Can there be such things as "secret islands" of the Caribbean? Sure, word is out on much of the Caribbean Isles, but there are still a few corners of the salty sea where the mood is laid-back and the culture authentic -- places where the Robinson Crusoe dream is alive and well.
Anegada, British Virgin Islands
The long-forgotten British Virgin Island of Anegada is a 75-minute ferry ride from the capital Tortola, but it feels a world away. The 15-square-mile outpost is the only inhabited Virgin Island formed by coral and limestone (rather than a volcano). Yet, to call it inhabited is a bit of a stretch. Just 200 people live on Anegada, and almost all reside in the main town, The Settlement. Outside The Settlement, Anegada's famed white sand beaches stretch indefinitely. Beyond the shore, the Horseshoe Reef extends for some 18 miles, making it the largest barrier coral reef in the Caribbean and the fourth-largest in the world.
Where to Stay: Anegada Reef Hotel (Rates start at $135 per night)
Îles des Saintes (Islands of the Saints), French Antilles
The Îles des Saintes is a dependency of Guadeloupe, which in turn is an overseas department and Region of France. Confused? Don't be. All you need to know is that this splendid archipelago boasts superb beaches, exceptional snorkeling, and a fascinating history to boot. Too small for sugar plantations and the attendant slavery, this patchwork of volcanic dots is home to the blue-eyed descendants of impoverished Breton colonists -- and the history of Les Saintes is as rich as its cuisine.
Where to Stay: Auberge Les Petits Saints, Terre de Haut (Rates start at $140 per night)
Vieques, Puerto Rico
Vieques has come a long way from its days as a U.S. Navy testing ground for bombs and missiles. Protesters forced the Navy off the island nine years ago and it remains one of the most undeveloped spots in the region. With the majority of the coral-rimmed island now under control of the U.S. National Fish and Wildlife Service and "ecotourism" the name of the game, Vieques is, perhaps, the best place find unobstructed tanning turf on American soil. It's also the best place on the planet for an afterhours swim with bioluminescence at the world-famous Mosquito Bay.
Where to Stay: Hacienda Tamarindo (Rates start at $135 per night)
Providencia Island, Colombia
Don't let the word Colombia confuse you. This remote Caribbean outpost, part of the Archipelago of San Andres, is halfway between Costa Rica and Jamaica. Providencia is the jewel of the UNESCO-protected Seaflower Biosphere Reserve and contains some of the world's greatest marine biodiversity that's ripe for exploration. What tourist industry exists on this mountainous dollop of land can be found in the hamlet of Aguadulce on the west coast, about a 15-minute ride from the small airport. There, you'll find a dozen or so small cottages and hotels strung along an enticing beach.
Where to Stay: Hotel Deep Blue (Rates start at $250 per night)
Buck Island, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands
When an island is closed from sunset to sunrise "to protect nesting sea turtles," that's generally a good sign that it takes conservation seriously. This 176-acre island that's 1.5 miles off the coast of St. Croix is indeed blanketed in a thick layer of protection by the U.S. National Park Service and, consequently, boasts one of the finest marine gardens in the entire Caribbean. A snorkeler's heaven, the thick barrier reef of endangered elkhorn coral has extraordinary formations, deep grottoes, abundant reef fishes, and waving sea fans ... not to mention a family of rare hawksbill turtles that call this uninhabited island home.
Where to Stay: Hotel on the Cay in Christiansted, St. Croix (Rates start at $105 per night). Book a trip to Buck Island from any hotel or tour operator in Christiansted.
Bocas del Toro, Panama
There may be no more "undiscovered" islands in the Caribbean, but Panama's Bocas del Toro group comes close. The chain of 10 islands has been a favorite for Panamanian tourists for a long time but remains a relatively unknown destination to foreigners, despite the islands' close proximity to tourist-heavy Costa Rica. Expect low-impact, low-key accommodations, undeveloped beaches, and uninterrupted tranquility.
Where to Stay: Eclypse De Mar, Isla Bastimentos (Rates start at $275 per night, including breakfast)
Saba, Dutch Caribbean
Travel + Leisure may have named Saba the Top Island in the Caribbean in 2010, but it remains relatively unknown in most circles with just 25,000 visitors each year. Dubbed the "Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean," the first thing visitors notice as they land at the small airport is the towering volcano Mount Scenery, which claims the highest point within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Equally dramatic are the views below the water, which make Saba a perennial favorite on divers' bucket lists.
Where to Stay: Shearwater Resort (Rates start at $175 per night)
Isla de la Juventud (Isle of Youth), Cuba
Both "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson and "Peter Pan" by James Matthew Barrie are rooted, in part, on accounts of Isla de la Juventud and its native and pirate inhabitants. A place for escape artists and adventure types alike, the storied isle has ample opportunities for getting way off the beaten track. Its southern section is a playground of largely undiscovered wilderness while the southwestern part near Punta Frances is known for its world-class scuba diving. Look hard enough and you might just find a hidden treasure.
Where to Stay: Hotel El Colony in Siguanea Bay (Rates start at $40 per night)
Its two nicknames, "The Sleeping Giant" and "The Big Yard," hint at what to expect on this Bahamian paradise. Andros is, by far, the largest of the 26 inhabited islands in the Bahamas and its interior remains a pristine oasis of subtropical forest that's home to roughly 50 species of orchid. This unspoiled destination primarily attracts a mix of scuba enthusiasts eager to dive the expansive "Tongue of the Ocean" and cavernous Blue Holes and bonefishermen, looking for relaxation off the beaten path.
Where to Stay: Tiamo (All-inclusive rates start at $795 per night)
On most Caribbean islands, the focus is on the exterior: You enter and exit at the historic port cities and head to the beaches to sunbathe, swim, snorkel, and laze. The beauty of Dominica, however, lies not on its coasts, but in its dense, tropical interior. It's rumored that when Christopher Columbus returned from his second voyage to the New World, he was lost for words when the Queen asked him to describe this volcano-studded "Nature Island." Instead, he crumpled up a piece of paper, tossed it on the table and said: "That is Dominica." Some 500 years later, not much has changed.
Where to Stay: Rainforest Shangri-La, Wotten Waven (Rates start at $95 per night)
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