Critters? Cuisine? Casinos? Pick Your Perfect Isle
Diving and Snorkeling
Divers in the know love Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles, says Ben Davidson, editor of the diving magazine Undercurrents, in large measure because you can simply wade from the beach to find great diving spots.
"There aren't big fish, but that's pretty much true throughout the Caribbean these days," Davidson says. "But the reefs are quite nice, and you can save money and time by not having to take a boat." Bonaire's sister island, Curacao, offers the same advantage. Moreover, both islands have mild currents, and both are virtually hurricane-proof.
The Cayman Islands, and particularly Little Cayman, have dramatic underwater walls and great coral reefs. "It's pretty pristine. You can't compare it to 30 years ago, but it's as good as it gets for underwater terrain," Davidson says, and there aren't many currents.
For nice and easy diving, Grand Turk in Turks and Caicos is a great choice, but don't confuse ease with mediocrity: The island has a dramatic vertical wall not far offshore and a lot of small tropical fish.
More experienced divers -- especially those who don't care that there are no beaches or night life -- should consider Saba. "Offshore pinnacles are quite dramatic, sometimes you can see sharks, the coral is lovely and it's pretty unique," Davidson says. "But many of the pinnacles don't break water, so it feels like open-ocean diving, and you have to go deeper. Saba attracts serious divers but otherwise doesn't get a lot of tourists."
The critter capital of the Caribbean is St. Vincent, where you'll find unusual small things hiding, such as sea horses and inch-long pipefish and frogfish. If you're into macro underwater photography, this is a great place to find tiny living things to shoot. For big, scary things, go to the Bahamas, which has organized shark dives.
The elements that make for great diving -- reefs, crystal-clear water and an abundance of underwater wildlife -- also make for great snorkeling. Thus the islands listed above are also havens for snorkeling. To the "best" list for the activity, however, add Aruba, where visibility is up to 90 feet and coral reefs are covered with sea fans and giant sponge tubes. In St. Lucia, divers love the Anse La Raye wall, but it's also accessible for snorkeling. Nevis has a Sea Life Educational Center, where a marine biologist offers a hands-on lesson, then guides participants on a snorkel search for fish, lobster, octopus, sea stars and turtles.
And the winner is, six under par: Dominican Republic. The island has 23 courses and more under construction. Only four golf courses in the Caribbean made Golf Digest magazine's list of "100 Best Golf Courses Outside the U.S." in 2005, and two are in the Dominican Republic.
Teeth of the Dog at the Casa de Campo resort is widely considered the best course in the Caribbean and was ranked 17th on the magazine's list. It is challenging and windy, says Peter Finch, a senior editor at Golf Digest. He adds that two other Pete Dye-designed courses at the resort, the Links and the unfortunately named Dye Fore, are first-rate as well.
The Dominican Republic is also home to Playa Dorada, part of the Wyndham resort in Puerto Plata, ranked 53rd on Golf Digest's list. Nearby, the Cap Cana development's Punta Espada course, designed by Jack Nicklaus near a dramatic coastline, is a new competitor. Two other Nicklaus-designed courses are planned at the site.
Jamaica has long been a popular golf spot, but the opening of the White Witch at the Ritz-Carlton in the past decade "really put the island on the golf map," Finch says.