful beach.
Take a novelty swim with the pigs who hang out on Big Major Cay in the Bahamas © shalamov / Getty Images

Swimming

The Caribbean couldn’t be much more inviting for wild swimmers. The best swimming event is the annual Nevis to St Kitts swim across the spectacular Narrows (4km of open water) between the sister islands. In the Cayman Islands (on Grand Cayman) you can swim with rays at Stingray City and, more bizarrely, it’s possible to join the famous swimming pigs who live on Big Major Cay in the Bahamas.

Read more: 7 unmissable dive sites in the Cayman Islands

Racing

Running in the Caribbean is hot, so expect events to start early in the morning. Several islands offer marathons (generally with a half and often 10km options) and some now have triathlons. They also offer some off-road runs and a few adventure races. Martinique stages the Tchimbe Raid and other ultra-runs, and the Guadarun is a six-stage race on six of the islands around French Guadeloupe.

Night kayaking 

Kayaking in Bioluminescent Bay, Vieques, Puerto Rico, is extraordinary; best done on dark, moonless nights. Paddle strokes set off weird white-and-green whorls of light (as millions of tiny dinoflagellates are disturbed, they emit a glow), fish zip away beneath you, tails flashing madly left and right, and manta rays move like glowing space ships.

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