Golden skies and sparkling blue seas are a given everywhere in the Caribbean, but among the hundreds of isles, some are better suited to family fun, and others cater more perfectly to whims of personal indulgence, as Kipat Wilson reports.
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The Caribbean is one of the world's most beloved holiday destinations - but with over 7,000 islands spreading from the sun-kissed coast of Florida to the sultry shores of Guyana, it's hard to know where's best to dip your toes into that invitingly warm water. One way to start is to think what cultural flavour you might like. History has left the Caribbean Sea dappled with colonial legacies, and you can take your pick from islands that still feel decidedly French, Spanish, Dutch, British or American. Nature has added further delicious choices. Would you like soaring volcanic peaks? Mountains dense with flamboyant rainforest? Or classic pancake-flat sands bordered with turquoise waters rich with colourful fish? Some islands are renowned for sailing or diving, others offer rewarding hiking and birdwatching. Perhaps you are into cricket or horse racing, or just fancy some downtime with the family and a little calypso... Confused? Really, there's no need. At heart a Caribbean holiday is and always will be about enjoying sunshine, lilting music, the exuberance of nature and the warm, laid-back lifestyle that is a hallmark of the region. Here's our pick of six islands that all deliver the dream. Bear in mind that prices are dominated by the North American market, with high season on most islands running from mid-December to mid-April. This is when the Caribbean is at its liveliest, and the weather settled. Room rates are based on two sharing, travelling in January 2010.
For a holiday destination with memorable rhythm and style, look no further than Jamaica. Thanks to its deep love of music and partying, this charismatic island has been aptly described as the Ireland of the Caribbean. And it's big - 235km long with dramatic saw-tooth mountains rising to over 2,000m. This scenic beauty surprises many travellers, who know Jamaica only as the home of reggae and Rastafarianism. If you like the sound of dramatic drives and visits to grand plantation houses, perhaps mixed with some hiking, mountain biking or horseriding, there are plenty of adventures waiting.
The Jamaicans pioneered the concept of all-inclusive resorts and most visitors stay amid the tourist belts of Ocho Rios and Montego Bay. To get beyond the cliché, book an independent tour staying in the many small, friendly hotels around the island. Top spots to visit are the Blue Mountains (the source of a famous coffee), Port Antonio, a historic port in the north-east, and Negril, a beach resort with terrific sunsets. Some of the most stylish places to stay - such as Strawberry Hill in Irish Town and Jake's at Treasure Beach - belong to Island Outpost, which was founded by the Jamaican music producer Chris Blackwell who brought the world Bob Marley. Strawberry Hill, Irish Town, Jamaica (www.islandoutpost.com; 001 876 944 8400). Doubles from US$349 (Dh1,281) including breakfast. See www.visitjamaica.com.
St Barthélemy is the most chic island in the French West Indies. Once ruled by Sweden, its tiny capital, Gustavia, has a harbour filled with mega-yachts and far-flung branches of such luxury brands as Hermès, Dior, Cartier and Louis Vuitton. The turquoise bays fringing the island are full of fabulous people and the restaurants serve oysters flown in daily from Paris - even the binmen look like supermodels. Despite this playboy wealth, the atmosphere is far from snotty and it would be hard not to have a superb holiday here. Thanks to the island's hippy roots, and a steady stream of visitors from the creative worlds of art, fashion and media, the mood is not so much smart casual as effortlessly gorgeous.
Only 9km long, St Barths has a soaring, topsy-turvy landscape riddled with potholed roads where everyone tears around in jeeps, quad bikes and open-sided Smart Cars. There are several classically beautiful beaches, including Colombiers - which can only be reached by boat or a 20-minute walk. Being a part of France, the local currency is the euro and the standard of cuisine exceptionally high. There are some 80 restaurants and everything from turbot to raspberries is imported at great expense - if good food is crucial to your holiday, look no further. Most hotels are small and exclusive with high design values. A faultless example is the colourful, 68-room Le Guanahani, where five-star cottages set amid tropical gardens are complemented by two small beaches and a spacious Clarins spa. Le Guanahani, Grand Cul de Sac, St Barthélemy (www.leguanahani.com; 00 590 590 27 66 60). Doubles from $913 (Dh3,353) including breakfast. See www.saintbarth-tourisme.com.
What do you remember about your first holidays? Exactly. One sandy beach looks much like another to the nappy-wearing classes, and a family break should always be about making everything as easy as possible for all concerned. Antigua gets a winning score in this category, because it offers satisfaction for all ages. Many of its resorts have all-inclusive rates covering meals, drinks, non-motorised watersports and supervised activities for children aged four to 12. The warm waters are an excellent place for youngsters to discover the thrill of sailing, and hardly a day goes by when you don't see Antiguans playing cricket. When it's time to go exploring, there's the charmingly old-fashioned capital, St John's, and English Harbour, which is home to Nelson's Dockyard, a naval base founded in 1725.
Most of the island's hotels are close to the sea - if you like somewhere quiet and rather special, head for Carlisle Bay. Half an hour from the airport with 82 contemporary suites and a safe, near-private beach, this is a secluded, upmarket escape perfectly tuned into everything a family could want. Facilities include a crèche from six months, kids clubs, nine tennis courts, a top class Asian restaurant, a spa and a private cinema. Carlisle Bay, St Mary's, Antigua (www.carlisle-bay.com; 001 268 484 0000). Doubles from $970 (Dh3,653). See www.antigua-barbuda.org.
Most visitors to what's commonly known as the BVIs come for two things: world-class sailing and hideaway luxury hotels. Still nominally British, and with a landscape that feels raw and unspoilt, this gaggle of arid volcanic islands is blessed with warm seas, obliging winds and a history of expert tuition that makes it one of the best places in the Caribbean to discover the thrills of yachting. Charter companies offer vessels of all sizes - including crewed boats if you just want to sit back and enjoy cruising the blue seas with a fish lunch served beside the quiet cays and deserted beaches. And with plenty of wrecks and a stimulating variety of marine environments, the opportunities for snorkelling and diving here are superb.
Some of the smaller islands, such as Peter Island, are home to just one resort - perfect for romance and escaping the world - but if you like more options stay on one of the two principal islands, Tortola and Virgin Gorda. On the latter, Little Dix Bay comes with serene pools, a half-moon of sandy beach and a top-range spa. Water taxis take guests to nearby beaches for private picnics, and the accommodation ranges from garden cottages to four-bedroom hilltop villas with far-reaching views. Rosewood Little Dix Bay, Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands (www.littledixbay.com; 001 284 495 5555). Doubles from $688 (Dh2,527). See www.bvitourism.com.
Do you dream of a holiday wandering romantically through the Caribbean? Then head for the Grenadines, a necklace of 32 islands spread over 65km. Travelling between them - by ferry, small plane or private boat - is easy and you can stay in everything from boutique hotels to five-star resorts and designer villas. St Vincent stands commandingly at the north end of the chain, crowned by the mighty Soufrière volcano - well worth the climb. Its interior has a lush, piratical feel and most beaches have black sand. Where you roam next depends on your taste and budget. There's the celebrity island of Mustique, or Canouan has a Raffles hotel with a championship golf course. The uninhabited Tobago Cays are a favourite stop for sailors, while Palm Island and Petit St Vincent are home to single resorts devoted to castaway bliss. One island not to miss is Bequia, where you can get a taste of the old-style Caribbean without sacrificing any comfort. Here life is still polite and leisurely and the green hills are dotted with whitewashed villas that are perfect for lying in a hammock with a good book. Alternatively, the beachfront Friendship Bay Beach Resort offers airy rooms in a style of barefoot luxury. Friendship Bay Beach Resort, Friendship Bay, Bequia, St Vincent & The Grenadines (www.friendshipbay.vc; 001 784 458 3222). Doubles from $282 (Dh1,035) including breakfast. See www.discoversvg.com.
Shaped like a sun-hat, Nevis is a favourite getaway of the Caribbean cognoscenti. There are no gaudy all-inclusive resorts or visits from monster-sized cruise ships. The hotels are small and select, the climate exceptionally inviting, the atmosphere refined and safe. The island is also winningly beautiful, being dominated by the steep-flanked, 985m-high Nevis Peak - one of the world's magic mountains. Exploring in your hire car is laughably straightforward - there is just one main road and it takes only 45 minutes to go right around the island. There are many diverting sights, though, including abandoned sugar estates, poignant 19th-century churches and a seaside horse racing track. Day trips can be made by ferry to the sister island of St Kitts, and in the summer guides will take you to see turtles nesting on the beach. For a hotel with charm and pedigree, check into the hillside Montpelier Plantation Inn. A favourite escape of Diana, Princess of Wales, its 18 rooms and suites come in a restful plantation style, and are backed up with mature gardens, a new spa and a private beach with complimentary transfers.