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6 Hidden Treasures in the Western Caribbean

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The western Caribbean islands have long been a popular destination for American tourists, for two good reasons: They’re warm, and they’re close to the East Coast. The Bahamas, for instance, are just an hour from Miami by plane. Or you can tour multiple islands in a short four- or five-day cruise.

But popular can be a problem, if you want a relaxing getaway. Western Caribbean cruise ports like Cozumel, Montego Bay and Nassau can be crammed with cruise passengers, casinos, souvenir hawkers and scammers. Where can you go in the Western Caribbean if you want peace and quiet? Here are a few ideas.

Treasure Beach, Jamaica

Hate being confined in a mega-resort? Head to Treasure Beach. Rough Guides describes it as “a string of laid-back fishing villages tucked under the Santa Cruz Mountains amid some of Jamaica’s most beautiful countryside.” On Jamaica’s South Coast, Treasure Beach welcomes tourists to small, family-owned hotels and guesthouses. Four picturesque bays lure swimmers and sunbathers. Don’t miss a trip to Pelican Bar, a shack built on a sandbar that’s only accessible by a 20-minute boat ride.1

Isla Mujeres, Mexico

If Cancun is too crazy for you, escape to the nearby Isla Mujeres (“the Island of Women”), a quiet gem of the western Caribbean. Lounge on the crushed-coral beach of Playa Norte. Snorkel with enormous, friendly whale sharks. Visit a sea turtle sanctuary. Have a drink or three while you rock on a swing at Buho's beach bar. For an unforgettable stay, book the Seashell House (Casa Caracol), a quirky yet beautiful home in the shape of two giant white seashells.

Tulum, Mexico

Visiting the ancient ruins of Tulum is a popular shore excursion for cruise passengers arriving in Cozumel. But the town of Tulum is a great Western Caribbean destination in its own right. Tulum’s beach is one of the best in Mexico, Travel+Leisure asserts, and “you'll spend your days here eating fresh fish tacos, doing yoga overlooking the water, and reading in a palapa on the beach.” Plus, you’ll have the ruins to yourself if you show up when they open at 8 a.m. Be sure to visit the lush Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s home to manatees, jaguars, tapirs and nesting sea turtles.2

Útila and Guanaja, Honduras

Roatan is the largest, most popular of Honduras’ beautiful Bay Islands in the Western Caribbean, but often overlooked are its sister islands: Útila and Guanaja. Útila is known as the cheapest place in the world to get your scuba certification. You can dive on the world’s second-largest barrier reef or visit numerous shipwrecks. Or take a water taxi to explore the caylitos, itty-bitty islands off the southwest coast.3 Guanaja is a forested island with a sparse population that offers equally beautiful dive sites. A few favorites are Fantasy Reef, inhabited by moseying sea cucumbers, and Wonderful Reef, where you may meet the friendly nurse shark named Jack Jack.4

The Cayman Islands

Around two million tourists visit the tiny Cayman Islands each year, but the vast majority are cruise ship passengers who arrive to sunbathe, swim, drink and then depart.5 The Caymans offer much more to visitors who stay for a while. On Grand Cayman, the heavily developed main island, some favorite attractions include Starfish Point, where you can admire a myriad of bright red starfish, and Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, home to the island’s rare blue iguanas.6 The smaller island of Cayman Brac attracts adventurous travelers with scuba dive sites, mysterious caves and a national parrot reserve.7

Bimini, the Bahamas

Nassau and Grand Bahama Island are the best-known islands in the Bahamas, but did you know there are 698 more isles to explore? Oddly, the closest to the United States are also some of the most pristine: North and South Bimini, which are just 50 miles off the Florida coast. Bimini is known as a sport fishing paradise – Ernest Hemingway spent summers here, doing just that. You can also swim with wild Atlantic spotted dolphins in a natural setting. Unlike at other tourist attractions, the dolphins aren’t trained or imprisoned; you simply go out with a guided group and meet them in their natural habitat.8 Afterward, toast the sunset with a cold drink at Sherry’s Paradise Beach Bar in Alice Town.9

Before you head off to your western Caribbean paradise, don’t forget to protect yourself from travel delays, lost baggage, emergency trip cancellations and trip interruptions with affordable trip insurance from Allianz Global Assistance. Get a free quote now.

Richmond-based travel writer Muriel Barrett has a terrible sense of direction, and has spent many happy hours getting lost in Barcelona, Venice and Jerusalem. Her favorite travel memories all involve wildlife: watching sea turtles nest in Costa Rica, kayaking with seals in Vancouver and meeting a pink tarantula in Martinique.

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