Quick quiz: Is the Caribbean the place for idyllic beaches where your footprint might be the day’s first, small inns of character and charm, and intimate beach bars?
Or is the Caribbean home to beaches jammed with tourists and jet skis, big all-inclusive resorts short on personality, and cruise ships that tie up traffic?
The answer, of course, is that the Caribbean encompasses both scenes. It’s easy to find the latter. But those of us who dream of the quieter, undiscovered islands have to work a little harder.
For the most part these destinations aren’t reached by a nonstop flight. There might be a small plane, a ferry, or other logistical sidesteps involved. Heading off the beaten track requires a bit more work and maybe a willingness to go with the flow. But when we get to a true island hideaway, rest and relaxation are sure to follow.
Here are five one-of-a-kind options for Caribbean hideaways.
If small is beautiful, then Saba is ravishing. A precipitous green bonbon plunked into the sea, the five-square-mile island lies 28 miles off bustling St. Maarten. But they’re worlds apart. Saba (pronounced Say-ba) is cloaked in fairy-tale charisma: Sweet hamlets of gingerbread cottages are crisp white, sheltered by red or green roofs (always), and draped over the muscular shoulders of a slumbering volcano. A trifle of a road snakes from a toy seaport on one side of the island to a toy airport on the other. Hitchhikers are ubiquitous, and it’s bad form to pass them up.
The airstrip is the hair-raising point of introduction for most visitors. At less than a quarter-mile in length, it is perhaps the world’s shortest international runway, and bordered by wave-lapped cliffs on three sides. But this E-ticket entry quickly gives way to a soothing lifestyle of waving islanders, greenery that is orderly yet wild, and vistas to make one swoon.
The island has two primary activities. Hiking trails lace Saba’s emerald mountains. The 2,855-foot summit of Mt. Scenery is the objective of most visitors, including former Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who is said to have scampered up the 1,064 steps and arrived on top to proclaim: “This is the highest and smallest point in my kingdom!” Re-enact her conquest — heels optional — on the well-maintained trail, or hook up with James Johnson (011-599-416-2630), who does guided tours of the island’s other scenic tracks.
The other famed attraction is Saba’s underwater world, which offers divers a dramatic topography of soaring pinnacles and regular visits by big-finned creatures. This fast, exciting environment is not for beginners, but the island’s depths are a high point for many well-traveled divers. Three dive shops cater to visitors, and all offer packages through the local hotels.
What is lacking is a beach. Saba is sand-free. If that’s a deal-breaker, just move on. But for those who seek a calmer, gentler pace, Saba is intoxicating.
Logistical foreplay: St. Maarten is easily reached by daily flights, from which Winair operates several flights daily to Saba. The island is also served by high-speed ferry from St. Maarten several days a week (check the tourist board website for details). Car rental is possible, but due to the short distances, taxi fares don’t add up quickly.
Tucking in: Tucked into a steep hillside, 1,200 feet above sea level, Queen’s Gardens Resort (queensaba.com; 011-599-416-3494) is the island’s most upscale option, with 12 suites, some of them with Jacuzzi tubs facing the view; from $220.
Bedtime reading: sabatourism.com.
Jost Van Dyke,
British Virgin Islands
Just a couple miles east of the U.S. Virgin Islands, 60 or so British Virgin Islands struggle to keep up with the tourist board’s increasingly discordant tagline “nature’s little secrets.” Tortola, at 10 square miles the hub of the BVI chain, is threatened by a growing cruise ship presence — a port expansion in 2014 promises more and bigger ships. But the absence of a runway suitable for large jets helps keep the overnight visitors down, and as one heads away from Tortola the quiet is magnified.
Consider Jost Van Dyke, population: 222. Dolphins chase the ferry into Great Harbour, where a couple dozen simple structures line the beach on either side of the pier, including Foxy’s, the island’s preeminent hangout. There is no golf course, no casino, only a couple dozen cars. Instead, three-square-mile Jost Van Dyke reveals the Caribbean distilled down to its essentials. At the very least, on an island of bartenders, you can count on the Painkiller — the drink said to have been concocted here — to be flawlessly prepared.
Disembark, take off your shoes, and follow the sand track left out of the harbor, over the scrubby hill to a resplendent beach. By day, life at White Bay is as simple as it gets: Swim, sun, sleep, slurp on a Painkiller. Repeat. In truth, daytrippers from Tortola and visiting yachts can make Jost Van Dyke busy at midday. If you need an escape from this escape, ask for directions to the Bubbly Pool, a natural jacuzzi where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet.
Logistical foreplay: Since American Eagle’s pullout from the market, air access to Tortola is limited. Primary service is from San Juan and St. Thomas on Cape Air and Air Sunshine, but it’s often cheaper to fly to nearby St. Thomas and ferry to Tortola. From Tortola, several ferries daily make the 30-minute trip to Jost Van Dyke.
Tucking in: Six-room Sandcastle (soggydollar.com; 1-284-495-9888) is the island’s closest approximation of a hotel, offering simple accommodations on the beach. There’s not much here beyond kayaks, board games and the Soggy Dollar Bar, where the Painkiller was invented, but that’s the point; from $210. A collection of cottages and villas ranging from one to three bedrooms, White Bay Villas (jostvandyke.com; 800-778-8066) overlook the fabled beach. Each one has a full kitchen, and sweeping views abound; from $265.
Bedtime reading: bvitourism.com.
Samaná, Dominican Republic
How can the Caribbean’s most visited destination, the Dominican Republic, be on a list of undiscovered places? Second only to Cuba in sheer landmass, the D.R. has regions that remain off the beaten track, and the bucolic Samaná Peninsula north of Punta Cana represents an island beyond the island. Though little known to Americans, it’s worth discovering for exquisite beaches, the D.R.’s best diving, and the Caribbean’s best whale watching.
In fact, Samaná was once an island in itself. Through geologic uplift, lowlands now connect it to the mainland, but the peninsula somehow retains the feel of a separate destination. And although, yes, several all-inclusive resorts dominate Samaná’s two main settlements and a few cruise ships visit in winter, smaller boutique resorts still set the tone.
Las Terrenas is perhaps the most appealing town, in part due to the influx of sturdy French (and other European) ex-pats, who arrived in the 1980s and built small inns and seaside restaurants known as the Pueblo de los Pescadores. Today, Las Terrenas has charming, unostentatious sophistication, and offers better food than most of the D.R.
At the eastern tip of Samaná is Las Galeras, at the center of a broad bay blessed with a half-dozen gorgeous beaches. Packing major wow factor, Playa Rincón is the marquee star, a 2½-mile stretch of blinding white sand studded with coconut palms. Save for a few grilled fish shacks, Rincón is "unimproved" and blissfully undeveloped — for now. Reach it via rugged road through rural countryside, or easy water taxis from Las Galeras.
The whale-watching season is short — Atlantic humpbacks visit mid-January to mid-March for calving and mating. Victoria Marine (whalesamana.com; 1-809-538-2494) originated Samaná’s whale-watching tours and offers one or two excursions daily.
Logistical foreplay: Although a new Samaná airport offers flights, the only service is on JetBlue via JFK. Otherwise, rent a car; Samaná is a three-hour drive from both the Puerto Plata and Santa Domingo airports.
Tucking in: Las Terrenas has a couple dozen inexpensive or modestly priced lodging options. One I like is Hotel Playa Colibri (hotelplayacolibri.com; 1-809-240-6434) with 45 apartments with kitchens and a balcony or terrace facing tended gardens and a pool; from $109. Or head out to the end of the road, Las Galeras, to Villa Serena (villaserena.com; 1-809-538-0000), a quietly sophisticated 21-room inn offering privacy and comfort — no swim-up bar, no conga line, no motorized watersports, but plenty of rest and relaxation; from $110 including full breakfast.
Bedtime reading: godominicanrepublic.com.
Costa Rica’s east coast fronts the Caribbean. The isolated northern part of this coastline is accessible only by boat or puddle-jumper, while the port town of Limón dances to the beat of container ships and banana-laden trucks. But head south to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca (the official name, which no one calls it) and you’ll find patois patter and reggae rhythms encouraging a familiar barefoot ambience. I was reminded of the Negril, Jamaica, of the 1980s, happily trading sunsets for sunrises.
Residents represent a mix of Costa Ricans, indigenous communities, and Afro-Caribbeans, plus a blush of ex-pats in line for the next big thing. In Puerto Viejo dozens of restaurant options range from sodas — offering informal sit-down comida típica — to venues serving international fare. There’s uncommonly good Italian at La Pecora Nera (011-506-2750-0490): carpaccio of barracuda and house-made ravioli plumped with hearty beef bourguignon. Hotels are small, many of them under $100 a night.
Surfers ply the Salsa Brava break while wildlife lovers seek three-toed sloths in the trees that line gold-sand beaches. Meanwhile, outdoor pursuits such as white-water rafting on the thrilling Río Pacuare are two hours away, easily arranged through Exploradores Outdoors (exploradoresoutdoors.com; 1-646-205-0828).
Logistical foreplay: Puerto Viejo is a scenic four-hour drive from San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital and primary airport (there is no scheduled air service to the Caribbean coast). Renting a car is recommended, but be wary of inconsistent speed regulations and cops looking for handouts. Alternatively, Caribe Shuttle (caribeshuttle.com) provides inexpensive shared van service for $47.
Tucking in: Set back from the main road four miles south of town, Shawandha (shawandhalodge.com; 011-506-2750-0018) is a romantic 13-bungalow jungle retreat. You’ll awaken to a serenade of birdsong and howler monkeys; the beach is a three-minute walk. From $130. Nearby, Le Caméléon Boutique Hotel (lecameleonhotel.com; 011-506-2750-0501) offers 23 contemporary rooms awash in floor-to-ceiling white, except for a few colorful throw pillows, flowers and paintings. Air conditioning — a rarity in Puerto Viejo — is among the extras, along with a private beach club across the street. From $210 including continental breakfast.
Bedtime reading: visitcostarica.com.
OK, I know the Bahamas aren’t in the Caribbean. But the archipelago of 700-some islands boasts undiscovered gems I just can’t ignore. And, being a next-door neighbor to South Florida, many of them are accessible via a short flight.
My pick: Eleuthera, which is one of the Bahamas’ largest islands as well as one of the least visited. Eleuthera represents the Bahamas’ earliest permanent settlement and boasts talcum-soft beaches lined by graceful casuarina trees, where one can walk for hours and not see a soul.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Club Med put down roots, as did Jacques Cousteau and other notables who built island homes. But various real estate misadventures coupled with the occasional hurricane (notably Hurricane Floyd in 1999) have allowed Eleuthera to slumber quietly. Today the largest hotel has just a few dozen rooms, allowing the beaches — which stretch for undeveloped miles — to go unoccupied for days at a time. The gangly island is 112 miles long, yet as narrow as a few hundred feet in places.
To be sure, Eleuthera’s day will come: It’s just 200 miles southeast of Miami, its beaches too many and too comely to be ignored. But why wait? The island is one of the world’s top spots for bonefishing, and snorkeling is fine, especially at Current Cut, a swift drift past big groupers, gentle nurse sharks and spotted eagle rays. And the beaches represent some of the Bahamas’ finest, many of them deserted except for bobbing sea oats along the dunes. If the waves have kicked up on the Atlantic coast, head over to the “Caribbean” side, where bathtub-calm water usually prevails.
Logistical foreplay: Eleuthera has three airports, but Governor’s Harbour is the most central of them, a pinpoint that will maximize your daily explorations. BahamasAir has daily flights from Nassau to all three airports; United has several flights weekly from Fort Lauderdale to Governor’s Harbour; and American has several flights weekly from Miami to the North Eleuthera airport. It’s also possible to ferry over from Nassau (bahamasferries.com; 1-242-323-2166). Be sure to check bahamas.com for any current Nassau-Eleuthera flight credit promotions.
One Eleuthera obstacle is a lack of public transportation and a shortage of rental cars. Distances make taxis pricey, so work with your hotel for car rental, aiming for $60 per day.
Tucking in: Modestly priced accommodations are strewn throughout, but a favorite is Pineapple Fields (pineapplefields.com; 877-677-9539), a 32-unit condo development just opposite gorgeous French Leave Beach; from $170. I also like Hut Pointe Inn (hutpointe.com; 1-760-908-6700), originally built in 1944 as the home of the Bahamas’ first premier. It was completely renovated into a polished inn in 2010 and each of the seven units is a two-bedroom suite, with full kitchen and dining area; from $245.
Bedtime reading: bahamas.com.
San Diego-based writer-photographer David Swanson wrote the "Affordable Caribbean" column for 14 years at Caribbean Travel & Life magazine.