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Visiting the Caribbean: How to choose the right vacation spot for you

St. Lucia - Caribbean Sea with Pitons and Rainbow St. Lucia's mountainous landscape includes a lush rain forest and sandy coves. | Photo by Nize Photos/stock.adobe.com

After the last year-plus, many of us could use a double dose of vitamin C—for Caribbean, that is. Fortunately, the countries in one of America’s favorite warm-weather destinations—a region dotted with storied islands, azure-blue water, and enticing cuisines—have managed the pandemic so effectively that most welcomed back international visitors many months ago.

However, things aren’t wide-open yet. Before visiting the Caribbean, see “Know before you go” for an overview of entry requirements and restrictions. And read on for ideas about where to go—whether you’re looking for adventure, wellness, romance, or great places to visit on your own or with your family.

For families: The Bahamas

Paradise Island in the Bahamas

Paradise Island in the Bahamas. | Photo by Napa74/stock.adobe.com

Spread over 100,000 square miles, this archipelago of 700 islands (30 of them inhabited) is a sun-seeker’s dream, with miles of palm-fringed, white-sand beaches. New Providence—which is home to the capital, Nassau—and Paradise Island are famous for full-service beachfront resorts. In the smaller, more remote Out Islands, you can snorkel, dive, fish, and hop easily between neighboring cays.

Don’t miss: Beach time with your brood. Cable Beach, Cabbage Beach, and Junkanoo Beach are among Nassau’s best. If you’re not staying at Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, buy a day pass. With a 200-foot waterslide and a mile-long lazy river, the massive water park is every child’s dream—and some parents’, too. In Nassau, little ones love the flamingo show at Ardastra Gardens and Wildlife Conservation Centre. For a taste of the Out Islands, take Sandy Toes’ day trip to Rose Island, just 25 minutes away, for an alfresco lunch, water sports, and beach games.

Must eat: Conch salad. The ceviche-style preparation is made with the marine mollusk, citrus juices, diced onions, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. In Nassau or on Paradise Island, try it at one of the restaurants at Arawak Cay or at a roadside stall at Potter’s Cay.

Where to stay: Part of Nassau’s Baha Mar hotel complex, Grand Hyatt Baha Mar has six pools, 40 bars and restaurants, an 18-hole golf course, and a kids’ club that features supervised encounters with stingrays, starfish, and turtles. A new water park was set to open in July 2021. Rates start at $314.

Comfort Suites Paradise Island has spacious suites, and room rates include complimentary access to Atlantis resort, a five-minute walk away. Rates start at $225. 

Read more: Why all-inclusive resorts are an answer to your vacation now.

For adventurers: Jamaica

Two men in front of a fruit stand in Jamaica. | Photo by Getty Images

Two men share a laugh in front of fruit stand in Jamaica. | Photo by Getty Images

The Caribbean’s largest English-speaking island has it all: more than 4,000 square miles punctuated with soaring mountains and winding rivers, seductive beaches, and tangled backwoods. You could spend weeks roaming here without exhausting the options for outdoor activities. Throw in rum tours and live reggae, and you’ve got the makings of a real adventure.

Don’t miss: Exploring with an experienced guide. Among the possibilities: gawking at daredevil divers who plunge from the cliffs at Rick’s Café into the turquoise waters below; cruising by boat down the Black River, where sharp-eyed visitors will spot crocodiles; and, in Ocho Rios, visiting Dunn’s River Falls, the 180-foot-high cascades that are Jamaica’s most popular attraction. In Portland, you can board a bamboo raft and glide down the Rio Grande in a morning or an afternoon.

Must eat: Patties. These pastry pockets filled with meat, shrimp, or veggies are inexpensive local favorites. Rival bakers Tastee and Juici have stores all over the island.

Where to stay: Ten minutes’ drive from Sangster International Airport in Montego Bay, the beachfront, adults-only, all-inclusive RIU Reggae resort makes a convenient base camp. Rates start at $120 per person, per night.

In Port Antonio, Kanopi House is a collection of comfortable tree houses (some with outdoor showers) secreted within a forested hillside overlooking the sea. Rates start at $85.

For couples: St. Lucia

A view of Petit Piton on St. Lucia in the Caribbean Sea

A view of Petit Piton on St. Lucia. | Photo by Bruce/stock.adobe.com

This emerald island’s mountainous landscape is simply enchanting, starting with the iconic twin volcanoes, Gros Piton and Petit Piton, which jut skyward from the gin-clear sea. St. Lucia’s 230 square miles also have plenty of intimate golden- and black-sand coves, a lush rain forest ideal for eco adventures, and inviting boutique hotels.

Don’t miss: Seeing the Pitons. Whether you take a strenuous-but-worth-it guided hike up 2,600-foot-tall Gros Piton or simply watch clouds float across Petit from your hillside hotel, you must bear witness to these beauties. Other options include gliding through the rain forest canopy in open-air gondolas or bathing in the reportedly therapeutic mud at Sulphur Springs, adjacent to the Caribbean’s only “drive-in volcano,” where motorists can roll through the crater of a dormant volcano. Don’t leave without taking an afternoon cruise from Soufrière, where at sunset, those Pitons are the stars of the show.

Must eat: Chocolate. St. Lucia is famous for its cacao, which has been grown on the island since the 1700s and is now exported all over the world. Try a bar of Hotel Chocolat, which you can buy at stores island-wide or on-site after a tour of the brand’s Rabot Estate.

Where to stay: The romantic Stonefield Villa Resort, where 17 cottages with private pools and verandas are tucked into the mountainside and offer views of the Pitons and the Caribbean. Rates start at $330.

Farther north, in the capital of Castries, plush getaway Cap Maison is famous for its “champagne zip line,” which delivers bubbly from the bar to oceanfront tables. Rates start at $375.

For solo travelers: Barbados 

A surfer checks out the waves on Barbados. | Photo by Masterfile

A surfer checks out the waves on Barbados. | Photo by Masterfile

The west coast of Barbados is known for its sugar-like sand that’s fronted with luxury resorts. The rugged, Atlantic-facing east coast is home to a thriving surf culture, as well as charming inns and small hotels. Whichever coast you choose, you’ll have a good time on the island where rum and Rihanna were born. A compact 166 square miles, Barbados has a safe and reliable bus system ($1.75 will take you anywhere) that makes exploring easy.

Don’t miss: Early mornings at Pebbles Beach, where grooms from the nearby Garrison Savannah racetrack bring their horses for baths. Exploring Harrison’s Cave, a 1.5-mile-long network of coral limestone caverns, takes about an hour and makes a great rainy-day activity. Rum distillery tours are popular; make time to see the visitors center at the Mount Gay distillery, where workers fill 10,000 bottles a day. Or visit St. Nicholas Abbey, a 1658 Jacobean-style plantation house, which also functions as a museum recalling colonial life.

Must eat: Cuz’s food truck at Pebbles Beach is a go-to for “cutters” (sandwiches) made with pan-fried marlin fillets nestled on a soft salt-bread bun and topped with cheese. At just $5 a pop, they’re a bargain.

Where to stay: The Eco Lifestyle and Lodge, a 10-room inn on the east coast where the staff makes you feel like family. The hotel’s owners promote a healthy, sustainable stay, and the vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian restaurant serves delicious food to fuel it. Rates start at $102.

Or check into the beachfront Waves Hotel and Spa on the Platinum West Coast. The all-inclusive resort emphasizes health and wellness, and offers daily exercise classes overlooking the sea, as well as activities ranging from waterskiing to stand-up paddling. Rates start at $379 per person, per night.

For wellness seekers: Mexico’s Riviera Maya 

Mayan ruins at Tulum on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.

Mayan ruins at Tulum on the Caribbean coast of Mexico. | Photo by BlueOrange Studio/stock.adobe.com

The Caribbean coast south of Cancún includes the towns of Puerto Morelos, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum—and offshore, the island of Cozumel. The region is known for white-sand beaches, thick jungle punctuated by freshwater sinkholes called cenotes, and impressive Mayan ruins. For travelers in search of rest and renewal, Mexico offers countless opportunities, informed by the country’s centuries-old healing traditions and delivered in spas and retreats from north to south.

Read more: Savor the laid-back life in the Riviera Maya.

Don’t miss: Diving, snorkeling, or simply floating in the cool, crystal-clear waters of the area’s cenotes. At some point, visit the oceanfront ruins at Tulum, where you can trek through the ancient Maya compound and take a refreshing swim in the turquoise surf below. Consider zip lining and river rafting at XCaret Park, and then nurturing your spiritual side in a temazcal, a traditional Mexican sweat lodge ceremony that’s purported to purify mind and body. They’re offered at several resorts and spas (though COVID-19 had led to closures, so check first).

Must eat: Guacamole made tableside. Not to mention tangy ceviche and tacos made with fresh-caught fish. And, since Mexico is the home of tequila, raise a glass of the agave-based tipple.

Where to stay: The 100-suite all-inclusive Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita in Puerto Morelos is a good choice for health-focused twosomes, with its own Thalasso (sea water) therapy center and temazcal sweat lodge. Rates start at $655 per person, per night.

In Playa del Carmen, Grand Velas Riviera Maya’s 90,000-square-foot spa claims to be the largest in the Caribbean. Spa valets guide guests around the two-story space at the beachfront, all-inclusive resort, where the Bacal massage incorporates steamed corncobs to muscle-melting effect. Rates start at $633 per person, per night.

Know before you go

1. The U.S. State Department has eased COVID-related travel warnings for several Caribbean destinations from “do not travel” to “reconsider travel.” See updates at travel.state.gov

2. As more people get vaccinated, Caribbean entry requirements and public health protocols are likely to change. Check with your travel advisor or your destination’s official tourism website for updates. 

 

3. Currently, all travelers returning to the United States are required to show proof of a negative result from a COVID test taken no more than three days before their return. Most Caribbean resorts were facilitating testing, often at the resorts themselves, and sometimes for free or at a reduced cost. 

4. The Atlantic hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30, which means that your summer or fall trip could be interrupted or canceled if there’s a storm. Several Caribbean resorts do, however, offer hurricane “guarantees,” which allow you to rebook your stay—even if you’ve paid a nonrefundable deposit—without penalty. 

5. Consider buying travel insurance—now, especially. Some policies cover COVID-related cancellations, delays, interruptions, or emergency medical care.

Miami-based Sarah Greaves–Gabbadon is a travel writer, on-screen host, and self-described “Carivangelist” who has contributed to Travel and Leisure and Afar, among other publications. 

 

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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