Pirate hideouts and pink-sand beaches. Local culture untouched by cruise ships and crowds. This is the Caribbean the world doesn't yet know. Far off the mainland, floating in endless expanses of deep blue sea, find 10 secret islands that are practically perfect for escapists, adventurers, and vacationers who simply don't want to be found.
Carriacou ("carry-a-coo") is actually the largest of the Grenadines, its 13 square miles a unique meld of sugar-mill ruins and humble fishing villages. Its origins as a fishing island are woven into its contemporary fabric: Traditional methods of boat building are still practiced on the beaches, and its regatta draws sailors from all over the Caribbean each August, with sailing contests, live music, and donkey and crab races ashore. While English is the official language, locals often speak a distinctive French patois, a testament to how intact the island's indigenous traditions are. Tyrell Bay sees the few yachts that dock at Carriacou (many from nearby Mustique), but much of this hilly green Grenadine is untouched by tourist life.
Where to Stay: For true seclusion, the trio of cottages at Kim and Sue Russell's Bogles Round House are faultless in their unspoiled setting and quirky architecture. In the main building, a long seat uses a whale's jawbone as its base, and by design, the entire property is built without a single straight line.
Los Roques, Venezuela
There is but one town on this collection of tiny atolls in the Caribbean Sea. Remote and romantic, Los Roques is more or less unknown to North American visitors but frequented by Venezuelans who know that its beaches and mangrove lagoons are unmatched. Hiking volcanic Gran Roque, trawling for bonefish, and sailing smoothly along the harbor are your sole active pursuits. Take a peñero (a Venezuelan fishing boat) to one of the uninhabited cays for a picnic lunch, where you may spot pink flamingos but few other people. And when you're ready to again meet your fellow man, pop into one of the mellow bars in Plaza Bolivar for a sunset beer.
Where to Stay: Despite its isolated location, quite a few of Los Roques' hotels have nabbed TripAdvisor Traveler's Choice nods for romance. Posada Piano y Papaya is noteworthy for its style, spaciousness, and warm staff; Lonely Planet notes that its rooms are sweetly vanilla scented.
Water Island, U.S. Virgin Islands
This unofficial fourth Virgin Island is a 10-minute ferry ride from Charlotte Amalie, but it feels like worlds away. Unlike the duty-free-shopping mecca of St. Thomas just a half mile to the north, Water Island was made for people-free adventure: leisurely hiking the flat coastal trails, exploring the underground ruins of WWII-era Ft. Segarra, or simply idling on the sunshine-soaked beaches. Rent a golf cart (many of the 200-some full-time inhabitants use them to get around the island) or hop on an informative bike tour with Water Island Adventures that ends at postcard-perfect Honeymoon Beach. Along the way, you'll make acquaintance with resident red-footed tortoises, iguanas, and pelicans that swoop and dive into the water.
Where to Stay: Inexpensive villas can be found via VRBO and HomeAway. Virgin Islands Campground offers canvas-sided cottages as well as bicycle and snorkel rentals for exploration aboveground and undersea.
Saba, Lesser Antilles
If you want to feel like Robinson Crusoe, rugged little Saba is your place in the sun. The island, rising sharply out of the sea like a creature of the deep, is known for its pretty, precipitous terrain. In fact, its terrain is so iconic that its volcano is named, simply, Mt. Scenery. The highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Mt. Scenery has challenging hiking trails that thread through lush rainforest, with a cloud-forest atmosphere at its peak. Wholly untouched by commercial tourism, the island's native fauna thrive among its mahogany and mango trees. And while its beaches aren't what you'd typically expect in the Caribbean due to Saba's rugged topography, its trailside tide pools are fascinating, filled with sea urchins and colorful little fish zipping about in loops.
Where to Stay: The resort of Queen's Gardens is precipitously placed at 1,200 feet above sea level. Each of its 12 cozy suites offers panoramic views of the rainforest, mountain, and turquoise sea.
Culebra, Puerto Rico
This island, eight miles north of its more-visited sister Vieques, is famous for everything it lacks: crowds, resorts, cruise ports, even rivers. In fact, it's the absence of river runoff that makes Culebra's waters so crystal clear. Visibility of 60 feet is the norm in its reefs, where diving and snorkeling (and spotting leatherback turtles) are popular pastimes. In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt named Culebra one of America's first wildlife refuges, protecting its turtled lands and teeming seas for centuries. Though it's oft visited by mainland vacationers, most of the island is happily unsullied. It's hard to believe that Culebra, with a population of just 3,000 Culebrenses and expats leading a small tourism economy, is just around the corner from the island of Puerto Rico.
Where to Stay: Most of the accommodations on Culebra are locally owned, and its guesthouses can't be beat for coziness (or their tiny price tags). Adults-only Casa Resaca promises tots-free relaxation. Rosa's Place, near the ferry dock and several perfect playas, feels like home away from home.
Iles des Saintes, Guadeloupe
In Iles des Saintes, the local sweet tourment d'amour—a tartlet of coconut or tropical-fruit jam enclosed in sponge cake—is the perfect symbol of its mixture of colonialist and indigenous cultures. Originally visited by Arawak Indians, then settled by Breton and Norman colonists, the isles of Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas are incomparably unique in their mix of cultures. Today, many of the blue-eyed descendants speak a French dialect similar to that spoken in North America. Villages of colorful streets and brightly painted wooden houses dot the islands, and serene, sandy coves stretch out along its shores. On Terre-de-Haut, the mountain of Pain de Sucre soars over the sea and offers ample snorkeling around its base, while swimming the warm, calm La Baie de Marigot is a must.
Where to Stay: There are just a few hotels and inns on quaint Terre-de-Haut. The tranquil guest rooms at Amarelao are decorated with cool, crisp white linens, four-poster beds, and intriguing local artwork.
Isla de Providencia, Colombia
Strict laws against large-scale commercial development have kept this Colombian islet as pristine as the day Puritans landed on its shores, seeking divine Providence. They may not have found it, but tourists generally do among the towering palms, soft sands, and pure indigo waters. Providencia's past as a pirate hideout led to rumors of hidden treasure buried in its cays and coves, and untold hours can be spent digging in the white sand for forgotten fortunes. What little tourism there is can be found centered on the hamlet of Aguadulce, with its handful of small hotels, dive shops, and motorbike rentals. Sample the local favorite rondon, a rich fish, conch, and coconut-milk casserole, before heading back out for treasure or swimming the underwater caves of Morgan's Head while dodging the resident barracuda.
Where to Stay: Deep Blue is a hidden gem on Providencia, with splendid views of Crab Caye. Located near the edge of McBean Lagoon National Park, the hotel is eco-friendly and surprisingly elegant.
Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Languid beach days cooled by trade winds, warm tropical nights set to the tune of cicadas—that's the pace of life on Bequia, a Windward Island just south of St. Vincent. Called the "Big Little Island," Bequia has a tinge of cosmopolitan charm (and a small shopping mall) well matched by its natural adventures. Consistently mild weather patterns make windsurfing a popular diversion, and some 30 dive sites surrounding the island are known for their secret caverns, holes, and overhangs. (PADI five-star outfitter Dive Bequia can take you under.) On dry land, explore a Hawksbill turtle sanctuary or the historical Firefly Plantation; its orchards are fragrant with wild cinnamon, and visitors can sample guava, Bequia plums, and sour cherries while on a tour with the grounds staff.
Where to Stay: For being so small, Bequia has a wide array of accommodations options, from boutique hotels to luxury villas. FlipKey is a good place to start planning.
Cat Island, Bahamas Out Islands
Sitting southeast of Nassau, nestled next to the Tropic of Cancer, this Bahamian island teems with coral reefs, hidden coves, pink beaches—and very few tourists. Most of Cat Island is blissfully undeveloped, with just a few resorts and thatched-roof tiki bars to distract from its many natural wonders. Southeasterly trade winds lend Cat Island a mild climate and unusually warm waters, and its dive sites are destinations in themselves. Dive the famous Blue Hole or the Santa Maria Teresa, a shipwreck from the Spanish-American War. Explore secluded beaches and shallow lagoons that are practically peopleless. On land, colonial ruins like the Deveaux House and the beautifully frescoed St. Francis of Assisi Church give visitors a taste of Cat Island's storied past.
Where to Stay: The hotel options range from budget properties to four-star stunners, with nary a chain resort to be found. Hawk's Nest Resort & Marina and Fernandez Bay Village both offer cozy accommodations and plenty of beachside real estate.
Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands
Named for a Dutch privateer, Jost Van Dyke's colorful history seems to saturate every inch of the three-square-mile isle. This once-rumored pirate hangout has become a sailor's paradise, with private treasures of its own. First, take the ferry from nearby Tortola or book a private catamaran. Drop anchor offshore and swim to the Soggy Dollar Bar, purported home of the Original Painkiller cocktail, where you can down a few of the creamy, coconutty drinks and find a spot on Jost's signature sugar-soft sand. Elsewhere on the island, hike to ruins blanketed in vegetation or the island's Bubbly Pool, where rocky hills lined with wild sage lead to a natural tidal pool effervescent with breaking waves.
Where to Stay: Stay in one of Jost's small hotels or cottage rentals, or simply drop your backpack at a campground. Ivan's White Bay Campground and Stress-Free Bar (yes, that's its given name) has no-frills tents and cabins, plus a tire swing under a tamarind tree for swaying in the island breeze.
--By Dara Continenza