“Aruba. Jamaica. Oooh I want to take you to Bermuda, Bahama. Come on pretty mama…” Thanks a lot Beach Boys. Your song Kokomo just reinforces a stereotype that geographically-challenged Americans have about the Caribbean. Namely, that it’s all the same. Now it’s up to me, and others like me, to set matters straight, and I can do so in two words, not counting the contraction: It’s not.
Sure, I suppose there are some common elements—turquoise waters, coral reefs, a laid back lifestyle and such. But saying that the islands of the Caribbean are all the same is like saying all dogs are alike, or telling an Italian that any type of pasta will do. Not only is it blatantly wrong but also likely to raise the ire of those who know better (especially the Italians). So in the spirit of setting the record straight, here’s a brief overview of the Caribbean and the various flavors to be found within.
Bermuda & Bahamas
Technically neither is a ‘tropical’ destination since both lie north of the Tropic of Cancer. And since we’re being technical, Bermuda isn’t even in the Caribbean Sea but rather due east of the Carolinas. Regardless, many lump these in with the Caribbean Islands so I’ve included them here. Bermuda, while enjoying much milder temperatures than the North American landmass to the west, is not a year-round destination if you’re looking for sand and sun. By October things are starting to cool down, and while there are still things to do and see, it is much more pleasant when you can lie comfortably on one of their famous pink sand beaches.
As for the Bahamas, this archipelago consists primarily of flat, sandy islands with green vegetation. Not much in the way of mountains or waterfalls here, but if it’s a pleasant beach or interesting dive spot you’re after, so long as you hit the weather right in the winter it is a nice destination if you can avoid the persistent vendors. Continuing to the southeast, the Turks & Caicos Islands are more of the same—flat, relatively featureless topography with azure waters on all sides. The only difference in my estimation is the political boundary.
This term refers to the largest islands of the Caribbean: Cuba, Hispaniola (Haiti & the D.R.), Puerto Rico and Jamaica. Forming the northern boundary of the Caribbean Sea, these islands have rugged, mountainous interiors, palm-fringed beaches and colorful colonial histories. With the exception of Cuba which is still pretty much off-limits to American tourists, and Haiti which has an underdeveloped infrastructure and relative political instability, tourism is alive and well. Jamaica and the Dominican Republic are extremely popular all-inclusive destinations, though with the proper tour operator and/or a good head on your shoulders there’s plenty to see outside the resort’s grounds—especially Dunn’s River Falls near Ocho Rios. You’ll have to run a gauntlet of vendors but it truly is a world-class site.
The Lesser Antilles are basically all the islands starting from the U.S. & British Virgin Islands & curving down to Trinidad and the northern shores of South America. These islands are what most envision (erroneously) the entire Caribbean as being—mountainous, waterfall-strewn, jungle-clad jewels of green in a turquoise setting. And while they share the same general topography, the varied colonial heritage of each island makes the local flavor a bit different from the next. You have your former English colonies at Antigua, St. Kitts & Nevis, Barbados and Montserrat. You’ve got your French islands like Martinique & Guadeloupe. And you even have the island of St. Martin/St. Maarten that’s half French and half Dutch. Try telling them that it’s all the same.
The ABC Islands
This term refers to the Dutch islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. In contrast to the Antilles both Greater and Lesser, you will not find lush rain forests, gushing waterfalls or emerald mountain ranges here. These islands are dry, windswept, & semi-desert-like. On the windward side of the islands waves batter & scour the jagged coastline, whereas on the leeward sides you’ll find tranquil clear waters and some great diving and snorkeling. Standards of living are a bit higher here and colonial towns such as Willemstad & Oranjestad offer charming architecture and plenty of shopping opportunities. All of this is fine—just know what you’re getting into.
I hope this brief overview clears up some of the common misconceptions about Caribbean islands, and may it serve as a lesson to those who accept songs at their word. For the sake of truth, knowledge, and geographical consciousness everywhere, before you lump an entire geographical region all together, consult a map, consult a professional, or even consult me. Just don’t ask the Beach Boys 🙂