Caribbean Geography 101

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    Learn How to Navigate the Caribbean Sea and Caribbean Islands and Nations

    Caribbean beach
    ••• Via publicdomainpictures.com

    When people say "the Caribbean," they generally don't think too hard about what the name means -- thinking hard, after all, shouldn't need to be part of an island getaway. Still, whether you're planning a cruise trip or an island-hopping adventure, it pays to know at least a little about what makes up the region known collectively as the Caribbean.

    Politics and geography have played a role in naming and sorting the 28 Caribbean nations and 7,000-plus islands in the Caribbean Sea. Cruise ship itineraries are commonly structured as Western and Eastern Caribbean, for example, but there's also the Windward and Leeward Islands, the Greater and Lesser Antilles, the British and French West Indies, and more. In many cases, these designations overlap, so we've tried to sort it all out for you as simply as possible.

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    Which Islands Are in the Caribbean (And Which Ones Are Not)

    Jobson's Cove, Bermuda
    ••• Jobson's Cove, Bermuda. Photo by Kansasphoto/CC by 2.0

    Technically, any country with a coast on the Caribbean Sea can be considered a Caribbean nation, and not all of them are islands. Some countries commonly considered part of the Caribbean actually are in the Atlantic Ocean (the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and Bermuda), while many travelers don't realize that several Central and South American countries (as well as Mexico) have Caribbean coasts and Caribbean islands, including Venezuela, Belize, Honduras, and even Colombia.

    Perhaps most interesting is Guyana: it's located on on the Atlantic coast of South America, but is considered part of the Caribbean due to its deep cultural connections to the region.

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    The Western Caribbean

    Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman
    ••• Seven Mile Beach, Grand Cayman. © Lacovia Grand Cayman

    The Western Caribbean includes all of the Caribbean islands west of Hispanola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) as well as the Caribbean coastal nations of Central America and Mexico. That includes Cuba, Jamaica, and the Cayman Islands. A typical Western Caribbean cruise might call at Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cozumel, Belize, and/or the Honduran island of Roatan.

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    The Eastern Caribbean

    Crane Beach, Barbados
    ••• Crane Beach, Barbados.

    There are far more islands in the Eastern Caribbean than the Western Caribbean; the Eastern Caribbean includes Puerto Rico, Anguilla, St. Martin/Maarten, St. Barts, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and Barbados.

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    The Southern Caribbean

    ••• Sunset in Aruba. zpics CC by 2.0

     A region mostly used for cruise-planning purposes, the Southern Caribbean includes such obvious destinations as Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao -- all of which are located just off the coast of South America in the Caribbean Sea. Cruise itineraries for the "Southern Caribbean" also may feature port calls in southeastern Caribbean nations like Antigua, St. Kitts & Nevis, Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent & The Grenadines, Barbados, and Trinidad and Tobago. So, as you can see, there may be some overlap between what's considered the Eastern and Southern Caribbean.

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    The Greater Antilles

    Cockpit Country in Jamaica's Blue Mountains
    ••• Cockpit Country in Jamaica's Blue Mountains. © Jim Smith

    The Greater Antilles region refers to the five larger islands (and six countries) of the northern Caribbean, including the Cayman Islands, Cuba, Hispanola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. The name derives from an old Spanish word, Antillia, which was used to refer to a mysterious island located in the Atlantic Ocean.

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    The Lesser Antilles

    The Baths, Virgin Gorda, BVI
    ••• The Baths, Virgin Gorda, BVI. Photo by David Fulmer/CC by 2.0

    The arc of islands that roughly define the eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea are known as the Lesser Antilles. These include Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, Bonaire, Curacao, Dominica, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Montserrat, Saba, St. Barts, St. Maarten/Martin, Statia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and several of the Caribbean islands belonging to Venezuela. A large geographic region, the Lesser Antilles stretch from the northern edge of the Caribbean Sea to the coast of South America.

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    The Netherlands Antilles

    Caribbean, Netherland Antilles, Bonaire, Washington Slagbaai National Park, Gotomeer Lake
    ••• Michele Falzone/Getty Images

    A political, not geographic, designation, the Netherlands Antilles includes the former Caribbean possessions of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, including Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, Saba, and St. Eustatius (Saba).

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    The Windward Islands

    St. Lucia sailboats
    ••• Photo via Pixabay

    The Windward Islands are the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles island group in the Eastern Caribbean. They are so named because the trade winds touch here first, placing these islands upwind from the Leeward Islands. The term dates back to the days when explorers and merchants relied on the trade winds to carry their ships across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.

    The Windward Islands include MartiniqueSt. LuciaSt. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Grenada.

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    The Leeward Islands

    El Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico
    ••• El Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico. © Ricardo /CC by 2.0

    The Leeward Islands are the northern islands of the Lesser Antilles in the Eastern Caribbean. They are so named because they are downwind from the Windward Islands, which the prevailing trade winds reach first.

    The Leeward Islands include Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin IslandsAnguillaSt. Martin/MaartenSt. BartsSabaSt. EustatiusSt. Kitts and NevisAntigua and BarbudaMontserratGuadeloupe, and Dominica.

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    The French West Indies

    Eglise-de-Vieux-Fort-Guadeloupe.jpg
    ••• Eglise de Vieux-Fort, Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe. © Daniel Jolivet via Flickr

    The French West Indies includes the two overseas departments (states) of the nation of France, Guadeloupe and Martinique, as well as St. Martin and St. Barts. French Guyana also is considered part of the French West Indies.

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    The British West Indies

    Tequila Sunrise Villa, Anguilla
    ••• Tequila Sunrise Villa, Anguilla. © WheretoStay.com

    Historically, the British West Indies (BWI) included more than 20 Caribbean islands that were part of the British Empire, including Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis,  St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turks and Caicos. Many of these islands have gained their independence from Great Britain over the years, however, so presently the BWI comprises only Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos, and Montserrat.

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    The Mexican Caribbean

    Cancun Hotel Zone
    ••• Cancun Hotel Zone. Photo by dronepicr/CC by SA 3.0

    Mexico actually has a huge swath of coastline on the Caribbean Sea, including such popular destinations as Cancun, Cozumel, Isla Mujeres, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and Puerto Morelos. The region is entirely contained within the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, and is commonly referred to as the Riviera Maya.