After the year that we’ve been through, it’s safe to say that everyone deserves a tropical escape. And yet, for many would-be travelers, vacations were harder to come by (and even more difficult to plan) in the past few months given the ever-changing border restrictions—and ever-fluctuating pandemic outbreaks. Yet, while options are limited for many travelers, the Caribbean remains a turquoise paradise that’s still enticingly available—and easily accessible—especially for residents of the United States and Canada. Google searches and bookings have spiked during the off-season, as travelers find themselves unable to plan trips to Europe without dreading the prospect of last-minute cancellations.
Yet, despite the Caribbean’s unseasonal popularity at the moment, there’s never been a better time to score last-minute hotel deals, and steeply discounted travel packages. And although a trip to the Caribbean may seem counterintuitive in the summertime, it’s a well-kept secret amongst travel professionals that the climate in the West Indies is quite temperate in the off-season. While humidity in the landlocked north reaches sweltering heights (especially this year), the tropical trade-winds keep the islands cool year-round. And the time to visit is now. We’ve factored in COVID rates and ease of travel when selecting the five best Caribbean islands that are safe and open for travelers. Vacation should be (relatively) easy, after all—even in 2021. From the volcanic valleys of Dominica to the secluded white-sand beaches of South Caicos, read on to plan your next tropical vacation.
(Windward Islands, Eastern Caribbean)
(Image provided by the Dominica Tourism Authority)
The best tropical vacations should combine laid-back escapism with a complete immersion into the beauty of the landscape—whether that’s drinking rum punch at the local fish fry or hiking along the foothills of an active volcano. Luckily, you can do both on a trip to Dominica, also known as the “Nature Island” of the Caribbean. The lush, mountainous topography of the island resembles a mixture of Kauai and New Zealand. And if that combination sounds impossibly magical and slightly too good to be true—well, it is. Dominica has yet to be discovered by the population at large, and as such, the pristine wilderness (boiling lakes, black-sand beaches, champagne reefs) is a wonder to behold—and the prices are similarly spectacular.
Dominica may be slightly more costly in terms of airfare than more northern Caribbean islands, but once you land on the ground, it’s far less expensive than not only the Bahamas or Turks and Caicos, but even neighboring islands such as St. Lucia. And it’s not just prices that are higher—the CDC marked St. Lucia as a High Risk for COVID recently—Dominica, alternately, is ranked as Low. (Yet another reason to venture further south when traveling to the Eastern Caribbean). And now is the perfect time to capitalize on last-minute travel deals—we especially recommend a visit to the Fort Young Hotel, a cliffside property in the nation’s capital offering a taste of the Amalfi Coast along the Caribbean Sea.
(Turks & Caicos Islands, British West Indies)
(Image provided by Sailrock Resort South Caicos)
Though the Turks and Caicos archipelago is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean, the island of South Caicos remains an enduring hidden gem. Bypass the crowded scene of Providenciales and hop on a 20-minute private flight from the PLS Airport to South Caicos, where you will arrive at the blissfully secluded Sailrock Resort, the first luxury property on the island (and also the perfect place to safely travel during a pandemic.) The secluded oasis of Sailrock Resort—with its elegant villas overlooking private pools and white-sand beaches—is certainly the chicest way to socially distance. After all, on the island of South Caicos, you’re more likely to spot a wild donkey passing your villa than a fellow human being. Spend your days island-hopping to private islands and snorkeling and boating in the aquamarine waters, and your nights dining at the Great House Restaurant & Bar ( just as magnificent as it sounds.) And savvy travelers can scour GoLastMinute’s hotel listings for discounted rates throughout the year. As in all things, patience and flexibility are rewarded. (When it comes to last-minute travel deals, we make our own luck.)
As for trip planning, U.S. travelers will be required to obtain a TCI Assured travel authorization form by filling in a health questionnaire via an online portal and uploading a negative Covid-19 PCR test taken within five days of travel, and proof of medical or travel insurance. The CDC marks the COVID level in Turks & Caicos as Low, while Canadians are advised to take normal security precautions (as they are for every other island on this list) and avoid non-essential travel—as opposed to avoiding all travel whatsoever, which is recommended for countries with higher rates of infection. The plus side of all these precautions? Once you arrive in Turks and Caicos and submit a negative test, you're all set to head to those famous white-sand beaches. No quarantine, no problem.
(Leeward Antilles, Dutch West Indies)
(Image provided by Tourism Bonaire)
We are headed west for our next choice: the superbly underrated island of Bonaire, located just off the coast of Venezuela in the southern Caribbean Sea. Bonaire—along with its sister islands, Aruba and Curacao—comprise the ABC Islands of the Dutch West Indies, the three westernmost islands of the Leeward Antilles. Aruba may be famous for its flamingos, but Bonaire is their natural environment—and no trip is complete to the island without a visit to the Pekelmeer Flamingo Sanctuary to observe these highly decorative animals in the wild. Additionally, while everyone else seems to have accomplished something during the pandemic—a new language, a new life skill—why not be a trailblazer by achieving something measurable post-lockdown instead? We’re thinking, of course, of your scuba license—and if that doesn’t seem like a natural transition, then you certainly have much to learn about Bonaire (and even more reason to visit.) The island is famed as one of the best dive destinations in the Caribbean and beyond, an accolade earned not only for its coral reefs and sunken ships, but for the ease and accessibility of the dives. The sites are protected from currents, and underwater adventurers have the option to alternate between shore and boat diving for their daily excursions.
In short, there's no better place to get your dive license, and there’s also no better time than now to get it—not only for the aforementioned bragging on the internet, but because scuba diving is the ultimate lesson in social-distancing. To look out for others, you first and foremost must look out for yourself—and get quite familiar with the sounds of silence (and your own breath.) And speaking of pandemic preparations, Bonaire currently has a CDC ranking of Moderate. Luckily, Bonaire makes it relatively easy to stay quite safe during your visit. Visitors must provide a negative PCR test done within 72 hours before arriving on the island, and take an antigen test within 24 hours of said arrival. Conveniently, there is a rapid antigen test at Flamingo Airport, so the latter requirement is quite seamless. And once you’ve made it through, everyone you will interact with during your trip—at hotels, restaurants, jet ski tours, etc.—will carry a Bonaire Friendly Safety Seal certifying their health has been inspected and safety standards approved.
(Leeward Islands, Eastern Caribbean)
(Image provided by Carlisle Bay Antigua)
We’re returning to the Eastern Caribbean for our final choices, beginning with the island of Antigua—the nicest getaway in the Leeward Islands and beyond. Antigua is the perfect blend of town and country, or, in this circumstance, beach and harbour (English Harbour, to be precise.) Antigua blends lively nightlife and elegant dining with laid-back island vibes—and of course it looks gorgeous, too. Expect pastel architecture, towering palm trees, and breathtaking vistas all throughout the gentle hillside of the island. Antigua, alongside nearby Barbuda (a true hidden gem in the tropics, and well worth a day trip), is one of the Twin Islands of the Eastern Caribbean. Check out Nelson’s Dockyard, a cultural heritage site located in English Harbour, as well as the dockside bars lining the pier. (Be sure to order an espresso martini at Scully’s). The sophisticated international scene commingles nicely with the island’s warm and welcoming West Indies hospitality, creating an environment that is entirely unique in the region.
Speaking of peace of mind, the CDC has identified Grenada’s COVID threat level as Low—which is always a relief. Our final recommendation? Never leave Antigua on a Sunday afternoon—always stay until Monday. While we believe extending your weekend is a wonderful guideline to follow when traveling anywhere, it’s particularly imperative in Antigua, because Sunday nights are the best night of the week on the island (for tourists and locals alike.) Every Sunday evening, a party congregates at Shirley Heights to watch the sunset with live music, rum cocktails, and good company. There’s no better way to close out the week, or to wrap up a weekend in paradise.
(Windward Islands, Eastern Caribbean)
(Image provided by Grenada Tourism Authority)
Last but certainly not least, we’re headed to the “Spice Island” of the Caribbean—and certainly one of the most breathtaking places on the planet you’ve yet to visit. (Until now of course.) Grenada is known as one of the most gorgeous islands in the Caribbean—a truth made self-evident by the very names given by French settlers to the island’s streets and cities. (It’s always a variation on ‘beautiful,’ and the scenery always is.) To best appreciate the green hills, tropical forests, and abundant wildflowers populating this Eastern Caribbean Island, head to Mount Cinnamon Resort, a hilltop oasis overlooking the famed Grand Anse Beach (one of the most photographed coastlines in the world.) While visiting, be sure to sign up for a Savvy Sailing cruise on one of the Carriacou wooden sloops with Danny Donelan, a native of Grenada who was instrumental in preserving traditional Caribbean sailing in the West Indies. And visit the Underwater Sculpture Park while at sea—the first of its kind in the world.
And there is even more incentive to visit now when tourism—which was never intrusive to begin with—is particularly quiet at the moment. And we suggest booking in haste because Grenada’s days as a secret haven for sailors and sun-worshippers are numbered. While the island remains under-the-radar for regular mortals, it never has been for the celebrities (Justin Bieber rented out an entire island there for his 21st birthday) and billionaires (who dock their yachts there all winter because it’s located just outside the Caribbean’s hurricane belt—ensuring there’s truly never a wrong time to visit). Grenada is currently just outside the worst storms of the pandemic, as well, with a Low level rating from the CDC. So, there’s no excuse not to book your flight—as we know, it’s never too late to go last-minute.