A cruise to the Southern Caribbean islands is often a throwback in time. Many say these outposts represent the authentic West Indies. The geography might encompass verdant rainforests or desert terrain, distinctly volcanic mountains or slowly eroding limestone formations. There's a slower pace of life and often a lack of modern-day distractions, which means many visitors arrive primed for an off-the-beaten path escape.
By day, entertainment centers around what locals call liming -- hanging at a bar, beach or pool, chatting about everything and nothing at all. Life can be quiet on the smaller islands, but the major ones can put on quite a show, especially during festival and carnival seasons.
Want this kind of nirvana? Here are nine of the Southern Caribbean's best beach escapes.
This 69-square-mile island's pride and joy is its windsurfing culture, and perhaps nowhere in the Caribbean is it more renowned than Hadicurari Beach, also referred to as "Fisherman's Huts." Here, the strong winds attract windsurfers and kitesurfers, both experienced and beginners. The area is shallow, so it's the right place to get lessons, and there are plenty of vendors to teach you how to get started. Each July, the annual Aruba Hi-Winds windsurfing tournament draws some of the sport's finest athletes (get there early to claim your spot). While the shoreline is a bit rocky, the water is clear and snorkeling is good as you head to the north. Hadicurari is located about a 20-minute drive north of the cruise port in Oranjestad of Aruba.
Eagle Beach, one of Aruba's largest beaches, is also one of its most photographed -- and with good reason. More quiet than the bustling Palm Beach resort area, this sandy spot in the low-rise hotel section is popular with a good deal of visitors and locals. It's only a 10-minute taxi ride to this beach from the cruise pier in Oranjestad, and, when you arrive, you'll be pleasantly surprised by the amount of space and shade. Certain resorts might offer their beach chairs and umbrellas for you to use, if you visit their bar or restaurant.
On Barbados' remote southeast coast, Bottom Bay Beach has been prominently displayed in travel magazines and is beloved by locals for its striking coral cliffs surrounded by towering coconut palm trees. That makes it high on the list of must-visits, but note that swimming is not the greatest. Instead, it'll be a day of liming (relaxing) to the tunes of calypso playing in the background. For another taste of the island, make your way to Bathsheba Beach on the east coast, aka "The Soup Bowl," where champion surfers hang 10 and kiteboard to dizzying heights.
Rocky Curacao is not known for its beaches -- for visitors, probably the most popular is Seaquarium Beach, a man-made frolic with beach bars and other amenities. But while Kleine Knip is located 25 miles from the cruise ship dock in Willemstad, this pocket of gleaming white sand tucked into a break in the limestone is the local's favorite (note: it can be busy on weekends). There are no resorts here -- in fact, this section of the island is very lightly populated, most of the interior is dominated by Curacao's national park and highest point. But Kleine Knip offers basic facilities, including palapas (open-sided dwellings with thatched roofs), a restaurant, restrooms and a dive shop that rents snorkel gear (shore dives right from the beach are excellent). Just a half-mile further along the road is Grote Knip, which is just as appealing and isolated.
The Spice Island's most famous beach is a 2-mile carpet of golden sand that stretches along the coastline just 15 minutes by car from Grenada's capital and port, St. George's. There are modest-sized resorts dappling the shoreline here and there, but lots of spots with minimal development, so you'll find both beach bars bubbling with rum and reggae as well as quiet stretches shaded by palms and sea grape trees. If you want an even more secluded strand, L'Anse aux Epines in the southern part of the island next to the Calabash Hotel is a tiny gem of place where peace and quiet is pretty much guaranteed. Grab a taxi for the 20-minute ride, and be sure to make arrangements for a return transfer.
A short drive from the port, Dickenson Bay is the go-to spot for most cruisers, and you can expect a fair amount of folks vying for a spot. If a low-key, adult atmosphere is more your speed, try Hawksbill Bay, an offshore rock outcrop with the profile of a hawksbill turtle -- which actually encompasses four separate crescent-shaped coves -- overlooks the scene. To access this bay you'll pass through the Hawksbill resort, a 15-minute drive from the port, but as all beaches in Antigua are publicly accessible, non-guests are welcome to enjoy these strands. Swimming and snorkeling are easy in calm seas, and equipment can be rented from beach vendors. Note: The fourth beach invites couples to cuddle in their birthday suits, so the modest might want to stay with the first three options.
Lovely Nevis isn't on the itineraries of most cruise lines, but it's an easy ferry ride from St. Kitts and rewards visitors with an aura of old plantation estates and coconut groves below a conical volcanic summit visible from all points. Pinney's Beach runs along the west coast for 4 miles, starting less than a mile from the capital (and port) of Charlestown. There are plenty of undeveloped sections along its length. Toward the north end is the tony Four Seasons Resort Nevis, a celebrity hangout, and next door is Sunshine's, a bar and restaurant composed of flotsam and jetsam (don't be surprised if an A-lister or two takes a seat next to you). The house special is the rum-laced "Killer Bee," and a few of these can pack a wicked punch. Though the dusky sands of Pinney's do not offer the best water in terms of clarity, it more than makes up for it in personality (and those stinging sips); just make sure you remember you must return to the ship.
The Southeast Peninsula of St. Kitts is scalloped by one pretty, white-sand cove after another. Follow the scenic road all the way to its end and you'll arrive at Cockleshell Bay, a popular destination on the cruise line excursion list. Although water conditions can sometimes be cloudy due to the ever-present Jet Skis, there's a bustling restaurant, Reggae Beach Bar, so visitors have access to a bevy of equipment like ocean kayaks and snorkel gear to explore the nearby reef. Plus, there are plenty of beach loungers and some of the best conch fritters in the West Indies. For a quieter scene, it's worth checking out Majors Bay or Turtle Bay, located on either side of Cockleshell.
The best beaches of busy, beautiful Martinique are found well away from the cruise ship port, so you'll want to plan on renting a car or hiring a driver. The local's favorite is Les Salines, located about 35 miles from the port in Sainte-Anne, on the southern tip of the island. Here you'll find facilities along with beach vendors selling drinks, snacks, bathing suits and pareos (a wraparound skirt particularly popular in the chic French West Indies). The beach is clean and well-maintained, but very popular on weekends when parking can be tight -- arrive in the morning to take advantage of the fewest people and calmest water. Somewhat closer to the port is Le Diamant, a small town fronted by a long, glimmering beach, but you'll still want to allow 30 to 40 minutes each way for the trip.