Five favorite Caribbean islands

Snorkeling, food and tranquility

Visiting Caribbean islands fills my heart and soul with joy. Unless I missed a few spots with my sunscreen. Even then, the burn stings less when I look across the sea or sip an exotic drink from a hollowed out coconut dressed with pineapple slice ears, cherry eyes and a tiny pink umbrella.

Grand Cayman Island would normally top my list, but I’ve already devoted an entire article to it. And full disclosure – we’re a family of snorkelers, so I’m strongly influenced by reefs and fish.

Assume that all these islands share certain features to qualify for my list: gorgeous coastlines, great sea life and coral, local flair, pleasant residents and good food. My wife and I differ on the importance of shopping opportunities. I just need a t-shirt shop and beverage shack. Her tastes are more “diverse” – that’s all I’m saying about that.

Here are a few highlights from each of our five favorite Caribbean islands.

1. Barbados

Two words: “Banks Brewery.” It started on the island in 1961. What a nice surprise to quench our thirst with their local craft beverages after a hot day of touristy stuff.

While there are a handful of islands known for great snorkeling, few provide opportunities right from shore. Barbados features a variety of sea life and coral, including shipwrecks in Carlisle Bay. Snorkelers and divers also explore Folkstone Marine Park and Museum, where a coral reef has formed around the sunken Greek ship Stavronikita.

2. Cozumel

It’s a great bargain compared to many islands and there’s more shopping here, if you like that sort of thing.

For us, Cozumel’s main attributes are ocean and beaches that glimmer incredible beauty. We prefer to explore the sea with excursions on a catamaran sailboat. Sailing, watching the waves and ocean underneath, and sipping on rum punch makes this part of the Caribbean extra special. Visitors can choose from a variety of water adventures, including beaches loaded with cool toys, slides, inflatables and bouncy stuff for grandkids and adults.

3. Bonaire

This island in the Dutch Antilles is one of the three ABC islands – Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao – clustered together just north of Venezuela. Its currency is the U.S. dollar.

It may not be the best island choice for young families, unless you’re all divers, snorkelers and vacationers looking for peaceful respite. Very few beaches line Bonaire’s coast, but it’s surrounded by protected coral reefs and amazing underwater beauty. We chose to stay at Harbour Village because it’s located on one of the island’s few sandy coastal sections.

Bonaire features some attractions, such as the donkey sanctuary, Cadushy Distillery and national flamingo park. But we seldom explored the island because we were too busy playing in the ocean and over reefs.

4. St. Croix

We love the pristine waters and uncluttered coastline of this Virgin Island. It’s more laid-back than most Caribbean destinations. The Fort Christian Brew Pub serves local Hammerhead Pale Ale and Blackbeard’s Red Ale, so wet your whistle there.

From St. Croix, you can reach Buck Island Reef National Monument, a fantastic marine garden overseen by the U.S. National Park Service. We encountered a number of sea turtles and rays.

This island contains a lot of history, if you can rip yourself away from the beaches and reefs. Fort Frederick and Fort Christiansvaern offer intrigue for historians and buffs, but you’re pretty much on your own at these sites.

St. Lucia, Caribbean Islands

5. St. Lucia

We visited this island several times from cruise ships and we’re definitely going back for a week or two stay. The steep and winding terrain make it a little tougher to get around than other islands, but St. Lucia offers a great variety of activities, including horseback riding, mountain biking in the rain forest, hiking, waterfalls, ziplines, aerial trams, sulfur springs and botanical gardens.

Not surprisingly, we loved snorkeling over its nationally protected reefs, with a backdrop of the island’s twin volcanic spires – Petit Piton and Gros Piton. We traveled there via boat, but there are also opportunities to snorkel from shore at Anse Chastenet and Anse la Raye beaches.

My family enjoyed shopping here a little more than other islands. Me? You guessed it. I found a Piton Brewery hangout and scored a t-shirt and hat, along with a few great brews.

Curious about Grand Cayman? Get the scoop here.