How to Venture off the Tourist Trail in the Caribbean

Step away from the cruise port and explore these fascinating islands more intimately.

The rugged coastline of Arikok National Park in Aruba

Discover caves, limestone rock formations, and natural swimming pools in Arikok National Park, which encompasses some 20 percent of Aruba.

Photo by Michelle Heimerman

The Caribbean is a coveted destination, luring in more than 28 million people in 2022, which means that hitting some of the hottest spots can mean navigating big crowds. But it doesn’t have to be that way—if you play it right. There are many ways to get off the tourist trail in the Caribbean and connect with local communities, explore more deeply, and have richer travel experiences. You could seek out an under-the-radar island, venture inland away from the beaches, or support locally owned businesses. And that’s just for starters. Here are a handful of ideas that will make your travels more memorable.

Explore under-the-radar islands

Consider skipping the Caribbean heavyweights in favor of a lesser-known Caribbean island. Tiny, volcanic Saba, for example, measures just five square miles and is home to fewer than 2,000 people. You’ll find some of the region’s best preserved diving spots (don’t miss the coral-encrusted Eye of the Needle), plus charming hotels like the Cottage Club, which has 10 gingerbread-style bungalows, frangipani-filled gardens, and sea views.

The living room of a suite at Secret Bay, with wood flooring and high ceiling, open to outdoor deck

Suites at Secret Bay on Dominica look right over the water.

Courtesy of Secret Bay

Jamaica-born travel influencer Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon (aka JetSetSarah) knows the Caribbean inside out and has two picks: the mountainous island of Dominica and also Bequia, which is part of the country of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

“Dominica is called the ‘Nature Island,’ and it really is not hype,” she says. “It is unspoiled, with mountains, hiking, great scuba diving, waterfalls—it’s not like any other island out there.” She recommends staying at Secret Bay, where the villa suites have views of the water. Bequia, meanwhile, “looks like the Caribbean from the 1960s James Bond movies, with one waterfront main street and women shopping with straw baskets”. Her hotel of choice: Bequia Beach Hotel, set on crescent-shaped Friendship Bay.

A flatboat on Benta River between verdant banks

Mud scrubs and rope swings await at Benta River Falls.

Photo by Peter “Pedro” Thomas

Seek alternatives to famous attractions

In Jamaica, people flock to Dunn’s River Falls to climb the waterfalls. Savvy travelers head instead to Benta River Falls, a well-kept secret nine miles from the town of Negril that’s been developed in an environmentally friendly way that preserves the vegetation. Here, you don’t have to wait in line to climb the falls or bathe in a natural whirlpool.

Another popular Caribbean attraction is Stingray City in the Cayman Islands, where visitors swim with the rays in shallow waters. However, the human interactions in this area have actually changed these creatures’ natural behavior. For a more ethical (and less touristed) option, try the Central Caribbean Marine Institute on Little Cayman. It offers diving-with-a-purpose trips to assist the research team with citizen science projects that are helping protect the oceans for future generations.

When people go to Turks and Caicos, meanwhile, everybody flocks to Providenciales, but this archipelago has so much more to offer. Try North and Middle Caicos. “They’re quiet, with pristine beaches and very few people,” says Greaves-Gabbadon. “You can go for a day trip, or spend the night at Pelican Beach Hotel on North Caicos or Dragon Cay Resort on Middle Caicos.”

On Barbados, most travelers stick to the white-sand Caribbean beaches along the Gold Coast. But Nicolas Alleyne, CEO of Blu Isles, a luxury boutique travel planner, recommends the wild shores of Bathsheba on the island’s Atlantic side. “It’s very rustic, rural, and unspoiled, with amazingly beautiful rock formations,” he says. “Have lunch at Zemi Café, located in the new community center. The food is phenomenal and they give back to the community.”

Closeup of yellow Jeep viewed from side (L) a few people using ladder on coast at Arikok National Park (R)

Arikok National Park’s rugged landscape is best explored by Jeep.

Photos by Michelle Heimerman

Go beyond the beach

The Caribbean is renowned for its beaches, but stepping away from the shore and heading inland reveals a different kind of beauty. Antigua is famed for its 365 beaches—one for each day of the year— but try trading the blue hues of the coast for the dense, dark greens of the rain forest at Wallings Nature Reserve, where you can hike along well-defined trails or soar over the treetops with Antigua Rainforest Zipline Tours.

Two Caribbean islands are home to caves adorned with ancient rock drawings. In the heart of the Dominican Republic lies Los Haitises National Park, which stretches for 618 square miles. Explora Ecotour takes travelers on boat tours through the park’s mangrove forests to see limestone karst formations and petroglyphs made by the indigenous Taino people. On Aruba, you can explore Arikok National Park in a Jeep with De Palm Tours Aruba and check out its decorated caves, plus dramatic land formations made from lava, quartz diorite, and limestone.

Podcaster, YouTuber, and travel coach Riselle Celestina of the Traveling Island Girl warns that there’s not much that hasn’t been discovered on French St. Martin, so she recommends going for a hike. “There are hiking trails that you can do all over the island because St. Martin is so hilly,” she says. “Head to Paradise Peak at the highest point of the island—the view is really spectacular.”

Interior courtyard at red, green, and yellow Fort Christian in St. Thomas

Fort Christian in St. Thomas, a U.S. National Landmark, was first constructed in the 1670s.

Courtesy of U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism

Book a tour with a local outfitter

Level up your Caribbean experience by exploring with plugged-in guides who know how to avoid the hordes.

On Anguilla, Shellecia Brooks-Johnson—writer, marketer, and owner of the lifestyle site My Anguilla Experience—recommends a new island-based tour company called Quest Experiences, founded by Clemvio Hodge, whose father started the magazine What We Do in Anguilla. “They offer experiences like salt picking, johnny cake making, rum tastings, and hikes along the coast,” says Brooks-Johnson. Influencer Gabrielle Querrard is an ancestral Virgin Islander who has gathered a following thanks to her millennial take on local history. To make the most of a visit to St. Thomas, she points travelers toward the St. Thomas Historical Trust. “They do walking tours of downtown Charlotte Amalie, which is the oldest town in the Virgin Islands,” she says. “They also do tours on Hassel Island, a neighboring island that has a really interesting World War II history—and even ghost sightings.”

Look for boutique lodgings

The Caribbean has its share of big, glitzy resorts, but a surefire strategy for keeping it real is to opt for small hotels that contribute to the unique character of each island. Case in point: Montpelier Plantation & Beach on Nevis, which has been family-owned for four generations. It’s built around a former 18th-century sugar plantation and has a restaurant set inside a 300-year-old windmill.

In San Juan, Puerto Rico, the 19-room Dreamcatcher is owned by Dreamers Welcome, an LGBTQIA-owned hospitality group cofounded by a Puerto Rican artist. Just a block from the beach, it has a stylishly eclectic mix of hammocks, antiques, stained-glass doors, and open-air showers. And it says it’s the only vegetarian hotel in San Juan.

One of Celestina’s favorite secret finds on Dutch St. Maarten is Pasture Piece, a B&B that dates to the 1800s and has one well-appointed room to rent, plus a small museum. “It comes with a long family history—the owner’s grandparents bought it from the land owners back in the days after slavery,” she says. “It’s something that hasn’t been done before.” To find smaller properties on St. Lucia, check out the Collection de Pepites, which highlights one-of-a-kind options, including local B&Bs, villas, and boutique properties with 35 rooms or less—places like Stonefield Villa Resort, which has 17 French colonial–style rooms and views of the Pitons.

Skip the resort buffet

At island-owned restaurants, you’ll not only eat well but also can contribute significantly to the local communities. On the southern end of Little Exuma Island in the Bahamas, you’ll find a trio of seaside businesses owned by members of the same family. Mary Doris Rolle—the matriarch—runs Mommy’s Bakery with her daughter Maisie, baking cherry pie, pineapple pie, and the bestseller, rum cake. Daughter Denise runs nearby Santanna’s, which serves fresh-caught lobster grilled to order. And at Club Arawak, daughter Cassandra makes the best conch fritters on the island.

In the British Virgin Islands, Jost Van Dyke is known for its barefoot beach bars, but Hendo’s Hideout takes it up a notch with elevated dishes like chorizo-stuffed chicken and sushi sometimes caught by owner Ehren Henderson himself (he’s an avid spearfisherman). The restaurant is set on 15 acres of pristine beach—a testament to the foresight of Henderson’s grandmother, who bought the land in the 1950s.

One of the best restaurants for home-cooked food on St. Lucia is the waterfront Coal Pot restaurant. “Owned by a local woman who is also an artist, it’s a charming location for lunch and dinner,” says Cybelle Brown, managing director of Stonefield Villa Resort. In the Cayman Islands, Chelsea Tennant—a food expert who runs the Island Epicurean blog—says it’s worth heading to the East End of Grand Cayman, where you’ll find Vivine’s Kitchen, run by a woman who cooks dishes like stewed turtle, stewed conch, and Cayman-style beef. “This is one of the best spots to visit for Caymanian cuisine, and it’s a casual spot attached to her home,” she says.

Kristin White stands in front of blackboard sign for Long Story Short

Long Story Short carries carefully curated books, skincare items, and a host of gift ideas.

Courtesy of Bermuda Tourism Authority

Explore locally owned shops

You’ll find more than just merchandise in Caribbean-owned shops: Each purchase can connect you to the culture and history of these vibrant islands. In Bermuda, the charm of shopping local is embodied by Long Story Short, an eco-chic boutique owned by blogger and tour company operator Kristin White. It’s set in 17th-century St. George’s, which White calls “a truly magical part of Bermuda where you can spend hours just wandering through the historic alleys.” Long Story Short sells books by women of color, planet-friendly jewelry, skincare products from Salt Spray Soap Co. (which has a workshop in the store), and even custom Hula-Hoops.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Gabrielle Querrard is an advocate for island craftsmanship. On St. Croix, she’s a fan of two distinctive jewelry stores: IB Designs (which creates pieces with symbols of the indigenous Tainos) and Crucian Gold (which incorporates shards of found pottery from Danish times called chaney). “I love businesses like this—the owners are Crucians, they employ Crucians, and everything has a story,” says Querrard.

Sister island St. John is gentrifying fast, but you can get a feel for traditional Virgin Islands culture at Bajo el Sol, a hybrid gallery, bookstore, café, and bar. “It highlights everything local,” says Querrard, “from Caribbean history books to artwork that retells the story of the Virgin Islands people—past, present, and future.”

Laura Begley Bloom is a travel expert and content strategist who contributes to a wide range of magazines and websites and appears regularly on television outlets ranging from the Weather Channel to CNN. Journalism is part of Laura’s heritage: Her great great grandfather was a Civil War correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.
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