9 Caribbean Destinations to Visit This Winter (and 7 to Wait On)
The Caribbean was walloped by strong hurricanes this year, spooking many would-be visitors. According to the airfare search engine Fareness, searches for Caribbean destinations fell almost one-third while hurricane season was in full swing, and remained 12% lower than average from October to November.
Still, many popular Caribbean destinations are open for business, and Fareness data show there are affordable flights to several of them as the region's high tourist season begins. Among your cheapest options right now, according to Fareness: Turks and Caicos, where fares average $295 for a seven-day trip in January departing from New York City; Antigua, averaging $334; and the Bahamas, averaging $353.
Still wondering which Caribbean destinations are back in full swing? Here are nine slices of paradise that are a safe bet, and seven where you're probably better off waiting until next year.
Aruba and its lesser-known siblings, Bonaire and Curacao, were far outside the paths of Irma and Maria. In fact, the islands are far south of the hurricane belt and average only one major storm every 29 years.
If you go, expect top-notch beaches and snorkeling, but don't expect lush greenery: The ABCs are actually desert islands. Don't miss the spectacular natural swimming pool on Aruba's northern coast. Scuba diving is tops on Bonaire, which is far less developed than Aruba. In Curacao, marvel at the colorful Dutch colonial architecture in the capital, Willemstad.
Average Fareness plane fare for January: $408 (Fares assume a weeklong trip departing from New York City.)
Recovery after a one-two punch by Hurricanes Irma and Maria is slow in the British Virgin Islands. Though the islands officially started welcoming back tourists on Nov. 1, officials urge visitors to check with individual hotel and resort properties to determine whether they're operational; the Guardian estimates that most accommodations won't reopen until 2018 at the earliest. If you're into sailing, the news is more positive: The charter companies in this major sailing destination have been among the first to bounce back.
Though its sister island, Barbuda, was all but flattened by Hurricane Irma, Antigua was left largely intact and has experienced a tourism bump as visitors flock here instead of harder-hit islands nearby.
Beach lovers, windsurfers and snorkelers should make a beeline for Half Moon Bay to enjoy this relatively uncrowded stretch of pink sand in eastern Antigua.
For a taste of island history, head to Nelson's Dockyard, a working dockyard that has been restored to its early 18th century grandeur; there's also a museum, shops, galleries, and restaurants. St. John's Public Market on Friday and Saturday mornings offers all the fresh tropical fruit, fish, and people-watching that you'd expect.
Average Fareness plane fare for January: $334
Like the British Virgin Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands were blasted by both Irma and Maria. While St. Croix just recently began allowing cruise ships to dock, several resorts and hotels remain closed; some properties have already said they will delay opening well into 2018. As of mid-November, nearly three-fourths of residents were still without power.
The Bahamas and its mega-resorts are open and buzzing with tourists as usual. While Irma did obliterate some spots in this chain of 700 islands, it spared the tourist hot spots, tourism officials have told the New York Times.
For many, the massive Atlantis resort off the coast of the capital, Nassau, is synonymous with the Bahamas. You'll find miles of beaches, multiple pools and restaurants, a casino, a water park and even an open-air marine habitat. For a more laid-back vacation, visitors will find endless beaches, boating, and colonial charm in the Abacos islands.
Average Fareness plane fare for January: $353
Though Turks and Caicos did sustain significant damage from Hurricane Irma in September, the islands are springing back quickly, according to Travel Agent Central. Most hotels are unscathed and major resorts including Beaches Turks and Caicos have either already reopened or plan to reopen relatively soon. Southwest Airlines also recently launched daily nonstop service from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
After you've had enough time lounging on the long stretch of powdery white stand at Grace Bay Beach, can frolic with sting rays at Gibbs Cay on Grand Turk or kayak around the turquoise water and rocky islands of Chalk Sound National Park.
Average Fareness plane fare for January: $295
Anguilla was squarely in the path of Hurricane Irma, though it was spared further damage from Hurricanes Jose and Maria. Tourism officials report that power has been restored in many places, roads are clear, and internet and phone are in working order. However, many hotels, restaurants and attractions remain in the process of rebuilding, and potential visitors should check on their status on Anguilla's tourism website.
The Caymans are in the Western Caribbean, an area that saw few effects from Irma and Maria, so this popular destination is still receiving its normal influx of cruise-ship passengers on daytrips and visitors who come for a longer stay.
Grand Cayman's most famous stretch of bright white sand, Seven Mile Beach, is home to many of the island's resorts and is a good base for sailing, fishing, snorkeling, bike riding, island tours and even helicopter rides. Diving buffs and snorkelers won't want to miss the USS Kittiwake, where they can swim through the wreck of this 76-meter submarine not far below the water's surface.
Average Fareness plane fare for January: $404
Though Barbuda doesn't have the developed tourism infrastructure of its sister island, Antigua, it has traditionally been a popular day trip from that island. Unfortunately, visitors hoping to frolic on Barbuda's uncrowded pink sand beaches and visit the Frigate Bird Sanctuary should hold off. Barbuda was devastated by Hurricane Irma, which made landfall here with winds as ferocious as 185 mph, according to The Guardian. It remains largely deserted and still lacks power.
Don't confuse the much larger Dominican Republic for Dominica, a small island that saw intense damage from Hurricane Maria. While Hurricane Maria did make landfall in the Dominican Republic as a Category 3 storm, most tourism infrastructure was left unscathed, according to Travel Market Report.
Don't miss Santo Domingo's Colonial City, established in the 15th century and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For an adventure, let a guide take you scrambling, swimming and climbing at the 27 Waterfalls of Rio Damajagua. When it's time for a lazy beach day, try secluded Playa Rincon -- there are enough restaurants to keep you fed, but no resorts that make it hard to claim a patch of sand.
Average Fareness plane fare for January: $415
Dominica, which bills itself as "the nature island," has long lured tourists searching for a Caribbean island with more to offer than lazy days on the beach. Sadly, Hurricane Maria lashed the island in September, severely damaging homes, businesses and much of the island's infrastructure. Though some hotels are starting to reopen, the British government is advising would-be travelers that "the environment remains challenging" with electricity and water still spotty outside the capital.
Jamaica is one of the most prominent Caribbean islands spared by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Tourism officials hope to parlay that good fortune into additional tourism revenue of $150 million to $200 million this travel season, according to Reuters.
Once you've had your fill of the island's famous reggae, check out Dunn's River Falls, where you can climb up the falls, swim in one of the many pools and enjoy the lush greenery. For more adventure, take a hike in Blue and John Crow Mountains National Park. Get your fix of sand, sea, and jerk chicken at Boston Beach near Port Antonio.
Average Fareness plane fare for January: $424
Puerto Rico suffered high-profile, widespread damage from Hurricane Maria, which killed at least 58 people there. Despite slow progress restoring power and water to large swaths of the island, tourism officials have been making a major push to attract visitors -- particularly those who want to help the rebuilding effort by participating in "Rebuild Days" that let them pitch in and clean up some of the island's attractions. A large number of the island's hotels have also reopened, but would-be visitors will want to double-check the status of anything on their itinerary.
Like most of the southern Caribbean, hilly St. Lucia was not affected by storms during this year's hurricane season, and tourism officials have emphasized that everything is business as usual.
One of the island's top attractions is Pigeon Island, which holds the ruins of military installations from battles between British and French troops here in the late 1700s. Hikers will find stunning views in the Pitons, and there are plenty of local companies that lead guided tours. For beach time, head to Anse Chastanet, which boasts great snorkeling right off the sand.
Average Fareness plane fare for January: $465
Governed by both France (Saint-Martin) and the Netherlands (Sint Maarten), this island received a painful punch from Hurricane Irma in September. Still, the island has made a massive recovery push because it has no choice -- 90% of the island's economy depends on tourism, officials say. Cruise lines are slated to return to port here throughout December and January, but anyone hoping for a longer visit should double-check the status of their hotel: Many were heavily damaged and will remain closed until 2018 at a minimum, the New York Times has reported.
Despite this year's active hurricane season, it's business as usual in Barbados. Like Aruba, Barbados is too far south to see much action from hurricanes -- in fact, it hasn't been hit since 1955, according to Travel Market Report.
Tropical Barbados is noted for its British feel -- it was a colony for well over 300 years until 1966 -- so you'll find tea, colonial architecture, and cricket matches. Once you're bored with beaches, check out the lush, enchanting Hunte's Gardens or head to St. Nicholas Abbey Plantation to sample some rum, one of the most famous exports. There are also caves to explore, including Animal Flower Cave, which opens directly onto the Atlantic.
Average Fareness plane fare for January: $467