While the Pacific may have Fiji and Tahiti, the Caribbean is, without a doubt, one of the top places in the western hemisphere for a tropical getaway. Nearly 30 million tourists visit annually. It’s accessible and inexpensive – and that’s a plus – but that means wall-to-wall people at beach hotels, resorts and beaches, overcrowded excursions, and overdevelopment that has stripped many places of the simple, laid back island charm that initially attracted tourists decades ago.
If you’re thinking about an escape to the tropics, but don’t want to fight the crowds for a beach chair or a place in the buffet line, here are a few lesser-known places that promise a more relaxed, secluded, and this-is-the-way-the-Caribbean-should-be vacation:
Bayahibe, Dominican Republic
Punta Cana has burgeoned with all-inclusive resorts, and the expected crowds have come. But just a few miles to the southwest is Bayahibe, a less developed area that retains the quiet charm of the Caribbean that has all but disappeared in busier places. It’s the portal to one of the jewels of the Caribbean: Parque Nacional del Este. This nature reserve features lots of wildlife, and you can hike to the interior (there are no roads) to see cave petroglyphs, cactus forests, and huge iguanas. The park includes three islands; while Saona has become a popular place for tourists, Catalina and Catalanita remain quiet and uncrowded.
This largest island of the Grenadines is hilly, green and speckled with the ruins of old sugar mills. It retains its feel as a small fishing village. In fact, traditional boat-building methods are still used, and the locals still speak a kind of French patois. Hillsborough, the capital, was founded in the 18th century, and is still a quaint town of only 1,000 people. There are a few places to stay, restaurants, and a dive shop. And the immaculate beaches and warm turquoise water are all yours.
Culebra, Puerto Rico
You might wonder how Puerto Rico can have any place free from crowds, but a few secluded gems still remain. Culebra is a small island to the east of Puerto Rico with a population of less than 3,000. There are no cruise ships, resorts, casinos, crowds, or traffic. Diving and snorkeling are spectacular, as visibility is up to 60 feet in the sparkling, crystal clear water. Visit crescent-shaped Flamenco Beach for the beautiful sand and aquamarine water, Tamarindo Beach for the fish, rays, and sea turtles, and Punta Melones Beach for breathtaking sunsets.
Cayman Brac, Cayman Islands
The Cayman Islands are comprised of three islands, and the two that get ignored in lieu of Grand Cayman are well worth a visit. Leave the crowds to fight it out on the big island and slip away to Cayman Brac. The rocky terrain is great for hiking, and there are sheer cliffs and caves for the more adventurous climbers and explorers. You might even spot a brilliant blue-and-green Cayman Brac parrot, which lives here and nowhere else on earth, as well as frigate birds, boobies, and falcons. Under the waves, you can leisurely explore an otherworldly array of multicolored sponges, fish, and huge eagle rays. Everything moves a lot slower here, so if you’re looking for something both laid back and adventurous, Cayman Brac might just be the place.