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Caribbean Islands: An Introduction
When most people envision a tropical beach vacation, the Caribbean springs to mind. With hundreds of islands scattered mostly across the far western portion of the North Atlantic – which is known as the Caribbean Sea – the region boasts an amazing year-round climate, countless miles of white sand beaches, gorgeous coral reefs, shimmering, crystal-clear water, incredible biodiversity and much more. It’s little wonder, then, that people flock here when they need to get away from it all.
The Caribbean is the place to go when you need a break from the fast, hectic pace of everyday life. In this part of the world, time slows to a crawl. The culture is laid back, accepting and incredibly friendly to visitors, so you are sure to feel welcome wherever you go. Of the hundreds of islands in the region, only a handful are regularly visited by tourists. Each sovereign state and territory has its own unique culture, and there are advantages to visiting each one. So, where should you go? How can you possibly narrow things down? A great first step is familiarizing yourself with the most popular destinations. Once you’ve found one that suits your fancy, dig a little more deeply to create the ultimate Caribbean vacation itinerary.
An Overview of the Caribbean
The region that makes up what is known as the Caribbean is sometimes also referred to as the Islands of the Caribbean, or the West Indies. A massive archipelago, the Caribbean can be subdivided into a few different regions: the Lucayan Archipelago, the Greater Antilles, the Lesser Antilles and the ABC Islands. There are 13 sovereign states and 17 dependent territories in the Caribbean, and English, Spanish, French, Dutch and Antillean creole are the predominant languages.
Geography and Climate
The Caribbean sprawls across more than 1.06 million square miles and is primarily located between North America and South America. Most of the islands are located in the Caribbean Sea, but quite a few are technically located in the North Atlantic. The most popular and most visited region in the Caribbean is the Greater Antilles, which includes Jamaica, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. The Lucayan Archipelago is located in the northern part of the region while the Lesser Antilles are to the east. The western- and southernmost portion includes numerous smaller islands that mostly belong to countries in Central America and South America.
In addition to boasting incredible scenery, the Caribbean is blessed with amazing weather. Though the climate varies, it is overwhelmingly tropical, with most areas enjoying sunny, warm weather throughout the year. Rainfall varies according to factors like water currents, island size and elevation, but the rainy season typically falls during the second half of the year, with the dry season falling during the first half. For this reason, late winter through early spring tends to be the most popular time to vacation in this tropical paradise.
The Caribbean is a true melting pot. It was originally inhabited by Arawak Indians. Later, Caribs, a rival tribe, invaded. They are also the inspiration for the name of the Caribbean Sea and the region as a whole, though their culture is almost entirely extinct now.
Through the centuries, a bevy of European nations has swept through the Caribbean. They colonized most of the major islands here, and many of those islands remain under the control of countries like the U.K., the Netherlands and France. However, several others have since won their independence.
The racial makeup of the Caribbean is incredibly diverse. People of African ancestry tend to make up the majority in the French Caribbean, Dutch Caribbean and Anglophone Caribbean. Asians make up a significant minority in the region as well. Most inhabitants are of mixed race backgrounds, and their ancestries include Dutch, English, Italian, Portuguese and Italian. Mulattoes, people of African and European descent, make up a significant minority in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. In most of the larger islands across the Caribbean, people of African descent make up the majority.
This melting pot of cultures and ethnicities makes the Caribbean a wonderfully diverse and fascinating place. While most come here for the great weather and incredible beaches, the region is jam-packed with incredible cultural and historical attractions as well, and they are well worth checking out.
Languages and Religion
Because of the diversity of the region and the many cultures that have come and go through the years, dozens of languages are spoken across the Caribbean. However, the predominating languages are Spanish, English, French, Dutch and various creole dialects. Fortunately for travelers from the U.S., English is spoken widely across the region, so there’s typically no language barrier to worry about. Still, before visiting a country here, do some research about the languages that are most commonly spoken to ensure that you are as prepared as possible for your visit.
As for religion, Christianity is practiced across the majority of the region. In fact, it is the official religion of several territories and countries here.
Attractions and Things to Do
In addition to having a diverse population, the Caribbean boasts a diverse array of terrains and topographies. Not surprisingly, attractions involving the water tend to be the most popular. Sun worshipping, or just laying out on the beach in the sun, is among the most popular pastimes here. However, visitors also enjoy snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, windsurfing, diving, sailing and other water-related activities.
Depending on where you go in the Caribbean, you can also avail yourself of numerous other fun activities. A few examples include horseback riding, biking, hiking, rock climbing and spelunking, or exploring caves. Several major cities are located in the Caribbean, so it’s easy to find fun things to do throughout the region. Historical and cultural attractions include forts, plantations, museums, lighthouses and much more. Many cities, towns and villages boast amazing colonial and Victorian architecture too.
The Lucayan Archipelago
Although it’s considered to be part of the Caribbean, the Lucayan Archipelago is technically located in the western part of the North Atlantic. It’s north of the equator and the Antilles and east-southeast of Florida. It is comprised of the Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas. Its proximity to the U.S. makes it a very popular vacation destination for American tourists.
The Bahamas are made up of more than 700 islands. They are located north of the Greater Antilles and southeast of Florida. A significant percentage of those islands are technically cays, or coral reef islands, and most are uninhabited. The name “Bahamas” comes from Spanish, and it roughly translates to mean “shallow water.” More than 300,000 people live here, making it a relatively populous country. Since winning its independence from the U.K. in 1973, the Bahamas have flourished. Tourism, in particular, is the main thing driving the economy here, so locals tend to cater to visitors and are very welcoming.
It is believed that Christopher Columbus arrived on the Bahamian island of San Salvador in 1492. At the time, it was populated by Arawak Indians. The British first arrived in 1647, and the Bahamas officially became a colony in 1783.
Due to its long history with Great Britain, the Bahamas continues to be highly anglicized. English is the official language, and Christianity is practiced by nearly everyone who lives there. Indeed, the country is very religious and boasts the highest ratio of churches in the Caribbean.
Though the Bahamas consist of thousands of islands, only a handful get any real attention from tourists. New Providence Island is home to Nassau, the capital. It’s also where you’ll find the world-famous Atlantis resort. Grand Bahama is best known for its amazing underwater cave systems. Many cruise lines own and operate private resort islands as well.
Most of the islands in the Bahamas are long, flat coral reef formations. Smatterings of small, rounded hills appear here and there in some areas. The highest point, Mt. Alvernia, is 63 meters high.
If you’d like to visit the Bahamas, the best time is generally between late December and early May. You can fill your days boating around the islands, noshing on cracked conch, swilling local rum and splashing about in the year-round 80-degree waters. You can also check out art galleries, casinos, forts, museums, monuments and much more. The official currency is the Bahamian dollar, but American currency is widely accepted too.
- Capital city - Nassau
- Language - English
The Turks and Caicos make up the other part of the Lucayan Archipelago. This British Overseas Territory is made up of around 40 islands and cays; 12 of them are inhabited. The name of the territory comes from Grand Turk Island and Providenciales, which is otherwise known as Caicos. The population hovers around 31,000 people, but the main islands aren’t too sparsely populated because they are relatively small.
The official currency of the Turks and Caicos is the U.S. dollar, which is convenient for traveling Americans. Though English is the official language, Haitian creole and Spanish are widely spoken too. The country enjoys a warm, pleasant climate. Compared with many Caribbean islands, it is remarkably arid, and an average of only around 50 inches of rain falls per year. The majority of the precipitation occurs during the summer months, which is also the danger zone for hurricanes.
Most people visiting Turks and Caicos arrive via cruise ship or plane. If you fly into the country, you will likely arrive at Providenciales International Airport, which is near the capital city of Cockburn Town. The islands are crammed with fun things to see and do, including casinos, scuba diving, sailing, birdwatching, whale watching and golfing. The cuisine is eclectic, and rum punch is the drink of choice.
- Capital city - Cockburn Town
- Language - English and Spanish
The Greater Antilles
As the most-visited region in the Caribbean, the Greater Antilles sees a massive influx of tourists every year. It also accounts for more than 94 percent of the total landmass of the West Indies and more than 90 percent of its population, so it is a major standout in the region. The Greater Antilles consist of Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and the Cayman Islands. Thanks to its proximity to North America, it is a convenient option for anyone who wants to experience the best that the Caribbean has to offer.
The Lesser Antilles
The majority of the islands in the Lesser Antilles form the border between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic. They are located in the northern part of the West Indies and are made up of much smaller islands than those of the Greater Antilles. The islands here are further divided into three regions:
- the Leeward Islands,
- the Windward Islands,
- the ABC Islands.
The Leeward Islands
Hundreds of tiny islands, including various territories and sovereign states, make up the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean. They are located in the hurricane band of the Caribbean, so it is generally best not to plan a vacation here between July and October.
Antigua and Barbuda
British Virgin Islands
St. Kitts and Nevis
U.S. Virgin Islands
The Windward Islands
While planning your Caribbean getaway, don’t overlook the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles. These include vacation hotspots like the Barbados, St. Lucia and Trinidad and Tobago, and cruise ships stop in ports of call throughout the region.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Trinidad and Tobago
This last batch of islands rounds up the Lesser Antilles. One of the top perks of vacationing here is that they are out of the dreaded hurricane belt, so you can more safely plan a trip here virtually any time of year. The name of this group of islands comes from the first initial of the three territories and states of which it is comprised: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.
Federal Dependencies of Venezuela
The islands along the north coast of Venezuela and politically part of that country are also considered part of the Lesser Antilles:
Los Roques Archipelago
and other smaller islands
We’ve only skimmed the surface of the amazing adventures that await you in the Caribbean. Whether you head to the Lesser Antilles, hightail it to the Lucayan Archipelago or plan a trip to the Greater Antilles, you’re sure to have the time of your life.
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