5 Caribbean Destinations You Haven't Considered (But Should)

04/22/2015 02:20 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015
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Most people only think they know the Caribbean. Geographically speaking, the true Caribbean expands all the way to destinations in Central and South America. Expand your thinking—and your vacation possibilities—by considering one of these lesser-known locales.

Corn Islands, Nicaragua

If getting away from it all is what you seek, then Big Corn island and its smaller cousin, Little Corn, are where you'll find it. These tiny English-speaking islands off the coast of Nicaragua don't have any mega resorts or traditional tourist trappings; Little Corn doesn't even have any cars.

What they do have is some serious snorkeling (the dive wreck of a Spanish galleon—cannons and anchors, in all its 400-year-old glory) is swimmable from the shore. Bring comfortable shoes, too, as these islands are ripe for jungle exploration.

Roatan, Honduras

Cruising aficionados have been enchanted with Roatan for years, and it's high time everyone else got in on the secret, too. Right in the path of the second-largest barrier reef system in the world, Roatan Island has everything you think of when you think of the Caribbean: resorts, beachside bungalows, a cruise port, and dive shops.

Once an English colony, Roatan locals speak English as well as their native Garifuna Creole. Hit the island's West End Village for some laid-back hippy vibes.

Cartagena, Colombia

The Caribbean Sea extends as far south as the South American continent, where its crystal blue waters meet the sandy white shores of Cartagena. The vibrant Colombian city offers all the amenities of comparable Caribbean cities, including gorgeous beaches, a happening nightlife, and music everywhere.

Not-to-be-missed activities in Cartagena include the walled colonial city, the Spanish forts, and the many offshore islands good for day excursions. Enchanting and inspiring, it's said that Cartagena was the unnamed setting for Gabriel Garcia Marquez' masterpiece, Love in the Time of Cholera. Colombia's other coastal cities, Barranquilla and Santa Maria, are equally enchanting, albeit a bit quieter.

San Andres, Colombia

Geographically closer to Nicaragua's shores but actually a territory of Colombia, the island of San Andres has all the typical Caribbean features: palm trees for shade, coral reefs for underwater adventures, and a Creole culture to embrace—all surrounded by warm turquoise waters.

The coral island and its accompanying cays, reefs, and the sister islands that make up the rest of the archipelago (Providencia and Santa Catalina), is part of the Seaflower Biosphere Reserve—a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that encompasses 10 percent of the Caribbean Sea.

Swim alongside schools of fish at the popular dive and snorkel spot La Piscinita ("little pool" in Spanish) on the west side of the island.

Tortuguero National Park, Costa Rica

It takes longer to get to Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast versus its Pacific Coast from the airport, and that's exactly why those in the know head to the Caribbean side.

In addition to the three most commonplace Caribbean F's (fishing, food, fun), tourists come to this side of the Costa Rica for the fourth F: fauna. Of special significance is Tortuguero National Park, 20 miles of which is a very active egg-laying nursery for four varieties of sea turtles.

From rainforests to beaches to lagoons, the 11 different types of habits found at Tortuguero National Park are also home to a large variety of animals, including caimans, three-toed sloths, several types of monkeys, and even jaguars.

The only thing missing you won't find on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast? Mega resorts and droves of tourists.

--By Patricia Magaña

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Read the original story: 5 Caribbean Destinations You Haven't Considered (But Should) by Patricia Magaña, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

  • No. 1 Jade Mountain, St. Lucia
    See More of the Best Caribbean Resorts and Hotels

    Forget breaking the fourth wall: this feted resort near the west coast town of Soufrière does away with it altogether. Each of the 29 suites features an infinity pool or Jacuzzi, soaring ceilings, and a breezy openness courtesy of that missing wall, which affords uninterrupted views of St. Lucia’s biggest claim to fame—the twin volcanic peaks of the Pitons, rising with surreal splendor from an azure sea. The resort’s organic design (raw stone, rich wood, and swooping, curvy rooflines) feels in perfect harmony with the glorious surroundings, and its position at the island’s very highest point truly sets it above the pack.

    Photo: Jade Mountain, an Anse Chastanet Resort
  • No. 2 Cap Maison, St. Lucia
    See More of the Best Caribbean Resorts and Hotels

    This hacienda-style hideaway on St. Lucia’s northern coast is located on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. A former sugar plantation, the property now appears like a small village, with luxurious villas set around a leafy courtyard and pool, and a restaurant, the Cliff at Cap, where you can dine on Med-meets–Pan Asian–meets-Caribbean dishes like rock crab ravioli with coconut and lemongrass. We’re also fond of the Champagne Zip Line, a pioneering concept that delivers drinks via a zipline to couples or small groups who book the Rock Maison, a private dock built on a shoal right at the water’s edge.

    Photo courtesy of Cap Maison
  • No. 3 Couples Sans Souci, St. Mary, Jamaica
    See More of the Best Caribbean Resorts and Hotels

    With 150 rooms, Couples Sans Souci is the smallest and most intimate of the popular all-inclusive resort chain’s properties, with a killer cliff-top setting in Ocho Rios. You’ll never have to jostle for space thanks to three restaurants, six bars, and three swimming pools, plus a host of included perks like unlimited golf at nearby Sandals Upton and excursions to Dunn’s River Falls and other local landmarks. For an extra fee, bliss out at the award-winning spa, where therapists soothe away troubles with bamboo fusion and hot stone massages.

    Photo courtesy of Couples Resorts
  • No. 4 Reefs Resort & Club, Bermuda
    See More of the Best Caribbean Resorts and Hotels

    Bermuda is less than a three-hour flight from most major East Coast cities, making it an easy long-weekend escape. And while not actually located in the Caribbean, the British-influenced island has its own strain of laid-back tropical charm—plus those famous pink-sand beaches and limestone cliffs. Get your bearings at The Reefs, which has a sublimely dramatic setting overlooking the island’s south shore. The 62-room resort also provides sand-between-the-toes dining at beachside restaurant Coconuts and a spa for results-driven facials and soothing couple’s massages.

    Photo courtesy of The Reefs
  • No. 5 Couples Tower Isle, St. Mary, Jamaica
    See More of the Best Caribbean Resorts and Hotels

    The original romantic adults-only all-inclusive resort continues to woo travelers decades after launching the concept in 1978. Indeed, the 218-room Couples Tower Isle has plenty to recommend it, including a private white-sand beach, multiple bars, restaurants, pools and Jacuzzis, and complimentary activities like scuba diving and glass-bottom-boat tours. The regular Monday Night Beach Party Barbeque and the mixologist’s preference for rum punches are just two examples of the resort’s emphasis on local flavor.

    Photo courtesy of Couples Resorts
  • No. 6 Nisbet Plantation Beach Club, Nevis
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    The West Indies island of Nevis may be diminutive but its luxury offerings are outsize. Case in point: this storied resort, one of the only historic plantations in the Caribbean right on the beach. The vibe is a skillful blend of old world and new: guest cottages sport wicker furnishings, sunny color schemes, and locally inspired artworks, while the open-air restaurant and beach bar Sea Breeze and the full-service spa—with its oxygen facials and hot stone therapy—encourage guests to unwind and unplug.

    Photo: Peter Frank Edwards
  • No. 7 Ladera Resort, St. Lucia
    See More of the Best Caribbean Resorts and Hotels

    Much like Jade Mountain, this Soufrière hot spot has an irresistible trump card: a setting overlooking the rainforest, ocean, and Pitons, with three-walled suites to frame those views while catching the breeze from your private plunge pool. The 32 rooms are tiered along the hillsides to create total privacy, making Ladera a big hit with honeymooners. Even the spa and restaurant are positioned to help guests drink in those perfect vistas. The spa provides alfresco massages on Paradise Ridge, while the well-regarded Dasheene restaurant is open-air and faces the ocean.

    Photo courtesy of Ladera, St. Lucia