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10 Caribbean islands cruise ships don’t visit

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 23/10/2016 Jamie Moore
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In the Caribbean and the Bahamas, islands without cruise ships are disappearing. But these 10 gems unspoiled by the cruising throngs are terrific holdouts of authentic island life. You’ll find sugarcane plantations that still produce rum, palm-fringed beaches with offshore reefs, lodges that generate their own energy, and plenty of places where you can laze away an entire afternoon in a hammock, with nary a megaship in sight.

Marie-Galante, Guadeloupe Islands

Population: 11,500

Size: 61 square miles

Location: Lesser Antilles, between Guadeloupe and Dominica

Getting there: Ferry (50 minutes) from Guadeloupe Island

Untouched by cruise-ship tourism, this French beauty in the Guadeloupe archipelago is an intoxicating blend of white-sand beaches, sugarcane plantations and island-made rum. During the colonial era, the slave-based sugarcane industry boomed on Marie-Galante — its unique landscape was dotted with more than 100 windmills that transformed the cane into sugar or rum. Today, you can climb to the top of a restored windmill or head to one of the island’s three distilleries for tours and tastings. Locals offer rides past the island’s colonial homes on the ox carts that used to haul cut sugarcane. Château Murat, once a massive sugarcane plantation, is now a museum with exhibits on Marie-Galante’s art and history. Scuba divers and snorkelers will find sponges and sea turtles in the island’s coral reef.

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras: The smallest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, laid-back Utila lies west of Roatan Island and has long been considered one of Latin America’s best places to learn to dive. Courses are cheap, groups are smaller and whale sharks are frequently sighted on the Mesoamerican Reef here. Even snorkelers can swim with the spotted giants on trips with the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center. This one-town island with a relaxed party vibe is a haven for 20-somethings and expats seeking adventure. It’s a lively scene with plenty of restaurants, dockside bars and late-night dance halls. Outside of town, the majority of the island is covered in thick forest with few roads, creating a stunning natural backdrop for all types of water activities from kite boarding to kayaking. © Jill Sonsteby, Getty Images/iStockphoto Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras: The smallest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, laid-back Utila lies west of Roatan Island and has long been considered one of Latin America’s best places to learn to dive. Courses are cheap, groups are smaller and whale sharks are frequently sighted on the Mesoamerican Reef here. Even snorkelers can swim with the spotted giants on trips with the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center. This one-town island with a relaxed party vibe is a haven for 20-somethings and expats seeking adventure. It’s a lively scene with plenty of restaurants, dockside bars and late-night dance halls. Outside of town, the majority of the island is covered in thick forest with few roads, creating a stunning natural backdrop for all types of water activities from kite boarding to kayaking.

La Desirade, Guadeloupe Islands

Population: 1,500

Size: 8 square miles

Location: Lesser Antilles, east of Guadeloupe Island

Getting there: Ferry (40 minutes) from Guadeloupe Island

There’s a soul-satisfying sense of joie de vivre in the simplicity of La Desirade. Literally translated as “the forgotten,” this verdant French island of nature reserves and white-sand beaches is the least visited of the Guadeloupe islands. Mostly undeveloped, the island has only one road and it runs the 7-mile length of La Desirade between the coast and the mountains. Explore it on a bike or scooter, stopping off for a picnic beneath a coconut tree or an afternoon of snorkeling the long coral reefs accessible from the beach. The one-hour Le Morne du Souffleur hike delivers views of a paradise that feels delightfully isolated from the rest of the world.

Little Cayman, Cayman Islands

Population: 170

Size: 11 square miles

Location: Between Cuba and Jamaica

Getting there: Fly (40 minutes) from Grand Cayman or fly (15 minutes) from Cayman Brac

This tiny island of 170 residents with British-Caymanian accents is best known for its scuba diving. Blood Bay Wall, Little Cayman’s legendary dive site, is a sheer vertical drop of more than 1,000 feet. Divers hover like skydivers over the abyss to see scarlet rope sponges and corals in nearly every hue of the rainbow clinging to the wall. If you want the beach all to yourself, wake up with the divers and you’ll easily find a quiet spot where you can laze the day away in a hammock. On Little Cayman, iguanas and rare red-footed boobies outnumber people by the thousands.

Tobacco Caye, Belize

Population: 20

Size: 5 acres

Location: 10 miles east of mainland Belize

Getting there: Water taxi (30 minutes) from Dangriga

A popular backpacker destination, the tiny Tobacco Caye is a no-frills paradise. This southern Belize island is home to only 20 residents who run Tobacco Caye, four lodges, a couple of bars and restaurants and not much else. Properties collect their own rainwater and generate their own energy from solar power or generators. Intrepid travelers come for diving charters to Glover’s Reef and Blue Hole as well as snorkeling, kayaking and SUP on the surrounding Belize Barrier Reef and South Water Caye Marine Reserve. You’ll also find plenty of beaches lapped by turquoise waters. At day’s end, nothing beats listening to the sound of waves from one of the island’s thatched-roof overwater bungalows.

Guanaja, Bay Islands, Honduras

Population: 5,500

Size: 20 square miles

Location: 40 miles north of mainland Honduras

Getting there: Fly or charter a boat from Roatan

Although Guanaja lies only 8 miles east of the popular cruise port Roatan, another of Honduras’ Bay Islands, this lush mountainous landscape is worlds away from cruise ship crowds. A dense forest reserve stretches across the majority of the island that remains relatively undiscovered by tourists. Hike the forest trails to waterfalls and see spots where Hurricane Mitch ripped bark off of trees back in 1998. Don’t miss the stunning view at Dina’s Beach, a strand of white sand hemmed in by pine forest. The wrecks, whale sharks and sea turtles of the Mesoamerican Reef draw divers and snorkelers from around the world. And anglers find prolific fishing flats on the island’s eastern side.

Utila, Bay Islands, Honduras

Population: 3,500

Size: 17 square miles

Location: 18 miles north of mainland Honduras

Getting there: Fly or ferry (1 hour) from La Ceiba

The smallest of Honduras’ Bay Islands, laid-back Utila lies west of Roatan Island and has long been considered one of Latin America’s best places to learn to dive. Courses are cheap, groups are smaller and whale sharks are frequently sighted on the Mesoamerican Reef here. Even snorkelers can swim with the spotted giants on trips with the Whale Shark & Oceanic Research Center. This one-town island with a relaxed party vibe is a haven for 20-somethings and expats seeking adventure. It’s a lively scene with plenty of restaurants, dockside bars and late-night dance halls. Outside of town, the majority of the island is covered in thick forest with few roads, creating a stunning natural backdrop for all types of water activities from kite boarding to kayaking.

Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Population: 6,200

Size: 4 square miles

Location: 50 miles east of mainland Nicaragua

Getting there: Fly (1 hour, 45 minutes) from Managua or ferry (1+ day) from El Rama

In Nicaragua’s Corn Islands, tourism is only just emerging. Electricity and telephone services function intermittently and several roads are unpaved. You can circle Big Corn Island by bike in about an hour, passing neighborhoods, stunning beaches and huge tracts of uninhabited forest. As in the rest of Nicaragua, islanders are fanatical about baseball. Weekly games at the stadium are a major event and the place to be on Sunday. Hit the beach for horseback riding on silky white sand or go snorkeling through the coral reefs. Need a taxi? Most of the island’s cars are taxis and they use a fixed-rate system: $15 per person per ride no matter where you go.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Population: 1,200

Size: 1 square mile

Location: 9 miles northeast of Big Corn Island; 50 miles east of mainland Nicaragua

Getting there: Ferry (35 minutes) from Big Corn Island

Little Corn Island is a tiny treasure. There are no cars or roads on this quiet island and electricity is available only during certain hours. But tour companies, restaurants and beach bars are all within walking distance of waterfront hotels. It’s an ideal getaway from city living. Snorkelers can explore colorful reefs near white-sand beaches while scuba charters take divers to submerged volcanic pinnacles and a sunken Spanish galleon. While you’re here, try a traditional Corn Islands specialty: Rondón soup, a savory blend of fish, potato, vegetables and coconut water. Coconut bread is also made on the islands.

The Exumas, Bahamas

Population: 7,300

Size: 97 square miles (Great Exuma)

Location: 312 miles southeast of Miami

Getting there: Fly from Miami, Atlanta or Nassau

Close to the Caribbean Sea but not technically in it, the Exumas in the Bahamas’ Out Islands are a string of 365 islands and cays southeast of Nassau that cruise ships, blissfully, bypass. Johnny Depp and Nicholas Cage are among several celebs that reportedly own private islands in this hideaway for the rich and famous. Throughout the islands, perfectly secluded beaches boast untouched, sugar-soft white sand rife with shells and sand dollars. On several Exuma cays, close encounters with marine life are common. Snorkelers have excellent chances of seeing lobster, nurse sharks, eagle rays and sea turtles. The swimming pigs at Major Cay draw big crowds. And don’t miss the 400-foot deep blue hole on Stocking Island, and Thunderball Grotto, where two James Bond scenes were filmed.

The Abacos, Bahamas

Population: 17,000

Size: 776 square miles (island group)

Location: 180 miles east of Fort Lauderdale

Getting there: Fly from Nassau, Freeport and several Florida cities

One of the world's top boating destinations, the Abacos is a 120-mile-long island chain dotted with protected harbors, full-service marinas and luxurious resorts. Each cay offers a different experience, making these waters near the Caribbean ideal for island-hopping from one flawless beach to another. Catch iconic sights including the candy-cane striped Hope Town Lighthouse on Elbow Cay, and boat-building capital Man-O-War Cay, where you can watch locals carry on the centuries-old tradition of building by hand and without plans. And be sure to wake up early to go bonefishing or fly fishing on the Abaco flats — the world feels surreal when you’re standing in completely still water that mirrors the blue sky and clouds.


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