Kingston, Bridgetown, San Juan, Nassau: These are the first names that come to mind when you think of Caribbean metro destinations. But for the traveler looking for culture, history and an escape from noise and commercial blight, smaller island towns blossom in the shadow of their capital cities.
Here are 10 of the best to visit for a different island flavor.
Governor’s Harbour, Bahamas
Best for history and sightseeing
Squires Estate accommodations occupy 19th-century homes — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Skip Nassau for a true taste of Bahamian history and beauty in Governor’s Harbour on the out island of Eleuthera. The first permanent settlement in the New World, this pretty harbor town shows its age in beautifully maintained and restored Victorian buildings, such as the circa 1896 library and the totally original designer accommodations at Squires Estate.
Once the center of a prosperous pineapple industry, its Pineapple Fields resort recalls the era and puts you close to the don’t-miss Leon Levy Native Plant Preserve.
Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Best for relaxed adventure and romance
Cliff-coved beach adds to the romance of Couples Sans Souci — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Its name – meaning "eight rivers" in Spanish – and a Christopher Columbus connection set the stage for Ocho Rios’ early Spanish history. Local lore credits the area’s natural mineral springs for its popularity with sailors and settlers during Jamaica’s earliest days of European colonization.
Those very same springs now heighten the romance factor at Couples Sans Souci, which retains one spring in its original 18th-century state. Other adults-only resorts such as Couples Tower Isle, built on the romance of vintage Hollywood glam, make Ochee, as locals call it, a top pick for romance-seekers.
Water, water everywhere – from the Atlantic Ocean to those springs and eight rivers – quenches the thirst for adventure. Most famously, Dunn’s River Falls challenges hundreds each day to a wet and wild mountain climb. Leisurely bamboo rafting is also a signature to-do, but adventure ranges from zip-lining to bobsledding Cool Runnings-style.
Best for food-surfing
Sorting nutmeg at the processing plant — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
With a name that translates into food – "guava" to be exact – Gouyave feeds Grenada’s reputation as the "Spice Island." Cloves, cinnamon, bay leaves, turmeric and cocoa all get processed at its tourable Dougaldston Estate.
Nutmeg is Grenada’s signature crop, and its scent makes you swoon at Gouyave’s nutmeg processing plant. Grenada produces about a quarter of the world’s nutmeg, which goes into locally produced treats such as nutmeg ice cream, jam, jelly, wine and syrup.
Considered a breadbasket of the Caribbean, the lush region around Gouyave grows an insane menu of tropical fruits and vegetables that make this a foodie haven. Its perch on the northern coast also adds a rich fishing heritage to the plate.
San Nicolas, Aruba
Best for music and culture
San Nicolas' weekly mini-carnival — Photo courtesy of Aruba Tourism Authority
Where Aruba’s Dutch and West Indian cultures collide, quiet San Nicolas has morphed from an oil refinery town into a lively repository of local life away from touristy Oranjestad and Palm Beach.
The birthplace of Aruba’s annual carnival, it brings the same steel drums, calypso music and high-energy dancing into the streets every Thursday with a mini version known as Carubbian Festival.
Circa 1940's Charlie’s Bar – part restaurant, part diving museum – is a must-see stop, plus this "Sunrise City" on the island’s east coast shines with beaches, galleries, street art and photogenic architecture.
Cruz Bay, USVI
Best for art and shopping
St. John's famed beaches lie minutes from Cruz Bay — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Most of St. John’s shops and restaurants have reopened since September’s hurricanes, and Cruz Bay is back as a low-key alternative to St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie for arts, shopping, music and good food.
Mongoose Junction shopping center is one hub of activity. Bajo El Sol and Island Fancy sell the work of the island’s talented artists. Cruz Bay shops sell everything from island-inspired fashions to duty-free goods. Hit Bamboula for authentic crafts, Morgan’s Mango for Caribbean fusion cuisine and Gallows Point Resort for walking-distance accommodations.
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Soufriere, St. Lucia
Best for history and sheer beauty
Walk through a volcano in Soufriere — Photo courtesy of St. Lucia Tourism Authority
The name means "sulfur" in French, and the light aroma of a drive-in volcano wafts over the charming town that huddles around it. Excursions along the twisty, steep roads to Soufriere take in Diamond Botanical Gardens Waterfall and Mineral Baths, built in 1785 by Louis XVI to restore his tropics-weary soldiers.
En route, you’ll experience the rare reward of Les Pitons, two volcanic plugs that rise sharply from verdant lushness, island icons for which the local beer is named. The black-sand beaches and technicolor reefs around luxurious Anse Chastanet resort make a strong case for spending the night. Or week.
Cane Garden Bay, Tortola
Best for beach partying and water sports
Cane Garden Bay – a water sports haven — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
In the Virgin Islands, they have a word for it; "limin’" perfectly describes the beach agenda of doing ... well, nothing, pretty much. Hanging. Chilling. Letting the day take you where it will.
For the energetic, Cane Garden Bay is known for its surfing, windsurfing, parasailing, kayaking, diving excursions, sailing and powerboating. Others hang out in the string of beach bars, comparing recipes for the signature Painkiller cocktail, dancing to live island music and filling up on local seafood.
Quito’s Gazebo is a longtime hot spot for all of the above. Visit Callwood Rum Distillery, browse the shops and check into one of Cane Garden Bay’s ultra-casual hotels or cottages, so you can get up tomorrow and do it all over again.
Best for secluded beaching and rumming
Romance and seclusion at Bathsheba's Soup Bowl Beach — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
If you’re looking for rum and water on "The Rock," as Barbados is affectionately known, head to Bathsheba and have it with a side of beach. And rocks.
Away from the island’s more resort-y Platinum Coast on the west side, Bathsheba retains a quiet beach profile. Soup Bowl Beach is known for its surfing and dramatic limestone outcroppings that rise abruptly from the ocean.
It’s a good place to hit one of the island’s more than 1,500 rum shops, institutions where you can grab not only a classic rum punch but also a lively game of dominoes – and perhaps a flying fish sandwich, if you’re lucky.
Buccoo Bay, Tobago
Best for folk culture and partying
Goat races are a highlight of an annual festival in Buccoo Bay — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Far removed from the spotlight fixed on the capital city of Scarborough, this gentle beach hamlet livens up for weekly and annual events that showcase the old-time culture of Tobago, little sister to Trinidad. At weekly "Sunday School," the golden rule is eat, drink and dance.
Steel bands start playing at 8 pm in the seaside village green, and vendors sell homemade crafts and all the favorite local dishes – from barbecue to curried crab. More music drifts from the little bars that line the main road, and the rum pours freely.
For visitors, it’s a great way to party with the locals. Even better, the annual Goat & Crab Races happen around Easter with great fanfare.
Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic
Best for sightseeing
A stilt walker struts Puerto Plata's town square — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
On DR’s northeast shores, Puerto Plata gained attention in modern times from its rich deposits of amber and larimar. Head to the city’s town square, where you can explore the impact of amber on the country, particularly since the movie Jurassic Park shined the spotlight on the semiprecious gem.
The amber museum lies within walking distance from the square, which is bordered by a massive historic cathedral, a craft market, shops and colorful bars and restaurants. Equally colorful characters entertain, create art and sell larimar trinkets or fresh coconut.
While in Puerto Plata, don’t miss a visit to a rum factory and the 16th-century Fort San Felipe, which overlooks the island’s Caribbean coast.