The 20 Best Caribbean Islands to Visit

White boats float in the blue waters off the Exumas in the Bahamas

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Suppose you ask the average person to imagine what paradise looks like. In that case, chances are they'll conjure up the image of a sandy tropical island fringed with palm trees and surrounded by an endless horizon of cerulean-blue water. If you ask them where their imagined paradise might be, they may likely say "somewhere in the Caribbean."

Many people think of the Caribbean as a singular destination, but it is a complex geographical region. Encompassing more than 700 islands, reefs, and cays in an area of approximately one million square miles, the Caribbean archipelago today counts 13 sovereign island nations and 12 dependent territories, with close political ties throughout the region to Europe and the United States.

With so many islands to choose from, it can be hard to decide which one to plan a trip to. To help you narrow down your options, we've pulled together a list of the best islands in the Caribbean, from Aruba to Barbados.

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Located in the West Indies, Barbados has a little bit of everything: beaches, history and culture, and some of the best surfing in the world. Begin by taking a walking tour of Bridgetown with Characters of Town to learn about the island's history, then snorkel with sea turtles with Calabaza Sailing Cruises and enjoy fresh Bajan bites at Treasure Beach's Tapestry Restaurant. Into surfing? Head to Bathsheba Beach, one of Kelly Slater's favorite surf spots. The birthplace of rum, the island also lays claim to more than 15,000 rum shops and the oldest rum distillery in the world. While Mount Gay Rum is open for tours, we preferred Colony Club's Rum Vault for its rum and chocolate tastings, rum flights, and rum pairing dinners.

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New Providence

Idyllic Nassau beach at The Bahamas in the caribbean.
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The Bahamas are a chain of approximately 700 islands across 100,000 square miles of the ocean. There are about 20 main islands or island groups, but we'd recommend New Providence if you have to choose just one to visit. With its rich history, pristine beaches, and exciting nightlife, make the capital of Nassau your base. Start your trip by climbing the Queen's staircase; at the top, tour the historic Fort Fincastle and take in views from Bennett's Hill, the highest point on the island. Later, sip rum at John Watling's Distillery, shop for handicrafts at the Nassau Straw Market, or enjoy thrills at the Aquaventure Waterpark at Atlantis Resort. And, if you want to get out and explore more of the island nation, Exuma Cays—famous for its swimming pigs—is a quick, 40-minute flight from the city.

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Puerto Rico

El Yunque National Park in Puerto Rico, a beautiful rainforest
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If you don't have a passport, Puerto Rico is the perfect destination to get a taste of the Caribbean. Hike in El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system, and discover 150 native fern species and animals like the coquí tree frog. Sign up for a glass-bottom kayak tour of one of Puerto Rico's three bioluminescent bays, the brightest of which—Mosquito Bay—is on the small island of Vieques. Spend a day exploring Old San Juan, the oldest city in the Western hemisphere, and round it out with a piña colada at either Caribe Hilton Hotel or Barrachina. Both claim to be the birthplace of the rum-based cocktail, so wherever you end up, you're in for a treat.

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St. Croix

Path Overlooking Jack and Isaac Bay
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Just 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, the other American territory in the Caribbean, the U.S. Virgin Islands consists of three main islands: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. While you can't go wrong with a trip to any of them, we chose St. Croix for its diversity of things to do. The island boasts one of the best culinary scenes in the Caribbean, with restaurants like Savant and Rumrunners serving up rum cocktails and local fare such as blackened fish. Nature lovers will want to hike to the 301-acre Jack and Isaac Bay Preserve, home to some 400 species of fish and endangered green and hawksbill turtles. And Buck Island Reef National Monument, located 1.5 miles off St. Croix's northeast coast, offers even more excellent hiking and snorkeling.

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Virgin Gorda

beach paradise
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Popular with tourists partly because it's one of the safer Caribbean destinations to visit, the British Virgin Islands comprises over 50 islands and cays, about 16 of which are inhabited. Head to Virgin Gorda, where you'll find the city of Spanish Town and the Baths, the BVI's most famous natural attraction. Characterized by granite boulders, tidal pools, and grottos, the Baths are perfect for snorkeling, swimming, and snapping Instagram-worthy pics. Back in Spanish Town, you can hike up to Gorda Peak, the highest point on the island, and explore the stone ruins of a copper mine.

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St. Lucia

St. Lucia's Twin Pitons lit by sunset glow
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St. Lucia is the peak honeymoon destination, and it's easy to see why. With a centuries-old tradition of cacao production, the Caribbean island is a chocolate lover's dream, offering "bean to bar" estate tours, chocolate spa treatments, and cafés and bakeries doling out sweet treats. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the twin peaks of the Piton mountains are a significant hiking destination, with the 2.9-mile Gros Piton Trail one of the more popular treks. Go snorkeling at Jalousie Beach or Anse Chastanet, take a mud bath at Sulphur Springs, and, if you're willing to splurge a little, book a stay at one of the three-walled resorts St. Lucia is known for.

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Aruba beach with pink flamingos at the beach, flamingo at the beach in Aruba Island Caribbean
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Aruba is probably the most well-known of the ABC islands (a common nickname for Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao) and is particularly famous for its large flamingo population. The island's iconic, white-sand beaches, Palm Beach and Eagle Beach, are genuinely idyllic, whereas Hadicurari and Dos Playa are popular among windsurfers and surfers, respectively. Arikok National Park, which covers nearly 20 percent of the island, counts desert landscapes, a limestone cave system, and a natural tidepool among its treasures.

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Jamaica island, Montego Bay
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Located in the Greater Antilles region, Jamaica is the smallest of the four large islands that define the northern boundary of the Caribbean Sea. Here, travelers will find live reggae, jerk cuisine, and plenty of natural gems in its interior, including magnificent waterfalls that can be hiked to. Explore the city of Montego Bay, the capital of St. James Parish, and be sure to try some rum before you go.

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Dominican Republic

Cathedral Basilica Menor de Santa Maria
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The Caribbean's second-largest country is as diverse as it is beautiful. Touch down in Santo Domingo, or "la Capital," where you'll find an abundance of cultural attractions. Explore the 16th-century Ciudad Colonial (Colonial City), a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized as the Americas' first permanent settlement, before relaxing in the national botanic garden, shopping the markets, and dancing to merengue and bachata. If you want to get out of the city, hike Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the Caribbean, or tour Chocal, a women-run cacao plantation in Palmar Grande. And with 30 miles of coastline, a trip to the beach is a must, whether you lay your towel down at Punta Cana's Playa Bavaro or head offshore to Isla Saona (Saona Island), part of the Cotubanama National Park.

Dominican Republic
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Caribbean beach. Carlisle Bay, Antigua & Barbuda.
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The larger of the two islands that make up the country of Antigua and Barbuda, Antigua is renowned the world over for its white-sand beaches and crystal-clear waters—it didn't get the moniker "the Land of 365 Beaches" for nothing, after all. Truly, you could spend your entire trip beach hopping from one sandy shoreline to the next, from the world-famous Half Moon Bay to the lesser-known—but equally stunning—Carlisle Bay Beach, where a lush rainforest abuts the coast. If you want to get out in the water, swim with the stingrays at the aptly named Stingray City, or snorkel around the Pillar of Hercules, with its limestone geological formations attracting an array of aquatic life, including turtles, moray eels, and barracuda. In English Harbour, round out your trip by touring the historic fort of Nelson's Dockyard and sipping martinis at Skullduggery Cafe.

Antigua, Antigua and Barbuda
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Drone panorama of pier in beach in Grace Bay, Providenciales, Turks and Caicos
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Out of Turks and Caicos' eight main islands, Providenciales is the most popular in the archipelago—and for a good reason. While away an afternoon at the 3-mile-long Grace Bay, consistently ranked among the best beaches in the world. The ultra-pristine coast of Princess Alexandra National Park enjoys oceanside restaurants and luxury resorts, including Alexandra Resort and Wymara Resort and Villas. See why the archipelago is renowned for snorkeling by heading just offshore to either Smith's Reef or Bight Reef, where you can spot sea turtles, parrotfish, spiny lobsters, and the occasional nurse shark. Itching to explore more of Turks and Caicos? Take a 25-minute ferry ride to Middle Caicos for hiking and a tour of the Conch Bar Caves, the most extensive dry cave system in the Lucayan Archipelago.

Providenciales, TKCA 1ZZ, Turks and Caicos Islands
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St. Martin/St. Marteen

St Marteen (beach view)
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Dually governed by the French and Dutch, the Caribbean island comprises St. Martin (the French side) and St. Marteen (the Dutch side). In St. Maarten, you can ride the world's steepest zip line, hike throughout an 8,800-acre natural reserve, and watch planes arriving and departing from Princess Juliana International Airport fly just overhead at Maho Beach. Be sure to carve out some time to wander the bright, colorful streets of Phillipsburg, the country's capital, dropping by Guavaberry Emporium for rum made with local guava berries. Over in St. Martin, sample French Caribbean cuisine in the town of Grand Case, hike and zip line some more at the 135-acre Loterie Farm, and relax at Orient Bay, the "St. Tropez of the Caribbean."

St Martin
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Urban skyline Havana city, Cuba
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Get your cultural fix in Cuba's capital, Havana, where you'll find museums, art galleries, jazz clubs, and incredible restaurants in abundance. Sip daiquiris at El Floridita, writer Ernest Hemingway's go-to, or drink mojitos at the Art Deco-style Hotel Nacional—after which you should take a peek at the hotel's Cold War-era bunker. Marvel at two centuries'' worth of Cuban art at the National Museum of Fine Arts, listen to live jazz at La Zorra y el Cuervo and dance the night away in one of the city's many salsa clubs. While you could easily spend your entire time in Havana, don't miss out on a trip to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Trinidad, whose buildings date back to the 17th century.

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St. Bart's

Saint Barthelemy skyline
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A celeb favorite—Beyoncé, Jay-Z, the Kardashians, and John Legend have been known to vacation here—the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy is the epitome of grandeur. If you're here to splurge, consider booking a stay in a private villa or luxury hotel such as Le Toiny or Cheval Blanc or chartering a yacht. Spend your days kayaking or kite surfing at Anse de Grand Cul de Sac, browsing boutique shops and art galleries in Gustavia, or sunbathing on one of the island's many beaches. Book a reservation at Eddy's, one of the oldest restaurants on the island, or pop into Maya's to Go for sandwiches made with ultra-fresh ingredients—some of which are even flown in from France.

St Barthélemy
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Shoal Bay Beach Antilla

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Relaxation is the name of the game on Anguilla. Although this island in the Lesser Antilles is only 16 miles long, it has 33 fantastic beaches—each one available to visit for free. Shoal Bay East is consistently named one of the best beaches in the Caribbean, attracting people from all over the world to its pinkish-white sand, turquoise water, and excellent snorkeling. The lesser-visited Meads Bay is just as stunning—and features good restaurants and high-end resorts to boot—while Little Bay Beach, though difficult to get to, wows with its rugged cliffs and aquatic life that makes for equally good snorkeling. Mix things up by teeing off at the newly renovated Aurora Anguilla Resort & Golf Club, then make your way to Dune Preserve for rum punch and live music (look at the schedule to see when owner and reggae artist Bankie Banx is performing).

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St. Kitts

Brimstone hill fortress by sea against sky, St. Kitts and Nevis, Caribbean
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This Eastern Caribbean island has everything from historical attractions to outdoor adventure and beach bars. Hike Mt. Liamuiga, a dormant volcano that stands 3,800 feet above sea level, for unparalleled views of St. Maarten and Saba. Snorkel the Coconut Tree Reef and dive shipwrecks like the 144-foot River Taw. Take a tour of the 18th-century Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, and ride the St. Kitts Scenic Railway through the island's old sugar cane estates and small villages. In the capital of Basseterre, shop colorful batik fabrics at the Caribele Batik store before beach barhopping your way around Frigate Bay. Take the 45-minute ferry ride to Nevis, St. Kitts' sister island, for a fun day trip. Here, you can summit the 3,232-foot Nevis Peak, hike the Source Trail through a cloud forest (keep your eyes peeled for vervet monkeys), or relax on Oualie Beach.

Saint Kitts, St Kitts & Nevis
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Tim Drivas Photography / Getty Images

The "C" in "ABC islands," Curaço may have you thinking of Amsterdam in the capital of Willemstad, where colorful Dutch buildings line the St. Anna Bay waterfront on Handelskade pier. Admire the architecture while nursing drinks at an outdoor cafe or from Queen Emma Bridge, a swinging pedestrian bridge that links the port city's Punda and Otrobanda districts. Curaço's beaches, too, are second to none. With 35 in all, you'll find a beach to suit every mood and occasion, whether you want to swim with sea turtles at Playa Piskado, party at Jan Thiel, or kick back and soak up the sun at Playa Kenepa Grandi.

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Au Coin Falls, Grenada W.I.
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Located in the Windward Islands, Grenada offers enough cultural activities and natural attractions to keep you busy for days. So-called the "Spice Island" for its history of nutmeg, allspice, clove, and cinnamon production, Grenada is an excellent place for all your baking and cooking needs. Check out the Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Station, a working factory where you can purchase the spice right from the source, or shop the Spice Market in St. George's Market Square. Dive at artist Jason deCaires Taylor's underwater sculpture park—the first in the world—or set your eyes on one of the island's many waterfalls, including Annandale and Au Coin Falls. Of course, you'd do well to sail aboard a traditional wooden schooner—you're in the Caribbean's boat-building capital after all.

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St. Vincent

Vermont Nature Trail, St. Vincent
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The largest island in the Grenadines, St. Vincent is as worthy a vacation destination as Mustique. Climb La Soufrière, an active volcano that stands 4,000 feet above sea level, and hike down into the caldera for a close-up look at its lava dome. For a less strenuous trek, journey along the 2-mile Vermont Nature Trail through a section of the 10,870-acre St. Vincent Parrot Reserve, where you might be able to catch sight of the rare bird. Don't leave without wandering around the island's 20-acre botanical garden, visiting the lush Dark View Falls or Falls of Baliene, or taking in the views from Fort Charlotte. If you want to bump up your trip an extra notch, set sail across the Grenadines by yacht, landing at Tobago Cays Marine Park—an excellent place for snorkeling with green and hawksbill turtles and diving coral reef sites and shipwrecks.

St Vincent and the Grenadines
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The drone aerial view of Horseshoe bay beach, Bermuda island
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While Bermuda is certainly not the only island in the Caribbean with pink-sand beaches, it arguably boasts the best in the region. The most famous of these is Horseshoe Bay, where angelfish and sergeant majors thrive, and there's no shortage of photo ops, though Elbow Beach is equally worth a visit. When you need a break from the sun, head underground to the Crystal and Fantasy Caves and marvel at the shimmering reflections of stalactites in their translucent pools. While you're on the island, be sure to try a Dark & Stormy cocktail—Goslings Rum comes straight from St. George's parish—and embark on a sunset cruise. And if money is no object, consider booking a stay at the famed Hamilton Princess & Beach Club for an ultra-luxe experience.

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The 20 Best Caribbean Islands to Visit