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Bahamas

BahamasAlthough technically not on the Caribbean Sea, the Bahamas’ blue-green waters and pink sandy beaches will convince you otherwise. More than 2,400 islands and 700 cays beg for exploring. Nassau and Paradise Island attract the tourist throngs, so for comparative isolation, visit one of the 10 Out Islands, a chain of islets with beautiful beaches and boutique hotels but no cruise ships or all-night discos.

Stay: Once the private estate of an A&P heir, The One & Only Ocean Club boasts an A+ guest list (Oprah, Sharon Stone), three restaurants and a golf course with spectacular views of the Atlantic. Lush gardens are modeled after those at Versailles. Rooms from $825. 888-865-6829, http://www.oceanclub.oneandonlyresorts. com. There’s also The Cove, the more grown-up option located within the sprawling Atlantis complex. It’s got a hot pool scene and lies far enough removed from the screaming kids at Atlantis’ water park. Rooms from $350. 242-333-9494, awww.tlantis.com.

Play: Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park became the first established land-sea preserve in the world when its 176 square miles were protected in 1959. Georgetown-based Dive Exuma (dive-exuma.com) runs daily boat dives to various sites in the park, ranging from shallow reefs to blue holes. On Grand Bahama Island, Calabash Eco Adventures (calabashecoadventures.com) has everything from kayaking adventures to birding and biking tours.

Easiest route:  AirTran offers nonstop flights (two hours 45 minutes) to Nassau/Paradise Island from $220. Vision Airlines offers nonstop service to Grand Bahama Island/Freeport departing Thursdays and returning Sundays, from $160. Tourism info: http://www.bahamas.com

Jamaica

JamaicaJamaica isn’t just reggae music, jerk chicken and Red Stripe beer. (But those are certainly good reasons to visit.) The island, located smack in the center of the Caribbean Sea, also offers great snorkeling, some of the world’s best coffee and many of the region’s most popular resorts.

Stay: Jamaica literally invented the “all-inclusive” resort, but we prefer some of the more boutique offerings, such as Strawberry Hill, set on an old coffee plantation in the Blue Mountains. It features 10 acres of terraced gardens, 12 private cottages and “new Jamaican” cuisine. Rooms from $235. 800-OUTPOST, islandoutpost.com/strawberry_hill. For an intimate all-inclusive, visit The Caves in Negril, which is perched on honeycomb-like cliffs overlooking the sea and features a well-regarded spa and rum bar set in a grotto. Rooms from $445. 876-957-0270, http://www.islandoutpost.com/the_caves.

Play: Coffee lovers should sign up for a variety of Blue Mountain coffee tours through their hotel. (Be sure to stock up; coffee prices are far lower at the source.) Adventure lovers can check out Chukka Caribbean Adventures, which hosts tours ranging from horseback riding through the Caribbean Sea to zipline tours of the rain forest. chukkacaribbean.com. And arts aficionados will want to visit Ocho Rios’ Harmony Hall, a fantastic collection of work by more than 100 artists set in a beautifully restored 19th-century Methodist manse. http://www.harmonyhall.com

Easiest route: AirTran offers direct flights (three hours and 30 minutes) to Montego Bay starting at $280 round trip. Tourism info: http://www.Jamaica.com

Puerto Rico

Puerto RicoAmerica’s “51st state” boasts everything from culture and history in Old San Juan to high-stakes casinos. Don’t overlook its beautiful— and little-touristed tropical rain forest interior as well as several off islands a quick flight or ferry ride away.

Stay: Parts of the Hotel El Convento date to 1646 and the building served as a Carmelite convent for 250 years. These days its beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture is easily recognizable in the heart of Old San Juan. Rooms from $260. 787-723-9020, http://www.elconvento.com. You could get closer to the beach—or stay right on it— at the Blue Boy Inn, one of top B&Bs in Rincon. Rooms from $150. 787-823-2593, http://www.blueboyinn.com

Play: The islands of Vieques and Culebra, located several miles off Puerto Rico’s eastern coast, promise secluded beaches, mom-and-pop restaurants and an easygoing vibe. No discos or casinos here. On Vieques, don’t miss the chance to swim with glowing micro-organisms in Puerto Mosquito, the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay. vwww.iequestravelguide.com, http://www.islaculebra.com

Easiest route: AirTran offers direct flights (four hours) to San Juan from $280 round trip. Tourism info: http://www.gotopuerto-rico.com

Dominican Republic

Dominican RepublicThe DR has it all: beaches, mountains, forests and a vibrant capital city. In Santo Domingo, you can stroll cobblestone streets and admire Colonial architecture by day and boogie to live merengue and salsa music by night. Or head out of town to ride the rapids on the Caribbean’s only raftable river, mountain bike or learn to kite board. Bonus for winter visitors: professional baseball and humpback whales.

Stay: If you’re ISO whales— or simply beautiful, rugged scenery away from the fray— Balcones de Atlantico, which opened last year near the village of Las Terrenas on the Samana Peninsula, features 86 two- and three-bedroom villas, all with full kitchens and most with private plunge pools. Rates from $599 per night. 866-617- 7625,  balcones.rockresorts. com. In Punta Cana, stay in one of the luxurious Oscar de la Renta-decorated villas at the Tortuga Bay Hotel, where guests are given golf carts to zip around the property, which features an ecological park and championship golf course. Prices start about $675 per night. 888-442-2262, http://www.puntacana.com/accommodations/ tortuga-bay/rooms. 

Play: Want to hike? Mountain bike? Learn to canyon (yes, it’s a verb, too)? Do one or do them all through adventure company Iguana Mama. 809-571-0908, http://www.iguanamama.com. Or, call yourself Ishmael on a three-hour whale-watching tour.  ($65, http://www.oasisdivers.com)

Easiest route: Several airlines offer flights daily between BWI and the airports in Santo Domingo and Puerta Plata, from about $400 round trip. Several domestic airlines fly into the Samana Peninsula. Tourism info: http://www.godominican-republic.com

Aruba

ArubaIf you want sun, sand and blue seas, the northwest coast of Aruba offers some of the best relaxing, snorkeling and windsurfing in the Caribbean. Those seeking adventure—and willing to go off-road for it—will discover a cactus-filled national park (hello, Arizona!), a natural pool nestled among volcanic rocks and underwater treasures that include seven shipwrecks. Don’t miss Aruba’s Carnival, a two-month party that lasts throughout February, with parades, music and glitter galore.

Stay: Enjoy one of the top-rated beaches in the world at Bucuti and Tara Beach Resorts, an adults-only, 104-room boutique hotel on a quiet stretch of Eagle Beach. Rates start at $448 including full breakfast.  888-4-BUCUTI,  http://www.bucuti.com. For more action, head to Palm Beach, where the Aruba Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino offers the Tradewinds Club, a luxury hotel within a hotel. Rates start at $700 per night, including breakfast. 800-223-6388, http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel /auaar/. For a laid-back resort in the interior of the island, try Club Arias B&B. Villa-style suites start at $200 per night and include cooked-to-order breakfast and a charming pool. 917-508-7210,  http://www.clubarias.com.

Play: Want to go 130 feet underwater without putting on all that Scuba gear— or even getting wet? Reserve a spot on an Atlantis Submarines Expedition Tour. 800-609-7374,  http://www.depalmtours.com. Or explore land on a four-wheeled ATV via Rhino Tours, 297- 561-1919 http://www.clubarias.com/rhinotour.htm. Stay out of the sun at the island’s casinos, where the popular game of Caribbean Stud Poker was invented.

Easiest route: AirTran offers nonstop flights (four hours and 50 minutes) to Aruba, starting at $380 round trip. Tourism info: http://www.aruba.com

Bermuda

BermudaGuys gotta have the legs to sport those ubiquitous shorts, but Bermuda reveals itself in other ways, too: a fantastic coral reef surrounds the island, making for great dives among ample shipwrecks. There are also world-class golf courses, some of the best restaurants in the Caribbean and that lovely British Colonial architecture in places like Town of St. George, a World Heritage Site. As Mark Twain famously pronounced: “You go to heaven if you want. I’d rather stay here in Bermuda.” 

Stay: Tucker’s Point in Hamilton oozes British Colonial charm throughout its 88 rooms, whitewashed manor house, 18-hole golf course, luxe spa and The Point restaurant, led by Michelin-acclaimed chef Serge Bottelli. Rooms from $375. 888-ROSEWOOD, http://www.rosewoodtuckerspoint.com. Family-friendly The Reefs Hotel has been entertaining guests for more than 60 years with its oceanfront setting— and ocean views from every room. Rooms from $299. 800-742-2008, http://www.thereefs.com

Play: The PGA Grand Slam of Golf will be played (again) at Port Royal Golf Course in 2012, so it should be challenging enough for you. Architect Robert Trent Jones Sr. described it as his finest design outside the United States and it underwent a major revamp in 2009. portroyalgolf.bm. To play underwater, sign up for a two-hour snorkel tour with Snorkel Bermuda (http://www.snorkelbermuda.com). Local guide Sonny Sullivan ferries guests to the sites of several shipwrecks, all teeming with aquatic life.

Easiest route: AirTran offers direct flights (two hours and 20 minutes) from $340 round trip. Tourism info: http://www.goto-bermuda.com

 

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