The real Caribbean: island by island

by Fred.Mawer

Not every Caribbean escape is a paradise of rainforest and fine white sand. To help you choose the best island for you, I weigh up the pros and cons of Cuba, Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua and Jamaica

It is pretty much everyone’s idea of the perfect holiday destination: a group of lush tropical islands fringed by pure white sand and surrounded by slightly ruffled, pale turquoise ocean. In our minds, this is “the Caribbean” – a single destination that is uniform and homogenous, with one benign climate and one people. In fact, each island has a distinctive culture and, from the visitor’s perspective, very different strengths and weaknesses. How does the first-time visitor choose?

Below, I sum up the pros and cons of five popular destinations; for each, I have picked the very best place to stay within a reasonable price range. Rates are per night for a standard double room in low season, booking direct – though package deals often work out cheaper. Prices are in US dollars, not Caribbean dollars.


Free of direct American influence for 50 years, Cuba is simply one of the most fascinating and bewitching countries imaginable. There are spellbinding ensembles of Spanish colonial architecture in Old Havana and Trinidad... stunning countryside in Vinales Valley, where tobacco grows in red-earth fields beneath sheer limestone outcrops... classic 1950s Cadillacs plying the streets... a vibrant musical heritage, with live salsa at every turn... cigar factories to visit, and some of the world’s best cigars to smoke... and an intriguing Communist system.
Resorts such as Varadero are bland, and beach hotels not of the same standard as on other Caribbean islands. The food can be terrible (the best places to go are paladares, mini private restaurants set up in the front rooms of homes). Independent travellers face constant street hustlers and frustrating bureaucracy.
Ambos Mundos (from £80 b&b): atmospheric hotel in the heart of Old Havana, where Hemingway used to stay and write in the 1930s.


You will notice these right from the beginning, since Barbados has one of the Caribbean’s most painless airports, improved by a major overhaul in recent years. If fine dining is your thing, you can eat out in style at a different restaurant every night for a fortnight, thanks to a far wider choice of high-quality places to eat than on any other Caribbean island. Barbados also boasts some of the finest top-end hotels – most famously Sandy Lane, but also Coral Reef Club and Cobblers Cove all on the ritzy west coast. Among its other strengths are good, varied sightseeing (plantation houses, botanic gardens, a Concorde museum); some of the region’s best golf courses; and a lively nightlife (St Lawrence Gap).
Parts of Barbados – particularly the south coast – are heavily developed and scruffy; the traffic can be terrible; and the capital, Bridgetown, has little going for it. Be warned, too, that rates at the flashier west-coast hotels, villas and restaurants are higher than at comparable places on other Caribbean islands.
Bougainvillea Beach Resort (from $200 room only): comfy suites and attractive grounds, by a long, sandy south coast beach.


First and foremost, quiet seclusion. Except around Rodney Bay, the only proper resort, development is limited – but the island has a growing selection of first-class, romantic retreats. At Anse Chastanet and Ladera, for example, you can sleep in a bedroom “missing” one wall to lap up the view of the Pitons – two giant green volcanic cones rising dramatically out of the sea in the south-west of the island, a prime contender for the Caribbean’s most stunning spot. For lovers of the great outdoors, this is certainly the island to choose. Much of St Lucia’s mountainous interior is covered in rainforest, easily accessible for hikes.
There are fewer top-notch beaches than on rival islands; most are grey volcanic sand. Airport transfers are long – eg, 90 minutes to Rodney Bay.
Coco Palm (from $148 room only): excellent-value Rodney Bay option, with giant pool and smart bedrooms.


This is the beach-bum’s island par excellence: you are spoilt for choice for strands of blindingly white sand, from busy Dickenson Bay (backed by low-rise hotels, chilled beachfront bars and restaurants) to Ffrye's Bay (where you might have only pelicans for company. Antigua also has one of the Caribbean's best historical attractions: the restored Nelson’s Dockyard, the only surviving example of a Georgian naval base at the yachties’ hangout of English Harbour.
The dull, scrubby interior. Many hotels are isolated and there are concerns about safety after the murder of a British honeymoon couple in 2008.
Cocobay (from $270 all-inclusive): small-scale all-inclusive for adults only, with cottages above two stunning beaches.


Bob Marley’s island now has some of the Caribbean's most chic, intimate hotels (including the Island Outpost properties). It also boasts superlative beaches; lively resorts (Negril being the most attractive and easy-going); great hiking and bird-watching in the Blue Mountains; waterfalls to climb and rivers to raft down; distinctive, ubiquitous music – most famously reggae; and what most people instantly think of as Caribbean food: dishes such as spicy jerk pork or chicken.
Most packages on sale involve staying in large, impersonal, all-inclusive hotels, meaning the vast majority of holidaymakers rarely venture far from the hotel compounds unless on escorted tours. This is partly because the island has a worryingly high level of violent crime – though most is Jamaican on Jamaican.
Jake's (from $112 room only): an offbeat and off-the-beaten-track south coast hideaway. 




As a travel journalist with over 20 years of experience, I have written numerous articles on Amsterdam for the travel sections of newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph, Mail on Sunday and The Independent. I've also contributed to guidebooks on Amsterdam for the AA and Dorling Kindersley.

For my portfolio of writing, I am proud to say that the Netherlands Board of Tourism has voted me Journalist of the Year 2010.

During my many and frequent visits to the Dutch capital, I've stayed in most of the best hotels (in all price brackets - not just the expensive ones), and visited dozens of others. I've eaten and drunk in more restaurants, cafés and bars than, even sober, I can remember. I've explored the canals by boat and bike and on foot. I've hunted for bargains in the markets. I've admired the art - and worked out how best to avoid the crowds and queues - in the must-see museums. When not in Amsterdam or on my travels elsewhere, I'm at home in Bath.

My Amsterdam

Where I always grab a beer - Café t' Smalle (Egelantiersgracht 12), a cosy, classic "brown café" with its own canalside terrace.

My favourite dining spot - Café de Reiger (Nieuwe Leliestraat 34), an atmospheric eetcafé in the Jordaan that is always packed with locals.

Best for people watching - A window seat in Snackbar Bird (Zeedijk 77), a great little no-frills Thai café on one of the main thoroughfares into the Red Light District.

My favourite stroll - Pick a canal, any canal...but the stretch of the Prinsengracht along the Jordaan district is particularly lovely.

Where to be seen - MiNiBAR (Prinsengracht 478), an unusual, newish bar near the Leidseplein where you get your own minibar (and unlike many of Amsterdam's trendy nightspots, it's easy to get in).

The most breathtaking view - from the top of the tower of the Westerkerk.

The best spot for some peace and quiet - Vondelpark, the city's main park - especially towards its less visited western end.

Shopaholics beware! The gourmet shops, funky art galleries, fashionable clothes boutiques and oddball stores that line the charming Negen Straatjes or Nine Streets quarter.

Best new attraction - Hermitage Amsterdam, which lays on no-expense-spared exhibitions of treasures from St Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

Don’t leave without...exploring the Eastern Docklands on a bike. The avant-garde modern architecture there is as memorable as the old gabled canal houses in the centre.