11 Least-Crowded Islands in the Caribbean
Psssst! These tropical destinations offer next-level serenity and solitude—so book your trip before everyone else discovers these hidden gems.
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If you love scuba diving, then Bonaire—located in the Leeward Antilles off the coast of Venezuela—is the best Caribbean island for you. For the 24th consecutive year, this municipality of the Netherlands has been recognized as the No. 1 Shore Diving Destination in the Caribbean/Atlantic in Scuba Diving Magazine‘s Annual Readers’ Choice Awards. With a total population of only 18,905 people, Bonaire is bursting with beaches, lagoons, caverns, and desert-like hills that you can explore without crowds. It’s rich in marine life, various species of lizards and birds, and offers the ideal weather for kite surfing and windsurfing. Bonaire only has a few full-service resorts, a couple small bed and breakfasts, and a few self-catering vacation rentals. The Courtyard by Marriott Bonaire Dive Resort is the world’s first dive resort—boasting its own onsite dive center, where guests can explore amazing marine ecosystems at nearby sites such as Bonaire National Marine Park and Washington Slagbaai National Park. Don’t miss the most gorgeous pink sand beaches in the world.
Seeking complete solitude aside from fish and feathered friends? Just off the coast of Placencia, Belize, sits Bird Island, a privately owned island. With a population of zero—except for the brown-footed boobies and frigate birds that roam the half-mile area—Bird Island can accommodate six guests, who can expect total privacy during this staff-free experience. Located in the heart of the Belize Barrier Reef, which was recently removed from UNESCO’s endangered sites list, Bird Island is the ideal spot to snorkel and kayak in the crystal clear water. The island prides itself on its “no-tan-line” personal option due to the total privacy. The tour company that runs the island also offers side tours from manatee watching to tours of the main reef and Monkey River. Don’t miss the “Smorgasbord” trip where you can fish, snorkel and lobster.
This tiny, lesser-known sister island of St. Kitts packs a lot of enchanting adventure into its 36 square miles. And, with a population of approximately 11,000 (last reported in 2011,) there is no shortage of tranquil spots (and curious Green Vervet Monkeys). “While Nevis flies under the radar, those who visit once tend to return again and again,” says Greg Phillip, CEO of the Nevis Tourism Authority. “Our island is blessed with incredible natural beauty, both with our beaches and lush rainforest interior, as well as an ample itinerary of things to do. We like to say that you’re only a stranger here once because our warm and welcoming people will make you feel like family. For adventure, wellness and culinary excellence, there’s nowhere better than Nevis.” Other than the Four Seasons Resort—the only large property on the island—the other accommodations consist of boutique plantation resorts, such as the Golden Rock Inn. Owned by famed artists Brice and Helen Marden, this property features spectacular tropical gardens and guests can book a 300-year-old sugar mill that has been transformed into a magnificent guesthouse with loft.
Prior to 1997, this particular island, located three miles off the coast of Belize, had no name—but became known as Cayo Espanto (or Horrible Island) because local fishermen believe it to be cursed. But don’t let that scare you off! Home to seven villas total, this hidden gem boasts luxury in every single detail throughout each guests’ stay. Cayo Espanto offers barefoot luxury in the form of a number of private beaches, seaside activities—including exploring the world’s second-largest barrier-reef system—and visiting one or all five of the Mayan ruins housed in mainland Belize. Each of the island’s seven villas come equipped with their own private dock area, allowing for tranquil fishing, snorkeling, and splashing. If you’re into celebrity spotting, Leonardo di Caprio owns a nearby island. You can also check out this list of 15 go-to beach vacations of the rich and famous to see who else might be in the vicinity.
Turneffe Island Resort
If you’ve ever been on a Caribbean vacation and felt like you had to race other tourists for access to the best activities or lounge chairs, you’ll appreciate the slow pace of Turneffe Island Resort (TIR). This private 14-acre island located 30 miles off the coast of Belize has a max occupancy of only 46 guests, which means you will have first dibs on anything your heart desires. At peak times, there are only 300 people on the island. TIR offers snorkeling, fly fishing, and diving in the eighth world wonder—the Great Blue Hole. Feel free to set up camp at the outdoor pool with a cold drink, laze your days away in one of 12 hammocks scattered about the island, or explore the island’s complimentary activities, like kayaking or paddle boarding. “With every new group of guests, our friendly staff lines up on the dock eager to greet them in a receiving line,” says Maya Allemeersch, general manager at TIR.” Who wouldn’t want that kind of reception? Check out the most stunning deep-sea sights in the world.
Want to unwind in an exotic but accessible tropical paradise? Look no further than St. Lucia. The island’s 20-year-old tourist industry is well developed but not overdone, resulting in a fraction of the bustle and none of the hustle of St. Lucia’s Caribbean neighbors. Base your stay in at The Landings Resort and Spa, which offers 70 privately owned airy and luxurious one-, two- and three-bedroom suites that are elegantly appointed and have plenty of room for families. How will you spend your time? Slathering yourself in a mud bath at the Sulphur Springs, then rinsing off in the warm volcanic water; hiking the Tet Paul Nature Reserve for views of the volcanic peaks and nearby Martinique and St. Vincent, and watching the sunset from your suite’s private terrace. Plus, there’s a private beach, with free access to water sports such as windsurfing, sea kayaking, and paddleboarding. In 2017, St. Lucia had a population of 178,844.
You may have been to the Bahamas before, but never like this. Royal Island is a completely private 430-acre oasis located 40 miles northeast of Nassau. The island’s only structures are the five luxury beach villas and the private beach club and restaurant/bar/pool, meaning you’ll be surrounded by nothing but miles of untouched turquoise sea. And with no full-time inhabitants on the island, this destination is about as exclusive as it gets. Consider Royal Island as an ideal place for families who want to celebrate, to unplug and connect in a unique way, and to jump into a curated, exotic Bahamian experience. In addition to activities like beach volleyball, paddle boarding, and jet skis, guests also have access to fully immersive experiences like spear-fishing, outdoor movies, and full-time private chefs and butler service. Before you go, be sure to check out the 30 best things to do in the Bahamas.
Looking for one of the best-kept secrets in the Caribbean? Anguilla, a British Overseas Territory in the Eastern Caribbean, has a population of less than 15,000. “Anguilla’s tourism product is special—we have no all-inclusives, and no mega resorts, so our tourism product is one that lends itself to the customized experiences that today’s travelers seek,” says Donna Banks, chairperson, Anguilla Tourist Board. “Our visitors curate and create their own individual and authentic Anguilla vacation experience, where every day brings a new adventure.” Don’t miss the moonlit kayaking tour, paddleboarding to the secluded cove of Little Bay, or a dinner cruise on a classic West Indian sloop. There’s also an inflatable water park for the kids and plenty of beautiful beaches, snorkeling and cliff diving too. It’s no wonder Anguilla has one of the highest repeat rates in the Caribbean. Find out the 50 best beaches in the world.
If you think a Caribbean island is only about lounging on the beach, think again! The smallest island in the Dutch Caribbean, Saba, doesn’t even have a beach. This sleepy island five-square miles around (with just under 2,000 year-round residents) is called “The Unspoiled Queen,” because its authenticity recalls what the Caribbean used to be: quiet, peaceful and quaint. Saba is most known as one of the world’s top spots for scuba diving and also has incredible hiking trails. Visitors will enjoy the peaceful vibe, while they hike historic paths used by earlier generations who used to farm the mountain’s slopes, and enjoy the undisturbed flora and fauna. Yes, that means you could hike for hours and not see another soul. Be sure to venture beneath waters in the Saba Bank Nature Park, which is the largest protected marine preserve in the Caribbean. Unlike most crowded scuba diving spots in the Caribbean, divers will feel like they Saba actually allows guests to take part in the marine conservation during regular coral nursery maintenance dives.
“With no large resorts or commercial ventures, Saba is peaceful, unhurried and uncrowded,” says Glenn Holm, director of tourism. “Tourists do not feel like tourists for very long, as the locals warmly welcome newcomers and are eager and proud to show off the island’s natural beauty and unique culture.”
Those looking for a relaxing vacation that allows you to be fully immersed in the island culture should head to Hope Town, a quaint village on the Island of Elbow Cay, which is just one of the many cays in the barrier to the mainland of Abaco in the Bahamas. Located 200 miles east of West Palm Beach, Florida, and 100 miles north of Nassau, this hidden Caribbean gem is just 4.5 miles long and 1,080 yards at its widest point. With a population of about 450 people, it’s so remote that motorized vehicles are restricted from the towns, which adds to the simple and quiet atmosphere. Hope Town is known for its small-town charm with pastel clapboard cottages, hot pink bougainvillea, and its landmark 120-foot-tall candy-striped lighthouse, which is one of the last manual lighthouses in the world. Visitors can travel the island by foot, golf cart or bike; grab a snorkel and go scuba diving to explore the underwater sea park; bask in the sun on the island’s untouched, serene beaches; sail the ocean blue, or grab a bite at one of the local restaurants. Guests of the Hope Town Harbour Lodge, an Ascend Hotel Collection member, can take advantage of the hotel’s beachfront location, as well as walk to the historic downtown area, numerous shops, and restaurants.
If you’ve ever taken a Caribbean cruise, you’ve probably been to San Juan, Puerto Rico. But this U.S. territory has so much more to offer, including Culebra, a municipality located 17 miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland. With a population under 2,000, you’ll be able to enjoy its beautiful white sand beaches, lagoons, and mangrove forests without fighting crowds. If you love bird watching, know that it’s home to one of the oldest bird sanctuaries in a United States territory—established in 1909 by President Teddy Roosevelt. And if you travel there in late spring or early summer, you’ll be treated to a variety of sea turtle species returning to the island to lay their eggs.