Of the more than 7,000 islands in the Caribbean, only a handful drew in a million or more travelers between January and August 2016, according to the latest statistics from the Caribbean Tourism Organization. So, while the region's area in square miles is not too shabby, the heavy concentration of tourists in the most-visited destinations can lead to some crowding.
The was the winner in terms of visitor volume for the January-to-August 2016 period, with 4.9 million tourist arrivals. came in second, with 2.7 million visitors, followed by , , and the , each with less than two million visitors. While these islands are popular for good reason, we wondered if more discreet Caribbean destinations might offer similar features and fewer tourist crowds. With that in mind, we reached out to Margie Hand, a travel advisor and Caribbean specialist at Andavo Travel. Keep reading for her tips on five popular Caribbean destinations and where to go instead, especially if you want to escape the hordes.
Skip the Dominican Republic for St. Lucia
If you've been to the , you might have debated between exploring the Caribbean's highest peak (Pico Duarte), or taking in the five-century-old sights in Santo Domingo. Plus, there are family-friendly all-inclusive resorts, excellent rums, white-sand beaches, and terrain that ranges from tropical rainforest (in Punta Cana) to ancient geological formations at Los Haitises National Park.
Hand gets more requests for travel to the than any other Caribbean island -- mostly due to its affordability and the ease of getting there, she says. But travelers looking for a similar mix of beach time and adventure (and who are willing to trek further south) should also consider . While it's often thought of as a honeymooners' destination, the island's Piton Mountains and rainforest make it ideal for hikes to waterfalls, bird sanctuaries, and scenic vistas. Biking, zip-lining, and reef diving are also popular activities on this volcanic island -- along with lazing on the stunning beaches, which can have black or white sand. "It is not just a typical beach vacation," says Hand.
Where to Stay:
Skip Havana for Trinidad, Cuba
Traveling to is still complicated for American tourists -- we recently wrote about how to get there 100 percent legally. At the end of 2015, the country didn't feel all that touristy and Havana was still a diamond in the rough. But between January and August 2016, Cuban tourism grew by 11.7 percent overall. Complicating that growth, as we last year, is the high demand for hotel rooms and a comparatively low supply.
But you don't have to skip Cuba completely to avoid some of these hassles and tourist crowds. Instead, make your travel plans and bookings far in advance (especially if you plan to stay in Havana) or head for the beaches. Playa Ancón, for example, is a stretch of white sand situated about four to five hours south of Havana. It's also minutes away from Trinidad, an UNESCO World Heritage site with colonial architecture in the shadow of the Escambray mountains.
Where to Stay:
Skip Jamaica for Grenada
, another go-to for families and couples, has a winning combination of culture, beaches, and adventure -- climbing Dunn's River Falls is among clients' favorite activities, says Hand. It's also densely populated and diverse, which helps explain some of the tasty, eclectic cuisine, from roadside jerk chicken to upscale beachside restaurants serving fresh seafood.
But for a similarly intriguing culture-meets-beach destination without as many crowds, Hand says is a good alternative. Along with dozens of beaches, it offers a mountainous landscape with hiking trails and spice plantations (yes, the air is scented). Plus, the island's nature preserve and rainforest allow for encounters with monkeys and tropical birds. "There are not as many resorts, and travelers can enjoy breathtaking scenery, hike to a waterfall, and enjoy amazing snorkeling," says Hand.
Where to Stay:
Skip San Juan, Puerto Rico for Vieques
With plenty of party and kid-friendly hotels, one of the world's coolest zip lines, and surprising affordability for a beach destination, secures a sizable chunk of the Caribbean's tourism annually. From the capital city of , it's easy enough to reach outdoor adventure spots, like the El Yunque National Forest with waterfalls. But consider shifting your Puerto Rico home base for a more intimate experience. "Instead of going to , take the short flight over to to enjoy a smaller island, but still be in a U.S. territory, which is great for visitors without a passport," says Hand.
The most built-up of 's offshore islands, is a 21-mile-long former U.S. Navy training location. Head to the National Wildlife Refuge for calm beaches, and don't miss snorkeling and scuba diving the pristine coral reefs of Mosquito Pier. Kayaking in Mosquito Bay, a bioluminescent body of water (the brightest of three in ) on the island's southern shore, is another unique draw.
Where to Stay:
Skip Nassau, Bahamas for the Abaco Islands or Long Island
While it does offer the mega-resort Atlantis, the has plenty of less flashy attributes, too. Some of these include secluded , a serious , and pink-sand beaches with calm water -- like the one facing a protected cove, rather than the Atlantic Ocean, at . In other words, despite the overall heavy tourist traffic, there are still places in the archipelago where folks can find tranquility.
"Travelers often go to Nassau and hit some of the larger, more touristy resorts, but the outer islands of the can offer more solitude and a less hectic pace," says Hand. In particular, she suggests looking for intimate properties in the , a chain of islands where scalloped coastlines feature marinas for sailing and boating. You can also experience colonial villages here. Or, head to , where the eastern shore is ringed with towering cliffs and west-coast beaches are super soft and quiet. Dean's Blue Hole, the world's deepest-known blue hole (or water-filled sinkhole), is located on the western shore.
Where to Stay:
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