Those who dream of the perfect beach escape from the U.S. know that the Caribbean offers the most pampering bang for your buck. Destinations like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic remain favorites for their ease of reach and amenities-packed resorts. But they also offer cultural experiences in areas that are yet to be fully explored. In addition, a handful of lesser-known Caribbean islands are worth the journey for their smaller crowds, pristine sea, and rainforest scenery.
There’s no question that Jamaica ranks among the Caribbean's top destinations. Island-full of value-packed deals, particularly in the summertime, it’s an easy book-and-go destination.
Negril remains the most convenient beach town, with room types ranging from all-inclusive resorts to luxury cliff-top cabanas. In the south, the boutique hotels of Treasure Beach offer comfort in an authentic, Jamaican fishing village setting. The island offers plenty of tasty, affordable food and entertainment options, and excursions that pack their weight in thrilling outdoor adventures, whether it’s rafting down a river or leaping into a blue hole.
Rising in popularity, in part thanks to direct flights from major U.S. airports including New York City, Atlanta, and Miami, visiting the Guadeloupe Islands archipelago means you’re getting five islands for the flight price of one. To boot, one of those five islands, Les Saintes, is an archipelago itself, home to one of the most beautiful bays in the Caribbean. Hop to the various plots on daily ferries, and enjoy the remarkable supply of white, pink, blond, and black sand beaches.
Guadeloupe National Park, on the island of Basse-Terre, is a destination in and of itself, with numerous waterfalls, sulfur baths, and hiking trails to explore. The best value also lies in the island's culinary scene, where Creole- and French-influenced dishes, along with potent rum cocktails, are as flavorful on the roadside as they are on the dining table.
Aruba’s neighbor is a lesser-known destination for many but is brimming with cultural and historic sights and value-packed resorts. Willemstad’s World Heritage City encompasses four colonial neighborhoods, including world-class museums and stunning architecture, while the white sand beaches and crystal turquoise waters of Westpunt, on the western coastline, can be reached in less than two hours.
Curacao's dive-and-stay resorts are often ranked as the most value-packed in the Caribbean, and guesthouses also offer plenty of daily dive and snorkeling options. The island's location also means that it's not threatened during hurricane season, ensuring less chance of a rained out—or canceled—trip.
Saint Lucia’s resorts know to cater fully to vacationers seeking ultra pampering—honeymooners, in particular.
With spectacular sea and mountain views, scenic drives, national parks with sulfur springs, summit climbs, and white sand beaches, the island also offers the ultimate active trip to the Caribbean.
Aside from all-inclusive resorts, the island’s plantation-houses-turned-hotels offer great value in the less tourist-heavy areas, such as Laborie, as do guesthouses in fishing villages, with less busy beaches, local food, and history.
Basking in Caribbean waters, this small island off the shore of Belize has a reputation for attracting backpackers, but Caye Caulker offers a lot more than just budget hotels. The number of seafront boutique hotels on the island is rising, giving Caulker a unique mix of luxurious comfort in a laid-back Belizean island setting.
To boot, Caye Caulker boasts its own marine reserve off the Belize Barrier Reef, the second-longest reef in the world, just a half-mile offshore. With more flight options to Belize than in the past, such as Southwest, it’s easier than ever to reach this side of the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico is still a longstanding favorite for an easy Caribbean escape. Passports aren't required, and it's just a quick hop from mainland United States.
But the island is filled with excellent local and fusion gastronomy options, sea or rainforest activities, from Old San Juan to El Yunque Rainforest, and year-round festivals and nightlife. Additional daytime or overnight escape options include paradisiacal Vieques offshore, for more sea and sand away from it all.
Certainly, 2017's Hurricane Maria devastated much of the island, but it rebounded quickly and vacation options are still numerous.
Grenada is often eclipsed by its neighbors for its distance from the US, but the reward is great—fewer crowds, upscale boutique hotels with a lower staff-to-guest ratio, and a destination packed with cultural and outdoor activities without the big distances. Think colorful markets and spice plantations, pink and blond beaches, fish fry nights, rainforests, lakes, and jade-colored waterfalls you could have to yourself by visiting long after day-trippers have left.
The DR leads the pack in value-filled vacations, particularly thanks to the resort towns of Punta Cana and Puerto Plata, as well as being a mere three-hour journey from the east coast of the United States. But this resort giant, boasting an inventory of 77,259 rooms, also offers luxury boutique hotels and guesthouses at a fraction of the cost than on other pricier islands such as Anguilla, facing equally stunning beaches in towns such as Las Terrenas, and Cabarete.
The eco-conscious crowd can also find its fix in scenic mountain towns such as Jarabacoa, or in fishing villages like Punta Rucia, located near national parks, where seafront cabanas offer bang-for-the-buck and a more local experience.