The chief concept to remember for any trip to the Caribbean is 'island time', which can be roughly defined as – if something can take longer than it needs to, it will do, or if the timing of something can be uncertain, it will be.
A couple of examples may illustrate the point.
On arrival one evening at an island a couple of years ago, the queue for immigration snaked out of the airport arrivals building and did not move at all for half an hour. The reason? The plane landed just as the immigration officers were starting their meal break.
On another occasion, flying between islands not only was the island hopper running very late but also there was no information on when the plane might arrive – or indeed, if it was going to arrive.
- keep island hopping to the minimum to avoid timing or bureaucracy stress, unless you have your own transport.
always allow lots of time for anything that is vaguely bureaucratic.
be very patient in any kind of dealings with local people, urgency is not in their DNA.
never plan tight connections with international flights if you’re relying on local transport to get you to your departure point.
In the last few years, Britain and USA have both ceded island control to
local authorities as well as repatriating hardened criminals to their Caribbean islands from US and UK cities. In addition anecdotal evidence suggests that attacks on more affluent people and yachts increased dramatically since filming of the Pirates of the Caribbean films there!
Violent crime and corruption have increased in
many of their colonies and ex-colonies. French colonies seemed more controlled until recently but as we go into 2013 we are hearing unpleasant reports from flak-jacketed gendarmes of black-on-white violence on French islands such as St Martin and Guadeloupe.
Inside the grounds of all-inclusive resorts there is no problem
and holidaymakers will imagine they are close to heaven, but out in
the real world trouble lurks and the usual sensible safety measures should be taken: no bling in public; keep vauables in a safe; don't wander around ghettoes; don't stroll beaches after dark; hire hard top rental cars so you can keep stuff secure in the boot.
Sailing folk and regular tourists should be careful
and be aware that outsiders may be treated with disdain and crimes
against them may go unpunished.
And in Cuba don't pick up strangers in your rental car!
No Worries so far:
Dutch islands that still have strict law enforcement experience petty theft (busted car window anyone?) but nothing too grave.
e.g. Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao.
Related to this 'relaxed' culture, which pretty much applies across the Caribbean, is the often haphazard and undependable state of the communications infrastructure. At its most basic level this can affect where you stay and how you get around, particularly at peak periods in the year. Again an example may help...
A branch of an international car rental agency on one island, where a reservation had been made and confirmed through the head office, advised that all their vehicles had already been taken so there was nothing available; eventually a jeep was found but it was charged twice on the credit card at the end of the stay.
Similarly, hotel rooms can go mysteriously missing, especially the better ones. Whilst such events are unusual, and less likely with more responsible organisations, you would be well advised to both confirm reservations and take a copy of the confirmation with you.
Another common characteristic of the region is cost and choice. In most cases the islands produce little nowadays and usually have to import almost everything that is consumed including energy, food, water, machinery, clothing and furniture. Often these imports are in small parcels, pushing up the cost, so things are pricey compared to the States or Europe. The more exotic the item, the higher the price will be proportionately.
For instance, beer is much better value than wine (which, anyway, may have been poorly stored and spoilt as a result) though rum may give you more bang for your buck (and a bigger headache).
Food offerings in the Caribbean can be disappointing these days not only in the sameness of the menus (how many conch fritters do you really want to eat ?) but also in their half hearted execution.
Regrettably 'more means worse' and the impact of hordes of tourists over the years, many on day trips from cruise ships, has certainly had an insidious impact on such restaurants and on the quality of their food. Mass production with minimal preparation and personal attention is becoming the menu du jour. Locations with a setting and a view are sliding inexorably towards the bottom end of the scale in terms of gastronomic excellence as the masses grab the tables for the sightlines and perhaps speed, not the quality of cuisine.
One of the best foodie destinations is curiously also one of the most heavily visited by cruise ships - Grand Cayman. The reason is simple. Most of the island residents are extremely affluent, internationally travelled and possess mature, knowing palates. They also know what they want - quality, care, imagination - and will travel regularly to find the right grub. They are the prime targets of the good restaurants on the Caymans, not cruisers.
On the islands that are primary tourist destinations there tends to be a 'Caribbean cuisine' (the ubiquitous conch fritters), sometimes with a local twist. A better bet (both for your pocket and for your taste buds) where you can find it is a plate of local ingredients, simply cooked on the street. That may be all-you-can-eat lobster boiled in a disused oil barrel in the British Virgin Islands, fresh fish from a stall in the Netherlands Antilles or Jamaican jerk chicken.
And although they may not actually be grown locally, indigenous Caribbean vegetables are delicious, very different and surprisingly widely available in the local markets – well worth trying.
There is some great snorkelling and diving with recognised dive sites in 22 of the territories, even if species variety is more limited than in the Red Sea or the Pacific. The Caribbean waters host large migratory schools of fish and turtles as well as many coral reef formations, while the Puerto Rico trench on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea is the deepest point of the Atlantic.
Wrecks in shallower waters can be magnificent.
Generally accepted as being best dive locations in the Caribbean are, Bonaire, Cayman Islands, Cozumel island (Mexico); Turks and Caicos; Tobago; Belize .
Top 5 Caribbean dive sites.
Sailing in both large and small boats is also popular, given the trade winds, with navigation relatively straightforward especially in areas like the British Virgin Islands where line of site is sufficient in daytime.
Fleets of small rented yachts travelling in a loose convoy with a guide vessel offer a magnificently easy way to visit a scatter of islands.
Game fishing from chartered boats now seems to be less prevalent than in Hemingway’s time, though still thriving in parts of the Florida Keys and the Bahamas (which is not actually in the Caribbean).
Cuba, Jamaica and Saint Lucia have substantial mountains and consequently good climbing or hiking opportunities but if you are looking for a Caribbean climbing challenge that is short at 3,232 ft but very steep and strenuous then head for charming little Nevis island (via St Kitts?).
Nevis Peak is a huge extinct volcano covered in dense tropical rainforest laced with a network of overgrown paths on lower levels and chattering, fluttering wildlife further up. A guide would be an excellent idea.
Caribbean shopping lacks interest, tending to lack creativity or individuality, and certainly town centres should be avoided like the plague if cruise ships are visiting – George Town on Grand Cayman, for example, is swamped on the days that cruise passengers come ashore.
Ethnic experiences are a challenge to find though a couple of islands - Cuba and Haiti - have authentic, unexpected dimensions from cigar rolling on different parts of the anatomy to uninhibited dance, wild local music or voodoo ceremonies.
Currencies vary across the region but in most places the American dollar is able to cut a dash irrespective of geography, but it is worth having some local currency for incidentals and impulse items on the beach if nowhere else.
Geography and climate
Some islands, like Antigua, Aruba and Barbados are relatively flat whilst others, such as Cuba, Jamaica, Nevis and Saint Lucia, have imposing mountain ranges. Whilst the climate is of course tropical throughout the Caribbean, rainfall changes not only with the time of year but also with elevation, size of the island and the surrounding water currents (for example, cool ocean upwellings keep the Netherlands Antilles arid).
For most of the year warm, moist trade winds blow consistently from the east resulting in mountainous islands being divided into rain forest and semi-desert areas (windward/lee sides).
In winter there are occasional northwesterly winds in the northern islands, and such cold fronts can cause temperatures to plummet in relative terms (Cubans were shocked a few years back when the mercury fell into single figures). Specific advice on the best seasons in the Caribbean.
In its broadest sense the Caribbean consists of the Caribbean Sea, its islands and the surrounding coasts, taking its name from the Carib, an ethnic group already present in the Lesser Antilles (on the south and the east of the Sea) and parts of neighbouring South America when Europeans first arrived in the region.
There are more than 7,000 islands, reefs and cays in the Caribbean which make for a lot of choice, even if most of them are uninhabited. In fact, there are 27 territories that you can visit in addition to the United States (basically the Florida Keys), the 7 Middle American and two South American countries that bound the Sea.
Most people head for the islands, which are commonly called the West Indies because Christopher Columbus believed he had reached the Indies (or Asia) when he landed there in 1492.
By the way, the Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos Islands are in the Atlantic Ocean, not in the Caribbean Sea. The USA, Middle America and South America are covered in separate sections so here we will focus on the islands.
Although the islands are generally small and sometimes quite close to each other, you should bear in mind that there can be very large cultural and geographic differences between them.
All the islands were colonies of European nations and a few actually remain colonies or overseas/dependent territories. As a result, the official languages are Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Haitian Creole and Papiamento but there are still Creole languages or dialects in some countries.
Religions are similarly heterogeneous including Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Rastafari, Santeria and Voodoo. The population in the Anglophone, French and Dutch Caribbean is mainly of African origin with mixed-race minorities as well as people of Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese and Indian ancestry.
Indigenous tribes include:Tainos,
Infrastructure, cuisine, history, crime, and local habits can all vary significantly as a result of all these differing roots – the weather may be the same in neighbouring islands but the environment and surroundings can be quite diverse. Be prepared for culture shock!
Written by Daniel Nash Segundo
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