If you’ve never been to the Caribbean before, the choice of destinations can be intimidating. So which is the best Caribbean island for first-timers?
The truth is, there is no wrong choice. On any island, you’ll find great beaches, blue waters, and a tropical climate. The major variable is the size of the island, and hence the size of the towns.
What remains is a wealth of beautiful places to discover, full of natural beauty, and where the heat of the sun is matched only by the warmth of the welcome.
The island of Barbados offers a perfect combination of delights for first-time visitors to the Caribbean.
From the quaint English-influenced capital of Bridgetown to its beautiful beaches, and tasty Bajan cuisine, it’s a comfortable mix of familiar and unusual.
Start at Carlisle Beach on the southwest coast, where you’ll find a boardwalk lined with restaurants, bars, and shops. The white sand and turquoise waters are a paradise for swimming, sunbathing, and water sports, making this one of the best beaches in Barbados.
At Gun Hill Signal Station, you can take in views of the whole island, and decide what to see next. This 19th-century outpost will also introduce you to the colonial history of the island.
There’s more scenic delight at St. John’s Church, standing on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. Its beautiful architecture could have been designed for a film set.
Don’t miss Harrison’s Cave, where over a mile of rock formations, stalactites, and stalagmites can be explored on an underground tram ride. Waterfalls and streams, and the awesome Great Hall are highlights.
Charlotte Amalie, the capital city of the U.S. Virgin Islands, makes a great base for exploring St. Thomas. Its historic architecture is a picturesque backdrop for tax-free shopping.
Fort Christian is a 17th-century Danish fort, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and now a museum. It tells the history of the indigenous people, the slave trade, and the growth of Charlotte Amalie.
Of course, for any first-time visitor, the beach is more of an essential. Magens Bay is one of the best beaches in St. Thomas, perfect for swimming or snorkeling.
If you have more time, head for Smith Bay Beach Park and Eco Reserve. This east-side gem has beautiful coral reefs and calm water, making it a real delight.
Even more popular with snorkelers is Buck Island, off St. Croix, where an underwater trail leads you through shoals of fish, with possible sightings of sea turtles. The boat trip to this tiny island is part of the thrill.
Away from the beach, visit Mountain Top, the highest point on the island. You can take in views of the Caribbean while sampling the “World’s Best Banana Daiquiri”.
You need to be careful making Grand Cayman your first visit to the Caribbean. It sets really high standards that any other island you visit afterward will struggle to surpass.
The first time you set eyes on Seven Mile Beach, you might blink in amazement. It’s regularly voted the best beach in the world, never mind the Caribbean.
Get even closer to paradise by diving on one of Great Cayman’s renowned coral reefs. Then explore the sunken wreck of the USS Kittiwake, a former submarine rescue vessel.
Experience snorkeling in Grand Cayman at Stingray City, where you can have a gentle encounter with Southern stingrays. It’s the thrill, and memory, of a lifetime to interact with these fascinating creatures.
Grand Cayman is also a paradise for food lovers, with a rich culinary scene. Local seafood is obviously a speciality but the range of international and local dishes may surprise you.
If none of that impresses, well, why not go to Hell? This weird outcrop of black rock looks otherworldly, to say the least, and makes for a great address to send a postcard home.
If your preconceived idea of the Caribbean is a small island, with nothing to do but lie on the beach, St. Lucia will surprise you. This lovely island has so much more.
One of the prettiest islands in the Caribbean, its landmark twin Piton peaks stand amid rich greenery, offering great hiking, zip-lining or off-roading. Then find your way to Sulphur Springs, the “world’s only drive-in volcano”.
Soak in a warm mineral-rich mud bath at the springs to emerge rejuvenated. It’s a great relief for your skin if you do spend too much time lying in the sun.
Back at the coast, you can swim, snorkel or dive in a marine reserve. Take a boat tour to explore hidden spots along the coastline, look for dolphins, or just enjoy the sunsets.
Dance the evenings away to the sound of soca music, fuelled by the flavors of traditional cuisine. As well as good restaurants, towns such as Soufriere are rich in colorful architecture and interesting shopping.
When you do find time to relax, you’ll discover St. Lucia’s beaches such as the secluded Anse Chastanet Beach, and Reduit Beach. At Pigeon Island, you can discover a historic fort as well as swim in clear blue waters.
Being a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is the gentlest of introductions to the Caribbean for first-time visitors. The currency and the American-influenced culture make it very accessible.
However, you know you’re in the Caribbean from the wonderful beaches, tropical mountains, and lifestyle. The Spanish language dominates (although English is widely used), and salsa music fills the air.
Explore Old San Juan to gain a feel for Puerto Rico’s rich history and present charm. The colorful buildings, impressive forts, and warmth of the community create a unique atmosphere.
Plunge into the cuisine that makes Puerto Rico one of the best Caribbean islands for food. Of course, you may already be a fan of delights such as mashed plantains, or rice with pigeon peas.
Work off those calories in El Yunque National Forest, home to one of the best hikes in Puerto Rico. Snorkeling, paddle boarding, and zip-lining are other popular activities.
Surfing fans will also find good waves near San Juan on Playa El Escambrón. Further afield, some of the best breaks in the Caribbean are at Rincon, in world-famous spots such as Domes Beach.
It’s hard to describe Dominica—“The Nature Island”—without using the word “lush”. It’s the perfect word for its rich green center, best seen in Morne Trois Pitons National Park, and at Trafalgar Falls.
Morne Trois Pitons is a 400-ft-high volcano, rising from a forested wonderland of lakes, creeks, and waterfalls. Hot springs and bubbling mud ponds add to the steamy atmosphere.
If your vision of the Caribbean includes humid jungle full of tropical birds and flora, Dominica will not disappoint. Underwater, there is just as much to see in places such as Champagne Reef.
It’s no surprise that the island has become a destination for eco-tourism. Some of the best things to do in Dominica include hiking, canyoning, snorkeling and kayaking.
You can have a gentler, more informative experience at the Botanical Gardens in the city of Roseau. It’s home to many indigenous and imported species, as well as the Sisserou Parrot, the island’s national bird.
Lovely beaches, blue seas, lush vegetation, friendly people… Whatever dreams you may have about the Caribbean, Grenada fulfills them all.
The white sand and clear waters of Grand Anse Beach have graced countless travel magazines. With one and a half miles of beach, you can find a quiet spot to take it all in.
There are plenty of other beaches in Grenada apart from this headliner. You’ll also find waterfalls, hikes, and sights such as the Palm Tree Gardens Botanical Garden in the tropical interior.
However, many visitors stay on the coast, where you can swim, snorkel or dive on coral reefs. Or just lounge in the sun, sampling tropical drinks and fresh seafood.
The capital, St. George’s, is one of the loveliest towns in the Caribbean. Shop for some of the spices that give Grenada its nickname of “Spice Island”.
You can learn more about that on a plantation tour, surrounded by the smells of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and other heady spices. Then try the rich mix in Grenada’s dishes, reflecting a heritage of native, African, French, and many other cultures.
While small, Aruba has a concentration of all that makes the Caribbean so appealing. As such, it’s one of the best islands for first-time visitors to the region.
One of its strengths is the diverse background of its people, making them welcoming to everyone. Their ancestry goes back to Caquetio Indian, African, and European roots, but also includes China, South America, and many other places.
You can see this diversity in places such as Eagle Beach or Palm Beach, both lively places for restaurants and bars. The bright sands and turquoise waters of these popular Aruban beaches are filled with sunbathers and swimmers.
Another lively beach scene is found at De Palm Island. This private island offers everything from water slides to zip-lining.
Some of those first settlers came for the island’s gold mining. Find out more at Bushiribana Gold Mill, and explore the picturesque landscape that Aruba is known for.
Photographers will love the Casibari Rock Formation, a set of huge boulders. Climb up for panoramic views of the island, especially good at sunset.
Antigua is one of the most visitor-friendly Caribbean islands. It’s easy to find your way around, and 366 beaches mean you are never far from the main attraction.
Favorites include Dickenson Bay, Jolly Beach, and Half Moon Bay. Each has its own charms, but all have the classic blue water, and lots of water activities.
Antigua is also one of the best islands for sailing in the Caribbean. It’s known for the annual Antigua Sailing Week, but any visitor can enjoy a sailing excursion.
Historic attractions include Nelson’s Dockyard, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This restored 18th-century British naval base brings the island’s history to life.
At Historic Redcliffe Quay, the buildings of the past are filled with the shopping of the present. You’ll find boutiques, cafés, and art galleries as you stroll around this charming part of Antigua’s capital.
One popular souvenir is Caribbean rum, which you can taste in the Backyard Rum Shack. Listen to live music while you sip rum cocktails.
See more of the island on Fig Tree Drive, a scenic route through countryside, and rainforest. A good destination is the Pillars of Hercules, a spot for sightseeing and cliff-diving on the southern coast.
Martinique’s combination of natural beauty and French style, makes it one of the very best choices for first-time visitors to the Caribbean.
The island’s wealth was founded on its sugar cane plantations, several of which are now open for visitors. At Habitation Latouche and Habitation Clément, you can find out about the tragic colonial history, and the lifestyle enjoyed by former owners.
Habitation Clément still produces rum, and you can follow the distillery process before tasting the final product. The art collection is also well worth the visit.
The fertile soil that brought the sugar industry still enriches Balata Garden, a beautiful botanical garden near Fort-de-France. Its vast collection of tropical plants includes exotic palms and wonderful orchids.
At Mt. Pelee, one of the most beautiful mountains in the world, take in breathtaking views, and learn about its cataclysmic 1902 eruption. Saint-Pierre, once known as the “Paris of the Caribbean” , was devastated and its ruins make for a haunting visit.
Don’t forget to leave time to hike amid the island’s beautiful interior, or enjoy its lovely beaches. And the French influence naturally means good food is always within easy reach.
Has this suggestion of the best Caribbean island for first timers inspired you to visit? Then browse our Caribbean cruise itineraries to find the perfect tropical vacation for you and your loved ones.