A Beginner's Guide to Island Hopping in the Caribbean

Playa Lagun beach Curacao | © dronepicr/Flickr
Playa Lagun beach Curacao | © dronepicr/Flickr
The Caribbean is a very convenient hub for multi-island trips. The close proximity of the islands makes it the perfect base for island-hopping. You can go from snorkeling in Dominica one day, to enjoying amazing French and Indian Caribbean cuisine on the island of St. Martin the next. Here’s our guide for anyone who is thinking of going small island-hopping in the Caribbean.

Where to stay

The island of St Martin is the perfect place to start exploring the eastern side of the Caribbean. St Martin (St Maarten) is divided roughly 60/40 between the French Republic and the Kingdom of the Netherlands and offer visitors a two-nation vacation. The Dutch side of the island is known as the party side, as it is host of the Heineken Regatta, a four-day sailing race with concerts and other festivities. On the other side of the island, in true French fashion, you can discover quaint, romantic restaurants, designer boutiques and nude beaches. Its location makes the islands of Anguilla, St Barts (a popular celebrity vacation island) and Saba easily accessible.

St. Martin © Stefan Krasowski/Flickr

Puerto Rico is one of the jewels of the Caribbean. The island is known for its cuisine – a mixture of Spanish, African, and Taino – plus its strong rum and impressive architecture. You can get pretty much anywhere in the Caribbean from San Juan (thanks to regional carriers such as Cape Air and Seaborne), and a number of islands are even closer by ferry and plane, such as Culebra, Vieques, British Virgin Islands and the US Virgin Islands. The Dominican Republic is also only a very short flight away, to the left of the island.

Fort San Cristobal, Puerto Rico © Erik Larson/Flickr

You can do all the island-hopping you want in the Guadeloupe Islands and stay within the same territory. That’s because this beautiful archipelago has five islands within easy reach by ferry and air from the main island of Grande Terre/Basseterre, each with its own character and flavour, from tiny Terre-de-Haut to beach paradise Marie Galante. From Guadeloupe, you can easily access the islands Dominica, Martinique and St Lucia below and Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Antigua and Barbuda above.

Plage de Deshaies, Guadeloupe © HappyManPhotoGraphy/Flickr

The so-called ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao sit at the western edge of the Leeward Antilles chain. Aruba is a popular tourist destination with several big-name beach resorts. Bonaire is best known in scuba-diving circles for its spectacular undersea life. Curacao charms with its Dutch-influenced architecture. These three are neighbouring islands that, together, provide the complete Caribbean experience.

Club Paf, Aruba © Club Paf/Flickr

How to travel

Three options are available for island-hopping in the Caribbean. The first is to take advantage of the numerous ferries and boat trips that travel between the islands. All of the islands mentioned above have ferry services that travel from one small island to another.

The second option is one of the most popular routes – a Caribbean cruise. Although many Caribbean cruises are seasonal, they are perfect for visiting different islands and many are stylish and comfortable, offering world-class service.

Cozumel Pier from Air © Roger W/Flickr

Catching a flight would be the last resort for those who want to go island-hopping. This option would be best used for traveling to islands with a great distance between them, where there are no ferry connections. Traveling by air to the smaller islands in the Caribbean is relatively inexpensive; the larger islands are more costly.

Safety tips

The Caribbean has fairly amazing weather all year round. If you choose to go island-hopping, it’s best to begin in spring or at the beginning of summer. The Atlantic hurricane season starts in early June and runs until the end of November. However, most of the storms hit during peak hurricane season between August and October. It is best to take advantage of the calm Caribbean sea and sunshine outside of these months.

All major Caribbean islands have excellent mobile coverage. For those islands with a very small population, such as Culebra and Vieques near Puerto Rico, a portable radio might come in handy. Sunscreen, mosquito repellant and bottled water should always be in your luggage.

Flamenco Beach IV, Culebra © Angel Xavier Viera-Vargas/Flickr